Sharing Christ’s Love – “Mind the One Thing”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Kirkin’ of the Tartan – October 29, 2023
Jesus’ conflicted interactions with the temple leaders in Jerusalem happened many, many years ago, yet the issues he addressed are as contemporary as ever. We are still dealing with questions about the decisions of those who are in power. We still struggle with questions about vassal states and fair taxation and outbreak of violence.
We still have many questions throughout the world regarding the role of religion in politics. We debate what should and should not be the law of the land, and whose interests will and will not be considered in a time of armed conflict.
As for the Pharisees and Sadducees, their love for God had been lost in their strict legalism and their adherence to detailed religious practices. Instead of loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving neighbor as self, they chose paths which would keep them comfortably in power and which allowed them to limit their love to the neighbors most like themselves.
The scribes and Pharisees, the Herodians and Sadduccees, seemed to have lost sight of what is most important for human thriving. Their activities and decisions failed to reflect a passionate love for God, and their treatment of the least and the lost failed to show concern for neighbor.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We celebrate the Kirkin’ of the Tartan as a remembrance of the resistance of the noble Scots against an oppressive English government. Granted, not all of the resistance of the Scots was noble. The history of violence between the English and the Scots is legendary. But in today’s Kirkin’ service, we remember those oppressed Scottish forebears who gathered for worship and prayed to God while rubbing hidden pieces of tartans.
Those plaid tartans hidden under their clothing represented their family clans, tartans that, as many of you are aware, had been declared illegal by the English. Many people today probably do not think of the Scottish Protestants as an oppressed minority, but they were, for many generations.
And sadly, as we know, sometimes the oppressed can end up becoming the oppressor. Three weeks ago, desperate Hamas terrorists killed some 1400 Israelis and kidnapped over 200 persons, now held in tunnels below the rubble.
Three weeks later, the death toll of Palestianians is over 8000 human beings, with nearly half of those deaths being the deaths of children.
Thousands of Palestinian children have been confirmed killed by Israeli bombs. There are estimated to be another 1000 or more Palestinian children missing under the rubble. And this weekend, the invasion of Gaza began, promising a further escalation in civilian deaths, including innocent men, women, and children.
Granted, this is a complicated political and military situation. Granted, the terrorist group Hamas is still hurling rockets at Israeli settlers. Granted, It is difficult for anyone to imagine some sort of peaceful resolution at this point. Even so, we as concerned citizens should not only be aware of the human suffering, but somehow involved in seeking to lessen the crisis.
The humanitarian crisis is likely to be devastating. What is the role of our government? We are not simply bystanders witnessing an atrocity. Israeli warplanes are entirely U.S.-sourced. The munitions killing Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip are overwhelmingly American-made weapons.
(Brad Parker, Senior Adviser, Policy & Advocacy, Defense for Children International – Palestine)
Jeanne Lewis, CEO of Faith in Public Life, cries out that “we are in a time of lamentation, a time of deep, collective suffering. Yet, we can be thankful that across our various faith traditions we have leaders, parables, teachings and practices that guide us in how to navigate such times.
Many of our traditions teach us that it is possible to move through our suffering towards something greater, but we cannot do it alone. Can we have the courage to show genuine compassion, even in times of war?
Can we face new and escalating challenges with a commitment to a faith-based response? With a commitment to justice for all? Will our faith ground us and guide us as we seek to overcome anything that threatens the world’s ability to live peacefully and joyfully with one another?”
Do you remember the fatal stabbing a couple of weeks ago of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian-American child, and the serious injury of his mother near Chicago? Did you know that synagogues in at least five states have reported bomb threats?
Have you heard about the man who was shouting obscenities about Palestinians and who drove his car into a pro-Palestinian march, hitting a protester on a bicycle?
Are you aware that both Jewish and Arab communities have had to change their regular daily patterns and behavior to avoid potential conflicts?
In the meantime, the war in Ukraine continues as the season turns, and many on the front lines will struggle not only against the enemy but also against the harsh weather conditions.
The violence in Sudan continues to rage, but we hear so little about it. And on Friday, Robert Card, a member of the US Army Reserve and Certified Arms Instructor, was found dead after yet another mass shooting with an assault rifle, this time in Lewiston, Maine of all places.
In our Wednesday Bible study discussion, I asked the group what question they would ask Jesus if he were to walk in and sit down in one of the chairs in our circle.
We had some thoughtful responses, like “why do such bad things happen to good people, especially to children?” and “why is there so much hate in the world?”, and “what happens when we die?”
Mike Florence asked what I found to be the most engaging question. Mike’s question he would ask of Jesus if Jesus were to walk into the room and sit down in our circle – How can I help?
I think Jesus would love that question.
Jesus, how can I help with what you want to happen on earth?
Mike’s question reminded me of the “New Amsterdam” television series. The show has been out for several years, but I just recently discovered it. In the show, the protagonist is a newly hired medical director of a large, publicly funded hospital in New York City. The hospital is facing all the seemingly intractable problems in heathcare today, times twenty. Thousands of patients are falling between the cracks. Doctors are overworked; staff are underpaid; there are never enough nurses to go around. The protagonist begins his first day by asking his doctors and other staff members: How can I help?
The answer leads to all sorts of changes to the system, some bold and risky, others seemingly no-brainers, but it seems that no one before had dared to ask the question, How can I help?
Do you remember the old movie City Slickers? In the movie, Billy Crystal and a few friends decide to take a adventure tourism vacation involving the herding of cattle across the western countryside. Jack Palance is the seasoned veteran cowboy who is held in awe by Crystal and the others. The movie was hilarious and touching, especially in the scenes with Crystal and Palance. Here’s a scene some of you may remember…
What is the one thing that life is all about…that your life is all about? Certainly, there can be a variety of answers to that question, but for those seeking to be faithful to God, Jesus gave us a ready answer.
Jesus offered an answer that, if lived to the best of our ability, would not only transform our lives, but would transform the world, and would guide the world away from violence.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The first commandment came from the Shema, the verses memorized by every Hebrew child. The second commandment came from Leviticus, in the context of laws regarding how we treat our neighbor.
Perhaps the most effective way we can help Jesus is to mind the one thing – to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
These two commandments can serve as a litmus test of sorts. Everything we consider thinking about or doing or saying could be viewed through this lens. How would this lens impact our lives and the lives of those around us?
How would using this lens of love for God and neighbor, even enemies, alter our foreign policy and impact world peace?
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves pre-existed Christianity. Jesus pulled this commandment from Leviticus, after all. The problem with many people of faith throughout the world is our definition of neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Who must I love? and who can I treat as less than human?
In the New Testament, when Jesus was asked the question: Who is my neighbor? he responded with a story about a Good Samaritan, a person many Jews would have hated simply because of his ethnic background. The Samaritans lived in what we call the West Bank today, where many Palestinians were driven when forced to leave their homes.
Jesus identified his neighbor as a Good Samaritan, a businessman from the West Bank. At the end of World War II, some 80 years ago, thousands of Palestinian families were driven out of their homes and villages in order to settle unwanted Jewish refugees from Europe.
Within weeks, Jewish families from throughout Europe, refugees from the war, were moved into those homes and villages. If you would like to know more about this story, I recommend Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour. I had the good privilege of dining with Elias Chacour, whom everyone calls Abuna or Father.
He is a Palestinian Christian leader who seeks peace and reconciliation. He remembers fondly playing among the olive trees with his Jewish neighbors when he was a child, not long before he and his family were driven from their home.
“As faith leaders, we are uniquely positioned to prevent and resist political violence by using our shared values, spiritual practices and theologies to counter the dehumanizing and divisive “us vs them” messages that encourage political violence.
Christian people are called to resist fear and practice discernment – as our traditions teach us – about when and how to act. This moment invites us to be courageous and protect and defend each other against those who would try to convince us that our ability to thrive depends on harming or demonizing others. The human rights of each person are sacred, and political violence most often denies these rights.
Political violence directly threatens our ability to live and thrive in our full humanity.
Political violence attempts to silence our voices and to frighten us into submission.
Political violence aims to weaken the power and safety we build for our communities, especially when we work together across differences.
The lens of love for God and neighbor begins at home, with our loved ones and family members. The lens of love is to be extended to our next door neighbors and colleagues at work and kids who sit on the other side of the lunchroom at school.
The lens of love ultimately is to extend to our nation’s foreign policy. How might love be embodied through governmental policies?
As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week: “For Jesus, words and deeds must be congruent. The words “I believe in Jesus” or “I believe love is the most important thing we can dedicate our lives to” are not credible unless that love shows up in ordinary day to day life… Real life love is messy, ambiguous and complicated.
Loving (our spouses, our families, our neighbors, and especially our enemies) is a choice, not a feeling. We do not have to like or want to be around our enemies but we are called to love them nonetheless.
Such love is difficult, inconvenient and risky.
It has nothing to do with what we receive or hope to receive.
It is strictly about what we are willing to offer to the one we love…
For Jesus, it boiled down to loving our neighbor as ourselves and following Jesus’ example in the way that we love.” It is no accident that Jesus offered the greatest commandment – the commandment to love – in the context of debates about politics, taxation, power, and law.
So often, it is how such debates are handled that lead to war or to reconciliation. May God guide our nation and all nations into the paths of peace.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church