Not Far Now

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Lessons: Psalm 146; Mark 12:28-34

A church member remarked almost wistfully last week that he wondered if anything could bring people together the way the Giants’ winning the World Series did.  Certainly, there were the regrettable and inexplicable incidents of vandalism but over all it was a love fest with hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million fans all feeling good about the same thing.[1]  Maybe poet Walt Whitman was onto something when he said that baseball would repair our losses and be a blessing to us.[2]

Not something I’ve ever heard anyone say about politics.  No wonder, as we close in on Election Day, that people look with longing at the camaraderie of baseball.  The exchanges at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Mark, before our verses this morning, sound uncomfortably familiar to anyone paying attention to the campaigns.  The people who have decided to oppose Jesus take to questioning him, debating him, even trying to trap him.[3]  Jesus makes an opening statement, a parable about the vineyard owner who sends his son to collect the rent but the son is killed, and so the owner boots out the tenants and gives the vineyard to new folks.[4]  The religious leaders figure out Jesus is talking about them, so they start asking the kind of questions that no matter how you answer, you’ll offend someone.  They ask whether it’s right to pay taxes to Caesar.[5]  They ask about a hypothetical woman who was married to seven men, and after the last one died, she died, and the question is, at the end of all things, which one is her husband?  Questions about taxes, about marriage, about whom a woman has to answer to – some things don’t change, right?

Jesus is pretty nimble at avoiding the traps.  And then a scribe steps from the crowd and asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is.   Jesus answers, “Love God completely, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[6]  Everyone would have expected the first part of his answer, loving God.[7]  They may not have expected the second part, loving neighbor, but it wasn’t new; it’s in Leviticus.[8]  What’s new and surprising is the way Jesus connects the second part to the first part in a way that means that these two laws can’t really be separated, that they can’t really be understood apart from each other.  You can’t love God, in other words, apart from loving each other.  The scribe says, “You’re right!”  And we might be thinking, “Well, yeah, of course Jesus is right.”  But the scribe brings a different spirit to what had been a nasty attempt to trap Jesus, and changes the day.  Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom.”

Not far from the kingdom.  This moment provides one of the best insights we have in Scripture about what the kingdom of God is.  The scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God” NOT because he gave the right answer – this isn’t about being the smartest kid in the class – but because the scribe understands this link between the two laws – that the only way truly to love God is to love other people.  The scribe gets it that we can’t love God alone.  Why?  Because the life loving others is a life that creates justice, and freedom, and peace for us all.  It is the life that is truly life, the best life, the life that the God who loves us like a parent wants for every one of us.  It is life in the kingdom of God.  Not after we die but now.  The kingdom of God is not a place in the future but the relationship we have with God through our relationship with other people, now.

Today we observe All Saints’ Day, which is November 1st, but we celebrate on the first Sunday of November.  In the Protestant church a saint is not someone who performed miracles or lived an exceptionally holy life or even someone who is dead.  In Scripture, saints were common folk committed to the Christian faith, committed to living now in the kingdom of God.  The apostle Paul commonly addresses his letters to the “saints” – to the ordinary people in Christian communities.[9]  So while we take time today to remember in particular those saints who have been called home to God, we are remembering today all the saints, dead or living.  Including us.  We are the saints.  You may be uncomfortable with that title.  “I’m no saint,” you might protest.  Frederick Buechner writes,

“I receive maybe three or four hundred letters a year from strangers who tell me that the books I have spent the better part of my life writing have one way or another saved their lives, in some cases literally.  I am deeply embarrassed by such letters.  I think, if they only knew that I am a person more often than not just as lost in the woods as they are, just as full of darkness, in just as desperate need.  I think, if I only knew how to save my own life.  They write to me as if I am a saint, and I wonder how I can make clear to them how wrong they are.  But what I am beginning to discover is that, in spite of all that, there is a sense in which they are also right.  In my books, and sometimes even in real life, I have it in me at my best to be a saint to other people, and by saint I mean life giver, someone who is able to bear to others something of the Holy Spirit, whom the creeds describe as the Lord and Giver of Life.  Sometimes, by the grace of God, I have it in me to be Christ to other people.  And so, of course, have we all – the life-giving, life-saving, and healing power to be saints, to be Christ, maybe even at rare moments even to ourselves.“[10]

We all have the life-giving, life-saving, healing power to be saints.  Besides celebrating All Saints, today we start Together We Serve Week.  If you are new to our congregation you may not know that “Together We Serve” is our congregation’s motto, started by one of our dear departed saints, Johnny Holm, who signed all his church correspondence that way.  It stuck, because it expressed our commitment to loving God by loving and serving our neighbors, and because it continues to remind us of what we strive to do and be.  Not to earn sainthood or even to earn God’s love because God has already given us that, but in response to what God has done in and through and for us.  We try to live this motto all year long but around the anniversary of our congregation in November we celebrate, this year with a week’s worth of local hands-on projects.  So this year we’ll serve together at the Marin Food Bank, with families at Homeward Bound, by knitting warm scarves and caps for our shelter guests, and the other projects on the inside cover of your bulletins.  It is what some people call “kingdom work.”

“Kingdom work” might best be explained through the notion Walt Davis mentioned last week during his moment for mission, which I first heard through this little story.  An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe.  He put a basket near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the basket would win all the fruit.  When he said, “Go!” they all took each other’s hands and ran together, and then sat down under the tree together, enjoying the fruit.  The anthropologist asked them why they ran like that; one of them could have been the big winner.  The children said, “Ubuntu; how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”  “Ubuntu,” as Walt explained, is the philosophy that is best summed up, “I am, because we are.”

Ubuntu.  Not far from the kingdom of God.  You have to wonder if some biblical scholar with an ironic sense of humor selected Psalm 146 as the lectionary psalm for the Sunday before elections: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”[11]  The Mark passage reminds us, the saints of God, that the only power that is proven to be permanent is the power of love.  While we saints may and often do disagree on the means, we cannot afford to disagree on this primary affirmation of Scripture that loving God means loving one another, loving all our neighbors, including and especially the most vulnerable of our neighbors.  The affirmation that I am, because we are.  There is no one way to love and serve our neighbors, but we’d better make sure that is what we’re really doing.

We are not far now because together, we serve.  At the Food Bank.  Knitting caps.  In our families, in our jobs, in our schools, and yes, fellow saints of San Anselmo, in the voting booth.  May it be so, for you and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2012


[1] “Giants World Series Parade Draws A Million Revelers To Downtown SF,” October 31, 2012,  http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2012/10/31/crowds-gather-early-for-giants-world-series-parade/.

[2]  Devoted follower of Walt Whitman’s work, Horace L. Traubel, reported that Walt Whitman said of baseball, “I like your interest in sports ball, chiefest of all base-ball particularly: base-ball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character.  Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism.  We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.  We want to go out and howl, swear, run, jump, wrestle, even fight, if only by so doing we may improve the guts of the people: the guts, vile as guts are, divine as guts are!”  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/28/sports/la-sp-sn-bull-durham-baseball-20120328.

[3]  Mark 12:13.

[4]  Mark 12:1-12.

[5]  Mark 12:13-17.

[6]  Mark 12:29-31.

[7]  Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

[8]  Leviticus 19:18.

[9]  See, for example, Ephesians 1:1-2.

[10]  Frederick Buechner, “The Longing for Home,” in Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 236.

[11]  Psalm 146:3.

 

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