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November 5, 2000
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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"A Rock Solid Foundation for Living"

Jim was a 35 year old semi-successful mid-level manager in a larger corporation in Chicago.  His father was on the board of directors.  When he came to my office, he had the anxious look of someone who was about to undergo major surgery or be audited by the IRS.

"I get the feeling sometimes," he said, "That I somehow happened to be born on the wrong planet. It's like life is Halloween and I am supposed to be dressed up as a normal, successful, well put together person.  I've got the right connections, the right job, the right house and the right family - but it doesn't fit.  It wouldn't surprise me to wake up and find out this was all a bad dream and I could get back to whatever my real life is supposed to be."

Jim acknowledged that he worked extra hard to keep his emotional seams from coming apart. Raised by a domineering, harsh and critical father, he never felt like he measured up.  Never really fit in.  What happened is that every time Jim would try to confide in a fried or family member, he would receive such advice as:

"Try not to worry."
"You shouldn't feel that way.  Count your blessings."
"Look on the bright side of things."
"Just put those thoughts out of your mind."
"Pray and read your bible."
"Think of all the people who are worse off than you."

And how about this gem?

"You must try harder to relax!"

I have to tell you I could relate to Jim.  I've had my own struggles with becoming a whole person in a world where it felt like life was a tennis tournament and everybody but me was Venus Williams. Or maybe a golf tournament where everyone but me was Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods is on course to be to tennis what Michael Jordan is to basketball.  Venus Williams may do the same for tennis.  Both young athletes share a common process in that they lived and breathed their sport for the whole of their young lives and were nurtured along every inch by parents who were committed to their success - not just as athletes, but as human beings.

One thing is sure.  Neither of them are "microwave" - "instant" success stories. They are building upon a rock solid foundation of family life and constant nurturing. Michael Jordan shares a similar background.  None were instant success stories.  All owe their success to a process of consistent nurturing combined with a God given gift.

Jim, on the other hand was living out an obligation that became a destructive script in his inner life. Instead of nurture, he was nagged. Where he should have had support, he was scolded.


What makes the critical difference in a life where there is a sense of being a whole person?  How do we develop a sense of being who we were meant to be in a fractured world?  Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Venus Williams tell a story on one level.  Their success (or "wholeness") as athletes is the result of solid family relationships and long term commitment.

Becoming whole persons does not come as a miraculous bolt out of the blue which brings maturity of the soul.  Peace of mind is a result of process of soul - strength of spirit is a result of staying the course.

In our gospel reading today,  Jesus offers a rock solid foundation for becoming a whole person.  It is not a magic formula for immediate spiritual gratification, but it is a tested method for making gains in the spiritual journey.

One of the religious officials in a crowd asks Jesus to go way out on a limb.  He wants to know what Jesus believes is the most important commandment out of all commandments in the Jewish law.  It was a kind of set up.  There was no way Jesus could answer the question without offending someone.  To say one commandment was more important than another would leave him open to a charge of heresy.

His answer, however, silences his critics and provides an absolutely essential foundation for living.  A foundation which would eventually give my friend Jim the security to live his own life. A foundation which is a silent, "behind the scenes" part of the Jordan, Woods and Williams families.

The religious teacher asks, "Which commandment is the first of all?"  Translated for our own time, this question would amount to something like, "What is the most important thing in all of life?" [Can you fathom being able to ask Jesus this question?]

Jesus quotes an ancient text from the book of Deuteronomy.  This verse became Israel's confession of faith - her sacred text for every generation.  A devout Jew would repeat this text as a prayer twice a day.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

The text from Deuteronomy came to be called the Shema.  Literally, Shema means, "Hear Thou."  It is the first word of the text, "Hear O Israel."

When Jesus was asked what the most important thing in all of life is, he repeated this text.  If Jesus spoke to us today, he might put the words something like this:

"Listen up people!  here is the most important thing in all of life.  Here is the one thing that will make all the difference in your living.  Here is the one key to becoming a fully alive, whole person.  You shall love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.  In other words, the most important thing in all of life is to put God at the absolute center of your living!"


Some of us are raised with wonderful nourishing, affirming care.  Others are not as fortunate. In either case the journey toward wholeness means becoming everything God designed us to be.  We can never really know who we were meant to be without a relationship with the one who made us.  This relationship in one in which God become the central reality in every dimension of our living.  We are to love God with all of our:

1. HEART:  namely our emotional being.

This is not just our "feeling" life, but the seat of our identity.  Strength of identity and sense of wholeness comes with the affirmation that, "God made me.  God loves me, I am a child of God.  God's love and love of God flows in every fiber of who I am."

2. SOUL:  namely our spiritual being

It is important to realize that we are, at the heart of it all, spiritual beings.  We were designed to live and function in partnership with God. To love God with all of my soul is to live with a sense of constant, conscious contact with God.

3. MIND:  namely our intellectual being

Our thoughts, attitudes and thinking patterns are shaped by love of God and love for God.  St Paul wrote that we should not be shaped by the patterns of this world's thinking, but to be transformed by "the renewing of your mind." [Rom. 12:2]

4. STRENGTH:  namely our physical being.

We are physical beings.  The Christian faith rejoices in this.  We are not "anti-body" as though the body was a bad thing.  The earliest church struggled with people who believed that the physical world and physical things are bad, but the Psalmist wrote, "We are fearfully and wonderfully made."  [Ps. 139:14]  To love God with all of our strength is to love God even with our physical selves.  One way we can do that is to be there for God.  You know what it means to say you will be there for someone.  When they struggle you actually become physically present for the person.  To be there for God is to be God's person in the world around you.

Simply put, Jesus was the first whole person physician.  He taught that the integration we seek that makes for the sense of being a whole person is grounded in centering ourselves in God.  This one verse from our gospel reading is the rock solid foundation for living.

"...you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."


The young man who came to my office is turmoil over who he was began a long spiritual journey in which he found his identity - not in the expectations of his earthly parents... especially those of his father - but in the affirmations of the One who had created him.  He discovered love of God - not as a cross to bear, but a freedom to gain.  It did not happen overnight, but it did grow.

Jim gave up his job with the corporation and did something he had wanted to do since he was a young man.  He went back to school and became an emergency medical technician.  He did not make nearly as much money, but he had much more in the way of peace of mind and strength of spirit.

Jim's father took some time to recover from his son's decision, but he eventually decided that his relationship with his grandchildren was more important than his disappointment with his son.  He was not a man given to words or a display of his feelings.  But Jim knew things were okay with his father when a new state of the art ambulance was donated to the fire department in the town where Jim lived.  It was given by Jim's father!


We will not all have a dramatic story as like Jim's, but the rock solid foundation Jesus offers for living can strengthen each one of us is ways we will only discover as we journey with these words of Jesus in the depth of our soul.

"...you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The texts from Deuteronomy and Mark are "core" texts of the faith.  Love God and neighbor and teach your children to love God and neighbor.  This would fulfill the law. [James 2:8,  Gal. 6:2]

The fact is, of course, that we are not able to keep this requirement and so fall short of God's holiness.  The epistle reading from Hebrews brings together the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of persons via the mediatorial priesthood of Christ. This redemption does not require an annual entrance into the holy of holies because Christ has entered into that place "once for all." 

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Coming to the point of "inheritance" of the promised land, the people of Israel needed to be centered in what would be the core of their identity.  Love of God at the center of the nations life would be the identifying mark of God's people.  Who are we?  We are those who love the Lord our God. 

The second portion of the text deals with the question.  "How shall this life / faith be carried from one generation to another.  These verses deal with the responsibility for passing on the faith.  The community is important.  The church is important.  But the central responsibility for the passing on of the faith and what it means to be the people of God rests with parents. Education in matters of faith and life are not to be relegated to one day a week, but we are enjoined to teach our children, "all day, every day, in every way."

One of the immediate implications of this ubiquitous educational program is that we will teach as much by example as by precept.  We will, of course, teach the precepts, but we will not be able to teach always what we do not do always!  Sunday school can not do or undo what is done at home school!

Mark 12:28-34

Asked for his opinion as to the greatest commandment, Jesus answers. "Love God."  "Love your neighbor"  "Love yourself." Love of God is first followed by love of neighbor which is to be the same love as one has for oneself.

Answering the question was no small thing.  The rabbis counted 613 individual statutes in the law, 365 negative and 248 positive. Attempts were made to differentiate between the "great" and "little" commandments. The rabbis also made attempts to formulate great principles from which the rest of the law could be deduced. [NIV Bible Commentary:  Mark]  When Jesus answered, he would be forced into choosing among the various rabbinical commentators.  Someone would be sure to be unhappy.  Yet - the answer seems to silence the critics.  The whole of the law is summed up here.  All 613 individual statutes in the law would be kept if one loved God with all there is to give and loved others as though they were as oneself.

One important concept in Jesus' definition of "neighbor" is his expansion of the meaning of the term.  To the Jewish person, a neighbor was another Jew.  To Jesus, a neighbor is anyone who has need.  [Cf. the parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10:33 ff]  Indeed the whole of the law is summed up in this.  We do not, of course, live up to this great commandment, but perhaps we ought not give up so quickly on it.  We must not duck too quickly into the grace of forgiveness and forego authentic attempt to allow the reshaping of our lives according to this precept.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  Love yourself.

At the very least, our church life would be improved if all of us held ourselves accountable to God for implementation of this commandment.


Hebrews 9:11-14

The epistle reading continues with the examination of the superiority of Christ's priesthood.  The writer is translating the ministry of Christ into terms the Jewish community can relate to.  The people of Israel were dependent upon the sacrificial system and the priesthood to hold their connection with God.  As sin separated the people from God, so the intermediatory ministry of the priests would bring reconciliation.  As the High Priest went into the "Holy of Holies" in the tabernacle and later the temple, there was a sense of relief, renewal and redemption that under girded the life of the community.

Christ, the writer explains, does not have to go through an annual process of seeking the forgiveness of God for the people.  His priesthood is superior because it is an eternal priesthood which has secured an eternal redemption. 

For contemporary people the message has to be retranslated for a non-Jewish community.  The text today points to the permanence and security we have in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 119:1-8)

L: Joy comes to those who listen to the Lord,
P: Gladness is a reward for those who seek our God.
L: We have come to declare our love of the Lord,
P: And our commitment to love one another.
L:  Let us rejoice in the Lord our God,
P: And sing praise to the rock of our salvation.  Amen. 


A Prayer of Confession

Almighty God, we cannot draw near to You without feeling ashamed.  We have left ourselves with too little time to think, to pray, to listen to what You have to say to us.  Help us now to open the door by which You enter our hearts.  Awaken in us aspirations after a nobler life.  Forbid that we should ever be content with low levels of character.  Even though we have failed and failed again let us not cast away faith and hope.  In Christ enable us to derive grace and strength to make our ideas come true…Through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.
              (Robert J. McCracken)


Assurance of Pardon

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.  The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.  The Lord is near to all that call upon Him in truth.  He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him; He will also hear their cry, and will save them.  Amen.


A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Eternal Father of our souls, let our first thoughts today be of You, let our first impulses be to worship You, let our first speech be thy name, let our first actions be to kneel before You in prayer.

For Your perfect wisdom and perfect goodness:

For the love wherewith You love humankind:

For the great and mysterious opportunity of our lives:

For the indwelling of Your Spirit in our hearts:

For the sevenfold gifts of Your Spirit:

We praise and worship You, O Lord.  Amen.

                [adapted from John Baillie]


A Prayer of Dedication

O Lord our God, King of all the earth: Accept, of Your infinite goodness, the offerings of Your people, which, in obedience to your commandment and in honor of your name, we give and dedicate to You and grant us the same, being devoted and dedicated to your service, may be used for your glory; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.    Amen.