November 4, 2018

Ruth 1:1-18
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

“Love Your Neighbour”

Plenty good room in the kingdom of heaven. Plenty good room for you and me. Plenty good room in the kingdom of heaven, so choose your seat and sit down.

The choir’s anthem for this morning has been running through my mind all week. It’s got one of those tunes that easily gets stuck in your head after a choir practice. But also, it’s been there because we’ve had more than our share of church members moving from this world into the kingdom of heaven over the last week or so.

Don Frew died a week ago Friday, and then Olga Wolfe died on Tuesday morning, and finally Jack Boan died in his sleep early on Wednesday. Each one of these Christian disciples died after a good, long, and meaningful life, but each one will be dearly missed by family, friends, and this community of faith.

“Plenty good room” has been a good song for this week, as we’ve been thinking about their welcome into the Kingdom of heaven. But when we selected it a couple of months ago, we had no idea that so many of our members would be making the journey to God at this time. So, as I began to prepare for this morning’s service, I looked at the Scripture readings assigned for this day and tried to remember why I thought the song would be fitting back when the Music Team did our pre-planning in early September.

I couldn’t see a connection to the story about Ruth and Naomi. Even though all the husbands in the family die, there’s no discussion about whether or not they go to heaven. It’s more about what happens to the widows who are left behind… how they care for one another, and how they cross boundaries and give generously in order to remain faithful.

The psalm focusses on trusting God, and encourages us that even when life is difficult, God does not abandon us. People like Ruth and Naomi who experience tragedy and trials can have hope, because the mighty God who made heaven and earth is faithful. And God promises to feed the hungry, free the prisoners, and lift up those who are bowed down.

The short passage from the Book of Hebrews is essentially about how God goes about helping the people of the world through Christ, the Great High Priest. Although it doesn’t use that language of “Kingdom of heaven,” I suppose it is about how we get to heaven – not through our own efforts, but through Jesus’ love and offering of his whole life to get us back into loving relationship with God. But the passage doesn’t seem like the inspiration for singing “Plenty good room in the Kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the Gospel reading from Mark is not really a discussion about heaven either. It’s a conversation between Jesus and one of the scribes about how we should live in this world – what are the most important commandments of God that should guide us day-by-day.

But I think it was that last verse of the passage that made me think “Plenty good room” could work as the anthem today. At the end of the conversation, after Jesus notes that the scribe has answered wisely about the commandments, Jesus says to him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Of course, Jesus is not suggesting that the scribe is going to die soon. He’s not giving an assurance about life after death. But he’s talking about the Kingdom of God that is breaking into our world today… springing up, and growing all around us right here in our daily lives.

The Kingdom of God is not complete, that’s for sure. Our world is still marred by hatred, oppression, and greed. That’s pretty obvious whenever we listen to the daily news of war, terror, and senseless violence. But the Kingdom of God springs up and grows in our lives and communities whenever and wherever kindness, mercy, love, and generosity are shared.

And Jesus declared that this scribe, with his understanding of the most important commandments (to love God and love our neighbours) was well on his way to experiencing the Kingdom.

Let’s review the story. One day, Jesus got into a conversation with one of the religious leaders – a scribe. The scribe came to Jesus to discuss theology – what they each believed about God and people and the meaning of life.

The leader asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” And Jesus answered, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

What we are hearing is an early theological dialogue. It starts with an honest question from the scribe about what Jesus believed to be the most important aspects of faith.

Then the scribe notes his absolute agreement with Jesus. He states the answer again in his own words, and notes that these things (loving God and loving neighbour) are much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices that religious people make. And that’s when Jesus says to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What is striking about this conversation is the beauty of agreement, shared understanding, and mutual affirmation. Because remember, Jesus usually gets into heated debates with the scribes and Pharisees. While the religious leaders are typically concerned with the letter of the law, Jesus is more focussed on its spirit, and that often leads them to different priorities and different conclusions.

But here we see a “meeting of the minds.” We witness respectful conversation, careful listening, and joyful discovery of a shared faith and common purpose.

What I love about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t dismiss the scribe because he is a scribe. So what if he belongs to the religious establishment that has been challenging Jesus at every turn? So what if he is one of the group that has been trying to trick Jesus into blasphemy and get him arrested and killed? Jesus puts aside all assumptions and pre-suppositions, gives the scribe the benefit of the doubt, and engages in dialogue.

In dialogue with others, we very often discover that we agree about a great many things. In dialogue we take an interest in what the other believes and in the other’s experience. And then we share honestly about what we believe also.

We avoid judging others and making assumptions about their beliefs or practices. We listen first. We are not in competition, so we can rejoice when we find things in common, and learn from one another when we find differences.

As Presbyterian Christians, we are committed to dialogue that strives towards unity within the Body of Christ. Our official statement on ecumenism notes that “We recognize the common calling in Christ which we share with all Christians and we seek ways of making visible the unity which God has given us. We affirm one church, one faith, one Lord, sharing in worship, witness and service to the world. As part of the Church Universal, we strive to listen to and learn from one another, to break down the barriers which divide people and to promote justice and peace in the whole human family and the integrity of all creation.”

And we don’t limit our conversations and relationships to other Christian groups either. Although we may not share as much in common with other faith groups, the mandate of our Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee at the National level is “to encourage Presbyterians to acknowledge, understand, and appreciate other faith traditions, and to help Presbyterians to live in good relationship with persons who belong to other religions.”

Perhaps you have come across “The Golden Rule” poster, published by the Scarboro Missions in Toronto, and posted in many interfaith chaplaincy offices in hospitals, and university campuses, and retreat centres.

It points out that when people of all the major religions sit down to talk about what is the most important aspect of their faith, they find a great deal in common. When Christians quote Matthew 7:12 saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets,” Jews would similarly read from the Talmud: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.”

Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad of Islam teaches: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” From Jainism we learn: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” The Baha’i Faith includes this instruction: “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” And Taoism says: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.”

Isn’t that beautiful? That God has led so many different people from so many different countries and cultures – not only to love and worship God with various prayers and songs and practices – but to strive to love our neighbours as ourselves.

And we do have to strive to love our neighbours, don’t we? It doesn’t always happen naturally or easily, because so often we fear people that we experience as strange or different from ourselves. And for some reason, we tend to worry that by making space, and providing welcome, or accommodations, or resources for others that we will somehow risk our own safety or well-being.

The great fear of refugees and immigrants in many places is a sad reality. And the threats and violence perpetrated against particular religious and cultural groups is tragically rampant, even among people who claim to be people of faith, who call themselves Christian.

But Jesus taught, and the Jewish scribe agreed, as would all the major religions of the world… that the first commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Have you seen that meme on social media? The one that says,
“Love your neighbour…
your homeless neighbour,
your Muslim neighbour,
your black neighbour,
your gay neighbour,
your immigrant neighbour,
your Jewish neighbour,
your Christian neighbour,
your atheist neighbour,
your disabled neighbour,
your addicted neighbour.”

“Love your neighbour” does not only apply to the neighbour who looks, and acts, and talks, and believes just like we do.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend, it was so good to hear that many synagogues were surrounded during their Sabbath prayers yesterday by “rings of peace” – Muslims and Christians and people of other faiths who formed circles of solidarity, and safety, and support while their Jewish neighbours gathered to pray.

May God continue to teach us so to love our neighbours as ourselves, for there is “Plenty good room” in the Kingdom of heaven for all who call on the name of the Lord. Amen.