Sunday, November 8, 2015

“SHALL Is an Interesting Word” (Mark 12:28-34 )

Wayne Teasdale lives and works in Chicago. Over time he has grown in appreciation for the homeless. He meets a homeless woman named Carol on Adams Street by Union Station where one of the main commuter trains arrives and departs. He meets a man who refers to himself as the “Saint” in Hyde Park where Teasdale lives. He meets Jerome on the stairs to the Metra train at Fifty-Third Street on Chicago’s south side.

A Christian man, Teasdale makes it a central goal of his spiritual practice to move beyond noticing these people to engaging them---conversing with them, learning their stories, hugging them. Teasdale notes, “When we get to know them, we realize that the situation is much more complicated, that our society doesn’t provide much leeway for human frailties. We also learn that they are us. The homeless want to be seen, affirmed, and accepted. They want to be happy and avoid suffering. They need a sense of home—to actually have a home, even a room, which they can enter, close the door to, and live in peace. “

And so Teasdale is personable with the homeless—like he is with persons who are not homeless. He has moved from annoyance, resentment, and inconvenience to spontaneous compassion. He has come to realize that these people are precious---as Jesus did.

Janis rises early, before the neighborhood turns on their kitchen lights and makes their first cup of coffee and turns their dogs out for their first “sniff of the lawn.” She finds the Bible with a bookmark placed in the psalms, and she opens the book she has chosen of late from the bookstore to read that offers spiritual food. A book that sheds a little light on how it is she wants to be with God: patient, faithful, prayerful, compassionate, supportive, and forgiving. She lights a candle in the darkness, reminding her that the light is a present reality. She sets a little timer for twenty minutes and turns off the chatter in her mind.

Even when her life doesn’t make sense—she’s divorced, her son struggles with depression, her daughter is estranged, her work environment is stressful and she’s long since passed the legal age when she can retire—she makes time to listen to God. Janis observes “God is our most loyal and beautiful companion. God is worth rising for and sitting still with. But I wasn’t always this dedicated. If you had met me in my twenties, you wouldn’t have ever thought God would have a chance with me.” 

What Teasdale and Janis have in common is CHANGE. They are not who they once were. Janis can recall the years from her youth when life was all about her and she lived and loved quite selfishly. Teasdale can remember the years when he encountered the homeless on every corner in Chicago and gave them a couple of dollars just so they would leave him alone.

But that’s not who they are not. Teasdale tries to see the needs of the homeless and meet them without judgment. Janis gives God the first hour of the day—her “first fruits.” They do not tell their stories with pride but with awe. Like Mary of Nazareth, wife of Joseph and mother of Jesus, they exclaim “My soul magnifies the Lord.” What they mean is that God has mysteriously but most definitely increased in them and it was not their doing---and they are paying just enough attention to notice it.

This alone is quite a miracle, this paying attention to what God is accomplishing in one’s life despite what is happening in one’s life. It’s so easy to identify with one’s joys and sorrows and one’s losses and gains or one’s age or bank account—thinking it is about this or about that we are experiencing in our OUTER life. It’s equally just as easy to miss the grace God is tucking inside one’s spirit, or the way God is opening you to the value of all things—the homeless, the environment, God’s very self.

·        Someone once said that when something happens once it is a miracle, then after that it is normal. Our grandchildren remind us of this all of the time. Every time Target changes their seasonal display the granddaughters’ clap—just like they clap for noodles and rain puddles. You and I, well, what are we clapping for these days? Is anything a miracle?

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark invites us to clap for every ounce of compassion God has managed to emit from our hearts. And that’s the insight: God is determined to grow us into compassion. In fact, God promises us that God will grow us in compassion! Where does God promise us that? In the gospel of Mark, chapter 12:28-34 where we encounter an interesting choice of a word in relationship to the delivery of greatest commandment God ushers. The word is SHALL as in “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. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It means “expressing a strong intention.” The 1960’s ushered in the anthem “We Shall Overcome.” The movement away from racism in our country wasn’t a should, or a must, it was we shall—it will happen.

God doesn’t say in our lesson text we MUST love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, or that we should. God says we SHALL. It will happen. I like Christian author Frederick Buechner’s observation that “the words YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR GOD (and NEIGHBOR) become in the endless a command than a promise.” God will deliver within us a heart for God and humanity.

It’s hard fought on both ends, isn’t it, this giving birth to compassion? Talk about the world groaning in labor! God removing the obstacles to our resistance to love—while at the same time our being willing to be taught by God; to be raised by the scriptures and the Spirit! As Jesus noticed it is easy to love persons who admire us and who are born to us or married to us—but persons who test us and are unfamiliar to us and so seemingly different than us, well? And it is so much easier to respond to the material world than it is to respond to the Spirit. How do we do that; how do we listen for God’s still, small voice?

Is it no coincidence that the story of God transforming us from hearts of stone to hearts filled with love is told over and over again through a variety of familiar children’s stories?

·        In Margery Williams’ the Velveteen Rabbit we are “loved real.”

·        In Dr. Suess’ the Grinch Who Stole Christmas the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes in one day.

·        In Hans Christian Andersons’ the Ugly Duckling the little swan who thinks he is a terrible excuse for a duck learns that he is a beautiful bird after all—only he’s a bird of a different feather so to say.

·        In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Scrooge’s hard-heartedness is confronted by three different spirits whose purpose is to mirror back to him the truth about his existence—he is void of mercy. In this story we understand that the three different spirits represent the work of the Holy Spirit; it’s role, which is to awaken us to our potential to be love, like Christ.

·        And then there is the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow all discover that they already had everything they needed to live a beautiful life---community, heart, courage, brains. This is the gift of enlightenment: we have everything we need. We simply forget who we are!

Perhaps you can think of other stories where we meet our God’s promise to us to love us where we are but to not let us stay that way! It’s as if a clue to the journey of the human spirit from fear to compassion is written everywhere…so that we might remember.

Oh there is so much more to a life than what any of us can see…or that anyone can see in us! Can we simply pause for a minute and embrace the magnanimity of God’s work? Let’s give awe and wonder some room to bless us.

The Gospel of Mark urges us to make a shift make a shift in our spirit—a shift from charting our successes and loses in the material world—to observing our successes and loses in the spiritual world. God isn’t interested in our failures; God is interested in what motivates us. God isn’t interested in our religion; God is interested in our relationships---is everyone precious—is God precious?

Ah-ha! God is making good on God’s promise! We shall love! And every step along the way is a miracle…that asks to be noticed.

Prayer: Amazing God, thank for making good on your great promise that we shall love you and neighbor. Give us ears to listen and hearts that surrender to the impulses of your love. Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on November 1, 2015 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)

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