Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints (and All Sinners)

Mark 12: 28-34
November 1, 2015, All Saints Day
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Even though today is All Saints Day, and there are certain traditional scriptures for that observance, we are still in the gospel of Mark, following Jesus around Galilee and Judea.
Now, Mark’s gospel has brought us to Jerusalem, on the last Tuesday before the crucifixion.

Here we are, in the twelfth chapter of Mark – after what seemed like forever in the tenth chapter. The eleventh chapter brought Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by crowds laying their cloaks on the road in front of him, shouting Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

In the past few weeks’ readings, Jesus has run into some opponents, people who want to trap him, to find a way to charge him with a crime, to discredit him. Now, he meets a scribe who has a very different attitude, someone who is impressed by what he has heard, and genuinely wants to be in dialogue with this Jesus of Nazareth. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 12: 28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him,
“Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘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 neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’— this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

All Saints Day!

I love this day!

In Bible Study on Wednesday, we named some saints we knew of – St. Francis, St. Anne, St. Joseph and St. Mary. After we got started, we came up with quite a list, and we even knew a lot of stories about those saints. Most of us, when we think of Saints, with a capital S, think of those so designated by the Roman Catholic church. Few of us know a lot about saints, particularly those more recently elevated to sainthood. But we know the old standards.

St. Francis, for example – hard to not know that name these days, what with Pope Francis.
Saint Francis – the one in the twelfth century, not the pope! was the son of a wealthy silk merchant who gave up his wealth and comfort for a life of poverty. He eventually formed a monastic order that lives on today – the Franciscans. I’m sure you already know that when a person enters a Roman Catholic religious order, he or she takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Franciscans take an additional fourth vow, of charity.

The other word for charity is love – agape, the love St. Paul describes in First Corinthians 13, when he says “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I have a dear friend who is a Franciscan nun. The mother house and center of her order is in Rochester, Minnesota. That order was founded back in 1877 when 25 women religious came to Rochester from Joliet to establish a new community. They were mostly teachers, but after a devastating tornado hit the area in 1883, the good sisters began to provide medical care for victims of the storm. They saw that there was a need for health care, so Mother Alfred began to pursue a doctor to come to Rochester and run a hospital that the sisters would build. The doctor was reluctant, but a persistent nun can be hard to turn down. So in the 1880s the doctor relented and came to Rochester. His name was Dr. William Mayo. Dr. Mayo and his sons are honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal church. They’re not Saints, exactly, not with a capital ‘s’ but they’re right up there!

We Presbyterians have an interesting relationship with sainthood. We honor many people with the title of saint – particularly the apostles – St. John and St. Paul, for example. Of course, we love St. Andrew, with his Scotland and Presbyterian connections. And we find the Roman Catholic Saints quite handy – St. Joseph for selling a house, St. Anthony for lost items. We Presbyterians don’t actually name anyone to the role, nor do we always add everyone canonized by the Roman Catholic church, or omit those who didn’t make the cut.

I’m quite fond of St. Christina the Astonishing, who is not an actual saint but venerated in Belgium. She did all the things you’d expect of a saint – she was holy, and devoted to God, and generous with the poor and needy. She also tended to fly up to the church ceiling from time to time, just to get away from the stench of the sinful people around her! Hence, the astonishing…

Actually, in our tradition, we consider all the baptized to be saints of God, following the Apostle Paul’s designation of us as the saints. So each one of us could add the title “saint” in front of our names. Try that on for a minute, in your head…. Sound good?

Oh, I’m not a saint, you might be saying. But if you think about what makes a saint, maybe you are. You don’t have to be astonishing! The definition of a saint is someone who is holy, someone who is devoted to God, and someone who is generous. In short, someone who follows the great commandment Jesus spoke about.

You were wondering when I was going to get to that, weren’t you?
See, most of the time we think of saints as being better than the rest of us, holier, more churchy, reading the Bible all the time, maybe living in a tiny gray cell and only coming out to go to church – every day! or to heal the sick and feed the poor. But that lets us off the hook too easily, doesn’t it? If the saints are like that, and we are not saints, then we don’t have to worry, or try very hard either.

We know, deep down, that we are all sinners.
We know, deep down, that we are not saints.
But maybe we are more saintly than we think.
Maybe we understand that better than we know.
Maybe we are kind of like the scribe in this story.

This scribe approaches Jesus and listens, and he feels drawn to this teacher.
Even though most of the other scribes don’t agree with Jesus, THIS scribe doesn’t want to argue. He is not trying to pick a fight. He wants a dialogue with this strange teacher. So he asks a question about the law, a sincere question. What is the greatest commandment?

The scribe and Jesus both know that there are a lot of commandments. Most Jews agree that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contains 613 laws. Over the years, a lot of people have tried to sort those out, put them into categories, make them more manageable.

Some of the categories of laws are seasons, diet, marriage, employees, courts, prophecy, clothing, taxes, the temple and the king. Some Christians divide the law into categories that they say still pertain, and other categories that they ignore. In fact, most Christians do this.

Even though God’s law forbids it, I eat shrimp, for example.
And bacon. 
I eat bacon.

So the question of the most important commandment is significant to us even now, just as it was to that scribe. “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus knows that the scribe knows the law, just as he does.
The question is not one of order, but of weight, of consequence.
And when Jesus answers, he gives not one response, but two.

The first law he names is from the Shema – the law recited at every morning and evening prayer service in the synagogue – Deuteronomy 6:4
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children,
and you shall speak of them
when you sit at home,
and when you walk along the way,
and when you lie down and when you rise up.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand,
and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Love the Lord your God.
Love God so much that you talk about that love all the time, and you talk about your devotion to God with your children, and you wear that love for God like a garment, or a tattoo.

That’s part one – complete love and devotion to God.
No argument there – not from anyone!
But Jesus is not finished.
He adds the second part, from Leviticus 19:18.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The scribe is absolutely in agreement, and in fact he elaborates on the answer –
Not only is this the greatest law, but devotion to God and love of others, he says, are “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

More important than temple worship,
more important than sacrifices,
more important than dietary laws,
more important than laws about marriage,
more important than everything:
love God, and love your neighbor.

Bam. Mic drop.

When Jesus links love of God to, "Love of neighbor," he has elevated the concern for the welfare of one's neighbors above all other duties and obligations, including - gasp! - religious ones.[1] On one commandment hang all the law and prophets. Love God, love your neighbor. Above all else.

Yesterday, October 31, was Reformation Day - the 498th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed those 95 these to the door of the church at Wittenberg. The Geneva Bible, published in the 16th century, was the Bible of the Reformation, the Bible brought by the Puritans and Presbyterians who came to these shores seeking religious freedom. It was, parenthetically, the Bible that prompted King James to get his own authorized version, because the Geneva Bible was, he said, "partial, untrue, seditious,and savouring of dangerous and traitorous conceits.”[2]

It contained notes from the great saints of the Reformation – John Calvin, John Knox, Miles Coverdale. In the Geneva Bible, there is a note on this story from Mark. It says “Sacrifices and outward worship never pleased God unless we first did the things which we owe to God and our neighbours.”[3]

Sacrifices and outward worship never pleased God 
unless we first did the things which we owe to God and our neighbours.

What makes a saint?
Not church going.
Not outward piety.
Not our feeble efforts at goodness.
What makes us saints is not what we do, but what God does.

God loves us.
And because God loves us, God extends grace to us.
Most of us freely acknowledge that we are sinners.
Few of us would call ourselves saints.
But through the love and grace of God, we are made holy
and as a response to God’s grace, 
we give to God with our love and devotion.

We do so by following God’s law, in acts of generosity, holiness, and love.
Just like a saint.
Just like a sinner, redeemed by love.
Just like Jesus said.

If you can get this, really get it,
deep down in your bones,
you are not far from the kingdom of God.

Maybe you’re a saint.

Thanks be to God!


[1] [1] David Ewart,


[3] Geneva Notes

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