United Church of Jaffrey
October 25th, 2020
To hear this sermon preached from the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of UCJ, please press play below:
A lawyer came up to Jesus and asked him a question. The lawyer said: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
It’s not easy for us to hear this question with fresh ears, because, those of us who have been raised in Christian households, or who have been attending Christian churches for much of our lives, this is a familiar question.
And Jesus’ answer is also familiar.
Jesus answers by saying: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
but he doesn’t stop there. He also says this:
and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
Now I have more or less taken for granted that this was one of Jesus Christ’s most famous teachings.
And so it is…
But if we give this dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer a little more than a passing glance, it quickly becomes clear that this is not so much a teaching of Jesus as it is a moment when Jesus re-affirms an existing teaching.
The Lawyer does not ask “Teacher, what is your greatest commandment?”
The Lawyer asks “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The Lawyer is not asking Jesus to devise a great commandment. He is asking Jesus to choose which commandment — from an already existing set of commandments — is the greatest.
And Jesus responds appropriately to this request.
When Jesus says “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ he is not making this up out of the blue. On the contrary.
These exact words can be found coming from the mouth of Moses in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy.
But even more significantly, these exact words are also the second phrase of the the Shma Y’israel — the most important prayer in the Jewish liturgical tradition.
The shma — which we used as our responsive call to worship this morning, is essentially the Jewish the equivalent of the Lord’s prayer. It is repeated by heart at every service in every synagogue.
So Jesus was using phrases that were deeply ingrained in the minds of his listener’s. These words were second nature to the Jews who heard him.
It would be like someone asking me “what is the most important lesson of Christianity?” and I replied: “forgive us our sins,” or “Give us, this day, our daily bread.”
For some of us, these words, these phrases, have a rhythm — a cadence — that reverberates with something deep within us. They touch us. We believe in them because we know them so well — they meet us, where we live.
For some of us, these words, these phrases, are boring, meaningless words that we just say, because we know them by heart, and we don’t think about them at all. They are autopilot words that we can easily ignore.
Actually I think that if we are honest about it, we’re all both of these people, at different times. Sometimes the prayers speak to us, and sometimes we just let our mouths say the words without feeling them in our hearts.
When Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ he wasn’t saying anything new. He was saying something familiar. And yet, the familiarity that his audience had for these words did not make them any less true. Jesus was placing himself in a long line of people who — all the Jewish Prophets and people back all the way back to Moses — who also spoke this truth.
Some truths just get better over time. These truths continue to be spoken from generation to generation.
They continue to be spoken, because they continue to be true. They continue to be spoken also, because though they are understood, they may not be heeded.
People ignore them.
So when we speak these familiar truths, we place ourselves in the tradition of these truths. We aspire to them.
They are aspirational truths.
I wonder what it would be like to imagine a similar story being told today, in America in 2020.
Someone might approach another person and say “My friend, what do you consider to be the greatest American value?”
That is — what value, from an existing set of well known values, known as American values — is the greatest?
The person who was asked that question would not think about Moses. They would not think about Plato or Karl Marx.
Asked about “American values” the person would try to think about the founding fathers of this nation — people like George Washington, John Adams, and, perhaps most particularly, the eloquent mister Thomas Jefferson.
If you asked me this question, I think that I would say this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Have you heard these words before?
Of course you have.
They are as familiar to you as the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
This preamble to the declaration of independence is the most exquisite truth that lies at the very core of the creation of the audacious human experiment that is the United States of America.
This preamble is rooted in the Christian idea that, by virtue of being human, we have an equal inheritance — the equal right to be free and pursue the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.
And yet, the very people who wrote these words in 1776 owned slaves.
In order to absolve themselves of that sin, they denied the humanity of their slaves.
But even though the entire economy of this nation was built upon the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves, the aspirational truth: “All men are created equal” continued to be spoken, from generation to generation… never letting go, ever becoming more and more true, until in 1862, almost a century later, and in the midst of a bloody cataclysm, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
But we all know that the story did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. We needed that aspirational truth to continue its work.
It was this aspirational truth that moved in Dr. King’s heart when he dreamed of a land where his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
It was this aspirational truth that led LBJ to sign the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965.
It was this aspirational truth that led to the election of the first African American president in 2008.
But the story did not end there. We needed that aspirational truth to continue its work.
Like Jesus, we too, need to repeat the aspirational truths that move us toward the promised land.
Like Moses, we too may die before we reach the promised land.
But that’s OK.
Like Michael we keep steering our boat toward the shore.
We keep repeating that truth.
Perfecting it, as we pass it on.
That all all men
and all women, of all colors, sizes, shapes, nationalities, abilities, and orientations
are created equal, and remain so, all the days of their lives…
We needed this truth in 1776
We need it today…
And keep saying it, cause we’ll still need it tomorrow.