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The Heart of the Law…

October 28, 2015

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Last Sunday afternoon, Denise and I decided to do a bit of hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park after church. We had decided upon a shorter hike at Bear Lake. It was going to be less than a mile one way and we figured it would give us a chance to acclimate a bit before trying more difficult routes. However, as we drove up towards the parking area for Bear Lake, a sign said it was full. So we turned around and went to the overflow parking area to park and catch the shuttle. Just as we pulled in and started to get out of the car, the shuttle drove off. Since we couldn’t find a schedule for the shuttle we looked around and wondered what to do next. We spotted the entrance to a trail. All it said was Lake Bierstadt with an arrow pointing down the trail. There is an easy trail to get to Lake Bierstadt that isn’t steep or rocky. We weren’t on it!

As we hiked up the trail, scrambling over rocks and breathing deeply, each of us was secretly wondering, is this worth it? We did comment about how the trail and the altitude were kicking our butts though. At about the point where I was wondering how much further it was to the Lake, Denise said, this lake had better be worth it! After hiking 1.6 miles (that was how far it was from that point on the trail back to the parking lot), we hoped that we only had a little further to go. As we reached the end of the trail, our breath was once more taken away. This time though, it wasn’t the hiking that did it… the lake was definitely worth the trip! The picture at the top of this blog is one of MANY that we took on the hike.

At the conclusion of part one of the hike (the trip back down was not necessarily easier as I said it would be at the top) we knew why we had come. The beauty and serenity of the place stirred my soul. It was indeed a holy moment. As we walked around the lake a bit, we came across this tree stump that caught our eyes and our hearts.

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It reminded me of a baptismal font… it also reminded me of the loving hand of God cradling and supporting us. I guess you could say that the heart of the hike was encapsulated in these two pictures… these two reminders of the glory of God and of God’s loving care for us.

This brings me to the Scripture readings for this coming Sunday. I had two choices for readings on November 1st. Instead of choosing to preach from the passages associated with All Saints Day, I chose to preach from the passages associated with the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, The readings from Deuteronomy and Mark both concern the Shema which is used in Jewish worship and daily prayer.

At the end of Chapter 12, we come in at the conclusion of a whole series of debates between Jesus and the teachers of the law (Scribes), which included the question “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” One of the scribes who was there listening to the debate quietly, realized that Jesus had won the day. Jesus had answered all of the questions posed by his colleagues well. At that point, he entered the discussion. Did he do it in a final effort to trip Jesus up? Or was it because he truly wanted to hear what Jesus had to say about the law? We don’t know the answer to those questions. What we do know, however, is that he asked Jesus “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28b) So, Jesus, of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, which is the most important.

Perhaps the scribe was surprised when Jesus quoted back to him the Shema Yisrael, a scripture passage that was the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer. This was a prayer that every Jew would have learned as a little child. “Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” Following this verse, the Shema states: “And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 6:6)

How did the scribes and the religious elite commit themselves to doing that? They heard the rest of the passage and did exactly what it said to do. “Repeat them again and again to your children… talk about them… always… tie them to your hands and wear them on your foreheads as a reminder… write them on your doorposts and your gates…” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)

But wait, Jesus, you didn’t finish the Shema! You forgot about all the talk and the symbolic gestures! Oh wait a minute… I get it… instead of ritual activities, you are telling that we need to love God with all that we are. “The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31) You mean it is about far more than ritual observances and gestures? It is about more than sacrifices?

The scribe realized what Jesus spoke was indeed true. He even said that Jesus spoke the truth about the one God and that one is called to love the one God with “all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.” (Mark 12:32-33b) The next statement he made would have been a shocker to the religious establishment who made their living off of the sacrificial system. “This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” (Mark 12:33c)

Wow! This scribe actually understood the question and command from Micah 6:6-8?  Shall we bring offerings of yearling calves? How about thousands of rams? How about ten thousand rivers of oil? Or how about sacrificing our firstborn to pay for our sins? The answer to that question was NO! All of the sacrifices in the world aren’t worth a hoot from an empty soul. The Lord doesn’t want all of those elaborate sacrifices! The Lord wants us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God!

Yes, Mister Scribe, you are not far from the Kingdom of God. You almost get it. You are soooooooo very close! The Scribe who had spent his adult life studying, teaching, and defending the law was so close to the heart of the law! It wasn’t about the rules and regulations and the pious displays any more than our hike up to Lake Bierstadt was about the moans and groans of an out of shape Padre as he struggled up the rocky path.

The heart of the journey up the mountain for me was in the beauty of God’s creation and the wondrous font fashioned out of a tree stump with its reminder that God holds me in the hollow of God’s hand. It was a reminder of my baptism where God claims me and names me. The heart of the law, good scribe, is about love! It is about loving God with a drive and a passion that has no equal. It is about loving your neighbor and yourself with that same lavish and extravagant love that God has for you!

That, dear reader, is the heart of the law… Are you ready to reclaim the heart of the law? Are you ready to love extravagantly and stop being legalistic? The church, if it is to survive, needs to spend less time bashing people over the head with the “law” and spend more time living out the heart of the law. If we did that, perhaps then, people might be interested in what a community of faith can offer. We are not far from the Kingdom of God… are we ready to take the next step?

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