Here is a sermon on Mark 12:28-34, the gospel text for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost Year B (Proper 26 B, Ordinary 31B). It includes an illustration from the movie Toy Story 2, showing how Woody the cowboy chose the way of love over the way of self-preservation.
The Heart of Life
A Sermon on Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; Romans 12: 1-2, 9-21; and Mark 12:28-34
It was almost a sport. The legal experts of Jesus’ day hardly enjoyed anything more than debating the interpretation and application of God’s law. For most of those who tried to draw Jesus into debate, it turned into a blood sport, for they were interested in getting the best of him. Indeed, they ultimately wanted to knock him out. “Let’s see how he handles this one,” first one group and then another would say as they attempted to trip Jesus up. In chapter 12 of Mark, for instance, the Pharisees tried to trap him with a question about whether or not it was lawful for God’s people to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Jesus’ answer? Pay to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor, and pay to God the things that belong to God. They were amazed. Chalk one up for Jesus.
Then some Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, hoped to make Jesus stumble with a question about the law of levirate marriage. This law said that if a man died and left a wife but no children, his brother must marry the widow. Then they could have children that would be considered the dead man’s children. Now if there were seven brothers, proposed the Sadducees, and this happened again and again down through all seven brothers with no resulting children, whose wife would the woman be in the resurrection? Jesus replied that there is no marriage in heaven. He then cited one of the Sadducees own favorite scriptures to show that there is a resurrection. Chalk another one up for Jesus!
One scribe, a legal specialist, listened to all this debating with great interest. In contrast to most, this one was rather sympathetic with Jesus. He especially enjoyed it when Jesus got the best of the Sadducees. There was no love lost between scribes and Sadducees. Now this scribe zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Which commandment is the most important, he wanted to know. To live a faithful life, what was the most important thing? An answer to this question would show what Jesus was really about.
We don’t know for sure what this scribe’s motive was. He didn’t seem hostile. Maybe he was genuinely interested in Jesus’ response. Maybe he posed the question just for fun.
But the question of what’s most important is not just for fun when you have big decisions to make, when you’re asking questions like: What are my life’s goals going to be? What job or career should I pursue? Who and when should I marry?
The question of what’s most important is not just for fun when you’re at midlife and reassessing the track you are on. It’s not even a question you ask for fun at the end of life when you look back. With all seriousness you ponder whether you have done what is most important, and are you doing what’s most important now. The question of what’s most important is critical wherever you are on the journey of life.
That question was raised in a touching way in the movie Toy Story 2. Woody, a toy cowboy belonging to a little boy named Andy was kidnapped by a greedy toy collector. Woody had just rescued another toy from being sold at Andy’s mom’s yard sale, and before Woody could get back in the house, this man pounced on him. When Andy’s mom refused to sell Woody, the man stole him.
The thief’s goal was to collect a complete set of all the toys and memorabilia from an old TV series called Woody’s Roundup. Woody, of course, had been the star character. Now that he had Woody, the man planned to sell his collection at a fantastic profit to a toy museum in Japan.
A toy doctor refurbished Woody and made him look brand new. The other toys from the TV show attempted to convince him that it would be a wonderful thing to be together in the toy museum. They would look good forever and live forever—no more wear and tear from children’s play. No more disappointment when the children grew up and forgot you.
When Buzz Lightyear and several of Andy’s other toys arrived to rescue Woody, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go home with them. Buzz and the others exclaimed, “You’re a toy! You are supposed to be loved and enjoyed by children. Sure you’ll be handled roughly and wear out. Sure Andy is going to grow up. But he loves you.”
Now what was most important? Looking good, safe forever in a museum case? Or serving a child who loved him?
Which commandment is most important of all? Jesus answered in the words that Jews have recited daily for millennia: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord alone is God. And 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.’” And barely drawing a breath, Jesus added the words of Leviticus 19:18, “And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
What could be clearer? The most important thing is this: you shall love God with every aspect of yourself, with all your being, with all your body, with all your possessions, with all that you are and all that you have. AND you shall operate with the same concern for your neighbor as you have for yourself. That concern is always to be there. You must always take the good of others into account. You shall love your neighbor even when you’d rather not. We can sum it up in a word: commitment. The number one commitment of our lives is to love God and love neighbor.
It’s so clear, and the scribe heartily agreed. This is much more important than doing all the right things in the worship ritual. It’s so clear. But so hard to stick to. It is so easy to drift away from that central commitment. The world answers the question of what’s most important in so many other ways.
The world’s answers go like this: You shall put yourself first. The purpose of your life is to fulfill and actualize yourself. You shall marry someone that helps you meet your goals. If your spouse doesn’t meet your needs, you shall seek another. You shall have children as a means of fulfilling yourself. You shall achieve big material dreams. You shall make a name for yourself. You shall do what is easiest, least costly, most convenient and most fun. You shall be a consumer. You shall enjoy yourself.
Putting the self at the heart of life is not just a problem for individuals. It’s a problem for churches, as if the answer to the question of what’s most important goes this way: you shall make a name for yourself. You shall ensure your survival. You shall seek big numbers and you shall especially seek financial comfort. You shall find out what people want and give it to them. Thus you shall market your church. If the cross is too much of a downer for people, you shall take it out, lest it offend. I’m not kidding. I’ve read that some churches actually have removed the cross from what we would call the sanctuary to keep the demands of the cross from scaring people away.
What truly is the most important thing? That was a life and death question for Jesus. Because he did love God with all his being, more than he loved his own life, and because he loved all his neighbors, every last one of us, more than he loved his own life, Christ gave himself: all his heart, all his soul, all his mind and all his strength. Out it all flowed in his life, in his death on the cross, and in his resurrection from the dead, all for us. What is most important? Loving God, and loving neighbor. Christ Jesus said it, and he lived it.
And he calls us to live it, individually and together. You shall love the Lord your God with all of your being. You shall love God with all your heart and mind, body and soul. You shall love God and neighbor with all your treasury and with all your possessions and with all your talents and with all your building. The heart of life is loving God and neighbor. The heart of a church’s life is loving God and neighbor.
Easy? No! What’s easy is to get off center. No wonder Deuteronomy 6 declares that the great commandment is to be recited daily, and bound to the body, and fastened to the very doorposts of the household, and discussed again and again among the generations, that Israel might be called back to the heart day after day after day. To this day many Jews literally fasten a copy of these words in a little box called a mezuzah on their doorposts. When they pray they bind little boxes containing the commandments on their foreheads and arms. These are called phylacteries.
We may not use mezuzahs and phylacteries as aids to memory. But a huge aid to memory faces us each time we come in this place. Look at this cross at the front and center. What it stands for is to be at the front and center of our lives. It points in two directions at once: vertically to God, and horizontally to neighbor. You shall love God and neighbor, Jesus said. You shall take up the cross. All other priorities and goals fall in line under the cross.
Woody the toy cowboy finally made his decision. He chose to go back home and fulfill his purpose. He chose the way of love over the way of self-preservation.
What is the goal of life? What is the very heart of life? What is the most important thing of all? 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. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This life is worth the struggle. This life is worth the living.