For months, we’ve been having conversations: talking with friends, families and strangers. We’ve done phone banking and door knocking. We’ve raised dollars and prayers. Now, the time has come. In two days, voters will make weighty decisions that will impact our lives and our state. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling just a wee bit anxious.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, too, is mired in politics. After he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the religious authorities engaged him in relentless debate, throwing one thorny question after another at him, questions designed to cause political damage no matter which way he answered them. “By what authority are you doing these things?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” “A woman is widowed seven times, in the resurrection whose wife will she be?” Heather Carlson puts it this way: “Convinced that he is wrong, [the religious leaders] seek the ammunition they need to crucify him – metaphorically and literally.” [Heather Carlson, First Things First, Ekklesia Project http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2012/10/first things-first/]
But then, in the context of all this divisive, soul-battering rhetoric, a fresh voice spoke. “One of the scribes” (that is one from the camp of Jesus’ opponents) “came near and heard them disputing with each another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’” It was a genuine question, the question of someone seeking respectful dialogue across lines of difference. Rather than luring Jesus into another trap, the scribe invited him to articulate the vision and values close to his heart.
And Jesus responded in kind: directly, without any zingers. He quoted the central verse of their shared tradition, found in Deuteronomy: words that Jews are supposed to learn by heart, recite to their children, bind symbolically in boxes on their hands, write on the doorposts of their homes. ‘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.’ Then Jesus spliced this commandment together with another verse from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ One commentator remarks: “Jesus’ teaching was not some new, revolutionary notion but a call to return to the core of faith.” (How to Vote Like a Christian. Eric D. Barreto http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-mark-12-28-34)
Big things, core matters of faith, are at stake as we prepare to go to the polls and vote. Marriage. Voting rights. The economy. Foreign policy. And so much more that we’ve heard little about in all the debates and ads and stump speeches: for example, the challenges of climate change, whose impact we are experiencing so immediately in storms like Sandy. or the need for justice for the poor (not just the middle class), through structural changes like a living wage. Campaign seasons make it abundantly clear that we as voters, along with our human leaders, are flawed, that our political process is imperfect at best. How can we live faithfully, doing our best to love God and neighbor, in the midst of such human frailty?
On this All Saints Day, let us look to those who guide us with the wisdom of their lives. A few months ago I learned the real story of Rosa Parks. Growing up I heard that Parks was a poor black seamstress who just got tired one day after work. So she sat down in the front of the bus and refused to move. Paul Loeb tells a different tale. He writes: ”Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACP chapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center … In short, Rosa Parks didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She didn’t single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but she was part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success was far from certain… [The] conventional portrayal [of Parks] suggests that social activists come out of nowhere, to suddenly take dramatic stands. It implies that we act with the greatest impact when we act alone, at least initially. And that change occurs instantly, as opposed to building on a series of often-invisible actions….
Parks’ real story…begins with seemingly modest steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another, helping build the community that in turn supported her path. Had she and others given up after her tenth or eleventh year of commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery. Parks also reminds us that even in a seemingly losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who may then go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa Parks’ husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting, the initial step on a path that brought her to that fateful day on the bus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks involved? And why did that person take the trouble to do so?… The links in any chain of influence are too numerous, too complex to trace. But being aware that such chains exist, that we can choose to join them, and that lasting change doesn’t occur in their absence, is one of the primary ways to sustain hope, especially when our actions seem too insignificant to amount to anything.” (Paul Rogat Loeb, The Real Rosa Parks, http://www.commondreams.org/views05/1031-32.htm)
Who are your saints? Who has inspired you? Who has shown you what it means to love God and neighbor? We rightly find inspiration in honoring heroes, Saints with a capital “S”. But let us also honor our saints with a small “s”, ordinary people who are part of that amazing chain of influence, that great cloud of witnesses. Let us remember that we share this journey with a vast company of faithful people– those who have gone before us, those who will come after us, those who walk beside us now. These companions remind us that we too, most likely in small scale, ordinary, everyday ways, are called and equipped to be saints, to bear witness to the love that is at the core of our faith.
When Jesus linked love of God with love of neighbor so explicitly, he created a paradox. Loving our neighbors requires agency and intentionality on our part. And yet, loving God is an act of surrender; it means trusting God with all our being: heart, soul, mind and strength. In surrendering to God, we find the capacity to love our neighbors. In actively working to show compassion and create justice, we in turn learn to love God.
The conversation between Jesus and the scribe embodies an alternative path of wisdom in the face of the destructive, divisive politics of their day. The scribe, answering Jesus, says: “You are right, teacher… This (love of God and neighbor) is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Given that in those days, offerings and sacrifices defined religious practice, the scribe’s response is quite amazing. It shows his willingness to transcend the entrenched, partisan positions in order to make space for genuine encounter, real change. “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”
Jesus, who was about to be literally torn apart by his political opponents, trusted–against all evidence– that the kin-dom, a new way of being together as humans, as an earth community, would emerge. He surrendered to God’s love, which is stronger than any force of alienation, which is able to bring forth life even in death. May the wisdom of Jesus’ way guide us in the days to come. Amen.