Texts: Mark 12:28-34, Galatians 6:7-10
The powers that be had it in for Jesus. They continued to ask him questions, intending to trap him. Is it lawful to divorce? Should we pay taxes to Caesar? By whose authority did he do these things? They gave him grief for healing on the Sabbath – as they saw it, he was breaking the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. The questions and criticisms went on and on. And then they came up with this wild question for him: Let’s say a woman marries a certain man and her husband dies. Then his brother marries her, and he dies. And on and on until seven brothers have all married this woman, and all of them have died. The question is: who will she be married to in heaven?
It is a contrived question, of course, and it was asked by the Saducees – who did not believe in resurrection. In their mind this question would reveal how silly the whole idea of resurrection was. But Jesus handles it very well. It is a pointless question to ask because the life to come will not be like this life, Jesus says, and God is God of the living, not the dead. But simply asking this question set off heated arguments between the Pharisees, who believed in resurrection, and the Saducees, who did not.
An onlooker – a scribe, someone well versed in the law – saw that Jesus had handled his critics and hecklers and opponents with aplomb – that he had answered well. This is interesting because in Mark, the scribes, maybe even more than the Pharisees, are the ones who really want to bring Jesus down. But this scribe, seeing that Jesus knows a thing or two, asks a sincere question – a question that an expert in the law might be especially interested in. What do you say is the greatest commandment?
Jesus does not evade the question, as we see happen so often. He gets right to it. “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.’”
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If you had to boil Christian discipleship down to its most basic level – if you had to describe Christian life in a nutshell – this is it. Love God and love your neighbor.
But here is the thing: it is not hard to find Christians, folks who claim to be following Jesus, who seem to find all kinds of ways to not love their neighbor, and justify it by saying that their actions are a part of their obedience to God. Just this week we have seen the spectacle of a government official justifying the forced separation of children from their parents who have come to this country seeking asylum by turning to scripture. It is not the first time that someone has blamed unloving, uncaring, horrific attitudes and actions on God.
Then, as now, we can try to be selective about whom we have to be compassionate toward – about which neighbors we will choose to love. This was actually a real live question in Jesus’ day. First-century Judaism had boundaries with specific rules about how Jews should treat Gentiles and Samaritans, how men should relate to women, how priests should relate to everyday Israelites, and so on. These rules were considered vital to social order and not just socially appropriate, but a religious duty. When it came to loving your neighbor, you needed to be a little discriminating.
Which raised the question, “Who actually counts as my neighbor?” This question led to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus turned the question around and asked, “Who acted as a neighbor to the person in need?”
Loving God, loving your neighbor. This is the bottom line of following Jesus. As we look at our history as a church, one of the themes that emerges is that this is a church that has expressed love for neighbor, that has valued “doing good,” as our text from Galatians puts it.
Last Sunday, we remembered our church’s move to Campustown, among other things, and thought about the faith of those who went before us. This morning I want to think about the ways that this church has been a force for good – not just in the lives of members, but in our community and in our world.
The church had always had a heart for others. From the beginning it was one of the most generous churches in the Iowa Baptist Convention - a strong supporter, both in dollars and in participation, of mission work. The church especially saw the campus as its mission field and reached out to students.
Beyond ministry with students, I am impressed with the ways the church has sought to do good – to love our neighbors – in the community and in the world. Last week we played a recording of a prayer offered at the Groundbreaking Service for this church. Part of the prayer was that this church might know no barriers of race, no barriers of nation. In 1949, this was no small thing. At that time and before that time, the church had members who were people of color, but that was not the case in a great many churches.
Shortly after moving to the building here on Lynn Avenue, we hired Elza and Arturs Zvirbulis as our sextons – they were the custodians and caretakers and lived in rooms in the basement. They were from Latvia and were displaced persons from the war – they were refugees. They were placed here by Church World Service, the relief agency of which American Baptists are a member. We are still involved with Church World Service when we walk in the CROP Walk or put together Hygiene Kits on our Day of Service.
Later, in the 1970’s, we sponsored two families from Laos who were refugees. This concern for immigrants and refugees is part of our tradition as a church.
This morning I want to tell you about some more of our church’s efforts at doing good over the years. Some of you haven’t heard this before, and some of you know it better than I do. But over the years, First Baptist has made a real mark on the community as we went about loving our neighbor – doing good.
In 1961 the church started the Ames Community Nursery School. This was the first nursery school in Ames. A few years later, after the federal Head Start program started, we became the very first Head Start site in the state of Iowa.
In the early 1960’s the first conversations were held about beginning a retirement community in Ames. Rev. Stan Borden was a key person in those conversations. Eventually, Northcrest Retirement Community was opened in 1966. We have official and historic ties to Northcrest and are glad to have a number of members who live there. Northcrest is part of our legacy of doing good.
Again in the 1960’s, a Jewish Congregation was forming in Ames, but had no place to meet. We offered our lounge and they met here on Friday nights for several years. A few years ago, the Jewish congregation celebrated their 50th Anniversary and recognized First Baptist for our assistance in getting started. Not every Baptist church has had a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah party held in its Fellowship Hall, but we have.
In the early 1970’s a group of young radicals – people like Jenna McCarley and Johnnie Hammond, along with Bill Belli and others had this this idea of helping people in the criminal justice system. They started with the idea of doing something to help those coming out of prison but wound up trying to help keep people from getting there in the first place. It was called the Committee on Criminal Justice, and later became the Center for Creative Justice. Either way, it’s CCJ. It started with a $10,000 grant from American Baptist Churches. Unlike every other county in Iowa, and most every other county in the US, lower level criminal offenders in Story County can receive probation through a non-profit entity – CCJ. These are people who otherwise would not have any supervision. They meet with their Parole Officer, they may be required to take a class, they work on making good choices and getting their lives together. It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy, but CCJ has made a real difference in the lives of untold number of people in our community and beyond – and those people have gone on to be productive members of society. It helps everybody. This is part of our legacy of doing good.
In more recent years, we have had a part in starting Ames Ecumenical Housing, which provides housing for low-income seniors in our community. We were a part of starting Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance. If you need help with rent or paying your utility bill, instead of going around to every church in town trying to cobble together the resources, a person simply goes to Good Neighbor, which represents many of the churches in the community working together. And the name – Good Neighbor – is no accident. This is a way of living out Jesus’ call to love our neighbor.
I could go on about our work with Habitat for Humanity, or about a group who meets each month to knit prayer shawls and gives them to people who could use them as a symbol of our care and prayers, or about individuals from our church who volunteer in all kinds of ways, doing good and caring for neighbors. Or about students and others who give up their spring break to go and build a ramp for a woman in a wheelchair in Tennessee or go and build a fence around a playground for kids in Kansas City, or who go to Oklahoma and work at a children’s home for Native children.
I could go on and on, but it might start to sound kind of braggy and self-congratulating. And I don’t want it to sound that way at all. Because we have not always done so well. We have had times in the life of our church in which we did not excel at doing good and loving our neighbor. There have been those times when it was a lot easier to give a few dollars than to get personally involved. And to be fair, one congregation can’t do everything. One person can’t do everything. We have to make choices, and sometimes they are not the best choices.
In the 1960’s a motion was made at a deacon’s meeting to have women begin serve communion. I’m not sure if women were in that meeting, as at one time had deacons and deaconesses, which eventually all came to be called deacons. At any rate, there was this motion – and it died for lack of a second. I imagine there was some tension in the room. It was not our proudest moment. A few years later, we decided differently, but we have had more than a few of those times when we did not get it right.
So we are far from perfect. But the big picture is that we have this great legacy of doing good. The problem is, life is a long haul, and there is a choice to be made every single day. Will I love my neighbor today?
It can be a grind sometimes. People talk about compassion fatigue, and it is real. How do we, as followers of Jesus, continue what can be the hard work of loving our neighbor and doing good?
I heard a powerful story the other day that is appropriate for us on Father’s Day. Daniel Grossman is an ER doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. A year ago, he was a terrible accident on a mountain bike that left him paralyzed from his mid-abdomen down. Today, he is back at work, although his life has changed drastically. A lot of what he now does is physically difficult and draining – he has had to learn to do things in new ways. Many patients are shocked to see this man in a wheelchair as their doctor. But it has made it easier for patients to open up to him. When he tells them they will be facing a difficult road, they know that he has traveled that road himself.
His parents, in their 70’s, are both recently retired college professors. They spend a considerable amount of time and effort helping their son. On a recent broadcast of NPR’s Here and Now, Grossman told about the moment that he apologized to his father. His parents had been traveling in Europe. They came to Minnesota to stay with him for six months. He said to his dad that he was sorry, that he knew this is not what his parents had in mind for their retirement.
For the first time, his father teared up and then became almost angry. “Don’t ever apologize to me again,” he said. “This is what I signed up for on the day you were born. This is my role as a father.”
His father cared for him because that is what fathers do. We are called to love our neighbor, and we do so because that is what Christians do.
Paul writes in Galatians, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
How do we do it? How do we not grow weary in doing good? It is a choice that we make very day. And it becomes who we are. We have been blessed by God. God loves us always and no matter what. As we experience that love and share that love in our community, it overflows so that we may love our neighbor. Loving God and loving our neighbor are connected. Loving our neighbor is one of the ways that we love God. As followers of Jesus, loving our neighbor is simply what we do. Amen.