Text: Mark 12:28-34
How is everybody this morning? That’s a rhetorical question, because I have a pretty good idea of how most of you are. If you are anything like me, this has been a hard week. Our church leaders met on Wednesday – we met virtually – and to start with, we each shared briefly how our lives had changed in the past week. We shared stories of having to work from home, of not being able to visit friends, of having to somehow convert the work we do to the online world, of having children at home for the foreseeable future. People are having trouble finding toilet paper and paper towels and Tylenol, as well as other basic groceries. I was going to make pizza but there was no yeast at Hy-Vee. And you can forget about hand sanitizer.
Personally, I have spent most of this past week figuring out how to be a televangelist. It’s always been a dream of mine. It feels like I have had a crash course in technology, and unless they were grading on the curve I am not sure I would get a passing grade. I also know that I am not alone in that. Over the past few days I have had numerous phone calls and emails and messages with colleagues who are in exactly the same situation we are in. One pastor streamed a worship service on Facebook live last Sunday, but because he had his phone turned sideways, the service was sideways on the screen. Well, it’s a learning process.
But others have more difficult issues. I have talked to people who are out of work, or afraid they soon will be. There are students whose plans have been completely thrown up in the air. There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear. And I would say a lot of folks are just kind of in a daze - it all seems so surreal. And of course, there are folks, even here in our community now, who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.
And so we gather together in worship this morning, in this strange, unsettling, and uncertain time, bringing with us these sorts of concerns, looking for a word from the Lord.
We continue our reading through Mark this morning. Following repeated questioning and controversy from various factions and groups, all of which takes place in the temple, one of the scribes came away impressed with Jesus and the way he had handled these questions. And so the scribe asked him, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus replies with a kind of 1a and 1b answer – love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
It all boils down to love, says Jesus. Love is the greatest commandment. And the crowd couldn’t disagree. It’s pretty straightforward: Love God, love others, love yourself. It’s simple.
The problem is that while this is simple, it is certainly not easy. The problem is in the doing. Love involves risk and sacrifice and commitment. It can be just plain inconvenient.
But you know, there is no time better than right now - in the midst of this unsettling time - to practice love for our neighbor. There are needs all around us, which means that there are opportunities all around us.
Most of us are staying home. Some are still going to work, some have to go to work, but are avoiding people as best we can. We may go to the grocery store, but that is about it. What this means is that folks are feeling disconnected – and this is after only a week of this. People are feeling alone and isolated. And we are all anxious. What a perfect time to love our neighbors.
A pastor friend in Minneapolis told a story about his childhood in West Virginia. He and his dad were driving through town and passed Old Man Hulbert’s house. Old Man Hulbert was out in the front yard, and when he saw Travis and his dad approaching, he started waving. Travis and his dad waved back. They drove in front of his house and he was still waving. They passed his house, and he was still waving. And then, they looked back in the rear-view mirror, and saw that Old Man Hulbert was out in the street, waving at them.
Travis’ dad though something must be wrong, like he was flagging them down. So he hit slammed the brakes, put the truck in reverse, gunned it, and went back to Old Man Hulbert’s house. He rolled down the window. “Is everything Ok? Do you need some help?” And Old Man Hulbert said, “Oh, I’m fine. I was just giving you a Big Howdy.”
This is a time for giving Big Howdys. This is a time for friendliness. This is a time for treating one another with compassion and patience. This is a time to love our neighbors.
So when you make your foray to the grocery store, keep a safe distance as much as possible but put on a smile. Treat others with kindness. Be understanding with employees who are as frustrated with empty shelves as you are, and who did not sign up for working in a crisis like this. You might call your neighbors who have a little trouble getting out even in normal times and ask if you can get something for them. And for goodness sakes, leave some toilet paper for the next guy.
Think about health care workers and garbage collectors and police and firefighters and restaurant workers and all of those who are working with the public, some working extremely long hours just now and probably feeling anxiety. When you see them, express your appreciation. Find ways to love these neighbors.
We are not meeting in person today. We would much rather be together physically. But we are choosing to do this - not simply because the authorities have asked us not to meet in groups of more than 10, but even more than that because this is what the moment calls for. This is a way of practicing love for our neighbors. A way to help protect our neighbors.
There are two images from the past week that I am thinking about. One is of Pope Francis. There is a photograph of the back of Pope Francis’ head, his hand waving a prayer of blessing over the large, empty St. Peter’s Square. Normally tens of thousands of people would be there for his weekly message and blessing, but the place was completely empty. He is blessing the air. The message was live-streamed, and the Pope was at the same time speaking to no one and everyone.
The second image is from a beach in Florida, filled with students on spring break. Social distancing is obviously not happening. While St. Peter’s Square was completely empty, the beach is just packed. One student was quoted as telling Reuters news service, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying...”
Now, I don’t want to pick on this poor kid on spring break. It’s not that he didn’t care about how his actions may have affected others – I think it is more a case of not even considering that actions might affect others. He was focused on his own life and his own enjoyment. And that can be true whatever our age.
Loving our neighbors means looking out for them and considering how our actions affect all of our neighbors, neighbors both near and far. There is a hymn from Ghana that we occasionally sing and were going to sing today before plans changed. Jesu, Jesu. The chorus goes: Jesu, Jesus, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.
On Wednesday evenings we have been discussing the book, The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers told about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news. His mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In times of trouble, look for the helpers.
God’s call to each of us this morning is to be a helper. We can all find ways to be a helper. We can all find ways to love our neighbor. We can all find ways to practice compassion.
“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Jesus, this is the heart of Christian faith. Love for God and love for neighbor. And there is no better time to love our neighbor, no better time to be a helper, than right now. Amen.