Closer Than You Think

Art by Cerrezo Berredo, 1999
Art by Cerrezo Berredo, 1999

A Sermon for Sunday July 7, 2013, (Communion Sunday) Mark 12:28-34,  The Voice: A New Bible Translation

28 One of the scribes who studied and copied the Hebrew Scriptures overheard this conversation and was impressed by the way Jesus had answered.

Scribe: Tell me, Teacher. What is the most important thing that God commands in the law?

Jesus: 29 The most important commandment is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, and the Eternal One is the only God. 30 You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”[a] 31 The second great commandment is this: “Love others in the same way you love yourself.”[b]There are no commandments more important than these.

Scribe: 32 Teacher, You have spoken the truth. For there is one God and only one God,33 and to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves are more important than any burnt offering or sacrifice we could ever give.

34 Jesus heard that the man had spoken with wisdom.

Jesus: Well said; if you understand that, then the kingdom of God is closer than you think.

Nobody asked Jesus any more questions after that.

Jesus has barely got both his feet inside the temple when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees suddenly approaches him, self-righteous indignation on their faces.

The religious leaders—priests, scribes, temple leaders and elders—are eager to make a fool out of Jesus.  They want to goad him into committing an act of blasphemy and treason through his own words.

So they ask antagonistic questions about Jesus’ authority and teachings. Jesus, never one to fall for the religious leaders’ schemes, engages in clever dialogue by telling stories, reciting scripture and posing questions that are more important than the ones he is being asked.

In short, Jesus is handling himself quite well in the face of great contention.  Jesus’ conversation skills are so remarkable that it makes a significant impression on a scribe—a guy who has been studying and copying the Hebrew scriptures while hanging out with the religious leaders.

Intrigued by Jesus, the scribe asks with sincerity:

“Tell me, Teacher. What is the most important thing that God commands in the law?”

And Jesus replies:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, and the Eternal One is the only God. You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’The second great commandment is this: ‘Love others in the same way you love yourself.’There are no commandments more important than these.”

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

These are the greatest commandments.

These are the most familiar and perhaps the most beloved commandments among Christians.

And they are also the hardest commandments for committed followers of Jesus to practice.

While driving along the interstate, you’ve probably seen one of those “God Speaks” billboards, which feature a black background with a simple message from God in white lettering.  Perhaps you have spotted the one that says: [1]

Love Neighbor Billboard

It’s funny because it’s true.

Many Christians, much less the rest of humanity, don’t take the love neighbor (and God) thing seriously. They tend to hold up a long list of “thou shall not do this”—most of which are taken out of context or misinterpreted—above the greatest commandments to love.

When Christ speaks of love, he is referring to unconditional, steadfast, sacrificial love that is enacted by God throughout the Bible.  This is not a love based on mushy Valentine’s Day cards or the “birds that suddenly appear” every time your secret crush is here.[2]

It’s a love that is committed to another, regardless of how good or bad a person is or how endearing or obnoxious they are behaving. It’s a love that is born out of choice, not out of warm fuzzy feelings. In her book, Loving Our Neighbor, Beth Lindsay Templeton says that to love with all of one’s heart is:

to address the need of being connected with God who is greater than we can dream and who is as close as our own breath.[3]

Similarly, we also choose to love God with all of our soul, all of our laughter, tears, visions, frustrations, anger, courage and fears.[4]

We choose to love God with all of our mind by thinking about the sacred, asking questions, studying, reading, discussing, and discerning how to faithfully follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  [5]

We choose to love God with all of our strength, caring for our body and using our eyes, ears, hands, feet and mouths to serve.[6]

Photo by AYM intern Sarah  Woynicz
Photo by AYM intern Sarah Woynicz

During the recent Middle School Youth Mission Trip with AYM in Asheville, NC, youth and adults from Pleasant Hill, along with three other churches, chose to use all of their heart, soul, mind and strength to love God and neighbor by

–tending community gardens so that hungry families could have fresh fruits and vegetables for supper instead of a bag of chips       from the convenient store

–packing boxes of cleaning supplies and canned goods for working families who don’t make enough money to buy groceries

–playing with children who have developmental disabilities

–building relationships with people who live on the streets by simply handing out popsicles under a large oak tree; playing games like corn hole in a bright green patch of grass and worshipping together in a nearby church.

In four days, more than 50 people served a total of 1,060 hours, an incredible amount of work that would take one person an average of 26.5 weeks to complete. The youth’s service with AYM also helped non-profits in Asheville save $12,051 to be put toward staff pay and resources, and enabled the Manna Food Bank to make more than 36,000 cost-free meals.

Overall, the AYM experience is a reminder that our hearts, souls, minds and strength are designed to love God and neighbor—to show compassion and mercy and to do justice in the world.[7]

However, loving in such a full and holistic way as this to fulfill our purpose and call in life is difficult.

It’s challenging enough to reach out to people we don’t know. It’s even harder to love people with whom we vehemently disagree; people who annoy and anger us; people who belittle our thoughts and feelings. And it can seem downright impossible, particularly for Christian congregations, to love people who are completely different than us in religion, race, culture, sexual orientation, economic status, gender, and political preferences.[8]

A study released in mid-June by the Pew Research Center indicated that about three in 10 Gay Americans say they have felt unwelcome in a house of worship. The vast majority said Islam (84 percent); the Mormon church (83 percent); the Roman Catholic Church (79 percent); and evangelical churches (73 percent) were unfriendly. Jews and non-evangelical Protestants (Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc.) drew a more mixed reaction, with more than 40 percent considering them either unfriendly or neutral about gays and lesbians.[9]

For all the progress society and religion has made in the past few decades, Christian churches are still largely viewed by society as unfriendly, whether it’s attitudes toward others who are different or a host of other reasons.

In a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., said the following words that remain mostly true nearly 50 years later:

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.[10]

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look inside the doors of any mainline Protestant congregation and see a majority of white, middle to upper class faces.

As friendly as we are at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian, a quick scan of the sanctuary on any given Sunday reveals that we could do a lot better in the diversity and welcoming-our-neighbor department, less we become too complacent and sure of ourselves.

Sandwiched in between two growing communities of Asian and Hispanic Americans; nestled in a metropolitan area that is the birthplace of the black civil rights movement, and, located in a county where 14 percent of the population is homeless, the majority of which are children…

Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s congregation is less like one of Baskin Robbins’ 31 affordable flavors and more like an expensive Cold Stone (Creamery) vanilla.  

In no way does this mean we are intolerant of those who are different or that we are “anti” toward a particular race, culture, economic status, sexual orientation, etc. This church is one of the most welcoming, inviting, open, loving, healthy, charitable, multi-cultural and mission-oriented congregations around.

That is true.

And yet, there is a lot of room for improvement—much more to be done to love our neighbors as God loves us.

If any of you are doubtful that is the case, I invite you to ponder these questions for a moment:

How well do you know your neighbors in this church—

the members who have been coming to the other morning service for 3 years or more?

the visitors and newly joined members who have been sitting in the pews for more than a year?

the youth who sit in the last pew on one side of the sanctuary and the seniors who sit in the last pew on the opposite side?

the African and Asian-American families, the racially mixed families, the gay and lesbian families, the refugee families?

the young married couples with and with out kids, the post-college graduates?

the middle-aged singles, the widowed and divorced, and the members who are physically disabled or wheel-chair bound?

How well do you know your neighbors beyond your immediate circle of friends—their names, and where they live and what they do for a living?

How well do you know their joys and sorrows or their accomplishments and failures? Do you know their favorite song or food? Do you know their story?

How well do you know your neighbors in Gwinnett and metro Atlanta that you would be comfortable enough welcoming into the sanctuary—

a homeless person who hadn’t bathed in days and was babbling nonsense?

a strung-out drug addict covered in tattoos and body piercings?

a group of undocumented day laborers that spoke little to no English?

a devoted Muslim family who came to learn about Christianity without being converted?

a gang of inner city youth or teenage prostitutes who had no other place to be than the dangerous streets?

the dour pimple faced clerk at the grocery store or the rude bombastic employee at the car repair shop?

The people in life whom God deems to be an Ace while we see them as a the Two of Clubs?

Would we personally invite any of these neighbors to come to our church to worship much less sit with them in the pew or have a meaningful conversation with them?

Would Pleasant Hill Presbyterian be so bold? Would any church?

I don’t know. I would hope so. But I truly don’t know.

Every congregation and Jesus follower has to determine those answers for themselves.

What I do know, what I feel absolute certain about is that Jesus would welcome and love each and every neighbor I just mentioned.

Radio Free Babylon, The Original Coffee With Jesus
Radio Free Babylon, The Original Coffee With Jesus

Jesus loved them more than 2,000 years ago. And he still loves them today—the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, the sick, the afflicted, the corrupt, the demon-possessed and so many more.

Jesus looked them in the eye and saw them as beautiful creations made by God. He traveled miles and miles of dusty roads to teach them, to listen to them, to feed them and to heal them.

Jesus even treated his enemies as neighbors. In the midst of the religious dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees, the scribe and Jesus are able to cross the dividing line to speak of a common faith and fully embrace the greatest commandments. When Jesus finishes his answer for the scribe, the student says:

“Teacher, You have spoken the truth. For there is one God and only one God,

and to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and to love our

neighbors as ourselves are more important than any burnt offering or

sacrifice we could ever give.”

Hearing the man’s wisdom, Jesus then replied:

“Well said; if you understand that, then the kingdom of God is closer than you


Margot Starbuck, the author of Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor, reminds us that when we follow those greatest commandments to love God and neighbor, we get more of a glimpse of God’s kingdom:

You model kingdom road-crossing when you invite the most unlikely ones, from church or work or the ‘hood, to come and enjoy your dinner parties and barbecues and holiday celebrations. …You build bridges of friendship when you grab two icy cold chocolate milks at the quick mart and then sit down and share one of them with the woman or man who asks for money at the traffic light near your office. …You actualize the vision of a kingdom in which all the typical stuff that separates people—clothing labels and car makers and street addresses and diplomas and paycheck stubs—is made irrelevant when human bonds are formed between actual breathing people.[11]

Keep in mind that loving God and neighbors better is not about making more announcements about church events or scheduling more fellowship activities or creating more ministries or inventing more ways to increase worship attendance or taking more and more mission trips.

Instead, it’s about what each of us does as individuals during our regular routine to recognize others as the neighbors whom God calls us to love with every fiber of our being.

992381_10151674182132836_849639784_nIf you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. There’s no better place to begin loving God and neighbor than right here at this communion table where the bread is shared and the cup is poured for all.

Those of us who were on the AYM trip discovered this to be true when we worshipped and received communion with the Haywood Street Congregation, a church made up of people who literally cross all barriers of life, many of whom are living in poverty.

There was a man and a woman who volunteered to come forward to hold the bread and the cup at the pastor’s request. By all accounts, neither seemed to be well-off nor an officially ordained church leader. The man was African-American, had long dreadlocks and wore a gray ball cap with a plain T-shirt and blue jeans. The woman was white with frizzy unkempt red hair that was adorned with a bright colored visor. She wore jean shorts and a black T-shirt featuring a photo of Johnny Cash flippin’ a bird. He held the plate of bread and she held the cup of grape juice.

As our group of youth and adults stopped in front of our neighbors to receive the bread and dip it in the cup, they smiled intently as if to convey, “Here, take and eat, this is for you neighbor.”

And in that moment, the kingdom of God felt closer than we thought.



[2] Loving Our Neighbor: A Thoughtful Approach to Helping People in Poverty by Beth Lindsay Templeton, iUniverse Books, 2008.

[3] Ibid, adapted

[4] Ibid, adapted

[5] Ibid, adapted

[6] Ibid, adapted

[7] Inspired by an excerpt from The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus by Mark Labberton, InterVarsity Books, 2010.

[8] Ibid

[9] Study says gays find most U.S. Faiths unfriendly, Presbyterian News Service, June 27, 2013,

[11] Smaller Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor by Margot Starbuck, InterVarsity Press, 2011.

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