Rev. Rebecca Heilman
(Mark 12: 28-34)
Have you ever heard of the name, Harriet Jacobs? Probably not. I had not either. She’s a name we should learn, we should know, and we should hold space for on our bookshelves. She composed the first African American slave narrative in 1861, her own story. She was enslaved for most of her life and lived a harsh adult existence in chains and under a man who abused her relentlessly. Early on, as a child, she expressed in her book, a hope of a future, of freedom from her enslavement. A promise made to her mother that Harriet would be freed upon the death of her slaveholder. But that promise was broken. Instead of freedom, she was passed on to another slaveholder. Jacobs writes about this moment in her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “So vanished [my] hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Words: love thy neighbor as thyself…and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Jacobs continues, “but I was her slave, and I supposed she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong [of hers].” Harriet Jacobs had a better theology and understanding of our text today, than obviously the slaveholders close to her. She continues in her book to describe the “bitterness” towards this “act of injustice,” sharing that “surely ‘slaves should be treated honestly and justly by their” holders.
For whatever reason, people across the ages have struggled to define neighbor and define love. We have fought wars over it. Even in our text today, leading up to this discussion between a Jewish Scribe and Jesus, several discussions, possibly leaning toward arguments have already happened among the leaders of the synagogue and Jesus around laws that should be followed. This was not unusual during that time. It was common for first century Jews to discuss and debate the laws they practiced. There were over 600 laws and so, naturally debates would arise on how to practice those laws and which is the first, or what they mean here, the greatest, the most important. And so the question “which is the greatest commandment?” is asked to Jesus by a Scribe jumping into the ongoing debate, truly curious about Jesus’s response. And as we see in Mark’s Gospel, it’s asked not so much as a test of Jesus’ sainthood, but as if he already carries the social capital as a rabbi, a teacher and a respected theologian in the community. Jesus’s answer in Mark’s story is full of biblical and Jewish affirmations. Jesus shares Deuteronomy 6:4 with the group, quoting the Shema itself, “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 Jewish leaders around him knew these words well. They more than likely spoke them twice a day. These words, the Shema, meaning “hear,” the first word of the commandment, is the “core statement of Israel’s faith and ethics, and still an integral part of the synagogue liturgy” and Jewish life today. And so for Jesus to state this as the greatest, most important commandment comes as no surprise to the leaders. However, Jesus does not stop here. He continues by directly stating Leviticus 19:18 “The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is where Jesus might have thrown those around him for a loop. It wasn’t so called “radical” to name these two commandments as important laws to follow. The surprise or “radical notion” is the joining of the command to love the neighbor with the Shema, to love God. Jesus is saying that the two are an inseparable unity. As Eugene Boring writes, “Though they remain two commands, they are inseparable: love of God cannot exist without love for all fellow human beings as its content. Love of humanity cannot exist without love of God as its basis.” And even more so, while Jesus and those around him are using the language of “first” and “second,” these commands are not placed in any sort of order or one placed over the other. Absolutely not. They belong in the same order. The commands belong together. They are intertwined, as if woven into a strong rope. You can’t have one command without the other. Love of God and love of neighbor belong together and transcends all other commandments. Love is above everything else. And it’s more than just a feeling. It’s beyond a commitment. It’s greater than making a choice about how we treat each other. In this passage, in God’s understanding of love, love is supposed to take up all that we are. From our head to the tips of our toes – in our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind. Love is our inner depth, our deepest calling, a true expression of God in our lives and an embodiment of calling towards others. Love is more than an action, it’s an intention. It’s more than a simple, over used emotion, it takes tender care, time to nurture, intentional growth. What Jesus is saying here to the first century Jews and carries beautifully into our 21st century ears, loving God means to love what God loves, which means all people, the totality of people. It’s an abundant love, a love for the entire world and all who live in it.
Peter Wohlleben writes about abundance in his book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate. He argues that trees are social beings. That they work together as a community to survive. The strongest help the weak and the weak have a role to help the strong. Every tree is valuable to the ecosystem and in the community of trees. They communicate through their roots, scents in the air, and the levels of sugar content in their leaves. Wohlleben writes, “The rate of photosynthesis is the same for all the trees. The trees, it seems, are equalizing differences between the strong and the weak. Whether they are thick or thin, all members of the same species are using light to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf (all happening through the unseen root system). Whoever has an abundance of sugar, hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” He continues, “Thanks to the underground network, [neighboring trees] took over the disrupted task of provisioning the roots and thus made it possible for their buddies to survive.” There’s more than enough for each tree, more than enough to go around.
When we love God and love our neighbor we are filled with an abundance of love. A love pouring out of us that we can’t help but share with others. Just like the trees, there’s more than enough for each person, more than enough to go around. If anything, through everything, and I’ve only known you a year, there is an abundance of love in this congregation that makes up all that we are and is waiting to be released into this neighborhood, city, and world.
What would it mean for Trinity to embody a commandment of love so deeply woven within our belief system and love whom God loves? What would it mean to step out of our comfort zone and out of these walls to embrace a world so foreign from our own, recognizing the gifts and image of God in the community
and neighbors as well? What would it mean to do more than give the necessities but also learn the depth of the neighbor? Their story, their mistakes, their joys, their love. What would it mean to sit alongside someone in deep pain and be present with them through more than just that moment, but through the entirety of their journey? What would it mean to live in the present and explore possibilities right in front of us, fully embracing that love is leading us forward, not the pro and con list? What would it look like to speak of our love for God with each other? Would you be willing to let love take over, just for a second, just enough to let God settle into our heart, soul, and mind, unafraid of what might happen? Enough to do something that might be different from what we know or even risky to how things have been done in the past? We are more than enough and just like the trees, when one person is lacking in love, we have plenty to share.
Jesus took a risk in the synagogue that day, expressing his different theological beliefs amongst leaders in the community who wanted to arrest him. He knew this risk and still engaged in those difficult conversations. And in the end, when Jesus allowed love to lead him forward in his answers, instead of an argument with yet another scribe, he found commonality, a sameness, an inseparable unity of love. Jesus teaches through words and actions in our scripture this morning that when love of God and love of neighbor is at the center of all that we do, growth and intentionality in relationships has no other choice, but to occur.
Let me finish Harriet Jacob’s story. She eventually found freedom and when she did, she devoted herself to relief efforts for former slaves and refugees of the war. She founded a school in Alexandria, VA, where she and a friend taught nearly 75 other former slaves. She returned down south to the town she was enslaved in and continued to promote welfare and security for freedmen and women. Love of God and her understanding of God, as well as love of neighbor was at the center of all her efforts. In a letter to a friend, she writes, “I am sitting under the old roof 12 feet from the spot where I suffered all the cursing weight of slavery… Those I loved, of their hard struggle in life – their unfaltering love and devotion toward myself and children. I love to sit here and think of them. They have made the few sunny spots in that dark, sacred to me.”
“Which commandment is the first of all?” we might ask, Jesus answers, “‘Hear: 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.’ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
 Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 546.
 Emerson B Powery, “Under the Gaze of the Empire: Who Is My Neighbor?” Interpretation 62 (2): 134–44, 2008, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso,ip&db=lsdah&AN=ATLA0001650952&site=eds-live.
 Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, (Louisville: The New Testament Library, 2006), 344.
 Ibid, 345.
 Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate, (Munich: Ludwig Verlag, 2015), 16.
 Someone Lived Here Podcast, May 4, 2020, https://someonelivedhere.com/at-the-corner-of-king-and-broad-street/.