by Rev. Ellen Jennings
Does anyone know how many commandments there are in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament?
613! Yes, 613 mitzvot, or commandments.
Which is important to know if we really want to understand the power of Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is asked by one of these teachers of the law, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” And Jesus, who, as a young Jewish man of that era, most definitely knew there were 613 of them, didn’t pause or blink an eye. Instead, he responded:
The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ This, of course, is the Shema (which means, “listen”) from the Book of Deuteronomy.
And then Jesus said, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” This is based on the hospitality code found in the Book of Leviticus.
So when asked about the most important commandment, Jesus immediately pulls two universals from the 613 possible answers. One has to do with loving or committing ones life to God. The other has to do with opening ones heart to neighbor. And please note, by “neighbor,” Jesus did not mean next door neighbor. Jesus meant any other human being, with an emphasis on outcasts and foreigners and strangers. For the Greek word used throughout the New Testament to talk about Jesus’s welcome and is philoxenia, or “love of stranger.”
So let’s not mince words. Jesus’s focus was most definitely not on who should sleep with whom, or whether we should eat shellfish, or how to wear our hair. Jesus’ focus, over and over again, was on welcome, on hospitality, on justice, on love, on providing food and drink and clothing and comfort to those who need it—whether we know them or not.
And he didn’t just talk about it. He lived it. For instance, Jesus ate with everyone—and in the ancient near east, this just wasn’t done. But Jesus ate with all manner of people defined as “sinners” by the religious authorities, or scribes, of his day. Everyone was welcome at the table.
And that’s what today’s worship service is all about—welcome; a radical welcome, an extravagant hospitality that embraces all people, now matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. For that’s what Jesus was about—welcoming the stranger, embracing the outcast, celebrating the return of whatever lost sheep has been found.
And the good news is that this is what we’re about, too—welcome. It’s written in our mission statement, “to nurture love of God and love of neighbor in the world.” It was present in our decision to become an Open and Affirming congregation, which welcomes all people, irrespective of sexual orientation or identity (or race, or class, or age, or gender or ability!). It’s made manifest every time we reach out to others and open our door. And I can tell you now, on the eve of my first anniversary as your pastor, it was an essential part of what called me here to serve.
So today, as we celebrate this welcome, I’m happy to share the pulpit with four other congregation members, including one of our teens, who will talk about why it’s so important to them. Why it’s key for them to be part of an Open and Affirming congregation. And what it means for their lives. I’m grateful for their willingness to speak, and I now offer you their testimonies…
Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts and stories. We are blessed to receive them! I’m going to close with some words from a poem by e.e. cummings. And I ask you to listen closely. Shema.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (i carry your heart).
And you carry mine. We carry each other’s hearts. So I plead—let us carry them gently, kindly, hospitably. For we are all one in Christ and loved by God. And every one of us is welcome at her table.
May it be so. And Amen.