Hi, this is weird. Twenty years ago, I used to sit in the second to last row of the balcony so being here is unexpected. It’s quite humbling in fact.
We’ve been on something of an adventure these past few weeks. We packed all of our belongings up on the moving truck about a month ago and we won’t see it all until mid-September when we move into our permanent place. For now, we’re renting in Durham.
But that meant if we didn’t set it aside in time – the packers and movers boxed it up and it’s in storage in Virginia somewhere. As you can see, I remembered to set my clergy robe aside but I forgot the stoles.
I may also have on a black belt I borrowed from my Dad. But we are here and in spite of wardrobe deficiencies we are thrilled to finally meet you.
So, it’s the first Sunday in a new Church – new Pulpit – new microphones – one of them crazy, tri-fold bulletins. Hardly anybody knows who you are. If they do remember you it will be as that long-haired 19 years old who looked like he just stepped off the set of Dazed and Confused.
I caught a glimpse of that guy in one of those old musical photos hanging in the hallway….so my first act as pastor will be to remove all photos from the late 90s.
The question that dogs your first Sunday in a new Church is “What text do you preach on?”
I was so happy when Nancy and Kathleen asked if the Vacation Bible School children could sing on our first Sunday – “This is great – I’ll just preach on the Scripture they’re singing.”
But the more I sat with this text, the more I realized how providential a choice it was.
So, the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, beginning with verse 28.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus answered, “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.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
After that, no one dared to ask him any question.
This is the word of the Lord
THANKS, BE TO GOD
So, we’re catching Jesus in the middle of an intense and very public inquisition. Before our reading, some Pharisees step to Jesus and ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. Yeah, that’s a trap – no good can come from asking questions about taxes.
Then come some Sadducees who want to get him all tongue-tied when it comes to who will be married to who in the resurrection. That’s also a trick question.
They’re coming at him from the left – parry, dodge, cover…then they come at him from the right, he’s against the ropes. They’re pummeling him from every direction – it’s a first-century blood sport if ever there was one. I mean if you ask me it feels almost like a Pastor Nominating Committee. And y’all compared to your PNC, them Pharisees were a walk in the park.
Bill Whisenant lulls you in with all that southern charm, but only so Mary Ellen Olsen can ambush me with a story about her son who – 20 years ago while technically under my care may or may not have ridden a golf cart around Camp Seafarer in the middle of the night while I snoozed away.
Scott Singleton feverishly wrote down all of our answers like a court-room reporter, while Karen Vandersea employed her fluency in Spanish doubtlessly asking our Colombian Au Pair, Diana, for the real dirt on us.
And Patty behind all of that effervescence lies a ruthless interrogator…must be what they teach them across the street in the admissions office.
Of course, this already formidable PNC lawyered up with Carolyn Karpinos…and if that wasn’t enough to make you sweat, they bring former POLICE CHIEF Brian Curran along to make us really squirm on the hook.
And Hank dear Hank don’t let that Waters last name fool you nobody rakes you over the burning coals like Hank.
Even the youth rep. Eleanor got some licks in all the way from the Bahamas.
Meg and I were a couple of rag dolls by the end of that day-long interview.
All right I may have exaggerated that just a tad, but here is what you can trust there is good news to be found in this story good, Gospel news.
Because where we pick up the story today is with a scribe who happens by as Jesus deftly maneuvers out of all their traps, answering all of their trick questions with wisdom and grace.
And this scribe unlike all the others he has an honest-to-goodness question for Jesus no tricks, no traps. It’s a simple question: “Which of the commandments is greatest of all?”
Of the 613 rules that shape a good life which is the most important of all?
It’s a seemingly simple question –
And it’s not altogether different from a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.
Now that I’m here in this Church in this pulpit at this moment in time –
What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?
Because sometimes that’s not altogether clear.
Allow me to pull aside the curtain and give you a peek at the kinds of answers that run through my head.
It’s a College town steeped in academia, so maybe I should lock myself in the office and read more books. I mean, I had better at least sound smart.
But that doesn’t sound right.
Ministry isn’t about sounding smart.
It’s about caring for real live people.
So maybe I should focus on getting to know all of the members of the Church more personally sitting down over coffee or punch on the porch and doing that weird Pastor Jedi trick they teach us in seminary you know, the one where we magically get you talking about the deepest, most personal parts of your lives. That kind of aggressive intimacy will show you that I care.
But we’re also literally right across the street from the University, so maybe what I should do is spend time getting to know students who aren’t members of the Church – it’s such a pivotal moment in their lives – so full of questions and eager to challenge everything they’ve ever known. Maybe that is the most important thing I could do?
Or maybe folks just want me to fly my Tarheel freak flag maybe all I need to do here is re-trench myself in familiar, inter-collegiate rivalries expunging every trace of royal blue or red from my wardrobe? But I already ate in the home of a Duke professor this week, and my entire family are Wolf-packers, so I already messed that one up with my “shameless bridge-building.”
But then again, maybe a bridge is exactly what we’re supposed to be…proclaiming that in Christ there is no male or female, Carolina or Cameron Crazy, but that we are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I mean no joke, y’all but this week we called a Chapel Hill Pediatric practice to get our daughters set up with a doctor and they asked us who we are insured by we said Blue Cross Blue Shield and the person asked: “Which group?” We said The Presbyterian Church group and she said, “Oh good, we take almost every group but not if you’re employed by Duke!”
Wooooooowwwww – I didn’t know the divisions ran THAT deep. But maybe school athletic rivalries are the least of our concerns maybe it’s really about the seemingly impossible divisions in our nation where political discourse has devolved into name-calling; where a healthy reckoning with white privilege must co-exist with a deplorable rise in racist, white nationalism; and all the while children are living in cages on the border.
Maybe what the Church needs to do in this moment is to be the place where differences meet – a civil community where reconciliation and honest conversation are possible. But of course all our good intentions amount to a hill of beans if we don’t secure the Church’s future so maybe the most important thing right now is Stewardship? The interim period is never a robust season of giving. Besides – calling Co-pastors means that you’re adding two staff members at the very same time, which is not cheap. So, we better get cracking on a Stewardship campaign that communicates a compelling vision for the Church.
Speaking of communication, maybe I should devote myself to being the most email-responsive pastor that ever was – a quivering mass of online availability one who will spend 30 minutes crafting a delicate, yet theologically informed, response to every electronic communication I receive yeah, don’t hold your breath on that one.
But maybe breathing deep breathing is precisely what we need most of all slow breath in and out a life of contemplative prayer, seeking the quiet center in all of this madness.
What should I do? What should we do?
Those are just a few places the mind runs to…
Can you relate to that at all?
But I told you that there is good, Gospel news in this text. What I’m realizing is that its none of that. And it’s all of that at the same time. As of this summer, I have been a Minister of Word and Sacrament for 12 years. On that June afternoon a dozen years ago when I was ordained, a certain preacher said to me and to the Church that the greatest temptation in ministry is to strive to be successful; to be a successful pastor at a successful Church.
But being successful is not our calling.
Our calling is to be faithful.
Not to ourselves, or one another;
Not to the changing winds of the culture;
Not even to the Church itself.
Our calling is to be faithful to God.
That’s what the Rev. Robert E. Dunham told me 12 years ago.
So, what should I do? What should we do?
Way more than 12 years ago – a lawyer asked Jesus that very same question.
What should I do? Of all the 613 commandments, which is the greatest of all? Which one should I put at the top of my list?
Jesus listened to this question that was really not simple at all –
But he did give a very simple answer in reply.
He gave a simple answer that cuts to the heart of what it is to be Christian.
He gave a simple answer that I pray will guide all of us in ministry here at 209 E. Franklin St. and beyond.
It was memorable, catchy even…almost song-like:
You shall love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your heart
You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, and mind.
You shall love your neighbor, as you love yourself.
You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul and mind.