Sunday, November 29, 2009

God, Remember Me

God Remember Me
(But only the Good Parts!)

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder
Sunday, November 28, 2009

Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 1:26-38

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

Do not remember me for that, Lord. Please remember me for this. Don’t recall my youthful indiscretions, instead, remember me for your goodness sake, for the way in which I have reflected your goodness and love. I have a friend who read this psalm once and remarked, “Would that the sins of our youth were the only sins that were remembered.”

Maybe that is why God chose a youth named Mary to carry forward the promise of God in human form in the person of her son, Jesus.

If we could be the author of our own remembrances in the minds of others, and especially in the mind of God, how would those remembrances look? The psalmist prays to be remembered for the ways that his life was a reflection of the perfect goodness of God. Implicit is his recognition that we cannot be the author of goodness, but that God creates a standard for goodness in the world that we can hope to reveal in our own living.

The sins of our youth, of our middle and old age, the collected memories of things that make us wake in the night, in the middle of the hour of the wolf, these things the psalmist — all of us — hope that God will overlook somehow.

I remember an old college acquaintance — a fraternity brother — that I ran into at a reunion a number of years ago. When I saw him he recognized me and his face turned a bit ashen. He held by then an important judicial position, but he knew I remembered him as an underclassman whose hair was grown to his shoulders and who was very much into the late 1960s experimentation with marijuana. Today he is a silver-haired prominent political figure. I bet he wishes to God every night that people have forgotten the sins of his youth. I don’t judge him today for what went on 40 years ago, but I wonder if he has been relieved of his own self-judging memories. I wonder if any of us have.

Almost any time I have the opportunity to connect with friends from my college fraternity days, there is a comment that I just wait for along the lines of, “Rob, when I remember all our college times, I still for the life of me just can’t believe you are a pastor.” Oh that God, and everyone else, would forget the sins of my youth.

When I was a graduate student, it seemed always to be the case that the people in the classroom or in the coffee conversation at the coffee shop who ranted and raved about this or that fundamentalist were themselves former fundamentalists, trying to outdistance themselves from their own past, and not succeeding well because they protested too much. The ranting was against themselves, chasing at ghosts of the sins of youth.

We may have awards, medals, certificates honoring us for this or that good work, prizes, pictures to recall the good memories we like to bring to mind. But what wakes us in a blur of apprehension the middle of the night are memories we would just as soon forget, anxieties, relationships with people long dead, insoluble problems that we can keep at a distance in our waking hours, but which can creep closer to our consciousness when we sleep, when our guard is down.

Oh it would be good if we could recall only the good things in our lives, and we hope God will do the same. We join the psalmist in his chorus: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.”

Never mind asking God not to remember the sins of our youth, would to God that we could forget them. But we can’t. And so we can turn to them and use them as the teacher they can be for us.

Henri Nouwen once declared that to try to bury our past is to turn our backs on our best teacher. Our past is never finished with us, not fully. Go to a therapist, often one of the first questions that will come along will be, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother...or father.” Some things buried deep within us continue to shape us even if it is no longer in a healthy way, until we can bring them to the surface and decide to live in a new way.

Tony Campolo is a preacher I admire. “He’s a liberal Italian Baptist evangelical, a combination that defies all the odds,” as one of my ministry friends once said.[1] In a sermon he preached at Duke Chapel a few years ago, he told this story.

“I went to Eastern College as an undergraduate,’ he writes, “and I had an English teacher and I came into class late. I had just settled down when the professor, Dr. Ingles, called on me to pray – it’s a church-related college and we do that. He said, ‘Mr. Campolo, would you lead us in prayer?’ And so I started praying. And I said, ‘Good God, we thank you for this day and all Thy blessings to us. I thank you that You love us all. I’m grateful that You love me in spite of the fact that I am so worthless.’” At that, Campolo said Dr. Ingles interrupted him, “’Just a minute, just a minute… Mr. Campolo, you are not worthless. You are so precious that if you were the only person who ever lived, Jesus would have died just for you. That’s how precious you are. The word you should have used was unworthy…’”

One bright day when, as tradition declares, young Mary was reading quietly at her desk, the angel Gabriel came to inform her that she had been chosen by God to bear the Messiah. “How can this be?” wondered Mary.

One way to approach an answer to Mary’s question to the angel — and a good many of the deeper questions of our own lives — is to remember who the story is about. Did you ever think about the fact that the story of our own lives, with all the experiences we have collected over time, that in each and every circumstance including this one as we gather here today, the story is really not about you or me? Our purpose for being, our birth, our lives, our traumas, our memories, all are only secondarily about us. I believe that in this story from the Bible, as in the sweep of the stories of our lives, the story is about God and what God is doing or working through us to do.

In the end, the prayer of the psalm and the story of Mary are not about our remembered sins or angels who visit in the night, they are about God and the purposes of God. The reason we remember Mary’s story so well is her spectacular response. I heard someone ask once, “I wonder how many other stops Gabriel made that day before he found a young girl who would say yes.” We’ll never know if there is an answer to that question, because the Bible is only interested in the question of Mary, and her answer.

Next week we will approach the table of our Lord, the second Sunday in this season called Advent, a season which very much looks ahead and might seem not to be too concerned with what lies in the past. But then we take a good hard look and see that Jesus came to people who were trapped by their past, who could only think of the world in ways they had thought of it before. When we come to the table of grace, we discover that the host we may expect to find at the table is some long dead teacher from the first century, but every now and then, we eat the bread, we drink the cup and we have the insight to see that the Savior who lives is suddenly among us and within us. The supper of the Lord is not about us, it is about the coming reign and rule of Christ. The Savior whose blood was shed is no longer bleeding but lives so that the sins of our youth, middle and old age are not erased but are seen not to matter any more at all.

No wonder Mary was able to say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” By the power of the same God, we can say it too.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Michael Lindvall, in his sermon “In Spite of Ourselves,” Preached at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, 12-8-2005.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opposite the Temple

Opposite the Temple

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 15 , 2009

Mark 13:1-8

When Mark wrote that Jesus, following his foray to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, sat “opposite the Temple” on the mount of Olives, Mark was describing not only what was — and is — literally true. The Mount of Olives was opposite the Temple mount, the one is across a small valley, the Kidron valley, from the other. They are two hillsides facing one another, the Mount of Olives standing actually somewhat higher. In a way it is similar to the fact that, for years, the Presbyterian church I served in Salem stood where the Labor and Industries building stands today in the same sort of relationship to the capitol building: “the Presbyterian church opposite the capitol,” though we might not phrase it that way. Mark wrote these words as a similar description of a location, but also more than that.

Mark was describing what would have been, in a few years, also theologically true. The Temple was destroyed in the first century, never to be rebuilt. The mountain from which Jesus ascended, the Mount of Olives, stood opposite, representing a new truth about the way God could be worshipped. For generations, the people had worshiped God on the holiest site they knew, on the mount where a Temple had stood for generations, three different Temples:

· First the much heralded Temple of Solomon which was destroyed by the Babylonians;

· Then the Temple built in the time after Israel’s exile in Babylon, the Temple of Zerubbabel;

· Finally, in Jesus’ generation, it was a new Temple, which was begun under Herod, 20 years before Jesus’ birth and was not finished until after his crucifixion, made of massive stone blocks, huge stones, some the size of semitrailer trucks. Some of the hewn stones from that Temple form the foundations of the temple mount on which today the Mosque of Omar — the Dome of the Rock — stands, part of those foundations are commonly called the “Wailing Wall.”

The sight of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was and remains one of the most spectacular views of Jerusalem, visited by virtually every tourist to the city, and in Jesus’ day, it offered an unparalleled view of the magnificence of the Temple building, a building which, as Jesus spoke of it with his disciples, was a brand new structure. When they were visiting the city, Jesus had told them that the Temple, built of the massive stones that they could see before them, would be “thrown down.” Later on, they asked, understandably, from the elevated perspective of the Mount of Olives, “when will this be?” I’m sure they also wondered how this could be; anyone looking at those massive stones, that immense structure, might have wondered at Jesus’ words.

The Temple was enormous and opulent, a walk around its perimeter would have been about 2/3 of a mile. Its marble-clad walls were 150 feet high, and each block weighed many tons. Outside there were columns of 40 foot high marble. The outer courts were entered by ten different gates, each of which was covered in silver or gold plate. Records show that two of the doors stood 45 feet high, and the one famously called “Beautiful Gate”[1] in Acts was cast of bronze brought from Corinth in Greece. The eastern face of the Temple and parts of the side walls were plated in gold, which along with the white marble, caused the Temple to glow as if on fire in the rising sun of morning, much as the golden Dome of the Rock does today. But the Temple, unlike today’s much smaller mosque, completely dominated the mount visually, as well as the city around it.

Today we know that it was about 70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when the unimaginable happened and the Roman legions came into an increasingly restive and rebellious Jerusalem to do just what Jesus had said they would do, tearing the Temple down to the extent that what remained amounted to little more than a pile of rocks. Then all Jews were barred from from Israel, from Jerusalem, and from the Temple grounds for about 19 centuries. These things he wanted them to understand as he sat on the little mountain “opposite the temple,” the Mount of Olives so well-known by Christians as a location where there was once a garden in which Jesus was betrayed, where nearby in Bethany there once had been the house of Mary and Martha, the location of some of Jesus’ most profound teaching, and where also there was a hilltop from which the disciples watched the resurrected Christ rise into the heavens. It became, in many ways, a new mount for believers, the old one with its Temple having been cast down without one stone remaining on another for about 2000 years now. The new place, the new mount was ultimately where faces looked toward heaven, opposite the lower hillside where downcast eyes revealed only the ruins of the old Temple.

The Temple had certainly been made of solid earthly stuff, as solid and expensive as could be found, but the deeper foundation which Jesus sought, as with the foundations of our own lives, was the foundation of deep faith. That is why in last week’s reading, anyone who heard Jesus’ comment on a poor widow’s two half pennies placed in the Temple offering box being a gift greater than anyone’s would have caused building committee folks to scratch their heads in wonder. Tiny donations do not build immense, magnificent buildings. But they reveal a deeper foundation than the foundations of buildings, a foundation of deep faith. Humility, service, commitment to the message Jesus brought will outlast columns of marble and doors plated with gold.

There must have been despair in the disciples hearts at the thought of a wrecked Temple, but there was to be a future hope on its way as well.

Bruce Larson once wrote that the neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to see in his church. It is an imitation, but a good one, dispensing spirits instead of the spirit, escape instead of what is really real, but one thing is true of such places as we used to see on the old TV series Cheers: it is a place with a fellowship that is permissive, accepting, and inclusive, where “everybody knows your name.” It is unshockable, democratic, and even confessional, a place where people often tell things to each other that they would never say anywhere else. Such places flourish not because people are alcoholics, though some are, but because we are created by God with a desire to make ourselves known and to know others, to love and be loved. Probably Christ wants his church to be unshockable, democratic, a place where people can come in where “everybody knows their name” and say, “I’m sunk!” “I’m beat!” “I’ve had it!” Alcoholics Anonymous has this desperately desired quality. Churches too often miss it.[2]

The qualities Christ seeks in us are not that we be builders of great temples or great fortunes or great reputations, but that we be builders of great fellowships where the lost the least and the last can come and find in one another the presence of Christ, opposite the Temple, standing with those who cannot stand alone.

Of course our reading begins with the words about the Temple, but continues with words about the last things, the final things, what scholars call “eschatology.” One of my friends once said that the word eschatology sounds like a medical term.[3] “How is your eschatology today?” But it’s not something measured on an blood test or electrocardiogram. Eschatology is talk about last things, final judgment, and it is a topic that always appears in Gospel readings as we approach the season of Advent. The four disciples who approached Jesus after his lesson at the Temple, stood looking with him at the glittering, brand new Temple from the perspective of a hillside a half mile away, and were inspired to ask a question about last things, ultimate things.

Jesus responded with two points.

First, that there would be a multitude of religious pretenders coming their way who will claim to know not only the purpose of the world, but the finer points of God’s timing. That was and still is the case. Jesus said to them and to us, “Many will come in my name ... and they will lead many astray.”

Second, religious pretenders notwithstanding, remember that no matter how solid it appears to be, neither this Temple, nor the good old earth itself is going to last forever. As one preacher put it, Jesus seems to be saying, “You never know, so live alertly, live expectantly, live now.”[4] We all know what it means to live in other ways so that we only see what our lives would have meant had we been paying attention:

· Real life is not living at home and going to high school, real life comes when I get out of high school and go to college or get a job;

· Real life isn’t this starting-level job, real life is when I get that promotion;

· Real life isn’t being single, real life is when I find the right someone and get married;

· Real life is going to start when we have some kids and are a family;

· Real life will be when our two year-old is finally out of diapers and in school;

· Real life is when our kids finally get off to college;

· Real life is when the last tuition payment is made;

· Real life is when I finally get my retirement;

· Real life will be after I get that bypass surgery I need...

Author Annie Dillard put this point in the most concise and telling way I have ever heard. “How we spend our days,” she wrote, “is of course how we spend our lives.”

The “holiday season” — as our culture persists in referring to the coming 4 or 5 weeks from Thanksgiving through Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years — comes at many of us like a freight train on amphetimines. So much to do, shopping, greeting cards to send, parties to organize or attend. There is nothing wrong with all this, it’s just important to remember to stop and realize, as if Jesus stood beside us to say it, that one day none of these things we are attending to so frantically will remain. Not one will remain standing. Don’t go through the motions of these coming days, but live in them. Perhaps, as a friend of mine said, this is the holiday when you may think about living enough in the precious moment God has provided to “tap your spoon on the water glass and look at one dear face or all the dear faces across the cranberry relish and say: ‘I’ve been meaning to say this for so long; I love you, and I thank God for you.’”[5]

I encourage you to do such things in the midst of this passing world you love, that is populated by people and places you love, in this church that we all love so much. And I do this myself as I say now to each of you, I love you, and I thank God for you.

In the name of the Triune God who loves us with such unfettered abandon. Amen.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Acts 3:2, 10.

[2] Edge of Adventure, by Bruce Larson and Keith Miller.

[3] Michael Lindvall, in his sermon “The Real Thing,” preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 11-16-03.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Be an Example

Be an Example

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 8, 2009

Mark 12:38-44

The scripture lesson today is about a poor widow, her last two copper coins and the meaning of giving from the heart. As Jesus said, she gave everything she had.*1 It brings to my mind two stories from more contemporary times. One involves an elderly widow, the other a new widower, both involve women facing the uncertainties of life, though in dramatically different fashion.

The first was a woman named Hetty Green.2 Some of you may know the name, as she was notorious enough in her own day to be remembered by some folks in ours — not that she would have cared whether she were remembered or not. One of Mrs. Green’s biographers wrote that, at her death in 1916, she was simultaneously “the richest and most detested woman in America.”3 Mrs. Green’s fortune first began its accumulation in the seventeenth century, when one of her immigrant ancestors bought a black cow in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1624. As far as anyone knows, that was the family’s first commercial possession, which, by means of farming, ship building, Indian trading, whaling, slave trading, railroad acquisitions, real estate sales, and trade in stocks and bonds, grew, until, by 1908, Hetty Green commanded a family fortune in the neighborhood of $150,000,000. Not a bad neighborhood any time, but that is a sum that should be remembered alongside the fact that the national average individual income in those early twentieth century days was under $500 a year.*

Through the years, Mrs. Green had outlived her mother, father, a wealthy aunt, and her husband, and following the death of each her net worth was increased, but not more than by her own shrewd — more than a few would say ruthless — business dealings. But Mrs. Green’s story goes beyond business and right to the heart of what it means to be given totally to something in which you believe. Hetty Green believed in her inheritance and in her power to increase it. She believed it was the full and complete meaning of her existence. Her life was a fully lived example of her most deeply held belief.*

In her day, Hetty Green was known all over the country as the most notorious of misers. The lengths to which she would go to save even the tiniest sums of money are the stuff of legend — and tragedy. For years she lived with her two children in a dank, virtually unheated couple of rooms in a boarding house in a slum section of Hoboken, New Jersey. Her son was frequently seen in the neighborhood in his several-sizes-too-small clothes, underdressed for cold weather, with papers stuffed in his clothing to retain warmth. Both he and his sister frequently wore socks that were missing not only the toes but the feet. After Mrs. Green read the morning paper, her son was dispatched into the streets to sell it for whatever he could get. Her many attorneys and financial advisors — who often had to sue Mrs. Green to receive their fees — were summoned to the tiny parlor in her apartment to transact business. Because access to soap was apparently an infrequent luxury in her home, other boarding house guests requested seats at dinner across the room from their disagreeable — and apparently disagreeably aromatic — neighbor and her children. When she went out to shop, merchants cringed at the sight of her. As she approached in her ragged clothing, her hands on their foodstuffs could mean real financial loss. She once excused her filthy fingers saying that she had found some “perfectly good nails” in boards in a shed that day and had proceeded to pull them out by hand.*

Much of this could be written off as part of a pattern of eccentricity we are often willing to excuse among the very rich or the very gifted. But her eccentricities were born of her paranoid conviction that if she ever dropped her guard, trusted anyone other than herself with her best interests, they would do her in and snatch her fortune. Hetty Green believed in Hetty Green, and saw to it that she entrusted neither herself nor her fortune to anyone else’s stewardship.*

Even her children grew up knowing the full effects of her belief system in a personal way. Her son was crippled from a childhood accident, and through his early life he re-injured his bad leg several times. Mrs. Green heard from one of her few friends an old wives’ tale that wrapping an injury in tobacco leaves had a curative effect. This she tried without success. When it became apparent even to this pathologically distracted parent that medical care would be required for her son (which of course would cost money ... visits to a physician sometimes cost as much as $1 then), she dressed him and herself in their most ragged clothes, and over a period of time visited free clinics, hoping they would take her to be penniless and not charge for services. Some did, but most of the physicians recognized her and threw them both out. When her son finally received the care of a competent physician — purchased by the boy’s estranged father — the injury had festered for far too long; the physician’s only remaining alternative had become amputation above the knee. Had he seen the boy earlier — years earlier it seems — he declared that the leg could have been saved, even rehabilitated.

In March, 1916, at age 80, Hetty Green declared in a newspaper story, “I’ll live to be a hundred. You can bet on that!” Three months later she was dead. It was one of the few bets she ever lost, though there is no record that she put any money on it. Few mourned, not that it would have bothered her. A Boston newspaper, the Transcript, printed the headline: “SHE, TOO, LEFT HERS BEHIND.”*

Actually, when Hetty Green died, she left behind three things she loved most: her money, and two children whose lives she had ruined. She gave no money to worthy charities, endowed no libraries, established no scholarships, built no churches, supported no universities or hospitals or foundations, received no accolades, was remembered beyond her own generation only by the taxing authorities of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont, each of which claimed, for obvious reasons, that Mrs. Green had been a resident of their state at the time of her death.

We believe life is a gift to be treasured and used in the interests of the One who gives life. We believe that to live fully, we must live in service to the One who first loved us. Though we may not always live it, we believe that giving of ourselves selflessly is among the highest virtues. Hetty Green believed she knew otherwise, believed life was in no way a gift but more like an actuarial table, a ledger sheet, and she spent her days accordingly, the way a miser parts with pennies: one unavoidable expense at a time, one grudging moment after another.*

That is the first story, and it is a sorry one, the moral of which is obvious enough that you certainly don’t need me to draw it for you.

The second story is from the 1960’s. It is a briefer but no less powerful story, about the wife of a pastor.4 The minister had just retired from his position as the Executive for the Presbyterian Synod of New Jersey the day before he became a widower. While his wife, Dora, sat in a rocking chair on their porch, a man ran by and grabbed her purse. As he did so, Dora was thrown off balance and fell, breaking her neck. There had been $2.75 in her purse. But, as with the story of the widow’s two pennies, amounts are irrelevant in more circumstances than we might think. Hetty Green had long since lost any sense of scale, any sense of proportion when it came to spending her fortune, whether it was for a 5¢ bottle to hold medicine or a million dollars to buy a failing business. Dora also set aside proportion and scale in her commitment in her dying act. It is a sorry thing, an absurd thing to lose your life over $2.75. But Dora’s faith was judged by a different measure than dollars and cents. Her determination was to make even her death resound with the meaning of the Creator’s intention for her life.*

As her husband, her pastor, and the chief of police gathered around her, her dying words to them were, “I knew the man, his family is hungry. Each of you promise to let the pastor have the church session take care of this man and his family, and see that the children get Presbyterian scholarships and go to college.” She was adamant, and lingered on the porch until all three agreed to her wish. Then, apparently satisfied, she died.*

In the lesson from the gospel, Jesus reflected on two contrasting models of religious behavior:

On the one hand were the scribes, who were proud, greedy, made a show of their calling because of the fancy outfits, the recognition, and the glory. And on the other hand a widow who was humble, anonymous, and generous.

Jesus, looking on the widow who placed her last copper coins in the treasury, praised not so much the act of giving as the act of trusting in a reality beyond herself. Hetty Green trusted no one but Hetty Green. In her dying, Dora trusted the Author of her existence to grant meaning not only to her life but to the existence of another person, a desperate one who had done her an unwitting violence, one whose life had been filled with hopelessness. Even her death was shaped by the faith which had shaped her life. In her passing moment she was determined to give hope where there had been no hope. I would suggest that each of these women gave their all to something. But there the similarity ends. The final acts of each of them draw from the very different sources in which each found her purpose in living.*

In scripture, the truly great ones aren’t those who accumulate wealth, who exercise great power and control. Rather, the mark of greatness seems always to boil down to responsiveness, to an awareness of the needs of others and a willingness to move toward that need with whatever means God has given. Greatness is an investment of self in the lives of others.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those...[they] have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had...” She gave her ultimate trust to something beyond the work of her own hands, beyond the events that she could control, beyond even the world that she could see and understand. She threw herself on the mercy of the court, trusted her maker completely, and in doing so, received the praise of a Savior who soon would show what it meant to give one’s all for the sake of others.*

His gift of life can be trusted completely, and I pray that we will be more and more able to step across the threshold of that trust into the waiting arms of the God who loves us with a love so strong that it has conquered death.*

1 At each asterisk, two coins are dropped into a glass jar.
3 Arthur H. Lewis, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, (Harcourt, Brace, and World: 1963), p. 8.
4 Source: Bob Hauser on Presbynet, November 5, 1991, and Minutes of the General Assembly, Part III, 1/1/60 - 12/31/60.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Close Enough?

Close Enough?

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 1, 2009

Mark 12:28-34

"One of the scribes came near...
You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Not far…



Our passage begins as Mark declares that one of the scribes “came near” to Jesus and asked him a question. Matthew and Luke report this event as well, almost word-for-word. It must have made a big impression. Most of the time when we read this little account toward the end of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, we get focused on the scribe’s question and Jesus’ answer, the fact that it is a well known and well-worn question that was often presented to Israel’s teachers, a sort of challenge to get them to show how wise they were by how concise a formulation of Israel’s vast law they could make. Many of them chose, as Jesus did, a recitation of some form of two verses from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. These were verses that every child of the covenant learned at their parents’ knees, so answering the scribe’s question with these words would have been something like a routine pop fly for Jesus. It is important to say things we already know: “I love you,” “wear your seat belt.” Still, if other teachers before him had done as Jesus did and recited these verses as the most concise rendition of Israel’s law, what does his use of them say about Jesus? What distinguishes him here from other teachers?

Perhaps it is equally important to notice something else about the passage first. Like bookends, the little passage opens and closes with the very same idea, the idea of nearness, though it is rendered differently at the beginning and at the end. The passage begins as the scribe “came near.” It closes as Jesus tells him, “You are not far.” Near, and not far, two ways of seeing the same thing, maybe from two different perspectives. The defensive back, chasing the ball carrier streaking down the sideline, is near, and this inspires him to try to run just a bit faster. The ball carrier, seeing the defensive man, sees that he is not far from him, and is inspired also to increase his speed.

There were two ways to be near the kingdom, Jesus declared, as he recited the concise form of the law. Both were essential: Loving God, and loving others. These sound like the stuff of children’s sermons and Sunday school classes from our earliest memories, and it is no wonder. It was the same for first century children in Israel. The responding question for most children would be, “How do we love in these ways?”

Now, there were no people in Israel more picky about the details of the Law than the scribes. It was their whole life. So it’s not surprising that Jesus turned his question back on the scribe, inviting him to look into the wealth of the Law of Israel for an answer to his own question about the greatest law, the most comprehensive. Which commandment is first of all? Is it not one that a scribe could recite without having even to pause to think, the one that every Jewish child has learned to recite from the time he could speak: “Hear, O Israel...”? It is no surprise that the very core of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel should form the basis of Jesus’ answer. But as the scribe must also have known, the delivery of this commandment, and the high esteem in which it was held, did not guarantee anything about the obedience of the people.

If this was the greatest commandment in the law, wasn’t it true that it also represented the greatest failure of the people of Israel, for hadn’t they failed miserably in their attempts to obey its implications? So Jesus included the second aspect which flows naturally from the first. Love God, “and your neighbor as yourself.”

Once C.S. Lewis was asked to speak about stewardship, and his response was that, on the whole, God’s love for us is a much safer topic than our love for him. He was right. Because the fact is, it is impossible for us to keep the primary command in the whole law of Israel, to love God, unless we also live according to the second, to love neighbors.

How do we love our neighbor? It isn’t only Christians who have struggled to answer such a question. Jesus’ definition of the one who is our neighbor, calling for our loving concern, is one whose need may be met by our service. That’s it. The need of others defines our neighborliness.

There is a story told about Mahatma Gandhi of India, who one day was traveling by train. Just as he stepped aboard the train, it jolted into motion and one of his sandals slipped off and dropped along the tracks. Gandhi calmly reached down, took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track, where it landed beside the first.

One of his traveling companions was surprised at this strange behavior. Why had the teacher done such a thing, he wanted to know? Gandhi just smiled and said, “Think of the poor man who finds my shoe lying by the track. He will now have a complete pair he can use!”

A product of Christian schools in South Africa, though not a Christian himself, Gandhi was a man of imagination when it came to understanding how one should love the neighbor, even if it was a neighbor one had never met. When he lost one sandal, he saw in his mind’s eye not his own bare foot, but rather the two bare feet of another man: a poor man, coming across not a single, useless sandal, but a complete pair of sandals, and smiling with delight. Rather than clinging to his lone sandal and mourning his loss, Gandhi let go of what he had, released it to the universe so it could be of service to someone else.

The surprising feature of our story is that the scribe caught on so quickly to the essence of Jesus’ message. Having caught on, he expressed his new discovery: “You are right, Teacher... to love him... is much more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To love God in heart, and to live it in life means more to God than all the ritual fripperies we can offer. Then, finally, came the dangerous part.

“And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to ask him any question.”

The old, rather gruesome saying that used to make the rounds in the military, and still does, I suppose, was that “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Far more often, being close is just as good as having missed altogether, as in a football game in which the score was close. In the end, what does it matter? Losing by 1 point, or losing by 25 is still losing. Being close hardly provides much satisfaction to a team that is struggling through an 11 game season in which the deciding game was close, but not close enough.

Imagine being told after months, years, of preparation that even though you still didn’t pass the critical exam, you had been close. What good is close, when there is all that matters to you? Being told you were close to landing the airplane correctly as you are being taken away in the ambulance; being told you were close to the group that made the cut-off for acceptance into medical school; being told you were close to being a decent human being... Sometimes — lots of times — close just isn’t good enough. It’s being almost there, but not quite there.

In effect, Jesus left the scribe and the others who were listening to him, just where Mark wanted to leave his readers. We are close. If we have come this far into our faith in Jesus Christ, we are close to the kingdom of God, no doubt about it. But we aren’t there yet. Jesus’ words, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” hang in this story like an unresolved chord, a murder mystery with the last chapter missing, meant to serve not to frustrate, but to invite. It is an invitation delivered not only to the children of Israel waiting in dust up to their ankles in the region across the Jordan, not only to a nameless scribe in Palestine, not only to the first readers of Mark’s gospel in the first century, but to us. We are called upon to supply the response to the unanswered invitation of this passage.

In the end, Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not far. And Mark says that after Jesus said this, “no one dared to ask him any question.” Not far. It’s as if you can get just so close on your own power, but you can’t actually get there by your own power. How do we take the last step, so that we are no longer only close but we are there? There is only one who can take that last step, who takes it for us, and it is the one who was talking to the inquiring scribe that day. We can get just so far on our brains, our enthusiasm, our commitment, our desire to do what is right, but after all of it, all the effort we can humanly muster, Jesus turns to us and says, “You are not far...” So how to get there?

The way to get there is to trust on the only one who can take that last step for us, to learn to trust on Jesus the Messiah, the Deliverer. It is not an answer that the scribe is close to, it is the Savior. When we are near to Christ, we are not far from the kingdom of God, and it is only through Christ that we can get there. Being near to Jesus. It turns out, it is close enough.