Proper 27 – Year B
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
October 31, 2021
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Matthew 12:28-34
Today’s lessons call to mind a bit of liturgical history, for which I ask your brief indulgence. At the time of the Reformation, Thomas Cramner made some significant changes to the Eucharistic liturgy in his new Book of Common Prayer. He replaced the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy upon us) with the Ten Commandments, and to this day, those who follow the 1662 Book of Common Prayer hear all ten of them recited at every Sunday Eucharist. This may be because the Reformers wished to include in every Sunday liturgy the three things which were to be known by every child before confirmation: The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. From Elizabethan times, it was required that these three texts be displayed prominently before the people in every parish church, a custom which can still be seen sporadically throughout the English Church to this day. In the American prayer book revision of 1789, the Summary of the Law that we at St. Mary’s use at the beginning of the Mass was introduced for optional use after the Ten Commandments. The 1892 revision allowed it to be used in place of the Ten Commandments except at one Sunday service per month, a practice that continued with the 1928 BCP. While the Summary of the Law is optional in our prayer book, we observe it at every Eucharist.
“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The Summary of the Law comes from the Jewish prayer called the shema that we heard in the first reading from Deuteronomy, a prayer that is recited by observant Jews each morning and evening. This prayer serves the Jewish pledge of allegiance to God, if you will. It is such an important prayer to them that orthodox Jewish men wear a small box on their foreheads call that contain tiny scrolls of parchment with the shema, and other prayers written on them.
The commandment to love isn’t about feelings. Political treaties and other covenants in that time and area of the world used the word “love” to mark the proper attitude and behavior of parties toward each other, especially vassal subjects to their overlords. To love God as one would love a human king entails primarily action, not emotion. To love is to be faithful and loyal in fulfilling the obligations of the covenant. To love God means to obey God’s commandments with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. In other words, to offer your complete devotion. To be faithful to him in every part of your being, and in your choices and behavior.
In the gospel lesson, when the scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all, Jesus responds with the shema which reminds them of the continual call to allegiance and complete devotion to the God of the Hebrews. This is the first and greatest commandment, according to Jesus. But the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. This is another quote from the Torah, but this time from Leviticus chapter 19 which is all about how the holiness of God should be reflected in human beings. For many years in my own life, I understood the call to holiness to mean a call to be pure. Don’t hang out with “those people” [POINT] as they may lead you down the wrong path. Instead, surround yourself with other Christians who think as you do. Don’t let yourself be polluted by the thinking and behavior of those who don’t. In Leviticus 19, we see a very different way of understanding of holiness. It’s not as cut and dry, and it can be very messy. The call to holiness is an invitation to what one commentator calls “inclusive wholeness” in which “you shall not render an unjust judgment” or “go around as a slanderer” or “hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” While the word “neighbor” in most places in the Hebrew Bible refers to fellow Israelites, just a few verses later in Leviticus 19, we see where holiness finds it fulness: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, the ultimate expression of holiness is granting equal citizenship status to the resident alien.
And so at every Eucharist, day after day, week after week, we hear Our Savior’s call to love God with complete devotion, and to welcome the stranger as if he or she were a family member. To quote the scribe, “This is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.” Remarkably, the scribe get it. Jesus saw that he answered wisely and said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” He doesn’t say, “You will not inherit the kingdom of God,” but rather, you are not far from it. In other words, the scribe’s relationship with God’s kingdom is like ours. By our baptism, we are called to take concrete actions in our daily lives to care for the orphan and the stranger, to feed the poor, and to love our neighbors as ourselves now, not later. And yet, the fulness of this kingdom life we live is not yet fully realized. We continue to live in a world rife with discrimination, division based on economic status, persecution, racism and poverty. When will it all be made right? When Christ returns again with power and great glory, an event we call the “Second Coming” which we profess in the words of the Nicene Creed when we say, “he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” It is only then that Christ’s victory over sin and death will be fully realized.
In the meantime, our relationship with God involves rituals and Sacraments – the Christian version of the “whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices" the scribes were responsible for in the Temple. Neither Jesus nor the scribe is saying that religious rituals and sacramental practices are bad things. The love of God and neighbor takes precedence over religious ritual and practice which is another way of saying what Jesus said earlier in Mark’s gospel: purity is determined by what is in a person’s heart, not by external ritual. And while it isn’t a perfect analogy, it’s much easier to view the Ten Commandments as a checklist of things to do and not to do than it is to devote ourselves entirely and completely to the God of all creation, and to strive for holiness by loving our neighbor as if he were a member of our family.
Dear friends, let us ask God for the grace to love him with our whole heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us strive for holiness, that like the scribe, God may find us “not far from the kingdom of God”, and that we may be found without fault at the day of his coming. And each time we hear Jesus’s Summary of the Law, let us renew our pledge of allegiance to the King whose reign shall never end. Amen.
 See Marian Hatchett’s “Commentary on the American Prayer Book,” pp. 310-311, and 319.
 Leviticus 19:33-34, Jewish Study Bible, p. 243.
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 198.
 1979 BCP, p. 328, with the word “living” used in place of the word “quick,” as in Rite II.
 Mark 7:1-16, see NIB 513.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!