Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 21, 2022
Mark 12:28-34 “Dialogue”
A friend recently sent me a picture of something she saw online. It was a mock advertisement for the “University of Facebook School of Biblical Studies.” It read: “Have you ever wanted to be a biblical scholar, but without the hassle of learning ancient languages or becoming familiar with the ancient world? Well, you’re in luck because here at the University of Facebook School of Biblical Studies our motto is ‘Anyone can be a Biblical Scholar.’ Our most popular courses include ‘That’s not what my Bible says’ and ‘the Holy Spirit told me you’re wrong.’ Don’t like reading? That’s no problem! All you need to succeed in our program is an internet connection, access to YouTube, and some strong opinions. Owning a Bible helps, but is not required. Enroll now and start your career today!”
While clearly a joke, there was something so accurate about that parody that it almost wasn’t funny. In a world of social media commentary, where relationship and conversational standards simply don’t exist, debates that try to use the Bible as a weapon or to prove an opinion have become rampant. 95% of those who engage in that type of sparring do so from a place a complete ignorance and arrogance. Some try to speak from a place of learning, but usually do so to one-up another person, which isn’t an actual debate. In fact more than a few of you in this space have asked me for scripture references to prove a point – and I have and will always do all I can to dissuade you from using scripture that way. Not only does it never work – I have yet to see someone change their mind by having a better Bible quote thrown at them. But it also does such harm to our religion, our faith, and our ancient sacred texts. If you ever find yourself tempted to use scripture in that way, as your pastor I ask that you resist.
I understand the temptation though. Especially when confronted with people who use our sacred texts to ‘prove’ that God loves some more than others, or when asked to prove our faith by knowing certain quotes from the Bible. This has happened to me on several occasions, but the most formative memory was also the most degrading. In 2009 or 10, I was the president of the Missouri Seminarians for Reproductive Choice and the Missouri state legislature was debating a bill that would severely restrict a woman’s ability to access safe reproductive care. There was a public hearing on the bill, so I drove to Jefferson City one evening to testify against the bill as a woman and as a woman of faith. The Senate committee considering the bill allowed proponents to testify first, and several did. Then it was the turn of the opponents. I put my name on the list and took a deep breath. I had never done anything like that before and I was young, in my early 20s, so I was incredibly nervous. I had practiced what I was going to say, but as I said, I was anxious, so I knew I would rely on the piece of paper where I had written by notes. As everyone else was reading from notes, I was confident I could say my piece with the same clarity. But, when it came to the turn of the bill’s opponents to testify, the chair of the committee changed the rules. Notes were no longer allowed.
When it was my turn at the podium, standing in front of a panel of senators, the vast majority of whom were in support of the bill I was speaking against, I told them I was speaking against the bill and doing so as person of deep faith. I have no idea what I said after that, it was not eloquent in any way, because as I said, I wasn’t allowed to use my notes. And as I was stumbling over my thoughts, the chair of the committee interrupted me. He asked me if I was a seminary student, and I said yes. He then asked me to recite the 10 Commandments in order and said that if I couldn’t do that I really had no right to speak as a person of faith. I was stunned and drew a blank. A few of the other senators snickered at me until one spoke up and pointed out that no one else from the public who had testified was questioned as to the validity of their opinion, and that I shouldn’t be either. Indeed I was the only one questioned, and the only person speaking doing so as a person of faith first. I will forever be grateful for her support, but I was too humiliated to say anything else in that mostly hostile space, so without meeting the eyes of that committee chair, I just walked back to my seat, and prayed for the hearing to end as quickly as possible so I could leave. It was harmful and hurtful. It was such an abuse of power that is no wonder most people don’t bother engaging in the political process at all. I have yet to offer a testimony in a public hearing again, but interestingly I have been asked to pray in front of and for state legislatures since. What’s…ironic, maybe…about that experience is that in the briefcase I brought with me to the hearing, all I had was the notebook where I had written my notes that I wanted to refer to and my Bible, because I didn’t know what else to bring, so I brought that. While I don’t know for sure, I am guessing I was the only person in that room who had a Bible with her.
In the decade plus since that encounter I have thought of a million things I could have said to that senator – who, by the way, went on to be elected to the US Senate. I have thought of a million zingers, comebacks, and scathing remarks using scripture in the same weaponized way he was using it against me. In every imaginary scenario I come up with, I am victorious and it is the senator who is humiliated. In my more triumphant imaginings, I say the perfect things backed by just the right quotes from scripture, and the hearts and minds of everyone in the room are persuaded, the bill is defeated, and the Reign of God is just a little bit closer. But, as we know, it just doesn’t work like that.
Though, it seemed to have worked that like that for Jesus in the lesson from this morning, at least upon first reading. Jesus was constantly being tested by the people and the leaders of the Temple, those who were tasked with maintaining the traditions of the Jewish people. The lesson from Mark today was no different. He was being tested, asked to prove himself worthy of speaking about God. And while today we often just focus on the answer that he gave when asked to name the two greatest commandments, I found myself this time around more drawn to the conversation he was having. Because the answer he gave – that the two most important things are to love God and neighbor with our whole beings – rests in the midst of what I believe was a conversation, not a debate.
The Biblical scholar, or scribe as more commonly translated, who asked Jesus what the two greatest commandments were was clearly intrigued by him. I don’t read his question as a test, I read it as a question – a ‘tell me what you think’ moment. And Jesus answers as any good Jew would. First he quotes the two most important confessions of Judaism, the Shema and the Ahavta – that God is one and that we are to love God with our heart and soul. He quotes Deuteronomy 6 chapter and verse. He then follows up with a quote from Leviticus 19, about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Leviticus being the book of the Torah in which most of the Jewish laws are written, would have been a book that scholar knew very well. While it is very possible that this was the first time those two religious commandments had been placed side by side – loving God and loving neighbor – there was nothing particularly radical in what Jesus was saying.
But what I think was radical was the way in which Jesus and the scholar were speaking. It was not a conversation that began from a place of hostility. There doesn’t seem to me to be motive on the part of either the scholar or of Jesus to prove the other wrong, so they can be right. Jesus is asked for his beliefs, and his answer is received in a welcoming way. I wonder if one of the reasons that Jesus tells the scholar that he is near the Reign of God was not just because he agreed with Jesus, but because his spirit was open to God and the movement of God in that dialogue.
If we are to learn anything from this lesson, I hope that it is not just remembering those two great commandments. I hope that we can also learn from it that when we are discussing our faith and beliefs with others, especially those who think differently than we do, it is in the dialogue that God’s wisdom flourishes. The wisdom of God is not found in intractable opinions and closed hearts. God is not found when religion is used to justify the creation of enemies. God is found when people come together to learn and explore, when hearts are opened and spirits enlivened.
I pray that you will always resist the temptation to use your beliefs or our sacred texts to silence another person, whether it be on social media or in positions of power like that senator from Missouri. God and neighbor are only harmed when that happens. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to walk away and not respond at all, no matter how tempting it might be. It takes great discernment to do that, so always first ask for God’s guidance. It also takes great discernment to know when a moment of genuine dialogue is offered. Whether we are asking it from another, or someone is asking it from us. When those moments are offered, embrace them. Not to prove a point, but to share an idea and listen to another. That is where God flourishes and that is how the Reign of God draws near. Amen.
God of all, we know you exist in the space within each of us and in the space between each of us. Your presence in with all, no matter who they are or what they believe. With this surety of your constant love and grace, we are grateful. And it is in a spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, you offer us so many opportunities to live out our faith and to speak with our spirits. You also offer us opportunities to listen to another, to have our minds changed or to have our believes deepened. Help us to seek out this opportunities and seek them from others. And offer us your wisdom to know when it is best not to speak at all.
We know that sometimes the best way we can share our faith is in our prayers for another and for ourselves. So, now in these moments of silence we offer to you the prayers of spirits, trusting that you hear and hold them gently…
Good and great God, we pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher, our guide, and the one who showed us what true relationship to the other really means. And now we raise our voices to pray in the way he taught us…Our Father…