So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
There was a man who liked to mow his lawn early in the morning. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garden when, out of nowhere, he was tackled off the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway exchanging blows until concerned neighbors rushed forward to stop the scuffle.
Hours later, the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the attack took place. In our heightened and frenetic political atmosphere, tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Paul’s political proclivities and that he felt the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if the same thing could happen to them.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. And it sure is a strange new world. Jesus (and Paul the apostle) is forever going on about loving our neighbors as ourselves and about speaking the truth in love.
Which are decisively difficult when we don’t even know our neighbors, let alone what the truth might be that we can express toward them.
So, instead, we practice silence and we call it love.
Sometimes that silence turns into bitterness, and then the bitterness turns into anger, and then before we know it we’re tackling our neighbor for not taking better care of his lawn.
And yet, in the church, we are called to speak the truth in love and we know what real love looks like – it looks like the cross.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God and neighbor is demanding and risky. Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on down the drain.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
We, of course, are not the Lord (thanks be to God). In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
Contrary to all of its complications, neighborly love is at the heart of the life of the church and every single person who claims to follow Jesus. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Or, to put it another way, when we begin to see how much God loves us in spite of all the reasons why God shouldn’t, it actually starts to change the way we interact with others, even our neighbors.
Love, the kind that God has for us and the kind we are called to have for God and neighbor, is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost.
And, because I believe music often does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us wrestle with what it means to speak the truth:
Jonathan Richman’s “That Summer Feeling” from 1992 is deceptively simple with the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar. And yet, the lyrics invite the listener into a wave of nostalgia that should come with a warning – the refrain is all about being haunted by a feeling, of being caught up in things we can’t quite explain. To me, it rings true of the ways we can be haunted by previous interactions.
Molly Tuttle is an award-winning guitarist with a penchant for insightful songwriting. And yet, it’s her cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that really lets her shine. With the backing help of Old Crow Medicine Show she brings a welcome nuance to the well known song while making it sound hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
Madeline Kenney’s new EP Summer Quarter recently compelled me to return to her 2018 single “Cut Me Off.” She sings with such raw honesty, an honesty all but absent in the world today, that I find myself getting lost in her lyrical sonic wonder. The song’s disjointed melody, ripe with surfer guitar strumming and syncopated drumming, really conveys a sense of what it means to be cut off literally and figuratively.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.
Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible.
Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.
And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.
This is no easy task.
For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange.After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love?
And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.
Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.
That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.
And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along.
That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.
But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.
Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”
“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.”
The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.
“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.
It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.
And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.
Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor.
Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”
More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.
When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.
When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.
When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.
Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything.
However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn.
We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?
A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”
Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.
Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)
“Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”
Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!
The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen.
But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities.
And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization.
Instead, love looks like the cross.
And that kind of love is dangerous.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.
Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.
And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.
It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.
In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it.
Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change.
And, God is love.
Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, but upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
It was still cool in the early morning when the man prepared to mow his lawn. He looked forward to being able to drive back and forth over the grass before the sun made it too hot, and it was an opportunity for him to escape from all the busyness of the world. The hum of the machine below his legs was barely audible over his ear protection and he continued to mow until the lawn was immaculate.
As he maneuvered the mower toward the garage, he hopped off to inspect the machine when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled to the ground. The two men rolled down the hill grappling each other until they came to a stop, and the fighting really began.
Hours later the mowing man was in the hospitable with six broken ribs wondering what had led him to all of this.
That man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, a senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the fight broke out. Was the assailant an opponent of Paul’s political ideologies? Was he so moved by debates on Capitol Hill that he felt violence was the only solution? Was Paul involved with some nefarious characters and now we were seeing behind the curtain?
Not since 1856 had a sitting senator been so beaten and sent to a doctor. It was a frightening moment for law-makers all across the country as they began wondering if it could happen to them too.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out. The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
I’m not making this up people! While a great sum of people assumed that Paul’s political persuasion was to blame for the attack, while the media continued to stir the pop as much as possible, it was all about a neighborhood squabble.
Though this one left a man in the hospital with 6 broken ribs.
Remember that you were once without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace! In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
Have you ever been mad at a neighbor? Maybe they kept playing their music too loud into the early morning hours, or perhaps they kept parking their car in front of your driveway, or maybe they kept blowing their lawn clippings on to your property…
Robert Frost once famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors. And one could make the argument that strong walls make for better peace. There’s a reason the Vatican is surrounded by walls, and the White House, and even the Temple in Jerusalem.
Every child that has had to share a room knows the value of a wall (though in this case a figurative one).
There’s a reason we have to go through security before we got on an airplane.
But good walls also make for bad neighbors.
During the initial hearing after the lawn mower battle, it came to light that Rand Paul and his neighbor had not exchanged a word with one another for over ten years. Tens years of frustration about lawn clippings boiled over to the point that violence came forth. That’s a pretty tremendous wall to share with a neighbor, a wall of hostility that’s stronger than any bit of chain, any concentration of concrete, or any fabricated fence.
The higher we build the walls around us, both the real and the imagined, the higher the hostility tends to be. Every year more and more gated communities are completed. Year after year new boundary lines are drawn for schools, for taxable business, and a whole slew of other items. Year after year we tend to spend more time with people who look like us and think like us and talk like us than ever before.
And yet Paul is bold, some might say foolish, to proclaim that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, that Christ has eradicated the hostility between us.
One need not drive around for very long, or turn on the television, or simply swipe on a phone, to know that hostility is still very real, and that new walls are being constructed each and every day.
However, in the blood and cross of Christ, Jesus’ peace has been made possible for us.
And this is where the struggle between building walls and erasing hostility really comes into focus. It is far too easy to read a passage like this from Ephesians and then make some sort of declaration about current realities like the proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico, or furthering divides within our local community. And for as much as that might be true, those are walls and hostilities and visions of peace defined by our terms, and not necessarily by Jesus.
When we think of peace, we might imagine a time and place where everyone will just get along, or at least where people will just start being nice with one another.
But Jesus, the Lord of lords, he doesn’t have a lot to say about being nice. Sure, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick… those are all nice things. Doing all of that might make the world a little more peaceful.
But Jesus’ peace, a divine peace, also looks like turning the tables over in the temple, it looks like calling to task the political and religious elite for making such a mockery of the kingdom, it looks like abandoning the people closest to you if it means making God’s new reality manifest on earth.
And sometimes Jesus’ peace doesn’t jive with our version of peace.
One of the greatest challenges of being a Christian today is that many of us simply cannot resonate with the deep and profound truth that we were once far off and have now been brought near by the blood of Jesus. If we’ve grown up in the church, or can’t remember a time when the church was not pivotal in our life, we make the assumption that we have always been near. But all of us here are gentiles, we were far from the Lord and were only brought close because of Jesus.
And when we recognize our far-off-ness, when we recognize the immense chasm that has been joined in the blood of Jesus between us and God, it makes the peace of Jesus a whole lot more interesting.
Jesus’ peace is different than our peace, and is only possible because of his peace. We are no longer stranger and aliens to one another, but instead we are citizens of the household of God. This is the best news my friends! Whatever divisions and hostilities we might imagine between us, they have been wiped away! The cross stands as the great unifier between all of God’s people, including us.
Jesus’ peace is greater than any earthly vision we could possibly imagine. It is more powerful than any political policy, it is mightier than any magistrate’s order, it is more life giving than any piece of legislation.
Jesus’ peace is revolutionary.
And Jesus’s peace is nothing short of Jesus himself. In the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord we discover not just a way to live differently, but also the way that makes a way where there was no way. Jesus destroyed, and continues to destroy, the walls and the hostility between us, because we have been made one in the blood.
Now, of course, there is the temptation to treat the church like the unique place of peace, a one-hour a week reprieve from the madness of the world. Church, what we are doing here right now, is not the place where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people whom we might otherwise ignore during the week. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new peace, one in which a different power from the cross redefines the ways of the world.
Does this mean that we need to leave from this building and start tearing down our backyard fences? Should we go to our country’s southern border and protest the construction of a giant wall? Is this text compelling us to destroy every boundary that has ever existed?
Destroying walls does not in itself create peace. We still live in a very broken world in which our sinful desires compel us to make choices we know we should not make. Peace, Jesus’ peace, only comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls, and that’s not something within our own power.
Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, rather than trying to become our own Gods and destroying new walls, Paul pushes us to let ourselves be built upon the cornerstone of Christ into a temple where God dwells.
And friends, this is no easy task. To do so requires humility all but lost in the world today. It requires a willingness to say that I cannot do this on my own, that I have failed to love my fellow brothers and sisters, that I have ignored the power of Jesus blood.
To be built upon the cornerstone of Christ, rather than building our own walls, is to fundamentally commit ourselves to Jesus instead of trying to commit Jesus’ to whatever we want.
It is nothing short of letting our lives embody the words we pray each and every week, “let thy will be done.”
When each of you entered the sanctuary this morning you were handed a Lego piece. I asked you to hold it and consider your piece in the kingdom. I did this because each of us has a piece to play in peace.
But it’s not our responsibility alone.
As Paul so rightly puts it, Jesus came and proclaimed peace to us! We were far off and through Jesus we have been united with one another in one Spirit to the Father.
We are no longer strangers and aliens; all has been made new! We are citizens with fellow saints and members of the household of God. We have been built about the foundation of those who came before, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.
In Jesus the entire structure of reality is joined together and it continues to grow in the holy temple in the Lord. Our oneness, the destruction of our hostility, is the beginning of the dwelling place for God.
And so we hold our piece that is part of Jesus’ peace. But we are not alone. In just a moment, each of us will be invited forward to connect our piece to Jesus’ peace. We will be built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus the Christ, the one who is our peace. We will see our connected and stuck we each other we really are. And we will remember that Christ has already destroyed the walls between us and erased the hostility. Amen.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Love loves to love love. Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and (therefore) underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affections unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. We spend way too much money in February every year in attempts to declare our love through chocolate, cards, and other frivolous items.
In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined that we have become numb to it, or we view it superficially. When we hear something like how we are called to love God and neighbor, we worry more about who are neighbors are, than we actually spend time thinking about loving God in such a way that it spills out to our neighbors.
In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection or hallmark cars, but service.
To love is to serve.
When I was 14 years old I was sitting in church on a typical Sunday morning and I was flipping through the bulletin rather than listening to whatever was coming from the pulpit. We were an almost every Sunday family and I don’t have many memories of my life without church in it, but that doesn’t mean that I always loved the church.
I used to get so bored that I would doodle all over the bulletin with images of planes, robots, and destruction. I even got to the point where I was so bored that I would pick up the bible out of the pew rack and would flip to a random passage and start reading.
But that Sunday, when I was 14, I read something in the bulletin that truly changed my life forever: “Soundboard operator needed. Training begins next Sunday.”
The next Sunday I showed up early for worship and stood awkwardly by the sound system until Bud Walker arrived. For the next month he stood behind me every Sunday, looking over my shoulder, and whispered directions into my ear about what to do… this knob controls this… you have to press both buttons to record the service… make sure to hit mute before the hymn begins.
And after my month of training, the responsibility was mine.
My faithfulness today is largely a result of learning to serve the church as the soundboard operator as a teenager. Up until then my understanding of church was limited to the place we went to for an hour a week, but serving the church opened my eyes to so much more.
And, of course, it wasn’t without its strange moments… There were plenty of Sundays when I forgot to mute the microphones in time and everyone got to hear one of our preachers sing something that I would hesitate to even call a melody. There were the many Saturdays that I was needed to run the board for a wedding service and I got to witness the stumbling and hung-over groomsmen struggling to keep up with the perfectly coordinated bridesmaids. And there were the dozens of funerals for both young and old Christians, funerals for people I knew and for people I never met, funerals that taught me what being a Christian is really about.
Running the soundboard was one of the most important decisions of my life because it taught me to listen to worship carefully. Instead of doodling in the bulletin I had to focus on the sermons and the hymns and they took on a whole new meaning for me.
My service to God through the church resulted in my loving the church.
But why do we serve? We could just say something like the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and end the sermon right there. But service, at least Christian service, is about more than simply copying Jesus.
Or we could talk about how Jesus says to the crowds, “Just as you have done unto the least of these so you have done unto me.” But even then, service is about more than serving the hidden Jesus in our midst.
We serve, because in serving we learn what it means to love.
The Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, but what they really wanted was to trap him. A lawyer came forward and said, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus answers by first quoting the Shema, the centerpiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus reinterprets the greatest commandment in scripture to include, from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments, according to Jesus, are what the entirety of the law and the prophets hang on.
Or, to put it another way, the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.
Or, still yet another way to put it, you can’t love God without loving your neighbor, and you can’t love your neighbor without loving God.
This little bit of wisdom from Jesus came on the Monday of Holy Week. Between the tension of the palms waving frantically on Sunday and the hardwood of the cross waiting on Friday, this is what Jesus chose to share with the people of God.
The greatest thing we can do in this life is love.
And there can be no love without service.
For some reason, in the church, we read this passage and all we ever really emphasize is the call to love our neighbors. We produce programs designed to break down the walls between us and them, we host events and gatherings designed to bridge the gaps between us and them, and then whenever we feel like we “love” our neighbors we check off the box and move on to the next item.
And for sure, we would do well to have some more love for our neighbors. I asked our Sunday School class last week about what sounds annoy them the most, and just about every person in the room complained about a noise that comes from their literal neighbors. Whether it’s the loud music shaking the windows, or the backyard dogs that won’t stop barking, or the cars that rev their engines as the peel out of the neighborhood.
And I wonder if our neighbors would annoy us if we ever offered to serve them dinner. Imagine, if you can, walking up to the neighbor you know the least, the one who frustrates you the most, and asking if they’d like to come over for dinner some time.
Serving someone in that intimate of a setting is the equivalent of the scales falling from Paul’s eyes so that he could see clearly again. Serving a neighbor something as simple as a meal is the beginning of a journey that leads them away from being a neighbor, into the realm of being a friend.
But we’ve all heard sermons like that before. We’ve all left church at some point with the challenge to be a little more friendly or kind to the people around us. For some reason we whittle this passage down in such a way that all we think about is loving our neighbor, and we’ve almost done so at the expense of loving God.
Do we love God?
I mean, we talk a lot about how much God loves us, but do we feel love for God? There was a Christian many centuries ago who said that he wanted to love God in such a way that he would be so completely seized by that love that all the desires of his heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts, and decisions which flow from them would be directed toward God. Is that what we feel?
Instead of thinking about and exploring ways that we might love God, we’re stuck in realm of thinking and exploring ways on how to handle the person who lives next door.
But, at the core of what it means to follow Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor cannot be separated from one another.
Loving God results in loving our neighbors, and loving our neighbors results in loving God. Or, maybe, serving God allows us to serve our neighbors, and serving our neighbors allows us to serve God.
So instead of asking, “Do we love God?” perhaps the real question is, “How are we serving God?”
In each of your bulletin you will find an insert with details about ways to serve God here at Cokesbury. By no means is this list totally comprehensive, but it presents a sampling of any number of ways we can love God by serving God in this place (and frankly, outside of this place).
My life changed because I read about a need in a bulletin 15 years ago. It was through the work of serving the church at the soundboard that I fell in love with the God who was revealed to me in worship. The soundboard became a launch pad toward other areas of the church where I spent even more time in service of God and neighbor. I spent nights sleeping at Rising Hope in their hypothermia shelter, I joined a praise band that led worship, I went on mission trips all over Virginia and all over the world. And I can honestly say that all of it happened because I saw the request in the bulletin.
So here’s your list. From joining our missions committee, to reading scripture in worship on Sunday, to helping with our monthly food distribution, there is a place for everyone in this room to plug in and serve God. And maybe as you skim over the list you feel like there isn’t something for you, perhaps you have a new idea about how we can serve God together as a church. If so, tell somebody about it, tell me, and let’s make it a reality.
For friends, it is in the service of God that we learn what it means to love God. And when we learn what it means to love God we begin the work of loving our neighbors. And then we live into the greatest commandment made manifest in Jesus.
Because, after all, that’s really why we serve. We serve because we have been served.
In all of God’s majesty and mystery, God chose to descend into the world of our brokenness and shame to take on our flesh as a baby born in a manger. God served us in Christ through words, and acts, and miracles. God served us by mounting the hard wood of the cross to die and rise again three days later.
We worship a God of service and action, One who does not remain high and far away, One who is not absent from the perils of this world, but One who believes in moving in and through our being as we take steps in this life.
We worship a God who serves, and that’s why we serve.
Or, better yet, we worship a God who loves, and that’s why we love. Amen.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
What a great question. The bible is full of teachings, so many in fact that a number of passages contradict. It details the history of God with God’s people from the beginning of creation, through the patriarchs, politicians, and prophets. The law is complex and detailed at times with provisions for how to treat one another, and behave faithfully. Are we to live by all of the commandments equally or is there one that stands alone? “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, the one that stands alone as a beacon under which all the other laws pale in comparison. The lawyer is looking for a solitary answer, yet Jesus refuses to name only one; for Christ the love of God and neighbor are inseparable.
Jesus said to the lawyer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What I want to know is this: What does it actually mean to love God and neighbor?
A number of years ago I was flying back from Guatemala after a week-long mission trip when I had one of the strangest encounters with love. In order to save money the church had purchased tickets from all over the aircraft and none of us were sitting together. Frankly, after a week of building stoves in the remote highlands of Guatemala I was perfectly fine sitting away from everyone; we smelled, we were irritable, and we were tired. When I boarded the plane all I could think about was the thrill of falling asleep and waking up back at home. My seat was located toward the front of the coach section on the left side, the middle of three seats. I arrived before my seat-mates, and when it was clear that they were a married couple, with me in the middle, I offered to move to the aisle so that they could sit next to one another. Big mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, they were remarkably kind and in good spirits. They had been vacationing together in Guatemala at a resort and were full of joy and happiness. I think they were in their early sixties, and though they had been probably married for a few decades, they looked like the trip had helped them to fall in love all over again.
From what I remember our conversation was pleasant, they told me about their resort, I told them about the stoves we built, they talked about the exquisite food, I told them about my Peanut-Butter and Jelly sandwiches. They asked me about my calling to ministry, and I asked them about their family. Without a doubt the funniest moment occurred when the steward came by and asked what we would like to drink; I was prepared to ask for a ginger ale but they insisted on purchasing me a glass of wine. When I told them that I was not yet old enough to drink alcoholic beverages they giggled and and exclaimed, “well sweetie, we won’t tell anyone,” right in front of the steward. Needless to say: I did not have a glass of wine.
Anyway, when the inflight movie started up on the headsets in front of us, I was dismayed to discover that the entire plane would be watching the romantic comedy “P.S. I Love You.” Now even if you’ve never heard of the movie, thats fine, suffice it to say that it is a romantic comedy with apathetic acting and a very limited narrative; within the first five minutes you know exactly how the movie will end. I decided to rest my eyes and catch some Zs but the couple next to me were hooked. With their headphones plunged deep into their ear canals they kept asking each other questions out loud, “Wait was he her husband?!” “Oh poor thing, what will she do now?!” “Do you think he’s right for her?!” Try as I might, I was unable to fall asleep. When the movie finally ended I muttered a quick prayer to God, thanking him for delivering me from the captivity of the couple sitting next to me, but that’s when the kissing began.
I’m not talking about your simple peck on the lips of affection, but full-on “sitting in the back seat of a car at a drive in movie” kind of kissing. All I can remember is forcing myself as far away as possible in my seat in order to clear myself from being hit by a wayward arm or leg. It was awful. I tried listening to music, I tried reading from a book, but there was nothing that could distract me from the love fest happening to my left. Suddenly however the husband stopped kissing his wife, pulled her away from his face and said with completely sincerity, “PS I Love You honey” and they commenced kissing to an even higher degree.
How are we supposed to love God and neighbor? Are we called to be filled with the Romantic-Comedy-kiss-your-spouse-on-an-airplane kind of love?
Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affection unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. Even in our preschool I witness our children hugging one another and talking about love as if it is a prerequisite for friendship.
In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined in Christianity that we have become numb to it, or only view it superficially. When we hear that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t ask what it means to love, we just want to know who are neighbors are supposed to be!
In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of love and gratitude may fill our souls as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling that Christ demands of us. Instead, love for God and neighbor is a stubborn and unwavering commitment. We do not have to feel affection for our neighbor, nor for God; to love our neighbors is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.
It is true that God loves us in an affectionate and sweet way. He has called us by name and breathed life into us. But most of God’s love for us can be summarized as putting up with us in spite of all our faults and shortcomings. God has stayed with us when we no longer deserved his presence.
Pre-marital counseling is a privilege in my profession. I must admit that in the beginning I was afraid of pre-martial counseling sessions, but now I really enjoy them. I used sit with couples without having been married myself, but now with 6 months of married life experience, I am an expert! There is something indescribably precious about getting to meet with a couple before their wedding to talk about the deep realities of life-long commitment. When we gather together, it is a time of holiness and vulnerability that, I hope, will help them in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
I also greatly enjoy those counseling sessions because I get to ask questions that would otherwise be completely inappropriate in any other circumstance. If I’m feeling particularly gung-ho I begin with the zinger: “tell me about your last fight.” Couples upon stare back at me in disbelief, or claim that they have never fought. Or I begin with a standard question turned upside down: “Why in the world do you want to get married in the church?” I inform them that we could get in the car and drive down to the courthouse and they could be married that afternoon; it would be easier and cheaper. So what is it that makes you want to get married in a church?
All of the questions I ask are aimed at trying to get them to start thinking about life beyond love. Because when I ask why they want to get married, I almost always hear “because I love her” or “because I love him.”
Love is nice, but love is not enough.
At least not the kind of love that we have been habituated into through Hallmark, Romantic-Comedies, and Trashy Novels. Love, to us, often has more to do with lust and affection than it does with commitment and patience.
Love is not enough because she is not going to look that good in ten years, and nor will he. Whatever physical love you feel for each other, it will change. You think you know each other? You think that love is enough? Just wait till you wake up next to them every morning for an entire year, or he starts snoring every night, or she forgets what you asked her to do week after week.
Are we supposed to love God and neighbor the way we are called to love our spouse? Yes, but it is a type of love that we often lose sight of. It is not the way the world tells us to love, but a love that we learn from God.
For centuries Israel disobeyed the God who brought them out of Egypt, the God of their ancestors, yet God’s love remained steadfast. For centuries the church has disobeyed the Word of the Lord and let sinfulness run rampant. When we act on behalf of the Lord for our own selfish purposes, when we make a mockery of this beautiful thing called the church, when we refuse to go to God in our prayers, we neglect to love the God who loves us in spite of what we do. God has put up with people like you and me for centuries, he has be stubbornly present with us, and thats what love is all about.
Christ calls us to be stubbornly loving with our neighbor, who, by the way, is everyone, with unwavering commitment. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Catholics, and even Baptists. Blacks, Whites, Heterosexuals, Homosexuals, the rich, the poor, the strong, the weak, the elderly, and the youthful. Loving the neighbor must teach us how to love God. Jesus has radically pushed us into a way of being where we are told to love all our neighbors, even our enemies, and we can only do so when we imitate the kind of love that God has for us.
Someone this week put it this way: It is often easier to love someone than to like them.
Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God.
You might not like what God is doing in your life right now, you might want to cry out with clenched fists in anger about God’s presence, you might feel that God has abandoned you. You don’t have to like God to love God.
You might feel like the people closest to you have ignored your needs and have stopped listening to you, you might feel like the outcasts in our community don’t deserve any of your time or energy, you might feel like your neighbor has done something to you that is beyond forgiveness. You don’t have to like your neighbor, to love your neighbor.
It sure is a strange thing to follow Christ. How bizarre is it that he has turned the world upside down and called to the first to be last and the last to be first? How weird is it that he has shattered the world’s vision to be replaced with God’s imagination?
My friends, let us be stubborn with our patience, unwavering with our commitment, and radical with our love toward God and neighbor.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
A few weeks ago I found myself sitting at a table in a buffet style restaurant surrounded by other Methodist clergy from the local district. We had been called to meet that morning to discuss challenges facing the local church and a group of us had decided to get lunch immediately following the gathering. With mounds of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and gravy spread out between us, we began to converse and enjoy one another’s company.
For a little while we talked about the meeting and some of the comments from our peers. Later on we talked about the change in season and how beautiful it was starting to look in the valley. But, as with all clergy gatherings, the conversation moved toward a discussion of metrics:
“How many did you have in worship last Sunday?”
“Is you church paying their apportionments?”
“Are you receiving any new visitors?”
These questions drive me crazy. The commodification of the church is sinful temptation that many Christians, particularly clergy, cannot resist. I was sitting with my peers, fellow shepherds for the kingdom of God, when a string of questions immediately put up divisions between us. Instead of viewing one another as colleagues and peers, we saw competition and comparison. The questions were divisive, but the answers were even worse:
“We hit 130 most Sundays.”
“We’re not even close to paying our apportionments, we can barely keep the lights on.”
“We’ve had a lot of young families start to try out our church.”
We could have spent a wonderful time of food and fellowship discussing different ways to be Christ’s body for the world, we could’ve prayed for our peers and their ministries. However, our lunch was focused on numbers and many of us left either feeling defeated about our dying church, or high and mighty about our growing church.
For the budding nation of Israel, God was insistent on calling them to work together and not bear grudges against any of the people; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a sense they needed to know they they were in this together and to stop putting up walls between themselves. Similarly, we all fall to the temptation of holding grudges against people in our lives, and in particular with those who are closest to us. Clergy often compare their churches and ministries with their peers and forget that they are all working for God’s kingdom. Others will compare their marriages, jobs, children, salaries, families, etc. with the people around them instead of loving their neighbors as themselves.
Who are you holding a grudge against because of numbers? Which neighbor, friend, or family member do you need to start loving as you love yourself?