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Category Archives: Scripture

Remembering the Future

(a sermon for November 4, 2018, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

You might call him… “The Unknown Prophet.”

Because in truth of fact, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet who is named “Habakkuk.”  His words occupy a scant three chapters near the end of the Old Testament, and he’s almost overlooked amid a sea of so-called “minor prophets,” sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah. Even the meaning of his name is shrouded in mystery:  some biblical scholars have suggested that Habakkuk means “to embrace” or “to clasp,” as in hands clasped in prayer, while others say that it’s simply a boy’s name derived from an ancient Hebrew word for a certain plant or vegetable!  We’re not even totally sure when Habakkuk lived and prophesied; he might have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and could have lived around about the 5th Century B.C.; again, we just don’t know for sure.

We do have a sense, however, that this particular prophetic word – it’s referred to here as an “oracle” – was given, as one commentator has put it, “in a time of dread,” in anticipation of an impending invasion by a foreign enemy, more than likely the Babylonians who had already invaded Judah, taken over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and now threatened total control over Palestine as a whole; a situation that did not sit at all well with Habakkuk.

In fact, if it sounded as though the words in those first few verses we read this morning were rife with anger, you heard correctly; indeed, though it is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Habakkuk remains one of the most poignant and painful passages found in all of Holy Scripture!  Biblically and literarily speaking, this particular passage is considered to be a “lament,” (that is, a profound expression of loss) but that’s putting it mildly; what we actually have here is quite literally a complaint unto God!  It’s all right there in the very first verse: “O LORD, how long shall I call for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”   How long, O Lord?  After all, the “wicked surround the righteous,” and we are most definitely outnumbered!  I ask for justice, he says, yet all I see is destruction, strife, and contention.  I ask for peace, yet all there is before me is hopelessness and fear.  Judgment, he says “comes forth perverted.”

To say the least, this is heavy stuff.

One of my seminary professors back in the day used to tell us again and again that the point of all preaching is ultimately to bring the “there and then” of God’s word to the “here and now” of our lives today; that our task was ever and always to interpret these ancient texts of the Bible in such a way that it will proclaim timeless and divine truth that will sustain us along our own pilgrimages of faith.  And needless to say, that can often be difficult; after all, we didn’t live 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile; very few, if any of us can speak to what it must have felt like to have been torn from our faith and ancestral homes for a length of time that by now had spanned many generations.  Quite honestly, the kind of things that Habakkuk is lamenting here seem “long ago and far away” to our 21st century ears!

Or does it?

Actually, it seems to me that right about now we know a great deal about what it is to live in “a time of dread.”  I mean, in the past couple of weeks alone our eyes and ears have beheld the worst of what the world and its woefully misguided people can dish out; from the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh to the bombing threats throughout the country, all of it underscored by the ongoing and increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric that has permeated both the airwaves and our political discourse as the mid-term elections are approaching.  And the saddest part of all is that this kind of violence and hatred is swiftly becoming “the new norm” in our culture!   It’s no wonder that so many these days are looking at this situation we’re in as a nation and a people, and desperately asking the question, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Perhaps Habakkuk’s lament isn’t all that removed from our own after all!

For that matter, anyone of us who has ever hoped and prayed to the Lord with their whole hearts for some semblance of relief in their lives – the healing of a sickness, the solution to a problem, the resolution of a conflict, the lessening of deep and profound grief – only to continue feeling the pain of those experiences all the more deeply also knows what it is to cry out in the midst of our tears, “how long, O Lord, how long?”   When we’ve “been through the ringer,” so to speak, we know what it is to wonder where God has been and why nothing has seemed to have changed.  In the words of H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., writing about his own “dark night of the soul” in his book Preaching Through a Storm, “[The Psalm does say,] ‘weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’  But what I want to know is, ‘how long is the night?’”

That’s what Habakkuk’s lament is all about; and sadly it’s just as relevant “here and now” as it was “there and then.”  But the good news is God’s Word does indeed have something to say to us amidst our own “times of dread.”  You see, the thing about laments – most especially those of the biblical variety – is that they always begin in utter despair but they end in the sure and certain hope of God.  And our text for this morning shows us just that: the movement of Habakkuk’s own dialogue with God, going from confusion and uncertainty to faith and purpose; from challenging God to heeding God’s Word!  Turns out, you see, that the Lord has very specific advice in how we are to deal with these “times of dread,” and it starts with remembering the future: but not the dreaded future of our fear and despair, but rather the envisioned future; the promised future that God had already set before us, but which may have gotten lost in our hearts somewhere along the way

Actually, in those couple of verses in the second chapter of Habakkuk are three steps for remembering God’s promised future; and the first is to write it down.  “Write the vision,” the Lord says.  “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, be clear about what it is that God has set before you and let it loom large in your lives for you and everybody else to see.  If you truly believe in the providence and guidance of the Lord our God, then proclaim it; proclaim it again and again, and not in a small way but in a fashion that can be clearly understood.  Then the vision becomes palpable and real even if everything else around you seems to discount it.

I’m reminded here of those billboards that you still see along some highways across the country; you know the ones, the ones that say things like, “You know that love your neighbor thing?  I meant it. God;” or “Will the road you’re on get you to my house? God;” or my personal favorite, “Don’t make me come down there! God.”  This was one way, albeit one a bit unconventional, of writing the vision; of expressing the truth of a spiritual, Godly life in letters quite literally large enough for everyone to see.  The point is that those of us who are people of faith need to know and express what we believe, and to do so boldly.  That does not mean “forcing” our faith on people, but it does mean staying focused on our faith even when “the vision” seems blurred in the face of circumstances that at the moment seem bleak and barren.

So write the vision; and secondly, be patient.  Because the vision, however it is expressed – in health, through wholeness, in freedom or in peace – awaits an appointed time:  “It speaks of the end,” says the Lord, “and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”  Many times over the years as a pastor I have spoken with people whose primary spiritual struggle has been with the belief that their prayers are not being answered quickly enough.  Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that quite as harsh as it sounds (!); it’s simply speaks to a very human truth that for most of us it is difficult to prayerfully wait out the struggle; that is, to let the Lord work out the good in his time and fashion, and not ours.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that in this high-tech era we’re too used to quick gratification and resolution:  I mean, we like our TV shows ”on demand,” our computers to be speedy and glitch free, and our conflicts to be swiftly resolved; it’s not in our post-modern sensibilities tohave to wait weeks, months or years for things to “work out.”  Or maybe the truth is that we’re losing the capacity to completely trust God, letting go of our own control of whatever situation is ours and trusting that God’s Spirit will lead us in directions, however measured that lead will be.

One of the other great lessons I learned back in seminary as I did clinical pastoral education at Eastern Maine Medical Center is that as a pastor I couldn’t always instantly “make it all better.”  As a young buck of a pastor, that was hard for me!   I wanted to bound into the rooms of these sick people and “fix ‘em right up,” spiritually speaking at least.  But, as one of my advisors reminded me, most of these folks had been sick for a long time.  They didn’t need quick fixes; they needed to know that God was with them slowly and steadily, bringing them strength and healing with every long, passing moment.  Be patient; for with every passing moment God is working his vision out; slowly, steadily and even in the face of all opposition.

So be patient… and finally, says the Lord, live in faithfulness.  “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live in faith.”  It’s important for those of us who seek to keep the faith to live faithfully; and that means being faithful to the law, just in our own relationships, and pious (in a good way!) about our own religious observances.  Throughout scripture, we are called to choose life over death.  When we choose life, we are making the choice to live in fidelity to God; and the fullness and abundance of life is our reward.

In other words, beloved, at some point in our struggle, it ceases to be about what’s wrong with things.  It stops being about our fear over the elections or how the people who don’t agree with us are going to ruin the world; it’s not even about whether or not everything is working out for us as it should.  It stops being about whose fault it is, or how bad we’ve been hurt by what they’ve done to us.  At some point, it starts being about how we are, how we live, how we choose to respond to these times of dread, and whether or not we truly know God’s vision and remember his future as we live this life.

For us as God’s people, a full life is always defined by faithfulness; and in faithfulness, we can live joyfully, no matter what.  That’s how some people can move on from the tragedies of their lives somehow stronger than before; that’s how someone in the worst of circumstances can talk of how God has given them a sense of peace and the ability to celebrate life.  It’s a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope of things, to face all the questions of justice and mercy and fairness head on and choose to live life faithfully as God’s people no matter how unjust or unfair life or the world might be.

The truth is, as the Psalmist has said, “weeping may endure for a night,” and the night may well be a long one; but joy will come with the morning!   So the question is, how we will live as the long night progresses?  How will we keep the faith? How do we keep on keeping on in this time between the now and not yet, between the promise and the prize, between the vision and its reality?  How will we live, beloved?  Will we remember God’s promised future, or will we let fear and dread cloud our memory?

The choice is ours to make, beloved; but remember that is the righteous who live by their faith, and it’s righteousness that helps us to know, even in the most uncertain of times, the presence of a power for joy and purpose and love… and that surely will change everything for the good.

For the future our Lord intends and even now is fashioning for you and for me…

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Made to Worship: Bringing the Good News

(a sermon for September 30, 2018, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on  Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Romans 10:8-18)

Under the heading of not-so-vital statistics, out of curiosity this week I went to my pastoral records and discovered that as of this morning I will have preached a grand total of 1,697 sermons as a minister and teacher of the gospel.

Whoa!

Now, this number mostly accounts for Sunday morning services over thirty-plus years working in the church, and doesn’t include all the eulogies, wedding meditations or other messages that we pastors tend to bring to various and a sundry church and community gatherings.  But even considering that, all things being relatively equal, understand that this represents a total of over 34 thousand minutes – that’s 566 hours, folks (!) – standing behind some pulpit or another preaching a sermon that for better or worse I had spent most of the previous week preparing (I don’t even want to think about how many hours that entailed!).  And I realize that’s a whole lot of time spent not only by me, but also by you and by so many others who have sat in these pews listening to what I’ve had to say week in and week out; so let me just take this opportunity to say thank you for your patience!

What’s interesting is that while I certainly can’t give you specifics as to the subject and content of every one of those sermons, there are some that I do remember very, very well.  I’ll never forget, for instance, the first sermon I ever preached as a pastor of a congregation: it was entitled “I’m No Hero,” with the main illustration having to do with a television show that was running at the time about a reluctant superhero (and to this, I can only say, Oy veh, what was I thinking?)  More seriously, though I will always remember preaching the Sunday after 9/11 when all of us – pastor and congregation were clamoring for a word of hope in those very sad and uncertain days.  There were also a couple of messages over the years when I felt particularly compelled, albeit somewhat fearfully so, to bring forth some measure of biblical truth in the midst of some rather contentious situations within the congregations I was serving at the time.  And there have been a few times when despite my own best efforts but by a great abundance of God’s grace sometimes the truth that needed to be espoused at a given moment actually got spoken aloud and even better, was heard with open ears and loving hearts; and honestly, that’s pretty memorable and feels pretty good!

Preaching was one of the first things that attracted me to the ministry (way back in high school, if you can believe it!), and all these years later it still remains a favorite part of what I do.  It can be exhilarating, fulfilling, often disconcerting, sometimes headache inducing and occasionally life-changing, all at the same time (!); but that’s what keeps this task of preaching a wonderfully exciting and utterly joyous thing for me!  Of course, there is also many a Sunday morning that I step up here utterly unconvinced that there will be anything at all of value, spiritual or otherwise, coming forth from my tongue that day; but that’s a discussion for another time!

Either way, however, I will tell you that each and all of these preaching experiences have one thing in common:  and it’s that each week, after the sermon has been written and preached and the service is finished, it’s immediately time to start the process all over again for next Sunday; part of what a colleague of mine refers to as “the pesky, perpetual, predictable and persistent return of the Sabbath!”  You see, the truth is that a sermon, mine or anybody else’s, does not exist for the sake of itself – ultimately, it is not meant to exist as a stand-alone oration nor as some kind of pastoral dissertation on all things religious and theological – no, the sermon has always been intended to be but simply one facet of the whole “act and attitude of worship,” and as such is linked to everything else we do here in the midst of this service:  our prayer and our praising, our times of singing and silence and sharing, and most profoundly in the reading of holy scripture.  What I’m doing here, you see – and what we’re all involved in as we worship together – is nothing less than the “Proclamation of the Word:” God’s Word.

Our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans actually begins and ends with this truth: first that “the word of faith that we proclaim” is near to us, “on [our] lips and in [our hearts],” and concluding with the assertion that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”  What that means is that there is always to be a natural progression from acknowledging and embracing the faith that’s inside of us to being sent forth into the world to proclaim the truth of it in and through our very lives!  And you’ll notice that by and large that’s also the direction that our worship takes: we begin with an act of praise (usually a song or a hymn, followed by a prayer of invocation) that serves to bring forth the faith within us so that it might become the praises of our hearts and voices; but eventually we pause to hear and to reflect upon God’s Word so that afterward, when the final hymn is sung and we say the benediction, we might be sent forth strengthened, encouraged and empowered to truly be God’s people in the world!   So in many ways, it’s this “proclamation of the Word” – be it a sermon, a message or any one of a number of other forms of faithful communication – that makes this hour more than just a random group of people who come together on a Sunday morning to share a few moments of fellowship and inspiration for the living of these days; it’s that proclamation which truly sets us apart as the Body of Christ and what makes us the Church with a mission of love in the world!

And if you’re thinking right now that all this is a pretty tall order for any preacher (certainly, this preacher!) who is called to speak for 20 minutes, give or take, on a Sunday morning, you’re right.  But remember also that the proclamation of which I speak has as much to do with hearing as it does speaking.  As John Webster of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has written, the church is “not first and foremost a speaking community but a listening community… the church speaks, because it has been spoken to.”

 Faith, you see, comes from what is heard… and so what’s important about this part of the service, for me as well as for you, is listening!

It’s interesting to note the context in which Paul speaks to the Romans in our reading today is actually one of some level of frustration.  Paul, you see, is anguishing over the fact that despite the truth of the resurrection, most Jews of the time were still seeking righteousness through the law for their salvation rather than through faith in Christ.  For Paul this was inconceivable and what’s more, unnecessary:  after all, there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  But, and this is where Paul gets to the heart of the matter, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?”  And “how can they hear if nobody tells them?  And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?” [The Message] 

It all comes down to the proclamation, you see; it’s all about “bringing the good news” to those who would have ears to hear!  And let me tell you; the anguish that Paul was feeling for those who would not receive that graceful gift of salvation that comes in Christ remains the anguish in this day and age!  I cannot begin to tell you the number of instances and number of people I meet who, once they realize what I do for a living, are very quick to dismiss what and who it is I represent.  “I’m not really into religion,” they’ll say to me, or else something to the effect that while I seem like a nice guy and everything, they don’t want to come to church and be “preached at,” and I’m never sure how to respond to that except to explain that while that might be the “style,” shall we say, of others that’s not what we’re about as a church and certainly not what I’m about as a minister!  I always come away from that kind of conversation not only feeling badly that I couldn’t “close the deal,” so to speak, but also wondering how people like that can come to faith in Christ when they’ve never truly heard that truth, that Word, proclaimed!

But then I remember that faith comes through hearing… and hearing the “proclamation of the Word” can take a variety of forms and comes from a variety of people.

Last week, what with the beginning of Sunday School, I found myself reminiscing about all the Vacation Bible Schools Lisa and I were involved in at various churches over the years.  One year that I remember very well, the program happened to be centered around the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. And I, in a shining example of casting against type, was drafted to play the role of Pharoah; which meant, of course, that all week I was generally and rather joyfully verbally and physically abused with all manner of plague, and, moreover, all that week every time a kid requested that I let God’s people go, I would have to vehemently and angrily refuse in a highly Shakespearean manner!

In truth, it was a lot of fun (as you know, I can be a ham at times!), the kids enjoyed it, and the great thing about VBS every year was that there were always a lot of kids there who weren’t part of our church, or any church for that matter.  And to bear witness to what was often these kids’ very first awareness of God’s presence and power in their own lives was an amazing thing that got revealed to us in strange ways.

To whit, about six months later, I was volunteering at a story day at our local intermediate school; I’m walking down the corridor, guitar in hand, and way down the end of the hall I spy this little head bobbing in and out of the doorway of the school office.  And as if he were doing a double take, a second later, out pops that head again, and smiling this incredible grin as he comes out to the hall, this boy spreads wide both his arms and cries out way too loudly, “LET MY PEOPLE GOOOO!!!”

They never asked me to volunteer at the school again… I don’t know why… (!)

Yes, it was one of those anonymous, “unchurched” kids who’d turned up at VBS the summer before, one of these children who’d heard this incredible story of God’s power and love for the first time, and six months later… not only remembered, and was still thinking about it!  The whole thing made me laugh; but it also got me to thinking about how a little bit of good news was brought to that little one; how the Word was proclaimed and perhaps took root and grew in that very unique and special way.

Maybe it happens in a sermon; but it might also be revealed in a Sunday School story or a children’s ministry, or else a choir anthem or a prayer request shared; or for that matter, maybe it all happens in some random act of kindness or simply a kind word spoken at just the right time.  But who knows how the word might actually be proclaimed until it happens?   What is it that Frederick Buechner wrote about how the love of Lord gets through to those who seeking out faith?  He says that for every believer, there’s this incredible moment of divine awareness when the love of the Lord has hit them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes.  Who knows exactly when or where or how that may happen; but, Buechner writes, maybe for one seeker, “the moment that has to happen is YOU.”

And the point of all of this is that before that moment happens, you and I need to be here and worshiping, listening to God’s Word proclaimed; opening ourselves to the Spirit’s leading so that we might bring that good news with others.   For we can never truly know the impact of speaking to others that which we’ve heard in faith and in love.  What we all hear in this time of worship can be the very message that will change a heart forever; it can be the thing that will bring change and peace to a world in need of need of both!

So let us not hold back; let us go forth to share the truth that is ours in Jesus Christ.  As it says in Deuteronomy about the commandments, “Recite them to your children, talk about them when are home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”  Truly, as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Get to the Heart of the Matter!

(a sermon for October 29, 2017, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on  Matthew 22:34-40)

One thing I’ve long found very interesting about the church as a whole is that for all our sincere talk of Christian unity and the fact that we’re still “all God’s children” despite whatever denomination or faith tradition we come from, nonetheless we really do have our share of differences; especially as to how things are done!

Take the sacraments, for example: whereas in our particular tradition communion (generally speaking at least!) is shared by the passing a plate of bread cubes from one to the other in the church pew, there are other churches that frown on such a practice, insisting that those receiving communion actually get up from their seats and approach the altar of God!  And baptism: there are those within the denominational spectrum who would question the very validity of our ever baptizing an infant, saying that to confess Christ as Lord and Savior is wholly a personal decision that can only be made when one is of age (of course, in our tradition, we entrust the child’s parents, family and church to nurture their faith until they are ready to confirm that faith as a young adult and I’d say that’s at least as valid as an adult baptism… but I digress!); and let’s not even talk about whether “sprinkling” or “dunking” is the proper way to go!

In the ways we do worship (is it better to be formal or casual, “high church” or “low church,” to sing traditional hymns or praise songs, to preach from a lofty pulpit, or to stand “on the level” with the congregation?); in the interpretation of scripture and its authority for the church and world; the methods by which we govern ourselves as a congregation; even in the process of how clergy-types like me are to be called and authorized for ministry: trust me,  in all these things and more there are as many ideas in the church as to how these matters are properly handled as there are congregations!

Sometimes the differences have to do with theology or denominational polity; often it will focus on where a church perceives itself to be in the world; or maybe sometimes it’s something much simpler than that.  I remember in a former congregation I was once asked why it was that at the end of each week’s worship service I always gave the benediction from the back of the church; after all, this woman explained, in a tone that suggested no small measure of concern, at that moment you’re offering a blessing to your church and yet the whole congregation has its back to you!  Was there, she asked, some deeper spiritual meaning to this?  Was this what they taught you in seminary, or is this a UCC thing?  Well, I got to thinking about it and I realized that for me there wasn’t any real deep-seeded theological impartment as to doing the benediction that way; it was simply that where I was standing was closer to the door (!); and much easier to get to where to where I needed to be to shake hands with people after church!

Not exactly the stuff of major church schisms, I know (!); but it points up the fact that in the church, there are always going to be differences of opinion, and approach and belief; and moreover there always have been.  Almost from its very inception, church history is filled with instances of debate, conflict and division, all having to do with how the will and Word of God is to be followed and administered!  To wit, this week marks the 500th anniversary of how in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in protest of what he considered the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church; the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which not only changed the face of religion and all of western civilization, but also in no small way, is a reason why and how we’re here worshipping in this place today!   You see, as much as we try to avoid it, these kind of differences and the conflicts that ensue because of them, are inevitable; but that’s not always a bad thing!  The difference of whether it ends up a bad or good, divisive or even unifying thing comes in how we “get to the heart of the matter” as regards these questions, and what we discover about faith in the midst of them!

And, as in all things, our example for how this best happens is Jesus.

For you see, even Jesus… that’s right, even Jesus (!) found himself in the midst of such conflict.  The gospels record several instances when Jesus was faced by “concerned religious leaders” (that is, the scribes and Pharisees) who could not, would not accept his teachings about God and the kingdom, and recognized that what Jesus was saying was threatening to them and their own power.  So now, they were doing everything they could to discredit Jesus amongst the people, catch him in uttering some sort of punishable heresy, or both.  Our text for this morning is of one such instance; actually, as Matthew tells the story, it’s the final attempt on the part of the Pharisees to trip Jesus up with a seemingly simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Now, the easy answer to this question, the non-confrontational answer to this question, and according to Pharisaic law the legally acceptable answer to this question would have been for Jesus to say, “Every commandment of the Law is great, because all of the Law comes from God.” But that wasn’t the answer the Pharisees were looking for; what they were hoping was that Jesus might randomly pick one from the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Law (which, by the way, if you’re counting, amounts to 248 “thou shalts” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for every day of the year); because if Jesus did that, if Jesus picked just one commandment from all of those, then he’d certainly be guilty of denying or negating countless other commandments, and then the Pharisees could charge him not only as a law-breaker, but a blasphemer as well!  As far as these religious “uprights” were concerned, this was a no-win situation and now they had Jesus right where they wanted him.

But then Jesus does something that none of them were expecting: he takes a complicated, loaded question and gives them a very simple and familiar answer; moreover, with something they themselves would have known since they were children: “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.”  The Pharisees certainly knew this; this was from the Shema, words (from Deuteronomy) that are to be prayed by faithful Jews each and every morning and again in the evening.  First, says Jesus, you love God with heart and soul and mind!  Before anything else; before the other nine commandments and all the other laws and statutes and precepts that follow, before establishing any kind of faithful endeavor, first you must love God with heart and soul and mind!

It would have seemed to me that this confession of Jesus would have been more than enough to satisfy (or perhaps more accurately, infuriate) the Pharisees, but you see, Jesus wasn’t done yet. “And a second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And before the Pharisee can even begin to ask what about all the other commandments, Jesus adds one more thought: “’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”  First you love God, you see, but then you also have to love your neighbor; and that’s everything, because we can’t really love God with our heart, soul, and mind unless and until we love our neighbor as ourselves.  As Kenneth Samuel has written, “the second greatest commandment is not just secondary to the greatest commandment.  It is essential to the greatest commandment, for we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors who we see every day.”

In other words, when we get the heart of the matter as regards faith, it’s always going to be about LOVE: the kind of LOVE that puts God at the center of everything we do, and are and can ever hope to be; the kind of LOVE that ever and always reaches out and envelops those in need. To truly love God and to love neighbor: this is the kind of LOVE that makes us who we are; and that not only transcends and triumphs over every kind of difference we may have, it’s what provides the true purpose and the abiding principle for every part of the good work we seek to do as the church of Jesus Christ!

And for those of us 21st century Christians who might feel a little jaded and wonder if such a thing is, at best, kind of “pie in the sky” thinking, it’s helpful to take note of the fact that very soon after Jesus said all this to the scribes and Pharisees, they were gone; daring not to ask him any more questions.   Because at the end of the day, the heart of the matter is LOVE… it’s always LOVE… and how do you argue with LOVE?

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked a lot here about what it takes to live a life of adventuresome faith and to be the kind of disciples (and the kind of church!) we want to be.  We’ve spoken about how we need to be bold enough to “get out of the boat” of our own complacency and fear, so to follow Jesus where he leads; and about how very important it is, most especially in these days of divisive rhetoric and confused situations, for each and all us to “get to work” in this ministry to which we’ve been called, because there is a lot of work to be done!

And that’s why today we humbly and prayerfully ask – and also, we thank you and thank God – for your continued support of this ministry we share in Jesus’ name, and for your commitment to all that we do here at East Church: the work of Christian education and nurture for children and adults alike; the work of caring compassion and community outreach; the work of joy and hope that starts by being shared amongst kindred hearts, and then extended outward.  It’s the work of worship and fellowship and laughter and tears and peace and justice on a blessedly personal level, and it all happens right here with us and through us; and it takes our faithful stewardship, combined with God’s ever present grace, to keep it moving and growing.

But most of all, and never forget this… it also takes LOVE!

Because that’s the heart of the matter! In everything we seek to and to be disciples of Jesus Christ and as the church, we discover that there is and there remains this all-encompassing and faith-defining mandate to LOVE… to first, before anything else, to love God with heart and soul and mind, and then along with this to always love our neighbor as ourselves.  On this, says Jesus, “hangs all the law and the prophets;” and it continues to be, especially today, the pivot point of our lives as persons, as people and as the church.  It’s what makes the difference between truly carving out a life of faith and simply going through the motions; it’s the choice of enduring emptiness, on the one hand, or embracing a life of true abundance, on the other. It’s what gives us purpose, it’s what makes us real, it’s what helps us to grow; and it’s everything.

It’s LOVE, and friends, I pray that none of us will ever be so busy, so distracted, so hurt or confused, so suffering and grieving, so entangled in the minutiae of life that we lose sight of it.  Indeed, as you and I set out on the adventure of discipleship, let LOVE reign supreme: let it guide our thoughts, direct our devotion, set our pathways and help us along the journey.  Let LOVE be at the very heart of each of our lives, and at the heart of our life together at East Church; so that individually and collectively we might personify and manifest God’s love above all else.

After all, what’s that verse of scripture, the one we hear at just about every wedding, the one that Paul wrote to that squabbling, divided church at Corinth?  “For faith, hope and love abides, these three; but the greatest of these is… LOVE.”

LOVE!

So may it be… and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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