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Round About the Manger: The Man Who Isn’t There

(a sermon for December 10, 2009, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on  John 1:1-5, 10-14, Matthew 8:18-20 and Luke 2:1-7)

He’s arguably one of the pivotal characters of the Christmas story, and yet he isn’t there; not really.

I mean, he’s never mentioned at all in scripture; moreover, there isn’t this rich tradition of folklore that surrounds him (as in the case of the three wise men, for instance); and unlike the shepherds, the angels or even that mythical and ubiquitous little drummer boy, you’d be hard pressed to find many songs written and sung about him.  Even if he’s included in the nativity scene – which isn’t often – he’s usually relegated to a position way in the background, as to not distract our attention from those at the manger!

And yet, in every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen there he is, playing his small but essential role; because somebody has to greet Mary and Joseph at the door and with arms crossed and head shaking back and forth tell this travel-weary couple that there‘s “no place for them in the inn.”  Yes, we’re talking about the innkeeper, the one whose part in the nativity story – or at least we assume it is (!) – is to shuttle the holy family off to an adjoining stable, the place where Mary gives birth to the Christ child amongst dirt and hay and farm animals.

Now, how this mysterious innkeeper is portrayed varies with the telling of the story.  Sometimes he’s seen as a caring and sympathetic provider of at least some small manner of shelter for this couple when absolutely nothing else was available; other times he’s viewed as this harried entrepreneur who can’t be bothered to do anything better for them than the barn out back!  But… either in fact or speculation, the fact is that this “innkeeper,” whoever he may be, comes and goes so quickly we don’t have much of a chance to even consider his motives.  So in practical and strictly biblical terms, I guess he truly is “the man who isn’t there;” and yet, I would submit to you that is one character in the nativity story who needs to be “round about the manger,” if only at a distance.  And not simply because an inn needs an innkeeper (!), either, but because of what this particular innkeeper represents: the choice he made on that holy night, as well as the choice that every heart must make as regards the Christ Child.

You see, there was room in the inn on that night in Bethlehem.  There had to have been; not only was hospitality so central to Jewish culture that there would almost always be an extra room or an additional bed for unexpected visitors or strangers in need, but for the innkeeper there was also a business point of view to consider.  As J. Barrie Shepherd notes in a beautiful little piece entitled The Innkeeper’s Defense, there was “always, within reason, one chamber… kept for that noble, but unexpected guest, that personage of means and influence, accustomed to the very best accommodation, who arrives without reservations and [who could] make or break your reputation as a host.”

Not that an inn of biblical times was a place of much privacy or comfort.  Historians tell us that these places were most likely very primitive in nature: a rectangular, flat-roofed building of many small rooms opening into an open courtyard with a common well and a fire burning where guests could cook their own food.  Some rooms might well have had a small stable attached for the beasts of burden that travelers brought with them; others were just big enough for a pallet on the floor.  And, no doubt, there were a few “nicer” rooms that even had meals provided… for a price, of course.

And granted, we all know that the little town of Bethlehem was a inordinately crowded place that night, what with all those who’d come there for the “registration” ordered by the Roman government.  And we also know, as “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child,” that there would have been little or no time for discussion or possible alternatives; so perhaps what happened next with the stable was out of necessity.  Still, you wonder why the innkeeper couldn’t have possibly found something better for this young couple who were in so much need!   Surely there was another place somewhere on the premises where Mary could give birth amidst something less than squalor; at the very least couldn’t he have set them up in the corner of the courtyard where there’d be a warm fire burning nearby?  No, there was none of that; only the stable, which contrary to the familiar image we think of, might well have been a nearby cave, hollowed out of soft limestone by time, water, and wind, a small nook barely sufficient to keep animals out of the elements, much less a young woman in the midst of labor pains!

By just about any reckoning, it was about the worst place for a baby to be born; and this is where the innkeeper had sent them!  Honestly, you have to wonder if it wasn’t so much the inn that had no room as it was the innkeeper’s heart!

And you wonder why; could it have been that he couldn’t abide the possible liability or the scandal that came with such a sudden and mysterious birth?   Perhaps it was that he didn’t quite like the looks of these two travelers who, aside from being tired, dirty and expectant, were also obviously poor and from a place much rougher than Bethlehem; not exactly the kind of clientele that would attract a higher and wealthier class of guest!   Or maybe it was simply that he was too busy to get involved: too much else going on at the inn,  too much happening in Bethlehem, too much going on in his life to make a commitment or even notice that something wonderful was happening!

I know the scriptural account doesn’t bear this out, but surely there must have been this moment when the innkeeper went out into the night air to check on things; noticing, for the first time, the brightness of a star shining overhead; seeing that a group of shepherds, of all people, were crowded around the entrance of his stable to catch a glimpse of… a baby; all the while going on and on about a heavenly host of angels and good news of a Messiah!

What really happened in that moment, we don’t know. Maybe the innkeeper went down to see this thing for himself; or perhaps he dismissed the whole thing as another of the late night revelries that had been taking place all over Bethlehem, and went back to bed.  But either way, at some point – and maybe it was months or even years later – the innkeeper must have come to the realization that for the sake of his business and busyness, his rush to judgment or whatever reason, when he’d sent this refugee couple and their soon-to-be newborn off to the stable, he’d missed something and someone important; someone who was no less than the Savior of the world!

And you know what?  I could find a great deal of fault with that this morning; I could pass judgment on that innkeeper and portray him as one of the villains of this story (many preachers have, to be sure!); except for one thing.  As I stand here now, 2,000 years later, I realize that the innkeeper… is me.  And he’s you.  

I said before that the innkeeper in this story represents something very important; and it’s every one of us who has tended to put the Lord Jesus aside in our hearts and lives as though there’s no room for him there. As Jesus himself would say many years later to those who would blithely declare a sense of loyalty without any real conviction about it:  “’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’”   The innkeeper of the Christmas story actually serves to remind us of a very hard truth: that it’s all too easy for us to put Jesus “away in the manger” of our thoughts and good intentions, in the process keeping him away and apart from the ways we really and truly live our lives.

It’s one thing, you see, for us to suggest that that we need to put Christ back in Christmas, and that’s true; but it’s quite another come to grips with the fact that in so many ways, there’s never been enough room for Christ there in the first place; or anywhere else, for that matter.  Jill Briscoe, a pastor and writer from Wisconsin, has written what is admittedly a disturbing piece of poetry that nonetheless strikes an all-too-familiar chord:

“Room in my inn for my business affairs,
Room in my inn for my worries and cares,
Room in my inn for the drink and the smoke,
Room for the act, for the off-color joke,
Room for my family, room for my wife,
Room for my plans, Lord, but no room for your life,
And room for depression, when the party’s all through,
Room for myself, Lord, but no room for you!”

How sad a thing it is, friends, that the this season comes and goes every year without some new kind of awareness of what Christmas really is; that we become so preoccupied that we fail to notice that far above and beyond the decorations and music and gifts and fun, beyond even what we do here at church is this miracle of spiritual birth, this utter reality that God is being born (!), and that in Jesus, God is seeking to make himself at home in our lives!   Think of it, beloved!  God Almighty, the King of the Universe, is taking his rightful place on the throne of our hearts, and does it in the guise of a tiny, crying helpless baby.   How could such love and power not change our lives?  How could anything be more urgent than this?  How could we possibly allow ourselves to miss it?

And yet, like the innkeeper of Bethlehem before us, so often we do just that.

John’s gospel, of course, does not include any version of the nativity story; in fact, John opens his account of Jesus’ life with an affirmation of Christ as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) coming into the world.  So there’s no mention of shepherds and angels, mangers or innkeepers; but there is this: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”  It’s a reminder that that there have always been, and shall always be, those who will miss out on that light because they refuse to recognize God in the midst of it.  Beloved, we are beginning now the second week of Advent, our season of waiting and watching and preparing for the coming of light in Jesus, our Emmanuel.  How awful it would be if we choose to stand so distant to the manger that we end up missing the miracle that soon and very soon will happen there!  What a tragedy it would be for us not to make room in our hearts for his coming?

But the good news is that even now we’re being called to draw closer to the manger and to take notice of what is about to happen; and make no mistake, it’ll be wonderful.  But as Tim Roehl writes in his book Christmas Hearts, “oftentimes the Lord comes to us in ways we don’t expect.  The nudge we feel in our hearts is the whisper of His Spirit beckoning us to discover the miracle just beyond the mundane.  Too often our minds, frazzled by the rush of life, overrule the voice we hear speaking to our hearts” he goes on to say, “and God is moved to the back of our lives, out of the way again… but [even now] there’s someone knocking at the door of your heart.  [The question is] have you any room?”

Well, believe it or not, there’s only two weeks left to go before Christmas comes; and I suspect that for most of us, there’s still shopping to do, places to go and lots of things to do before we can feel in any way, shape or form ready!   It’s a busy time, to be sure; and hopefully a good time as well.  But I hope and pray that in the midst of all of it we don’t lose an ear for that voice that keeps asking us for a place to stay; and that we might answer in such a way that the Lord of love might truly be born in our in our hearts and lives, so to live there now and forever.

Let there be no regrets that we didn’t make room for his coming; but rather that we truly invited him in, to “Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”

Thanks be to God who comes in Christ to live in our hearts!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 10, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Round About the Manger: For Those Who Live Out in the Fields

(a sermon for December 3, 2017, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 2:8-12)

And now, with the start of the Advent season, once again the old and familiar story begins anew.

At its heart it’s a breathtakingly simple story, really; about a young girl giving birth to her first child in a stable, of all places, with precious few even remotely aware that this “blessed” event was taking place; in many ways, it’s no different a story than those of countless young women throughout the ages. But, of course, there’s a reason that this particular “baby story” gets told again and again across the generations: it’s because, in the words of David Lose, “the child born to this young mother will change the course of history, and the fates of leaders and common folk alike hang in the balance of his destiny.”  The child in the manger, you see, is “the Messiah, the Lord,” the very Son of God; and so it’s fitting that each year about this time we do remember the simple and yet utterly powerful story of his advent into the world, and that we are each and all prayerfully waiting and watching for signs of his coming.

In fact, such is the power of this remarkable and miraculous story that it’s long been our custom to set forth something of a tableau of the narrative in the form of a crèche; a nativity scene, if you will.  It’s a Christian tradition that dates back as far as the 13th century and may well have been begun by St. Francis of Assisi as a palpable reminder of the humility of Christ’s birth, complete with manger, ox and lamb, and plenty of hay. Francis, it is said, wished to remind all those looking upon this scene of the simplicity, and the utter poverty, of God’s own Son being born into the world.  And I would dare say that even today, given all the massive chaos, stress and rampant affluence that so often accompanies the holiday season, it’s still a much needed reminder!

Actually, friends, as much as you know I love just about all manner of Christmas lights and decorations (!), I have to say that the crèche has always been my favorite, in large part because it is humbling, a good reminder of “the reason for the season,” and also because it’s serenely quiet amidst all the noise this time of year; and I need that.  Many has been the advent evening over the years when I’ve found myself gazing long upon our family’s beautiful crèche (a family heirloom, handcrafted by my grandmother, with shepherds, magi and an angel who holds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” banner) and imagining what the real scene must have been on that starlit night in Bethlehem so long ago; even as I’m thinking that as far as I’m concerned, spiritually and otherwise, our crèche gets it just right!

All of that said, however; I do suspect that over the centuries, like so much of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, we’ve tended to, shall we say, romanticize the nativity scene a bit.  Take the shepherds, for instance; in our crèche at home, the resident shepherd has more of a medieval look about him: he, as you might imagine, has a little lamb about his shoulders; but he’s also wearing a brown, apparently one-piece tunic, he’s blonde, fair-skinned, barefoot and, might I add, very, very clean!  Now, again, don’t get me wrong; I kind of like that image of the beautiful and nicely coiffed, animal-loving Christmas shepherd; but honestly, that’s likely not a wholly accurate description!

The truth is that in Jesus’ time, shepherds were not particularly well thought of; they were, in fact, on the bottom tier of Jewish society.  More often than not, they were mired in poverty (usually you didn’t become a sheepherder because you particularly loved sheep, nor that you felt called to that vocation; you became a sheepherder because that was the only job you could get!); they were often thought of as incompetent and untrustworthy, disreputable rogues at best and hardened criminals at worst; and because of this, they pretty much existed as outcasts on the outermost fringes of respectable society; and yes, let’s just say it: they were dirty, not merely in the sense that these shepherds lived for weeks out in the fields and deserts watching their flocks by night and day, but also in the sense of being ritually unclean.  Jewish law at the time forbade many classes of people from entering the Temple for worship, and shepherds were amongst those who were not welcome.  To put this another way, though the job of the shepherd was to protect the sheep that would potentially be used in sacrifices at the Temple, they themselves were not allowed to participate in that act of worship, nor to know God’s presence in the Temple itself!

So by just about every societal, economic and religious measure you can name, shepherds were considered to be the lowest of the low, not at all good or righteous or even redeemable.  To put this all into perspective, consider these words from the writings of first century Jewish writer Jeremias: that “to buy wool, milk or a [baby goat] from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”

Not exactly the beautiful and serene image put forth in your average nativity scene, is it?  And yet…

…wasn’t it such these who were exactly the kind of people that our Lord had come to save? Weren’t these “disreputable rogue” shepherds the very ones who were clinging to those promises of old, the ones we heard in this morning’s text from Jeremiah, that a “righteous branch” will “spring up for David;” that there will soon one who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” bringing forth a time when “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety?”  Does it not seem as though these would be the very ones – the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast – whom God would choose to invite into his presence? In fact, I would submit to you that this is why we always find the shepherds “round about the manger!”  To quote David Lose once again, “Here is the promise of Christmas in a nutshell.  God deigns to dwell not with the high and might, but with the lowly, the unexpected, those considered ‘nothing’ by the world.  And here, amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God’s intentions for humanity fully known: [that] God is love.

Christ comes, you see; that is the promise of Advent.  And, the good news is that Christ comes for those who live out in the fields… and the good news, beloved, is that you and I are included in that number.

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting we’re a sanctuary full of “disreputable rogues;” at least as far as I know!  But I do know that just because we might not be in the business of tending sheep we aren’t still shepherds, at least in the spiritual sense.  I would suggest to you that each one of us here this morning knows something about what it means to be “out in the fields” of life; most especially as we’re “keeping watch” of things in the dark of night.  After all, so many of us know all too well what it is to be weighed down by the everyday hardships of this life; to be faced with the bleak realities that seemingly come out of nowhere to afflict us.  Debilitating illness and on-going grief, faltering relationships, pervasive economic struggles, the injustice of a world that too often favors the wealthy and powerful in its priorities; this, to say nothing of the deep and pervasive yearning that each and every one of us here have to feel welcomed and included and loved, even as we constantly find ourselves on the outside looking in… it goes on and on; but this is the stuff of life out in the fields… and we are the shepherds dwelling in the midst of our own flocks of sheep.

That’s why it’s good news indeed that just as birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem was unto “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,” it is unto us as well.

As we’ve said throughout this service, today does mark the beginning of the season of Advent, our time of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; a time for each one of us to come “round about the manger” and let the story of his holy birth begin again in our worship, but most especially, in our lives.  It seems to me that as we do so, we can take some lessons from those shepherds who did indeed leave everything behind – including their sheep, apparently (!) – in order to run to Bethlehem in order to gaze upon the divine infant.

We know, for instance, that as the shepherds beheld the spectacle of “an angel of the Lord [who] stood before them, and the glory of the Lord [that] shone around them,” they listened; for as terrifying an experience as it must have been to suddenly be in the presence of one (and then a heavenly host!!) bearing nothing less than the very Word of God, they were open to truly receive that good news with their whole hearts and then their whole lives. And so it should be for you and me, that the good news of Christ be allowed to speak to us and affect us and move us to new ways of understanding and living in this world; and that begins by truly listening.

And then we also know, having received that good news wholly and fully, that the shepherds went.  And not casually, or out of some mild curiosity, either; but with swift decisiveness, and out of a great sense of urgency and excitement to go and see for themselves.  “They came with haste,” the old King James Version puts it, “and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”  And why wouldn’t they? In the words of poet J. Barrie Shepherd, they’d been “caught up in the midst of the momentous.”  The question is whether in this advent season the coming of Christ is equally momentous for us; if our priority in this busy and often cacophonous time is to focus our thoughts and energies on beholding this child who comes to save us from ourselves.

And then, of course, we know that the shepherds returned; because after they’d gone to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus; after they’d told Mary and Joseph what they’d seen and heard; after the whole thing was done and the time had come to leave, they went back.  Back out to the fields; back to the sheep; back to the hard work and back to the silent drudgery of the flock.  It was back to the same old same old; and yet they weren’t the same going back.  Rather, they “returned, glorifying and praising God.”   Life for those shepherds did go on as it had before:  but now that they’d been touched and moved by the mystery and wonder, now that they’d encountered nothing less than the very love of God incarnate, how could they ever again be the same?

And so that ought to be for us as we embark on this time of advent waiting and watching.  For you see, in the end what we’re waiting and watching for is the almost indescribable reality of God, the Eternal One, who is being born into our midst to save us where we are as we are, right now; who comes into the very midst of life-as-we-know-it, even if life-as-we-know-it overwhelms us with pain and bewilderment and confusion.  What the shepherds discovered that night, and what you and I need to embrace for ourselves in this season is the truth of a God whose love for us is so great that it will stoop even to helplessness in order to bring us to him and his strength and his peace.  God did it with the cradle, beloved, and God did it on the cross; and God did it – and continues to do it – so that we might know the glory of life both abundant and eternal, spending our days, whether in joy or in sorrow, glorifying and praising God for all we have seen; living out of the faith and hope that is ours by his coming in Jesus Christ and the advent dawning of his kingdom.

May this be our hope and prayer as in these weeks we draw near to the manger, and also as we come to the Lord’s table this morning to know his presence in the bread and the cup.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2017 in Advent, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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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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