We were working with new technology this morning – the church purchased a MEVO camera for streaming worship. I know we are so behind everyone else who did that months ago – ha! – but we’re slowly working on figuring out what is going to work for us longterm as we think about what streaming looks like, even post-covid.
One of my favorite scriptures this morning – The Greatest Commandment!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
October 25, 2020
A Love That Can Unite Us
Last weekend was everything that I did not realize I needed in my life and in my ministry and in my faith. It was so wonderful to gather the Confirmation Class and their mentors and families here, at the physical church building, for their long-awaited Confirmation Sunday. It felt great to work through the necessary logistical challenges to ensure we could have an in-person service that was safe for those in attendance, while also livestreaming for everyone watching from home.
It is a strange world that we are living in – and also “doing church” in right now. But there are, indeed, these moments of grace that we uncover along the journey and in those moments, I see God’s presence so clearly. Last weekend was one of those moments.
Much of that service felt different than Confirmation services in the past – we were outside and wore masks, there was a much smaller number of people in attendance, we did not sing and I could not physically lay hands on each Confirmand during the Act of Confirmation. But other things felt so familiar – we wore red and used the liturgy we always use. I pulled out my red fabric to create an installation on the altar, we read the Pentecost text out of Acts of the Apostles and “Hear I Am, Lord’ was our gathering music (even though it was prerecorded).
And finally, like in year’s past, in lieu of a formal sermon, I wrote a Letter to the Confirmation Class. Typically, this letter talks about the journey we took together and what it meant to me. This year, however, I felt compelled to talk more about what is going on in the world (it’s not like I could avoid it, we were, after all, sitting outside wearing masks).
I started off with an apology – I said I was sorry that their Confirmation journey was not ending the way we all envisioned it would, that this pandemic has taken so much from them and that we, as adults, do not actually know what we are doing when it comes to managing life in a pandemic. I used that apology as a way of transitioning into my hope for them that they would not lose faith – that they would not lose faith in God, faith in the church and faith in the people around them.
I never have a lot of time to preach on Confirmation Sunday and this year, in particular, I felt as though there was so much more that I wanted to say. I wanted to further apologize for the fact that, collectively, we have not managed to get a better handle on this pandemic. I wanted to share my sorrow and disappointment that our election and democratic process has not shown civility and unity, but hostility and division. I wanted to explain that we, as adults, have made mistakes, but that we are trying to create some semblance of order out of chaos right now.
But I did not just want to focus on the negative, because there is so much more to the story that is being written right now and I wanted to make sure the Confirmands saw that, as well. I wanted to tell them about all of the things I am seeing behind the scenes that is restoring my faith in humanity and offering my hope for a better world. I wanted to talk about all of the ways I have seen people in our own church community step up during this pandemic to love one another – by making masks, sending cards, dropping off meals, donating money, calling someone they know is going through a tough time and praying for one another. I wanted to tell them about this love that I have seen – a real and powerful and life-changing love that has refused to be conquered by anything, despite the messiness of our world. I wanted to explain that this is the kind of love that moves mountains and gives us that kind of hope that we need right now.
And so it is fitting that, as we settle back into the lectionary this week – we went off lectionary last week to read that Pentecost story – that this is the Gospel passage that appears: The Greatest Commandment.
A lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is – out of all of the laws in all of the world. Jesus responds by saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment.”
I always imagine Jesus taking a really long pause here for dramatic effect and then looking each Pharisee in the eyes before continuing: “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
This is probably, hands down, my favorite passage of scripture. It can be easily summed up in four words – love God, love people – words that this church has certainly clung onto and tried to live out. The fact that The Greatest Commandment appears, in some way, in all four Gospels reminds me of just how important love is to the centralized message of the Gospel and how foundational it is to our faith. And the order in which we are called to love – first to love God and then to love our neighbor – teaches me that, in those moments when it is really hard to love other people (because we all have those moments), that we need to first love God and then try to work out the rest of it.
One of the things that really struck me this week when I was preparing this sermon is the fact that, while this is clearly one of, if not the most important piece of our faith according to Jesus – the greatest commandment, he says – this is not something Jesus came up with on his own.
When Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he is referring to words of Hebrew scripture, from Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Moses spoke these words to Israel not long after he conveyed to them Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, when Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he is referring to, again, words of Hebrew scripture, from Leviticus 19:18, which says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
So, first of all, the first half of this verse, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,” I think is really relevant in our country right now, especially as we get closer and closer to the election and begin to think about how, regardless of the outcome, we are going to untangle the mess it created in the process. Emotions are running high and family members and friends are, understandably so, having a hard time reconciling certain differences.
And so I think it is all the more important to look at these words not as Jesus’ original thought, but as Jesus recognizing and upholding scriptures that were around long before even him. Christians are not the sole proprietor of love as the foundational property of their religious tradition. It is important that we understand that love is not what sets us apart from others, rather it is what unites us with them and what will, ultimately, help us together find hope, healing and wholeness.
We have a little over a week to go before the election; and there very likely will be moments where it is hard and ugly and where we are unable to reconcile certain differences. But I want to go back to what I said at the beginning of this sermon. I said that one of the messages I so desperately wanted to convey to the Confirmation Class last week was that, despite the mess we are in right now, I have seen the most incredible displays and concrete examples of love happen within our church community these past eight months. It has given me so much hope and strength in a time when both of those things have been hard to find. And I really do believe they have made a difference – and will continue to.
With a little over a week to go, I want to encourage you all to use this last stretch before the election to create love in the world. Send cards and notes of encouragement. Check in with someone you know is going through a hard time. Drop off treats to people who live nearby, even if it just a little baggie of Halloween candy or a piece of some baked good you might have made. Offer to run errands for someone – or even just pick something up for them while you are already at the store. Say please and thank you. Look people in the eyes and smile at them, even if they cannot see it from behind your mask. Show kindness and mercy. Lift one another up by acknowledging each other’s gifts and affirming who they are, as a child of God and the impact they have made on your life.
I invite us all to make a conscious effort this next week or so to create so much love that it quiets the noise of anything else we might otherwise overhear. Remember it is not love that should set us apart, but love that should unite us. So let love be something that unites us in ways that only God can bring forth. Let love be something that unites us in ways that crosses religious and political divides. Let love be something that unites us in ways Jesus acknowledged as a foundational part of being human and then called into being when he said these words. Let love be something that unites us in ways that truly can offer hope and healing to a world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News.
Thanks be to God!