What an amazing day. I just cannot put into words how good it felt to worship with my congregation, members of my association, area clergy and friends and family from Connecticut all at the same time. How often do those worlds collide?
Here’s this morning’s sermon.
FYI – I went off script at one point and said something to the effect of, “I don’t think when Jesus said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ he was talking about poking them on Facebook!”
This is why I shouldn’t go off script.
Enjoy! Audio is here.
On Thursday afternoon I came home from work and there was a package on our doorstep. My hands were full, so I went into the house, dropped everything and went back out to see what was there – we hadn’t ordered anything so I was intrigued. The package looked unusual – not like something dropped off by a UPS or FedEx truck. It was tucked inside a reusable grocery bag with a handwritten note on top of it. It was heavy! It wasn’t something that I could grab with one hand.
So I brought it into the house and opened it up. It was a fresh fruit basket; a heavy glass bowl was filled with fresh apples, peaches, pineapples and more. The note inside read, “Dear Pastor Sarah and Bruce: Welcome to the neighborhood. We are delighted you are here and hopefully settled in with comfort. If you are walking Hillside, please feel free to stop in.” It was signed with a name and address of a couple who live up the street from us.
I just smiled as I read and re-read the card – and carefully looked at every piece of fruit in the bowl. This is what I had missed for so many years living in the city of Atlanta – this sense of small town community, having neighbors, knowing your neighbors, trusting your neighbors, loving your neighbors. This is why I focused my own search when I was looking for a church in small towns, in rural areas, as opposed to cities and more urban areas. I wanted to – I want to – know and love my neighbors. This is why I was thrilled to be called to Rehoboth.
I am not alone in this; we all choose to live in this area; to live a quieter lifestyle than if we were to live in a city. But I think that, in a way, that sense of small town community that we all love so much has dwindled over the past several years. In fact, as frustrated as we all were during and after Hurricane Irene, I am sure we can all agree that at least for the first day or two we kind of enjoyed the opportunity to un-plug; to go for a walk; to chat with our neighbors, most of whom we only interact with by waving as we drive by in a hurry.
And yet, Jesus said, ‘And a second [commandment] is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’
These days, it is hard to love our neighbor. Things are not the way that they used to be: There are new dangers that we face in our communities and in the world; people are different than they used to be. When I was young, my sister and I used to take off for the day and play with others kids in the neighborhood and my parents didn’t have to worry about where we were. That is not necessarily true today. There are new safety concerns that make it difficult today for us to follow – to truly follow – this commandment to love our neighbor.
It is also hard to love our neighbor because of how we, as human beings, are changing with the world around us. And now when I say “neighbor” I do not necessarily just mean the literal “neighbor” who lives in close proximity to us, I also mean “neighbor” like Jesus did. I think Jesus said “love our neighbor” and also meant to love our family, our friends, those in our community. And even though we may know these people, I think it is still hard at times to love them. And I think that as we become more reliant on technology we are communicating in more passive-aggressive, technologically-enhanced ways and it is really hard to find that safe sense of unity that Jesus so badly wanted us to find as a Body.
Some days I think the surge in technology that we are experiencing actually inhibits our ability to find this unity, to love our neighbors. We are given so many choices, so many opportunities for division – in the media, in social media and in rising political interests. Our families are so busy, we are feeling the stress of circumstances that we have never felt before and often times we feel like we are in survival mode and need to desperately cling on to what we believe in even if that means standing in opposition with our neighbors.
And it is so easy for us to stand behind the mask of anonymity that the Internet gives to us when we disagree with someone. It is easy to strike back without thinking or even being prayerful when all we have to do is type a few words on a keyboard and hit enter without seeing the reaction our response might elicit.
These days it is not easy to follow the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
And yet that is what we are commanded to do.
Jesus knew that this would not be an easy commandment to follow. He had to have known! The life that he was living was also one of division and conflict; people strongly disagreed with him – he was put on trial, he was put to death. There was no way, when he said that we should love our neighbor, that he thought that this would be easy for anyone – not even himself – to follow.
Which is why, I think, this was the second commandment that Jesus gave to us.
Jesus first said, “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,” Jesus said.
Jesus knew that it was never going to be easy for us to love our neighbors. So he gave us a tool to help us do that – that tool is to love God.
I do not think that these commandments stand side by side one another as two things that we should strive for simultaneously. I think that we need to love God, I think we need to let God into our hearts and into our souls and into our minds before we have the capacity within ourselves to truly love our neighbors.
Is it easy to follow the commandment to love our neighbors? No. But that is why we must always seek to love God first.
I was at General Synod – the UCC national meeting – a few years ago and was in a meeting about a resolution that was headed to the floor the next day (I think I’ve told this story before). The discussion got pretty heated at one point, as discussions often do in the church, and the moderator – instead of banging her fist and calling for order – calmly rose her voice above the yelling and paused us for a moment of prayer. By the time she said “Amen” a peace had gently rippled over our group. And we were able to finish the discussion calmly – and in adherence to the commandment to love our neighbor.
We are all different; we all play a different role in the body of Christ; we were made to think differently so that the world could truly be a vibrant and growing place. And those differences threaten to divide us constantly – they did when Jesus walked this earth and they continue to today. But if we seek to always adhere to that first commandment – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” – I think we really can be united, I think we really can follow that commandment to love our neighbors.
It is not a side-by-side thing. I do not think we are supposed to simultaneously love both God AND our neighbors. But I do think that if we love God first, if we open ourselves up completely and wholly to God, if we make that our priority, then God will help us to follow that second commandment. God will give us the strength to love our neighbors even when it seems like an impossible feet to us.
Today we have a lot to celebrate. We celebrated our growing church family through the sacrament of Baptism, we continue to celebrate the ministries of our church with our “Ministry Moments”, and this afternoon we will celebrate the covenants that we have made as pastor and congregation and the wider covenants that we have made with the United Church of Christ at my installation.
And as we continue to move forward, I ask you this question: What would our lives, what would our ministries, what would our covenants look like if our first priority was always to love God? I think we would have even more to celebrate. And I think it would make everything else a whole lot easier.
Jesus gave us these commandments, but I do not think he intended for us to simply follow them. I think he wanted us to celebrate them; to celebrate the possibilities that they would give to us.
So when you are at your wits end – at home, in church, at school, at work – I invite you to take a moment and say a prayer. Let God in – first. And then let God transform you. – and everything else you are apart of.
“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.