Sunday Message: “The Heart of Who We Are”

   Text: Matthew 22:34-46

   Liturgist Text: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Purpose: the purpose of this message is to translate the core of God’s message in the language and behavior of today.

Note: A video of this service is streamed live on Sundays, at 10:00 a.m. EST via Facebook Live on the Church Facebook page and will be added to this post once available. We hope you will join us live!

     Last Sunday at our Christian Education meeting, we made arrangements to offer an online, multi-age, advent wreath-lighting devotional beginning the last Sunday of November, which doubles as the first Sunday of advent. As we were discussing how to make the advent wreaths, Joel Irish reminded us to focus on the ‘heart’ of our goal rather than the peripheral particulars. In truth, one could participate meaningfully in the devotional with or without the wreath. Four candles and a lighter would be helpful, but the wreath itself would be an added bonus.

     Often in life, less is more. Robert Frost understood this and his spare poetry is the masterful result: “Some say the world will end in fire some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if I had to perish twice I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great, and would suffice.” Just three sentences, yet it says so much.

     Though the setting varies, Matthew, Mark and Luke all record an encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee with legal ability in which Jesus distills Torah, with its 613 commandments, into a pair of two: “love God with heart, soul and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus concludes, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

     When we sing, “They’ll Know, We are Christians by Our Love,” we are singing the heart of who we are, or perhaps I should say, the heart of who we are meant to be. Other ethical considerations certainly have merit, but without these two, we are, in the words of Paul, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In Luke’s version of the encounter, Jesus follows his summary with a riveting story of what it means to ‘love one’s neighbor.’ We call the parable, “The Good Samaritan,” but before we adhere ourselves to the second commandment, let us reflect a bit on the first.

    What does it mean to love God with heart, soul and strength? Some take it to mean setting oneself apart from the people and entanglements of this world to live an ascetic life of prayer, liturgy and worship. Others seek to become one with nature, living ‘deliberately’ in the words of Henry David Thoreau. Still others immerse themselves in acts of justice, mercy and compassion, touching the heart of God by rescuing those who are troubled. I don’t think there is a formula for loving God any more than there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula for courtship.

     Some begin with a dinner date and movie; others forget themselves and talk the night away. Some dance their way into relationship, while others sing their feelings to one another. Some dive into the physical like there is no tomorrow, while others fall in love with the soul long before they kiss. Some begin with friendship, while others banter and tease. Some propose while falling from the sky before the parachutes open.

     For all, though, communication is essential and two-way. Giving thanks to God, praising God, and living God’s way are expressions of our love for God, but true relationship emerges from the ‘give-and-take.’ We not only tell God how we feel; we listen for God’s response. We grow and build our relationship together. Do you recall the words Kary read from Deuteronomy concerning the death of Moses? “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”

     How did Moses know God face to face? He encountered, prayed, negotiated, praised, argued, celebrated, scolded, apologized, challenged, dared, dreamed and traveled with God through the good times and the bad. They were one another’s champion, but also pushed back when one or the other was set on destruction. Their love grew with the authenticity of their interaction.

     If you’re not sure how to begin a relationship with God or how to recover a relationship with God, I encourage you to start with a quiet space. When life is busy, loud, anxious and driven, it is hard to recover friendship. Start with a cup of coffee in a Sabbath space. Sabbath, incidentally, isn’t about having a day off, or visiting with family, or even going to church; it is about space in our schedule for being, specifically ‘being with God.’ Start with 15 minutes of centering, becoming present to yourself, so that you may then begin listening for God’s still small voice, the rhythms of God’s Spirit, or the promptings of God’s heart.

     Don’t be afraid to ask God to show you who God is, and don’t be afraid to show God who you are. God already knows anyway, but your love grows in the mutual gift of self-revelation. Sadly, there are many who spend their whole life studying the books of God who never actually encounter the living God. Scripture has much to teach us about who God is and how God has interacted with the human condition throughout the millennia of history, but who ever fell in love by reading a biography of their prospective match? Sooner or later, an encounter ignites the relationship. For Moses, it was a conversation beside a bush that strangely, kept on burning, burning, burning. For me, it was a walk in the woods, a county fair altar call, and a shout in a moment of crisis.

     What might it be for you? When Jesus said, “If you, though you are evil, give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” And again, “Ask, and you will receive. Knock, and the door will be opened.” These are promises that God will meet us when we earnestly seek God, and in that encounter, love is born.

     Now. What about the second commandment—‘love your neighbor as yourself?’ In his parable, “The Good Samaritan,” Jesus shows us what it means to be a neighbor. It isn’t simply helping the folks who live on the other side of the drive (though that is certainly included). It is a lived compassion which reaches the heart of those who are our natural enemies, too. In his first epistle, John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, describes it like this: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20, NRSV).

     Our love for God rings hollow (again, a noisy gong or clanging cymbal) if we avoid loving the very ones God places (or allows to be placed) in our path. The two commandments are inseparable. I wonder though, if, when the world looks at the Christian Church today, they see the two in perfect harmony. Do they truly know that we are Christians by our love? Is our faith and love for God evident from the good works we do? Do our actions proclaim what our hearts believe?

     I began with an observation which Joel Irish made, so I would like to close with an idea Joel offered to help us live into this love of God and neighbor. I propose calling it, “The Thankful Pie Project.” Many of you bake incredible, home-made pies for our church suppers which we have not been able to host for awhile, due to the pandemic. What if some of us made pies, so that two or three could gather to divide them into delivery containers, and still others could deliver them on the two days before Thanksgiving as expressions of love and gratitude for neighbors who may be isolated from family and friends this Thanksgiving Day? Visits would be masked and brief, with a simple ’Happy Thanksgiving! I’ve brought a piece of pie from our church for you to enjoy!” What do you think, church? Are you game?