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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

November 4, 2012

The Greatest Love

Psalm 56; Mark 12:28-34; I John 5:7-16

This Sunday stands between two noteworthy events on our calendar.  Last Thursday was November 1, a day known as All Saints’ Day in our liturgical calendar.  It is a day on which we honor the Church Universal as well as deceased members of our church.  Next Tuesday, November 6, is Election Day, the day on which voting for our next President and Vice President and many other leaders of our nation and community will be completed.  The campaigning will be over and we anticipate knowing by the end of Tuesday or in the wee hours of the following day, the victors.  In addition, this past week we have been aware of damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy in the northeast areas of the United States and in the Caribbean countries.  We are mindful of the loss of life, homes, businesses and schools and the human suffering as the process of recovery continues.  We are moved to pray for our neighbors and the volunteers seeking to help and to show our concern and God’s love in tangible ways.

Our lectionary provides a most appropriate text for today in the passage from Mark that gives us Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment.  In our reading from Mark, Jesus is asked by a scribe the first, most important commandment.  Jesus answers by citing first, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Jesus is quoting the Shema found in Deuteronomy.  The Shema is the Jewish creed repeated twice a day by adult males to affirm their faith.  It is also the sentence that begins the worship service of the synagogue.  Jesus is the first to combine the Shema with a second commandment found in Leviticus.  The second commandment is this, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  He concludes by stating that there is no other commandment greater than these.  

Jesus’ teaching of the greatest commandments is found also in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke.  In Luke, a lawyer responds to Jesus’ teaching with the question, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus answers the question by telling the story of the good Samaritan which defines our neighbor as anyone that God places in our path.

If Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, were preaching today, he would approve of our text.  It is believed that John lived his last years in Ephesus and he preached again and again the same message: love God and love one another.  Finally, his weary parishioners asked John, “Why do you preach the same message time after time?”  John responded, “It is the Lord’s command. When you have mastered this lesson, my children, we will move on to another.” 

The commandment to love God and our neighbors is difficult, even impossible to keep, if we seek to love by our sheer will.  We need God’s help to love so purely.  The commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind involves every aspect of our being.  The heart represents our inner self and feelings; our soul means our very lives; our strength involves our resources and energy and our mind represents our intellect and understanding.  We are to love God with every fiber of our being, all that we are and ever will be.  The emphasis is not on what we do and on our good deeds.  Jesus is emphasizing our becoming the kind of person who can love God purely. 

Loving God is really not about us.  We are not capable of such great love.  Loving God is all about God and His love for us.  It is difficult to comprehend the love of God.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “God does not love us because we are valuable.  We are valuable because God loves us.” 

The Bible tells us of our Creator God who created the heavens, the stars, the moon, the earth and all that inhabits the earth.  When God finished His creation, He declared it good.  The crowning glory of God’s creation was the human created in God’s own image.  The Bible tells us of a God who guides us and sustains us, comforts us and teaches us.  We are told of a God who has written our names on the palm of His hand, whose steadfast love is as great as the heavens are high above the earth, who has cast our sins as far as the east is from the west.  God knows all about us, our secret sins, our hateful thoughts, our inner grumbling and He loves us anyway.  God has promised to be with us always.

The Bible also tells us of a God who sent His Son to live among us and teach us about His Father, a God who loves us and longs for a relationship with us.  God gave us His Son who was lifted up on the cross, dying for our sins and then raised from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life.  In Jesus’ resurrection, eternal life triumphs over death, the Light of the world shines in the darkness, God’s love is victorious over hatred.  Through Jesus, we know God as a God of saving and healing love.  If we are in Christ, then we are new creations.  We have died to sin and been raised to new life because we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.

As humans, we have an innate need to be loved and to love.  In John’s first letter, he writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another … if we love one another, God lives in us.”  We are able to love only as God loves us and forgives us and we receive God’s love and forgiveness.  When Jesus lives in us, God loves others through us and forgives through us.  Love and forgiveness are intertwined.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Love is an act of forgiveness in which evil is converted to good and destruction into creation.”  We receive God’s love and forgiveness and then share God’s love and forgiveness with others.

The key principle in loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind is that we cannot do it, absolutely cannot do it, without God’s help.  The joyous news is that God loves us, and as we believe we are loved, we can see ourselves as worthy of being loved and sharing His love.  Admitting to God our inability to love perfectly is an excellent place to begin.  In fact, we can probably admit that there are some people we do not even want to love and we may never like them.  We can sympathize with the psalmist who wrote the psalm we read this morning as he complains to God about his enemies who trample him and oppress him and asks God to repay them for their crime.  Yet, the psalmist places his trust in God and he declares he is not afraid.  Fear is a block to love.  In 1st John we read that perfect love casts out fear and the reverse is also true, for fear casts out love.  With a focus on God’s love, the psalmist rises above his fear and hatred of his enemies and trusts in God.

In learning to love, we are wise to begin with those we really want to love.  As C.S. Lewis stated in Mere Christianity, “If we really want to learn to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”  The same is true of learning to love.  We begin with those closest and dearest to us and then move our circle outward.

We can love another only as we allow God to love through us.  Our human love is distorted, mixed with pride, fear and other manifestations of human sin.  Love is not a feeling, but a work of God in us.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote that Christian love is known by what it produces, its work and its fruit.[1]  He compares love to a peaceful lake.  We know it is fed by some deep and powerfully moving spring, but the source is invisible to the eye.  We see only the result, the lake.  The lake would not exist except for the existence of the spring.

Christian love is shown in love of neighbor as a fruit of God’s love in us.  Our love is really God’s love, for the true source is the powerful love of God at work in us manifesting itself in our actions.  God’s love is the underground spring feeding our reservoir.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit transforming us, making us ever more like Jesus Christ who loved God and others perfectly.  Fortunately, Jesus did not show love only for perfect people, for there are no perfect people.  But Jesus showed perfect love for everyone.

The highest duty and privilege of Christians is to love the people we see.  First John states this so plainly: “If anyone says. ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for how can he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, love God, whom he has not seen?” 

In loving God, we must love our neighbors.  If we are to love our neighbors, then we must see them, and not just their faces.  We must see them as persons.  Our children, our parents, our spouses, our siblings, our friends, are the people closest and dearest to us.  It is so easy to take those closest to us for granted and fail to show our love for them.  They deserve and need to know God’s love through us in our words and deeds.

The circle of our neighbors moves beyond our family and friends.  Margot Starbuck in her book, Small Things with Great Love, describes concrete ways we can show God’s love to those God places in our path.[2]  It is a responsibility that can feel absolutely daunting when added to an already overflowing schedule that includes work, school, home, e-mails, family, friends.  Margot describes an encounter between Hugh who had a ministry to the homeless and a man named Chuck who was not sure how to fit into his schedule loving his neighbor, especially those who live on the margin.      

Chuck explained his life to Hugh by saying, “I commute at least one hour, each way, to my job … I love what I do and I work hard at it.  The one day of the week I do have at home with my family, I don’t want to go to the park and meet homeless people.”

Hugh thought for a moment and then asked Chuck, “Do you have an office?”

“Yes,” Chuck replied, not sure where this was heading.

Hugh continued, “Is there someone who cleans your office?”

“Yes,” Chuck replied.  “There’s a woman who cleans my office two or three times a week.”

“What’s her name?” Hugh asked.

“I don’t know her name,” Chuck admitted.

“How long has she been cleaning your office?”

“Seven or eight years,” Chuck responded.

Several weeks later, Hugh answered his phone and heard a voice blurt out, “Her name is Regina!”  Chuck had taken the time to meet the woman who cleaned his office, and he had learned that Regina was working two jobs to provide for her children.  Their encounters led to an adventure for Chuck and his family in loving and helping a neighbor.

The Missions Council of our church recently met with Tom Wills and Sarah Lehner-Weadick, two individuals active in the leadership of The Contributor newspaper.  You have probably noticed vendors located at traffic lights selling a twice-monthly newspaper that provides articles on homelessness and poverty.  The Contributor provides homeless and formerly homeless vendors with a source of income.  Tom and Sarah described the positive and caring relationships that have formed between many of the vendors and their customers.  They shared that 25 percent of their vendors had received job advice from their customers in the past 60 days.  One-third of formerly homeless vendors have obtained long-term housing solutions since joining the workforce and some have found second jobs or alternative employment.  The purchase price of the newspaper is $1.

Our church’s Room in the Inn ministry begins this Wednesday evening.  Fourteen homeless men will spend the night in the Cannon Center of our church every Wednesday night between November and March.  They will be greeted by church hosts, provided dinner, a clean bed, an opportunity to shower and wash their clothes and in the morning, they will be given breakfast and a sack lunch.  Volunteers are needed to assist with this ministry, and signup sheets for volunteers are downstairs in Courtenay Hall.  Be warned that your encounters with our guests will probably change your life and your perspectives of those who are homeless.

Stephen Ministry training will begin in January to train church members to enter into caring and confidential relationships with persons going through a difficult time.  Home partners are needed to visit elderly members no longer able to attend church.

Opportunities to love God and our neighbors are plentiful in our church and our community and even beyond.  When we ask God to show us how to love, we are shown opportunities for adventures in reaching out and touching a life in a positive way.  The secret is that we are always the one who receives the greatest joy.  

Mother Teresa once said, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that He will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do.  I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength.  I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us – and we change things.”  

Guv Pennington, a saint of our church, died on October 17 at the age of 83.  Guv spent his life serving his community as a medical doctor and serving this church as a deacon and an elder and a participant in our medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  Guv served because he loved God and God’s people.  My last conversation with Guv was less than a week before he died at Baptist Hospital.  Guv asked if we could have a theological discussion.  He said he wanted to discuss with me what Jesus expects of us during our lives.  Guv went on to say that he believed that Jesus wants us to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our strength and all of our mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Do I have it right?” Guv asked me.

“Yes, Guv,” I answered.  “I believe you have it exactly right, and your life has reflected your love of God and your neighbors.  You have served God and your neighbors well.”

“This is how I have tried to live my life,” Guv answered.  “I am so glad I understood what God wants of us.”

Guv understood what Jesus wants of all of us and he loved God and served God as he loved and served those persons that God brought into his life with a love that was reflected in his eyes, his touch, his words and his deeds.  The love that Guv shared was God’s love.

In his book, Listening to Your Life, Frederick Buechner said, “The final secret, I think, is this: that the words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ becomes in the end less a command than a promise.  And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love Him at last as from the first He has loved us – loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because He has been in the wilderness with us.  He has been in the wilderness for us.  He has been acquainted with our grief.  And, loving Him, we will come at last to love each other too….”[3]

How can God keep such a promise that ultimately we will truly love God and our neighbor?  God can promise that in the end we will love God and our neighbor only because He loves us with the greatest love, a holy, divine, perfect and transforming love.  Now we see only through a glass darkly, but then we will see perfectly, face to face, and understand just how much we have been loved all our lives.  Rooted in God’s love, we can seek the understanding and power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.  Even though our vision of God’s love is not yet perfect, we can catch glimpses of God’s love at work in our lives and in our world even now.  With eyes of faith, we can look forward with hope, standing firm in the belief that the God who loves us can do all things: heal our nation and our world, care for those whose lives have been turned upside down by a hurricane, feed the hungry and help the homeless, wipe away the tears of those who suffer and mourn. God can make of us beacons of God’s light and instruments of God’s peace and love.  Thanks be to God for so great a love as His.

[1] Works of Love, First Series, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1995), cited in Peter Gomes, The Good Life:  Truths that Last in Times of Need (HarperSanFrancisco: 2002), 315-6. 

[2] Margot Starbuck, Small Things with Great Love:  Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor (Downers Grove:  IVP Books, 2011),16-17.  

[3] Listening to Your Life:  Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992),162-3.

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