Sermons That Work

There Are Times…, Proper 26 (B) – 1997

November 02, 1997

There are times when it all just gets to be too much. As least, for many of us it does. In our Christian walk, we often become “Godded out.” Christianity becomes so confusing to us, that we have to take a break to let my our mind sort things out without any new input. I have discovered some core truths that helped me and could assist you in that process – things like the Serenity Prayer and Forward Day By Day.

And, I discovered, I am not alone in searching for this kind of clarity. Martin Luther took one verse of the Bible and turned it into the Reformation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Others resort to an infallible Bible or an infallible church.

And I wonder if perhaps the scribe who approached Jesus that day wasn’t a little bit “Godded out.” Perhaps he had been having difficulty sorting through the maze of Jewish ritual and tradition, and, listening to Jesus debate with the Temple authorities, apparently he liked the ease with which Jesus handled himself. So he wanted to know what Jesus thought was the heart of the matter. How did Jesus decide what were the most important parts of the Law? So he asked, “Which commandment is first of all?”

According to ancient scribal tradition, the Law contains not just 2 commandments, not just 10 but 613 separate commandments. Some teachers then divided the 613 into 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year) and 248 positive commands (one for each bone of the body). In this vivid and charming fashion, they indicated that the Law of God should govern all our days and all our bodily movements. It requires complete devotion.

Religion covers an extraordinary range of topics and situations, but how do all the bits and pieces fit together? Does some unifying or integrating principle lie at the heart of it all? “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.'”

Jesus gives some simple answers. But as is often the case, his simple answers are not easy when you try to apply them. Suppose we accept that we should love God, how do we do that? How can we possibly love God? What an awesome task! Can anyone really love God with heart, soul, mind and strength? The answer is, of course, that by yourself you can’t give yourself completely to God. It is important to try, but that’s because we must learn that we cannot do so without God’s help. It is a tremendous step to discover that one truth.

When we try to love God and fail, we discover the most important thing there is to know about God. God does not stop loving us simply because we stop loving him. God always loves us, no matter what. More than that, God is always trying to reach us, even when we’re trying to shut him out. That’s what the Cross is all about – God trying to reach us and we shutting him out.

This is the forgiveness that we have in Christ, and it is the most powerful engine for love that the world has ever known. That’s because it works exactly backward of the way we would work it. We make people earn our love. The better they are to us, the better we love them in return. Some of us even use love to manipulate others into giving us what we want.

But with God it’s the other way around. God never manipulates us because he loves us before we ever deserve it. Paul put it this way, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul should know because God chose him to preach the gospel while he was persecuting the church of Christ. Jesus tells us that the one who is forgiven many sins loves God better than the one who is forgiven but few.

Recently, the psychologists have given us the self- esteem movement, and many preachers have taken it up by choosing to emphasize the part of this passage that says, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The theory is that you can’t love others unless you love yourself. The problem with self love is that it’s no easier than loving God or our neighbor. At worst, it is a dangerous flirtation with narcissism, and at best, it’s a second choice. If you can’t believe that God loves you, then you’d better love yourself.

But God’s love is tied to our neighbor. Once there were two neighbors who farmed together. They shared equally in all of the work and split the profits exactly. Each had his own granary. One of the neighbors was married and had a large family; the other neighbor was single.

One day the single neighbor thought to himself, “It is not fair that we divide the grain evenly. My neighbor has many mouths to feed, while I have but one. I know what I’ll do, I will take a sack of grain from my granary each evening and put in my neighbor’s granary.” So, each night when it was dark, he carefully carried a sack of grain, placing it in his neighbor’s barn.

Now the married neighbor thought to himself, “It is not fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have many children to care for me in my old age, and my neighbor has none. I know what I’ll do, I will take a sack of grain from my granary each evening and put it in my neighbor’s granary.” And he did.

Each morning the two neighbors were amazed to discover that though they had removed a sack of grain the night before, they had just as many. One night they met each other halfway between their barns, each carrying a sack of grain. Then they understood the mystery, and embraced with joy. And as God looked down from heaven, he saw the two neighbors embracing and said, “I declare this to be a holy place, for I have witnessed extraordinary love here.” It is said that God chose that spot for Solomon’s Temple.

Love of God, love of neighbor, a little poem put it this way, “I sought my soul, and the soul I could not see. I sought my God and God eluded me – I sought my neighbor and found all three.” I believe that Jesus knew the difficulty of love, and he brought these two commandments together because they work together to produce something greater than the sum of their parts.

My favorite prayer is the prayer of St. Francis because it points up the essential connection. We cannot love God in our own power. We cannot love others in our own power. What we can do is allow ourselves to become channels for the power of God’s love to flow through us to others. Now when I get “Godded out,” I know what the problem is – I’ve forgotten the power of God, and I’m trying to do things on my own. Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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