October 28, 2018

“WITH ALL YOUR HEART” Mark 12:28-34

A few weeks ago I went with Pastor Tim, Dottie, and Donna Mark to a workshop on stewardship presented by the United Methodist Foundation of New England.  The Foundation’s purpose is to help churches manage their funds and  also to help them grow in their understanding of stewardship, or as they prefer to say, to grow in our understanding of generosity.  I’ve been to many workshops on this topic, as I’m sure Pastor Tim has, but there was one thing that stood out for me that I don’t remember experiencing at other workshops.

I don’t know if it was the mood I was in or the other things I had on my  mind that day, but as I listened to the Foundation’s president and two other staff  members, I found myself captivated by their Christian witness.  It wasn’t just the information they were sharing that caught my attention.  Rather it was the intensity of their voices, as well as their facial expressions, as they spoke of the spirituality of our giving, not only our financial support to the church but also the investment of our time and talents to the ministries of the church.  I could tell that these men believed with all their hearts every word they spoke because they love Jesus and want to help we United Methodist learn to express our love of Jesus, as well, through our generosity.  In other words, our giving is a spiritual matter.  And that brings us to today’s Gospel lesson.

In this passage, we learn that a scribe, a teacher of the Law, is impressed with the way Jesus had just responded to a trick question put to him by the
Sadducees.  He saw that Jesus didn’t argue with them, but simply quoted words from the Torah, the first five books of our Bible.  Realizing, then, that Jesus was well versed as to the content of the Torah, the scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all, the most important.  And to his question Jesus recites the opening words of the Shema, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy:  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.

Of course, these words weren’t new to the scribe or to the Sadducees.  Pious Jews repeated them every morning and every evening. They were foundational to their belief in God and their relationship with God.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He continues, quoting words from the Book of Leviticus, adding now a second part to that great commandment, saying:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

What Jesus is saying here is that the most important thing is love—loving God and loving others.

So, the question put before us today is:  How do we live by those words?  I’d like to suggest that the only way we can attempt to love God with all that we are is by placing our lives into God’s hands and asking our Creator to direct every part of our lives, forming us into the people we were created to be.  None of us will ever love God perfectly, just as we will never love our spouse, our children, our friends, or the stranger at our gate perfectly, this side of Heaven.  But we can make loving God and others our aim in life by laying down our self-centered point of view and committing ourselves to try to live a God-centered point of view.  And when we do this to the best of our ability I believe we grow in our generosity.

We become as generous as we can when it comes to how much money we  give to our church, and we become as generous as we can when it comes to
investing ourselves in the mission and ministries of our church.  When we commit ourselves to living a God-centered life, I believe that transformation begins to take place, and we begin to desire to do God’s will in every aspect of our life.  And we
pray.  We pray asking God to help us do his will because now we’re becoming more aware of all that God has done for us and all the blessings God has poured into our lives.

Do you remember the words to the old hymn Count Your Blessings?  Count your blessings name them one by one.  Count your blessings, see what God has done.  When I stop and think about it I realize God has blessed me over and over and over again throughout my life.  I’ve been blessed by a wonderful, dear husband, three children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.  I’ve been blessed by having been raised by Christian parents.  I’ve been blessed by my sister, Audrey.  I’ve been blessed by the healing of my breast cancer and many other healings, as well.  I’ve been blessed by good friends, and I’ve been blessed here in this church by the love and support we offer one another.  I was blessed when God called me to the ministry.  And of course, my greatest blessing is the knowledge that God loves me, as he loves all people, and that he will always be with me, watching over me.

When these blessings come to mind I realize all over again that I owe God everything.  He’s my sustainer, my guide, my greatest joy as he patiently and gently leads me through this journey called life.  How has God blessed you?  When we think of his generous love and care for us through all our years, don’t we want to express our love for him in return through our love and care of others?

Well, we say, I am grateful to God for all that he’s done for me, but do I have to love the homeless person on the street begging for money?  Do I have to love the person who is always making uncomplimentary comments about me?  Do I have to love those who don’t vote as I do?  Do I have to love those who come from another country and speak another language?  And Jesus answers yes.

Commentator Lamar Williamson, Jr. gives a very clear description of what it means to love your neighbor.  He writes:  To love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves [means] we are to be tolerant of, have time for, be interested in, make excuses for, deeply desire the welfare of our neighbor in the same way that we have these attitudes toward ourselves (end quote).  Loving others in those ways doesn’t always come easily to us, but with God’s help we can grow in our ability to love and accept others as they are, not as we want them to be.   By making a deliberate choice each and every day to lead a God-centered life rather than a selfcentered life, we can grow in our ability to be generous in thought, word and deed
to all we meet.

The story is told that in the days of the American Revolutionary War, there lived in Pennsylvania a Baptist pastor by the name of Peter Miller, who enjoyed the friendship of George Washington.  There also dwelt in that town one Michael Witman, an evil-minded man who did all in his power to abuse and oppress this pastor.  One day Witman became involved in treason and was arrested and sentenced to death.  It’s told that the old preacher started out on foot to walk the whole way to Philadelphia to plead for the man’s life.  He was admitted into Washington’s presence and at once begged for the traitor’s life.  Washington said, No, Peter, I cannot grant you the life of your friend, to which the preacher exclaimed, My friend?  He’s the bitterest enemy I have!  That response put the matter in a different light, and Washington replied, I will grant the pardon.  And he did.  Peter Miller then took Michael Witman from the very shadow of death back to his own home—no longer an enemy, but as a friend.

That kind of forgiveness and concern for another person made in the image of God is what Jesus means by loving our neighbor.  How can we love God, whom we have not seen except by loving those we can see?  We may not have yet reached the place where we can extend love to someone who’s abused us, but with God’s help, we can begin to try our best to generously reach out to others in love.

And the power of love is often seen most clearly when average people like you and me do small acts of love—caring for a child, visiting the sick, helping a neighbor. That’s what God, in his great love for all people, is asking of us through the offerings we bring to the altar and by small and large acts of kindness extended to others:  those attending AA meetings in our churches, those children we feed by bringing food items for their backpacks, those children we help clothe one Saturday each month, those in desperate need due to natural disasters, as well as our friends right here in this sanctuary today.  God’s generosity to us is best seen in our generosity toward others.  And we are called to commit to it because Jesus
committed to it.  In fact, love was the very center of his being.

Jesus had love in his heart for everyone he met: prostitutes, traitors, tax collectors.  He showed honor to those who had been shamed and made clean, those whom society pronounced unclean.  He loved the cantankerous, the questioning, the doubter, the arrogant, the proud, the betrayer, the unfaithful.  He loved both those who believed in him and those who didn’t.  He loved his enemies.  And what God is asking of us is that we commit to following Jesus’ example and strive to generously extend love to others.

Pastor Jimmy D. Brown tells about the first girl who ever caught his eye.  They were in the second grade together.  Up to this point he confesses that he only wanted to throw stones at girls, but this girl was different.  Her name was Sherri, and she was as cute as anything young Jimmy had ever seen.  He remembers the day when Sherri passed him a note during class which read, Do you love me?  He says he didn’t even know what love was, but he learned early that girls like to hear you say that you love them, so he checked yes on the note and passed it back.

At recess that day Sherri came up to him with a big smile on her face and said, Say it.  Jimmy had no idea what she was talking about.  Say what?  Say that you love me.  It kind of embarrassed him, but he went ahead and said, I love you.  The next day Sherri came up to him and said, Do you really love me? Yes, he replied.  Do you mean it?  A lot of boys tell me they love me, but some of them don’t mean it.  Even at the tender age of seven, says Brown, he knew the right answer to this question:  Of course I mean it.  The following day she came up to him again and said, If you love me and mean it, then why don’t you show it?  You’re supposed to hold my hand and play with me at recess and sit next to me during free time.  You’re supposed to show it.

Almost twenty-five years have passed since that day, says Pastor Brown.  It always makes me laugh when I think back to that second grade class.  It also always amazes me how God can use the ordinary events of life, even that of a seven-year-old boy, to teach us.  For instance, God asks the same questions that little girl asked of me:  Do you love me?  If you do, say it.  If you mean it, then show it.  If God asked us those questions, how would we answer?

I’d like to suggest that we all spend some time thinking about our answer to those questions: Do you love me?  Do you mean it?  And then I’d also like to suggest that we pray—pray and ask God what he would like us to do when it comes to our financial generosity.  And let us also ask God how we can best serve him through the ministries of our church.  May we, like those three men who presented that inspiring stewardship workshop, be the best Christian witnesses we can be by loving God and neighbor through our offerings and service to the church in the name of Jesus, our Lord and our Savior.  Amen.