Clear and Simple

by Elaine Maust
Matthew 22: 34-40; I John 4: 7-21
October 26, 2008


This Bible of ours is pretty massive. Mine has 1424 pages. It’s full of stories and poetry, prophecies and commandments. It is a lot of information. The first five books of the Bible alone have 618 laws. Whew! Where is a person to start?

If only the Bible had a dust jacket. Or a one paragraph summary on the back. Maybe Cliffs Notes would help. How about the Bible reduced to a post-it note?

That’s what we have in Matthew 22:34-40. The message from God in a clear and simple form, beautifully distilled. Jesus calls it the greatest commandment. Love God. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor.

In our Lectionary text today, some of the Pharisees, teachers of the law, got together, and one of the experts tested Jesus with this question: “What is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus said: (Mt. 22:37-40)

Love God. Love God with all your heart, soul and mind.

I asked some of you for help with this sermon. I wish two things… That I could have asked every last one of you what you think these verses mean, and that I could have used all the answers you all gave me. In any case, What do you think that means: “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind?”

DeeDee Baldwin, Jr. said that she’s glad Jesus put that mind part in there, recognizing that we can love God with our intellect and that it is important for Christians to think.

Blocks from Loving God

Love the Lord your God. What blocks us from loving God? Lots of things can do that, like grief.

If we feel we have disappointed God, that makes loving somewhere between hard and impossible. If your sin is keeping you from loving God, then confession is the place to start.

Here’s another. Maybe we imagine God like an angry grouchy old man. Some people do. And I suggest they get a new God. Because God is loveable.

A Loveable God

So I invite you to reimagine God. If you met God at a party, I believe you would discover someone you would instantly want to get to know better.

The Bible presents fascinating descriptions of God as:

Pleased with his work – Genesis 1:31

Beautiful – Ps. 27:4

Someone who sings lullabies to loved ones at night – Ps. 42:8

God is fair and generous. God is brilliant and God don’t play. Read the Bible with fresh eyes and discover a God who deserves to be loved.

Bernard of Clairvaux lived in the year 1100. He was a Catholic who founded a French monastery. He wrote about loving God: “You ask me, ‘Why should God be loved?’ I answer: the reason for loving God is God himself. And why should God be loved for his own sake? Simply because no one could be more justly loved than God, no one deserves our love more.”

I John 4 says, “We love him because he first loved us.” Our love is a response to what God has done for us. (1 John 4:9)

Dallas Willard is a Baptist preacher. He lives in our time in California, a theologian, a person who studies God. He wrote: “The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved, heart, soul, mind, and strength? If the thoughtful honest answer is: ‘Not really,’ then we need to look elsewhere or deeper… If it fails to set a loveable God – a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible and totally competent being – before ordinary people, we have gone wrong.”

How to Love God

So how do we love God? Does God like flowers or homemade bread or notes or hugs? When I think about the ways I love Duane or my children or the ways I like to be loved… I wonder. How exactly does one go about loving God? Dara Dominici said, “It’s not about us. It is about God. He gave us everything and he wants it back.”

Here’s a test. Does God show up in your most important or favorite places? God is there. Are you noticing? Do you love God in those places? I’m talking about your check book, your date book, your weekend, your personal time… Dee Colton said, “Loving God means being willing to give away my last $10.00.”

We can give God our time. You gave God your Sunday morning. That’s loving God. Here you sit when there are plenty of other perfectly good, constructive, and harmless things you could be doing. When we block out time and dedicate it to God, whether it is Sunday morning or any time of the day or night or week, we are loving God.

We can give God respect. Jan Reynolds said that one way to love God is to ask, “To do what I think God would do in any given situation.” That shows respect, doesn’t it?

We can talk and listen to God. Essentially, that’s what praying is. When I sit and listen to God, when you tell God what’s important to you, when we ask God’s opinion on difficult decisions, we are praying and we are loving God.

And here’s just one more. We love God when we eliminate or at least curb whatever it is that blocks or distracts us. So what distracts you from God? A loving thing to do is get rid of that or rein it in.

Regina Martinez Sr. said, loving God means “Ama con todo tu seir. Love with all your being in all that you are and all that you have.”

But the primary way to love God, is to love my neighbor. Lynford Seibel said, “When you love others, you’re loving God. That’s how you love God.”

Given even our best intentions, it is kind of hard to love a Spirit. And so the second commandment is like the first, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Back to I John 4. God says, “I’ll tell you what. You want to love me? Then here is how. Love someone else.” In fact I John uses very strong language: “For if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar…” (I John 4:20-21)

So this sums up the commandments. Love God and love people. Pretty simple to understand. Pretty hard to do.

Emma Baldwin and I were talking the other day about parts of the Bible that are hard to understand. I quoted Samuel Clemens, who said, “It is not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It is the parts I do understand.” In that case, this text, Matthew 22:37-40, would have probably bothered him. Love God. Love your neighbor. Clear and simple. I told Emma that rather than getting frustrated or disillusioned when I don’t understand parts of the Bible, I just focus on living out the parts I do understand. I figure there is enough there to keep me busy for a life time.

My neighbor

So if loving God is loving my neighbor, how do I love my neighbor?

Erin Scruggs said loving our neighbors means showing other people the mercy God has shown us. Matthew Tucker said, it means taking care of other people like you would help out members of your own family.

It might mean letting someone else go first in line. Listening when we would rather be talking. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt instead of questioning their motives. It might mean being more concerned about whether or not my sister or brother feels accepted and included than on whether I feel accepted and included.

My neighbor who is a stranger

Today is Mennonite Heritage Sunday. Did you notice the front of the bulletin? Kind of reminds me of the scenes after Katrina. I wonder if maybe these are MDS (Mennonite Disaster Service) volunteers. Remember when Mennonites came from all over the country to help in MS after Katrina? They helped us here at the service center. Many of you became MDS volunteers yourselves.

We were loving our neighbors by clearing trees, fixing porches and passing out water. But these neighbors were strangers.

Many of the volunteers and those we helped became friends. The folks from 8th Street Mennonite have been coming back to Jubilee every year since Katrina. Now they have invited us to serve neighbors who are strangers in Indiana in a Jubilee service trip in 2009.

Part of our Mennonite heritage is a heritage of loving service. Every denomination brings gifts to the whole Christian community. Baptists teach us about evangelism. Catholics bring a treasured tradition of prayer. Pentecostals invite us to experience the Holy Spirit. Mennonites remind by example that Jesus invites us to love our neighbors. And one way to do that is to serve strangers.

My neighbor, my enemy

This loving our neighbor thing, it seems clear and doable. Right? But in customary fashion, Jesus puts a fresh and stunning new face on our neighbors, the face of our enemies.

You can turn to Luke 10:25 for Luke’s version of the greatest commandment. Actually a lawyer or a scribe, sums it up for us in response to a question Jesus asked. Let’s take a look. (Tell Luke 10:25-37)

So who was the neighbor? The Samaritan, right? Now you might know that no Samaritan was a friend of any Jew. But how does that break down for us?

In the Cotton Patch Version of Luke, Clarence Jordan tells the story this way. He says a man was traveling from Atlanta to Albany and got beaten up. A white Sunday School teacher and a white song leader passed him up but a black man stopped and carried him to get help.

In his book, The Upside Down Kingdom, Don Kraybill says that Jesus using a Samaritan as the hero of the love your neighbor story was like saying that during the Vietnam war that a wounded American soldier was passed by two US Army chaplains and that it was a North Vietnamese farmer who saved him.

If Jesus were telling us a story, trying to help us understand who our neighbor is, what would he say? If the setting were Meridian, if the story began, “A man was going from Collinsville to Meridian…” who would the actors in the story be? Who would be the unlikely hero?

We already know what Jesus was getting at. The greatest commandment, The Christian Manifesto, as Kraybill calls it, is Love God and Love your neighbor. And our neighbor could live in our house, be part of our church, be a stranger, or even be our enemy.

What does it mean to love God and to love my neighbor?

Katie Dufour said, “God always love you. Love him with everything you have.”

Orlando Horne said, “Be friendly and treat people right, the way you want them to treat you.”

I’m so grateful for this passage in the Bible. That Jesus broke it down like this for us, the Greatest Commandments! Clear and simple. Love God. Love your neighbor. I may not understand the entire Bible. That’s okay. I understand the greatest commandments.

And they should keep me busy, well, for a very long time.

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