A Loving and Serving Community
A loving and serving community… Seven years ago, our U-Haul pulled up in front of our new house in Chamblee. And there to meet us were fifteen to twenty of the OPC faithful, there to help us unpack boxes and furniture and carry them in through the narrow front door. That was just the first of our many glimpses into the character of OPC.
Since then, we have welcomed two boys into our family. We have also buried my father and my grandmother. We have weathered illness and surgery. And you have been there with us, every step of the way. You have brought meals. You have sent our children greeting cards for every conceivable holiday that could ever exist and then some. You have prayed for and with us. You have been there at our sides. And we are grateful.
I have also heard enough of your stories to know that I wasn’t singled out for special treatment just because I’m the pastor. You, too, have experienced that same love firsthand. And you know how powerful it is to know that when things are tough, you are not alone.
When I was in Chicago, I volunteered at a local community radio station. We prided ourselves on being a close-knit bunch. When my friend Dave had a death in the family, I did what I thought was the normal thing to do: I wrote him a note expressing my condolences. He later thanked me, noting that it was the only one he received from that same supposedly close-knit crew. It’s not that nobody else cared: it’s that they didn’t know what to say, and so they kept silent. And it’s not that I did know what to say: I just knew enough that saying so might provide some small bit of comfort.
We are not unique as a community that cares for one another. And yet, there are far too many places in this word where folks find themselves unable to express that care in word and deed. They may not know what to say or do, and so they stay silent and keep their distance.
It’s the essence of our Mark text this morning. An unnamed scribe, an expert in religious law, challenges Jesus to name what the most important commandment is. And Jesus begins not by reciting the Ten Commandments, but by reciting their prologue from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” In other words, we hold nothing back from the love and devotion that we show to God. There is no corner of our life that remains hidden. To love God is to go “all in”.
And we do so because the object of that love is also its source. We love because God first loved us. It’s this thought that ought to reside at the very heart of everything we do. As Presbyterians, we baptize infants not because we believe that the water contains some magical formula: it’s still two H2O. We do so because it is one of the many reminders that God has been work in our lives long before we had any clue how to name that love.
Loving and serving.
What amazes me about that divine gift of love is that God doesn’t demand it all back. It would be one thing if God were to love us just so that we would return that love full force back to God. That would make God the friend who tells you how great you look not because they want to compliment you, but because they expect you to turn around and tell them how great they look.
No sooner has Jesus answered the scribe’s question about the greatest commandment than he goes on, unsolicited, to name the second greatest: love of neighbor as love of self. Elsewhere, Jesus goes on to define neighbor in such broad terms that it breaks down all tribal pretense. The word “neighbor” does not restrict us to those who look like us or act like us or live like us. In fact, Jesus’ definition is so absurdly broad that our “neighbors” include those whom we are prone to consider enemies.
And it’s not just that we love them some, but we love them as we love ourselves! I don’t think we’re even wired for that kind of care! We know enough to look after our own needs – and as a sidebar, it is important to note that what Jesus says here reminds us how important self-love is. But to look after the needs of complete strangers as though they were our own needs? Who does that?
I’ve told the story before of Trevor, a gentleman who had been using our front porch as his bed for a couple of weeks. He would arrive late enough and depart early enough that he was undetected for a while. But there is just too much activity here, and so it was inevitable that he would be discovered eventually.
One night, we got word that there was a man sleeping on our porch. Brian and I came over and approached him, finding out what his story was. It was sadly familiar: a day laborer, Trevor had come to Atlanta to make money in construction. As the economy dried up, so did his opportunities. On top of that, his body was starting to fall apart on him, meaning that the jobs he knew how to do were the ones that he just couldn’t manage any more. To make a long story short, we were able to get him a hotel room nearby for a week while we worked connections and got him a bed at the Druid Hills Night Shelter.
Loving and serving.
Friends, we have just started our both our capital campaign and our annual stewardship drive. In a little over a month, we will ask you to make your commitments to both. And if I manage to get only one thing across to you between now and then, I hope that it’s this: loving and serving are the most faithful acts of stewardship we can do.
When we speak of stewardship, we usually speak of material goods. We talk about our time, and how important it is to devote time to things that are important to us. We talk about our abilities, our talents, and how we are called to use those gifts not just for our desires, but for God’s. And, last but not least, we talk about money, how we receive the resources off of which we live and how we offer them back in a spirit of grateful generosity.
The truth, though, is that all of these things are just outward signs of an inner process. We take the love that emanates from God, and we share it with our neighbor – not just because we think we have to, but because we don’t know any other way to be. To keep it to ourselves would be, well, it would be selfish.
And that, I think, is the question that lies before us today. We have this treasure here at OPC, this loving and serving community, a congregation that God has molded and nurtured. And I believe that this love is something that the world needs, even more that it knows. What do we do with it? Do we keep it to ourselves, anxious about exhausting a limited supply? Or do we open our doors to our neighbors, wherever they may be, trusting that the source of love is inexhaustible?
To love and to be loved is a blessing. To serve and be served is a gift. And a gift is meant to be shared!