June 16, 2024 – Seven Words

Mark 12:28-34a

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Seven Words

          July 7th 2019.  Four years, eleven months, and nine days ago.  That was the first time I stood behind this pulpit.  I was new to the church and new to McPherson, and there were so many things I was uncertain about.  I had never been a Lead Pastor before, I had never been a Kansan before, and I didn’t know what to expect from this church and from this community.  Honestly, on that first Sunday, I wasn’t even confident that I had put on my headset and microphone pack correctly, so there was a lot I wasn’t sure about!

But there was one thing I was sure about: I knew that God was at work in this congregation, and I knew that we had been brought together for such a time as this.  You may not remember this, but my sermon on that first Sunday was entitled “Seven Words.”  In that message, I explained how a friend from college—who identified as an agnostic and who’d had a really bumpy faith journey up until that point—once told me that he was tired of seeing Christians argue and bicker, and that he was fed up with all the long lists of rules and doctrines, and how he wished that Christians could just find a way to actually live their faith instead of just talking about it.  And he made a quip that if someone wanted to tell them about their religion, he was only interested if they could do it in seven words or less. 

And of course to that, I said “Challenge accepted!”…and that was the moment when I came up with my seven-word statement of faith:

God loves you.  Now go love others.

That’s it!  These are my seven words…and they’re inspired by Jesus’ answer to the question posed in today’s Scripture reading, when a religious leader approached Jesus and asked him which of the 613 laws in the Old Testament was most important, and Jesus replied that the most important one is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  And he also says that the second is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love God, and  love neighbor.  That’s what it’s all about. 

And so on my first Sunday, I endeavored to share with this congregation what that means to me, and how “God loves you, now go love others” would be the guiding principle that I would strive to follow during all of our time together.  And it was kind of interesting for me to go back and look at that first sermon, because the whole thing still rings true.  I still believe every word that wrote, and I think I could preach it again today and it would still be perfectly relevant. 

And yet, I also sense a sort of naivety in the words: there’s a sort of Pollyanna-ish quality to it that makes me look at my five-years-ago self and shake my head and say “Oh, you sweet summer child. You have no idea what lies ahead!”  Because I didn’t! None of us did, back in 2019.  We didn’t know that our lives were about to be upended by a global pandemic.  We didn’t know that we’d spend months worshipping online, or that the community would soon be torn over the politics of masks and vaccines.  We didn’t know that our country would become increasingly polarized over questions of race and gender, and we didn’t know that the debate about human sexuality in the United Methodist Church would come to a head in ways that would cause friction in local congregations.  Back in 2019, we didn’t know that stuff…and I would argue that talking about loving our neighbors was probably a little easier back then.  Before all the trauma and heartache and massive cultural shifts that came about during the Covid area, it was a lot easier to stand up here and say “Hey, let’s just love each other! Easy-peasy, right?”

Well, if Covid made one thing clear, it’s this age-old truth: that consistently loving our neighbors as we love ourselves has never been an “easy” undertaking!  It’s not easy under normal circumstances, and it’s even less so in an era where politicians and pundits and social media algorithms are working overtime to divide us.  It’s not easy to love your neighbor when the world is telling you that anyone who disagrees with you is an enemy.  There are times where love feels really challenging…but here’s the thing.  Those are the times when love is most necessary.  Because, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., love is powerful. “Love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”  And isn’t that what we’re going for?  As a church; as people of faith?  As United Methodists, our official denominational mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—and that transformation can only happen through the power of love. 

So on our last Sunday together, I want to revisit those first seven words that I spoke to you about love, because I think they remain just as important today as they were five years ago…if not even more so! After all, a torn and polarized world needs the Good News of God’s love more than ever, and it needs us to be ambassadors of that love.  So let’s start with the first three words:

God loves you!

Church, do you believe this?  I hope so…because it’s true!  God loves you, the people of McPherson First United Methodist Church.  And it’s not because of anything you’ve done.  It’s not because you’ve somehow earned it or deserved it.  You didn’t win God’s love through your hard work or your achievements, and the truth is you couldn’t if you tried.  Because God’s love is a gift; a gift that has surrounded you since before you drew your first breath.  It’s a love that’s been at work in you all your life; a love that will never stop and will never let you go.  

And it’s also a love that calls you into action.  It’s not a love that lets you just rest on your laurels, and it’s certainly not a love that will always keep you feeling comfortable.  No, the love of God is as disruptive as it is tender, and it pushes and prods us to continue the work of building God’s Kingdom on earth.  Which brings us to the last four words of my theological mission statement: 

Now go love others!

God loves you, now go love others.  That’s what it’s all about: it’s about being so filled with God’s love that it spills over into the lives of those around you.  It’s about putting God’s love into action in the way you treat others.  And the part about this that is so beautiful and so hard at the same time is that there’s isn’t an asterisk to this statement!  It’s not “go love others as long they agree with you.”  It’s not “go love others unless they hurt you or upset you or get on your nerves.”  That’s the thing about Jesus’ call to love: it doesn’t have any loopholes or easy outs.  It’s all-encompassing. 

And so I suppose that this would be my final exhortation to this congregation.  Go forth into this next chapter of your life as a church, and love others.  Go love your friends, your enemies, and all those in between.  Go love your Democrat neighbor and your Republican neighbor; your gay neighbor and your straight neighbor; your immigrant neighbor, your disabled neighbor, your neighbor who’s living in active addiction and your neighbor who’s in recovery.  Go love your neighbor who’s part of a different generation or demographic group; your neighbor who sees the world differently than you do.  Go build relationships with them; get to know them; learn to see the world through their eyes. 

And above all, be especially sure to go out and love those who are on the margins!  Give extra care and consideration to those who live in poverty; those who face discrimination; those who have been told for far too long that they’re not enough.  Go out and love them, with your words and with your actions.  Even when it isn’t easy; even when it challenges you or makes you uncomfortable or pulls you out of your comfort zone…because it’s in those moments of challenge and discomfort that love’s transformative work really happens. 

And as long as we’re talking about going forth and loving people, I also want to remind you to go love Pastor Andrew and his family!  And I know it can take time to build relationship with a new minister, so when I say “go love Pastor Andrew”, I don’t mean that you have to feel instantly connected to him on the first day.  I mean, you very well might—he’s a pretty spiffy guy and I just think the world of him and his leadership abilities—but I also understand that a pastoral change can also bring about some feelings of grief or uncertainty.  Which is why, at least initially, showing love to an incoming pastor is less about emotion and more about action.  Before you even meet him, you can show love to Pastor Andrew by praying for him and his family.  By praying for his wife Nicole, who’s also in ministry at the Conference level, and by praying for their children; for John and for Anne as they come to a new school and a new community.  And when they arrive, you can show love by offering support and assistance as they settle in; by extending hospitality and making sure they know that they belong here.    

And as Pastor Andrew embarks on this new role, I also encourage you to love him by communicating with him!  If you ever have questions or concerns, you can love him by talking with him openly, honestly, and directly—and by giving him grace as he learns this church and this community.  You can love him by collaborating with him, and by using your gifts to partner with him in ministry!  This congregation has so many gifts—I know that from experience now! And when you step out in faith and put those gifts to use and live into your calling as the church…then watch out, world!  Because when you’re fueled by the transformative, redemptive love of Jesus and when you’re serious about extending that love to others—then there’s no telling what mighty things God will use you for next! 


            So I ask that you would take these seven words, and tuck them in your hearts.  Remember that God loves you: perfectly, faithfully, and unconditionally.  And then commit yourselves to going forth and doing likewise.  God loves you.  Now go.  Love others.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!  ~ Pastor Emily