"When The Simplest Isn’t Simple”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – October 26, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40


    This morning we are going to consider the greatest truth ever spoken by anyone in history.  In fact, if the Bible did not exist and we had only these two teachings, we would need nothing else in verbal form that would offer us better guidance for living.  Our only challenge would be to apply these teachings to our daily lives.

    If we could make such an application, we would find doors of opportunity opening everywhere.  We would discover that friends are plentiful.  We would learn that every task we performed would be done to the best of our ability and completed with a compassionate and cheerful spirit.  As Shirley Dill used to remind us everyday during her radio program, "Attitude is everything!"

    These two teachings are well known to us and they come from Jesus in a response to the question:  "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"  Jesus responded with these words:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’  The entire Law of Moses and the teachings of all the prophets depend on these two commandments.

    Most of us recognize the simplicity of these two teachings, but we also recognize that they represent the greatest challenge that human beings face. We have the most significant tools for living remarkable lives but something happens that prevents us from using them.  When something enters our experience that makes us unhappy we have become so skilled in knee-jerk responses that nearly everything Jesus taught us easily vanishes.   

    You might be thinking to yourselves, "Oh, come on Dick, not another sermon on love.  Don't you ever get tired of teaching us what we already know?"  The answer is, "No, I will never grow tired of preaching the truth about how incredible loving attitudes and thoughts serve our lives as well as the lives of others."

    What appears simple and what is an obvious solution to many of humankind’s woes is not a walk in the park or sitting on a ledge at Spittal Pond and listening to the sounds as the waves pound against the rocks when high tide is on its way.  The motivation must come from our will to be guided by these lessons and not merely because Jesus said so.  It is one thing to have the right tools and quite another to use them to build something.  In this case, we can use them to build a life. 

    What are these two laws asking us?  Both of Jesus' teachings stand in stark contrast to an image that countless Christians have of God.  For example, the image of God coming from the Old Testament writers was one where God exhibited human attitudes, human moodiness, and human anger.  God killed people that displeased him.  (Genesis 38:7, 10)  God once ordered Moses to execute Israel's leaders. (Numbers 25:4)  When God promised to give Canaan to the advancing armies of Israel, God indicated he would help to drive out the people who had settled in that territory hundreds of years earlier.  (Joshua 3:9-11) 

    For centuries, pastors used this image of God in their preaching to keep people faithful and to keep their offerings regular and plentiful.  Listen to these words:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent and an arrow has been made ready on the string.  Justice bends the bow, straining the string with an arrow that is pointed at your heart. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, without any promise or obligation at all, which keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.    

    These words came from a sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards as he threatened his New England congregation with fear of condemnation because of their sinful ways of living.  Edwards was a Presbyterian Theologian that became one of the most prominent preachers in the 18th Century.  He was one of the leaders of the period in history known as The Great Awakening.    

    The question everyone needs to ask themselves is this:  Is God incapable of loving people in the same way that Jesus asked his followers to do?  We have a real dilemma on our hands if we are honest with our answer.  Our answer might mean that countless Scriptures were inspired by primitive images of God that Jesus cancelled during his ministry.

    Other Scriptures suggest that God exhibits only unconditional love.  God loves each of us without favoring some people over others.   Further, God's love cannot be earned by our goodness or by our sacrifices. (Matthew 5:43-48)  God's love is a constant, consistent energy pattern that wills the highest and best for all of us. 

    Most of the time we take God's love for granted because we have become more self-sufficient than at any other time in history.  We tend to forget that we would not experience our self-sufficiency had God not created us with the capacity to do so.  It is as though God said, "When you find the tools I gave you, all of you are good to go on your own journey toward greater spiritual awareness."

    This is the way it is even among our friends.  There can be no question that we take being loved by others for granted.  You would not believe the number of people who emailed us from everywhere when they learned that Bermuda was in harm's way.  Many of these were people that we hear from only at Christmas.  They were writing words of encouragement and sending prayers our way because they were unaware that we were in the States at the time.

    Most of us never hear a thing from our Conference Officials unless it is Charge Conference time.  However, once Fay and Gonzalo smashed into our island, Joe Daniels, our District Superintendent and Bishop Marcus Matthews sent letters to all the Conference churches asking their congregations to pray for Bermuda's people.  With major power outages, most of you did not know the amount of love that was pouring your way last Sunday morning from people who you have never met.  No one was killed from that storm.  People stayed safe even though many of them were terrified during the event.

    Kurte Loescher was the first person to send word of the storm before, during and after Gonzalo passed the island.  Her accounts were riveting.  Kurte lives along the seaside and had firsthand experience of the fury of the hurricane.

    Joe Whalen and I received a note from Greg Forrester, the Disaster Response coordinator from UMCOR, with these words, "UMCOR will release up to a $10,000 grant for Bermuda."  Churches can buy generators to loan to people or the money can be spent to help needy families to refill their tanks that were polluted by salt water."

    Disasters bring out the best in people.  Disasters cause us to set aside all labels we hold about each other.  I saw in yesterday's newspaper that Premier Dunkley said, "Keep the post-hurricane unity going!" 

    Our gardener came by our home prior to the storm and put our glass top table and chairs into the garage.  He told me yesterday that after the storm the front yard looked like a war zone.  He and his wife along with a friend with a truck hauled away three truck loads of debris to the disposal area. He said, "I wanted you and Lois to come back to a front yard that looked like nothing happened."

    It did not take long for Bermuda to return to some degree of normalcy.  Most shrubs are filled with green shoots of new growth. Neighbors were helping one another when they may not have spoken ten words to each other for months.  Often their lack of communication is not due to their attitudes.  It is because everyone is busy in their own circle of influence and they have not had the occasion to speak to each other.  This disaster put everyone on the same page as our island community pulled itself together.  

    It is only after we get through disasters together that old thought patterns enter our minds again and our label-laden judgments come back into play.  What is interesting about God's nature is that according to Jesus, God's love is not selective.  God consistently loves everyone all the time.  Numerous Christians are persuaded that many of the Biblical writers were more inspired by their own human passions than by God's loving spirit. 

    Again, what guidance did Jesus' teachings provide? Basically, his words will only work for us when we are no longer committed to preserving our ego-oriented identities -- that part of us that is easily offended by the words others say, that part of us that feels that life has somehow cheated us, that part of us that feels others owe us an apology, or that part of us that tells us that we have become lost in the maze of living.  The list goes on and on.  How easily we forget that we are spirit-beings that have come here to polish our own stones.

    God granted us permission to incarnate in our human forms to learn how we handle our creative powers in the choices we make.  We are here to learn if we can love as God loves.  We came here to learn if we can grow beyond the imprinting of many of our well-meaning teachers and to acquire attitudes that help us rise above the boundaries that societies tend to impose of its citizens.    

    Those who have become selfless readily understand these two teachings of Jesus.  He came to reassure humanity that nothing is capable of hurting our infinite spirits.  Let us rise up to remain the beings God created us to be even when there are no disasters.  Our best always needs to be on display.  Doing our best at everything will light the way for others.