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The Mind Was Made to Be an Instrument of Love

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:54 pm on Sunday, October 29, 2017

A sermon preached on Sunday, October 29th, 2017 based upon Matthew 22:34-40.

Ryan with candleWhen I read our passage for this morning, I thought of an apocryphal story I heard way back in seminary.  It took place in the early centuries of the church and it involved these three simple monks who lived alone on an island where they loved God and loved one another, and prayed fervently for the world.

A learned Bishop decided to visit the three monks.  Upon arriving he quickly was struck by how the monks who could not read knew so little about the Bible or church doctrine.  He proceeded to spend the next three days giving the monks a crash course in the Bible and Christian theology.

At the end of the three days the three grateful monks bid the bishop farewell as he stepped onto his ship.

The bishop took some pride in having covered so much with the monks in such a brief time.  Surely they were better off because of him.

That evening as the bishop sat upon the deck of the ship, he saw three lights on the horizon, moving rapidly towards the ship.  To his astonishment, it was the three monks running to him on the water.  When they reached the ship they cried out, “Dear Bishop, after you left we realized we didn’t quite get it about the doctrine of the Trinity.  Would you be so kind as to explain it to us one more time?”

“No, my dear brothers,” said the startled and humbled Bishop, “I have nothing to teach you. Go back to your island, and please make sure you include me in your prayers.”

Sometimes our minds make things too complicated.


In our Gospel lesson, things are coming to a frenzied head.  A couple of days before Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem to great fanfare on Palm Sunday.  The disciples who followed him and those who greeted him were simple, unlearned folk.

With his arrival, it was clear that Jesus was a threat to the status quo – to those who held power in society, and lorded it over those without power.

And so these people made alliances where usually they would have none.  The Pharisees and the Herodians and the Sadducees – usually competing powerful factions — teamed up together to defeat the common threat to their power that was Jesus.

Unlike his disciples, these were smart, well educated people – presumably with high IQs if they could have measured such things.  Clever thinkers, they came up with a series of three questions that were designed to trip Jesus up.

They asked the questions under the pretense of a sincere quest for truth, but they weren’t that at all.  They hadn’t come to listen and learn from what Jesus has to say.  Their sole purpose was to defeat him in argument.

Which leads us to ask ourselves, how often do we truly listen to what others have to say, and how often do we simply pretend to listen, we what we’re really doing is waiting for the opportunity to make our points?

With high intelligence comes a high capacity for deception, but in this case, Jesus wasn’t deceived.

The first question was whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar.

The second was a question about marriage and the resurrection.

Jesus wasn’t deceived and he answered both questions well.

And here in this morning’s reading is the third question.  It’s about which law in the Torah is the greatest.  Potentially the question could trip him up because there are actually 612 laws in the Torah, and in choosing one he could get himself in trouble for seeming to put down the other 611.

But once again Jesus answers well.

He quotes two verses from the Torah – two laws, the first of which should have been a kind of no-brainer. It comes from what’s called the “Shema” – a verse in Deuteronomy that every Jew would recite each morning and each evening:

“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Unless you love God why would you bother to keep any of God’s commandments?

And then, refusing to stay within the confines of their question, Jesus adds another commandment that is “like unto it”. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Which is to say — the two commandments are really inseparable.

If you love God, you are obliged to love what God loves.  It doesn’t take a Phd to figure this out.

Here’s an analogy:  When I married Sarah 24 years ago she had a six year old daughter named Kate and I had a six year old son named Andrew.  There was no distinguishing my love of Sarah from my love of Kate.  Kate was the most precious person in Sarah’s life, and Andrew in mine.  It would be impossible for me to love Sarah without loving Kate.  And the same was true for Sarah with Andrew.

The analogy breaks down, however in so far as we both had just one kid, where as God has several billion kids.  God loves the whole world. Not just my family or my country or the people who share my religion or political party.  For that matter, not just my species either.  God loves every living being.

Jesus drove this point home when he said we have to love our enemy, because the one I consider an enemy is still precious to God.

To return to the first of the two commandments, there is an interesting little change Jesus brought to the commandment.  In Deuteronomy the verse Jesus quoted reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”

Jesus took the liberty of changing one word.  He said that we are to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind.

He changed “strength” to “mind.”

You wonder if he did that because he was talking to the smart kids.

God gave us brains that we may use them for the purposes of love.

But rather than being used to more effectively love, intelligence and education often become a source of pride, of arrogance and oppression of others.

The worst evil has always been committed by very smart people.

As the Apostle Paul said, “If I understand all mysteries and possess all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.”

The earliest Christians were fairly simple folk who caught hold of the Spirit that was in Jesus and began to follow in his “Way.”  That’s what the earliest Church called Christianity:  “The Way.”  Their belief system was pretty simple:

Jesus was the crucified and risen Lord, and we should conform our lives to his life.  That was about it.  Following his path was all about love – loving even to the point of self-sacrifice.

As time passed and the Church became an established institution the people who gravitated to positions of power within the church tended to be people with a lot of brain power – people who spent a lot of time thinking about the finer points of belief and doctrine. Since they were in charge, they tended to over value all that thinking they did.  What a Christian was required to believe got more and more complicated, with the definition of what it meant to be a Christian becoming someone who believes the right things – the stuff the thinkers believed was important – rather than someone who lives a particular way – the way of Jesus.

And that was unfortunate.

Often these thinkers – the “smart” people with big brains disagreed over what the right beliefs were, the result being all the divisions in the church.

To give one example, in the eleventh century what was called the “Great Schism” occurred splitting the church in two:  The Roman Church and the Eastern Church.

You know what they split about?  Whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, or just from Father.  As though this really mattered.

It was just an intellectual pissing contest.

What Christianity is really all about is relatively simple.  Jesus spelled it out in this morning’s lesson.  It’s about loving God and loving people.

It’s not complicated, but not easy either. Not easy at all. Which is why it often seems preferable to have it be about believing the right things.  That can be relatively easy.

Although I grew up a Methodist, I stopped going to church as a teenager.

I found Jesus in college, and thereafter went off to seminary.  When I began to think about becoming a pastor I needed a denomination to be ordained in and there were basically two reasons I became a Methodist pastor:

1) The Methodist church in which I had been confirmed as a youth hadn’t taken my name off their books, which made it easier than to start from scratch in another denomination.  And,

2) I was always really lousy when it came to learning languages.  And Methodists didn’t require that their preachers know Hebrew and Latin.

Pretty superficial reasons, wouldn’t you agree?

Overtime, however as I found out more about Methodism I realized I was, in fact in the right place.  John Wesley was a very smart, highly educated man but initially his intellect presented an obstacle to him in experiencing God’s grace.

He thought he could think his way into the Kingdom of God.

It was only when in his early thirties his arrogance led him to “crash and burn” that he had his heart “strangely warmed” experiencing the fullness of God’s love revealed in Jesus.

And he got it thereafter about love being the most important thing.

There are other Protestant denominations that say “faith” — which often ends up meaning having the “right beliefs” — becomes the most important thing.
But for John Wesley the Methodist movement, love was always the most important thing.

And the other thing about John Wesley that I’ve come to really appreciate it was that it understood that the Christian life is a process – a process in which through a combination of our effort and the grace of God we become more loving people.

If we do any bit of honest self-reflection on our lives and what Jesus said life was all about – loving God and neighbor – we realize that none of us are very good at carrying out these commandments.

I love God, or try to, but I know I love a lot of other things as well:

To name a couple, I love people’s praise, I love success, I love my kids and their success, I love money, often worrying about having enough of it.  Often times these loves eclipse my love of God.

And I try to love other people, but I know I often fail miserably on a lot of counts.

So we look at ourselves and own up to the fact we aren’t very good at loving, and it’s okay, because God loves us in spite of our failures in love.  But God doesn’t intend to leave us where we are.  God intends to transform us over time — make us more truly loving people.  It’s a process with plenty of setbacks, but each set back holds the potential for a little more humility, a little more self-awareness, a little more grace reaching deeper inside us.

Try again, says God, try again.

It’s not that what we believe doesn’t matter.  It does, but it is always about whether our beliefs are leading us to become more loving.

If we believe God is a son of a bitch who is ready to curse you if you stumble, well, a) you’ll have a hard time being honest about your failures, and when you can’t help but admit your failures, you will consider yourself to be an unlovable piece of crap, and be ready to give up.

And b) you’ll consider the stumbling, imperfect people around you as being unworthy of love.

But that’s not the God revealed in Jesus.  This God seeks eats with the sinners and taxcollectors, and in doing so, transforms them into shining lights of love.

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