One of them, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40
I was praying a couple of weeks ago and this passage of scripture came to my mind. It is a favorite of mine and can be found in some form in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The set up is that Jesus is being asked a lot of questions regarding his teachings. As he is talking with religious leaders, he’s challenged with the question over the greatest commandment. Jesus responds with a simple and yet profound answer. He expounds on a group of verses from Deuteronomy 6 called the Shema. Jesus also tacks on a verse from Leviticus as the second part of the command. It is simple because Jesus affirms the tradition that humanity’s chief function is to love God with our entire being and we are not to just be content with that love but share it with our neighbor. I could imagine the leaders and others around Jesus when he answered as being satisfied. This answer makes sense. It is scripturally based. It sounds good. It has both a divine and a human focus. Yet, the challenge is to live this commandment out. In fact, Luke has the person asking the question quickly wanting a clarification on just who is my neighbor?
I think the church has always struggled with Jesus’ answer. We like it. It makes sense. It’s scriptural. We like the gospel and action focus. However, living this out proves challenging. Jesus tells us that we are to love God. To love God means that we do all the “Christian” things. We worship. We read scripture. We learn. We pray. We share the good news with others. We baptize and make sure the Lord’s table is welcoming to all. Jesus also tells us that we are to love our neighbor. To love our neighbor means that we do all of those “action” Christian things. We give to good causes. We serve those in need. We learn about how our actions work for the common good. We act and advocate with a faith focus. I get it; for some reason, this practice seems like a balancing act. On one side, we’re saying work on your relationship with God. On the other, we’re working on our relationship with those around us.
Yes, this means that some days we’re better one on one with Jesus. We are worshipping, we are reading our Bibles, we are praying, and in it all we are learning to love God more and more. On other days, we see that God’s heart breaks for those all around us. We get passionate about clean water. We see the need to reach out and change the world, even if that world is right in our backyard. This can seem like a yoyo, but this is what I believe is the cross of our faith. There is a vertical component where we are loving God with our entire being and there is a horizontal part where we are loving our neighbor. If one axis gets worked faster than another, then we need to work the other to catch up. We are in a dynamic state of keeping our cross centered. It’s work, but it’s rewarding. We grow both ways when we work at this. This is a life-long process we call discipleship, and we need each of us to encourage and support each other as we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. However, it’s not just an individual process; it’s a community process as well. Together, the church (we as a body of Christ), are working to love God and love our neighbor as a community. And in those moments, (personally and corporately), when we hit that balance, we find a special connection as a kingdom community.
It’s this wonderful dynamic that makes following Jesus so fun! Seeking God’s kingdom is a daily adventure. Yes, our faith is not static. It may get put on the shelf or we feel like it’s stagnant, but our faith is like a muscle. The more it is worked, the stronger it gets. The stronger we love God, the more we’re able to love our neighbor. The more we love our neighbor, we’re energized to love God more. Some days we need to be still and contemplate the Lord. Other days we need to put on gloves and do some work. Still other days we need the choir and tons of music to get our souls flying. Then there are other days we just need to be present with another and hold their hand through whatever they are going through.
This has been another great year here at the First Presbyterian Church of Everett. We’ve worshiped. We’ve learned. We’ve served. We have worked individually and as a community to love God with our beings and to love our neighbors. We’ve had highs and lows. And through all of it, as we’ve had conversations about discipleship, as we’ve celebrated life, as we’ve honored our tradition and as we’ve taken risks in service even when we take time to work on a clearer vision for the future, we have had enough freedom for creativity, growth, and relationships. And this is the time when we begin to look forward to the upcoming year. There still are challenges and we are changing, but the good news is there is space for everyone here. We all are on the journey together. We are moving when the Holy Spirit calls. We are continuing the solid foundation of our sanctuary to be a place where many people can come to seek God and restore neighborly relationships. We work to be a place that welcomes the stranger and the friend alike. We are open to where Jesus leads us as individuals and as a congregation so that children, youth, and adult disciples are strengthened, encouraged, and supported. We are on the adventure as a reformed kingdom community of Christ. This year, like every year I’ve served here, our session and our leaders have worked very hard to do this in a fiscally sound manner. We still need to finish strong in 2018, but we are setting the stage that 2019 will not just be a bridge year.
In 2019 we will continue to grow in our love of God. We are constantly seeking ways to improve our worship, discipleship, and mission work so our hearts, minds, souls, and strength are focused on God. In 2019 we also will grow in our love of our neighbors. We are a presence with our building for love in our community. Through our weekly meal, with groups who use our space to meet, and as a welcoming presence we are known as a church that puts our faith into action here in Everett. All of this is because you, as a fellow follower of Christ, are loving God and loving our neighbor. We are a collection of talented, gifted, and passionate disciples. We’re growing in our faith and together. Our conversations have sparked good ideas and a desire to push ourselves to think about strategic plans for our ministry and mission long into the future. It would be easy to see 2019 as a bridge year, but when we’re seeking God and acting in faith we know that the Holy Spirit is always moving. And we are ready to follow.
During this next month, we will be celebrating some of the great things God has done here in 2018 and prepare ourselves for Advent and 2019. On Sunday November 18th we will take time during service to consecrate our desired financial giving for 2019. This Sunday is a time when we take a moment to prayerfully commit ourselves to the way we love God and love our neighbor through the ministry and mission here at the First Presbyterian Church. I hope that you join us for worship and then stay for our 2nd annual Chili Cookoff.
Yet, more importantly, our prayer, hope, and goal for all of us here at the First Presbyterian Church of Everett is to love our God with the totality of our being and love our neighbor. We’ve been doing that for over 125 years and still have many more to go and much more to learn, share, and love. Let us commit to this grand adventure of following Jesus with our whole hearts and using that passion to share God’s love with everyone around us.