Friday, February 16, 2018

The First Rule is Love (Matt. 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On Valentine’s Day, a group of children were asked, "What does 'love' mean?" Here are some answers:
·         Rebekah, 8, said, "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore.  So my grandfather does it for her all the time—even when his hands got arthritis, too. That's love."
·         Bobby, 7, says, "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."
·         Nikka, 6, says, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with someone you hate."
·         Tommy, 6, says, "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
·         Cindy, 8, says, "During my piano recital, I was on a stage, and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and I saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. And I wasn't scared anymore."
·         Jessica, 8, says, "You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot."

Life in the ultimate sense or in the most fundamental sense is about love.  According to our Christian faith, according to the Bible, what matters most in life is love.  Why, because God is loving, because God created us to love, because God sent Jesus to show the model of love, and to atone for our sins by his sacrificial death on the cross, because God commanded us to love, because God wants us to learn the greatest lesson in the short time we spend on earth, how to love.

Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Why?  Because we strengthen our love for God when we love our neighbor and we strengthen our love for neighbor when we love God.  We love because God first loved us.  Love is not an isolated act; it’s interconnected, intertwined.  When we love others, God’s love flows in and through us in a free and powerful way.  When we love God in worship and prayer, we are inspired and motivated to love others.  We live a holistic life, when we share our lives with others.  Living a life of love is life-enhancing and enriching, inspiring and rewarding. Living a loving life achieves the purpose for which God made you and God made me.  Scripture says faith, hope and love, these three remain, but the greatest of these is love.

Of course we know loving others doesn’t come naturally, it’s something we learn.  It takes time to learn to love.  Where do we learn it?  Where have you learned to love? From people who have loved us.  We learn from Jesus himself.  We learn from the indwelling Spirit who teaches and guides us in life.  It is not an easy task, because it runs counter to our self-centered nature.  God gives us a lifetime to learn to love.  Jesus never promised that following Him would be easy. This is especially true when other persons hold different values or different ideas.

Today is an extremely challenging time.  One example today is our intense political differences.  The challenge appears to be nearly impossible for democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, to listen to one another, to agree to disagree, to care for, to compromise, to respect one another, to work together for the nation’s good. There are constant personal attacks, rather than a robust debate on the merits of the ideas.   We see and hear such contempt, heated rhetoric, distrust, charges and distain for one another, but rarely much love.  I have never seen America more polarized than today.  I pray, like you do, for this nation.

Jesus sets the highest standard and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.  Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.

True, loving others is complicated; if it was easy everyone would be doing it.  Loving someone can evolve into enabling their bad behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent. Forgiveness is an expression of love.  But so is setting boundaries, ground rules, ultimatums, and tough love.  Tolerating bad behavior is not love.  Allowing yourself to be bullied is not love.  Saying no, not helping someone in the way they expect, can be the most loving response, it can be just the thing to change another’s bad behavior.  Spoiling a child or abusing a child is not love.  There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving a family member, a friend, a child, a colleague.  It’s case by case. That we are to love is indisputable, but how we are to love is the question, and is open to debate and discussion.  That's why we must rely upon God for courage and wisdom, a deep and abiding wisdom.

Loving others is never learned by thinking alone; it is only learned by doing, which as you have probably experienced is sometimes learned by trial and error.  Loving your children as parents, at least in our experience, involved a lot of trial and error.  Loving grandchildren is much simpler.  Simple acts of love can have a tremendous impact.

A student sent a note to one of his former teachers.  He received this reply: “Dear William:  I can't tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and in poor health.  I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received.  It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me up in a way you can never know.  Thank you with all my heart.   Bringing consolation to the lonely, a meal to a neighbor, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Scripture says that loving others is the primary witness to the world for Christians.  Jesus said:  Your love for others will prove to the world that you are my disciples.  I’ve had nurses in hospitals and staff in nursing homes say: “We are so impressed with the many caring visits by the people of your congregation.  You have a caring congregation.  Loving others is a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

Scripture says that life without love is really useless.  Why?  Because we were created to be used by God.  Relationships must be a top priority in our lives.   Scripture says:  No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.  We talk about finding time for our children or making time for people in our lives.  God says relationships are what life is all about.  The 10 commandments include four in our relationship with God and 6 in in our relationships with people.  But all are about relationships.  We learn to love God in worship and prayer and we learn to love others by actions and doing.  Busyness is the enemy of relationships.  Yes, accomplishments, achievements, reaching goals are important.  But relationships, loving others, trumps these things.

Scripture says love leaves an invaluable legacy.  How you treated other people, how you encouraged, how you opened doors of opportunities for others, how you listened, how you taught and trained others, how you shared your time, talents and treasure with others, how you supported others is a powerful legacy.  Love is the secret of a lasting heritage.  Like one writer said:  I’ve observed that when people are in their final moments of life, they don’t ask to be surrounded with objects, their trophies, and diplomas, and symbols of their accomplishments and successes, they want to be surrounded by people they love and who love them.  Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to discover this important truth – relationships matter most.

Scripture says that we will be evaluated by God in the final judgment on our loving of God and others during our lifetime.  Recall Matthew 25.   Jesus says: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you to care of me, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.  In our text, John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refused help? Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone, tells how difficult it was when her children had all grown and left home.  She writes:  I felt so lonely and the house was so empty.  I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.  I felt worthless and confused; my life didn’t seem to have any value, because I was no longer focused on raising my children.   When I was away from the house I didn’t want to return home and when I was in the house I could hardly stand the thought of leaving.  I felt like I was living in a cocoon.   So I began to pray, as I had done throughout my life.  And as the days passed, I began to feel some stirrings inside of me, a kind of inner restlessness. I began to see in my mind options for my life, people I could help, that I had never before considered and for the first time since the children had gone, I began to look ahead with some anticipation.  I didn’t know what was to happen, but I sensed God’s Spirit leading me and calling me out of myself, and I knew that I was about to break out of the cocoon I’d been living in and begin a new and meaningful chapter in my life.

It’s true that time, time for relationships, always seems to be in short supply.  We are always pressed for time.  I wish I had more time.  Are we victims of time?  Are we helpless to change that?  Pray to God to help you manage and prioritize your time.  Pastor Rick Warren writes: “The best expression of love is time.  Relationships take time. Investing in relationships takes time and effort.  Words alone, about how important relationships are, are empty.  The best way to spell love is T-I-M-E and the best time to love is now.  Amen!

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