Love God, Love Neighbor
DEUTERONOMY 6:4-9; MARK 12:28-34
Bind us together. What binds us together, what unites us is the Mission Statement of Wesley Church, which reads: LOVE GOD, LOVE NEIGHBOR, AI SHIN, AI RIN. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God…you shall love your neighbor.” The basis of our unity is Love God, Love neighbor. The foundation of our church’s ministries and mission is Love God, Love Neighbor. But, what does it mean to love God? How do we love God?
Did you hear in the Scripture Lesson that Jesus was answering a question? A scribe asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, “Love God, love neighbor” and then concluded, “There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The commandments—love God, love neighbor--Wesley Church’s Mission Statement—are summaries of the Ten Commandments. How do you love God? Loving God begins with: put no other gods ahead of the Lord, make no images, revere God’s name, and keep the Sabbath. Loving neighbor begins with: respect parents, don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet.
The Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses in the Sinai wilderness. Coming from Minnesota, my image of wilderness was trees, trees that the pioneers had to cut down to make room for crops, to cut down to get lumber for their houses and barns. But, the Sinai wilderness is like the Mojave or Arizona deserts—miles of sand and rock.
The Hebrews had miraculously escaped from Egyptian slavery. Moses led them from the fertile Nile valley to the desolate desert. What a trip! Moses had several emotional confrontations with the Pharaoh. Thanks to ten plagues, Pharaoh finally gave them permission to leave. Moses organized the people into some kind of wagon train (or camel train, or walking). They packed and left hurriedly, with all their possessions or at least as much as they could carry. They herded their animals together and took off. When they reached the sea, with Egyptian chariots and soldiers at their heels, God parted the water and led them to safety. When they reached safety the water wall collapsed, preventing the soldiers from following them.
Then they found themselves in the wilderness where Moses had quite a job. Do you recall what the people did? After miraculously escaping from slavery, what was their response? They complained! They griped. They didn’t like the accommodations! They moaned, “Better we should have stayed in Egypt. There we had food. There we had water. Did you bring us out here to die? We could have died in Egypt!”
They complained like some churches I’ve had! A few weeks after I had been appointed to Merced Church, I was in the church office when one of the members walked in, leaning on her cane. Surprisingly, I knew her name and said, “Hello, Elizabeth, what brings you here?” She said, “Last Sunday you asked us to write on our bulletin. The pencil in the pew was broken. In fact all the pencils in our row were broken, so I have come to sharpen the pencils.” And she did; hobbling on her cane, she went through the pews sharpening pencils. I almost passed out! She didn’t call on the phone to complain. She didn’t ask, “Who’s in charge of the pencils? Who is to blame for the broken pencils?” She saw a need, and she did something about it.
Back to Sinai, Moses had his work cut out for him, handling the complainers. He found them food, found them water, and began organizing them. He led them back to familiar territory, back to the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses had happy memories of Mt. Sinai. There he tended sheep for Jethro, and later married his daughter. They had children, and it was there Moses saw the burning bush and heard God’s call to go back to Egypt and lead the Hebrew slaves out of bondage. So, Moses led the people back to Sinai. He went up the mountain, stayed there many days, praying, thinking his situation through, making plans, and it was there the Lord blessed Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments.
Eleanor and I were privileged to climb Mt. Sinai on our trip to the Holy Land. Our group toured Jordan and Israel, and on the way to Egypt, stopped at Mt. Sinai. There are two routes up the mountain, both are walking trails. One trail winds in curves and the other goes straight up. We were eager to see the sunrise from the top, so our guide took us the short way, straight up. We left about 4a.m. and began to climb. The guide failed to realize there were several elderly folks in our group. We often had to stop and rest. We all were panting, when we finally reached the top. Of course, we missed the sunrise. Those who had taken the winding trail arrived way ahead of us, and they saw the sunrise. We were ready to throw our guide over the edge, but remembered we were on holy ground. It didn’t look very holy, however, with all the bottles, cans, garbage, and graffiti. But, we did visit the top of Mt. Sinai, allegedly the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Moses did not deliver a new moral system to the people. The Ten Commandments were derived from the moral and religious precepts of ancient times. They have proven themselves over time to be the basis of any civilized society.
But, the Ten Commandments meant something more to the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. Moses gave them the law not just as an ethical code, not just to govern the community. The law was the sign of the covenant God made with his people. God heard their cry and acted. God led them from Egypt to the wilderness. God established a covenant with them, where God became their God and they became God’s people.
Failing to understand the covenant is to fail to understand our Mission Statement. For us to love God, for us to be in relationship with God begins with God. There is nothing we do to establish a relationship with God. God establishes the relationship, the covenant, and we respond. God is our God and we are God’s people. Often the church has misunderstood the covenantal relationship, and has put the cart before the horse. God doesn’t love us because we are good and do good. We baptize infants because God loves us before we are old enough to try to earn God’s favor. God accepts us into relationship even before we ask.
We then respond to God’s love by doing good. We obey the commandments because we are loved by God. Faith produces good works; good works do not produce faith. There are many driven, restless, uptight people desperately trying to excel, to succeed, to obey the commandments, trying to prove themselves, trying to prove how good, how righteous they are. “Look, Mama, see how good I am. Look, God, see all the good I’m doing. See how good I am. Oh, Lord, therefore, please love me.” Such people are unhappy, intolerant of themselves, intolerant of others, harsh and hard on others.
But, the gospel, the good news, is that we belong to God because of the free, unrestricted, unearned love of God. Children who are taught by their parents that they are good because of what they do have a difficult time trying to earn their parents’ favor. “Oh, Johnny, you did well. You are such a good boy. Oh, you got A’s on your report card. You cleaned your room. What a good boy you are!” Those parents have got it backward and they are putting unnecessary and harmful pressure on their children. Their children are learning that it is by what they do that they are loved. Backwards! Watch how you praise children. Praising can backfire if not placed within the context of the parents’ love, where their love is not contingent on the child’s behavior. Then, with a healthy self-image, secure in their parents’ approval, comes the desire to do well, to behave, to succeed in school, and be a responsible, productive member of the family.
Trying to be a good Christian, a good church member backfires if not placed within the framework of the covenant. You do not earn God’s favor. God loves you just as you are. Therefore, relax, quit trying to prove yourself, quit trying to earn love. Relax, love yourself. Have a good healthy opinion of yourself and your abilities. Why? Because God has a good opinion of you.
Then, secure in the covenant, secure in God’s love, in gratitude, comes the ability to love God and love neighbor. Persons who are living lousy lives, disobeying commandments, making those around them miserable, do not need instructions in how to live better. They don’t need anyone telling them to shape up and love God. What they need is to experience God’s love. When they experience God’s boundless love, when they experience the reality of the covenant, they will blossom in self-confidence, a positive self-image, and good works.
Love God, love neighbor--our church’s Mission Statement-- begins with the covenant. God loves us. We love God because God first loves us. God is our God, and we are God’s people.
© 2007 Douglas I. Norris