God’s Plan: Love – a sermon

Sunday, November 1st, 2015 – the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Jeremiah 29:11-13, Mark 12:28-34
Hymns: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, “Wade in the Water”, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Showers of Blessing”, “Jesus Has Lifted Me”, “All Who Are Thirsty”, “10,000 Reasons”

Note: certain portions of today’s sermon require contextualization. CYF youth member Alexis Livingston was baptized during today’s service, and specifically requested that Jeremiah 29:11-13 be read in the service.
Additionally, please make sure to read Sunday’s benediction, following the sermon – everybody celebrating the Kansas City Royals’ World Series championship will appreciate it!

“God’s Plan: Love”
“God has a plan for you.”
I would be willing to be that at some point in their lives, every one of us has heard those words. Usually, when we hear them, we’re at a relatively low point in our lives. We think that things are just utterly wrecked, that our lives can’t get any worse, when somebody tells us that God has a plan for us.
It usually comes at a pretty inopportune moment, too. Indeed, for most people, when somebody tells them that “God has a plan for them”, it’s at a time that they absolutely do not want to hear it. Maybe it’s because they’ve been through so many horrible things, maybe it’s because they think God has it out for them, maybe it’s because they’ve ceased to believe in God, but no matter what the reason, they’re at a point where they simply don’t want to hear it.
I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when Alexis asked me specifically to have the Jeremiah scripture read in today’s service. As I recall, when I was a sophomore in high school, I had absolutely no idea what God’s plan was for me. I didn’t know from one night to the next whether I was going to get my trigonometry homework done in time, or for that matter, what I’d buy for lunch the next day. In fact, when I went to bed on any given night my sophomore year, I didn’t even know how many times I’d smack the snooze button the next morning.
Spoiler: it was usually at least three or four times.
I don’t know. Maybe Alexis is more mature, more grounded in her faith at 15 than I was. Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me. I was at a Christian high school at that age, back in 1997. I took my faith for granted at times. Alexis, on the other hand, attends East Buchanan, which while a small town school, is still a public school, with all the foibles that go into that, for better or for worse. No matter what the reasoning, though, the Scripture she picked for today indicates, at the very least, that she has a better grasp on the idea that God has a plan for her than I did eighteen years ago.
Really, though, the world would be better off if more people understood the idea that God has a plan for them. And right here, I’m not referring to unchurched people, or to those who don’t believe in God. I’m referring more to Christians who profess their faith in God with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyles. And yes, I realize that this is the third time that very quote from Brennan Manning has been referenced in the last two and a half months, but it truly does bear repeating. When we live in a world where Presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle who claim to be Christians can look into a camera and bare-facedly proclaim other human beings to be their “enemies”, then we live in a world where Christians have a real problem with recognizing God’s plan.
Now, you may be asking where I’m going with this, what I mean by God’s plan, and we can sum up God’s plan in exactly one four-letter word: LOVE.
You can argue and say that there are many different rules and laws that God hands down to the people, and while that’s true, if you really take all those rules and laws and apply a good exegetical analysis to them, you’ll discover that love is the basis for all of them. Take, for example, the Ten Commandments. We look at the first four – you will have no other gods before me, you will worship no false idols, you will not take God’s name in vain, you will remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy – those all boil down to LOVE GOD. Number five, honor your father and mother – LOVE YOUR MOM AND DAD. Six through ten, no murder, no adultery, no thieving, no lying, no coveting – LOVE YOUR FELLOW MAN. And in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus and the scribe really cover all of that in two very simple statements: love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
About ten years ago, the Christian artist David Crowder wrote a song entitled “Revolutionary Love” that talked about the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message of love in the world he came to. And if you think about it, it truly was a revolutionary message. He descended into a world where the Jewish people were oppressed by the Roman government. There was no love from the government toward the people. He descended into a world where the people had internal hatred against one another. This was a people whose religious leaders insisted on such a fundamentalist interpretation of the laws of Moses that a person could be stoned for uttering the name of God in the wrong way, for breaking a particular law, for somehow displeasing the Sanhedrin. Can you imagine if we still did things like that? I mean, yes, for all intents and purposes, there’s a lot of metaphorical stoning in certain corners of the church today, but if we ACTUALLY took people out in the parking lot and stoned them to death for displeasing the clergy, I’m pretty sure that Christianity in this country would go away right quick.
But Jesus, when he came into the world of first century Israel, went around proclaiming a message of love. It flew in the face of everything the majority of the religious leaders proclaimed. Don’t be afraid of God, he told them, but instead, love God. Don’t be suspicious of and hateful toward your fellow man, but instead, love your fellow man as you love yourself.
For this scribe to come to Jesus, ask him what he thought, and then not only agree with his proclamation, but SUPPORT him, was a very dangerous thing for him to do. Now, granted, the scribes were a very powerful class of people in first century Israel, but for him to go along with a teaching from this rabble-rousing rabbi that flew in the face of what the Pharisees wanted people to believe could’ve gotten him in serious trouble. For all we know, it did. After this passage from Mark 12, we never again hear from this particular scribe. All we know is that he heard what Jesus had to say and decided that he was on the right track, which could not possibly have endeared him to the people to whom he answered.
Now, in the Mark passage, this story ends with the scribe agreeing with Jesus about the two most important commandments. However, there’s another place in the Gospels where this story pops up – Luke chapter 11. In that telling of it, the scribe goes on to ask Jesus who his neighbor is, to which Jesus replies with the very well-known story of the Good Samaritan – or, as I referred to it last week, the story Jesus told about some nameless unfortunate getting the tar whupped out of him on the Jericho road.
Of course, the moral of that particular parable is that the Samaritan – considered by Israelite society to be a low-class, worthless individual – ended up being the neighbor to the man in need of help, and Jesus’ point there was that ALL people are your neighbors, not just the ones you like. The point he makes here in Mark, that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, is underscored in Luke with the further explanation of who we are to consider our neighbors.
Now, there’s a lot of people who have a problem with that. Almost two months ago, I talked about the pervasive effects that social media have had on our collective consciousness, and if you look there – at Facebook especially – you will see the problem that people have with loving their neighbor. People have no problem whatsoever with saying absolutely horrible things about people – especially public figures – with whom they disagree, people who did something they dislike, people who just plain rubbed them the wrong way. It’s as though people have forgotten that just because Al Sharpton said something incendiary, just because Donald Trump said horrible things about a debate moderator, just because Caitlyn Jenner underwent gender reassignment therapy, just because Ben Fields dragged a teenage girl across a classroom – NONE OF THAT MAKES ANY OF THEM ANY LESS OUR NEIGHBOR.
Indeed, I have bad news for everybody – myself included. The people we dislike the most in this world are nonetheless still our neighbors, and we still have an obligation to love them, pray for them, and treat them in a Christ-like fashion. And I know that some of you are sitting in the pews right now, thinking to himself, “He’s wrong, he’s wrong, how can I love ISIS, or whoever?” Guess what? I’m not wrong. I’m telling you what Jesus said, and his word trumps our feelings, every time.
Also, I still love you, because you’re my neighbor.
My point is, it’s not easy, but we weren’t called to do what was easy. We were called to do what was right. God’s plan for us is a plan for hope and a future, and if we want hope and a future, we have to work for it. We can’t just sit back and expect everything to just come to us. To have hope and a future, we have to show love to one another, not hatred, not disdain. And unfortunately, sometimes love is the harder path to take.
But it will always be worth it.
Perhaps one of the best examples of love toward one’s neighbor I have seen lately came on Tuesday night. As we all know by now, that night, Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez threw six brilliant innings in Game One of the World Series before Ned Yost pulled him from the game and sent him to the clubhouse to receive the sad news that his father had died.
The news had gotten to the Royals’ front office before the game, but the information was withheld from all players except for Chris Young, who himself lost his father a month ago, and was told to prepare to take Volquez’ place on the mound. Indeed, Young would end up taking the mound that night, to finish what Volquez started five and a half hours beforehand.
The Royals also told FOX before the game, but asked them to keep the information to themselves until after Volquez was told. And FOX was under no obligation to do that. Indeed, had they broken the news that Daniel Volquez had passed, it probably would’ve meant a ratings bump, as more people tuned in to see if Edinson Volquez knew. It would’ve meant more visits to the FOX Sports and FOX News websites, meaning in turn more revenue. Indeed, the knowledge of Daniel Volquez’ death could’ve been a boon to the FOX organization, and nobody would’ve faulted them for it – it was news, after all.
But they too chose to keep the news quiet. They chose to honor the Royals’ wishes, out of consideration for Edinson Volquez, and I’m willing to bet that that was in part because every member of that broadcasting crew would probably rather never learn of the death of a family member via the news or social media. They chose to love their neighbor as they loved themselves.
It’s what God commands us to do – we are to love God, and because each person is made in God’s image, we are to love them as we love ourselves, no matter what we may think of them. That includes those who we don’t necessarily like, even the New York Mets, and yes, even Joe Buck.
God has a plan for us, and may we be given the grace and love to live out that plan.
Amen.

Benediction
A paraphrase of I Corinthians 12:12-22
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the Hosmer would say, “Because I am not a Moustakas, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the Volquez would say, “Because I am not a Zobrist, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were a Perez, where would the Gordon be? If the whole body were Morales, where would the Cueto be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The Cain cannot say to the Escobar, “I have no need of you,” nor again the Ventura to the Yost, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and so it is that all are Royal.

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