Yr A ~ Pentecost 20 ~ Mt 22:32-40, Jn 13:34-35
If you’ve been hanging around Faith United for any significant length of time you’ll know that today’s scripture passages are absolutely foundational to how I see our whole spiritual journey – and it all boils down to three words: communion compassion, and connection – although today we’re going to boil it down even more!
Jesus taught all kinds of things in all kinds of ways – stories, parables, metaphors, sermons on hillsides – but there are only three things that he actually called commandments. I can teach you all sorts of things I’ve learned in my studies and in my faith journey but none of it carries the same weight or authority as a commandment from Jesus does.
What does Jesus command us to do? The first is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind – or as the Message bible puts it to love God with all our passion, prayer, and intellect. I really like that because I think the old “heart, soul, and mind” line has become so familiar that it’s lost its punch. Love with all your heart, soul, and mind – yeah, whatever, heard it a million times, yawn – but to love with all your passion, and prayer, and intellect, that has real power for me!
Maybe it’s because heart, soul, and mind feel inward focused, like they’re just mine, and passion, prayer and intellect seem to reach out more?
According to Jesus, loving God passionately, prayerfully, and thoughtfully is the most important thing of all.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment he had 613 to choose from! (There are 613 laws or commandments in the Jewish scriptures.) He answered that our first and greatest commandment (from Deuteronomy 6:5) is to love God with everything we are, and the second greatest (from Leviticus 19:18) is like it, love your neighbour as yourself. And later he commanded his closest followers to love one another.
But the first, the greatest, before anything else, love God. Before you try the second and third commandment make sure you’re living the first one! I think the idea Jesus is underlining for us is that if you want to love your neighbour, and you want to love the people you’re journeying with, that it has to flow out of and be empowered by the love you have for God, which flows out of the love God has for you!
Teresa of Avila, the great Christian mystic and writer who designed the movement that my buddy Brother Lawrence was a member of, insisted that the thing that mattered most was the love of God, but she was adamant that the only genuine sign that one loves God is how you love your neighbour.
Loving your neighbour as yourself has always been the touchstone of our denomination. The implication is that you share the love you have, in and for yourself, with others. The challenge is that self-love is sometimes hard to come by. We beat ourselves up over our failures and shortcomings, we think we don’t measure up to the impossible beauty of air-brushed magazine models, and even in churches we’ve historically beat people up with talk of sin and guilt and shame. With all that swirling how do you learn to love yourself, and without that how can you love others?
I think the answer lies not in focusing on our efforts to love ourselves but rather in our commitment and openness to loving God. If we put half as much energy and passion into noticing, savouring, adoring, honouring, and loving God that we do into “working on ourselves” I think our self-love would skyrocket – because when we immerse ourselves in God’s love we become more like God, and that’s infinitely more beneficial to your self-image than any self-help book could ever offer. Want to love yourself more? Love God more!
Love God (which we call communion). Love People (which we call compassion). Love One Another (which we call connection). God is love says 1 John 4.
Can you pick out the theme? Can you hear what’s at the centre of all this? If you had to pick one word that encapsulated the entire spiritual universe and summed up everything we’ve been given and everything we’re supposed to be about, what one word would you choose?
Surely it has to be the word LOVE.
What is God about? Love.
What is Christianity about? Love.
What is church about? Love.
What are you and I supposed to be about? Love.
Love God, Love People, Love One Another. Love, Love, Love!
If we’re about nothing else we must be about love.
Now here’s the question. (you’re not going to like it)
If you were to ask a person who’s not connected to this place, or any church for that matter, would that non-church-goer look at a church they were driving by and think it was all about love?
If we were to play the word association game with random people at the grocery store and we said “church” do you think the word they’d come up with would be “love”? They might say God or Jesus, but I doubt they’d say love, and I’m afraid they might say something very unpleasant!
Now here’s the bad news. (you’re not going to like it)
If they’re not associating churches or church people with the word love then it’s not their fault for being thick (well, maybe a little), it’s our fault for not communicating the love we know.
The song says, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love…” – well, apparently not.
When people think of churches they’re not thinking that fountains of love flow here.
So maybe the problem is that we’re offering something they’re not looking for. Maybe the general non-churched public out there isn’t all that interested in love.
Do you think that’s true? Of course not!
Listen to the music, watch the rom-com movies, read the books, check out the magazines, listen to the talk shows – the world is obsessed with love, or at least what they think is love. I would suggest that their understanding of love might be missing the most important ingredient. If God is love, and a person doesn’t know God, then how can they know love?
Real love flows from knowing you are loved, and the most complete and life-giving love there is is God’s love for us. God may be the only entity/being/life-force that is capable of absolutely unconditional love.
Romans 8:38 says “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Partners yearn to love one another unconditionally but we constantly put in conditions. Should one partner do something horrible and desecrate the love then watch how quick conditions appear. Parents are probably the closest example we have of unconditional love, but even there there are likely limits.
But God loves without condition.
No matter what you may have done, or not done.
No matter what.
You are loved.
You are loved in ways that you cannot possibly fathom by our God who can do no other than love you because God IS love.
But that’s not the God that has been emphasized and celebrated in the dominant versions of Christianity. The Christian God, and the Christian people, have too often tended to be far more judgy and unloving.
Even if that’s not us, we still get painted with that brush. Christianity, and we by association, has a terrible image problem. It’s still our challenge to overcome. It’s still our stereotype to change. And there’s only one way to do that: love.
Now we can certainly do that loving with our actions – but I think it’s pretty clear that quiet actions are not enough to change the world’s opinion of us. I think we need to be louder. And I think our message needs to be crystal clear and very easy to communicate and understand. Even if every one of you started having conversations with others about this we’d still need to do more to try to shift the tidal wave of negative opinion that seems to come at us. I think we need to think in new ways, and one of those is to think about marketing.
A tag line is the short group of words that sit below an organization’s logo that seek to communicate in a few words what the organization is all about or what they want you to remember about them. For years the Faith United tag line has been “Welcome, Wellness, Worship.” That was the message that Faith wanted the world to know about us. It’s a great tag line! It communicated very well the primary values of this new church called Faith United and it used the catchy “www” of the world wide web – which at the time was still pretty new.
While that tag line has served us well I think it has become dated and tired – and no one uses www anymore. So I believe it’s time for something new. To echo a question I asked a few minutes ago, what group of words perfectly encapsulate what we’re about in a memorable way?
Your first reaction might be to say “Communion, Compassion, and Connection” – our 3 Cs. I think that’s on the right track, but the problem is that those are meaningful to us insiders but probably don’t ping for people out there. It sounds like a secret code, kinda churchy, and isn’t instantly understandable to people.
But what do Communion, compassion and connection stand for? Love God, love people, and love one another – Jesus’ 3 commandments for us. The common word is love. So I’m starting to think that instead of coming up with something eloquent, or punny, or that elusive perfect combination of open-ended spiritual words that inspire people but don’t trigger their negative baggage about church, maybe our tag line should be absolutely simple: love, love, love.
Imagine if someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the church encountered that tag line.
What would they think Faith United was about? Love, love, love.
That might make them think of the Beatles song: All You Need Is Love
All you need is love, love. Love is all you need!
Nothing wrong with that in my books!
People might wonder why we say love three times. Imagine the question:
Them: Hey, why do you say love, love, love?
Us: Because we’re all about love, and because it stands for love God, love people, and love one another.
– And instantly you have a non-threatening way to talk about what we’re all about – love.
Now, how do you say love louder? Well, you can try extra hard to show kindness to everyone you meet and to let God’s love in you flow out to the world. And that’s good. But in addition to that if we really want to turn up the volume we need to turn to advertising.
I’m encouraging us to think about engaging in a mass advertising campaign. Most churches who think about this do it out of desperation to try to solve their budget problems and save their church. Happily, Faith United is in a different place. If we launch something like this it’ll be because we have something awesome to share that we can’t keep to ourselves – love.
Imagine door hangers with “Faith United: Love, Love, Love” printed on them.
Imagine Faith United lawn signs all over the municipality instead of election signs.
Imagine Facebook ads targeted to people in our area.
Imagine blanketing Courtice, Bowmanville, Oshawa with all sorts of different reminders of our tag line.
Then imagine bumping into someone at the grocery store while you’re wearing your Faith United hoodie and have them point at it and say, “Oh yeah, Faith United, that’s the love place.”
You don’t grow a church by pretending to be something you’re not. You grow a church by authentically being who you are, and communicating it, and at Faith United we truly are striving to be all about communion, compassion, and connection – loving God, loving people, loving one another – love, love, love.
We live in a complicated world. The events of last week certainly made that clear.
We claim to have found Something More – a Way that inspires us to live more openly, more authentically, more spiritually, more lovingly.
We have found the love of God revealed to us in the beauty that surrounds us, in our growing awareness of God’s presence, and especially in the person of Jesus who embodied God’s love and oozed God’s love in everything he said and did.
The world needs us to love them, and to show them the source of our love.
That’s our task – to change the world.
And there’s only one thing powerful enough to do it: love, love, love!