The following is the majority of the text that I gave as a sermon this past weekend at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington. I am serving as the congregation’s mission developer for their north county campus this year. This sermon, my first at Messiah, was based on Mark 12:28-34, and was in tandem with a visioning conversation and meeting for the north county campus prior to worship.
Have you ever been to Multnomah Falls? If you haven’t been, you should go. It’s less than an hour away from here, and it’s definitely a gorgeous and majestic falls.
Well, that’s what I had told my in-laws anyway. It was our last stop as part of our small caravan before arriving here in Vancouver from Minnesota. It was also only going to be a ten minute stop, to get out see the bottom of the falls and take a couple pictures. During those ten minutes, the cab of our moving truck had been broken into and my mother-in-law had been robbed. A little bit of our sense of safety had been shattered. It wasn’t quite the welcome back to the west coast that we were hoping for. But, we were resolved to get here, so we called the police and reported it. A few of our group cleaned out the broken glass from the smashed window and then taped the passenger side window frame that had been smashed in with duct tape. We took the rest of the trip slow, and had the hazard lights on. Allison drove the truck like a champ and we made it here.
It might seem like an odd place to start my first sermon here at Messiah, but the anti-welcome we felt at the falls was immediately turned upside down. The congregation and Allison’s internship committee had a whole crew of people here, who waited patiently for us to arrive, even as our arrival time ended up being hours later than we had all planned. They helped us unload everything in less than forty five minutes. The sense of welcome was amazing. The sense of love was overwhelming. What could have been a very bad day became a great day. And we knew we had arrived not only in a wonderful community, but to be part of an amazing faith community where people have a deep sense of love and service.
Out of this experience, and in light of today’s gospel passage, I’m wondering, why do we show love? Why do we serve? Why do we worship? Why are we all gathered here in worship today? Why do we do what we do?
All of these questions and so many more can be answered by pointing to today’s gospel passage. We’re reminded to love God, and love our neighbors – the ones we know, and the ones we don’t know yet. These are core commitments and the summary of all the commandments. On the one hand, by following them there is the basic hope that life will go well for you.Moses says this in Deuteronomy, and it’s a hope that by loving God and loving our neighbor as our self, life will go well, and that we will live fully and abundantly.
But there is so much more to this story. These commands may be the answer to the “why” questions, but they are also only the beginning of telling the story and sharing a vision of what it means that God’s kingdom is coming near and breaking into the world, as Jesus preaches about and points to.
This past week, I was sitting at my desk on Tuesday as the internet was down at church wondering what on earth I would do, since as a mission developer so much of my job requires functioning internet access. But in those moments of pause and time for some reflection, I happened to glance up at the calendar on the wall and be amazed that Allison and I have been here with you all now for a month. I can’t believe it.
It’s been such a wonderful whirlwind- the best kind of crazy whirlwind- full of love, welcome, learning, and doing. Our first four weeks have involved listening, hearing, imagining, wondering, and sharing. It’s also been a time of getting used to seeing these things called mountains again. While living in Minnesota for the past five years, it probably took at least four years for me to get over the fact that there would not be some high mountain somewhere on the horizon. So, it has been a great joy these past few weeks to be able to gaze at Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and even on a clear day on the way out to the North County Campus, Mount Adams. Add in the majesty of the mighty Columbia River, and you can see why I’m so happy to be back in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
The past month has also been a time of stories. I have heard many of your stories already- some in passing, others over a meal, some out under the beautiful early fall Sunshine, and even some others of you who have graciously welcomed me in your home. At the same time I have also been asked by many to share more about me- to share about my work and ministry, beliefs, and even call.
Thank you to all of you also who took time out of your busy schedules to share your stories about North County and be filmed while you told your stories. I have been listening and watching your interviews, and I am excited to share your stories with the larger community soon.
I am grateful that you all continue to share your stories with me, and for being so willing to be vulnerable in that way. I hope that many more of you will share your stories in the days and months ahead. To do my work alongside you, it will be critical to hear your voices and stories and to help grow Messiah’s North County presence as we work together to continue to sense what God is up to, and where God might be leading.
Since I am asking you to share your stories, it’s probably only fair that I share a bit more about me. Maybe you have heard most of my story in writing already, or in Allison’s preaching and teaching?
One thing you may not know about me is that I like to wrestle with questions, something I probably owe thanks to my parents for. One of my favorite questions is, “Why do we do what we do?” Or, “why are we doing what we are doing?” I have come to love these questions, because they are a way to get to the heart of the matter, and remember who we are, what drives us, as well as what matters. Put another way, the answer to these questions, help shape the mission and vision you have or are following.
In today’s gospel we are reminded of what matters. Jesus is confronted by a dispute. It may have been innocent, but as some of the other gospel writers have suggested, it may also be an attempt to trap Jesus in his words, or at least put him on the spot. It’s like the clever person who wonders, “I wonder if this guy really knows what he’s talking about…” and then comes up with what he or she thinks is sure to be a trick question.
Well, Jesus of course is not caught in any trap, and quickly has an answer. When he’s asked, “Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus recites, “You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He doesn’t leave it there tough, as he immediately follows proclaiming that, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus is on record here, about as clear as he ever is, explaining what matters. It’s not something easy either, because it’s quite difficult to always love with all you are, and all that makes up who you are. It’s also hard to always love everyone else as yourself, because we’re not always very good about loving ourselves, are we? Let alone the people we may disagree with about something or another?
But in our best efforts, following these two commandments lead us together into community. They remind us that we are the Children of God, and are part of all the people of God. I also think this is what brings us together in this place, and as this congregation.
The first thing I noticed about Messiah after finding out that Allison and I would be coming to join you this past spring, was that you are a big group of people who are doers and dreamers. You are faithful, and you have a big vision believing that God has a huge vision- a vision for part of how the kingdom of God is breaking into the world here in Clark County. The dual vision of being both a teaching congregation for college students, pastoral interns, and pastors in residence; and one where every child near both worship centers has everything they need to learn… that’s big. But I believe it’s also something that is doable.
It’s also a way to live out Jesus’ commandments to love God, by preparing and being a place for young people and leaders to grow, as well as to love your neighbor, by providing for their needs- the needs of children and families in the communities that Messiah is a part of.
To love God, and know that God loves you, that’s the gospel in a nutshell. That’s also what leads us out from here into the world. There’s nothing we can do to earn that love, it’s a gift. But our response to that gift- the gift we have come to know through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ- is to live fully and abundantly.
This means living into the good news of the promises of God. To trust and believe that God is with us, has called us, that God loves us, and that we are indeed God’s children.
We may not always recognize what is happening, but by living fully and abundantly, we may also be moved to act. We might be so swept up by that good news that we can’t do anything but share that news with others through our stories, but also through the way we live our lives- serving and loving with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
It’s what I have already seen happening by all of you through Compassion Ridgefield, serving and sorting at the food bank, and more actions borne out of love and service and in response to the gospel. It’s also what I have heard from many of you when you have so graciously shared your stories and been patient with me as I continue to work to learn your names.
It’s what I have felt when being at the Hazel Dell campus on Wednesdays, with all of the excitement and energy of kids and adults sharing and learning stories.
It’s also what I have felt when being drawn into conversations with strangers or new friends seeking to get to know me, asking who am I? Lately it seems this question has been coming from people who are also deeply wondering, what is baptism? And what does it really mean to be a Christian? These acts, and times when a new friend is willing to give voice to such deep questions, are moments where God’s kingdom is surely breaking into the world.
Now I wonder though, what will you say the next time someone asks who you are? Or, what matters to you? What might you say about being a volunteer or serving? What might you say about where you are from and what do you do? In these conversations, what might you share about your faith?
A good place to start might be to remember these words that Jesus gives us, to “love God and to love your neighbor.” But even if you can’t remember these words, and are just left with more questions, know that God is with you and loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about that. God is with you, each day, building up the kingdom of God and pointing to that vision and hope which God has for each and every one of God’s children. Amen.