"For the Love of God and Neighbor" - Sermon, October 29, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“For the Love of God and Neighbor”
Pastor Andrew Davis
October 29, 2017
Matthew 22: 34-46

Back in the 1990’s, one of my favorite television shows was ABC’s Home Improvement, starring Tim Allen, Richard Karn, and Patricia Richardson.  Home Improvement centered around the Taylor Family, particularly Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, who portrayed a handyman with a home improvement television show called “Tool Time” which was kind of like Hometime or This Old House.  One of the more hilarious parts was his rivalry with former This Old House host Bob Villa, possibly a way of how not to love your neighbor.  Many of my classmates also watched the show and we’d often talk about the previous night’s episode at school, plus Tim’s kids in the show were around our age at the time, so many of us could relate.  One of the subplots of Home Improvement was Tim’s relationship with his next-door neighbor, Wilson, played by the late Earl Hindman.  Wilson was a very interesting person, although all we saw of him most of the time was his hat and eyes, as he was almost always hidden by the fence and his full face was never shown (although during the curtain call during the series finale, they finally revealed his full face).  As eccentric as Wilson was, he was a confidant and mentor to Tim, always having words of wisdom to share and a listening ear, maybe even some tough love once in awhile.  Besides Tim’s assistant, Al Borland (Richard Karn), I think Wilson was my favorite character because of the love he showed towards everyone.  Wilson was an example of what it means to love our neighbor. 
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus finds himself in the midst of conflict with the religious authorities once again, as the Gospel lessons these last few weeks from Matthew chapters 21 and 22 are part of the conflict narratives.  The religious authorities, the Pharisees and Saducees who test Jesus are not bad people, per se, but they absolutely LOVE the law, right down to every I and every T.  They are trying to trap Jesus in his words, yet Jesus manages to amaze them each time with his answers, so much that they will not question him anymore.  Our lesson today picks up following an exchange with the Saducees about resurrection, as Jesus leaves the Saducees in amazement at the answers he gives. In this conflict scene we just heard, the Pharisees now send a lawyer to challenge Jesus some more on his teachings, kind of like when we get challenged on things we might say, such as our core beliefs, or when we defend a master’s thesis, or doctoral dissertation.  When the lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes directly from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind,” while taking that commandment a step further to include loving our neighbors and ourselves.[i]
            For the Pharisees and Saducees, they held fast the law of Moses, while also holding a very narrow viewpoint, and that included excluding those who were not seen as pure in their eyes, as they held fast and tight to the purity, household, and dietary codes of the time (if you want to read more about it, read through the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy).  Yet amidst the Pharisees and Sadducees views, Jesus challenges the religious authorities and his followers to a new way of thinking, to not only love God, but to love their neighbor too. Seems quite simple, except that one of the hardest things to do is to love our neighbors.  A mentor of mine recently shared a sermon he preached several years ago on this very topic and tells the story of a Christian theologian and famous astrophysicist:
A famous theologian found himself seated next to a famous astrophysicist on a long airplane flight.  Soon the small talk led into more weighty conversation. 
The astrophysicist claimed to be an atheist and argued eloquently that there was no God.  But the theologian was able to counter every argument.  Finally the scientist exclaimed in frustration, “Love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s all there is to the Christian faith.” 
The theologian calmly replied, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.  That’s all there is to astrophysics.”   Who do you think won that argument?[ii]
I would have loved to have been on that flight!!  No dull moments there. Sometimes, that’s how Jesus’s exchanges and conflicts with the religious authorities feels like, although Jesus has a strong point that there is no getting around it: we are called to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. 
            For the first nine and a half years of my life, my family lived in a suburban track home in Elverta and we were pretty tight-knit with many of our neighbors throughout the whole neighborhood.  Yeah, we had our disagreements and our squabbles here and there, yet many of us had each other’s backs too.  Our neighborhood had many kids my age and we had our typical love-hate-love relationship with each other where one day we’re friends, then something would happen and we wouldn’t be friends, then we’d make peace and be friends once again.  Typical cycle among kids, adolescents, and teens.  We still had that sense of love for each other despite our occasional disagreements.  The same went for the grownups too, as they’d occasionally have a spat or two, but still had a sense of love for one another.  However, in 1990, my family moved to our present house Rio Linda after we inherited passing that March. 
            Instead of a close-knit neighborhood, we moved to a much larger property along a busy street with a rural feel on one side and apartments and duplexes on the other side, with our next-door neighbors being my great-uncle Johnny (until his passing in 2000) and an elementary school.  The neighborhood was much different.   It’s mostly because people keep moving in and out across the street.  Plus, during my three years at the elementary school, everyone knew where I lived (obvious!).  We still exchange pleasantries and greet our neighbors when we see them, except there just isn’t that close-knit feeling like we had in the old neighborhood, although most of the people who lived there at the time have also likely moved on.  Still, all throughout my life, I’ve had to try practicing loving our neighbors and be reminded to, even when they could also drive us crazy.  Jesus never said it would be easy.  Despite how we may feel about our neighbors at times, our Gospel lesson is a core teaching of Jesus and could even sum up these teachings into these two commandments.[iii] 
As I did last week, I went to social media to ask friends, family, and colleagues what loving God and neighbor looks like to them.  One of my colleagues on the East Coast mentions how it is hard trying to love God and neighbor, as it involves walking together with many different people, which also means having to listen to being called out on our crud while also ‘becoming deeply concerned about the reality of relationship with God and one another.’ As we recognize the Protestant Reformation that happened 500 years ago tomorrow and about 200 years before Methodism became a thing, another colleague talked of the need ‘for continuous reformation within the church as a sign of our love of God and neighbor.’ During the fire season and after times of natural disaster, we have seen our love of God and neighbor put into action both here and through our connectional support in the UMC.  Another friend talked of his experience of doing some of the hands-on relief work in Joplin, MO following a deadly tornado and like the fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters that happen, people will step up and step out in love.  That’s one of the places where the church really shines!!! Plus, if you have experienced a Walk to Emmaus or other three-day weekend experience, you have felt and experienced (or if you go on one, will feel and experience) this Love.  There are so many other examples of where we show our love for God and Neighbor.  It also means loving the people we can’t always stand because they’re our neighbor too (even if it doesn’t necessarily mean having each other over for Thanksgiving dinner).  We can still love each other when we practice and keep healthy boundaries.
            A couple weeks ago, I was given a copy of John Pavlovitz’s new book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community and while I’m still in the process of reading it (am a little over halfway through), I have found that sometimes the love of God and neighbor can be messy, yet hopeful in the same breath.  Now I know that John has his many critics and can often be very outspoken at times, sometimes rubbing people the wrong way because of his passion.  Yet, John takes the call of loving God and neighbor very seriously, even when he has been hurt by others.  In the book, John observes that
The church can be a beautiful or horrifying place, depending on where you’re standing.  (As they say in real estate, location is truly everything).  We Christians know how to do love really well when we believe someone is on the inside, when they’re one of us, part of our tribe – when they’re in the family.  There’s a tangible sense of shared purpose and mutual affection that comes with being part of a local faith community, a feeling of belonging that really does transcend almost anything one can experience.[iv]

            It really is easier to love those on the inside.  Except we need to see and love the people outside of the church too, which I have to say here in this community, we already do a great job of doing so. 
Last Saturday, about a dozen of us had our first of several all-church planning sessions facilitated by Pastor Ray, and one of the things we are constantly trying to do is engage our neighbors and the people of the greater community of Quincy, particularly families.  While we would love to have people a part of our church community and have this place bursting at the seams, maybe it’s more about the relationship we have with the people around us, which is another way of showing our love of God and neighbor by being a hope-filled presence in this community.  Another idea was to have a group of people offer to do small tasks, such as changing lightbulbs and batteries in smoke detectors for people who have difficulty with ladders, or expand the role of our lay-visitation team to include people within our community who might have limited contact with people who are not necessarily affiliated with our church, because they are our neighbors as well. 
One of our ideas is to do a hymn-sing following community supper as a means of inviting our neighbors in, which I’m thinking of doing the week following the annual Fall Dinner.  A longer-range vision is an after-school program, although we do realize that we may have some hoops to jump through before we can really start.  Ways we relate with our neighbors through our local businesses and community events goes a long way, such as our participation in Quincy Chamber’s Safe Trick or Treat on Tuesday. It’s not just giving out candy or little bottles of water, but giving the many children around the county who come to this event a piece of our heart and words of love.  After all, “anything done with care and joy can be an act of worship” and when we love God and neighbor, particularly through our actions and words, we too can find joy and give others a sense of hope in a world that sometimes feels hopeless.[v] Or as I like to say, share some Good News in a bad news sort of world.
            So, when Jesus says that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as well as our neighbors as ourselves, he was serious and we need that constant reminder, as we see this same passage in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well.  Sometimes we have neighbors we don’t always want to love or are leery of, yet we are called to love them anyway, because they are still our neighbors and our fellow human beings.  The Good News is that God loves each of us and there’s nothing we can do about it, as God’s love is unlimited even when we don’t always love others or when we fall short (which we confess each time we prepare to take Holy Communion).  Even if our neighbors might drive us crazy, or might demand too much of us, or if our neighbors are more like Wilson on Home Improvement, our call is to love our neighbors as ourselves regardless of who our neighbors are.  As we begin this new week, our homework is this; how are you going to put your love of God and neighbor into action this week and beyond?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church say AMEN!! 



[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 424. 
[ii] Rev. Ray Dowdy, “Love My Neighbor” (Quincy, CA: October 23, 2011).  Used with permission. 
[iii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, 425
[iv] John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 25. 
[v] Pavlovitz, 11.  

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