Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.


When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!


And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.


But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.


In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.


The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord


Leviticis 19 – love others.


When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.


Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.


As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.


In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.


When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.


You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.


Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.


Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

God’s Love Never Fails

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This is our fourth week with the prophets of the Old Testament, and one of the things I hope you realize is that they weren’t all the same.

Every single one of them were called by God to share the word in radically different ways.

Elijah was called to do battle with other prophets.

Elisha did miracles like his master and brought healing in the midst of a time of conflict.

Amos stood up for justice, even though he wasn’t a prophet at all.


Sometimes, God called these prophets to speak the word to those in power, those in leadership.

And sometimes, God called the prophets to demonstrate with their very lives… to be an example to the world of God’s intentions.  They were called to acts of witness.


So today, we are going to hear God’s word through a living sermon, too.

I have here all of the things you expect for making a simple box cake mix.  Except, we are going to make it better…


God asked me to use Devil’s Food Cake Mix… because we all are tempted by sin in our lives.

Now, typically, I’d add some tap water to this recipe…. It calls for 1 1/3 cups.  But God is tired of lukewarm Christians, so we are going to use really really really hot water.

This recipe also calls for some eggs.  1, 2, 3.  But Jesus reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light… so we are going to add some egg yolks to this recipe.  1…. And 2…..

And then, instead of using vegetable oil like I might normally do, we are going to use real, melted butter.  God doesn’t want us to substitute cheap grace for the real stuff of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace that transforms our lives.

Okay then, now we mix it all up and we pour it out into the pan. And it takes a lot of work to mix it up.  And faith is like that too.  There are lumps and difficulties.  We can’t just throw everything in and hope it turns out okay. You have to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

And, we are going to add one more thing.  Now that it’s mixed, we pour it in and we are going to sprinkle the top with some sugar.  And that is because when we work our faith, we tend to get puffed up and inflated and think we are earning our salvation, and this very subtle layer will help keep our pride at the proper density.

And then, we bake the cake and it will taste absolutely delicious.  [puts raw cake batter to the side]


What… were you waiting for the finished product?

I did cut corners by having the water and butter right there, ready to go, but this demonstration is in REAL TIME.

So unless we want to put the whole service on hold for 40 minutes while we go preheat the oven and stick the cake in the oven, I think we had better just keep going 😉

God wants to build the spiritual fruit of patience in your lives, after all


That is the really difficult thing about demonstrating God’s word.  It had to happen in real time.

And for someone like Hosea, that meant a lifetime commitment to demonstrating God’s word through his actions.

As we heard in our scripture this morning, the Lord told Hosea to go and marry a prostitute and to have children together.

So even if Gomer and Hosea eloped and got married that very day, this demonstration, this living sermon, was going to take at least nine months before Hosea received the next command… to name the baby Jezreel, because the King would be punished for the sins of past generations.

And then, another child came into their lives… a daughter who was named “No Compassion” because God was done having compassion on the people.

And then another child… born after the second had finished nursing.  A son who was to be named “Not My People” because the people of the land were not acting like God’s people.


Hosea wasn’t just speaking to the head priest or the king of the land.  He and Gomer were bearing children that bore the marks of God’s prophecies.  And their very marriage represented the relationship between God and the people of the land, who sold themselves to other gods instead of being faithful to their God.


All throughout the prophecy of Hosea there are a few important things to keep in the back of our minds.


First, the land that we think of as Israel in the time of King David was no longer one nation, but two. 

In our teaching on the prophets thus far, we have overlooked this point, but the conflict of the leaders broke the nation into pieces.  Israel, or the Northern Kingdom, worshipped at Bethel, while Judah, the Southern Kingdom, continued to worship at Jerusalem.   Only two of the original tribes – Judah and Benjamin remained in the southern kingdom, loyal to the successor of David’s line, while the rest chose a new king in the north.

As you read the book of Hosea, then, you will notice that there are prophecies towards both Judah and Israel.  And to complicate matters even further, sometimes Israel is also referred to as Ephraim and Samaria – the tribe and the city that rule the kingdom.


Second, the relationship between God and the people is described in an intimate manner. 

Rather than a far off ruler or Lord, the relationship between Hosea and Gomer demonstrated the kind of deep love that God has for the people of Israel.  And God desires a marriage, a union with the people this is faithful and holy.


But a faithful marriage with someone who is used to infidelity is not easy.

Hosea experiences this when Gomer runs away and returns to prostitution.

In the same way, Israel and Judah keep turning their backs upon God and seeking after others.

The cycle keeps returning.  The faithlessness of the people is unending.

They seek protection from other lands.  They build altars to other gods.  They sacrifice to try to appease God…

But as God speaks in chapter 6:  “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.”

And God is frustrated.


The very names of the children represent the prophecy against the kingdoms.  There will be no more compassion.  If the people will not stay in the relationship, then they will no longer be God’s people.  The land of Jezreel will be wiped away.


There is intense sadness in this prophecy.  The love of God for the people is palpable. In chapter 11:

“When Israel was a child, I love him, and out of Egpyt I called my son.  The more I called them, the further they went from me… yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love… I bent down to them and fed them…” (vs 1-4)

And so in spite of God’s frustration and anger, in spite of the promise to destroy and turn away, God cannot help but remain faithful.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?… My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (vs 8)

And then God says, “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being.” (v 9)


I am God, and not a human being.


We have fickle hearts.  Our emotions lead us to make rash decisions and to turn against one another.  And throughout the book of Hosea, as God speaks through the life of this human man, we see the heart and emotion of God as well.


But God is God and not a human being.


And God’s love for us is all encompassing and total.  There is no wavering.  There is no fault.

God will remain faithful to the covenant, to the promises, to the love God has for us even if we fail every single time.

Every time God will be faithful.

Every time.


So if you have been faithless…

If you have turned your back on God…

If you think that God must be so angry with everything you have done or left undone…

If you think it’s too late for you… it’s not.


Because God’s love never fails.  It never gives up.  It never runs out.


Thanks be to God. Amen

Inward, Outward, Upward

Since the first Sunday in November, we’ve been talking about the “Already” and the “Not Yet.”

We’ve been waiting for the day, for the moment to arrive, when Christ is born again in our hearts and minds and lives.

But it is a kind of paradoxical waiting, because God has already entered human history through the birth of Jesus. As Paul’s letter to Titus speaks – God’s salvation has appeared!

We have been waiting for something that has already happened… A long, long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.


Thursday, so many gathered right here, in this very place, to light candles and celebrate that birth. We rejoiced with the shepherds and angels. We brought gifts like the wise ones. Christ was born all over again in our hearts and minds and lives. You could see it on the radiant faces, holding the candles. You could feel it in the warmth and kindness and love offered to one another. Peace on earth and goodwill to all.


Today, a mere three days later, have we truly received what we we’ve been waiting for?

Or did everything go back to normal?


That truly is the question.

Did this Christmas change anything? Is your life at all different because of the birth of our Savior?


Maybe all Christmas has taught us is that we aren’t quite done waiting…

In his letter to Titus, with just a verse in between, Paul goes from saying that “the grace of God has appeared…” to “we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:11-13)  Or as we talk about every time we take communion, Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

We believe there is still more to come.

We look out on the world and see the pain and hurt, the broken relationships and nations at war. Salvation and grace might have appeared, but this world is much the same as it has always been. There is another act to this drama of redemption that has yet to play out.


As a church, we have been reading this book, Awaiting the Already, by Pastor deVega. And he suggests that Paul’s advice to Titus is good advice for us today… advice about how we should wait during these “in-between times.”

He writes that the grace of God teaches us to live sensible, ethical, and godly lives.




As deVega writes:

…these three words together capture the full range of the spiritual life. To live sensibly (or “with self-control,” as it can also mean) is to live in harmony with one’s self. To live ethically means to live in harmony with others. And to live in a godly manner means to live in harmony with God. In just three words, Paul reminds us that every relationship we have deserves our fullest commitment to love and reconciliation.

To live sensibly is to have harmony in your inward life.

To live ethically is to seek harmony in your outward life… with the whole of creation.

To live a godly life is to allow God’s harmony to filter through your upward relationship with the divine.

And, you can’t have one without the other two. Even Jesus, when asked to teach his followers the most important commandment included all three aspects: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul, for his part, is writing to encourage and instruct Titus, who had been tasked with organizing the church in Crete.   As Titus was to choose leaders, these three qualities… sensible, ethical, godly… should be present in their lives.

supervisors should be without fault as God’s managers: they shouldn’t be stubborn, irritable, addicted to alcohol, a bully, or greedy. Instead, they should show hospitality, love what is good, and be reasonable, ethical, godly, and self-controlled. (Titus 1: 7-8)

Why are these qualities so important?

Because they mark a transformed life. These qualities are a witness to the power of grace to make a difference in a life.  They show the world that we don’t just believe in the good news, but that it has taken hold of our lives and we are no longer the same.

You see, we may not be able to control other people’s lives… we don’t have any power over nature or sickness or disease… we can’t stop civil wars or end hunger…

But the grace of God, the birth of Jesus into our midst, has given me the ability to control MY life. And you, yours.


And that means, you and I can live sensibly, with self-control.

We were taught how to do so by Jesus himself, who faced earthly temptations of power and wealth and chose instead a better way.

But Jesus also showed us that living sensibly does not mean to live without joy. He turned water into wine at a wedding and he celebrated meals with friends and strangers alike. But never was he out of harmony with himself.

On Christmas Eve, fellow pastors and I were sharing on facebook all the little things that went wrong. This time of year can be awfully stressful as we try to make everything just so. More than one time, a colleague mentioned drowning away their troubles in a bottle of wine.

And one of us spoke up.

She said, “I’m in recovery… I’ve been clean for ten years this February, God willing…. I see more posts about alcohol in this group than anywhere else on Facebook. What does that say about us?”

It was a great moment for our group to evaluate and stop and take stock of our habits. To check in with ourselves and ask if we need a drink to get through an evening, what does that say about our health, our stress, and whether or not we are living in harmony with our inward selves.


Likewise, we should be living in harmony with others. We can follow the wisdom and teachings of Jesus who welcomed the stranger and healed the sick and fed the hungry.

This is a time of year when that type of generosity comes as second nature. But not too long after the tinsel is taken off the tree, we forget how to be generous and self-giving. Our hospitality gets worn out.

There are many different types of ethics that we might follow, but the entire point of an ethical life is that it is a habit or a custom. We shouldn’t treat our neighbors any different one time a year as another.   And so the spirit of joy and peace we discover in the warmth of embraces on Christmas Eve should be the basis of how we treat every neighbor all year long.

The saints and heroes of our Christmas story are those who sought the way of love and compassion, like Joseph choosing to stay with Mary, and the innkeeper who made room for the holy family. The grounding for our ethical lives is how we treat those who are the most vulnerable in this world.


Finally, we should live godly lives.   To be godly does not mean to be perfect or holier-than-thou. It means to turn our attention to God… to live a life of worship… to actually be in relationship with God.

Jesus taught us how to do with when he taught us to pray and reminded us that God is our Abba father. Jesus showed us how to do this when he took time to get away and pray.

But he also demonstrated what it means to be godly as he respected and honored the faith of others… including the Samaritan woman at the well and the Roman soldiers. He held open the door wide for all people to be in relationship with God. And at Christmas, we remember that even strangers from a far off land with no concept of the faith of Mary or Joseph were some of the first to kneel at the manger and honor God.


So what difference does Christmas make?

It might not change the world… but it can change your heart.

We are each tasked with living a sensible, ethical, and godly life.

As Howard Thurman once wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.