How to Love God:
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Mark 12: 28-31
When our vision and calling planning team was working on our new statement of call eight or nine months ago, I suggested to the group that we should have a Scripture passage to ground our call statement. They asked me what it should be. I said that I didn’t know and left town for a couple of weeks. (Not intentionally, I just happened to be scheduled to be out of town.) When I got back the group had discovered the passage. Mark 12: 28-31 – the first and greatest commandment.
Mark’s version of a story that appears in slightly different versions in all
three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is a pivotal story for our
understanding of Jesus and Christianity. It just so happens it was a favorite
Scripture passage of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. It
is inscribed in his honor on the marble altar at Wesley's Chapel on
The translation of this passage that our vision and calling team selected is from The Message, a contemporary language translation done by Eugene Peterson. Eugene Peterson is a poet, and he used his considerable poetic skills to write his own translation of the Bible. Many people are finding The Message helpful to look at old familiar words in a fresh way.
Let me just say that the preferred translation of most United Methodist and mainline seminaries and teachers remains the New Revised Standard Version. This is the translation we normally read from during our services. This is the translation of the Bibles in our pews. The NRSV is the translation we give our children when they are in third grade. When people ask me, this is the translation I encourage them to buy.
The NRSV was translated by a committee of 30 of the most accomplished and respected translators and scholars within our mainline seminaries and graduate schools. The Message was translated by one person.
The Message is a great tool and resource and more fun than the translation done by the scholars, but the NRSV remains our baseline translation that we encourage people to use. If you were only going to have one Bible, I’d recommend the NRSV.
So we are using The Message’s translation of Mark 12: 28-31. It is on the front of our bulletins along with our call statement so that we make sure our call statement stays grounded in the teachings of Jesus.
This key Scripture is central to all Jesus’ teachings. Between now and Thanksgiving we are going to focus on only four words from this teaching, but I have asked one of the best New Testament teachers I know to come and lead us in a church-wide Bible study on the versions of this story in Matthew, Mark and Luke on the last weekend of February, the weekend before the beginning of Lent 2009. His name is Rev. Donald Morris.
weekend before Lent is usually our leaders’ weekend but this year I’d like to
expand it to a church-wide Bible study. I hope our leaders will be there but
I hope many of us will be there to study the passages about the first or the
greatest commandment in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This will be an intensive
Bible study weekend on our key Scripture. Don Morris, pastor of Kingston UMC
But for now I want to focus on just four words from this passage and the words are passion, prayer, intellect and energy. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was – what is the most important thing we can learn from our religion about how to live our lives? – Jesus’ answer was this – you shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and then the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Heart, soul, mind and strength. The Message translates these words: passion, prayer, intellect and energy. So these are the four words I want to focus on between now and Thanksgiving – passion, prayer, intellect and energy.
The first word is passion. I want to focus for on the few minutes we have left this morning on loving God with passion. Passion is emotion, deep emotion, intense emotion. Passion is feeling and doing something with our whole heart.
Craig Barnes says the idea of passion makes most of us a little nervous, especially Americans.[i] We like to think of ourselves as reasonable, self-contained and self-controlled. And self-control is a good thing and one of the fruits of the spirit.
But, Craig Barnes says, love is always passionate. “To love someone,” he writes, “is to enter a passionate, dramatic journey with that person.… Typically [love] leads us to the heights and depths of our lives. [Only those we love] can fill our hearts with such joy or break them apart with such hurt.”
Life is meant to be lived passionately in the full range of emotions God has put in our hearts.
We meet God at “the higher and lower ends of life” – the places of greatest joy and greatest pain, but, Barnes says, most of us prefer to live our lives in the flat places between the highs and lows.
One of John Updike’s characters says, “Westerners have lost whole octaves of passion. Third world women can still make an inhuman piercing grieving noise right from the floor of the soul.”[ii]
In our new statement of call the passion is in the adjectives. I can remember when the vision and calling team was working on the first draft of this call statement in Charlie and Jeffrey’s living room, the group pretty well knew that part of our call was worship and community and service. But the group wanted it to be passionate worship and passionate community and passionate service.
So the energy went into the adjectives – transcendent worship – not just worship but worship that brings us into the presence of the Eternal. Worship that is a thin place.
Study – but not just any study – challenging study through which we push ourselves to new comprehensions.
Community, but inclusive community. Caring community.
Service but not just any service but active service where we are actually in the streets. Prophetic leadership.
In our sense of call, the passion is in the adjectives.
God intended our life to be lived with passion.
What is the enemy of passion? What shuts us down emotional and keeps us from loving God and living life with passion?
Fear shuts us down emotionally. Fear and anxiety. It makes us want to play it safe, and passion is always about adventure and risk and taking a chance.
Matter of fact, fear is the enemy of passion, prayer, intelligence and energy. Fear is the enemy of passion, prayer, intelligence and energy. Fear makes us frozen rather than passionate, despairing rather than prayerful, dull rather than intelligent and listless rather than energetic.
Fear and anxiety shut us down emotionally. Faith and courage reconnect us to the passion inside our hearts. They give life back its depths and heights.
We live in a sort of fearful anxious time right now. The stock market makes us fearful. Terrorism makes us fearful and anxious. Lots of change in our lives which tends to make us anxious. A presidential election makes some of us fearful and anxious. Lots of us just want Nov. 4 to be over at this point. It is a high anxiety election.
It is an election I think we should be passionate about – not out of control. We need to exercise self-control and self-management of our actions. We ought to feel deeply about this election, but a lot of us are experiencing some kind of shut-down emotionally because there seems to be too much at stake.
Beginning in 2009 we are moving into a new organizational structure. Council members participated in a training Friday evening and yesterday. The idea behind our new church structure is to minimize bureaucracy and free you up to live out the ministry for which you have a passion and to which you are called. Every Christian is called to ministry – not necessarily ordained ministry – but every member is a minister. God has put something in your heart you care about – whether it be transcendent worship, or challenging study, or inclusive community or caring for others or active service or prophetic leadership. Less bureaucracy. More ministry.
I have one more observation about the word “passion.” Soon after this teaching by Jesus about loving God with passion, prayer, intellect and energy, at the end of Mark 12, is the story of the widow’s mite. Do you know this story? Jesus and his disciples are standing by the temple watching people give their offerings. Some affluent people put in some large offerings. Then a widow came and put two coins in the offering, worth about a penny. Jesus told his disciples she had given more than anybody – more than all the rich folk – because they had given out of their affluence while she gave out of her need. (Mark 12: 41-44)
I mention the connection with this lesson because the last sermon on these four words will be the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which is Stewardship Sunday when we will ask you to make a financial commitment to Foundry’s ministry and mission for the year ahead.
If we are loving God with passion it makes us generous. If we are connected to our deepest feelings and living them out, it makes us generous with our time and talent and resources.
Lots of pastors are worried about money these days. There are more demands for help on the churches than ever and there is fear that offerings will fall off. I find myself unusually calm. I think this is when Christians do best – when things are tough and tight. This is when we do our best, when the need is greatest. So I am confident.
I am confident that if we love God with passion that we will also be passionately generous with all we have and all we are.