TITLE: Blessings Given & Received SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:28-34
In his book, Gracias!, the late priest, Henri Nouwen, tells of visiting a Catholic orphanage in Peru. He said, "The children were so starved for affection that they fought with each other for the privilege of touching me."
When I read that story, I remembered a picture –– a photograph. I don't remember who took it or how I happened to see it, but it's a picture of man in uniform visiting an orphanage in Vietnam many years ago during the war. In the picture, the man was standing, surrounded by children, most of them very small. They are hanging on to his pants. They are holding his hand –– or one of his fingers. Rarely has anyone been so in demand. Rarely has so many people wanted attention so desperately.
I’m sure this man felt so inadequate. He didn't speak their language and they didn't speak his. They had no way to communicate except through smiles and gestures and hugs.
After his visit to the orphanage, Nouwen said:
"These boys and girls only wanted one thing:
to be touched, hugged, stroked, and caressed.
Probably most adults have the same needs
but no longer have the innocence and unself-consciousness to express them.
Sometimes I see humanity as a sea of people starving for affection….
Everyone seems to cry: 'Please love me.'
The cry becomes louder and the response so inaudible
that people kill each other and themselves in despair.
The little orphans tell more than they know.
If we don't love one another, we kill one another.
There's no middle ground."
That reminded me of another story –– a story of a depressed woman whose husband took her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist listened for awhile, and then –– in the presence of the husband –– put his arms around the woman and gave her a big hug. When he did that, her depression lifted and her eyes grew bright. The psychiatrist said to the husband, "See, that's all she needs!" The husband thought about it for a moment, and then said, "Well, I guess I could bring her in on Saturdays, but I'm awfully busy during the week."
Love! They tell us that it's what makes the world go round. We all want love. We want to love and to be loved, and yet so many of us are love starved –– unable to find someone to love us and unable to find someone who wants our love. It's a sad story –– but maybe Jesus can help to put us on a different pathway.
A scribe came to Jesus to ask him a question. "Which commandment is the first of all?" He asked his question in good faith. He wanted to learn from Jesus. So Jesus answered in good faith. He said:
"The first (commandment) is,
'Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one;
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.'
The second is this,
'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
There is no commandment greater than these."
The scribe had asked for one commandment, but Jesus gave him two. Love God! Love your neighbor! It couldn't get much simpler than that!
Except that it isn't really that easy. Not in real life. Loving God means having God as a part of our daily lives. A person who loves God talks to God –– prays –– keeps in touch –– tries to understand what God wants. Loving God is like loving another person in that respect. It involves relationship –– an ongoing relationship –– a relationship in which we express our love for God in our prayers and our actions.
That doesn't sound hard, but we are so easily distracted by all the "stuff" that clutters our lives. We have so much going on –– so many demands being made on us –– so many uncertainties –– so much anxiety–– that it isn't easy to find time to love God. It isn't easy to find time to pray ––to worship –– to spend time with God.
And then there are the roadblocks that Satan throws in our pathway. Satan hates to see us pray. Satan hates to see us get in the car to go to church. Satan throws all sorts of temptations and roadblocks in our path to keep us from praying today –– to keep us away from church today –– to keep us from loving God today. Satan doesn't care about tomorrow. He'll cross that bridge when he gets to it. He is totally focused on today. If he can stop us from loving God today, he can probably stop us from loving God tomorrow.
Some people aren't comfortable talking about Satan. It sounds so primitive –– so over the top. But however you choose to label it, there are evil forces afoot in our world –– and there are evil forces at work in our lives. To ignore that fact is to ignore the obvious. However you label those evil forces, they work on us daily to keep us from a deeper relationship with God –– to keep us from prayer –– to keep us from worship –– to keep us from loving God.
So loving God isn't all that easy! It isn't easy to love God, and it is even more difficult to love our neighbor. God doesn't have a dozen machines with gasoline engines like my neighbor. God doesn't start his lawnmower –– or his weedwhacker –– or his boat motor –– or his pickup –– every time I'm trying to take a nap. God doesn't invite a dozen young couples for a rousing party every Friday night like another neighbor. God doesn't clutter his yard with junk like another neighbor. If I have trouble finding time to love God, just imagine how difficult it must be for me to love my neighbors.
But Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbors, and he doesn't do that for God's sake. He does it for our sake. We need to give love and we need to receive love, and the right starting point for that is to love God and to love our neighbor. When we can truly do those things ––love God and neighbor –– our lives will begin to change. Our relationship with God will become stronger. We will become stronger. Our relationship with our neighbor will become more enjoyable. And we will find our hearts and lives pointing in a new direction –– to a place where we can give love and where we can also receive it.
So how can we do that? Where do we start?
I would like to point out a couple of things about our scripture this morning. The first thing I would like you to notice is the two commandments that Jesus gives –– and the order in which he gives them. Which is first? Does Jesus say, "Love your neighbor and then love God" or does he say "Love God and then love your neighbor"?
Let me ask that question once more, because I want to make sure that you hear it. Does Jesus say, "Love your neighbor and then love God" or does he say "Love God and then love your neighbor"? In other words, who is first –– neighbor or God?
The answer is –– and I'll bet you got it right –– the answer is GOD! God is first. The first step in getting love right is to love God first. If we love God, God will help us to love our neighbor.
Without God's help, it can be very difficult to love our neighbor –– our co-worker –– our supervisor –– the person with whom we serve on a church committee –– the person driving the car in front of us at a snail's pace –– the kid with the big boombox. Sometimes it takes a miracle to love our neighbor –– a MIRACLE! But God is in the business of miracles, and God can make it possible for us to love even the person whose cell phone rings in the middle of the movie.
So the first step is to love God first. Then God will help us to love our neighbor.
The next thing to remember is that Jesus doesn't tell us that we have to have warm, fuzzy feelings toward our neighbor. That isn't the kind of love that Jesus was talking about. The New Testament was written originally in Greek, and the Greek word that Jesus uses for "love" is "agape" (pronounced uh-GOP-ay). Agape love has more to do with actions than with feelings. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he is telling us to treat the neighbor in loving ways –– even when we don't feel like it. In Jesus' eyes, love is an action verb –– it requires us to do something God-like. It requires us to act in loving ways even toward those who don't deserve it.
That isn't easy! That is why we need to remember to love God first –– so that God can help us to act in loving ways toward our undeserving neighbor.
If we will do those two things –– loving God and acting in loving ways toward our neighbor ––our lives will begin to come into focus. We will feel our loneliness begin to fade away.
–– For one thing, when we love other people, some of them will love us back. Not all of them. But if we love people –– act kindly and unselfishly toward them –– some of them will love us back.
–– But more importantly, when we stop thinking so much about how to GET love and start thinking about how to GIVE love, something wonderful will happen inside us. Perhaps it's because we then have the initiative –– that we no longer have to wait for the other person to do the loving. But I think the real reason for the something wonderful has to do with God. God blesses us when we love him. God blesses us when we love our neighbor. When we love God AND neighbor, we will find our lives full of blessings –– blessings that we are giving –– and blessings that we are receiving.