34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What a beautiful day to celebrate all that God is doing through North Decatur United Methodist Church. I have been thinking, especially this week, about all that has happened since this time last year. And since this is Consecration Sunday, the day we dedicate ourselves anew to the work of God through North Decatur United Methodist Church, I want to spend some time this morning the state of the church, but I want to frame it in the scriptures, which is a good a place to start as any I think, and this morning, we see the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, asking Jesus an important question.
The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, went up to Jesus trying to entrap him, saying, which commandment is the greatest? This wasn’t an innocent question; the teaching at the time was that all the laws were equal, so they were trying to get him to perjure himself, to say something heretical so that they had ammunition against him.
And his answer was this: the first greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. And here’s the kicker. He isn’t saying, get to a place where you love God and then love your neighbor. He is saying, you can’t separate the two. You can’t properly do one without the other.
In fact, I love the language he uses. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. It’s probably my favorite use of a verb in all of scripture. All the Bible, the whole doorstop of a book, the whole thing hangs on these two hooks: loving God with all you’ve got, and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself. It means you can’t do this stuff halfway--God wants all your heart and soul and mind, and it means you can’t do it alone.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. That’s the test. Oh, that’s not to say that these are the only two hooks. The church struggles with this sometimes and says oh, if it hangs on any hook at all, let’s get the church involved. There are plenty of hooks, but you knew that already. There’s the hook of “We have always done it this way,” which is a particularly strong hook, until you try to imagine Jesus saying something like “The greatest commandment is this: do it the way you’ve always done it. On this commandment hangs all the law and the prophets.”
There is the hook of “this won’t upset anybody,” as if the way to truly love one another is to keep everything level, try to keep the peace at all costs, remove all the calories from faith so that what we have to offer is a fat-free version of Jesus, tasteless, bland, empty.
There are plenty of hooks. Those are just a couple. But the strongest hooks—the ones that hold everything else—are these: love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else hangs on these. And if that’s the whole ball game, North Decatur, well, let’s just say I think you are doing pretty well. We’re not perfect, and we’ve got a ways to go, but there is much to celebrate, so let’s do that.
I’ve got to tell you, I have found myself getting a little emotional about all that God is doing here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. That’s not really me, but when you consider the great works of God, I don’t know how you act any other way. And the gift to me, as a pastor, is that you are the most willing group of people I’ve ever met. You are willing to do, to try, to give. Even before I was appointed here last June, I knew you were a special group of people, but I didn’t really quite understand until the church council made the difficult decision to totally redo our administrative structure. Every time I talked to you about this, you all kept saying the same thing: let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.
I mean, who says that?! Who in the church is so willing to try new things they say something like that? And so you made the brave decision to try something new. It may seem like a strange thing to celebrate the way that the administrative structure of the church works, but because of the decision you made to change the way we do business, instead of sitting in meetings all day, which I can tell you after spending all of yesterday in Athens, is a miserable way to spend a day, you decided to be about making Disciples!
And my goodness, has it borne fruit. I just want to spend a little time talking about the incredible things that have happened in the last year, because God is at work here in North Decatur United Methodist Church.
The most obvious change, I think is that the worship attendance here at North Decatur has increased phenomenally. That’s because of you. It is because you place priority on being here, being faithful every week. I pay close attention to this sort of thing and we’re averaging 123 people every Sunday. Thanks to your faithfulness and the dedication of our incredible Director of Worship and Arts, the choir is busting at the seams. We hear incredibly beautiful music every week. We’ve seen four baptisms in the past year, with another one coming up in a couple of weeks. The diversity I see on Sunday mornings just nearly brings me to tears, because this is what the church is supposed to be! It is supposed to be a place where we come together, not because we are all the same, but because we are all different, because we have things to learn from one another, because you can’t properly love God without loving your neighbor! And you have been incredibly hospitable as we have welcomed new people into the life of this church. Would you believe that when you include children, we have welcomed forty-two new members in the last twelve months?! Forty-two! God is good! And you are faithful.
All of this growth has not happened overnight, and it’s not been easy. It’s wonderful, but not easy, and yet somehow, North Decatur, you make it look natural! We’ve started five new Sunday school classes this year. Four! What on earth?! Who does that? There’s a new class for young families, a new class for young adults, a new in-depth class we’re calling the Wesley class, and we’ve restarted Sunday school for youth. Plus, we are so overrun with children that we’ve had to divide up the Sunday school class for kids into two different classes! We have the most incredible dedicated teachers, which it takes to run this kind of program. If you don’t have a Sunday school class yet, let’s talk, because there is one waiting for you! And would you believe that a year ago, the Burson building at the back of the campus sat empty all week long—we never used it. But now, on Sunday mornings, the young adults meet in the lobby for Sunday school and the youth meet with Mike Anderson and Ray Cowan in the basement, on Friday evenings, Narcotics Anonymous hosts a group in the lobby, and the preschool uses one of the rooms upstairs for their new Sandbox program which encourages creativity in kids and helps them love learning. If you had told me a year ago the church’s preschool would have been in a position to do that kind of thing I would have said you were crazy. But because our director, Emily Howard, and our assistant director, Julie Seckman, and the preschool board are so incredibly talented, we’re teaching kids about God’s love every single day.
This kind of growth doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because God is good and you are faithful. It happens because you take seriously God’s call to care for children, to be the church that welcomes and loves children, and we are so fortunate to have been given the gift of the Rev. Mary Gene Lee. I don’t know if you knew this, and she’ll be upset with me for saying so, but Mary Gene has been working with us for the last several months for … free. Here we have one of the preeminent Christian educators of children in the country working with us to put together a children’s ministry program for us and she has done it for free. But it is time we put our money where our mouths are, which is why we’re excited to add new staffing in this area come January, because there are more children out there, more families who need the kind of love that is unique to this place, the kind of love that is produced when you meld the love of God and the love of neighbor.
North Decatur, you are welcoming new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. It is incredible to watch. But you aren’t just welcoming people here. You are reaching out in love, just like you always have. You have always taken God’s mission seriously, but you’ve been up to so much this year that I don’t know what to do other than just list it.
In the last year, you served the homeless at Trinity Table, fed the men at Trinity House, purchased and packaged means for 11,428 kids through Stop Hunger Now, made 3600 sandwiches for the Open Door Community, hosted a luncheon at Decatur Christian Towers, sent expressions of God’s love across the world through Operation Shoebox, did extensive renovation on the home of a senior during Martin Luther King weekend, supported Hagar’s House with love and food and gifts, brought tons of food for Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry and the North Decatur food pantry, hosted a free dinner and Vacation Bible School for families in the area, sat in the wind and the rain and sold over $11,000 worth of pumpkins with another week to go, and I could go on but I think I’d need a nap. And maybe you will recall that I mentioned last week about our apportionments, about how we spend the first 10% of the church’s budget, and then some, on missional giving to the global church and humanitarian projects all over the world. Thanks to the diligent work of the church council and Bob Stubbs in particular, on Friday, just the day before yesterday, we sent $4800 to the North Georgia conference which means that even though October is not over yet, we’ve already paid 100% of our apportionments for the year. I think you deserve a round of applause for that. In fact, because we’ve paid our apportionments, we’ve decided that instead of keeping this year’s Christmas Eve offering, we’re going to give it away. Since it is Jesus’s birthday, we’re going to give him a present. Half of the offering will go to Decatur Cooperative Ministries for ministry around the corner, and the other half will go to the United Methodist Church’s work eradicating malaria and ebola. God’s faithfulness and your giving have led us to this point.
I want you to know that in working on this sermon I made a list of all the things I am excited about that you have done in the last year, and I quite simply don’t have time to go into all of them. From the renewed relationship with the Candler School of Theology and our wonderful pastoral residents, to the inclusion of young people in leadership, to the incredible minister of visitation we have in Janet Faust, to the incredible work of our kitchen angels, to the fact that some time in the next two weeks we expect a temporary electric fence to be put around the gulch in front of the Burson Building as a company that does this sort of thing brings a herd of sheep to clear that area so that we can start putting effort into the Lottie Hawks prayer garden. I could go on. I don’t have time. None of this—none of it—would have happened without your understanding of the necessity of melding love of God with love of neighbor. So, in the final analysis, perhaps there is no group of people in the great state of Georgia who needs to hear this sermon any less than you do.
But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. There are others who desperately need you to share with them God’s grace and your love. For it is the core of Christian faith that God first loved us, that God loves us still and loves us so much that death will not win—and it is our responsibility to respond to that love by loving God and loving our neighbors. There’s power in that kind of witness, that kind of giving your whole self, that kind of surrender. Dear friends, I can’t wait to see what God will continue to do in you and through you in the next year. How faithful you are. How good God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.