Sunday, July 20, 2014

Loving God

I want to open with a fable from a children’s books called Fables. I think of this story every time I sing the song “Oceans”: "You call me out upon the waters. The great unknown where feet may fail. And there I find You in the mystery, In oceans deep my faith will stand."

The Lobster and the Crab
On a stormy day, the Crab went strolling along the beach. He was surprised to see the Lobster preparing to set sail in his boat. “Lobster,” said the Crab, “it is foolhardy to venture out on a day like this.”
“Perhaps so,” said the Lobster, “but I love a squall at sea!”
“I will come with you,” said the Crab. “I will not let you face such danger alone.”
The Lobster and the Crab began their voyage. Soon they found themselves far from shore. Their boat was tossed and buffeted by the turbulent waters.
“Crab!” shouted the Lobster above the roar of the wind. “For me, the splashing of the salt spray is thrilling! The crashing of every wave takes my breath away!”
“Lobster, I think we are sinking!” cried the Crab.
“Yes, of course, we are sinking,” said the Lobster. “This old boat is full of holes. Have courage, my friend. Remember we are both creatures of the sea.”
The little boat capsized and sank.
“Horrors!” cried the Crab.
“Down we go!” shouted the Lobster.
The Crab was shaken and upset. The Lobster took him for a relaxing walk along the ocean floor.
“How brave we are,” said the Lobster. “What a wonderful adventure we have had!”
The Crab began to feel somewhat better. Although he usually enjoyed a quieter existence, he had to admit that the day had been pleasantly out of the ordinary.

We are out on the ocean in a storm here in Northwest Yearly Meeting. We do not agree on our understanding of the Bible, sexuality, membership, and leadership. We argue about Leviticus and Romans, Faith and Practice, authority and discernment, covenant and evangelism.  These arguments come between us as the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Sometimes I want to come to Jesus and ask him, “Which of us gets to sit at your right hand and call the shots for the rest?” Jesus’s answer to James and John remains the answer to us today, and it is, “Whoever wants to be greatest in God’s Kingdom must learn to serve all other people.” These words are just as hard to hear now as they were then.

 All we can see are the holes in our boat, and the stormy waves on our ocean.  But I want to say today, “Courage, my friends.  Our little boat is afloat in the love God has for us. Remember we are at home in God’s love.” Whether our boat floats or sinks, we are surrounded by God’s love. I have a hard time believing this when my love for God is conditional. But when  I am energetically  loving God with all my heart, I have zest for the adventures life brings. I think this is true for you, too.

I have been thinking about what it means to love the LORD our God with all our hearts. Jesus said this is the first and greatest commandment. What this means to us is that God is the focus of our whole lives, and that learning to love God unconditionally is our life’s work.  Jesus said this one commandment takes in and fulfills all the other God-focused commandments in the Law and the Prophets.

It seems that Jesus had some favorites among the books of the Hebrew testament, and that one of these is Deuteronomy.  The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the phrase “love the LORD your God” repeats 8 additional times in Deuteronomy. Here are those passages.

Love the LORD your God and watch and wait for, treasure, observe, preserve, guard what he has given you to take care of, what he has assigned to you, his judgments concerning you, the work he has commissioned you to do  (Deut. 11:1)

Love the LORD your God and hear and obey what God has told you to do, to love and be a friend to the LORD your God, and to do the work God has given you with all your inner self—body, emotions, mind and will, (Deut. 11:13)

Your job is to hear and obey the LORD your God in all God tells you to do, to love the LORD your God, to walk on God’s road, to stick tight to God; the LORD has driven out all these peoples who are in your face, and you have dispossessed peoples bigger and stronger than yourselves   (Deut.11:21, 22)

If a prophet or dreamer of dreams gives you a sign of wonder, works a miracle, and then says to you, Let us go after other gods, gods you haven’t known, and let us serve them, do not hear and obey the words of that prophet or dreamer; the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your inner self—body, emotions, mind and will. You continue to walk right behind the LORD your God, respect, honor, and be in awe of God, and hear what God tells you to do and do what God says, and continue to do the work God has given you and stick tight to God. (Deut. 13:1-4)

When you have done all that I God have given you to do this day, to love the LORD your God, and to walk every day on God’s road, then you will add three more cities of refuge for the accidental killer, besides these three given today. (i.e., you will increase the opportunities for mercy rather than vengeance.) (Deut. 19:9)

And the LORD your God will have reshaped your and your children’s inner selves—body, emotions, mind and will—to love the LORD your God with all your inner self and all your identity, giving you life. (Deut. 30:6)

For this commandment I God command you this day is not extraordinary or beyond your power or difficult to understand; not remote from you; …my word, my speaking is exceedingly near you, in your mouth and in your whole inner being, so that you know what to do. See, I have set before you today life and happiness or death and misery, commanding you today to love the LORD your God, to walk on his road, to keep what he has given you to take care of, to fulfill what he has assigned to you, to respect his judgments concerning you, to do the work he has commissioned you to do. You will live and will be great, and the LORD your God will bless you and give you the land to which you are going. (Deut. 30:11, 14-16)

I expect you know that “heart” means far more than the physical organ, more than “I heart God,” more than a feeling of warm emotion toward the deity. The Hebrew words for heart (Leb, Lebab) refer by metaphor to the center of the self, the soul, the senses, affections and emotions, to how one thinks and acts, to one’s will and purpose, intellect and wisdom; the includes reflection and memory, resolution, and determination.  The heart is the complexity of the self, the complexity of mind and body together, it is who you and I are.

Our purpose on earth is to love God with our whole hearts, our whole selves, and to do the work God has given us to do. This is our foundation and our goal. We throw ourselves into loving God. We are God’s fans, loyal through winning and losing seasons.

God made us for this relationship. We aren’t our whole selves outside of relationship with God.  That’s why it is so crucial that we have nothing else sneaking in between us and God and that we recognize that we are human and God is God.  Jesus taught us by example and word that we are treasured by God as the best of all possible Fathers treasures his children, and that out of our relationship with God comes everything else.  Jesus taught us how God loves us and how we can love God back.

One aspect of loving God is remembering God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others.  Rehearse these things, say them over to yourself and to your children, remember how you were once enslaved and imprisoned and how God led you out through water and desert, through chains and locked doors to freedom. Remember when God spoke to you, even though you saw no one. Let’s take a few minutes to think about at least one of God’s redeeming works in our lives.  Write it down. Share it with someone. (Deut. 4:9)

A second aspect to loving God is trusting God.  Job, the perfect human in the Hebrew testament, says, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in him; I will set my journey before him, and he will save me, because he will see I am not godless or a hypocrite” (Job 13:14, 15). Trust means waiting for God, hoping for God to show up, accepting God’s justice for ourselves, and accepting God’s mercy for others.  It means leaning on God with our whole selves, instead of leaning on our own understanding or wisdom, and learning from God the path God has for us, which God will lead us along (Proverbs 3:5, 6).  Trust in God at all times, people, pour out your inner selves before God; God is a shelter for us (Psalm 62.8).  Let’s pause right now and choose to trust in God; write a note to God that tells what you are waiting in hope and confidence for God to do for you, or perhaps for us. When we leave here this evening to enjoy each other’s company over ice cream, tell someone what you are trusting God for.

A third aspect of loving God is seeking God.  If we have let something else creep in between us and God, we just need to seek God again, with our whole selves, all our heart and all our soul (Deut. 4:29).  The Hebrew word here translated “seek” has in it so many ways of seeking: consult, inquire, investigate, study, follow, require.  David, the adulterous and murderous king of Israel, is named a man after God’s own heart because he seeks God. We can see him seeking God in Psalm 51:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and repair my spirit so it is stable…The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Many of David’s psalms are personal appeals to God for God to show up, or personal expressions of praise and loyalty to God. Jesus reiterates the continuousness of our seeking in his words to seek first the kingdom where God rules; to ask, seek and knock, and to keep on asking, seeking and knocking.  Take a moment now to ask God a question or to consult God for guidance.  Write it down so you remember that you did this when God responds. 

God promises to be found when we seek wholeheartedly. The author of Hebrews (11:6) echoes the promise of Deut. 4:29: God IS; believe this and seek with your whole heart and throughout your whole life for God, and God will reward you.

A fourth aspect of loving God is obeying God.  What does the LORD our God require of us? To revere and respect the LORD our God, to walk on God’s road, to love God, and to serve—to obey—the LORD our God with all our heart and all our soul.  Jesus said we are his friends when we do what he tells us. Jesus said, I do only what I hear from my Father. God’s word is near to us, in our mouths, and in our hearts, and we need to do what we know is the next right thing to do. This is the existential, risky edge of loving God: listening and doing what God says.  Now, in this moment. Take a few minutes to listen to God right now.  Ask God what you need to do next.  Write it down, and share it sometime this evening with someone who will help you remember do it.

How do we know that we are not loving God well? Many inner conditions and outer behaviors tell us that our love for God is not unconditional. We are discouraged when we face difficulty and we fear when we face opposition. We say that God does not see us and will not act, so we take matters into our own hands. And we forget God’s work on our behalf and are proud as if we were the source of our success; we forget God’s generosity to us and are hard-hearted to the poor and without hospitality to the stranger. We want more and more rather than being content, and we are twisted and crooked in our inner selves.  When we are not obeying God’s present instructions, we are afraid of God, we see God as wrathful, and we become preoccupied with other people’s sins and errors.  We become meticulously obedient in small things to hide how we are missing the mark elsewhere. We hold others to a higher standard than we do ourselves, and we bind burdens on others we will not carry ourselves or help them carry. We tithe our money and avoid the hard work of discerning what is right, of being ready to help those in misery, and of trusting in the character of God.

If in this stormy time, we have come to realize that we are having a hard time remembering God’s good work in us, that we cannot trust God, that something has crept in between us and God to delay or derail our seeking God, that we are not doing today what God wants us to do, this is a good time to run toward God to say we’re sorry.  This is a good time for us to pray for one another and to pray for ourselves to see clearly that God loves us so wholeheartedly; we will respond to that vision with love that takes our whole lives to express. Seeing God’s love clearly and loving God wholeheartedly gives us hope and a future.

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