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One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with 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 other commandment greater than these.’
Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’
After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day on which we commemorate those who have died in the past year.
In the past year, this congregation has lost some dear souls, dearly beloved members of the church.
Some of these deaths were expected and came as a relief.
For Kay Philips, for example, at 96 years old and not well in body or mind, death came as a friend.
For others, death came unexpected, or far too soon, and the corresponding grief has been overwhelming.
The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale, developed in the 1960’s, has been useful in the medical field.
Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe found that a strong correlation exists between life stressors and physical well-being.
For adults, some of the most stressful life events life events can be:
Death of a spouse or a child, or Death of a close family member.
Other stressful life events include Divorce or Marital separation, Imprisonment,
Personal injury or illness, Retirement or Dismissal from work,
Marriage or a Marital reconciliation. (paindoctor.com)
Changes in life create stress, like the grief and change associated with the loss of a loved one,
and can become almost debilitating.
It should be said that not all stress is bad. Some measure of stress is important for human survival.
Stress can give us the energy to escape a bad situation or to finish an important work project.
Stress can become a motivator to make important shifts in expectations or habits.
Even so, most everyone agrees that too much stress can be detrimental.
Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system
and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease.
We still have much to learn about the effects of stress on our military.
Studies of PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – have revealed multiple challenges
associated with the stress of warfare.
Our sons now live in four different states – from Seattle, Washington to Charlotte, North Carolina,
from Nashville, Tennessee to Athens, Georgia.
I was interested to learn that another, more recent list of the top ten stressors
including “starting a new job”, “moving to a new city”, and “transitioning to adulthood”.
While changes in one’s early 20’s can be extremely exciting, they can also be stressful.
(from an article by Addys Mayers from May, 2018)
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us
is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.” (Anatole France)
Jack Canfield wrote: “Change is inevitable in life.
You can either resist it and potentially get run over by it, or you can choose to cooperate with it,
adapt to it, and learn how to benefit from it.
When you embrace change you will begin to see it as an opportunity for growth.”
Charles Darwin opined:
“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
Though I have officiated at countless Memorial Services,
and though I have been there at the deathbed many times, in the last hours or even the last minutes,
it is still difficult for me to imagine the change and grief that some of you are experiencing today.
You have lost, for the time being, the person you spoke with every day,
the person who understood you like no other, the one who greeted you in the morning when you woke,
and who was the last person you spoke to before you fell asleep.
Some of you are in the midst of grief, a stress-filled process that you cannot rush
and that, ultimately, none of us can avoid.
A dear friend from the first congregation we served recently visited with us.
While her husband died two and a half years ago, her grief is still very present.
Our friend still wakes at night and occasionally, in the fog of the night,
hears him breathing in the bed next to her.
She admits that, while less so now, she still even calls out his name at home without thinking.
While some will clean out their spouse’s clothes closet within days, for our friend, it took two and a half years.
As we helped unload her husband’s clothes from her car at the seminary clothes closet,
she remarked that the smell of his clothes had been comforting to her.
When a loved one dies, change has come. Change is inevitable.
One must allow oneself to grieve, to allow oneself to feel those strong feelings
and express the depth of that loss.
But one must also continue to live, to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other.
When we talk about embracing change in the church, we do not take the topic lightly.
As we have said, change brings with it grief and stress.
When experiencing grief and undergoing stress,
our text for today reminds us of what is most important in human life.
In the first century, the entire Temple system of sacrifice and burnt offerings
was about to come crashing down.
In 70 a.d., Roman soldiers would utterly destroy the grand temple in Jerusalem,
and the center of Jewish worship would be scattered from Jerusalem to the more rural synagogues.
Everything about how the Sandhedrin, and the Pharisees, and the scribes lived their lives
and practiced their religion was about to change.
Jesus was preparing them for what was to come.
He sought to turn their thoughts and practices to what was most basic,
to what was most important in human life.
He taught them what they must hold onto when everything else around them would be stripped away.
In his conversation with the wise scribe, he reminded everyone who would hear that, ultimately,
what religion is all about, what human life is all about, is love for God and love for neighbor.
I John 4 proclaims:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars…
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.
Linda Lebron, one of our newly elected elders, is out of town today.
Linda would be the first to tell you that she has been through a challenging time of grief and stress.
Her husband’s death, some 12 years ago, was a devastating, unexpected loss,
a loss that shook her faith, a loss that changed her life and its direction.
Linda now lives in Decatur at the condos across street,
a location in a city and state completely unpredictable to her just a few years ago.
Linda has gotten very involved with our congregation and has been walking from her condo
across the street to our main entrance on Church Street.
Since we began having multiple persons hanging out on our benches in the Terrace Garden this summer,
Linda, like others among you, originally began avoiding walking thru the garden.
There were folks there she did not recognize. Some appeared as if they might be without a home.
Someone might ask her for something, she thought, and she was not sure how she should respond.
She said she just felt more comfortable taking the sidewalk and walking around the garden,
instead of through it. But Linda is a strong woman of faith.
She attends Bible study nearly every week and takes to heart what is discussed.
She loves Christian worship and pays close attention to the words of the hymns and the prayers;
she will often offer a thoughtful comment on the sermon text.
Linda pays attention and she wants to follow Jesus,
so she said she began walking through the garden, instead of avoiding it.
She began to notice people intentionally, and greeting them warmly,
just as she would to another church member.
Linda was pleasantly surprised at how friendly our visitors on the benches can be, for the most part.
She soon learned some of their names, and they learned her name.
She began to chat with new friends about everything from the weather to sports games.
Now, when Linda leaves her condo, she intentionally leaves early,
so that she will have time to stop and speak and listen to those sitting on the benches outside.
Changes that come are often unexpected, not how we thought life was supposed to happen.
We find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncharted territory, and sometimes in a location we had not expected.
Even when something new is good and hopeful, still we often grieve over what is left behind.
I distinctly remember checking in with my uncle during our family summer vacations at the beach.
We would talk each summer about the changing nature of office apparel.
My uncle is a very dapper dresser and somewhat of a traditionalist.
He worked for decades for a highly respected Atlanta law firm and always maintained high expectations
for himself and everyone who worked with him.
One year, back in the early 2000’s, he was bemoaning the arrival of casual Fridays.
He remarked that you would not believe what young lawyers were wearing to the office these days.
He was not at all sure that one could operate in a law office without wearing a suit and a tie.
A few years later at the beach, my uncle began talking about formal Thursdays.
The firm had once again changed its policies. Unless a lawyer had to appear in court,
every day but Thursday was labelled “smart casual”.
As you can imagine, it did not take long before even formal Thursday was gone.
Times, they are a-changing….
Do we embrace change and adapt to it, or do we seek to avoid change at all costs?
Do we pick our heads up and look around, and seek to discern what God is calling us to do next,
or do we keep our heads in the sand, acting as if nothing around us has changed?
When I claim that “embracing change” is one of the key ingredients for a 21st century congregation,
I do so because I am keenly aware that change is in the air.
Human life is changing rapidly, and the Church and all of its members – in our daily lives –
are called to discern what God is calling us to do next.
There will be grief involved as change comes; there will be stress that sometimes seems debilitating.
But God is still calling all of us to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength,
and to love our neighbors, all our neighbors, as we love ourselves.
What this means for our weekly worship we cannot yet fully see.
What this means for our daily lives we may not yet have imagined.
But we can see the necessity to pay attention, to adapt, and to hear the Words of Jesus Christ
as you and I seek together, every day, what is acceptable and pleasing in the sight of the Lord.
May God guide us in our efforts. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church