“Take care that you do not forget the Lord”
It was back in 2009 when I was in Nicaragua with a group of North Carolina college campus ministries. I can still remember that dirt road that wound through the hills of the Nicaraguan countryside. I gazed at the tropical vegetation amidst the dry and arid landscape as our bus swerved back and forth to avoid potholes in the road. We stayed in rural Nicaragua with CEPAD, an organization that helps provide leadership training, economic development, and sustainable agriculture practices in rural Nicaragua so that they can break the cycle of hunger and poverty to support themselves and their communities. When I think of how I witnessed God’s love in Nicaragua, two images come to mind.
The first is the image of one of our Nicaraguan friends who was working with our group to repair potholes in the road. An accident occurred and our friend almost completely severed off his finger. Suddenly, myself and another student became first responders and we did what we could to carefully clean, bandage and splint his finger. A connection of Christ-like love was made as we cared for our new friend and held his hand in ours. Our group continually thought about him when we returned to the United States, knowing that he would have had to make a 2-hour journey to the next village to find a health clinic and then travel several more hours from there to a hospital. Not to mention the costs that would quickly add up if he was able to get the medical attention he desperately needed. Our group sent prayers and money to help with his medical costs but when we faced the economic and health care disparities between our friend’s life and our own, I’m not sure if our loved moved far beyond thoughts and feelings.
The next image of love I remember from Nicaragua was at a local woman’s coffee farm. She showed us her coffee plants grown under the shade of banana trees and we learned about the extra difficulties, labor and investments she went through in order to earn a living wage by growing fair trade, organic coffee. She offered us a freshly brewed cup of coffee which she had grown, picked and roasted herself. It tasted like heaven in a glass! God’s love came in the form of a cup of coffee that day and in the generosity of a farmer. Many of us responded to the love we received and witnessed that day by seeking out sustainable and fair-trade coffee sources back in the US that enable farmers to earn living wages.
What images remind you of God’s love? When we had our final Confirmation session last Sunday, our Confirmands and mentors went and found items from around their homes that reminded them of God’s love. The items ranged from a picture of a family member and a beloved dog to pictures of a sunset, a musical album and a cross that was a gift from a friend.
I give thanks that it has become common and necessary to find God’s love in our everyday lives at home during this pandemic, just as much as we would expect God’s love to be visible when we go on a “mission trip” or gather in the sanctuary together, surrounded by the symbols of our faith and the people in our church family. In those moments when we notice God’s love we can’t help but express our love and thanks for God and the people around us.
But the goal of the Christian life is not just to notice and admire God’s love. The lifelong task for us as God’s people is to listen to, notice and respond to God’s love.
The commands to love God and neighbor are ones that stretch across the Bible, they are woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. They are the beginning, the end and the middle of the journey of faith. When we hear this command in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites out in the wilderness. They have been freed from slavery in Egypt, but they are not yet in the promised land that overflows with resources and security. They are journeying in the desert and they are told, “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5).
They are to love God with all of their being and to pass this way of life on to their children. They are to live this way of life whether they are getting up for the day or heading to bed, whether they are at home with their family or out in the community. They are to orient their lives around their love for God- no matter if they are tired of journeying or resting comfortably at their final destination. Why? Because the Lord is the one who brought them out of slavery and into freedom. God’s showing of love demands a response.
Back in March when we were on our Confirmation retreat, we talked about this passage in Deuteronomy and watched a video about the Hebrew word Shema which is translated as “hear” (“Hear, O Israel). We learned that in the Hebrew language, Shema means not only to listen but also to act. And so, to “hear” God’s commands means to put intentional effort towards making our actions reflect the love we have heard and seen. In a sense this is what Confirmation is all about, because that is what the entire Christian life is about, tuning our ears and our hearts to hear God’s word and then orienting our lives around noticing and sharing God’s love. Every morning, in all your daily tasks and big life plans, until every evening when you lay your head down to rest, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.
Later, Jesus picks up this command from Deuteronomy and it gets used in the Gospels in various ways. In the Scripture from Matthew that we read today, the commands come up when Jesus is being questioned by the religious leaders of his time. In Matthew Jesus is careful to point out, that all of the other laws and words of the prophets hang onto these two most important commands- to love God and to love our neighbor. It seems like the Sadducees and the Pharisees just want to make sure they’ve heard the words right so they can follow them within the boundaries that they believe the law provides for them.
Yet, Jesus is always expanding the circle of who he loves and how he shows its and he gives his disciples stories of how these commands might be followed in real life. In Luke, which you all read during Confirmation, the command to love God and neighbor is tied to the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story you have two religious leaders SEE the wounded man on the road and choose to pass by on the other side. Then you have a third person, the Samaritan, who sees the wounded man and stops to show him mercy.
This made me think of what comes after the command to Shema in Deuteronomy, the people are told, “take care that you do not forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:12). Knowing what we do about the word Shema, I can’t help but think that the encouragement not to forget, or in other words, to remember the Lord, means that we shouldn’t just remember the words God has commanded us, we should follow them too. Most likely the Priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man on the road knew of the commands to love the Lord their God and to love their neighbor as themselves. A failure to act with mercy towards neighbor in this case then equates with forgetting the very God who has continued to act throughout history with love and mercy. If hearing is both listening and responding, then remembering might also be thoughts that spur us to action.
As long as we are on this journey of faith, we are called to orient our lives around these commands. So, as we hear the commands to love God and love our neighbor, I hope we will be moved to listen, think deeply and respond with actions.
As we continue this journey, I want to you all to remember three things today:
- Remember God in your daily life and in how you nurture your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Many of you have found peace and a closeness with God while walking the paths at the retreat center or sitting by the lake. Find that closeness with God in your daily walk, desire and make room for that time like you would for your very best friend. Whether it’s in the morning when you rise or in the evening when you settle down or somewhere in between, find time to connect. And when you feel disconnected from God or ashamed of how little you’ve focused on your love for God, remember that God’s love seeks you out and gives you grace when you need it most. Sometimes our shame and struggle can send us into a downward spiral drawing us further and further away, so keep being intentional about plugging back into the charging port of God’s love. Be patient while you reboot and trust that God’s love will always sit by you in your moments of doubt and go to any length to close the distance between you two.
- Second, remember that loving God and loving neighbor is always tied to the community. Loving God and neighbor are never things we do all alone, it always connects us to others. So, pay attention to what God loves and love what God does.
God loves creation, so love and take care of the earth.
God loves the world and the people all nations and backgrounds, so love those who don’t look like you and even those who are your enemies.
God loves all people but specifically instructs us to love the strangers, foreigners, orphans, widows and the poor. Jesus reminds us that when we love those who are thirsty, hungry, in prison, sick, or naked, that we have loved him too. And God loves justice, well-being and peace. So, loving God means working for a world where all of God’s people are treated justly and have access to the food, water, shelter, safety and community needed to sustain life. God loves and desires these things so let our leave lead us to seek these things for all people.
Take care not to forget God and all that God loves and you will on your way toward loving God and your neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
- And finally, remember that these commands don’t come to people who have reached the end of their journey and they don’t come to people who have it all figured out. They don’t come to us once we have reached the promised land or finished our homework or gotten to the other side of this pandemic. These commands to love God and love our neighbor meet us right where we are along the journey: walking down roads with potholes, gathering in asphalt parking lots, standing in the face of tragedy and mistakes, navigating 9th grade, and in the middle of a global pandemic. These commands are not for later on, they are guides for our life here and now.
- Remember to connect with God in your daily life
- Remember loving God and neighbor always connects us to others
- And remember God’s words of love meet us right where we are along the journey and call us to act.
When I think back to the friends I met in Nicaragua, I am overwhelmed with thoughts of love. I know my love in action has not been as steadfast or complete as God’s, especially when I acknowledge the disparities and cycle of poverty that exists in communities there. I’ve learned a lot more about God’s love in action since that time and still have much to learn.
That is the blessing of the journey of faith though when we walk it together. Along this journey we can challenge each other, we can learn and grow in the ways we understand and practice God’s love and most of all, we can experience the transformative power of God’s never-ending, love.
Along this journey we learn that God’s love is all encompassing. It is bandaging wounds and saying prayers, it is making conscious choices about how we spend our money and advocating for justice and well-being for our neighbors near and far. It is thinking critically and deeply about the needs and disparities that exist and taking intentional actions that multiply God’s love in the world.
Friends, the Lord has brought you out of slavery and into freedom, the Lord has called you by name and said you are my beloved, and our Lord, through the grace of Jesus Christ, has called us on this journey together. So, take care not to forget the Lord…when you rise and when you lie down, when you come and when you go. Remember the Lord and the love you have been called to live.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Allysen Schaaf
Associate Pastor for Youth & Their Families