No One Man Should Have All That Power: A Sermon on Mark 6

 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some weresaying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.  – Mark 6:14-29

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some days are just jaw-dropping, earth-shaking shockers. Pure disasters. There are some days that, no matter how you shake it, it’s just a bombshell. The morning of September 11th is one of those days. Anyone who watched the news that morning, and in the days to follow, was simply stunned.  September 11th, 2001 is one of those days.

November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. A presidential motorcade was making its way through Dallas, shots were fired, and an American president was dead. A nation was completely numbed. That day was, without a doubt, a disaster.

Somewhere around 29 C.E. in Galilee was another one of these days. John the Baptist was one of the only authentic prophet of God in Israel for around 400 years. Crowds came in from all around to the Jordan River to hear John preach. People revered him. It was an honor to hear his words. But one day, John got caught up in a power struggle between Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of Palestine at the time. And his brother Herod Philip. This can get pretty confusing. You see, Herod was a family name. So when we say Herod, we’re actually talking about a whole group of people. So Antipas was the ruler of Palestine at this time in Mark. On his way to Rome, in 29 C.E., he visited his brother Philip and almost immediately falls in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias – who also happened to be Antipas’ niece. Because they are related by blood, Antipas knows that if he marries Herodias, he’ll have a firmer grip on the throne – he’ll have the upper hand in the power struggle between him and his brothers for power in the Roman Empire – anything for a little more power, right?

So Antipas marries Herodias – after he divorces his first wife, Phasaelis mind you. Here’s where John the Baptist comes in. He proclaims that the marriage that had just taken place between Antipas and Herodias was incestuous and wrong. John’s criticism, since he was so well-liked and revered in this area, was a political liability. These words and charges were dangerous to both Antipas and Herodias. Antipas feared John because he was a threat to the power structures, but also, as it turns out, Antipas thinks of him as holy and righteous. It turns out, he actually might like listening to John as well.

Herodias, however, is having none of it. She doesn’t like John. She doesn’t fear John. John pisses her off. Any chance for Herodias to express her displeasure and act on it arises when Antipas throws a banquet for many of the local leaders. Herodias’ daughter (also named Herodias – like I said, it gets confusing) dances for the men in the room and completely entrances her stepfather. Antipas, caught up in a moment of drunken excitement promises to give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. When Herodias’ daughter comes to her and asks for her advice in this situation, Herodias strikes. “Ask for John’s head on a platter.”

Now you have to remember the scene here. Herod is in the company of prominent locals and VIPs of the community, and certainly can’t go back on something he promised his stepdaughter after she had just wowed all of them with her dancing. He can’t be made to look weak or timid. He can’t look anything other than completely in control of the situation. So he consents. And we know what happens after that.

It can be tempting to look for the “moral of the story” in our Bible passages, but it rarely satisfies what we’re looking for. The Bible wasn’t written as a behavior manual for little children, or as a way to help you make everyday a Friday. It’s a book that, if nothing else, tells us the truth about ourselves and about the world we live in. It tells us about our humanity in all of its bruises and flaws. It tells us the truth of our brokenness, shame, and sin. But it also tells us the greater truth that God’s love breaks through our sin to redeem us and save us, even if it’s from ourselves.

If you really want to find a moral in this story, it’s probably something like this:

The people who are in power are used to getting exactly what they want. They are willing to do anything to hold tight to what they have or to get more. And those who speak out or stand up against them proclaiming that life doesn’t have to be that way or that things can be different are usually trampled.

That’s what happens to John. And as we continue through Mark’s gospel, we’ll see that when Jesus clashes with authority, authority wins – for a short time.

This isn’t much of a moral. It’s pretty depressing. It doesn’t offer us a lot of hope. But what gives us hope is that this is only the 6th chapter of Mark. This is the middle of the story, not the end. But what this story does is points us to the end of Mark’s story, where another truth-teller is silenced by the authority of the day.

When Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, you can almost hear echoes of Herod’s experience with John the Baptist – “I don’t want any part of this.” He knows what’s involved with attempting to silence truth tellers. Authority wins for the time being, but it falls short in the end.

Martin Luther King once said,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He’s another story of what happens when power silences truth-tellers. This story of Herod and John sits in the middle of Mark’s arc. But it’s not the end. It bends back toward the story of Jesus on the cross and the ultimate shock and awe of the empty tomb.

Like this story, we’re currently living in the middle – the time in between. In a lot of our lives, power still trumps justice. In two days, Pastor Megan and I are taking 8 of our youth down to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. We could probably ask some of the people we meet down there about what happens when power trumps justice.

Martin Luther writes that a theologian of glory calls good evil, and evil good. But a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. The beheading of John the Baptist invites us into our call to be honest – to call a thing what it is. It invites us into our call to speak the truth. Even when that truth can be hazardous to our health. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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Jesus, Kanye, & LeBron: A Sermon on Mark 6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. – Mark 6:1-13

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

I heard a story a couple weeks ago about an elderly woman who lived down the street from a young Neil Armstrong. She described him as quite the troublemaker — sort of an Eddie Haskell type character. So when she saw on her television that little Neil Armstrong from down the street was the first man to step foot on the moon, she refused to believe it. There’s no way that bratty kid from down the street could possibly become the first man to walk in space.

This is kind of like when Jesus comes back to teach in his hometown. Initially the crowds were astounded. But then they started wondering where little Jesus from down the village pathway could become such an astounding teacher and prophet. Listen to their words: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” This is a total dig on Jesus. The lowly carpenter from the single-parent family? How could he possibly be teaching like this?

And it makes sense too. 3 chapters earlier — in Mark 3 — Jesus pretty much disowned his family. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” This is kind of like the equivalent of LeBron James jet-setting back to Cleveland to show off his brand new championship ring. The people of Cleveland would riot in the streets if something like that would happen. The people who were listening to Jesus consider this an insult to his hometown and so his neighbors are rightfully pissed.

Then Jesus comes in with “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” I’ve been listening to a song lately called “No Church in the Wild.”  It’s by a couple of guys named Kanye West and Jay-Z. The hook of the song starts out by comparing power dynamics. “What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God? What’s a God to a non-believer?” The question we could ask Jesus in Mark’s gospel today is “What’s a prophet to people who won’t listen?” So we get a hint that something is about to change. There’s about to be a major shift in Mark’s story.

He calls the disciples to him and begins to send them out 2 by 2 to go into the homes and preach repentance and drive out unclean spirits. This 2 by 2 thing isn’t new to us with Bible stories, is it? We remember Noah. Except, in Mark, this is just turning Noah’s command on its head.

In Genesis, Noah essentially calls out that all creatures should come to him 2 by 2 or they would die in the flood.

In Mark, Jesus sends the disciples out 2 by 2 so that there may be life.

In John 10, the gospel writer says that Jesus has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. God has come down with a love so overflowing that it not only fills us, but it breaks out of our homes and our lives. It breaks out of every boundary we try to put on it and explodes out into the world. We’re sent out to live like this love matters.

We’re sent out to live loved.

When that happens, when we love people as we have been loved, there is healing. Hearts that have been broken, heels that are bruised from being dug in the ground against our family and friends — all of these wounds that we have are healed in love. Demons are cast out and those have fallen ill are anointed. So our job is to go out!

Live the precious life that you have been given knowing that there is not a single thing you can do to separate us from the love of God. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

Mary Oliver on the Power of Planting Seeds

The parable from church this morning talked about how the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The smallest of all seeds, that grows into shrubbery large enough for birds to gather under for some shade.
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I read through a collection of Mary Oliver’s poetry earlier this year and remembered one, in particular, that stuck out to me. So I wanted to share that with you today.
“What I Have Learned So Far”
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
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All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with a sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
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Be ignited, or be gone.
Great words. What do you think of when you think about the parable of the mustard seed? What part has always stuck out to you? Feel free to start/join the conversation in the comments section.
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Cheers,
Eric
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 P.S. For those interested in the “Living the Questions” series… Tomorrow I’ll be back with that, specifically the question of “Who Told You?” — in the context of Adam & Eve, the full question is “Who told you that you were naked?” Scandal! Haha. Be sure to swing back tomorrow for that.

Sermon on a Pretty Terrible Parable

Matthew 25:14-30

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s an ancient legend about one of the Desert Fathers from early, early Christianity. These desert fathers were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but with intense spiritual practices and riches. One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do, since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets. The story goes that the holy man responded by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge:  “Why not become totally fire?” Abba Joseph tries to get the young monk to think outside of the box in how we live our lives in devotion to God. I think that’s the same objective Jesus has in the parable he tells in today’s gospel.

In the parable today, Jesus is preaching to a world that’s about to turn. This is the 25th chapter of Matthew. Things are starting to get urgent for Jesus. In chapter 26, we get the betrayal, the arrest and all that comes after. Jesus wants to get a little more teaching in. In this parable, a master gives his slaves an unequal amount of talents. A talent in that day was equal to 6,000 denarii. Essentially, 1 talent was about 20 years worth of working wages. It’s a lot of money. To the first slave, the master gives 5 talents – 100 years worth of wages, to the second slave, he gives two and the final slave gets one. Then the master leaves without announcing when he will return. It says that “after a long time”, the master came back to check up on them. The first slave comes forward and says he has doubled what the master has given him. He has passed the test, so to speak. Then the slave who was given two talents shows that he has also doubled what the master gave him and is equally praised by the master. Then we get to the slave who was given one talent. Out of fear, he did nothing with what was given to him. He hid it in the ground and went about his life. He refused to use what was given to him by the master because he feared the master.

Notice the abrupt turn in the parable here: “You wicked and lazy slave! Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew has this obsession with weeping and gnashing of teeth. We get the sense that the end is near and those who have will be given an abundance and those who do not have will be cast out.

I have a professor at seminary who calls these types of parables the “you better watch out, you better not cry” parables of Jesus. It’s very hard for us to come at this parable with the same kind of urgency that Jesus would have had with his followers. People who predict the end of the world in our modern culture are laughed out of the public arena. Look no further than Harold Camping, the Family Radio president who has made a sport of predicting the end. But even though we may have a hard time replicating the urgency with which Jesus spoke, the intensity of this poignant story does still resonate. We know these moments of challenge and opportunity well – opportunity to speak truthfully, to act faithfully, to venture into possibilities both promising and frightening.

If we’re not careful, this passage can be woefully abused as an excuse to ignore people who don’t have as many possessions as others. That’s a terrible abuse of the words of Jesus in this parable. More is given to people who act on the gifts they’ve been given. The third slave buried his gift in the ground and ignored it. He sat on his hands out of fear of God and refused to do the work of bringing about the kingdom of God in the world. Martin Luther once said that even if he knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, he would still plant an apple tree. He knew, much like the first two slaves, that the gift itself wasn’t the indicator of devotion, but what each person does with the gift is what is truly important. Jesus is dealing with a world that’s about to end, cast out on a cross, and he’s warning us against becoming complacent and sitting on our hands, ignoring the gifts that God has given us.

Jesus reminds us that these gifts are given to us to bridge the gap from the world that is over to the world that is meant to be; to change the world to bring about a more peaceful and just society. We have countless examples of this in people like Martin Luther, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King. All of these people used the gifts that were given them to bring about tremendous change in their surrounding communities and, indeed, throughout the world. But most of us may not have the same particular gifts that these great people do.

But most of us could probably be like Rosa Parks, whose quiet determination simply refused to put up with the unjust
ways of the world as it is, so she quietly stayed seated and lived into the world as it is meant to be. It had to have taken gifts of incredible determination and will to step up to the unjust powers of the day and say, “No more!” We could all do worse than pay close attention to the quiet whisper inside our soul that says something isn’t right. And we know what we can do to change it.

What are your gifts?

What has God given us in this community to help us live into God’s kingdom?

Are we using them to their fullest extent?

How can we unbury our gifts – as surely we are all guilty of burying them at some point?

Why did God give us our gifts, our passions, our determination, our will?

For what greater purpose?

I’ve only been here for a few months now, but I know for certain that this community is full of gifts. Many are being used on a daily basis. But even though we can all be like the wicked and lazy slave from time to time – we’ve all been there with him in the outer darkness at one time or another – there’s another world that operates as though things exist in a different way. God’s promise of new creation is the promise that every living creature will be brought into the world as it is meant to be, not only as it is. All of our imaginations are so often tied to the world as it already is. That limits the possibilities that we are capable of seeing. We are like the monk in the beginning who asks his master if there is more fasting or prayer that he can do. He’s looking for solutions that come from this world. But what if we stepped outside the box of our story and looked for connections to God’s story of redemption and reconciliation with all of creation? Then we are no longer people of what is actual. We become a people of possibility. We become a people who see things not as they are, but how they can be. We experience what it truly means to live into the kingdom of God.

May God help us, guide us and renew us for the use of the gifts that have been entrusted to us to help bring about the world as it is meant to be: a creation of equality and justice for all. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

Sermon on What It Means to Love Your Neighbor

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.’ 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s a preacher who tells the story of a man who had hit rock bottom and realized that he desperately needed help with his life.  He was out of control and he had heard that the Bible was the place to go whenever you had troubles.  So he decided that he would open the Bible to a random page and whatever his eye fell to, that’s the thing he would do. The first verse he saw when he opened the book was, “Judas went out and hanged himself.”

“That can’t be right.” He thought. So he decided to try again.  He let the pages fall open and looked down.  This time he read, “Go and do likewise.”  “No way,” he cried! He decided to give it one more try.  So he repeated the process a final time and the verse he saw was, “What you must do, do it quickly.”

As this story illustrates, the Bible does not come out well when its words are taken out of context, or when we ignore the greater narrative of the Bible and focus in favor of snippets here and there. This is the argument against reading Scripture literally. If we do, we ultimately run into problems.

However, I learned a long time ago that a rule is not truly a rule unless there is an exception to it.  And Jesus’ answer to the question of the Pharisee from this morning’s Gospel reading is that exception to the rule. If you were to come up with a one-sentence thesis to the overarching story of the gospel, you couldn’t do much better than the command given in today’s reading.

If we listen to Jesus teach in this gospel text, he says that all of the law and the prophets hang on the commandment of love. Not some of the law or almost all of the law or a medium amount of the law. ALL of the law and prophets hang on the one command of love. I think we, as the church, need to rediscover and reimagine how we act out this love in our everyday lives. And I absolutely believe that love requires action. Love is much more than an emotional or an intellectual commitment. In the New Testament, whenever the writers speak of Godly love, they use the word agape. Perhaps you recognize this word. The important part of knowing this is that this word for love, agape, is derived from a verb, agapao. This is the word used in both commands of Jesus here. We are to actively love God and actively love our neighbor. They’re connected. When we actively love God, we love our neighbor. And more importantly when we actively love our neighbor, we love God.

I think a lot of times we fall into the trap of loving people out of some sort of agenda. We build relationships with people in order to impress a belief on them, or even something as trivial as using their lawn mower. I was going to use the example of shovel or snow blower, but we’re not in Minnesota anymore. But if we build relationships that have an agenda, if we befriend people and love them in order to use them, that’s not love at all. It’s something else.

I have a dear friend of mine who, when we were in college, would go sit at different tables in the lunchroom and make friends with all kinds of different people. Then after a while he would come back to our table and give us what he called a “progress report”. He would go around and talk to all these people and make friends with them in order to get them to come to his church. That was his only goal when he went around to get to know these people. Something always made me uncomfortable about that. When the only reason we build relationships with people is in order to get them to do something, that’s not love. There’s a disconnect there. There’s something that doesn’t quite add up. And there’s something that can be very dangerous when there’s a gap between our actions and the intent behind them, when we want to act like we love people, without actually loving them.

There’s another story I heard once that highlights this gap. It goes like this. There was a young minister sitting in her house on a Sunday afternoon who was disturbed by a frantic banging on the front door. Upon opening the door, she was confronted by a distraught member from her church. It was obvious he was exhausted from running to her house and was on the verge of tears.

“What’s wrong?” asked the minister.

“Please can you help?” replied the man. “A kind and considerate family in the area is in great trouble. The husband recently lost his job, and the wife cannot work due to health problems. They have three young children to look after, and the man’s mother lives with them because she is unwell and needs constant care. They are one day late with the rent, but despite the fact that they have lived there ten years with no problems and will likely have the money later in the week, the landlord is going to kick them all onto the street if they don’t pay rent by the end of the day.”

“That’s terrible!” replied the minister. “Of course, we’ll make some of the extra church funds available to help them out so they can stay in their home. May I ask how you know them?”

“Oh,” replied the man. “I’m the landlord.”

What this story illustrates so plainly is our desire to help out our neighbor. To show them love. But a lot of times we get in our own way. We get prideful. We get selfish. We focus on ourselves instead of focusing on others. If we’ve been paying ANY attention to Jesus in his interactions with the Pharisees and the chief priests these last few weeks, it’s a pretty popular lesson. With so many of these parables, the main message is to take the focus off of us and focus on bringing about the kingdom of God. This love is active. It’s true to the spirit of agape found in this text.

The active part of loving God comes in the form of loving our neighbor. I can say, “I love God.” And that’s great. That’s wonderful. But it doesn’t get to the spirit of the commandment. It’s verbal, but it’s not a verb. It’s not action. Jesus is commanding us to act out our love of God in our love of the neighbor. This is the heart of the great commandment.

There is an amazing theologian and pastor named Barbara Brown Taylor who sums up the words of Jesus in today’s gospel. She says,  “The assignment is to get over your self. The assignment is to love the God you did not make up, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and the second is like it, to love the neighbor you did not make up as if that person were your own strange and particular self. Do this, and the doing will teach you everything you need to know. Do this and you will live.” Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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