with Rev. Alex Lang
April 25, 2021
Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World. This Sunday Alex finishes his sermon series explaining why these words represent not only everything about who we are and what we stand for as Christians, but also our goal as a church community.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
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If you were here last week, you know that we are doing something rather unusual. I am preaching a sermon series that only has two sermons in it. This sermon series was inspired by a conversation that took place among the leadership of the church. We were having a discussion about asking the congregation about how they felt the mission of the church was going. This is when one elder said, “Honestly, Alex, I don’t think it makes much sense to ask that question because most people in the church probably don’t know what the mission of the church is. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what the mission of the church is.” Many of the elders sitting in the room agreed.
That’s when I responded, “Well, what about Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World.” Someone said, “That’s a tagline, not a mission.” Again everyone nodded in agreement. I will admit that initially I was a bit taken aback by this conversation—the members of the church don’t know the mission of the church and what I’ve been saying as the mission of the church every Sunday after service has clearly not been seen in the light I intended it.
After some serious reflection, I realized that this was nobody’s fault except for my own. All the times I had repeated the phrase Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World, I realized I had never gone through the process of providing a detailed explanation of what this taglines means. These two sermons are designed to fix that deficiency and hopefully answer the question of why we keep saying this tagline week after week.
As you can see up on the screen, this is a graphical representation of what each portion of the tagline means and how it informs our mission as Christians. What you can see is that at the top of the chart is it starts with the creation of God’s kingdom. And as we talked about last week, the two paths that allow us to create God’s kingdom are soul work and social work.
Soul work is what we talked about last week. Soul work is the internal transformation that Jesus wants us to undergo to become his disciple. At the core of this transformation is the willingness to live a life of sacrifice. I call this the Resurrected Life. The reason it’s called the resurrected life is because you will have gone through a death and resurrection just like Jesus. You will have sacrificed or killed off that selfish part of who you are and allowed a new, selfless person to rise in its place. In essence, over time, you will be resurrected into an entirely new person.
This internal transformation is critical because God’s kingdom comes about as a result of focusing on the needs of others. If you’re operating out of a place of selfishness, if you’re primarily concerned with gaining for yourself, then it will be very hard for you to contribute to the creation of God’s kingdom. This is why soul work matters so much. You need the right mentality where you are willing to sacrifice what you have for the benefit of others so that you can effectively contribute to the creation of God’s kingdom.
The less you are willing to sacrifice, the less effective your social work will be, which is the focus of this sermon. Social work is what we find in Matthew 25 where Jesus calls on his disciples to serve the least by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick and visiting those who are in prison. You’ve heard me talk about this a lot over the years and this is a big focus of our church.
The purpose of the actions specified in Matthew 25 is to bring balance to a world that is highly imbalanced. The way human society is structured is that a minority of people have the majority of the resources, while the majority of the population struggles to get by. Matthew 25 is meant to level the playing field by asking Christians to redistribute their resources to those who need them most. In this way, Christians are expected to serve the immediate needs of those who are most impoverished.
But social work is more than simply giving a dollar to the homeless guy begging on the street corner. Jesus doesn’t just want us to put a band aid on the problem. Jesus wants us to fix the source of the problem. In this way, social work is examining and undoing the various systems that create inequity in our society. How do I know this to be true?
So in Jesus’ day, particularly when he was beginning his ministry, there was a lot of social upheaval. The economy was in a freefall. People were losing their jobs, their homes, and their land. Some people were in such bad shape that they were even having trouble affording food. The reason why this was happening is because the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were subjects of the Roman Empire. At the time, taxation levels were spiraling out of control. Although we can’t say for sure, some scholars estimate that the Empire was taking upwards of 90% of a person’s income, which wasn’t that much to start with.
The other issue is that the Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist. Any resistance to Empire’s demands was met violent brutality. Particularly among the peasantry, the people who Jesus spent most of his time with, they had almost no ability to change their circumstances. If a group of people came en mass to a government official to request changes, rather than show sympathy for their situation, soldiers were often dispatched to break up the crowd with force.
Jesus felt the solution to their circumstances was removing Rome’s control over Israel. Perhaps the greatest symbol of that control was in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jerusalem Temple is where the Jews would go during Jesus’ day to offer animal sacrifices to God. Of course, this was big business. All of the money earned from those sacrifices went to the priests who ran the Temple. All of the priests were members of the aristocracy and, not surprisingly, all of the priests had been handpicked by Rome because they had to be loyal to Rome’s interests.
This is why Jesus makes his way to the Temple on Palm Sunday and overturns the tables of the money changers and the sellers of the sacrifices. From Jesus’ perspective, the Jerusalem Temple is at the center of the injustice suffered by his people. If you can root out Rome from the Temple, then you can begin to overturn the systems of injustice that are oppressing the Jewish people.
What Jesus does on Palm Sunday becomes the example of where our social work is supposed to take us as Christians. No matter where we live, our job as Christians is to identify and overturn systems of injustice that are causing oppression to others. Like Jesus, we have to identify the Jerusalem Temples in our society. We have to march up to those sources of power and say, “This is wrong, this is unjust and this must change!” Hence the outcome of social work is the goal of creating an equal playing field.
Again, this requires a certain level of selflessness. You have to be willing to sacrifice what you have for benefit of others. If you’re in a position of power with wealth at your disposal, you have to be willing to give those resources away and use your power to lift up those who are struggling. This is why soul work is so important. Without soul work, your social work will not be effective.
Now, both soul work and social work are rooted in love, which is found in the greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God is at the heart of soul work and loving your neighbor is at the heart of social work. Therefore, love is critical to the creation of God’s kingdom. Without love you can’t create the kingdom. They go hand-in-hand.
But what’s so brilliant about the greatest commandment is that it help us to realize that one of the biggest impediments to loving properly is knowing how to love yourself. Many people do not know how to love themselves. So the first step in the process of the greatest commandment is really learning how to love yourself properly. This comes through focusing on being in touch with God’s love.
In the Christian faith, we believe that God’s love is unconditional. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced truly unconditional love, but what happens is there is no limit to the forgiveness or understanding that is offered. More importantly, when you open yourself to unconditional love, it has the potential to heal those broken parts inside of you and makes you whole. Therefore, loving God ultimately allows you to love and accept yourself.
Once you love yourself, then you can love others, which is easier said than done. It’s one thing to love people who you are similar to yourself. If a person looks like you, acts like you, believes what you believe, then loving your neighbor is easy. However, it’s loving the people who are different from you that is the real challenge. This is the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
At its core, the parable of the Good Samaritan is about two people who are enemies. The Samaritans and the Jews greatly disliked each other. However, when the Samaritan finds the Jewish man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, he sets the animosity aside and takes care of the man. The Samaritan puts the Jewish man on his horse, takes him to an inn, bandages him up and is willing to pay the inn keeper to take care of him.
This would be like if you came across Osama Bin Laden on the side of the road. He was beaten and left for dead. Would you pick him up and help him out? Would you do everything in your power to save him given how much bad blood there is between him and the United States? That’s what the parable of the Good Samaritan is talking about and that’s what it means to love your neighbor. It means setting aside all of your differences, all of the things you hate about them and treating them like a human being.
In this way, love is a choice. Loving God, loving your neighbor, loving yourself, these are not natural loves. You have to make an active decision to love in the manner that Jesus is asking of us. It requires a lot of intentionality. It requires a lot of work and effort. Therefore, when you focus on these three loves, then the result will be the transformation of the world and the eventual creation of God’s kingdom on earth. This is why our tagline begins with the phrase choose love.
If you are choosing to love in the way that Jesus is asking of us, then a natural outgrowth of that choice is that you are going to be engaging in soul work and social work. You will be a person who illuminates the world through your example. Your character and your actions will be a guiding light to others. This why the second phrase after choose love is to be the light.
I need to stop here for a moment, because I think it’s important to point out that you can’t have a minority of people in the church being the light through soul work and social work. Your entire community needs to be invested in this path. In my opinion, a sign of positive progress towards this goal is a church culture that is welcoming, loving, diverse and willing to nurture the souls of people from all walks of life.
In other words, if your church is fully engaged in choosing love and being the light, then a by-product of those efforts will be the creation of a strong Christian Community. Having a strong Christian community is so vitally important because, even though every person must walk the Christian Mission as an individual, you can’t do it alone. This is what I talked about last week when I said that Jesus’ teachings are lived. You cannot experience the fullness of the Resurrected Life in isolation. It requires a community to provide you with support, encouragement and challenges you to reach your potential.
When you are part of a community where everyone is focused on soul work and social work, then the goal of creating God’s kingdom can become a reality. The collective strength and gifts of everyone working together is what makes small measurable changes inside and outside the walls of the church. Indeed, it is through the collective efforts of everyone in the church that you change the world.
So if you’re choosing love, by loving God, loving your neighbor and loving yourself, then you will be the light by engaging in soul work and social work, which will result in your community being able to incrementally change the world for the better. Now if every church were to take this idea and make it the focus of their congregation, then that incremental change would add up to become a big change and that big change is how we achieve Jesus’ goal of creating God’s kingdom on earth.
This is why Choose Love. Be the Light. Change the World is the Christian mission. It’s why we say these words every week. These words are not just a tagline. They represent everything about who we are and what we stand for as Christians. They represent our goal as a community and it requires buy-in from every person associated with us. If you’re not choosing to love the way Jesus loved. If you’re not doing the soul work and the social work, if you’re not focused on the creation of the kingdom, then you’re missing the whole point of what it means to be a part of this community at First Pres.
So my hope and prayer for you is that you would take these words we speak every week very seriously. In many ways, they need to become the focus of your life. And if you’re not entirely sure where to start, come and see me and we’ll figure it out together. But please, the last thing I want you to do is leave here and say, “That was nice,” and not change anything about your life. Choose love, be the light, change the world is a calling. It’s an expectation that you will live your life differently than other people. Don’t just say it because I say it. Say it because you believe in it. Say it because you’ll do it. Say it because Jesus is depending on you. Amen.