Three Simple Rules: #3 Stay in Love with God.
“Three Simple Rules: Stay in Love with God”
June 25, 2023
John 21:15-17; Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16 A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17 He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
I had to chuckle just now when the children and I talked about how easy it was to get distracted after watching the moving cups go whirling by. And then right afterwards the choir comes up and sings a lovely song about the gift of love.
Love is a gift but love can also be illusive. Not on God’s part, but on ours.
You’re joining us today on week three of a real short mini-series we’ve been doing on Three Simple Rules for living a life more Christ-like. They’re three simple rules for a reason. Simple is good. We need easy to remember ways of being more like Jesus because the world is complicated and every moment of every day we’re pulled off task.
The first two simple rules, Do No Harm and Do Good, were covered in the past two weeks. We talked about how they may be simple, but they are far from easy. Doing No Harm takes a real commitment to de-centering yourself and looking for the humanity in those around you. Then the next week we talked about Doing Good and how easy it is to talk ourselves out of doing the right thing because we over complicate it. It doesn’t need to be that way. Jesus said out of all the rules and laws handed to him through his tradition, it all comes down to love. Love God and love other people. It’s simple.
But you know what? You can’t just your Wheaties in the morning and expect you’ll just be able to Do No Harm and Do Good like a champion. Being a good person, being a person who is thoughtful and motivated to be selfless and humble and loving like Jesus… it doesn’t just happen by accident. There’s no special diet or medicine that creates a disciple of Jesus. It doesn’t happen with the flip of the switch or a moment of salvation. Living a life that imitates Christ, filled with conscious decisions to do no harm and instead do good, that is a life lived with intention. And that’s why there aren’t two Simple Rules, there’s a third.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement did not get labeled a Methodist because he thought it was a cool and attractive name to the young hipsters of his time. No, he and his circle, were called Methodists because they knew deep down inside that if they really and truly wanted to live like Jesus, they needed to be intentional and have purpose. Without a method, without a repeatable pattern for being a disciple of Jesus, they knew they were likely to get lazy with their faith or apathetic about caring for people in need. Without a regiment they worried they might slip into a sense of entitlement, an entrapping feeling that they were blessed just because of a stated belief in God. Or worst of all, without actively working on their relationship with God they worried they might even revert to bad habits. You know that popular statement: once saved, always saved? John Wesley had serious misgivings about that. He knew a commitment to Jesus was a life-long project. Each day it would take resolve and thoughtfulness. A real relationship with God, like any healthy relationship, had to be something you paid attention to.
Paying attention to things is not our strong suit. We have so many things that demand our attention that we divide it up to the point that we might as well not be paying attention at all. Whether it’s listening to our children talk while we look something up on our phone, or scroll through social media while we’re watching TV and catching up with our spouse, or listening to the news while we cook dinner, or visiting with a friend on the phone while we drive to work, or eating lunch while at the desk, or God-forbid, catching up on our sleep while the preacher preaches. Multi-tasking seems to be the only way to get everything to fit into the day.
I know I’m at the height of multi-tasking when I’m doing one thing but I want to remember another thing so I either say, Siri, wake me up in 10 minutes (because I don’t want the thing to burn in the oven) or I grab the nearest ink pen and I write the important thing to remember in the best possible place I can think of… the back of my hand.
We think we’re pretty good at doing life when we can do multiple things at once, but the problem is, multi-tasking is a bill of false goods. The ink washes off the hands pretty fast and the people we care about can see right through it when our attention is divided. We live under the allusion that we’re paying attention to lots of things all at the same time, but in truth, we’re paying attention to very little.
Our attention is a limited resource. And so paying attention, when we can do it with intention and focus, can actually be something like a super power.
Wesley knew this when he wrote his third rule. The way he actually wrote it was like this: “Attend upon the ordinances of God.” Real normal language, right? But that first word… Attend… that sounds an awful lot like …attention. I like how Bishop Rueben Job rephrased this rule when he put it like this: “Stay in Love with God.”
“Be in love with God” wasn’t enough. No, because what this rule gets at is our tendency to a have a mutli-tasking, hurry-up, check-it-off-the-list, version of discipleship. “Stay in love with God” is better phrasing for us because it acknowledges the long haul. This will be a life-long pursuit. We stay in love with God by paying attention to God, day in and day out. Just like we show our love to our children by paying attention to our children. Relationships take intention.
This morning, Mary read the scripture reading out of Deuteronomy. It’s actually a famous passage called the Shema by Hebrew people and it’s considered the most essential declaration in the Jewish scriptures. It’s recited multiple times a day by faithful Jews. And this is what is says, again: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (repeat…) Above all else and before anything else, your identity and life as a person of faith begins with this essential declaration. Staying in love with God, paying attention to God, this is how every other good action begins in our life.
So in order to pay attention to God, the people of Israel taught their children this verse first and foremost. And then they rolled it up on a little scroll and put it in a box on their door post to be seen and touched with every coming and every going. Sometimes they even wear this scripture on their forehead in a little headband as a literal reminder of how to pay attention. It kind of makes every other “important” thing I’ve ever scratched onto my hand with an ink pen seem paltry by comparison. This verse is most important because paying attention to God first and foremost is what makes everything else about a holy life possible.
A study I came across recently said that 71% of us spend the first 10 minutes of our day on our phone. That number jumps up to 98% when the sample surveyed is under 35. The first ten minutes of our day are spent on our phones… checking our email, scrolling through social media, looking at the news, finding the day’s weather. These are the things that are getting our attention because they’re what we go looking for first. And so before we’ve even gotten out of bed our minds are already filled with distractions and worries and to-do lists and sometimes fear and feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.
We need an intervention. We cannot be the people God has called us to be, good people, people who do no harm, we cannot be that kind of people, if we cannot find a way to give God our undivided attention on a regular basis.
John Wesley knew this would be a hard rule, so he added some specifics. Remember that phrase “attend to the ordinances of God”? What Wesley meant by ordinances was spiritual disciplines—practices that keep the relationship between us and God vital, alive, and growing. Practices like
attending and being part of public worship regularly (not just when it’s convenient)
reading scripture by yourself or with others
receiving Communion at God’s table
praying- privately to yourself and also as a family
and fasting-or taking a break from something important for the sake of drawing closer to God.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does begin to name some practices that help nurture a relationship with the one who loves us first and loves us best.
When I was in graduate school, life was full. I was newly married, I was working part-time and attending classes full-time. Going to church every week was already part of my habit and so I’d found a United Methodist church in town and had built those worship services into my full life. And then someone at the church had the nerve to ask me if I’d like to be part of a new group that was forming, called a Covenant Discipleship group. Honestly, my first thought was: Are you kidding? Have you seen my schedule? Don’t you know I’m a Busy Person. But then this guy, Mark, began to tell me about the group. He said we’d meet once a week for one hour only. Together we’d make a list of the kind of practices we each wanted to do every week that would help us stay in love with God. And this list would become a covenant we kept with each other and God. We would put it on a piece of paper and carry it through our week, gathering together for that one hour to check in with each other on how it was going, staying in love with God.
And the whole point of the group would be to hold one another in love as we each walked our own walk with Christ. It sounded compelling and unlike anything I’d ever done in my Christian life before. I told Mark I’d give it a try. And you know what, as I look back at those two years of graduate school, that group of 5 people and the growing we did together is one of my most meaningful take-aways. Forget the academics and the work-study. Long after I’d misplaced my notebooks and binders from my actual graduate school classes, I could still put my hands on the worn-out piece of paper where our shared covenant was written. A list of intentions that in a very busy season of life kept me focused on my love for God and neighbor. Mark was right. Even though my life was full, it had been missing something.
Our lives can be full to the brim, yet missing the important stuff. We can let the world’s endless distractions fill our minds from morning to night, and not once notice where God shows up. We can multitask our way into oblivion, and never once give our full attention to anything important. We can do all of this and still say we’ve got what it takes to do good and do no harm. But the truth is, we can’t. We can’t fully love others until we realize how deeply we love the God who first loved us. And loving that God takes more than a casual thought on Sunday morning or haphazard prayer when we want things to work out in our favor. Loving God and staying in love with God requires intention and attention.
A little bit later I’ll be introducing a new opportunity for you to be intentional about your faith life by joining a pilot Covenant group that we’re starting here at Cobleskill UMC. This might be the right step for you at this time and I hope you’ll consider it. But maybe the right step for you is also just dedicating 5 minutes of your day, in the morning, at lunch, or a random time in the afternoon. Set a timer for 5 minutes and pay attention to God. Maybe that means re-reading our scripture from today. Or downloading a devotional app for your phone. Or taking one of our Upper Room devotionals from the back shelf and reading it. Or maybe it means sitting in silence with your bare feet on the ground. Or praying with words, or a song. 5 minutes. Try it once. And then see if you can find a way to try it again the next day… and maybe the next day.
Three times Jesus asked Peter, do you love me? Once might have been enough. But he kept repeating it. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?
Do you? Love the Lord your God with everything you have, first and foremost, often and regularly. With intention and purpose. Because when you pay attention to that love and nurture it, then and only then will you have endurance you need to love all the others around you.
Pray with me.