We have a real treat for you this week. A story. A testimony of transformation and change. We first met Henry while attending seminary. Now that you know how we’re all connected we are going to let his words resonate and echo for themselves as you read the manuscript of a sermon that Henry preached just a few months back.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
A Passage to Live By, Part III
The Greatest Commandment
Well y’all this has certainly been fun series for me to preach and help y’all get to know me a little bit better. Week one, I introduced my life verse and discussed the first part of it. How, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” helps me focus my life and my relationship with God. Last week, I talked about the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and how that has become my guide for how I interact with people, how I treat people. Some of you might have thought last week, well, he covered both parts, he’s gotta be done, right? Today, I want to discuss the third part of this life verse, what does it mean for how I view myself.
I reckon I need to start with a little bit of background first. I grew up the way some of you did, out in the country, but not on a farm, did well in school, played sports, active in churches and clubs. I Went to college at the university of Alabama. I have a whole lot of friends and great experiences along the way. I had the standard problems of a teenaged and young adult guy, but there was always one thing that I always hanging over me, or shall I say, around me. I was fat. Oh, I used all the other terms: broad shouldered, husky, big-boned, more to love; but truly, I was fat, obese even. It affected the way I interacted with folks. It affected the way I saw myself. I knew how I looked. It made me mad. It made me not like myself. Oh, I played it off well. It became part of my charm, part of my wit. I came across as a very comfortable person, very easy in my own skin. In reality, I could not stand looking at myself in the mirror.
Verse 39 of Matthew 22 tells us we need to love our neighbor as ourselves. Last week, we saw how Jesus taught that everyone was our neighbor. But the question I ask you, the question I have to ask myself….what if we don’t love ourselves? How can not loving yourself affect your ability to love others? Let’s take it one step further. Verse 37, we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. This is easy, isn’t it? I mean God loves us, He is our Creator and we are made in his image. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us, “26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” So I was created in God’s image. I have known that my whole life. Yet, even still, I didn’t like the image I saw in the mirror. How could that be affecting my relationship with God?
College came and went, and seminary came and went. I learned so much, I believe that I became a better, more spirit-filled, capable person prepared for ministry. I went to my BoOM interview. My district meetings had never gone particularly well, but this one did. I felt great after all the interviews. Still nervous, but I was confident I had done my best. After the interview, they brought me back for a talkback, where we discussed a couple of things related to my interview, but nothing big. Then, the person who had helped me prepare for the process mentioned that I needed to work on my health, consider joining a gym or something. I took it in stride; I mean, he was absolutely right. I needed to do that. I had always known that. Then later, I was officially accepted by the BoOM as a provisional elder. In the UMC, provisional elders are kinda like teachers who don’t have tenure. You get that when you are fully-ordained and in full connection. As a provisional elder, the Board will usually give two or three things for the pastor to work on during the early years of ministry. Some of those things might be “preach as much as you can and work with someone” or “learn and better demonstrate Wesleyan theology” or “work on acquiring leadership skills”. The first of mine was preach every chance you get. No biggie, I hadn’t preached but at most a dozen times by then and I was going into a two-point charge where I would be preaching twice every Sunday. Check that one off!
The second one though was something along the lines of developing a program of diet and exercise and report to a board member on progress with my weight issue. Translation—you are fat and you need to work on it! And tell us how you are doing. You know, I know, I mean I really DO know the concern behind that. But it didn’t matter. It made me angry. Furious even. I would think about it and get mad. There were many times by myself or with particularly close friends, I would get so angry, I would use language that supposedly preachers don’t know and get offended by. So, instead of doing anything about it, I didn’t. I got fatter. I ate whatever I wanted and my churches were much like y’all here at Union: there are some great cooks and they made some fantastic deserts. I was thinkin’ just the other day, it’s like folks say, here’s this young, single, fat preacher….let’s feed him and fatten him up.” If any BoOM or anyone else said something, beware for my wrath. And I ballooned to as fat as I had ever been.
As I reflected on this time of my life, God reminded me of a story in his word. In Mark, chapter 10, Jesus had an interaction with someone who I have come to realize, was very much like me.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
For me, my weight was getting in the way of me serving God. I knew that God had called me, I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. And, God had placed people in my life who were telling me something I could do to enhance and sustain my ministry. And I wouldn’t do it. I was like the rich man here. I was serving God. I know God loved me the way Jesus loved this man. I had felt it so many times in my life. Yet, I was going to be willing to turn my back on all of it because of food and the unhealthy lifestyle I was living. You see, that is what it gets down to: I love food. The worse it is for me, the more I like it. I didn’t want to have to control the amount I ate, or make better choices with what I ate. It is easy to approach this story of the rich man and feel better than him; I mean, I never walked away from Jesus because of my money. And yet, in my stubbornness and anger, I was going to ruin my chances of being ordained. Even worse, I could have ruined my own life in the process. You don’t have to be rich to walk away from Jesus. It doesn’t have to be something like drugs or alcohol or sex that pulls us away from God. Me, it was food. I am sure everyone here today has something like that.
Finally, I got over being angry at the Board and accepted that it was time to do something about it. A dear friend of mine helped me think through things, and pointed me to getting started on Couchto5k, a running program for people who have never run before. A few weeks later, I had a meeting with two members of the BoOM. That was a hard meeting, and some difficult things were said. They said what they needed to firmly, and covered in grace and I was finally ready to hear them. An off-the-cuff remark was made about Weight Watchers Online for Men, and I decided, you know what, I am going to do that. I signed up that night. I began to talk with a dear friend, an ordained deacon and counselor in our conference, who has helped me navigate what has been a long process of changing my lifestyle. I had lost some weight because of Couchto5k before starting
weight-watchers, but when I began that, I weighed 374 pounds. I now weigh 242 and dropping, I’m not quite done yet. I still have some weight I want to lose before I am finished. I jog roughly 3 miles at least 3 times a week and lift weights 3 other days. God has taught me that if I am going to love Him with all my heart, soul, and mind, and love my neighbor as myself, I am going to have to love myself. Love the creation that he gave me to inhabit on this earth. When humanity was created, God made them the caretakers of the world: the plants, the animals, everything. He also made us caretakers of ourselves.
In, 1 Corinthians 18-20, Paul tells us,
“18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
He is speaking of sexual immorality here, but it is so true in every area of our live. Our body is a temple to the Lord God; His presence is within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The song the choir sang earlier spoke of Jesus buying our freedom on Calvary. We should honor God’s gift, His presence, His sacrifice by loving ourselves enough to take care of ourselves. For some of us, that means we need to watch what we eat. For others it means what we put in our bodies or let into our bodies. For some others of us in means we need to rest and take Sabbath because we are abusing our bodies through work. For me, loving myself has enabled me to better love my God and love my neighbor, and I am going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Church, this is how God has worked in my life, preparing me for what he has called me to do as an ordained. And, this morning, he wants to do the same for you. You see, ordained or not, God is preparing you for ministry. Sometimes, that means we have to let go of things in ourselves. We have to let the Holy Spirit work in us to remove those things that would keep us from the ministry God intends for us. So, as we sing our hymn of invitation, Where He Lead Me, are you willing to go where he is leading you.