Last Sermon

Instead of a last lecture, here is a last sermon.

[Years ago, on college campuses across America, “Last Lecture” series became popular. Professors were invited to present what they would say if they were giving their last lecture ever. Since I’m not a professor, I can’t do a last lecture. But as a minister, I can do a last sermon. What follows is the last sermon I preached as a full-time clergyperson. I called it “The Really Important Stuff.” The text was Mark 12:28-31, often referred to as “The Great Commandment.”]

A bishop sent a pastor to a new congregation. As the pastor set up his new office, he came upon a letter in the top drawer of his desk. Stapled to the letter he found three sealed envelopes numbered one, two, and three.

The letter, written by the previous pastor, said, “Welcome to First Church. When things get bad, open envelope number one. When things get really bad, open envelope number two. When things get unbearably bad, open envelope number three.” The new pastor thought, What a negative guy. He promptly pushed the letter and the three envelopes to the back of the drawer.

Things at First Church went fine for a year. Then it got bad. The pastor remembered the letter and envelopes and opened up number one. It said, “Blame the previous pastor.”

On Sunday morning the pastor said, “I know we’ve been having some problems around here. But it’s all the previous pastor’s fault. He messed this church up something awful.” The people all said, “Amen, it’s all the previous pastor’s fault,” and everything smoothed over.

Things at church went fairly well after that. Unfortunately, a year later things got really bad. The pastor went to his drawer and pulled out envelope number two. It said, “Blame the denomination.”

On Sunday morning the pastor stood up and said, “I know we’re having problems here, but it’s all the denomination’s fault. Our bishop is out of touch with the churches, the bureaucracy is awful, and our apportionments are sky high.” The people said, “Amen, it’s all the denomination’s fault.” Everything down, and things went well for another year.

However, after three years things became unbearably bad. The pastor hated to use the last envelope, but he felt he had no choice. He went to his desk and opened envelope number three.  It said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

Well, it’s time for me to prepare three envelopes! Before I go, I’d like to speak on the subject “The Really Important Stuff.” Our text is the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-31). You know the story. A religious leader comes to Jesus and asks, in essence, “What matters most? What is most important?” And Jesus gives him three answers.

Love God

First, Jesus says, “Love God.” But what does that really mean? We tend to think of love as an emotion. But in the Bible, love is not a warm and fuzzy feeling. Love is concrete and shows itself in action.

For example, 1 Corinthians 13 says love is “patient” and “kind.” Many of you have seen the old classic musical Fiddler on the Roof. In one scene, two of the main characters, Tevye and Golde, discuss love.

They lived in a culture and time when marriages were arranged by parents. They didn’t even meet until their wedding day. However, the times were changing. Their daughters wanted to marry for love. So in this scene Tevye asks his wife, “Do you love me?”

At first, she resists his question, but he presses her to answer. Finally, she says, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow.”

Later she adds, “For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”

Tevye then says, “Then you love me?”

Golde replies, “I suppose I do.”

To which Tevye responds, “And I suppose I love you too.”

The song ends, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years it’s nice to know.”

As Golde understood, real love is love that shows itself in action, love that makes a difference in the way we live. So the best way to love God is to live in a manner that pleases God.

You want to love God? Then live a life of character and integrity. Serve others. Seek justice. Be kind. Forgive people who hurt you. Care for the poor. Protect the environment. Break down human barriers. Welcome the stranger. Be generous. Express gratitude. Love God by the way you live.

Love Others

Second, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor.” Make relationships with others the core of your life.

Several years ago, I read a major article about the longest running study in history on the subject of human contentment and well-being. The study spanned seven decades. It began in the 1930s at Harvard University and concluded a few years ago.

During the study, researchers followed Harvard graduates through college, war, work, marriage, divorce, parenthood, grandparenthood, old age, and death. The concluding director of the study was asked, “What was learned from this seventy-year-long study on happiness?”

He responded, “We learned that the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.” If I’ve learned anything in forty years of ministry, it’s that relationships matter more than anything else. They matter more than money, success, status, power, or anything else. So, when Jesus was asked, “What matters most?,” he said (1) love God and (2) love others.

Love Yourself

Finally, Jesus said, “Love yourself.” Don’t miss that. Love your neighbor as yourself. Obviously, Jesus is not talking about narcissism and self-absorption. That goes against everything he taught and lived. What Jesus is saying is that we need to love ourselves as beloved children of God with great worth and dignity.

During my tenure here, I’ve shared at least a dozen stories from one of my heroes, a man named Fred Craddock. So it seems fitting that I end my tenure here by telling you my favorite Fred Craddock story.

Many years ago, on a trip through Tennessee, Fred Craddock stopped into a restaurant where he met an old man, long retired. When the elderly gentlemen found out Craddock was a preacher, he told him the following story from his childhood.

The old man told Fred that he had been born and raised in a little village near that restaurant. He had a single mother, and they were very poor. He was what they called back then “an illegitimate child,” a child born out of wedlock.

When his mother and he came into town on Saturday, they were shunned by all the good people. They wouldn’t let their kids play with him. Some even walked to the other side of the street when they saw his mother and him coming. He had many fights with boys at school over the names they called him and the bad things they said about his mother.

They had a little church in that village. The boy went to it sometimes. He would sneak in after the service started, then slip out before the benediction, so he would not have to face the church people and feel their disapproval.

One day a new pastor came to the church. To check him out, the boy slipped into the back pew halfway through the service. And he liked his sermon. The pastor was young and talked so the boy could understand him.

But then the new preacher pulled a fast one on the boy. After the sermon he walked to the back of the church, announced that he wanted to meet everyone present, and then pronounced the benediction.

The boy was trapped. He waited until the church was empty, hunkered down in the corner, hoping the pastor would not notice him. But he did. The new preacher walked over to him, thrust out his hand, and said, “Glad to see you boy. And tell me, who is your daddy?”

The boy turned red and dropped his head. The preacher didn’t know the details, but he knew he had asked the wrong question. The pastor took the boy by the chin, pulled his face up to look him straight in the eye, and said, “Oh, you don’t need to tell me. I already know. I see the family resemblance. I see it in your face. You are a child of God.”

The boy’s name was Ben Hooper. He went on to become the governor of the state of Tennessee. Imagine that! Through that and other experiences, Ben Hooper learned he was a beloved child of God with worth, value, and dignity. Affirming that truth is one part of living out the Great Commandment.

So, what is the really important stuff? Loving God, primarily by the way we live. Loving others, by making relationships the greatest priority in our life. And loving ourselves as beloved and valued children of God. That’s the really important stuff. Everything else is secondary.