Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 31, 2021
In the winter of 1980, I started driving from the Twin Cities up to lead worship in the Presbyterian Churches at Round Lake and Tamarack. I was finishing seminary and looking for work. The churches had been vacant for a long time and they were interested in working toward hiring a full-time minister.
In the meantime, there was much work to be done. It was as if we were rebuilding the infrastructure of the congregations. Among the questions we would need to address was, what does it mean to be Presbyterian? I was learning that myself, so we were in it together.
During one of our early meetings someone said, “We just need someone to come in here and tell us what to do?” That seemed simple and straightforward, in theory. In practice, telling people what to do and thinking they will do it, let alone appreciate being told what to do, is like fishing in the month of March: you’re walking on thin ice.
We worked through many questions; from what version of bible we would read in worship to what sort of wood stove we would use to heat the manse. Just when I would think we had issues resolved, something new would appear.
One of the elders in a session meeting complained that I didn’t smile enough. I would routinely greet people coming into the church, but apparently, I did not seem friendly enough. I tired explaining that I’m like Clint Eastwood when it comes to smiling. My happy face just happens to come across like a scowl.
After three and a half years and much trial and error, the congregations reached their goal of hiring a full-time minister. I then moved on to Iowa and a newly ordained seminary graduate moved into the position we had worked three years to create. Their time together lasted a few years until he moved on and the congregations parted company with each other to go their own ways in life and work.
Along the road of ever since then, I have tried to keep in mind the central element of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We could call it the primary principle, the key ingredient, the core truth, the most important law, or the number one mandate.
We’ve gotten to know that word mandate over the last year and a half. It means simply, “an authoritative command.” Mask mandates, social distancing mandates, vaccine mandates to mention a few. Maybe a new definition of mandate could be added to the dictionary definition of the word: societal minefield.
What if we thought instead of the Ten Commandments, the Ten Mandates? What if instead of asking Jesus to name the most important commandment, someone had asked him to name the most important mandate? Would that change the way we think about our belief system? If we would ask, as did the detractors of Jesus, “Who gives you the authority?” we would get the same answer, “It’s what God requires.”
Fortunately, Jesus made it easy for us. When he was asked to name the most important law, he said it was to love God wholeheartedly and to love your neighbor as you would love yourself. Basically, love God and practice the golden rule. The first part is easy. The second part, the part involving other people, that’s more challenging.
We have all lived with mandates for all of our lives. “Look both ways before crossing the street,” is one of the first ones we encounter in life. Like most mandates, it is meant for our own health and well-being. If your boss says, “Show up for work on time,” he or she is not offering an opinion, but stating a requirement.
I have been involved in organizations with strict mandates. On the volunteer fire department in Iowa, we had to achieve the same level of certification as professionals. That meant constant practice of every aspect of the job. Volunteering didn’t mean showing up when you felt like it. If someone missed two scheduled training sessions in a row, then they had to re-apply for membership. Three in a row, and they were out for good. The training involved following instructions to the letter. To the letter could be the difference between life and death.
Being a member of the Hokushin Martial Arts Academy involved strict mandates. One of the primary lessons taught there was how to show proper respect. Respect for one’s self and respect for others. Our chief instructor, Sensei Mike, would often say to the young people and children, “If I ever find out that any of you have been using karate to bully someone, then you will be expelled for good.”
An important lesson in learning a martial art, essentially the art of violence, is learning how to control it. During one class we were practicing what was called “light touch sparring.” The idea of light touch sparring was to throw a move with force and efficiency, but to land it lightly, like a touch.
There was one boy in the class who was ignoring the light touch mandate. He would get with a kid of similar size or smaller and hit them hard. Sensei Mike warned him and told him to lighten up. But then another kid is crying because he got smacked hard.
What Sensei Mike did then was to stop the class and gather everyone around, from the white belts to the advanced black belts. He said to the boy, “I have warned you not to hit hard during light touch sparring and you have ignored my teaching. You have a choice. You can either leave the class now and never come back, or you can stay and learn. If you want to stay and learn, then you will stand by the wall and one by one, every member of this class will throw a punch at you. What do you want to do?”
He said he wanted to stay and learn.
And so, one by one, beginning with the white belts, we lined up and went forward to throw a punch. Now, the students up to that boy’s level of training tried to hit him and he did well enough in blocking their punches. Beyond his level of training and through the advanced black belts, we only employed light touch. The light touch came at him fast and fierce, but it landed lightly because that was the point of the lesson. He learned an important lesson that night: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In order to fulfill the mandate to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we simply love our neighbor. One follower of Jesus put it succinctly –
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 1st John 4:17-21
If loving our neighbor were easy, no one would need to tell us to do it. If it came naturally, we would not need reminders. I believe that love begins with respect. It plays out through actions of kindness and consideration. That respect is self-respect.
Eight years ago, Lindsay and I travelled to Japan with Sensei Mike and five others from our karate club. Among the things I noticed there was that sometimes there would a person wearing a surgical mask in public. Not a lot, but here and there. I asked Mike why someone would do that. He said it was likely they had a cold and didn’t want to spread their germs. I had never seen that before.
Now masks in public are a common sight. Wearing masks is a divisive issue, but it seems that for the foreseeable future, masks are here to stay. Not long ago someone said to me, “Of late I have come to understand the grace of God more deeply and to rely on that grace more often in my dealings with other people.”
What if we thought of loving our neighbor like wearing a mask? That we carry love with us, and that love is the face we present to anyone and everyone in wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
Imagine the people you meet and the situations you face during the course of your days. For some of these, picture a sign that reads, “Love recommended here.” For some of these the sign will read, “Love is required.” Amen.