In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!


            Today we begin a three-part series of sermons under the banner, “Igniting

Ministry.”  The three parts will be today “Open Hearts,” next week “Open Minds.” And then the following week, “Open Doors.” The banner and the three part titles all come from a national United Methodist evangelism ministry, which have been seen on TV ads.

          It is my conviction that it is the Spirit of God that ignites ministry, and leads in ministry in the world. The question, the perennial question, the question the very beginning of time is, are we willing to be combustible?  Are we willing to be led by God’s Spirit? My conviction is that the Spirit of God has been leading us all along, attempting to ignite us in ministry from the very beginning. The question is, are willing participants?

          There are three sermons in this series, and there are three parts to today’s sermon. The first part is that God has an open heart. The witness of Scripture is that throughout history God is the prime mover. God acts and we react. The witness of scripture is God expresses God’s love in creation. The very first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created…”

          Why did God create? Because God wanted relationship. God wanted there to be other beings with whom to have a relationship. Creation comes into being out of the open heart of God. If God did not have an open heart, you and I would not be. Nothing would be.

          We see the open heart of God in the call of Abraham, who was a nobody until God found him and called him. We see the open heart of God in the call of Moses, who was a murderer, and who had escaped into the unknown, caring for the sheep of his father-in-law. God called him to be a great leader. We see the love of God in the gift of the Law that shows us how to live with God and how to live with each other.

          We see the gift of the love of God in the call of the judges, the kings, and the prophets in the history of Israel. We see the love of God, the open heart of God, embodied in Jesus, whom we call the Christ, our Messiah. Throughout the biblical account it is the open heart of God that is always leading and drawing us closer to God and closer to each other.

          John Wesley designed a crest. There is some debate amongst Methodist scholars as to whether he was trying to redesign the Wesley family crest, or designing a crest for the Methodist movement. I think he probably had both in mind. There are three symbols on the crest, but it’s the banner over the top that is most important. The banner over the top of the crest says, “God is Love.”  It was the foundational, theological belief that Wesley held in his heart. It is what moved him in his ministry and moved the Methodist movement. God is love. God has an open heart. It is where we begin.

          The second part is we are called to have an open heart towards God. In the Matthew passage this morning a lawyer tests Jesus. “What is the greatest law?” He has already answered that before in the Sermon on the Mount, but there he was with his friends, he was in church, he was with followers. Now he is with his foes.

          He answers again, and he answers in the same way. Jesus is consistent whether he is with friend or foe. He say to them, “The greatest law is, ‘You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” He is quoting the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:5, the foundational statement of the Jewish tradition, the very heart, the very orthodox core, of their belief. God is one, and we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

          Jesus says we are to have an open heart for God. The way we have an open heart for God is in prayer. It is prayer that opens us to God, so that we can receive from God and we can give to God. Each of us needs to listen to God. God speaks through the circumstances of our lives, particularly through the people around us. God speaks through scripture, and God speaks through that still small voice.

          The way we avail ourselves of those resources is through prayer. It is through prayerful listening to those around us, prayerful observance of the circumstances of our lives, prayer reading of the scripture, and prayerful listening to the still small voice. It is prayer first, last and always, that opens us to God.

          The third part of the sermon is that we are to open our hearts to those around us. Jesus, in answering the Pharisees question said, “The greatest law is, ‘You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ The second is like the first,” meaning it is equal to and inseparable from the first. “The second law is like the first, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

          Jesus is telling us one of the best ways that we open our hearts to God is to open our hearts to those around us. As Christians we open our hearts to others in prayer. We pray for those around us, we pray for our families, we pray for our fellow church members, we pray for our neighbors, we pray for those fellow workers at the office, and we pray for God’s world.

          The Apostle Paul, in writing the passage in the Book of Romans that we shared a few minutes ago, is trying to ignite that congregation for ministry. He is trying to do the same thing we are trying to do. If you read a few verses before and after that passage, you will see four assertions from Paul. First of all Paul says, “Don’t take the law into your own hands. Be subject to the ruling authorities.

          It’s a most interesting word because in Paul’s time, Nero was the ruling authority. Nero was the most corrupt and violent of all of the Roman emperors. Paul is saying be subject to the ruling authorities. He is not saying do everything Nero says to do. He is saying, though, don’t you punish those who disagree with you. Leave such actions to the civil law. Leave that to God’s will. If someone disagrees with you, just ignore him or her. If they seek to hurt you, push them away and go on about your way. Don’t seek to exert punishment on someone else. Leave that to an authority.

          The second thing he says is, “Live in the fullness of the Law. Owe no one anything except love, for love is the fulfillment of the Law.” The way we love is in prayer for those around us. Prayer is always the first action of a Christian person, and then loving acts follow out of prayer. We don’t try to exert punishment on someone else, but we love him or her.

          In his third assertion Paul says now is the time to do the loving. “The night is far spent, the day is here. Put off the works of darkness, and put on the full armor of light.” Now is the time for us to this loving.

          The fourth assertion is, “Don’t cause your brother and sister to stumble.” There were some in the Roman church who said, “I am a mature Christian. I can do a whole bunch of things and it won’t effect my faith.” Paul says, “I don’t care who you are. Be aware of your weaker brothers and sisters, and don’t do anything that will cause somebody else to stumble and lose faith. You may be the strongest Christian around, but your concern and you strength as a Christian ought to be for the weak members, those just beginning in the faith.”

          Paul is trying to ignite ministry. He shows us how to love those around us. Don’t try to punish anyone, love them, do it now, and be aware of the weak. Let me give you a couple of illustrations.

          There is a delightful video about the life of Mother Teresa. A part of the video is a story about a Hindu couple in Calcutta who went to visit Mother Teresa. They had just been married. They told her that according to their tradition, they were to have a grand wedding feast. They did not do that. They saved that money. They were to have special traditional wedding clothes. They did not do that. They wore the best clothes they had.

          From the money they saved from those two actions they presented a very significant check to Mother Teresa, along with these words: “We love each other so much we wanted to share our love with the people you serve.” Those are open hearts.

          An author by the name of Victor Merina wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times, entitled “The American Odyssey. It is an account of traveling by Greyhound from the west coast to the east. He wrote that in the middle of nowhere, in a little town, a sixteen-year-old girl got on the bus. She had her two-month-old baby on her hip. She sat in a vacant seat and placed the baby beside her, and then she began to play her Game Boy. Periodically she would reach over and pat the little boy on the tummy, but most of the time she spent playing her Game Boy.

          Merina said as night approached, the baby began to fuss. Soon a pattern developed. There would be some crying, and then a little patting. There would be some crying, and she would talk to him. There would be some crying, and she fed him. There would be some crying, and she would sing to him. There would be some crying, and she would respond in some way.

          Pretty soon the pattern changed. It was crying, had wanted to sleep, they wouldn’t have been able to, so loud was that little two-month-old baby. He said in the total darkness you could hear the mother’s voice getting more strident every time she tried to calm her child. The crying only got louder.

          Finally there was an outburst of profanity. Merina said immediately after that there was another voice. It was the voice of an older woman who had been seated in the back of the bus, who had made her way forward to stand beside the young mother. She identified herself as being a grandmother, and said, “May I hold the child?” The young mother eagerly handed her baby over. The grandmother alternately rocked the baby, and held him to her chest. She was a woman with heart.

          The baby stopped crying. The grandmother turned on the reading light, and she showed the young mother how to rock the baby and how to hold him to her chest, to her heart, and what to say. Then she told a couple of stories about how she also had been clumsy as a young mother so many years before. Victor Merina said it was then, for the first time, that they heard a teenager’s laugh on the bus. People of open hearts.

          How do we ignite ministry? How do we move ourselves into the movement of God’s Spirit in the world today? By knowing that God has an open heart for us. By opening our hearts to God, and opening our hearts to those around us. The author of the Gospel of Mark reminds us in his gospel that Jesus said, “It’s not what you put into your mouth, it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.”

          Nutritionists today would disagree with that first part. There are some things that we put in our mouths that defile us. But if we change the word “defile” to “define”, we can hear it this way: “It’s what comes out of our hearts that defines us.

          May prayers and loving acts be what comes out of our hearts. This is the call of Christian discipleship today, for us to open our hearts. As Paul said, now is the time.