Three People Donating Goods

Honoring the Poor

I delivered this sermon on March 18, 2012 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, NJ. It was part of a Lenten Series on what it means to be a Good Samaritan.

I like to think of myself as a pretty adaptable guy and a fairly quick learner. I embrace electronic gadgets. Why when VCRs came out I even learned to program them! But when we moved to New Jersey a couple of years ago and bought a new washer, I met my match. It was not sufficient to push all of the buttons in the right order, but you also had to have the wash in the right place to satisfy the sensors in the machine before it would start. I stood in front of the machine and was completely stumped. The machine had out-thought me. Fortunately my life coach, otherwise known as my wife Kathy, showed me how to start the thing. I concluded then that Life Has Become Too Complex!

I mean, try going into a coffee shop and just ordering a cup of coffee. You can’t just ask for a cup of coffee. Now you have to be an expert in the various coffee growing regions and beans before you can determine what kind of coffee you will order, as well as a multitude of sizes and additional features that are often expressed in foreign languages. And just trying to live a law-abiding life has become almost impossible. Lawyer Harvey Silverglate estimates in his book, Three Felonies a Day, that the average person unknowingly breaks at least three federal criminal laws every day. Add on to that the other misdemeanors and state and local laws and regulations and I guess we are all just one false step from jail! Life Has Become Too Complex!

And that complex legal environment was precisely the background to today’s scripture passage. The Jewish leaders and teachers, the Pharisees and Sadducees, had over time taken the covenant with God and developed from it over 600 distinct laws, with a multitude of interpretations. What they had created was a complex religious legal regime that the average person simply could not follow. They had defined the relationship with God in a manner so filled with rules that it permitted no reconciliation as a practical matter. Break the religious law and you were a sinner. Yet it was impossible to keep the law so all were sinners beyond redemption. It was into that web of complexity and hopelessness that Jesus stepped.

Our passage today is what is known as The Great Commandment, although it comprises at least two, and some say three, actual commands. It was the response Jesus had to a Pharisee legal expert who was trying to trap him. The complexity of the laws made the Pharisees think that in challenging Jesus to choose among the laws, or perhaps even better to disregard the law in favor of something new, he necessarily would become open to criticism. So you can imagine the hush that must have fallen over the crowd when the lawyer asked the question.

But Jesus rather chose directly from the law in Deuteronomy, and the daily bedrock recitation of Jewish life…the Shema, in emphasizing that we first and foremost must love God, and secondly, from Leviticus, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus reduced all of the complexity of the law down to these commands. We focus on the second today, but I cannot ignore the first entirely. For it is in loving God that we find the love for our neighbor. It is a life surrendered to Christ that becomes a life transformed by the Holy Spirit to be the loving face of Christ to those around us.

So we come to loving our neighbors. Now let’s be honest, that is a challenge. Jesus may have simplified the law through The Great Commandment, but he did not make following much easier. For it is just not our nature to think of others before ourselves. Me first. I have a place for God and my neighbors, but me first. If the complexity of Jewish law and our inability to keep the law demonstrated the sinfulness of humans, Jesus did the same. He could just have easily stated if you put yourself ahead of God and your neighbors you sin and are outside The Kingdom. Loving your neighbor as yourself, on your own, is just not easy.

So what does it mean to love your neighbor? Jesus gave us guidance in Matthew 25 when he described those who live in his kingdom as those who receive strangers, feed and clothe the poor, and care for the sick and those in prison. It is an active love. But perhaps the best guidance is in the commandment itself: love your neighbor as yourself. If you are hungry, you focus on getting something to eat. If you are cold, you look for a coat or sweater. Whatever your need, you make satisfying it your top priority. Well, Jesus says that if you love your neighbor you will make feeding your neighbor who needs fed, clothing your neighbor who needs clothed, or sheltering your neighbor who needs shelter as much a priority as your own food, clothing, and shelter.

But there is something more and it can be found in the title of this week’s Lenten Series: Honoring the Poor. For it is not sufficient just to contribute money, goods, or service to the poor and needy, although that is unquestionably important. Jesus challenges us to reach beyond their material disadvantages to their hearts and spirits. Loving your neighbor, honoring the poor, also is to give them respect. If you love yourself you treat yourself with respect. You honor yourself.

In our study, Mike Yankowski says that one of the most meaningful things you can do for the poor is just to notice them. Speak with them. Listen to their story. Dignify them as humans. Honor them. Doing so is the easiest thing to give. It does not cost you anything. No cash, little time. But how often have you crossed the street to avoid the panhandler. We may work in a soup kitchen, but from my experience more people want to prepare the food than serve the tables. If we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that a part of us needs to think that they are somehow different than us, or less than us. For if they are not different than us, then we might also become them.

This matter of perspective on the poor can dominate you even when on a mission trip, when you might think you are completely focused on serving the poor and needy. Even then, the act of service may become more important than the person being served. You can be so caught up in the service that you do not take time to connect with those being served.

I make this last point for I had an experience while serving on an Appalachian Service Project mission trip that had a profound impact on me as to what it means to honor the poor. I shared it with my small group and want to share it with you.

ASP emphasizes Mosey Mondays. Monday is your first day of service and you are supposed to go slow and take time to understand the project and get to know the people you serve. On my first trip though, I threw myself into the project and worked really hard that first Monday. On Tuesday, the man on whose house we were working brought a small craft for everyone. Each had the person’s name on it….except mine. He told me he was sorry, but that he had not talked with me yet and did not know my name. But I was the one who needed to apologize. I had been so focused on the act of service that I had missed what it means to really serve. I may have been serving the poor, but I did not honor him. I was giving, but lost the point that I was helping a living, breathing human being who needs more than anything else someone to care directly for him as a person.

Honoring the poor makes it personal. We may share our things, but when we give a person respect, we share our hearts. And Jesus lives in shared hearts. Jesus lives in a hand that touches to emphasize that you care. Jesus lives in the connections between us; the ties that bind. And it is the wonder of Christ that we all are enriched by the experience. For we each then see the face of Christ in the other. In that experience lays The Kingdom of God.

We may be living complex lives, but Jesus has simplified life in The Kingdom. He has distilled our mission to this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus knows that alone we will not love others completely. It is the love of God, first placed in our hearts in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that leads us to express that love to our neighbor. It is intertwined and inexorable. Love for your neighbor starts with love of God. When you have the love of Christ within you cannot contain it! It will reach out to your neighbor.

The Great Commandment begins in love and ends in love. The Great Commandment is simply to love. Love God. Love Christ. Love yourself. And love your neighbors. Give them respect and honor. For in honoring your neighbor, in honoring the poor, you honor God.



  1. Laura Stealey on April 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Great sermom Tom! I am convicted everytime I realize how far I need to go to love as Christ does. The following link was posted by a friend on FB this past week. Even though it was not written by a Christian, he makes a lot of good points.God must be needing me to pay attention to what it means to truly love others.
    Thanks for being His instrument!

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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