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A special message everyone needs to hear on Valentine's Day

A special message everyone needs to hear on Valentine's Day


This is the text of the well-received sermon Bishop Tom Berlin gave at his installation service on January 28 in Lakeland. It is about the two great commandments: Love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

There is a road that leads to the home where I have spent the last 25 years. Just before you turn on the street where we lived, there was another street sign. You have to look carefully, or you will miss it. It reads, “Loveless Lane.”

There is only one house back there. I have often thought about that street name. I wonder if, originally, there was a family there whose last name was Loveless. But currently, the Loveless family does not live in the house on Loveless Lane, so the name feels foreboding.

(My wife) Karen and I have been looking for a house here in Lakeland. We have always been in a parsonage, so we have been looking at a lot of houses. It is difficult. I like this, but I don’t like that. That room is too large, this one too small. I’ve become Goldilocks.

Bishop Berlin with the Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin (FLUMC photo)

Thinking of the old neighborhood, I have wondered, “would I disqualify a house if it was located on Loveless Lane?” Would I tell our realtor, “No, thank you? Keep on driving.” Does writing Loveless Lane on every address line hurt your marriage? Do your kids feel insecure when they grow up on Loveless Lane?

Do you know what worries me? All around the world, lots of people find themselves on Loveless Lane. In one form or another, that road is in every county, town, and city. Some have lived on Loveless Lane for generations. In a variety of ways, they have been:

• left behind
• put down
• passed by
• overlooked
• underappreciated
• given the runaround
• worked against
• kicked out

Loveless Lane is not just a starter home for some people.

Some of this is so deep that it is woven into the fabric of this state and our nation. We are mindful of the 100th Anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre, which happened in Levy County in Northwest Florida back in January 1923. Rosewood was a community of over 200 Black citizens who were landowners, farmers, and people who had skilled jobs at a sawmill.

The trouble began when a white woman claimed to have been assaulted by a Black man. When a White mob poured into Rosewood, homes, businesses, and even a church were burned to the ground. Farms destroyed. People murdered.

In one day, a vital and prosperous community was wiped out. Families lost economic gains of land and property secured by hard work, careful spending, and wise investment that would have been passed from one generation to another to secure their future. In a day, it was gone. 

Talk about Loveless Lane. It was 71 years later, in 1994, before Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a bill to compensate survivors and their descendants with financial payments and offer the Rosewood scholarships for higher education.

Bishop Berlin notes that "Loveless Lane is pervasive. It can be found in premier neighborhoods and in places that time left behind." (FLUMC photo)

Seventy-one years.

Until we figure out how our past will not be our present, until we work to undo the systems of injustice, we will find Loveless Lane getting longer and longer, more and more people taking up residence. 

Loveless Lane is pervasive. It can be found in premier neighborhoods and in places that time left behind. You may not see the words on the map. GPS may not be able to locate it but keep your eyes open, and you will see the signs. All ages can take up residence there.

Children who are neglected. Students who are struggling and adults who can’t find community. Elderly people sit for hours with little stimulation and no visitors on Loveless Lane. The list of problems people face on Loveless Lane is long: mental health issues, food scarcity, and a lack of housing. People there are spiritually lost. They do not know that God loves them, and often they don’t know how to love others or even themselves.

Here is a secret: Loveless Lane is a mission field. It is not the place to avoid. It is the place where Jesus goes and expects us to follow. He is out in front of us, waiting for us to catch up. He sends each of us individually and all of us collectively as the church with good news: because the Lord first loved us, we see you. We care about you. You are loved, and you are not alone. 

That is what this text in Mark’s gospel is about. Some Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus with questions.

They were trying to trip him up, asking whether they should pay taxes to Rome and what to expect in the resurrection. A scribe, noting Jesus handled the answers well, was impressed. This scribe asked the question that is at the heart of what it means to be a person of authentic faith in God: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus answered with a text that is commonly called the Shema. It is Deuteronomy 6:4-5: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

Then, before anyone can say another word, Jesus does that thing he does sometimes. He slips something in. 

“The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

That is from Leviticus 19:18

I read a bible commentary by Amanda Brobst-Renaud. She observed something I never saw in this text. She said that when Jesus yoked these two commandments into one, he pulled the Ten Commandments together. When you consider the Ten Commandments, the first five focus on our relationship with God.

The last five relate to our relationship with others. Some people want to talk about how much they love God but might still bear false witness, telling stories that are untrue about other people. When Jesus joins these two commandments as one, he calls us to a greater righteousness. He calls us to discover the power that flows through our lives when we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Mark wrote his gospel sometime around 66-70, just before the Jewish-Roman war that destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. It was an anxious time. People could feel the tension. Jewish people were very divided and were fighting with each other inside Jerusalem as the Roman army assembled itself outside the city walls. We don’t know the exact year when Mark recorded his gospel, but it would have been a time of fear and disruption.

Mark wants to make sure that the early Christians, who would have been a small minority of these Jewish people, had a focal point. Mark tells them to remember how Jesus gave them this great commandment to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as yourself.”

We are in an anxious time at The Florida Conference. It is the year of disaffiliation, when some former colleagues and churches are choosing to leave our connection. It is the year of the hurricanes that impacted our communities – not once but twice. Last year, there was the disappointment of 16 individuals who hoped to be commissioned as provisional elders and deacons and all who supported them.

It left some hard feelings. We are also seeing how the pandemic impacted our worshipping congregations. We are all trying to see what is next in an uncertain future. On top of that, you got a new bishop.

I wish I could, after 28 days, unfold a vision statement or a great organizational plan, or at least a flashy slogan for the future. Instead, I remind you of this great commandment.

The smartest and best thing we can do right now is to let Jesus’s commandment to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves inform every aspect of our ministry. 

As I have been driving around this month getting to know some of the clergy and laity of our districts, I can tell you who is not being shut down by anxiety and uncertainty: those who are focused on love.

A man told me a story in my first week here. He was drunk on the side of the road. A car drove by and stopped. A man got out to check on him. It was one of our pastors. It is like the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the priest actually cares for the man on the side of the road.

Now the man comes to dinner church. People know his name. He has friends who care about him. He is doing alright. As he told me the story, he kept pointing at the pastor with such joy that someone cared about him. 

That church changed his street sign. Loveless Lane has become Lover’s Lane. You know we have a church in Dallas called Lover’s Lane UMC?  My friend Stan Copeland is the pastor there. I drove past the sign while I was at the New Bishop’s Orientation. What if we all focused on love so much that we changed the street signs in people’s lives?

What if every one of our churches became Lover’s Lane?

This week I went to a church led by one of our clergy couples. Members told me that the church had been in a state of decline for years. Then, a few years back, they started welcoming the community inside their doors. First, it was a group that needed a kitchen to feed people who were homeless. Then they opened a nonprofit center in an unused portion of the building.

The morning I was there, I sat next to one of the pastors in a service they call Joy Street, where young adults with differing abilities gathered to worship. She was so joyful to see these friends gather and participate. The laity of that church was just so joyful when they talked about the life that was in their congregation. You could feel something in the space. There was an energy, a power. It was love for God, love for each other, and love for their neighbors. 

I was at a small church in a neighborhood hard hit by rising food prices and the high cost of housing. There were a couple of hundred people lined up in front of the church, waiting to receive food. This congregation used its sanctuary as a food distribution center. They took the pews out so that they could set up tables.

A woman named Angel wore a shirt that read “FAITH SERVES.” She stood next to a sign above the sanctuary door that read “Come Unto Me.” You know that text, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

People were walking out with fresh produce, a loaf of bread, canned goods, and frozen tenderloin. They walked in weary and walked out lighter and more joyful. It was love.

I could tell you about the work of Hope Partnership with transitional housing and trauma care, which is amazing. I could introduce you to the pastor who survived the bigotry and racism of church members who rejected him but who still offers love to everyone every day. He preaches the gospel. He leads bible studies. He reaches people in a community whose racial demographics have changed quickly. 

I could take you to the laity and clergy who have lost much to the hurricane season but who serve their communities in abundance even in a time of scarcity. I saw church after church offer hope and life and love in the name of Jesus Christ.

I will tell you who is not huddled in anxiety, who is not cynical, who is not angry at people around them: the people of our church who just get up every day and love, love, love. It is all Jesus asks of us and all he longs for us to receive. It is a great commandment because God uses it to sanctify our lives and make us holy in ways we would never be otherwise. 

We begin to experience the glory of God in the love we offer and the love we receive in turn. 

1. Love the Lord your God. Focus on your spiritual life. Turn to the scripture, to prayer, to the sacraments, to worship, to silence, to contemplation, and to the spiritual disciplines that take us into the circle of God’s love for us.

2. Love your neighbor.

a. Start with your United Methodist neighbor. There are relationships that need healing in this Conference, and only you can do that work. No bishop can do it for you even though I am trying to do it too. I want people, whether they are more progressive or more traditional, straight or gay, persons of all ethnicities and colors and abilities to know: YOU ARE LOVED. We care for you. We need you. Reach out to the people you stopped talking to who are still in the United Methodist Church and tell them you love them.

b. Love your community. Love people in your community enough to tell them about Jesus’s way and the love God has for them. Invite them into your congregation and then treat them as honored guests. Do good well. Partner with organizations that are making a difference and you will offer love freely and with joy.

3. Love yourself as God loves you. When you get weary, when harm comes your way, or crisis comes to those you love, just stop and be kind to yourself. I recall a season when I was serving a church, and I felt worn out. I went into the sanctuary to pray. I said, “Lord, send someone else here. I know you love these people, and I have nothing else to offer.” I felt the Lord say to me, “Tom, I love you too. I love you too.” I promise you this: God loves you.

1 John 4:19-21: “We love because God first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

Amen! Amen! And amen!

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