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"Tony Robinson is one of the most active church leaders in the United States, greatly in demand as he teaches congregations and denominations about church life. His work has a deep theological underpinning, which many congregational-development gurus don't have."

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author of The Gospel and the New York Times and And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

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Greatest Commandment

Recently Linda and I worshipped with a congregation I had served as pastor and teacher from 1977 to 1981. They were celebrating their 120th anniversary and I was asked if I would say a few words.

This was my first church after seminary. When we arrived the congregation was deeply and painfully divided -- the first several months were tough. But in time it became a really wonderful experience. We built a new building, sponsored a Hmong refugee family, played a positive role in a painful school strike in the community, and enjoyed rich relationships as our family grew.

In my remarks I congratulated the congregation on its anniversary and thanked them for the church’s role in my life, which I summarized as “teaching me to love ministry.” I really did come to love ministry in this first church. Sometimes I wonder how our lives would have been different had we stayed there longer. As it was, a church in Honolulu (Linda’s city of birth and raising) came calling and we answered.

I also tried, in my brief remarks, to describe to that congregation what I had experienced as its particular “genius.” I’ve had the notion for a long time that different congregations each have a particular “genius” or gift to contribute to the world and larger church.

I told the congregation (mostly, but not entirely, different people from when I was there 35 years before) that their genius was their combination of deep piety and involvement in the wider community. Then, lest that sound too abstract, I said another way to put that would be to say, “You love the Lord and you love your neighbors.”

That of course is Jesus’ answer when asked, “What is the greatest commandment of all?” “It is,” he said, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” This is also a kind of precis of the Ten Commandments, the first half of which are about love of God, the second about love of neighbor.

Some congregations are really great on the “love the Lord” part with lots of praise and prayer and “loving the Lord.” But they may not be that great about loving actual other people: neighbors, particularly those neighbors who are different than they are.

Other congregations are really great about “loving the neighbor,” doing lots of service work, always asking for donations or volunteers for this or that cause or need. But they may not be very big on relationship with God/ Christ/ Holy Spirit. “Loving the Lord” gets soft-pedaled, if pedaled at all.

This small town congregation had seemed to me to hold the two sides of the great commandment together. And I wanted them to know that and to remember it. As ordinary as it seems, the combination is really quite lovely and extraordinary.


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