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I’ve been thinking about Core Values recently as I prepare a four week sermon series on the topic for the church I serve.

It can be a challenge to identify the Core Values of a group of people like a congregation, because people bring their own hierarchy of individual values into community with them. Still, every effective group or organization has Core Values that can be clearly identified by observing what they do. Think Sierra Club or the United States Army and you have a good idea of who they are and what values guide them based on what they do.

Likewise, every effective Christian congregation has clear Core Values that keep us on the same page as we seek to be the people God needs us to be for the sake of the world.

Even if you don’t belong to a church or believe in the church, I hope you’ll bear with me as I share why Core Values are important.

Core Values are like guiding principles that never change. As a child I learned the importance of telling the truth. When I was caught in a lie, I soon understood that I had betrayed the Core Values of my family. It wasn’t even spoken. I just knew, and that “knowing” and those “feelings” were punishment enough for me to think twice the next time I thought I could do an end run around the truth.

Core Values are like DNA – they identify what is unique about you and tell the story of who you are. Each person has a story and each church has a story.

Sometimes there are portions of our story we would rather not tell, because they are not as positive as the rest of the story. I served a church once that was approaching a significant anniversary and a member was asked to compose a history booklet. When he brought me the final draft to review, I noticed that it mentioned an episode in the life of the church that had been divisive and painful. Even as I said out loud to him, “Does this have to be in here?” I knew he was right to include it as part of our story. Even seemingly negative details shine a light on what the real Core Values are.

Before I go on too long and lose you, let me say that people have generally understood the Christian faith to be a matter of professing a set of beliefs in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But Christianity is so much more than a belief system. Beliefs only take people so far and then they crumble under the weight of human experience – the sorrows, disappointments, and heartaches of this shared human life.

To be Christian is primarily to be a follower of Jesus – that is, to have Jesus guide you in the way that leads to deeper trust in God and deeper compassion for your neighbor (and yourself). This is about movement, about action, about choosing to align your life with God’s Realm of blessing and life. It goes beyond mere belief to a place of growing trust in the goodness and grace of God.

When Jesus was asked which commandment is the greatest, he answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-39).

Jesus’ way is the way of love!

Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself!

Following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus, means learning to love with the same kind of reckless abandon as Jesus did, who ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, and a variety of other sinners – maybe even wealthy politicians!

“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven,” according to Bishop Desmond Tutu. “God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

If heaven is not some distant destination in the future but rather the Realm where love reigns, then it is a reality toward which we dream and pray and act in this life.

Someone has said that heaven is where there is room for all God’s children at the table, a place where nothing’s broken and no one’s missing!

Heaven is the Realm where love of God and neighbor and self flow together in healing, restorative and life-giving ways! We get glimpses of it in this life if we have eyes to see.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw glimpses of it. He had eyes to see a world where love would conquer indifference, cruelty and hate. He had the strength to persevere in the long, hard work of justice and peace because he knew that in the Realm of God’s love the table is spread and all people are welcome. Dr. King once said, “Human progress … comes through the tireless efforts of those willing to be co-workers with God.”

I intend to start with this extravagant God-inspired servant love as I consider the Core Values of the Christian community I serve, and God only knows where it will lead!