In this sermon, Rev. Murray preaches about love, specifically loving God. He recites the commandment: “Thou shall love the lord thy God, and obey every one of God’s commands.” He tells his congregation to “put first things first,” meaning to prioritize this first commandment of loving and obeying God. Part of loving God is receiving God’s love, but also expressing your love for God by obeying all of God’s commands.
During his 27 years as the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray transformed a small congregation into a megachurch that brought jobs, housing and corporate investment into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, FAME Renaissance, the economic development arm of the church, brought more than $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. Rev. Murray remains a vibrant force in the Los Angeles faith community through his leadership of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
The Murray Archive preserves Rev. Murray‘s sermons and interviews in order to inspire the next generation of pastors, activists and scholars.
Following is a lightly edited transcript of the above sermon. To quote from the sermon, please provide credit to: Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Murray Archives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“First Things First”
July 7, 2002
Somebody loves you this morning. Don’t you feel alone this morning. Somebody loves you. Somebody cares about you. When nobody else will care about you, God will love you.
One man wanted to get that message to the troops in battle, but he wasn’t allowed to go into the battle zone, so he goes to a shop that makes specialty objects. He says, “I want you to make 2,000 mirrors, small mirrors, three inches in diameter. In the back of each mirror, I want you to put John 3:16—For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. You know the words. Below it, I want you to put the words if you want to see who it is that God loves, if you want to see for whom God died, just turn the mirror. Turn the mirror on the other side.”
You and I are looking right now at who God loves. Because God loves you and me, it isn’t too much for God to command that you and I love God. Throw God a kiss and say I love you. I love you, Lord! I love the Lord. He heard my cry and pitied every woe. It’s not asking too much for you and me to love the Lord. Here in Deuteronomy 11, page 159 in your pew Bibles. Please take them out.
Deuteronomy 11, verse 1, the great commandment: “You must love the Lord your God and obey every one of God’s commands. This is the first and great commandment.” Everyone, say, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God.”
Congregation: Thou shall love the Lord they God!
With all thy heart.
Congregation: With all thy heart!
With all my soul.
Congregation: With all my soul!
And with all thy mind.
Congregation: And with all thy mind!
Say out loud, “I love you, Lord!”
Congregation: I love you, Lord!
This is the first commandment, so we’re gonna talk on the subject: first things. First, touch a neighbor on your left and tell them, “You must love!”
Congregation: You must love!
You must love. That’s the first thing we’re gonna talk about. You must love the Lord your God and obey every one of God’s commands. You must love. You may not find a lot of love in this world. Maybe there’s somebody here who keeps waiting for everybody to be loving. Maybe you joined the church expecting everybody in the church to be loving, but we got news for you. You won’t find love everywhere you go. Sometimes you won’t find love anywhere you go. You may not find it in the choir when you join. You may not find it among the ministers when you come in. You may not find love, but you gotta keep on searching.
You remember that song in the 60s? I’ve been a-searching every which way. I know I’ll find it home someday. You gotta keep on searching, children. The best way to find love, you know what it is? Well, a very wise man tells you and me this morning. Don’t close the door on love simply because you say it’s impossible to find love. Sisters, yes, your husband is in jeopardy, but somewhere God has your husband waiting. Don’t you give up on love. Don’t you get hard, cold and mean. Brother, that ideal woman who’s in your head that you keep searching every which way to find, don’t you give up on love. Don’t you close the door on love, because when you close the door on love, then you become a victim of hate.
The wise man says, “The quickest way to find love is to give love. The quickest way to lose love is to wrap love too tightly.” Some people expect too much out of love. Some people try to love you and love you and love you. Instead of loving you to life, they love you to death. Some people are like that man who told his wife on Monday, “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Now, let that do for the rest of the week.” Some of us just squeeze love too tight.
You must love. You must not dominate. You must love the Lord your God, and loving the Lord your God, you don’t command God what to do. When you bow at the altar, you just tell God your situation, like going to the doctor. You let Doctor Jesus fix up what’s wrong with you. If you were your own doctor, remember that a person who’s his own doctor has a fool for a patient. You don’t command God what to do, and God doesn’t command you what to do. God says, “I just offer you love, I expect love in return. I don’t demand love; I command love. I command love. I command that you put Me first.”
You say, “Well, what’s the difference between command and demand?” Well, when God demands something and you don’t deliver, you have had it. You end up as a greasy spot. You don’t want to get on God’s last nerve, do you? You don’t want to get on God’s nerves at all, because when God switches from command to demand, you and I are in trouble. The fiery gates of hell open up for us when God gets to the point of demand. God only demands after God has commanded and commanded and commanded, and you and I still don’t take the point. Then, God takes His hands off of us and lets us fall. When we fall, we fall into the fiery pits of hell, but when God commands, you are free to obey or to disobey.
God says, “I love you with everything I got. I love you so much that I give my only Son to you. I love you so much that I woke you up this morning. I love you so much that I hear you when you’re crying at midnight hour. I love you so much, so I command that you love Me.” How can God command love? How can God command somebody? Because love is an act of the will. Our Bible study students know that. Love is an act of the centered will. Love is secondarily an act of the emotion.
Sometimes we say to a person, “I love you,” when what we really mean is, “I lust you.” Hey, it’s an act of the emotion, but not an act of the will. When you will to love somebody that you don’t have to worry about remembering their birthday. They don’t have to worry about you remembering their birthday. When you will to love the Lord, the Lord doesn’t have to beg you for your tithe or beg you for your praise or beg you for witness or beg you for your testimony. It’s an act of the will. You and I have the capability and the will. You and I have the possibility. You and I have the capability. You and I have the accessibility. If only you and I can get the desirability to accept the responsibility, then God will accept the liability.
“You take the responsibility,” says God, “and I will take the liability. I’ll take care of you.” Of course, that takes a bit of integrity. You and I would rather lie than have the liability. We put the lie in liability. We go around saying, “I love the Lord. He heard my cry,” but the minute it’s time for you to cry, then you want to turn your back on the Lord and say, “The Lord let me down.” That’s the lie rather than the liability. Our responsibility is to come and bring your wounded heart.
Wounded warrior, God knows what you’re going through, because God suffered it on the cross with Himself, with His Son. God know what you’re going through, wounded warrior. All God wants you to do is let God accept the liability. You accept the responsibility. It’s easy. It’s easy to do the opposite. It’s easy to lie. It’s easy to pretend. It’s easy to put people down and say we’re telling the truth. Isn’t it easy to put people down? This man comes to Socrates and says, “Socrates, guess what I just heard about your friend?” Socrates said, “Wait, wait. Let’s first make sure it passes the filter test.” Everybody, say, “The filter test.”
Congregation: The filter test.
“What do you mean, Socrates?”
“Well, what you’re about to tell me, is it true?”
“Well, well. I don’t know. I just heard it through somebody else. I heard through the grapevine.”
You know the grapevine will mess up more people’s lives than any other kind of vine. Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” but it’s that grape vine. Is it true? The filter test.
Secondly, is it good? Is it good? You ought to bring some good news to your day, shouldn’t you? Don’t people get tired of bad news? I know it’s exciting. If I wasn’t for bad news, I wouldn’t have no news at all. Some of us just love bad news. We want to hear bad news. If it’s good news, keep it. If it’s bad news, bring it to me. Is it good news?
The third test is, is it useful? His friend says, “Well, I don’t know.” Socrates says, “If it is not true, if it is not good, if it is not useful, I don’t need to hear it.” I don’t need to hear it. Tap your neighbor on the right and remind them again: You must love!
Congregation: You must love!
Neighbor, turn back and tell them my second thought: You must obey!
Congregation: You must obey!
You must obey. Deuteronomy 11, verse 2. Listen: “I’m not talking to your children who’ve not experienced the Lord’s punishments or seen the Lord’s awesome power. They weren’t there to see the miracles God did in Egypt against Pharaoh and all his land. They didn’t see what God did to the armies of Egypt and to their horses and chariots, how He drowned them in the Red Sea as they were chasing you, and how the Lord has kept them powerless against you unto this very day. They didn’t see how the Lord cared for you time and again through all the years you were wandering in the wilderness until your arrival here. They weren’t there when Dathan and Abiram–the sons of Eliab, descendants of Reuben—sinned, and the earth opened up and swallowed them with their households and tents and all their belongings as all Israel watched.”
They weren’t there when God brought you out of Alabama and Georgia and South Carolina with a nickel in your pocket. They weren’t there when everybody used to call you nigger and wouldn’t let you be hired, wouldn’t let you walk in the restroom, wouldn’t let you eat in the dining room. They weren’t there when I said to Abraham Lincoln, “Let my people go.” They weren’t there when Martin Luther King says, “I have a dream.” They weren’t there when they didn’t go to college, and they sacrificed everything for you. They weren’t there.
You must obey. You must obey. There were 365 things you were to do in the law, 365 things to do. Two-hundred forty-eight things not to do. Then, they get reduced to ten commandments. Then Jesus comes along and reduces them to two commandments. Now, somebody here, name one commandment out of all those 100s that wasn’t designed for your very own good. Now, everybody here, name one commandment that you haven’t broken.
Remember that woman in the post office mailing a Bible to her sister, mailing a Bible? The clerk shakes it and says, “Anything breakable in here?” She says, “Only the ten commandments.” Intended for your good. Moses breaks to tablets. Moses breaks the tablets. He’s coming down from the mountain, holding the law that God has given him, holding the commandments that God has given him. When he looks down, Lord have mercy, they are getting down, having a party, worshiping the gods of Baal, worshiping Las Vegas, worshiping the casinos, worshiping booze, worshiping illicit sex, worshiping to insult their parents. Look at them. In his anger, Moses breaks the tablets.
“We can understand Moses,” says the Deuteronomist. We can understand the people idling when they should have been in worship, because they hadn’t been around long. You and I have been around 3,500 years. Aren’t you getting a little old for this? You and I know we supposed to love. Why are you doing all that hate? Why are you imitating them brothers on the billboards doing hip-hop? Why are you going around trying to depress and impress somebody instead of just being yourself? When somebody says good morning to you, why can’t you say good morning to you? When somebody says I’m happy to see you, why can’t you say I’m happy to see you? Why do you need a law to tell you to love? Why do you need a law to tell you to love?
Some of us are robots. Turn right. Turn left. Put your clothes on. Go to church. Sit up like a robot. Don’t say nothing. Leave church. Go home. Stop by Sizzlers. Eat the same thing you’ve been eating for 20 years.
You must obey. This radio says, “Tomorrow we shall have three to four inches of snow here in Chicago. Please move your cars to the odd numbered side of the street.” She gets up and moves her car to the odd numbered side of the street. A week later, “We’re expected four to five inches of snow tomorrow… Today, please move your car to the even numbered side of the street.” She gets up and moves her car to the even numbered side of the street. Two weeks later, “We are expected 10 to 12 inches in snow today. Please move…” The electricity goes off. She turns to her husband, “Oh, I don’t know what to do now!”
“Baby, why not just leave your car in the garage this time?”
You must obey. We got a few more minutes to talk to that third item. Everybody, say, “You must prosper.”
Congregation: You must prosper!
If you need God’s guarantee to it, all you have to do is look at Exodus 20, verse 6: “Showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments, you shall prosper.”
You shall go from renting to owning. You shall go from a bare-bones budget to a comfortable budget. You shall go from being alone to having company. I am there with you. You shall prosper.
In Egypt, they had to wait for the Nile River to overflow to have water. When the Nile River overflows, we take buckets and containers. We haul the water to wells and to cisterns. There, we establish water wheels. We paddle them. Our mud was covering us up to our knees. Since we work so hard, we could say, “Well, my goodness. We did it our way. We made it our way. I’m where I am because of my own industry when we were in Egypt,” but in this land I’m about the send you, the rain is plentiful. It rains in the autumn when you plant the crop. It rains in the spring, when you harvest in June. Therefore, you can’t say I did it my way.
You got to say, “God did it for me. God sends His rain. God sends His rain upon the good and the evil alike, but God is hoping… God is hoping that you and I will love the Lord, that you and I will love the Lord, that you and I will trust the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to trust in the Lord. I’m gonna trust in the Lord. I’m gonna work, fight and pray. I’m gonna treat everybody right. I’m gonna stay on the battlefield. I’m gonna love the Lord. Stand to your feet!