Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Serious and not Serious
Text: Luke 1:26–38, 47–55
These are serious times. We are dealing with serious issues. There are many dark places in the life of this world. Things are not working out as we thought they would. Our confidence is shaky, and enemies of spirit seem to surround us.
But we are not the first to find our present circumstances worrisome and our future uncertain. It was so when the angel Gabriel visited young Mary, at first so perplexing her, and in the end thrilling her. She would be the mother of a new age, a new kingdom. Occupied by Rome, oppressed, and maltreated, the people of Israel would be saved, freed, restored under God’s favor. Through Mary and her son.
Mary was not the first, either. Mary’s song is a hair’s breadth away from a copyright violation of the song of Hannah in the first book of Samuel, and it echoes the songs of Miriam (in Exodus) and of Deborah (in Judges). All women who saw and praised a new coming of God that would bring about God’s kingdom. A resetting of the world to conform to God’s design, which means not only power to Israel, but more importantly a world of compassion and justice for all people—men and women, rich and poor, family and alien. A new thing, but not a new new thing. For all, these were times—like ours—times of change hoped for. Serious times.
Theologians debate: who was Mary? Was she extraordinarily pure and good, and for that reason chosen by God to bear and then mother Jesus? Or was she ordinary, and chosen not in spite of but because of that? Are we to be amazed that a flawless person like Mary existed or instead that God would chose any old Mary to bring God to human birth?
Mary is called as a prophet is called. Surprised, at first frightened. Wondering, as all prophets do, why me? Astounded not that a king would be born (that astonishment would come later), but that God would come to her for anything. She is nonplussed by the messenger before she even hears the message. Greetings, favored one!—that is all Gabriel says. Why would God favor her in anything—she, of all the people in the world, she who has nothing.
Surprised, frightened, eventually obedient. Saying yes without knowing—how could she know—what she was getting into. Hard enough to be a mother at all, harder still—painful, it turned out—to be the mother of the restorer of the world. Here I am, Lord, says Mary, the same answer of all those who become prophets, hearing God’s call. Here I am, say the prophets. All ordinary people in hard times delivering God’s message.
The song we just sang, Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, is a song of praise for things to come, but mysteriously wrapped in sentences written as if they had already happened. The grammar reminds us that Mary’s hopes are not for some far-off spiritual future but about the present state of the world, hers and ours.
As all prophets do, Mary reminds us how the world should be. Her verbs are strong, simple, clear. God scatters the arrogant (the King James version says “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” making us think that they only imagine they have something to be proud of). God brings down the mighty, the rulers and leaders in power. God raises up the lowly, the oppressed, the humiliated. The rich are sent away with empty pockets. God feeds the hungry.
Yet here we are, two thousand years later. Where people still go hungry, and the rich still prosper, and the poor remain poor, and the powerful continue to consolidate their power, and are proud of it. We have just sung Mary’s song with energy and feeling. Yet is Mary’s song good news to all? Do the proud and the humble, the hungry and the well-satisfied, hear this song in the same way? Do we hear it as prophecy—or as sentimentality? It is exciting, but can it be real? Does it call us to action, and if so, what kind of action?
My spirit rejoices, sings Mary, who has invited people for centuries to join her in joy. And mostly we accept that invitation. Rich and poor alike. Why is that, when Mary seems to talk about winners and losers. Why aren’t the rich afraid, or at least embarrassed. Why aren’t the poor in despair, or at least annoyed. The song threatens and promises. And different fates for different people.
Yet all celebrate with Mary. Why is that? Partly it is because the song is about Jesus, whom we revere and follow. And partly it is because the inequalities that benefit some and deprive others make all, or almost all, uncomfortable. The promise of Jesus, as you have heard me say before, is not to swap power centers like political parties do when one gets control of Congress, but to change the relationship between people from up and down to horizontal. What would the world be like if that came about? A good world, many would say.
But mostly we all celebrate because we are pleased to remember that God is effective, that God can effect this world. Sadly, it is easy to think cynically that God cannot change things. To think that the stuff Mary sings about is not possible. But this song has the power to thrill us because we remember that it is possible. Mary is filled with enthusiasm. Nothing is impossible with God, the angel says. And when we sing this song, we feel that to be so. Hooray for Jesus, the song says. And hooray for the world, it says. But mostly, hooray for Mary’s proclamation that Jesus can seriously change the world.
My spirit rejoices in God my savior, sings Mary. She dances and sings, which is what the word means here. The times are serious, but not solemn. We can rejoice in God’s wish and power to heal the broken world. My spirit dances and sings.
There is a power behind the words of this song. It is the power of God to use us—to bless us—to make the world better for everyone. To restore justice, to live in peace, to care for each other. And the power of God to change the world, to save it from serious problems, to heal it, to restore it.
To take us from who we are now to whom we might become, and to be who God has called us to be.
To Be Found at Peace
Text: Mark 1:1-8 Other texts: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
The beginning. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, writes Mark. First verse, first chapter, in the first of the four Gospels to be written.
Except that it is not the beginning. It is not the beginning at all. The good news starts long before. We know that Mark knows that, because by his reckoning in the next verse, it begins at least as far back as Isaiah, five hundred years earlier. And in Matthew’s Gospel it begins with Abraham. And it John’s Gospel it begins with the creation of the universe.
Mark’s Gospel, more than the others, is like a video clip of a much longer film. There is no baby Jesus in Mark, no genealogy to prove pedigree, no cosmic stage setting, hardly a preface at all. Here is Jesus, Mark says, all grown up and doing great things. Healing people, and teaching them. And at the end, the other end, at the Easter end, the story ends with an empty tomb, and that’s all. No post-resurrection appearances, no sending out of the disciples into the world, no final words. Just: stop.
The story of the good news in Mark is a snippet. It is a middle piece of the story that is not only the life of Jesus, but the story of the life of the world. By starting in the middle, Mark makes us aware that this episode of Jesus is part of a much larger cosmic story that goes from creation to the end of time.
The story of Jesus is part of salvation history, a churchy phrase that means the history of God’s hand in the affairs of our own human, earth-bound existence. This short and intimate view (the life of the person Jesus here) inside a long and boundless view (the life of the universe) is a distinguishing (though not exclusive) mark of Christianity. Our faith seems to have two ends, represented physically in the Bible, starting with the creation story (another “in the beginning…”) and ending with the new city of light in Revelation. And for some people, these end points are the main points. Creation and the end of time are what it is all about. Even in the story of the life of Jesus the highlights seem to be the beginning—the birth of Jesus at Christmas—and the end—the passion of Christ at Easter.
Yet for all our interests in milestone events, our faith is not primarily one of originations and destinations. Christianity, just like our lives, is certainly full of events and celebrations. But they are signs of a deeper, longer, more satisfying story. Most of our lives, our lives in the world and our lives of faith, are lived in the boring middle, the day to day, the ordinary. When you get on the Mass Pike and it says that you are heading to Natick and Albany, it does not mean that those two ends are the whole trip. Or in the west, when you leave Lincoln, Nebraska and the sign says Denver, 486 miles, it does not mean that there is nothing in between; there is a lot of driving ahead of you.
The markers in our lives are prominent, but they themselves are not the story. We do not live in birth and death, we live in between them. Our lives are full of what seem to be key events. Our children are born, we start school, we marry, we begin new jobs. Momentous beginnings. People we love die, relationships are broken, we are laid off, we lose our fortunes. Discouraging endings. Yet just listing those events tells us little about the richness, the beauty, the suffering that make up most of our hours. It is in these hours which Jesus spends most of his time, in all the Gospels. It is these hours that are filled by our faith and our life as followers of Jesus. These hours are the ones that bring us together in community to pray and worship and eat together.
The lives of many of us here are full of transitions Beginnings and endings all smashed together, it sometimes seems. But though we often characterize the transition by an event—I’m graduating, getting married, moving to Houston, retiring—the transition is in fact the time between. It is all the time except the event, the time around the event. Getting married, say, marks a new part of one’s life. But the transition from friend to spouse started long before and carries on long after the wedding.
In every transition we are leaving something and going somewhere at the same time, and over time. We grieve for the past, whether or not we are pleased to be leaving it. We are anxious about the future, whether it saddens or excites us. What was is known, for good or ill. What will be is a discovery, for good or ill.
The prophet Isaiah joins with Peter in today’s readings to remind us that in the scheme of things we are tiny, fragile, ignorant, and short-lived. People are like grass, the prophet writes, our constancy is like the flowers of the field. We owe our brief lives to God. Peter tells his readers that what is long for us is a moment for God. What seems to be a thousand years to us is as a day to God. We live briefly in a much longer and more vast story, the story of the universe and salvation history. In the end, says Isaiah, God comes to restore the world. In the end, says Peter, all things are to be dissolved (a word which means they will all loose their moorings; things fall apart).
In neither case is this news meant to discourage us or to make us feel that our lives are insignificant. On the contrary, it is to make us think about how we will live in the in-between time. How will our lives go now, while the universe from which we come is here, while we are here, involved between our own beginnings and endings?
What sort of person, asks Peter, ought you to be? While you are waiting, he says, don’t worry so much about what you are waiting for, but how you will wait. Do not be anxious about the future, and do not regret the past.
Peter says to strive to be at peace when God comes upon us. We search for peace. Where can we find it? We look for it in security, in certainty, in keeping control of things. We look for it in power and righteousness. It is not there, Peter says. It is in knowing that our story, though finite, is part of a much larger one, that our story is part of God’s.
We do not exist without God, but God’s story is in part made up of our own. Our stories are strands that are woven into the braid that is the story of God. That story stands forever, Isaiah says. It begins at creation and goes to the end of time, and and each of us is forever part of it.
You Don't Miss the Water Until the Well Runs Dry
Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
Advent, as you’ve heard, is a time for reflection. It begins as we ponder where we are in our lives and in the scheme of things. It is in that way like Lent. It starts that way, in any case. But though the church knows that all of Advent is supposed to be time of preparation, it cannot resist getting excited toward the end, as we approach Christmas. It is not surprising. As we think about what was, we naturally wonder what will be and how it will be different. At the beginning is now. At the end is Christmas. Advent is a fast ride from sober reflection to the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God, Emmanuel, meaning God is with us.
Emmanuel—God with us—is how it ends. Hooray for that. But that is not how things start. It is great to celebrate God’s presence. But sometimes God does not seem present at all. Sometimes God seems far away. Or vague. Or invisible. Or hard of hearing. Sometimes we feel alone. A friend of mine, who is going through a rough patch these days, says it feels like God is here, but a couple of states away. Like a friend who moved to the other coast. Or maybe it was you who moved.
The passage we heard from Isaiah this morning is called a lament. Laments are a proclamation about pain being suffered combined with a call for God’s intervention. Things are not good right now, God, and we’d wish you would do something about it. Laments are common in the psalms, which is one reason they are so appealing to people in daily life. A good chunk of many people’s lives is enduring pain (physical, emotional, or psychic) and a deep wish that God would come fix things soon.
It is this situation that prompts Mark to include this “end of the world” speech of Jesus. It speaks about suffering now (Israel was occupied by the Romans and the people oppressed) and suffering yet to come (about which Jesus has just told his disciples), but with the assurance that God will come soon (before this generation passes away).
Isaiah talks about the same thing, but usefully also talks about how hard it is to wait on God when you are in trouble, and the thoughts that you might have as you are cooling your heels hopefully.
This passage in Isaiah was written in a time that was supposed to be great, but wasn’t. All of Isaiah covers a period of about two hundred years, during which the Israelites are taken out of their land into exile. But by the end of the book, they are back home, hoping that all will be restored to the good old days when Israel was strong and righteous. But it seems it is not happening. Things are not working out. The prophet calls out to God. Complaining, explaining, and seeking God’s help. As with someone whose relationship is in trouble, his remarks reveal conflicting and powerful emotions. They go like this: you (God) were great. But now we are not so sure. You got angry. Ok, we messed up a little. But it is your fault; you made us do it, or at least let us.
The prophet starts by remembering how great God was. How powerful and good. How awesome. How God did surprising things. The presence of God is revealed to us, sometimes in astonishing and sudden ways, and sometimes we are overwhelmed. We turn our hearts and attention to God. No eye has seen any God besides you, Isaiah says.
Yet now, for some reason, we are estranged, Isaiah says. You are angry, God. You must be, since nothing is turning out right. Where are you? Where are the golden days, the sweet days? Where is the God in whom we put our hopes and trust?
Now it is true, admits Isaiah, that we maybe had something to do with this situation. We sinned. Against others and against you. We did stuff that we knew was not good and that would hurt you. We are a little ashamed, he says.
But really, God, he goes on to say, it is all your fault. Because you hid yourself, Isaiah says, we transgressed. We cannot be good without you. Our goodness comes from you. You left us in the lurch, in the muck by ourselves. We are lost without you, and you did not come to save us.
Yet Isaiah does not despair, does not give up on God, resigned to live alone, without God. Rather, he asks that the relationship between God and people be restored. Do not remember our sins, he pleads. Can we start again?
We are joined to God not by our goodness, and we are estranged from God not by our faults. We are joined to God not by what we do but by who we are. We are God’s creatures. God is the potter, Isaiah says, and we are the clay. We bear the mark of God’s hands, and our form is the result of the imagination of God. Our longing for God to be near, and the feeling at times that God is not, is a result of our connection to God, even when it feels like God lives in some other part of the country.
There is for sure a wish in these passage for God to come and fix things. My friend I mentioned earlier would of course like to have all the bad things in his life repaired. But he does not expect that to happen, really. That is not what bothers him. What worries and saddens him is that he feels alone, that God is not there with him, that God is far away. The fixing, though needed and welcome, is superficial. He wants God back.
There is a deeper longing to feel God near us. To be made whole by God’s presence. We are all God’s people, Isaiah says. God is our being. In Advent we, along with Isaiah, recall our past relationship with God, and wonder about the present, and look with hope to the future for Emmanuel, God with us.
In Our Time
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
There are four names for this Sunday. It perhaps is a sign of confusion in the church about the nature of Jesus. Or perhaps more true to say that it is a sign of the many natures of Jesus.
First, today is the last day of Pentecost, the last day of the church year, and the end of the days of ordinary time in the church calendar. It is the day we turn our churchly thoughts to special seasons of prayerful reflection, like Advent, and of celebration, like Christmas.
Today is also called Christ the King Sunday, always this last Pentecost Sunday. This man Jesus who has been living with us and teaching us in sermons and in parables all summer long, is revealed today to be one with the king of the universe.
Today is also called the Realm of Christ Sunday. Jesus brings a new world, a new way of being, to this ordinary world of joy and suffering.
And today is also called Judgment Sunday, reflecting the scene just painted for us by Matthew, in which distinctions are made and actions judged.
This story in Matthew is a parable. It, like the others that precede it in the Gospel, teaches us about what it means to follow Jesus. But it is no ordinary parable. It is the last parable in Matthew, and these words are the last public teachings of Jesus before he goes to his death. In that sense, they sum up or at least add an exclamation point to the stories in Matthew of Jesus’ ministry. It is as if Jesus were saying to his disciples—and as always therefore to us as well—as if Jesus were saying: if you remember none of what I’ve told you, at least remember this. Remember this story.
The different names of the days of this Sunday reflect different interpretations of the parable.
If it is the day of the king, then we have to ask: what kind of king is Jesus? If you are any other king or ruler, the answer is that Jesus is a scary kind of king. Jesus preached about sovereignty that overrode national and ethnic sovereignty. People’s loyalty to God overrode their loyalty to others, and their obedience was to God before others. To God, and not to other kings, or institutions, or even to family. There are many things that demand our loyalty and obedience, but if we honor Christ as king, then those other things are impostors. Charlatan leaders. On this day especially, we reject them. They are not the boss of you. Christ is.
If it is the day of the Realm of Christ, then we have to ask: what kind of world would it be if Jesus were the ruler of it? It would be the kind of world that Mary sings about when she hears that she will be the mother of Jesus. Who expects that her child would scatter the proud in their self-centeredness, remove the mighty from their seats of power, exalt the humble, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. Jesus preached about changing the relationship between the first and the last, making what was up and down to be side by side. This is the Jesus who was so joined to the hungry, the alien, the homeless, and the prisoner that what is done to them is done to him. And that to cause suffering in them is to cause God to suffer. In the realm of Christ, the injustices that we take for granted and as inevitable, are not. When Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom—the realm—of God to come, this is what he teaches.
And if this is Judgment Sunday, then we have to ask: how are we doing? Not how will we make out at the end of time or at the end of our own individual times, but how is the world doing right now? How are things going in regards to the bringing about the the realm of Christ? This passage—for all the inspiration it brings to our good hearts—this passage is a judgment. It is a critique. Here is the world as it might be, Jesus seems to be saying. And then asks, how is the world as it is now?
Imagine a world in which there was plenty of food, but some had none and others had much more than they could eat. Imagine a world in which there were medicines to heal people, but some people could not get them. Imagine a world in which people were put into prisons far away and then forgotten. Imagine a world in which aliens were despised. Imagine a world in which some people had too little clothing, in which some people had no shelter. It is, sadly, not hard to imagine. Just as you did not do it to these, you did not do it to me, taught Jesus. As you denied these, so you denied me, he taught.
Where in time is this story in Matthew? On the one hand, it is a story, a teaching, told by Jesus in his time. It is about some other time, in the future for the disciples, but no one knows how far. On the other hand, it is a story in the present of the disciples. It is about the time they are living right now. It tells them, through a story about the future, about how the world is judged now. And in that sense, it teaches them how the world should be in the present. Teaches us.
This is a parable, not a prophecy. It is designed to make us think about what is going on and our role in it. We are right to judge ourselves. Unlike the sheep and the goats in the story, who do not know what God expects of them, we do know. We have the benefit of hearing this story. We know better. As the sheep and goats were, we will not know who we are. But we will know what we do and do not do. When we judge ourselves, our world, we cannot claim to have been ignorant.
There are two sets of criteria given by the man who sits on the throne. In one, the righteous are commended for feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner. In the other, the cursed are condemned for doing nothing. It is hard, practically impossible, to always be good. It is harder, willfully impossible, to never be. We are commended for sometimes righting injustice. We are condemned for always refusing to.
This parable in Matthew is not about salvation. It is not, as some fear, about good works earning God’s respect. It is about sanctification—a churchy jargon word that means “being good, doing good.” Our faith, and the love of God unconditionally given, is supposed to guide us to living good lives. For followers of Jesus, his words and teachings and actions tell us how.
These words in Matthew chapter 25 are the last public teaching of Jesus. The first public teaching, starting in chapter 5, is the sermon on the mount. The sermon is as surprising as is the parable of Christ the King. Do not resist an evil-doer. Love your enemy. Give to everyone who begs from you.
The sermon on the mount and the parable of the king are like bookends, like the introduction and conclusion, of a treatise not only on the nature of Jesus. Not only on who Jesus is. But also instruction—surprising instruction—about who, as followers of Jesus, we are to be.
Re-forming the church
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28
It is fitting that we welcome new members to Faith on this day, Reformation Sunday. For Reformation Day—which is tomorrow, always on Halloween—is a celebration of a particular event of history, theology, and community. We who sit here today inherit the legacy of that event, when the church asked itself: What is the church, anyway, and what should it be?
This is not a new question. But the urgency of finding an answer to that question comes and goes. It has only been recently become urgent again. We are in a strange and changing time now in many ways, and certainly so in the ways of being church. It is an echo of the Reformation 500 years ago, when something was happening—no one quite knew what—with society, with politics, with transportation and commerce and communication, even with the weather (the world was emerging from a centuries long cold spell).
When anyone comes to a church, they come to at least three places at once. An historical place, a theological place, and a community.
First, we come to a long spiritual history.
This is Faith Lutheran Church in Cambridge. We share this church with others in this moment, and also with others of the past (and of the future). This church—as you have heard me say perhaps too often—is you. There is no church you come to that exists without you. And yet, Faith today is continuous with Faith of the recent and long past. Others have shared this space. We hear their voices and see the work of their hands. We sit in the pews that some carved, and we imagine their prayers rising up through the same dark peaked ceiling.
This is a Lutheran church in America, started as an immigrant church. The church in the U.S. is separate from yet part of the worldwide assembly of Lutherans.
And Lutherans everywhere are part of the Protestant tradition that includes many other denominations. Lutherans like to think of themselves as the founders of Protestantism, and that is partly so, but there were many voices of protest besides those of Luther and his buddies. And Luther himself stood on the shoulders of other brave protestors before him.
Protestants are Christians. There are other Christian churches and people who follow Jesus Christ. We think of the Roman church, but Catholics and Protestants are not the only brothers and sisters in the Christian family. And the Christian family is part of the extended family of the people of the book, which includes our cousins Jews and Muslims.
And we come to a history of ongoing reformation.
We celebrate the Reformation today. We call it The Reformation, as if there were only one. But the history of the relationship between people and God is marked by reforms. Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke to us in the first reading, lived in a time of turmoil and doubt. Defeated, occupied, and exiled, the Israelites wondered how they should consider the covenant with God: God is their God, they are God’s people. Was that still true? Had God abandoned them? Was the deal still on? And if so, how could they continue to know God?
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises a new covenant. But what is new is not the law but the way the law is carried. A new form of remembering and teaching it. I will put the law within them, said God. It was the same guidance made by the same God, but conveyed in a new way.
The line of our spiritual heritage twists and turns through reformers from long before Jeremiah to long after Luther. And including in our case Jesus, who like all reformers did not consider himself to be radical (I come not to abolish the law, he said). The reform of the church is always a call to repent, meaning to turn back to the basics of our relationship with God. A call to restore the trust and love and joy that comes from knowing God and knowing that we are known by God.
In doing so, reformers seem radical because the current state of affairs has become hateful and unbearable. They cannot help saying so, which makes them unpopular with some who like things the way they are. But the reformers do not intend to condemn the world as it is (I’ve come, said Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save it). Rather, they try to restate what we all knew about God all along, but had lost the words and the ways to remind us.
Second, we come to a theology of grace.
Central to the teachings of Luther, and of the Apostle Paul, and of Jesus as we understand him, and of Jeremiah and the prophets, grace is the essence of the God we worship. The notion of grace permeates the entire Bible. I forgive their iniquity, says God in Jeremiah, and remember their sin no more. God forgives us no matter what. There is nothing we can do that God will not forgive us for.
Lutherans are especially adamant about this, but it is a matter of degree, not principle. Neither Paul nor Luther invented this idea, though they did proclaim it. God is a God of constant and unremitting forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to lose God’s love. The flip side of this is there is nothing we need to do to gain it. No special action, thought, belief, or attitude. We already have it. It is God’s to give, not ours to earn. A corollary is that God’s grace applies to all people, not just us.
Which is a good thing, because Luther reminded us that we are both saints and sinners at the same time. We are generous and sour, kind and selfish, compassionate and mean. What is in us is in others; what is in others is in us. We are disallowed, as Paul writes, to boast.
And, finally, we come to a community of others.
Unlike in other times, no one is culturally required to come to church. We are here in this church because, as we pray, we hope to both be nourished here and to nourish this church. The word for church comes from a word that means called out to assemble. We are called to be here, and we are called to come out of our houses and our jobs and our own private places to assemble with other people also called. We are religious as well as spiritual. We worship together humbly, support each other with intentional respect, companions on the same quest, discovering in each other similar doubts and hopes. We share worries and joys together.
We celebrate the Reformation not because it was something new. It was not. Reformation is a habit of the church. And not because it was unexpected. The forces that led to it had been building for over a century. And not because it was radical. Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who repeatedly defended the church while attacking the way it acted.
We celebrate the Reformation because it reaffirmed that nature of the church as a work in progress. Not one church perfect for all in all times, but an adaptive and vital church that constantly listens to and returns to God.
We come here to this place that is tied to a history of other people seeking to know God; sharing a pretty well developed theology of creation, grace, and God’s presence among us; and formed into a familiar community. That tells us perhaps what the church is, but it tells us little about what it will be.
Our church partners (the Presbyterians, for example), speak of the church as reformed and always reforming. That is both a recognition that the church is always forming itself anew (not only in the official Reformation) and that the church must continue—and will continue to—change. It is easy for us to drift into patterns that seem so comfortable that we think they must be godly. We can forget that God continues to work in the life of the world. We then need prophetic voices then to help us rediscover God.
On this Reformation Sunday we can celebrate that ours is no doubt a time of reformation. We are in a time of disturbance and uncertainty. What will the church be like in our lifetimes? God only knows. It will not be the same as it was or is today. By those who are called to assemble, and with God’s help and guidance, the church will be reformed.
Thanks be to God.
Text: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Other texts: Matthew 22:32-46
If there were a mission statement of this church, which there is not, we could do worse than borrow the answer Jesus gives to the Pharisees when they ask about the law. 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. After all, this is the trunk on which hang all the branches of the law and prophets. It is a summary description of the way to a holy and good life, a way to which Jesus subscribed. In this summary, Jesus combines two essential passages and ideas in the Bible from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (which we heard today).
On the pledge cards that are in your bulletin today are three pictures. (They are supposed to represent worship, fellowship, and service.) One of them shows this room, called formally the nave, informally the sanctuary. But it shows it backward, so to speak. It is the way I, standing up here, usually see this space. It is also shows the threshold to this room. There is a doorway. It is bidirectional. We come in to worship together and we go out to serve the world through our daily lives and actions. It marks the two parts of our lives with God. Sanctuary, a place set apart, a place of rest and worship, a sacred place. And mission, our lives in the world, a place of action, mercy, and kindness, another kind of sacred place. Both are a part of a holy life, both subjects of the law about which Jesus speaks.
It is common, and unfortunately especially so by Lutherans, to portray the law as legalistic and nit-picky. But it is a mistake to do so. The laws—the commands and guidance given by God via Moses to the Israelites—are a means of grace. They seek, in the large, to order the universe. To maintain harmony within creation and between people. They are a way—as there are in all faiths—a way of right action. And a way of reminding us that the world was both created by God and that God is here with us in it. They teach us to be holy because, as it says, God is holy. Be holy, says God, because I am.
The law has two approaches to doing this. One approach is interested in purity. Keeping things separate, the enforcement of boundaries, the prevention of pollution, all of which seek to keep the channel clear. To keep us on message. But the other approach—and the subject of today’s reading in Leviticus—is the opposite. It is interested in breaking through or ignoring the boundaries because of the need to do what someone called the “messy, disruptive ethical obligations … to set wrongs right.” What it takes to take care of our neighbor, even if our neighbor is not one of us, is outside of our walls. Even if a stranger, an alien, even if our enemy. To be just and kind and merciful to others.
To love God with all your heart, soul, and mind is first of all to love God with all yourself. Not just your prayerful self, or your generous self, or your good-natured self. Not just your intellectual, clear-thinking or believing self. But with your angry self, your selfish self, your mixed up self. Not just with your self that desires to be good but the self that would rather not. You cannot therefore love God by feeling good about God. It is not about your feelings, which you cannot control, but about your actions, which you can. This commandment does not ask us to like God—although we may—but to be loyal to God. To do what God says, to listen for God, and to put God ahead of all the other things that call us.
The command to love our neighbor works the same way. It calls on us to love other people with the same impartiality as we love God. We are not perfect, but since we know our own motives and inner good will, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. To love our imperfect neighbors is to extend the same benefit to all others. Loving your neighbor as yourself means to put your neighbor ahead of all the other things that you might otherwise like to do in regard to your neighbor. This is unlike enlightened self-interest. It does not say that loving ourselves leads in the end to good things for our neighbors. It is the needs of the neighbor that call us first; whether it benefits us is not the main point of this commandment. This command puts the burden of care and justice on us, not on some other force or system or people.
It also does not ask either us or our neighbor to be good, or likable, or admirable. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can like our neighbor, or be afraid of our neighbor, or be disgusted by our neighbor. It is all the same. Partly this is because we are all made in God’s image, even people we despise. Partly it is because we realize that we could be them and vice versa—love foreigners, the Bible says a few verses down in Leviticus, remembering that you yourselves were once foreigners in a strange land. But in the end it is because we belong to God. Love your neighbor, it says, I am the Lord. The two things are tied together.
Loving God and loving other people are not the same thing. The second command to love others, says Jesus, is like the first to love God, but not identical to it. Yet though one follows the other, they are not separate. The are alike and connected. You cannot love God without loving what God loves. Loving others reflects and is modeled on our love for God.
The reason why this all is part of the law, rather than just something nice to do, is that the purpose of the law—as lived and taught by Jesus—is to create the kingdom of God, the world as God intended it to be and we hope it to be. These commandments on which hang all the others seek to create a world in which all people might thrive. They are like the laws of physics—here is how things work. Or like a recipe—here is what to do to make things be the way you want.
We who gather here in worship, fellowship, and service in the name of Jesus—who come in to this sanctuary and go out from here in mission—we share the idea that such a world is possible, and that we have a hand in helping it come to be. Though we cannot follow these commandments always or easily, being not perfect, we acknowledge that they are the right ones to follow. That they lead to the world that we hope for.
So if we would like to have a mission statement, which we do not now have, we could make it this. So that the world may be as God’s kingdom and that all may thrive, to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds; and to love others as ourselves.