October 26, 2014
Today, five of our young people announce their intention to claim the promises that were first made on their behalf at their baptisms. They are taking responsibility for living among God’s faithful people, hearing the word of God, sharing the Lord’s supper, and working for justice and peace in all the earth, among other things. So, not much. 🙂
Unfortunately, what is NOT happening today is that we are not handing out manuals to explain how that is done. If anyone here was hoping that this would be like a graduation ceremony, where we hear some inspirational readings and a talk, sing the right songs, and then all head downstairs for some cake to celebrate that formal education is behind us, then you will be sorely disappointed.
Because, if we learn nothing else from today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we at least ought to learn that our Christian education is never done. There’s always more to learn. In today’s text from Matthew, Jesus is talking with some theologians, people who spend all their time thinking and talking about religious laws. They ask him which of God’s laws is the most important. He responds, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” That’s it, the whole faith you are professing, right there.
The First Commandment, as any of our confirmands could cheerfully tell you, is that we are to love God first and foremost, and not let anyone or anything have a higher place in our lives. It’s the first because—if we could just keep it—we wouldn’t need any of the other ones. Jesus says that the second law hooks into the first one: “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” Love others in a way that they will experience it as love.
But how do we do that? What does it look like to love God and our neighbors? Well, if we look at the Old Testament reading for today, we see that loving our neighbor has more to do with action than with emotion. We must be honest in our business dealings — don’t put your finger on the scale when measuring out what something is worth (Lev. 19:35-36). We must not defraud or slander our neighbors (oh, that tricky 8th Commandment!). We must render just judgments (verse 15). When we harvest our fields and our vineyard, we must not strip the land bare, but leave enough for the poor and the foreigners to glean and support themselves (verses 9-10; cf. the book of Ruth). In short, “loving our neighbor as ourselves’ means not just refraining from hurting our neighbor, but also willing our neighbor’s good and working for it.
We have a tendency in Christian churches to think of the Pharisees as the villains of the story, twirling their evil mustaches, but it’s worth remembering that laws like the ones I just described were the kinds of laws they learned and tried to teach their faith communities–laws that made for a kinder, more equitable society. The ongoing squabble between Jesus and the teachers of the law was like a family fight—each part wanting to correct and instruct the other out of a common bond of love. In Jesus time, and again in Matthew’s time, when the story was written down, there were inter-Jewish arguments about how to love God and love your neighbor, with different groups embracing different points of view. Jesus was stirring the pot with thought-provoking ideas like Samaritans can be good, and women and children matter as much as men.
That same kind of family struggle was at the core of the Lutheran Reformation, too. I’m fond of reminding my Roman Catholic friends that Luther always considered himself a Catholic, even after he was excommunicated. He hated the fact that his followers called themselves Lutheran, always saying, “Did Luther die for you? No! Call yourselves Chistians, not Lutherans!” He didn’t want to leave the church and start a new one, he only wanted to reform the one he loved. He wanted people to be able to read the Bible in their own language, not just hear it in Latin, which they didn’t understand. He wanted to hold up the dignity of all kinds of work as ministery, not just the work of priests and nuns. He wanted the church to stop playing on people’s fears as a way to get rich. The reformers wanted to offer a corrective to the church family they cherished by pointing out what they thought were better ways to love God and their neighbors.
Loving God and loving our neighbors is not safe. It opens windows and walks through doors we didn’t even know were there. It makes us look at passages like Lev.19:33-34: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:33-34). Loving God and loving our neighbor might mean embracing new or old ideas that make us uncomfortable. It might mean reform.
What needs to be realigned in our lives so that we center on God’s word instead of being lured by the siren call of marketers to get more and more stuff? Who in our context needs to hear a liberating word? Whose worth needs to be affirmed? What parts of our congregational structure and culture need to be reformed today in order to keep us true to the Gospel?
“Love God and love your neighbor” is a call to action that is not safe, but is good. In the Christian life, there is no witness protection program.
As Christians, little Christs, we stand with Jesus, and Jesus always stood with the excluded and disenfranchised. No matter how inconvenient or scary, we are called to pick up the work of loving our neighbors where others have left off. And that means, confirmands, that not only is there room for your hearts and hands and voices in the ongoing reformation of the church, there is an urgent need. You are not the church of tomorrow, as so many people will tell you. You are the church of today. And we need the reforming visions you have.
If we are serious doing what Jesus did, saying what he said, and living as he lived, the Church continues to need reforming—reshaping and refining. This is seriously scary stuff. We may want to point out to God that we are not strong enough, educated enough, brave enough, rich enough, kind enough or whatever enough to do the work in front of us, even if we thought we knew what that was. We’re not Martin Luther. We’re not world-changers. We are just us. We’d rather let someone else rattle society’s cages.
But, beloved members of God’s family, no matter what your struggles are, or how feeble you feel sometimes, you have been crafted in God’s image and empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good news that in Jesus, all people are loved, accepted, and significant. You won’t get it right all the time. But you are exactly who you need to be and you are in exactly the right place for the work God needs you to do. And don’t worry. God is with you.
As baptized believers, we are all in this work of learning to love God and our neighbors together. Our foreheads bear the mark of God’s acceptance; we breathe in and out the power of the Holy Spirit. Nothing we could do or cease to do could make God love us more. And nothing we could do or cease to do will make God love us less. We are God’s own forever.
Thanks be to God!