Sunday, October 29, 2017

21 Pentecost

October 29, 2017

Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22.34-46

+ Today, for us Episcopalians, is the Sunday before All Saints Sunday. Here at St. Stephen’s, it’s the Sunday we put the names of our departed loved ones on the list, to be prayed for at Wednesday night’s Requiem Mass.  It is the Sunday we put out mementos of our departed loved ones on the altar in the Narthex, bedecked with saints relics and statues.

But, for a few of us, this particular Sunday may have a bit more relevance.  Today, as you may or may not know, is the Sunday in the Lutheran churches in which the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated.  Since some of us are former Lutherans, we may feel a bit nostalgic today, as we hear “A Mighty Fortress” and all those heart Lutheran hymns we heard this morning.

For the rest of us, we all understand that we are a religious minority in this area. We are surrounded by Lutherans and Lutheran churches in this area.  Its influence is deep here.

I don’t talk about it much, but I myself was Lutheran until I was fifteen years old, when I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. I actually stopped identifying as a Lutheran around age 13.  I didn’t leave the Lutheran Church in anger. I wasn’t frustrated by any policies or dogmas in the Lutheran Church. I never heard a sermon in that church preached against homosexuality or women. In fact, I don’t remember anything being controversial being preached there.

Later, when I heard people tell me their horror stories of the churches in which they were raised, I found myself thankful that I never experienced any of that as a child in my Lutheran church.  In fact, I really liked the Lutheran pastor who confirmed me. I admired him greatly and mourned him deeply when he died.  I still know many of the people in that congregation.  And I felt very much at home in that congregation.  In fact, one day, my ashes will be buried in the cemetery of that church.

My reasons for leaving the Lutheran Church were simply reasons of conviction. And maybe a bit of weird teenage rebellion.  I was drawn to Catholicism, and eventually to the Episcopal Church.  While other teenagers dabbled with atheism and Satanism, my rebellion was becoming a Catholic.  And let me tell you, that got a reaction in my family probably the other two rebellions would not have received.

And there are differences between us and the Lutheran Church, as any of you who were Lutheran, know full well. Because that, after all, is why you’re here.  

There is no doubt that the Reformation changed Europe and the world 500 years ago.  Without it, the Episcopal Church would not be what it is today.

So, we are thankful today. But, having said all that, I realize in very profound ways, that I am no longer a Lutheran on many levels. It has been a long time, after all.  

And I am quite honest about this: I am no Lutheran preacher. I have never claimed to be. And no matter how hard I might try, I will never be one.  Once, when I preached at my parents’  Lutheran congregation shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood, I was told afterward that I didn’t preach long enough.   I guess that’s true.  

When I preach, I am not very complex.  I have no fancy theological agenda behind any of my preaching.  My message is very consistent—for better or for worse.  It is a message I heard in that Lutheran church growing up, that has stayed with me all these years.  My message is this, in case you’ve been totally asleep during my sermons over the past nine years and may have missed it:

The theme of almost every sermon is: love.

Again and again, it’s love. And there aren’t too many Sundays that go by that I do not reference the summary of the Law that we find in our Gospel reading for today.  For me, this is what it’s all about.  This Gospel reading isn’t just a summary of the Law. It is a summary of Christianity itself.

This is what we must do as Christians.  Plain. And seemingly simply (but maybe not so simple).

Now, I once was scolded a bit—this was at another congregation, mind you—for preaching too much about love.

“You always preach about love,” this parishioner told me.

But the fact remains that this is essentially all Jesus preached about as well.  The gist of everything Jesus said or did was based solidly in what we hear him summarize in this morning’s Gospel.  In fact,  every sermon and parable he preached, was based on what we heard today.  Every miracle, and even that final act on the cross, was based solidly on what we heard this morning.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is clear.  Which commandment is the greatest? he is asked.

And he replied:

“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 you neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

He can’t get any clearer, as far as I’m concerned.  And it is these two commands, both of which are solidly and unashamedly based in love, that he again and again professes.

In his day, Jesus, like all good, pious Jewish men, was required to the pray this scripture, called the Shema, every day.  The Shema is the prayer all Jewish men were required to pray each day on waking.  The Shema is the first Commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Every day of his adult life, Jesus prayed this prayer.  It was the basis of his entire spiritual life.  And this commandment, along with the commandment to love others, is the basis for his entire teaching.

When he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” we can also add the Gospel.  The Gospel, along with the law and the prophets, is based on these commandments.  And so is our entire faith as Christians.

I don’t think I can get any clearer on this. I hear so often from Christians—not a whole lot of Episcopalians, but other Christians—that their faith as Christian is based solely on accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  I have no problem with that in actuality.

Our Baptismal promises in the Book of Common Prayer are based on accepting Jesus as our Savior as well.  In the Baptismal promises asked of a person about to be baptized (or their parents and godparents if they are too young) is that all-important question:

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?”

And, of course, we do.

But, for Jesus, the real heart of the matter is not in such professions of faith.  He never commands us to make such statements for salvation.

What he does command us to do again and again, to love.  

To love God.

And to love one another.

And, as you’ve heard me say, Sunday after Sunday from this pulpit, when we fail to love, we fail to be Christians.  Any time we fail in these two commandments, we fail to be Christians.  We turn away from following Jesus and we turn away from all that it means to be a Christian. I think the organized Church sometimes misses this fact.  And we, as Christians, sometimes miss this fact as well.

We sometimes think: maybe this is too simple.

Love God, love others.  It’s too simple.

Well, first of all: it is not.  It is not easy to love God.  It is not easy to love Someone who is, for the most part, invisible to us.  And, as we struggle with all the time in our lives, it is not easy to love others.  I don’t need to tell anyone here this morning that is sometimes very hard to love others.  So, it is not too simple.

But we still want something more occasionally.  And when we do, we find ourselves making confessional statements, like putting a statement such as accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior as the be-all and end-all of our faith.  By the way, it is not the be-all and end-all of our faith.  And nowhere does he command us to accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, though I hope we all do strive personally to do so.

We also fall into the trap of depending on things like dogma, or the Law, or Canons (or Church Laws), or any of the other rules that define it all for us specifically.  Certainly, when we start doing so, we enter that territory that Martin Luther rebelled against and felt needed to be reformed.   The fact is, all of those things, confessional statements, dogmas, church laws or any of those complicated rules, are pointless if they are not based on these two laws of loving God and loving others.

If anyone wants to know what Christians believe and who we are, these two Laws are it.  They define us.  They guide and direct us.  And when we fail to do them, let me tell you, they convict us and they judge us.

So, yes, I know I am guilty of preaching the same thing all the time.  But I do unashamedly.  I do so proudly.  I do so without any sense of remorse.

Here I stand.

Because all I am doing when I preach about loving God and loving others, is what Jesus did. I am following Jesus when I preach those laws. But more importantly than preaching about them, I hope we can all strive to live those laws in our lives.  I try to in my own life as Christian and as a priest. I try to help others to do that as well.

So, let us love unashamedly.  Let us love without limit.  Let us love radically.

As our reading from Leviticus tells us, “let us be holy” because our God is holy.

Let the love that guides us and directs and, yes judges us and convicts us, be the one motivating factor in our lives.  Let it be the foundation and basis of each ministry we are called to do. Let love—that radical, all-encompassing, all-accepting love—be what drives us. And let us—each of us—be known to everyone by our love.

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