Sunday, October 29, 2017

Do we need rules?

A Sermon preached on 29th October 2017, Pentecost XXI at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22: 34-46

Today we celebrate that Luis and Lukas – or LuLu for short – are joining a family, in this case that part of the family of God that the Church represents. This is not the first family they have joined, that was their immediate birth family of their parents, and in Lukas’ case siblings. They also joined an extended family centered partially on the Wisper valley, partially around this church. In various constellations, the Pickersgills, Nelsons, and also the Richards spent much of their youth together. This church has played an important role in many of your life events. Julia was baptized here, Julia and Daniel were confirmed here, Julia and Florian were married here, Belinda and Daniel were married here, Lars and Hannah were baptized here, and now Luis and Lukas will be too. The church family they join today is also an extended family. It extends geographically to all corners of the earth, and it extends in time to include all Christians, both past, present, and future. That is a very big family – just be grateful that you don’t have to buy them all Christmas presents.

The church is a family that we join by choice, not by birth. On Luis’ and Lukas’ behalf their parents and godparents will confirm that choice publicly and will also agree to the “conditions” or “rules” of this family. All families have rules – when and how much TV to watch, when to go to bed, who does the washing up, and how to treat one another. Some of these rules are well known, they might even be written down on a sign or rota on the fridge, others are what we call the unwritten rules – they are understood implicitly. 

Two of today’s readings – from Leviticus and from Matthew’s Gospel – are also about rules. The Old Testament contains – I am told, I haven’t counted them myself – 613 individual commandments. Not just the 10 Commandments, but also all sorts of rules about what to eat or wear, about how to worship, about how to live together, about how to treat one another. 248 of the 613 are “positive commandments,” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses. 365 of the 613 are “negative commandments”, sometimes described as one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something. We heard a few of those this morning: “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” (Leviticus 19:15-18)
God tells Moses that out of respect for God’s holiness, for God’s otherness, God expects holy or special behavior, that we practice justice and charity in all our social interactions. I don’t think there is anything in these rules that we would not sign up to today. But sadly, much of our interaction is not based on justice, equity and charity, but on taking advantage, on being ahead – regardless of cost. And so, what should be normal rules of conduct are seen as special, or even exceptional.

In Matthew’s Gospel, when the “lawyer,” which just means one who had studied the Law, not an attorney or solicitor, when he asks Jesus “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he is not asking for Jesus to choose his favorite commandment but to do just what Jesus did. To summarize the commandments, to describe what is at their very core, what in itself would fulfil them all. The first part of Jesus’ answer will not have surprised him or the other listeners. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This comes straight from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5) and has always been seen as the greatest and first commandment. Jews are commanded to “bind these words as a sign on your hand, to fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and to write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) Today, they are still written on tiny piece of parchment that goes into the little box that devout Jews tie round their arms and to their forehead at prayers.

The second answer, though also taken from one of the first Five Books of the Bible – the Torah (Leviticus 19:18) - was probably a little more unexpected: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But it shouldn’t be. If you look at them, none of the eight detailed prohibitions we heard this morning in Leviticus would be necessary if we just loved our neighbor as our self. Just as the Rabbis used to claim that the whole world hinged on God’s Law, God’s service, and deeds of loving kindness, so Jesus is now claiming that the whole Law depends on deeds of love.

Let’s look at those two “clauses” for a moment. First, we are called to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, or in the original in Deuteronomy, with all our strength. This means to be fully committed to our relationship with God –a loving, liberating, and life-giving relationship as PB Michael Curry calls it. The heart stands for our will: we choose to love God. The soul stands for our life, we love God in all that we do – worship, work, and play. And strength stands for our actions, everything we do is an offering to God.
This is also how Paul sees his mission to the Thessalonians. He came to them, preached to them, and worked with them not out of some hope of personal gain, not to please them, not to seek their praise, but to please God. Paul is motivated solely by the love of God and by his desire to share this love with the Christians in Thessaloniki, and beyond. He truly loves them:So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” (1 Thess. 2:8) For Paul, the first commandment, love God, leads automatically to the second, love the other. And the second commandment is really two – it includes the right to self-love. We can and must also care for ourselves, just not so much that we neglect our love for our maker and for our neighbors.

In the Rite of Baptism that will begin in a moment we will hear and repeat a number of detailed promises, rather like little commandments. Some are negative, when we promise to renounce, to not do a number of things. Most are positive promises, which we answer with “I do” or “I will with God’s help.” All of them could also just as well be summarized by promising to love God and to love our neighbor. Everything in the Baptismal Covenant is either an expression of our choice to love God and our neighbor. They name that faith or trust that comes from our unconditional love, they describe how we give our whole lives to God, and they define our acts of love for the other. We do not require that Christians know 613 commandments off by heart, nor that they can repeat all of the Baptismal promises without having a bulletin to read from. The godparents will be glad to hear that I will not be testing them following this sermon. 

All you need to know, and all you need to teach if you want to fulfil the promises you will make to be responsible for seeing that Luis and Lukas are brought up in the Christian faith and life and help them both to grow into the full stature of Christ are the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. In choosing Baptism you have chosen, both for yourselves and for those you care for, a life based on love. You have chosen a new way of life in which with God’s help we are transformed, and through which we promise to transform the world. We believe that the family we belong to is such a great family that everyone should be part of it. But for today, and now, and as what Paul calls the first fruits, we will focus on our two soon to be newest family members: Luis and Lukas.

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