Sermon on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Matthew 22:34-4, October 29, 2017, All Saints
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
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: I am the Lord.
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, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘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 your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
There is a company called “23 And Me” that will test your DNA for a fee, so that you can see where your ancestors really came from. Their TV commercials show a number of people expressing pleasant surprise, or even shocked reactions to learning their heritage. Our DNA forms our identity. It gives us our eye and hair color, our features and characteristics, even, to a large extent, our diseases.
And for that reason, we have used DNA as a metaphor for something which is so characteristic that it is essential to identity. We can say that a company has a DNA, or an organization has a DNA. For example, it is in the DNA of the Christian Service Center to want to give people a hand up, so the Center will find ways to do that, from the food pantry to bicycles.
Our DNA as Protestants
What is in our DNA as a church? What is in the Presbyterian DNA? What is in the Protestant DNA that forms us – that is part of everything we do, from the prayers we pray to the way we understand the very nature and character of God?
Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. When the monk and professor, Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door, on October 31, 1517, as the story goes, we might say it was like a genetic mutation; a change in DNA.
One reason why modern scientific genetic research is controversial is that tinkering with DNA can cause unintended consequences that become inherited for generations. This is true of the changes brought about by the Reformation as well. There is a lot to celebrate, but there were unintended consequences, like the wars that followed the Reformation and the splintering of the church into thousands of denominations.
Return to the Sources
But there were also positive results of the Reformation that have been in our DNA as Protestant Christians ever since. So, we will consider some of them.
Foundational to Luther’s thinking, and fundamental to our identity to this day, is the quest to return to the original source of our faith to re-examine where we are, and to see if we need to make adjustments. So you have heard me recite the famous slogan, “Ad fontes” – back to the fountainhead, the sources.
The Jesus Source, and Jesus’ Source
For Christians, the source of our faith is Jesus. Jesus, whom we know from the scriptures, is, for us, the essence of our understanding of God and God’s will for us.
I did not select the scriptures to be read today; they are from the Revised Common Lectionary set of readings which many denominations use. But they are perfect for today. In the New Testament reading we hear Jesus saying as clearly as he can what the essence of the whole Torah, the Hebrew scriptures calls people to do:
“‘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 your neighbor as yourself.’”
The reading from the Hebrew bible from Leviticus is precisely the place where the second commandment to love neighbor as yourself comes from.
So, in these two texts, we are reading from our fountainhead, our source, and we are reading about Jesus, citing his fundamental source, the Torah, and laying out its essential calling.
So, our orientation to God is not fear-based, but love-based. We are to love the Lord our God. The theology of the middle ages had evolved away from love as the defining feature of our relationship with God and replaced it with fear. But love for God and love for neighbor are what our foundational sources call us to, and if we have gotten off track along the way, returning to Jesus as our source puts us back on the right track.
Getting back on track after wandering away is what Reformation means. But the Reformers like Luther and Calvin knew that Reformation was not a singular event, but needs to be an ongoing lifestyle.
If a church was going to be Reformed, it needed to frequently return to the sources, identify misdirections, and make course corrections. So the slogan they used to say this succinctly is:
“Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”
“The church that is Reformed, must always be reforming.” It is in our DNA to frequently return to our sources, re-examine where we are, and make reforms in new ways.
We do this on a personal level, as faithful Christians. We use the regular spiritual disciplines to make self-examinations, asking ourselves: am I loving the Lord with all my heart, mind and strength? Am I loving my neighbor as myself?
This is also the day on which we dedicate our stewardship commitments for the coming year. So we have asked all our church family who worships here to look at our giving in a disciplined and responsible way, to see if we are being as faithful as we can be with our resources.
One of the questions we ask ourselves, in order to make an honest self-exams is this:
“What if everyone did as I did, or as I am considering doing?”
What if everyone showed their love for God the way I show my love for God? Would they be fulfilling this high calling?
What if everyone showed their love for their neighbors, both near and far, the way I show my love for neighbors? Would they be fulfilling this high calling?
What if everyone gave to the church the way I give? Would the church be financially healthy?
When we ask the questions this way, we are eliminating the very thing that we humans tend to do: make ourselves exceptions to the rule. But as far as I can see, there are no exceptions to our calling. We all are called to love God and to love our neighbors.
And we are called to faithful stewardship of our resources so that our church community can flourish. There are a million ways this works out in practice, but the fundamental principles are clear and actually quite simple.
Remembering the Saints
On this Sunday, because it is the Sunday of All Saints, we will be remembering those who have departed from us this past year. We will remember them in prayer, thanking God for the ways in which their lives touched our lives. We call them “saints” which is biblical – actually all Christians are called “saints” in the New Testament.
But being Protestant, we do not believe we need saints to intercede on our behalf before God. We are thankful for their lives, but we know that we have direct access to God. We need no one to be an intermediary between us and the God who loves us.
This is exactly what our source, the scriptures tell us, and so it was Luther who said we affirm the “priesthood of all believers.” That means that everyone can do what priests did: pray directly to God. Every prayer we pray celebrates this unimpeded access to our Loving God; it is also part of our DNA.
This Sunday we will also have the joy of welcoming new members into our church family. Some were baptized in non-Presbyterian churches. But we are not baptized Presbyterians, we are baptized as Christians. So, we affirm, as scripture says,
“One Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5)
We Reformed Christians do not re-baptize people who have been baptized Christians. This too is part of our DNA: to be ecumenical – to recognize the work of the Spirit of God beyond the boundaries of our own denomination.
The Next 500 Years
What is the future of the church? What will it look like in 500 years? No one could possibly know.
But one thing we can be sure of:
as long as we keep returning to our Source, as long as the church that is Reformed is always willing to keep Reforming, then we can trust that the Spirit of God will continue to work, forming us into communities of faithful disciples who love the Lord with our whole hearts, minds, and strength, and who do everything we can to love our neighbors as ourselves.