Sunday, October 26, 2014

Off the Hinges: MATTHEW 22:34-40, DEUTERONOMY 6:4-9, LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 15-18

October 26, 2014
After Pentecost
Proper 25
Year A

If you want to find out why I finally got down out of the pulpit this week, you'll have to listen through to the very end! :)

The foundation of the Hebrew law was this:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [1]
            We’ve talked about this recently, especially how as you read the Old Testament, you’ll hear references to this over and over again. Even today, this section of scripture is so central to everything the Jewish people believe that they keep tiny scrolls with this written on them in fancy containers above the doorways to their homes. This is taken very, very seriously.
            These doorway scrolls are called “Mezuzah.” I’ve long thought about getting one for our home because many of them are quite beautiful. Just like decorative crosses, there is everything from the very simple to the highly ornate. As I was researching for this week’s sermon, I even found a Batman Lego Mezuzah. One of the many hazards of having a 6 year old boy in the house is that I actually found that one pretty tempting to buy. The $50 price tag is what kept me from making that impulse buy.
            The passage we read from Leviticus this morning is the beginning of a section of the books of law that is called the “Holiness Code.” In this section of the law, God is helping to steer the people toward holiness. He’s telling them what it looks like to be a people set apart from the rest of the world. This code of fairness and justice and caring for others came second to the intense devotion to God that was required by the Shema, but this was right under that in importance. In fact, when you move forward into the books of the prophets, when the prophets aren’t railing against the people for failing to show appropriate love and devotion to God they are scolding them sharply for their failure to live up to the justice and love that are called for in the holiness code. They are not acting like a people who are set aside by God.
So when Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  This was something the Pharisees knew. This was something any good Jew of the time knew. Jesus wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t know academically when he said that the law and the prophets are all about loving God and acting in love to one another. What Jesus was saying in telling them this is that they were missing the mark. They were so busy trying so hard to manage all the minutia in the rest of the law that they had put these two commandments in the wrong place. The Pharisees were off the hinges that the law and prophets they prided themselves in following hung on.
            You’re making it too complicated! Jesus says. You’re trying to hang all these commandments on yourselves when really, you should be hanging them on these two basic commandments you have known since you were little boys in Hebrew school! When you follow the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength, all your being. . . you will find that you are able to love your neighbor as yourself and the rest will begin to fall into place. Stop loving God’s law more than God, Jesus says. If the rest of the law hinges on loving God, and on loving one another, then it doesn’t matter how much of the minutia of the rest of the law you get right if you have missed the mark and forsaken or neglected the intense, beautiful, exciting, wonderful relationship with God that we are offered as a people set aside.
            While no metaphor can quite contain God or our relationship with God, there is a reason that the metaphor of parent is often used. We get it. We can be so very much like children. Sometimes we’re naughty children willfully ignoring the rules. Sometimes we’re dramatic children trying to make ourselves the center of everyone’s attention. Sometimes we’re children desperately trying to get our parents’ attention by pushing harder and striving to be the best. The Pharisees were more this sort of child than any other. They wanted to get God’s attention by following all the rules perfectly. But in the process of that, they forgot the basic tenants of the family covenant: Love the Lord your God and love one another.
            I’m not saying we should ignore the law, just that it has a very specific place we must keep it in. Sin is a real thing. Obviously. Just look at the crazy world around us. Just this week there was another fatal shooting in another school. But we must be cautious in our responses to this sort of thing. Are we first and formost loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves or are we going straight to our love of law and structure and trying to solve the problems by forcing others into the law as we see fit?
Often we conflate these commandments – we mush them together. And often we mush the loving God commandment together with all the law. We like to pretend like loving our neighbor or following the rest of the law to a T or being a vocal champion of God’s moral law is the proof that we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. It’s true that when we love God, we love what God loves. . . everything and everyone. . .  And it’s true that when we love God, we find ourselves loving God’s law, but it’s not exactly converse that in loving that which God loves, we love God.
            My husband loves bicycles. Just look in our garage sometime if you’d like a gauge of exactly how much he loves them. Over the years I’ve developed a deepening appreciation for them. I’m even considering starting to participate in triathlons so that I have more of an excuse to be on a bike with him during my training season.
            And over the years, I’ve started to learn more about bikes and bike racing. The one sporting event my husband really enjoys watching is the Tour de France – the yearly bike race across France. It’s sort of like watching NASCAR. . . only slower. But I’ve learned about it over the years we’ve been married and have caught myself following it in the news and sometimes even on TV these days – even when Tim’s not home.
There was a moment this summer when we were out of the country during the Tour and Tim wanted to watch it on TV. We turned on the hotel TV, but the only station we could find that was broadcasting it was showing it in German. I thought I had a  great understanding of what is going on in these races until that moment when he said, “Quick! You speak German! Translate! What’s happening!” And I realized that they don’t teach much about bike racing in high school and college German classes and I didn’t understand the sport enough to both watch what was going on and connect it to the words I was trying to translate in my head. In the end, I was glad I’d learned a little bit about the sport and I knew what words like “pelaton” mean. (And I was grateful that pelaton is the same word in English and German, but I realized that in spite of my growing appreciation for bikes, it’s a darn good thing that my husband doesn’t think my love of his bicycles and understanding of his favorite sporting event is somehow proof of how much I love him. I want to learn to love them more and more so that I can spend more time with him and so that we can grow in our relationship, but my appreciation of bicycles is not the proof of how much I love him. And the point of my getting to understand bikes is to spend more time with Tim, not because he’s going to love me any more or less based on my understanding of what’s going on in the Tour de France.
            So what does it mean to seek to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength? If this is so important for everything else, how do we grab ahold of it? Well. . . you’re all sitting here. . . so you’re off to a good start. Not that going to church earns you anything in God’s eyes, but this is one of the places we can go to seek God! It is through prayer and meditation, fasting and studying the Bible, through worship and praise – all of these and many other things that we call Spiritual Disciplines – it is through acting out our yearning for God that we seek God. These actions that don’t have merit in and of themselves open us up to hear the will of God and to bring us closer to God. It is by purposefully keeping God at the forefront of our minds and hearts and speech and actions that we grow closer to God and find our whole soul crying out to be nearer and nearer.
            Start to walk out to the front. . .
And when our hearts and our minds and our wills and our actions begin to look more and more like God’s heart and mind and will and actions, we will find ourselves loving neighbor as ourselves. We will see that we become a people set aside. A holy people different from the rest of the world. A holy people who look different and who reflect God’s law. Not because we love God’s law like the Pharisees did but because we love God. Because we recite our love of God to our children and talk to them about it no matter where we are. First thing in the morning and last thing at night. Our love of God will be evident in the work of our hands and the thoughts of our minds not because it is a good work or so-called “right thinking”, but because it is God’s work and God’s mind shining through us. Our doorways and our gates will mark boundaries of places where God is put first and foremost in everything. We will be holy because the Lord our God is holy.
            Now, as I wind down my sermon this morning, you can see that I’m doing something a little unusual. I’ve come down from behind the pulpit. Don’t worry. I don’t see myself as the sort of preacher who will ever be wandering around the front of the sanctuary as I preach. I’m just as uncomfortable about this as some of you may be. But as I’ve been thinking about this passage all week, just like a couple weeks ago, I had that vine song stuck in my head, this week I’ve had a song in my head too. This one’s a prettier song, though, so I’m going to share it properly with you. There is a style of preaching that suggests you should start every sermon with a song, but I’m going to end this sermon with a song. I invite you to close your eyes as you listen and contemplate what it means to really love God with all your being. What does that look like for you? If you know the song, feel free to sing along.


[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Dt 6:4–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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