Our Debt? Love One Another

“Our Debt? Love One Another”

Rom 13-8 love one another, script

Romans 13:8-11 (13:8) – September 24, 2017

I am very pleased to announce that a big anniversary is coming up at the end of October. It is not just a big anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door at Wittenberg University, in Germany.

Many people do not even know anything about this event. Some people really could not care less. However, I care very much. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I was not your typical teenager.

Today, I want to finish up our short series on the book of Romans, our Epistle readings from the Revised Common Lectionary that we have focused on for the past weeks. The Apostle Paul was also one of Martin Luther’s favorite biblical authors.

The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap from some people. True, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He came from impeccable bloodlines, from the tribe of Benjamin, trained at the secular college in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, and mentored by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He was puffed up about his ancestry and about his superior schooling.

Can you imagine the high-and-mighty Pharisee Saul-that-was, suddenly transformed into lowly Paul, a follower of the Messiah Jesus? Losing all that prestige, losing his position on the Sanhedrin, and also his position as an up-and-coming leader of the religious Jews. After all that, after such a come-down, Paul is not only following Jesus, but he is using his substantial rhetorical skills at persuading anyone who comes by that they ought to follow Jesus, too! That’s the situation right here, in the letter to the Roman church. We are in the middle of the practical section of the letter, where Paul gives advice and commands for his readers to listen to, and heed.

When it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures and the commands listed there, we recall the Big Ten, the Commandments given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. The Ten Commandments were the ultimate in the commands given to the people of Israel. Even though there were more than six hundred various laws in the Law Code of Moses as written down by various biblical scholars and religious lawyers in centuries following, the Big Ten commands led the list.

Here, in our reading today, Paul lists four of these commandments, the chief commands that refer to our relationships with each other. Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, and do not covet. As a former Pharisee, I suspect Paul had learned them when very young. Repeating them was something the devout followers of the Law of Moses did on a regular basis.

Paul could have given us a repetition of the Commandments and left it at that.

But, no. Paul wanted to go beyond just a rote repetition of the Law of Moses, of the Commandments—even the Ten Commandments that the Lord God gave on Mount Sinai. What he says in this reading today is nothing short of amazing, especially coming from a former Pharisee. Listen again to verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Full stop. Period.

And, again in verse 10, just in case anyone was not clear about what Paul was saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Going back to our discussion about the Reformation of the 1500’s, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Church is the Heidelberg Catechism, completed in 1562. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the first question at the beginning: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The response: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head.”

This Catechism was written in uncertain times, when religious wars were causing upheaval over large parts of Europe. Yet, the writers of this document have the sure certainty that Jesus Christ is, indeed, our faithful Savior, protecting us from ultimate, eternal separation from God our Heavenly Father.

Look more closely at this Catechism, which talks of human redemption, God the Father, Son and Spirit, the sacraments, prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

The section on the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” went right to my heart. Question 111 says: “What does God require of you in this commandment?” The response: “That I work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him/her as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.” What was it that Paul just said in Romans 13:10? ““Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Okay, love one another. But, what does that look like? How do we go about loving each other? The Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm preached on this reading from Romans, several years ago. He said, “loving your neighbor means, “if your neighbor is hungry, feed him.” It means “if your neighbor is thirsty, give her something to drink.” If there are people who are sick or hurting or suffering or alone in the world, visit them. It’s not rocket science! But it’s not easy.” [1]

The problem is, with us fallible people who sin from time to time, we forget. We fall back into old patterns, familiar but not-so-good habits. It’s all very well for Paul and the other Apostles to tell us, “love one another.” Martin Luther would be the first to tell us of his struggles with this very thing! How do we go against the grain and “love one another?” I mean, love all others? No matter who they are? I think we just heard from Dr. Brehm.

As Dr. Brehm tells us, our sinful, fallible selves are “always in the mode of “what’s in it for me?” But that’s not the kind of love the Bible teaches us. The kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and that the Apostles taught us to practice is a kind of love that simply gives to another person—without any wish to get anything in return.” [2]

The Apostle Paul gives us a big challenge today, and also a big blessing. God wants us to love one another! The Lord is so pleased when we try to love each other. As we try to love more and more, we draw closer and closer to God, and to each other. No matter who they are.

I know—from experience!—how difficult this can be. Some of us are stubborn. Some of us are afraid. Loving one another can be a really, really hard challenge. I want all of us to help each other. We can all think of one or two people we encounter on a regular basis who are difficult for us to love. I invite you all to write their names on a piece of paper. We will collect the names and the ushers will bring them forward for us all to pray over. We can ask God’s forgiveness for not loving them, and ask Jesus for His help to love one another as He loved us.

The last question in the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is the meaning of the little word ‘Amen?’” The answer: “Amen means: this shall truly and certainly be. For my prayer is much more certainly heard by God than I am persuaded in my heart that I desire such things from Him.” We can all say, “Alleluia, amen” to that earnest, heartfelt prayer to God.

[1] http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2011/09/charity-never-fails-rom.html

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]  Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Compassion? Go and Do Likewise

“Compassion? Go and Do Likewise”

Luke 10-37 good-samaritan, line drawing

Luke 10:25-37 (10:37) – September 3, 2017

A good number of years ago, my husband and I attended a large church. This church had a great number of activities, classes and ministries. One of the classes that I enjoyed attending was one particular adult Sunday school class. In this class, there were a number of middle-aged and older adults, some of whom really enjoyed discussing and arguing together about the finer points of the Bible. Some of these people were really knowledgeable about Scripture, about archeology and about ancient culture, and they could argue their points to beat the band. Did I mention that a number of them were lawyers?  People who were well trained to argue and press their points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping their adversaries.

While I enjoyed this verbal sparring on occasion, this got a bit tiresome. Instead of huddling together, talking among ourselves inside a church classroom, I wanted to go out into the community and talk with others about the love of God. I wanted to show people how much God loves them.

That’s the situation in the Gospel of Luke. The Rabbi Jesus was having another one of His religious conversations, about the finer points of the Mosaic Law Code. Yes, Jesus knew the Law of Moses backwards and forwards. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures intimately. Yet, so did many of the religious leaders who asked Jesus question after question. Especially this religious lawyer who asked Jesus several questions. I believe this lawyer was well trained to argue and press his points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping his adversaries.

I love this compassion series that I have been using for our summer sermon series. The Illustrated Children’s Ministry has done a tremendous job of translating the weekly Bible passages into an understandable story that anyone can understand. I bet we all know passages from the Bible that are so difficult. Not these Scripture passages! These Bible translations are straightforward so that anyone from 5 to 95 can easily understand them.

Let’s listen to the beginning of Luke 10, starting at verse 25: “A man who knew a whole lot about religious laws came to Jesus with a question. He said, “Teacher, how do I really, truly, live with God?”

“Jesus asked him, “Well, what does God’s law say? How do you understand it?” The man answered him, “It says to love God, completely—with heart and soul and strength and mind—and to love your neighbor like your own self.” And Jesus said to him, “That’s it! Do that, and you’ll have the life you’re asking about.”

That’s the initial question the lawyer asks. How does he—how do we—really, truly, live with God? Jesus responds with the question, “What does God’s law say?”

I recently preached a sermon about this all-important two-part law: we love God completely, the vertical part of love, and we love our neighbor like our own selves, the horizontal part of love. That is distilling all of God’s many commands in the Bible down to the foundation, the very core of what God expects from us. That two-part command is enough for another sermon. Indeed, many sermons have been preached on this bible verse!

But, wait, there’s more. The religious lawyer wasn’t done with the Rabbi Jesus yet. He goes a step further, and asks another question. I am not certain whether he wanted to trick Jesus, and make Him trip up verbally, or whether the lawyer felt really convicted, and wanted to justify himself.

What does our Scripture passage say? “Still wondering, the man asked, “But who exactly is my neighbor?” And in response, Jesus told this story.”

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. A certain man—an anonymous, undefined man, so we are not sure where he fit in the social order—this man was beaten up and left for dead while he was traveling. He is identified only by what happened to him.

Two fellow travelers came upon him, on the side of the road. One was a priest, an important religious man. He looked at the hurt guy from a distance, and then turned and went on his way. The second was a Levite, another important lay leader at a synagogue. He also looked at the hurt guy from a distance. He, too, crossed to the other side of the road and passed by the guy who was lying in a ditch.

Both of these men were upstanding leaders in their communities. Both of them had significant stature. Both of them neglected this poor guy who was obviously in need of help. We are not told why, just that both of these very important people stopped, noticed the guy who was beaten up, and passed by on the other side of the road.

Now, the third man to pass by was a Samaritan. I don’t know whether you are aware of the fear and even hatred the Jewish people had for Samaritans. Think back a number of decades. Can anyone remember the fear and animosity parts of this country had for black people? How Jim Crow laws were firmly in place in large parts of the South? Let’s go back to World War II, and the perceptions of Germans, Italians, and Japanese in the United States. There was a great fear and animosity for these groups of people.

Now you might better understand the fear and hatred the Jewish people had for these half-breed Samaritans, supposed traitors to the people of Israel.

The third person to come upon the hurt man in Jesus’s story? He was indeed a Samaritan, and he did something none of Jesus’s listeners would expect. The Samaritan was kind to the hurt man.  As commentator David Lose tells us, “the Samaritan instead goes to him, and becomes vulnerable in that closeness. How often are we frightened to come close to others simply because we do not want to bear their pain, to be open to their need?” [1]

Most of the people listening to this story would have been enemies to the Samaritans, since Jews and Samaritans did not get along. How do you imagine the people Jesus was talking to felt when they heard this story of a Samaritan reaching out to help a Jew? Can we take this shocking story and move it to the present day? Are we shocked when we see a newspaper article or television news story about an observant Muslim man helping an elderly Orthodox Jew who has fallen and hurt himself on a busy sidewalk?

Again, are we frightened to come close to others simply because we are afraid of being open to their need? To their pain?

The Samaritan showed compassion by binding up the hurt man’s wounds, taking him to an inn and paying for the hurt man to stay there and recuperate. Compassion, indeed, is sympathy put into action. As I have been preaching each week this summer, God wants each of us to show compassion to others. Be kind, show mercy, be sympathetic. Just like the Samaritan.

We need to look at the end of the story from Luke 10. Then Jesus asked, “Who became a neighbor to the man who was attacked?” And the man with the questions said, “The one who had compassion for him.” Jesus said, “Go. Do that.”

I can just see the religious lawyer, shocked that the hated Samaritan is the good guy in this story of the Rabbi Jesus. His answer in response to “who became the neighbor?” The lawyer couldn’t even say “the Samaritan,” so he said “the one who had compassion.” Jesus speaks to us, just as strongly as He spoke to that lawyer so long ago. We are to have compassion, in exactly the same way.

“No one is beyond the reach of God’s love. No one. And so Jesus brings this home by choosing the most unlikely of characters to serve as the instrument of God’s mercy and grace and exemplify Christ-like behavior. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even our people. Even me. Even you.” [2]

What does Jesus say to the lawyer? What does Jesus say to us, today? “Go. Do that.” “Go, and do likewise.”

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Anger and Insults

Matthew 5:21-26 – February 12, 2017

matt-5-22-words

“Anger and Insults”

Have you ever met someone who flew off the handle about the least little thing? I mean, got angry at the drop of a hat? People get angry about all kinds of things. Big things, little things, serious things, even funny things. Like, getting cut off in traffic, or getting passed over for that promotion. Or what about when your shoelace snaps as you’re late for an appointment? What about other people, like when they spill juice all over the kitchen floor? Or when someone does something stupid and thoughtless at work? Doesn’t that just make your blood boil? Sometimes?

Anger happens to all of us, to all different kinds of people. Adults, teenagers, and children, not just once, or twice, but many more times than that. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has some pointed words for anger and insults. Serious, too.

Let’s start where Jesus starts: the Law of Moses, and specifically, the big ten, or the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20. That is one place Jesus refers to here in Matthew 5:21. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’”

I am certain the people Jesus was talking to knew what the Law of Moses had to say about murder. Except—the Law of Moses did not say anything about getting angry. (Not in any of the 613 laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures.) What does Jesus say about getting angry?

Matthew 5:22—”But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Whoa! Those words are extremely serious! Jesus takes murder, on one hand, and compares it with anger. What is more, He says they are just as bad as each other!

If we take Jesus’s words as Gospel truth, we are in a sorry state. Everyone gets angry, sometimes. What are we to do?

Dr. Scott Hoezee has a paraphrase that packs a punch: “You haven’t stabbed anyone through the chest or shoved someone to his death off a cliff?  Good for you, but when in your anger you told Harold last week to go take a flying leap, in God’s eyes the ‘Do not murder’ command snapped quite cleanly in two in your life.” [1]

Jesus took the Law of Moses, from the Ten Commandments, and went beyond it. Far beyond it! He did not merely repeat the Law, like any of the scribes and teachers of that day did. Jesus transcended the Law of Moses.

How radical is that? I’ve said it before, and will say it again. Jesus was indeed a radical. He was subversive, never saying or doing what the established religious folks expected. Here, in this passage, Jesus was talking about the inside job, about how people felt on the inside—and how that translated to their outward actions.  

How did we start our service today? After the opening hymn, we had our children’s time, and I started talking about anger. Then—we had a prayer of confession. We confessed our anger, and asked God to forgive us when we get angry.

Let’s go one step further, and turn to another of the commentators, Karen Georgia Thompson: “The comparison is clear. Murder is serious and so is anger. There is a need in this first-century church to look at relationships and how individuals treat each other. There is a value to life and how we value the lives of others.” [2] Over and over again, Jesus talks about relationships, and how we are to act and speak in relationships. Here, Jesus goes one step further and even tells us how we are to think, in a way that will be pleasing to God.

Remember, relationships are more than one-dimensional. Sure, there are relationships on a horizontal level, between individuals, and even between groups of people. But Jesus is talking about the vertical relationship, too. The relationship between me and God, each individual and God. And, our joint relationship between all of us as a congregation and God. It’s quite a sobering thing, when we consider Jesus’s words in this light.

Eugene Peterson translates verse 22 as “Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire.” So, our angry words and thoughts towards others do great harm to our insides.

Jesus is serious when He refers to calling someone “stupid.” “He uses a term that calls into question the other person’s morality–it might be the equivalent of calling someone “a dirty rat,” someone you don’t trust for a second.” Another way of looking at it? Jesus is decrying our belittling of people’s mental powers and our belittling of their moral status. “Let your anger get the best of you in simmering grudge-bearing,” Jesus says, “and sooner or later you’ll start to denounce the people around you as stupid and immoral–as not worthy of your time.” [3]

That is not the kind of relationship Jesus wants us to have! Not with our neighbors, not with those in the church. Not with those in our community, and not with those on the other side of the state line, or the country’s border, or the ocean. What did Jesus say? Quoting from the Message again: “If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

We have been shocked, and warned. We are all scared down to our shoes by the words of Jesus. What is our next step? What does Jesus say? Jesus gives us some really valuable advice. Action steps, if you will. Jesus does say not to wait too long to do this! We can name the problem that makes us angry and figure out something to do about it.  The Gospel of Matthew says, “be reconciled” with the person who made you angry. That means work it out with them. Figure out how to solve the problem, or the quarrel, or the bad feelings between you. That is not easy. Frequently it helps to get advice or help from other people. [4]

I have known people who hold grudges for years, even decades. On the block where I grew up, two neighbors had a huge fight with each other. One of the neighbors was a sour old man who lived alone. He built a grudge fence, eight feet high, so he would not have to see his neighbor’s yard—less than six feet from his house. The grudge fence stood until he died.

This Gospel reading reaches right out of the Bible and shakes us up. We can even be interrupted in church. If we remember a grudge in the middle of a worship service, Jesus tells us to go, and make it right. Apologize, if we need to. (And, Jesus will help us.)

Right relationships come from the heart. Jesus doesn’t say this until later in the Gospel, but now is a great time to remember: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Which neighbor? The neighbor we are angry at. The family member we called “idiot.” Say we are sorry. Apologize. Then, God will truly be pleased with us, and with our worship.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-6a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel February 06, 2017 The Lectionary Gospel —  Matthew 5:21-37, Author: Scott Hoezee

 

[2] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_12_2017  “Heartfelt,” Karen Georgia Thompson, Sermon Seeds, 2017.

 

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-6a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel February 06, 2017 The Lectionary Gospel —  Matthew 5:21-37, Author: Scott Hoezee

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-sixth-sunday-after-epiphany-sixth.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 6, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)