Sunday, January 17, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Love is the Fundamental Revolution"

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

“A Mount Rushmore of My Soul: Who Influences Your Faith?” Week Two

Two months ago to the day, the story appeared in American media, after having lit the airwaves in a France that was absolutely reeling in shock over the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris that killed hundreds of people.  As the City of Light strove to continue flickering, journalists from the world over flocked to Paris to interview just about anyone they could find…including a young boy, who was with his father at one of the many memorials that had sprung up in the wake of the attacks.

The journalist decides to interview the boy—because, why not, apparently, it's not like grown adults have struggled with the question of why Paris happened—and the boy, who could not have been more than five or six, understandably tries to articulate the deep-seated insecurity and fear that comes with being a child and worrying about massive consequences for things entirely out of your tiny little hands.

So the father interjects to allay his son’s fears, and…well, here is the whole transcript:

Journalist: Do you understand what’s happened?  Do you understand why these people have done this?
Boy: Yes, because they are very, very, very bad.  Bad people aren’t very nice.  And you have to be very careful because you need to move house.
Father: No, don’t worry, we don’t have to move.  France is our home.
Boy: But what about the baddies, Dad?
Father: There are baddies everywhere.  There are bad guys everywhere.
Boy: They’ve got guns.  They can shoot us because they’re very, very bad, Daddy.
Father: They’ve got guns but we have flowers.
Boy: But flowers don’t do anything.  They’re for…they’re for…they’re for…
Father: Look, everyone is laying flowers here.
Boy: Yes.
Father: It’s to fight against the guns.
Boy: Is it for protection?
Father: That’s right.
Boy: And the candles too?
Father: They’re so we don’t forget the people who have gone.
Boy: Oh.  The flowers and candles are there to protect us?
Father: Yes.
Journalist: Do you feel better now?
Boy: Yes, I feel better.

Believe it or not, the father’s name is Angel—Angel Le.  And of course that is what his name would be; for someone heralding, proclaiming, and championing love as a form of protection, as a fundamental safeguard against evil, that is an angel’s job.  And as Christians, it is our job as well.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning last week with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing today with Soren Kierkegaard.  By the time we finish talk about all four of them, we will be ready to enter February and the church season of Lent, which is amazing to think since we just finished celebrating Christmas!

When you think of the saccharine sweetness of Christmas, though, with the egg nog and gingerbread and candy canes, Soren Kierkegaard would have none of it.  If Oscar the Grouch were a theologian, he’d be Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish theologian and philosopher, widely credited with the invention of existentialism, who famously said that because we enter the world crying and leave it groaning, life could not possibly be meant to be enjoyed.  Except that even Kierkegaard’s perpetual grumpiness cannot throw shade upon his absolute faith in God’s love, as he writes:

Love is a change, the most remarkable of all.  Love is a revolution, the most profound of all but the most blessed!  With love, too, there comes confusion.  But in this life-giving confusion there is no distinction between mine and yours.  Remarkable!  There are a “you” and an “I” and yet no “mine” and “yours!”  For without you and I there is no love, and with mine and yours there is no love.  This is why love is the fundamental revolution.  The deeper the revolution, the most the distinction between mine and yours disappears, and the more perfect is the love.

Love is the fundamental revolution, Kierkegaard says, and he so says because his Messiah, and ours, so said all the way back in Roman-occupied Israel.  And Jesus says this in response to something quite unloving: the continued testing of Him and His authority by His opponents within the Jewish temple leadership: the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and other teachers of the law.

They ask Jesus what the most important of the laws are—and keep in mind, there are 613 such laws in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea is, how can Jesus pick just one?  If He does, His opponents can say, “Well, what about this law or that law, how can it not be as important?”  It was a way for His opponents who were increasingly desperate to discredit Him to finally be able to do so.

But Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of their question.  He says there is not one most important law, but two: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind (Deuteronomy 6:5), and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

But then Jesus completely erases the premise of the question posed to Him.  He says, “All of the Law and the Prophets (basically, the entire Hebrew Bible) depend on these two commands.”

Nothing like that had been taught by the temple teachers before.  At all.  The Sadducees didn’t even take anything beyond the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) as Scripture, in no small part because the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were constantly taking the people in power to task for not looking out for the interests of the people they led—essentially, what the Sadducees themselves were guilty of—and the Pharisees were likewise interested more in keeping their hands on the levers of power rather than serving the interests of Israel.  Neither represented their people.

So in one sentence, Jesus completely revolutionized the way we are meant to interpret and live out that same Hebrew Bible.  Basically, if we are not both loving God and loving other people, it does not matter whether we are adhering to the other 611 laws in the Old Testament, because those 611 laws are rendered moot by our inability to follow the other two, the most important and fundamental of the two.  In this way, Jesus does for us what Kierkegaard would later proclaim: Jesus made love a fundamental revolution for humanity.

That revolution, though, is something we have to experience, must experience for ourselves before we can pass it along to others, to our children, as this one father in Paris, Angel, did for his little boy after the terrorist attacks there.  It is not enough to simply read it in a book or to hear it said on Sunday mornings.  It must be lived, and lived thoroughly.

This is what mattered for someone like Kierkegaard, and, I think, why it matters for someone like me as well: faith is something that must be lived.  That’s a simple notion, but such a profoundly important one.  Faith must be experienced.  It cannot simply be said, or taught, or worse, taught disingenuously.  It must be, has to be, lived out.

When it is lived out, Kierkegaard says, there will indeed be confusion.  And I imagine there well was for some who saw this clip of Angel comforting his son.  What on earth is a candle and its light good for against terrorists arrayed with firearms and explosives?  How could flowers possibly help us in a circumstance such as this?

But they help because they remind us that there is no revolution greater, no revolution more fundamental, no revolution more divine in either mandate or origin, than the revolution of love.

That is why Jesus had to answer His opponents the way He did on that day in Jerusalem, so close to the ultimate expression of His love for us: His crucifixion and resurrection.

And because of that resurrection, millions, billions more would hear and then live the story.  They would live that revolution of love for themselves.  People like the others in this series—like Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.  People like Martin Luther King, Jr., whose day tomorrow honors not just him but the fundamental equality he stood for, strove for, and longed for.

People, I pray, like each of us as well.  May we be so blessed, so incredibly, inexplicably, and undeservedly fortunate, to join them in their life’s work of making this creation a more lovely, and loving, place.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 17, 2016

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