The holy gospel according to Matthew .
Glory to you, O Lord.
When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] 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.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
The gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
500 years. Every so often I get into this mind space where I start thinking about what kind of seemingly small thing one of us might do that could lead to something bigger, that leads to something bigger, that ends up changing the world. And today, we mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of a church in Wittenberg to argue that the church had to change.
Things were not right. And now, 500 years later, ⅛ of the people on the planet call themselves Protestant. It started with just one seemingly small thing. Martin Luther is a complicated person- and just as there are things which he might claim with great pride as Lutherans, there are also some really terrible aspects of the person of Martin Luther as well. His anti-semitic writings are painful to read, many times he sided with those in power instead of with the peasants. And yet, there are also things that have stayed with us- his belief and writings on grace through faith apart from works. His naming of all people as priests- able to know for themselves what God tries to communicate through scripture. His ability to see the holiness in the everyday- in being a parent, a husband, in drinking beer, and telling really awful jokes. And every year, Lutherans celebrate the reformation, this special day when we turn the paraments to red and underline the importance of what it means to be a church that is constantly reforming, protesting, naming what is wrong.
And I’m guessing that a lot of you feel like things are wrong all the time now. Whether it is the rescinding of DACA, or the constant fight to repeal health care, or the travel ban, it is just one thing after another after another. I find myself vacillating between feeling so deeply angry and so deeply sad all the time. I sign petitions, I show up at protests, I post on social media, I talk about what it happening in the world around us, but nothing seems like enough, because the hits just keep on coming, and the bright spots, the victories seem much further and farther between than they should be.
Raising a three year old in the midst of this political milieu, explaining why we as a family are at a protest, what it means when we yell out no justice, no peace, all of that it not exactly something I read about in a parenting book. But, a surprising moment of living in this world in need of reform happened a few months ago after a particularly difficult week in our political world. Josh and I were getting Sam ready for bed, and, as is the custom in our house, asked him who he wanted to pray for that night. Usually, the responses are things like- grandma, grandpa, the bus driver, people who work for the CTA. But on that night, for reasons I don’t quite know, Sam looked very seriously at Josh and I and said, I want to pray for Donald Trump.
I will confess to you now, that though I was able to stay quiet, it was almost like my son had just let out a string of swear words. What I wanted to say was we don’t pray for Donald Trump, look at what he is doing to our world!
We don’t say his name in prayers, because prayers are sacred and sweet, and part of our bed time routine, and hearing a name like that just ruins it all. It’s like the name of someone who has turned our political world upside down, he spews hate against person after person, who hurts those we love and those we minister alongside, I didn’t want to hear that name in that holy moment, the holy moment of saying prayers before bedtime.
It is holiness that concerns both Jesus, in our text from Matthew, and surrounds our passage from Leviticus for this day. Leviticus, arguably one of the more difficult to read books of the Old Testament is deeply concerned with holiness, it is the book that includes all the passages that people argue about when it comes to biblical literalism. It prohibits things like wearing clothes made of two different fibers, getting tattoos, and it includes some often cited texts that are used to exclude and harm our queer siblings.
So, it isn’t all that often that we read Leviticus with an eye toward seeing what it does have to say to us, what it might communicate to us about how to live in this world in which we inhabit now. Most of the time it seems just like an arcane old manuscript that simply no longer applies. But today we hear from Leviticus a command- you shall be Holy, because the Lord your God is holy. Now, it isn’t all that often that most of us claim to be holy, in fact, it seems like the word holy ought to be reserved for people who are self-righteous. Holier than thou, even. But Leviticus stakes a claim on the people of God- you shall be holy, because that’s what God is. And holiness, it isn’t something that other people do, it isn’t reserved for priests and the uber-religious, in Leviticus holiness is really about the everyday stuff- the way we live now, and most of all, holiness is about how we live together.
Holiness, when you dig into Leviticus isn’t exactly a checklist about how to be better than others, it concerns some things we might consider easy- what to eat or not eat, but more than that, it concerns how we live our lives- how our hearts are turned toward or away from our neighbors.
Holiness is about dealing truthfully with those we interact with everyday, paying living wages, acting with justice in all our dealings, leaving enough so that the poorest and most outcast can take what they need, it means willing good for our neighbors and working toward that good for all people, because we are holy just as God is holy. As one author writes- it is both a command and a promise- you shall be holy. These codes- about justice, and fair wages, and loving, and leaving enough, when we live by them, then we look and act more like God does. Holiness isn’t for other people- the super spiritual, holiness is for us, regular people, living regular lives.
It isn’t surprising, then, that when we encounter Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, it is this holy loving, this way of living in relationship with others that takes center stage. We are in the midst of Jesus being questioned over and over again, and this question might seem innocent enough- what is the greatest commandment? Sort of like, what is your favorite bible verse, not the kind of thing you would expect to get you arrested, but this question was hotly debated at the time. Some suggested that all laws were exactly the same, others that there were some more important than others. Select the wrong law as the most important and you could find yourself in trouble with any number of people. So, this is where they try to trap Jesus.
What law is the greatest? What Jesus answers with first, is what is called the Shema- a prayer that was said by Jewish people every morning and every night. You are to the love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and mind. The greatest commandment of all is that we love God. But there is a second part to this, and they can’t really be separated. You also have to love God’s people, both you and your neighbor. You are to love your neighbor as yourself, which means you have to find a way to love who you are, who God has made you to be, and love your neighbor the same way. You can’t love God and hate God’s people, no more than you can love people and hate God or love God but hate yourself. Something always remains broken.
And this love is more than just feelings. It isn’t about having really good feelings toward God or your neighbor. This isn’t romantic comedy love, or love that gives you butterflies. It is about so much more than just a feeling, or a passion, the love that we are commanded to have for God and for neighbor is the kind of love that is active- it is the love that gets down into the muck and the mire, the love that is grace, the love that is mercy. It is love that always seeks the best for the other, always wants more goodness for the one who is beloved. This is not the love that is easy, it is the love that is hard. It is the love that is found in the doing, not just the feeling. It is love that serves the neighbor, it is the kind of love that allows us to be merciful, good, graceful even to our enemies. It is the kind of love that is lived out in action, even to those we don’t particularly like.
It is these things together that really convicts me when it comes to praying for those who seem so bent on the personal destruction of vulnerable people in our midst. When my son asks me to pray for Donald Trump, and deep within me something rises up and says no, well, when I read these texts, I’m pretty convicted that the answer is actually yes. But, it isn’t just a simple yes, it is complicated by what Leviticus means by loving and what Jesus says about it as well.
Because love is not simply a midwestern-nice kind of okay, love is an active verb, it means calling people to account, it means not only telling but also showing people how to live lives that are holy. Lives that are marked by justice and by honesty, that are lived for the good of the neighbor, that echo the holiness that is God’s alone. It means justice and mercy, goodness and grace, and so our prayers are not simply things we throw away, but one way that we ask God not only to lead our neighbors into holy lives, but to strengthen us to both live out this holiness and demand it from others. So this is the commandment- love, love God with your heart, with your mind, with your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s it. That’s holiness, holy love, holy living. It’s the hardest work we will do as Christians, and the reason we need each other, because loving and living like that, it doesn’t always come naturally. Love is the goal, and, in the greatest surprise of all, loving God, loving each other, learning to love ourselves is the way to get there.
Amen and thanks be to God.