Pentecost 13 | Proper 18 | Lectionary 23A
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Law and Love, Pastor Kinsey
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;” says St Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
The Commandments, perhaps the showcase of the law, as Paul talks about them, are deceptive in their simplicity. We often say the first ones are the hardest to keep, and they get smaller and easier as you go down the list. But have you ever tried going through the day, even one hour, without coveting something of your neighbor’s, the 10th and last Commandment?
The author A.J. Jacobs did just that, and realized, it’s darn near impossible! And he wrote a book about it called, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” A.J. Jacobs tried to follow all the laws in the bible, over 700 he found, including the 10 Commandments. His book is said to be, a very funny and poignant read. Jacobs grew up in a Jewish household, he says, but we were only a Jewish family, like the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant!
Some laws he found more logical than others. As an agnostic and a work-a-holic, he was pleasantly surprised that, “Keeping the Sabbath” actually did what it was intended to do, give him a holy and a set-apart-space, in his life, a “sanctuary in time.” Or, the precept from Ecclesiastes 9:8, “Let your garments be always white.” Jacobs followed this literally, he said, by wearing white pants, a white shirt and a white jacket. And he said, he felt lighter, happier, and purer, which was one of the best things he did all year.
Among the Most Baffling Rules, especially to our 21st century minds, Jacobs found, was, You shall not wear a “garment of cloth made of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:19). That pretty much excludes everything we wear today, except very expensive linen, or wool only, suits and dresses.
There were also, Rules That I Successfully Kept The Entire Year Without Violating Even Once, for example, Leviticus 18:18, “You shall not marry your wife’s sister”! And, Most Difficult Rules to Follow, like, Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not trim the corners of your beard.” And, Rules Violated At Least One Time Per Day, like, “Be slow to anger,” Proverbs 19:11, and the 10th Command: “You Shall Not Covet,” which, Jacob’s says, is like asking someone, not to breathe!
Jacobs’ plan was to follow the bible as literally as possible for a whole year. He also spent time embedded with various fundamentalist groups, from creationists to snake handlers, Hasidim to the Amish. Doing that, however, he found that even Fundamentalists don’t follow everything in the bible literally, but they end up picking and choosing.
Jacobs was also aware that having never been formed in the faith before, he’d need to have a plan to take the spiritual requirements and precepts seriously. So he went on the theory that Counselors and therapists use, called, cognitive dissonance. If you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change, to conform to your behavior. If you act like you’re faithful, and God loving, for several months, it may be that you will become, faithful and God loving. If you pray every day, then maybe you’ll start to believe in the Being to whom you’re praying. Practicing this over the course of a year’s time, he finds that, in large part, it works, that his behavior and practice has a definite impact on his beliefs and his attitudes, like the surprising positive effect of Ecclesiastes 9:8, “Let your garments be always white.”
All this makes him wonder, what comes first—one’s actions or one’s beliefs? The chicken or the egg?
Well, if you read Paul’s letter to the Romans, or any of his writings, the surprising answer is – neither one, comes first! Action doesn’t come first, nor does belief. What comes first is the love of God!
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says Paul, and like always wearing white, you’ll learn how God’s love can be, and is, the initiator of both our beliefs and actions! Put on Christ, and your actions will always follow your beliefs – and your beliefs will follow your actions – because of the unbounded grace and love which comes unmerited to us, in Christ Jesus.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor;” Paul concludes, “therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law,” Romans 13:10. Not knowing Mr. Jacobs, it would be wrong for me to say that, in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, he has rediscovered St. Paul’s insight into the bible. But there does seem to be agreement between the two of them, that following every law is darn near impossible. St. Paul would say that this does not take away from the holiness of God’s Law, with a capital L, but that it is human sin, which makes the commandments deadly! The solution, however, is not to dump the Law, but to deal with human sin.
Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding bishop of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has declared – if bishop’s can do that, declare stuff!? – that today is “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday! And Lutheran parishes across the country have signed up for service projects, from gardening to soup kitchens. Here at Unity we’re reaching out with Voter Registration. This is a non-partisan action, partnering with the community organization, ONE Northside. We don’t favor any candidates or parties. But our work in the world, as a people of faith, includes participating in government, and all institutions, which Martin Luther said was ‘our calling in the world’.
Participating in democracy – our form of government, of, and by the people – is often hard work, which is not unlike, fulfilling the law of love, that Paul talks about. It may seem easy on the surface, to sum up the commandments with, “love your neighbor as yourself,” – it is a kind of liberation, after all – but it is also a whole new challenge. The law of love often means writing a whole new script. In each and every situation, we must find where the loving thing to do, lies. The ‘rule of love’ is hard even in our own faith community, where everyone is welcome, but which, on the ground, means people we don’t know, with different backgrounds and experiences and cultures are suddenly our neighbor, our friend and pew-mate. “Thou shalt not kill,” it turns out, may be lots easier than ‘loving’ the person right next to us, reaching out a hand in friendship, accepting them as, an equally loved guest at the Table of Grace, sent by God!
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;” says St Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Formed in the faith, we know how love comes from God, who loves us unconditionally, and we find that living in community, with other believers, can be, and is, a great place to find support and grow, and to reach out to make the whole world a more loving and just place.
Let’s go out and register voters, then! That’s one way to live our values, and love our neighbor as ourselves. God has freed us up for the law of love – and, freed-up, we don’t owe anyone, our debts are cleared – and we learn to love more deeply, and for the sake of God’s created, and very good, world.