Proper XXV Sermon, Year A, "One Law, Only."

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Ex. 22:21-27; Ps.1 I Thess. 2: 1-8; Math. 22:34-46

I am a big fan of the Law & Order television series. In fact it would be accurate to say that I have an addiction to the Law & Order programs. I love all three of the series present incarnations: the original Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Actually the seed of this addition was sown while I was in seminary, where a group of students would gather each Wednesday evening in Seabury's Bottom -the student lounge- to watch the original program.

The reasons for the students interest in this show varied. Certainly the quality of ensemble acting, especially that of Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach , and the intense drama they created, appealed to us. It also didn't hurt that Waterston is a good and faithful Episcopalian either. We all enjoy seeing, "one of our own" achieve good things. The fact that Law & Order frequently used General Seminary's facilities and grounds for shoots drew us as well. Seeing the familiar surroundings of our home on television was exciting, plus sometimes one of us actually could be spotted in the background. Now there was a real incentive to watch the show! I suspect that Law & Order's Nielson ratings rose a tic or two, just from students family and friends watching to catch a glimpse of their loved one on television! For us that was the "big time"!

But the real reason the series drew we seminarians - the reason that it still draws me to this day - is that Law & Order is about the law and it's fair and compassionate application to all people. This television series addresses a topic that I am passionate about: How does a society apply it's laws with justice and compassion, especially to victims of wrong-doing and oppression.

For followers of Jesus it is the issue of the law and how God calls us to it's fair and compassionate application toward all people, that is of primary importance to our faith.

We hear this topic of the law and it's application addressed in the Pharisees questioning of Jesus in our Gospel today. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?", one of them asks. Now as we hear this question, it's important to know that the Law of Moses contained 613 laws that the people were required to follow in order to be faithful. And so it was difficult for the average person to remember, never mind follow, all of them. In fact Jewish tradition believed that if one man, could for one day, follow the entire corpus of law without so much as one infraction, that the messiah would come: a daunting, if not impossible task.

But despite the shear volume of these rules and regulations, the Pharisees were sticklers about following the letter of the law - crossing every "T" and dotting every "i" - even though in the process they missed following the spirit of the law. For them all the law held equal weight. Thinking they are superior legal scholars, the Pharisees look to entrap Jesus with this tricky question. Which law is the most important?, they ask.

Jesus' response is brilliant, distilling all of the law down to it's essence. Just two laws are required to be followed he says. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

Just what does it means to love God and to love our neighbor? To understand what this entails, it's crucial to look at what Jesus says just a few verses prior to today's passage.

In our Gospel from last week, Jesus is asked by some religious officials - who are also trying to trip him up - about taxes, and whether it is lawful to pay them to the Roman emperor Caesar, or not? Jesus responds by asking them to see a coin of the realm. When they show him a denarius, he asks them whose image is on it? Just like our coins have images of Roosevelt, Lincoln, and other presidents, Roman coins bore images of the emperor. So the officials respond, that it's Caesar's image on the coin. And Jesus replies, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Well, what does it mean to render to God the things that are God's? What are God's things? Through the answer Jesus gives on taxes, we understand that the imprinted image on a thing is what determines ownership. The coin is Caesar's because his image is on it. It belongs to him, so we are to render it to him.

So what thing has God's image imprinted on it, that shows it belongs to God? Well, humans are. In Genesis, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." (Gen. 1: 26) We are made in God's image. God's image is imprinted on us. Ergo, when Jesus says to render to God the things that are God's, he is saying we are to render ourselves to God, because each and everyone of us belongs to God.

So when Jesus tell's us that the burdensome task of following all the 613 laws of Moses, can be distilled to just two - loving God and loving our neighbor - what he is truly saying is that there is just one law. The joining of our treatment of our neighbor, who has the image of God imprinted on them, to our love of God, ends up being the same law.

We cannot do one without doing the other. If we truly love God we are compelled to love our neighbor, regardless of who or what they are, because the image of God is imprinted on them. In the act of loving our neighbor, we simultaneously love God. Those who claim to love God and who are in enmity with other people, are not truly loving God. They are two pieces of a whole. One cannot be divested of the other. And when we follow this one law, we are applying the law of God with justice and compassion. This is the true fulfilment of religion as Jesus taught it.

So, how does this apply to our lives? In a globalized world, shrinking every day through communications, commerce, travel, immigration, and education, we are discovering new neighbors every day. Even if just through our television screens. But the reality is that we frequently don't see these new people as neighbors. They are people who appear to be very different from us. Pretty much they are not the folks who have lived next door to us for generations. They are different in color, religion, culture, and practice.

Often our initial reaction when confronted by people who are different from us is suspicion and fear: Fear of the unknown person. Fear of the unusual. Fear of what is alien to us. Fear is why the airwaves and print media are filled with vitriolic voices railing against those who are seen as different: Immigrants, Moslems, gay people, to name a few categories of people demonized by fear. (Although African-Americans, Jews and Hispanics certainly continue to suffer from this fear as well.) And what about the fear of the neighbor who holds different political views from our own? This fear is the source of some of the most vile demonizing in a distressingly polarized America today.

People who are afraid look to find sources to protect them from what they fear, and frequently that source is religion. Christians who fear something will turn to Jesus to find if there is someone they are NOT obligated to love. To inquire if there are circumstances under which certain people are beyond the reach of God's love. This fear fuels an enormous segment of contemporary Christianity. But in doing so these people come up empty handed. So in desperation they either contort Jesus' words to meet their needs, or revert back to those other 611 laws to justify their fears. And in the process they ignore Jesus' commandment to love God and neighbor.

Jesus' call to us in distilling the law to it's essence of love of neighbor who is imprinted with the image of God, compels each and every one of us to take the fullest extent of God's love, to the furthest reaches of that love . . . to every person whom God has made.

Instead of coming up with cleaver questions for Jesus like the Pharisees and Sadducees, looking for a way to exempt us from this law of love, God tells us to give this energy over to the call of love that is before us. The message of today's Gospel is the point of our faith: fulfilling the law is a call to see God in everyone, and to offer justice and compassion to them all.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, martyred by the Nazis during World War II wrote this: " We can love our kin and kith, our fellow countrymen and friends, whether we are Christian or not, and there is no need for Jesus to teach us that. [So] what does it mean to really be a Christian? . . . Unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries. In every case [this love] was fulfilled in the cross of Christ." (From The Cost of Discipleship, 1959)

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