Today with Protestants all over the world, we honor the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517–the eve of All Saints Day–the Augustinian monk Martin Luther delivered the 95 Theses, challenging Pope Leo X’s selling of indulgences. The pope was raising funds to pay for the grand new St. Peter’s—the church we know today. After centuries of neglect, the derelict 4th century Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome had been torn down. Leo authorized priests to travel around Europe preaching and selling papal indulgences. Those writs were spiritual snake oil—a “get out of purgatory free” pass. They promised that the pope would absolve ALL of the purchasers’ sins when they died.
Who wouldn’t pay for a non-stop trip to Heaven?
Luther knew that no one but God could forgive sins beyond this life. He was outraged at the pope’s mendacity, his abuse of authority and his preying on poor peasants’ fears of damnation. Luther’s theses are a point-by-point refutation of the expansive powers the pope had assumed, and of the validity of the indulgences themselves. Although Luther’s aim was to reform the Catholic church, his challenge to the universal power claimed by the pope unleashed a tidal wave of Reformation movements across Europe.
The 95 Theses were a learned argument, addressed to Luther’s theological peers. In fact, Luther was also speaking truth to power on behalf of millions of simple people who had neither power nor voice.
Jesus was doing the same in the gospel we just heard—speaking truth to religious authorities and empowering the masses. Teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus had been “tested” by one group of authorities after another. Now it’s the Pharisees’ turn; they were guardians of the “holiness” of Israel, specialists in the complex purity code imbedded in the Torah. In Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees are also Jesus’ prime opponents; they have already plotted to kill him (12:14).
When they challenge Jesus to name the greatest commandment among the hundreds in the Torah, Jesus wisely begins with the first of the Ten given by God to Moses. “You shall love The Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul and with all of your mind.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He takes another from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus pairs and even equates the second in importance with the first and greatest commandment.
Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Jesus declares that all of God’s will, laid out in hundreds of laws in the Torah and proclaimed by the prophets, flows from these.
Jesus made love the law of God. His simple summary put the meaning of God’s law in the hands of the people—freeing them from the fear of their own ignorance. In effect, he said “You don’t need to spend your life studying the Torah; you don’t even need to be literate. You don’t need to bow to the knowledge of uppity religious teachers”. In answering his examiners, Jesus subverted their power as well.
And, like Luther, Jesus laid the foundations of a new faith.
Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. So simple to say. So very, very hard truly to live! The author of Luke/Acts made that point with the story of the Good Samaritan, which turned Hebrew prejudice upside down: the normally-despised Samaritan is the loving neighbor–the only one who cared for a man who had been robbed and left for dead.
Jesus calls all of his followers to radical love. It’s not about loving folks we feel close to, folks we like, folks we are related to and have to love whether we actually like them or not. It’s about loving those we are least inclined to love, including ourselves.
Healthy love of self may be the hardest part; and it is essential. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not love yourself.
How on earth do we do it? First, realize that it takes a lifetime! So says The Rev. Ed Bacon in his book 8 Habits of Love. Bacon is Rector Emeritus of All Saints, Pasadena, CA, one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country, famous for its social justice work. The book comes out of decades of his preaching and teaching on how to live into the radical love of neighbor and self.
Bacon’s eight habits are: generosity, stillness, truth, candor, play, forgiveness, compassion and community. Each habit helps open us to the “core of sacredness”, the true self, the indwelling blessedness of God.
Each habit helps us overcome fear.
Today, as we celebrate our commitment to another year of our common life at St. John’s, I want briefly to touch on Bacon thoughts on the habit of community.
He wrote: “Community conquers fear in a way that no other habit does: it conquers the central fear—perhaps our deepest fear—that we are essentially alone in the world.” “We need community, in whatever form we find or create it, to give us courage, to inspire us to change, and hold us accountable.”
Community holds values that none of us can sustain alone. Ed summarizes that gift in these words: “I am because we are.”
As each of us moves through life, we participate in a variety of communities: in places of business, neighborhoods, schools, sports, service and social groups. Each of these communities holds and supports a set of values—be they implicit or explicit.
The community of faith, the church, differs from other communities in important ways. For starters, the church is the one community whose vision and purpose transcend time to embrace all of the stages of a life, from birth through death and beyond. It transcends geography, too. The church is both global and local: we are one with the faithful on every continent, in every culture.
The central value of the church is love: love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Church brings us back week after week—in Word and sacrament–to dwell in the blessed truth that each of us is beloved of God, and then sends us out to be that love for others. The church creates ways to share God’s love within the walls of the church and in the wider world. St. John’s ministries, for example, make us partners in God’s love with communities in Haiti, Guatemala and in different parts of our own city.
Because we are—we the community of St. John’s--I am. I am much more than I could ever be on my own. Together we hold and do our best to live the values of love, including: generosity, justice, service, compassion, faith, forgiveness, trust, hospitality, respect, vulnerability, truth telling, candor, and play! Thanks be to God!
As we move forward in faith and hope, may God continue to bless this community on the joyful and liberating journey of growing daily into love of God, love of neighbor and healthy love of self.