Here I Stand
Fifth in the series: Bearing Fruit
First Lesson: Romans 3:19-26
Second Lesson: Matthew 22:34-40
Rev. Scott Dickison
500 years ago this Tuesday, a promising but yet unknown monk in Germany named Martin Luther tacked a document containing 95 theses, or arguments, he wished to take up with the Church in Rome, onto the door of the church there—the public bulletin board of sorts. This singular act would be the spark to ignite a movement of reform and renewal within the church that would quite literally alter the course of Church and human history that we know as the Protestant Reformation.
But while the tacking of the theses is dramatic and important and all of that, this journey started for Luther some years before, when in seminary he suffered from what today we might describe as crippling anxiety. Luther was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and shame, and fear that his longing to please God and live up to his calling as a priest wouldn’t be enough.
As the story goes, it all culminated one evening when he sat up in a room in the tower there on campus and mediated over the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans we heard earlier, when Paul speaks, somewhat confusingly, I think we can confess, about the righteousness of God and essentially argues, as Luther would understand it, that it’s through the gift of God’s grace that we receive through faith that we stand justified before God. Only this grace has power to save us, not anything we could do by ourselves. That night in the tower Luther heard these words that he’d surely read many times with new ears, realizing, in a sense, that his salvation was not up to him, but up to God, or what God has done through Jesus, and so he could release himself from this guilt.
It was a watershed moment. These verses, for Luther, were revealed to be the heart of it all. They got to what was most important about the Christian life and faith, that at the center of it all was not our own righteousness or unrighteousness, but God’s incredible, indelible grace, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For Luther this was the most important thing, the centrality of God’s grace, revealed in Jesus—not the church, not good deeds, those things were important. But what was most important was Jesus, and for this truth, this conviction, this commitment, he would risk all else.
This is at the heart of in any movement of reform or renewal in the church: refocusing the church on what’s thought to be most important, that for various reasons is thought to have ossified through the years, or gotten stale and cold and moved to the periphery. It was even true of Jesus’ movement. Jesus, it appears, didn’t set out to create a new religion called Christianity. He was a Jew and set out to recenter or renew or reform the faith of Israel, and sought to do this by focusing or refocusing their attention on what he knew to be most important, most clearly stated here in the 22nd chapter of Matthew.
This is the end of a days-long encounter between Jesus and various opposition groups at the temple and here he’s given one final question, Teacher, which commandment in the law is greatest? He responds with the words that you know so well, they’re words we cite as such as any in Scripture here. In fact, they’re the first words of Scripture our children here at the church are taught to memorize, ‘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, again, Jesus isn’t saying anything new, here. His answer would have been expected, at least the first part. He’s quoting from central passages of Scripture in Judaism. The first commandment comes from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy and is so central to Judaism it has its own name, the Shema. The second comes from the 19th chapter of Leviticus and was well-known, too. In fact, there’s even some evidence that others before him read these two commandments together, so Jesus isn’t clearing any new ground here. He’s summarizing what God has always wanted, and what he’s been saying and doing throughout his life, as it’s nearing its end. And the timing here seems important.
You see, Mark and Luke both tell versions of this story but place them earlier on in Jesus’ ministry. But Matthew puts it here, at the end of this long conversation he’d had with his opponents where they’d tried to trip him up with obscurities and politics and hypothetical situations. A conversation which takes place in the last week of his life—in just a few days time he will hang on the cross. And so these words serve as a kind of final statement for Jesus. They wrap up his public teaching ministry that began way back in the 5th chapter of Matthew when he climbed the mountain there by the Sea of Galilee and preached saying, I didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This is his closing argument. This is the heart of Scripture, the measure of God’s dream for us and the life of the world outlined in the words of Scripture. Love of God and love of neighbor. What was different in Jesus wasn’t the content of his message, to love God with everything we have and love our neighbors as ourselves, but just how far he would take them. The lengths he would go to live them. And this is really what he meant by love in the first place. It’s what the whole of Scripture means by love.
Love in Scripture has little to do with feelings. You can’t be commanded to love someone or something any more than you would be commanded to find a joke funny. That’s not really how it works. Love, the way Jesus means it, and the way the whole of Scripture means it, has less to do with affection and more to do with commitment. To love God, the way Jesus means it, isn’t to feel warm and fuzzies about God—although you may have those, when you look at your life and stand in awe of the blessings you’ve been given, you children, your grandchildren, you relationships, the sunrise, the sunset, the falling leaves—there are so many things that may inspire this sense of affection for God, but this isn’t what Jesus means when he says to love God with all that you have. To love God is to be committed to God. It means standing with God, working with God. It means being committed to the things to which God is committed: committed to peace and justice. Committed to compassion and mercy and generosity. Committed to patience and hope. Committed to joy. Committed to love. To love God is to love what God loves. To be committed to these things. But it also means to love who God loves, and be committed to them.
And to love your neighbor is like it. Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean liking your neighbor. This may come as a relief. God doesn’t command you to feel warm fuzzies about your neighbor, although opening yourself up to the possibility that your neighbor is worthy of such things, or that there are people in the world who do feel that way about them, probably wouldn’t hurt. To love your neighbor is to be committed to your neighbor. Not committed to what your neighbor is committed to, per se, after all, they may not be committed to the things of God. But committed to seeing your neighbor do well. Committed to her well-being, her flourishing. Loving your neighbor is wanting the best for your neighbor--in concrete ways. Commitment is always concrete.
It means being committed that your neighbor have the same opportunities you enjoy. It means being committed that your neighbor’s neighborhood is safe, that they have a place to live, that they have opportunities to work and contribute. That your neighbor’s kids have good schools, that they have warm coats and full bellies. That they feel loved. This is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself: to be committed to working on their behalf, committed to living your own life with them in mind. It’s a tall order, and cuts against some of our most basic fears and prejudices and insecurities—many of which have been validated in different ways in our own life. And yet Jesus shows us just how far we’re to take it. All the way to the cross.
There’s another part of Luther’s story that’s grabbed me over these last few weeks. It came 4 years after his tacking of the theses, in 1521. His ideas had caught fire all across Europe, making Luther into something of a celebrity, but also a target. He eventually landed before the imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire which would decide if he should be condemned as a heretic or not.
As the story goes, when Luther arrived at the court he was told he would not have an opportunity to argue his positions, and instead was asked to either recant or not, a simple yes or no. He was stunned and asked for the night to think. His request was granted, and Luther retired for a long night. He pondered his options. If he didn’t recant, he would almost certainly be executed. If he did recant, he would possibly live, but would be living a lie, for he was as convicted about the grace of God and the power of the cross as he was anything.
In the morning he was taken before the court, and read this statement:
Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.
Here I stand.
Now, it turns out Luther may not have said those exact words, "Here I stand," but we'll go with it! It’s certainly in line with how he lived. And to his surprise, Luther was allowed to live, after this statement, though he was declared an imperial outlaw.
There is a danger in lifting up these singular stories of courage and conviction because they have a way of blinding us from the mundane, everyday, hardly noticeable ways in which we commit ourselves to loving God and our neighbor. Commitments are lived out quietly. So quiet, at times, we forget we’re even living them—which is not a bad thing. In fact, this is what we want: for our commitments to be so close to us that they’re simply who we are.
But all the same, from time to time it’s good to have those reminders. To have a time set aside when we’re given an opportunity to reaffirm commitments. We don’t need to renew our wedding vows every day to remain committed to our spouse, but to carve out time every so often to celebrate your relationship, to honor what you’ve done together, and to recommit yourselves to each other, this is important.
And so it is with us as a church. Next Sunday is our Commitment Sunday: the Sunday each year that we set aside to lift up the ways we’ve committed ourselves to each other through the years, and commit once again to doing the same. We all parade down to the little model church and drop our pledge cards in the slot. I know some of you have mixed feelings about this tradition: that it’s a little hokey or showy, the way we parade our pledge cards down, and may be it is those things. But it’s also powerful.
It’s a moving sight to see the whole church coming down the aisle, families walking down together, children being lifted up to drop the card in. Youth dropping their cards in for the first time. Older folks, making their way more slowly than they once did, but making their way down because they know no other way—their witness to the rest of us growing with each step. Old and young, we come. Strong backed or weak knees, we all come—from the choir loft or the chancel, the front pew the back row, we come. What’s written on the card isn’t important, or even if we have a card at all. What’s important is that we come, and recommit ourselves to each other and who we are together—and together is really at the heart of what it means to be church, because it’s at the heart of what it means to love God.
And I’m looking forward to next Sunday. Maybe more this year than in years past. I know these last several months have been a challenge. We’ve tested in some ways these ties that bind us together. Such personal conversations are exhausting, more exhausting than perhaps we even realize at the time.
And we’re still healing, I think, even as we celebrate the good, hard work we’ve done. And this is okay—it’s necessary, even.
But I can tell you I’ve never been more committed to this church and what God continues to do among us than I am today. I continue to be inspired by the quiet ways so many of you live out your commitment to love God and love your neighbor in this place and with this people. The way you show up for worship on Sunday, knowing there is housework to be done or homework or any number of other things. But you come, because you’ve made a commitment to these people. And many of you come on Sunday nights—having hung with us on this trial run of a schedule change that looking back on it was at least ill-timed—God bless you.
You teach our children, week in and week out, many of you for years. You arrange flowers, you visit the sick, you feed the hungry, you pray, and pray and pray. You give your money, so many of you generously. You live your commitment to God and to each other and to all the children of God outside this church in to many ways to count. In fact, the best way to count all these ways is next Sunday, and watching every person who walks down the aisle. And as you watch them, remembering that each and every one is offering the best of what they have to you and to us, and through God’s amazing grace it is somehow revealed to be enough. It is revealed to be the church.
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation series, 260
 Glenn S. Sunshine, The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, Westminster John Knox, 2005, 19-35