Monday, October 20, 2014

Summary of the Law or Grace?

Like many Episcopal Churches, the church where I serve has an early service that uses Rite I and a later service that uses Rite II. Those things never vary. I’ve been in other churches where the later service is sometimes Rite I and sometimes Rite II (my personal preference), but I’ve never been in a church where the early service alternates. It’s always the beautiful and anachronistic language of our Anglican heritage: “…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness…”

Some people cannot stand the traditional, often more penitential language of our Rite I worship. Others adore it (and by “adore” I mean “cross the line from liking something to worshiping something”). Whatever your persuasion, I hope you can hear the wonderful beauty and simplicity of the “Summary of the Law” that is delivered right after the Collect for Purity and right before the Kyrie/Gloria/Trisagion/Hymn-of-Praise: “Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…” It’s a two-fold approach to all that God has asked of his people that still resonates today.

This Sunday, our gospel lesson (Matt. 22:34-46) is that beautiful thing that our Lord Jesus Christ saith, but this week we get it in context, and, because it’s the gospel reading, we get it at all three services—Rite I and Rite II and the EOW service at 5pm. What will the preacher say?

I could say that it’s a wonderful summary of the two “tablets” of the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments. #1-4 are all about our relationship with God (No other gods, no graven image, name in vain, sabbath) and #5-10 are about our relationship with each other (father and mother, no killing, no adultery, etc.). Surely Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to make this connection. The Ten Commandments themselves were a summary of the law—the distillation of generations of societal boundaries discovered and wrought in a theocratic context. But looking back doesn’t really excite me. Sure, it’s interesting to someone who went to seminary where these laws and Jesus’ summary of them came from, but what will that give those of us who come to worship this Sunday?

I want to look forward, and, for me, that feels like an exploration of why we still speak Jesus’ summary of the law each and every week. Even if we’ve omitted it from the Rite II service, it is at least preserved in the Rite I service, but why? Although it’s a beautiful summary, I think it actually gets in the way of a message of grace. Jesus’ summary is itself a looking back. The Pharisees come to him and test him by asking which commandment is greatest, and he offers this summary in reply. This is about the law—the Law of Moses, not the grace of the cross and empty tomb.

I have a parishioner who is as committed to the gospel as any man I have ever met. He doesn’t volunteer for everything, nor does he live out his faith in some constant quest for affirmation. He’s a mostly quiet fellow who, as I perceive him, wakes up every morning wrestling with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. His questions, his comments, his insights are all powerful, but one subject that he confesses continues to trip him up is grace. Often, when we talk about what grace really is, he will point to this summary of the law. “Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbor, and that’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” But is it?

Maybe it’s appropriate that, in the Rite I service, the Summary of the Law is immediately followed by the Kyrie or the Gloria. Jesus delivers to us the distillation of God’s expectations, and then, in light of our complete and utter inability to meet those expectations, we cry out, “Lord have mercy upon us” or, in the Easter season, proclaim “Glory be to God on high…” for that is our only hope.

This week, I’m looking for a sermon on the Summary of the Law that doesn’t put boundaries on my faith—what I should and shouldn’t do. I’m looking for a sermon that proclaims the gracious response to God in light of my failure even to love him or my neighbor. What could be more basic that loving God and loving each other? Well, the fact that I can’t do that on my own. Jesus is God’s response to the greatest commandment. Maybe all the law hangs on those two sentences, but it also hangs on the cross. That’s where I’m headed this week. What about you?

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