Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Word about Luther's Small Catechism and the Ten Commandments

Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28
A homily for the people of
APLC San Antonio
March 8, 2017

Grace and peace to you from Jesus who is the Christ.  Amen.

As you’ve no doubt heard, this year is the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, that tumultuous period of protest and advocacy as some pastors and other church leaders sought to change and to reform the unjust systems which governed the lives of the common people in Europe at the time…primarily, the church.  (That’s why we are called Protestants.  Our traditions were born out of protest.) As we go through this Lenten season, we will be spending Wednesday nights hearing and thinking about some of the good work which our unwitting founder did…we’ll be talking about Martin Luther’s small catechism, and tonight we talk a little about the Ten Commandments.

Luther was frustrated about the faith formation that was (or more accurately was not) happening in Saxony and Meissen.  He wrote, “Dear God, what misery I beheld!  The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.  Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments!  As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom.
O you bishops!  How are you going to answer to Christ, now that you have so shamefully neglected the people and have not exercised your office for even a single second...Shame on you forever!”  (Luther was a passionate man.)[1]

But he wasn’t wrong.  For us to call ourselves Christian in any organized meaningful way, we must first proclaim Jesus is lord, but then also have a basic understanding of what exactly that means. So Luther wrote Luther’s Small Catechism and distributed it so that heads of households and pastors might teach everyone in their home or in their parishes what it means to be a follower of Christ.  Lutherans of all stripes use the Small Catechism to teach the basic tenets of Christianity still today.  How many of you had to memorize the whole thing for confirmation?  Or for seminary or college?  Me, too.

In our scripture reading tonight, Moses takes two tablets of stone up the mountain as God has commanded and stands before the Lord.  And the Lord says, “God is a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true…forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.  But not ignoring sin.”

Moses falls to the ground and worships God and says, “God, if you see anything good in me, please go with us.  And although we are stiff-necked, hard-headed and obstinate, forgive us our sins.  Own us and possess us.”

And God says, “Alright, Moses, but write this down.  By these words I’ll make a covenant with you and Israel.”  And Moses wrote down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

And Moses wrote them down as a whole bunch of “you better not’s”.  With the exception of the 4th commandment, all of these commandments are written in the negative.

But Luther takes these commandments, the words of the covenant as written down by Moses, and in the tradition of Jesus, he flips them.  Turns them upside down.  Makes them positive and expands them.

“You shall have no other gods” becomes “we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”

And then Luther uses the first commandment’s explanation to explain and expand the rest of them.

Each commandment begins, “We are to fear and love God…” so that we call God’s name in times of praise and thanksgiving, so that we regard the Word as holy, so that we respect those in authority (which doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with them; not calling their bad behavior or lies or inaction into accountability is very disrespectful…of them and of those whom they have been called to serve.)  We are to fear and love God so that we help our neighbor in satisfying their physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, sanctuary.)  We are to fear and love God so that spouses respect one another and that our sex lives are healthy and loving, so that we help our neighbor improve their means of making a living, so that we defend our neighbor and think the best and kindest of their actions, so that we help our neighbor keep what is theirs, and so that we help our neighbor keep their relationships in good standing.

It’s a bigger job than those “shall not’s” would have us believe.  Because those Ten Commandments when lived out in the tradition of Jesus are counter-cultural, completely contrary to the systems we encounter in the world.  Even though some of those systems positively insist that they are “Christian”.

If you call out or protest or push against or seek to reform systems that would attempt to control or condemn your neighbor in the world today, you get called all kinds of names that are meant to hurt:  “radical”, “activist”, “bleeding-heart”.  Because somehow, though we are assured through scripture that God cares for the little ones and that God expects us to risk ourselves and our privilege to care for them, too, we are terrified that if we help our neighbor or share what we have…there won’t be enough left for us.

But God’s faithfulness through the ages shows us that God will always care for the little ones.  Even if we become the little ones.  And part of God’s care is nurturing communities where those who have, care for those who don’t have.  

A few weeks ago, the week before my first sermon as your pastor, I was talking with some Texas colleagues at the Tri-Synodical Assembly and this “fear and love God so that…” language came up.  In the course of conversation, we agreed that this must mean, “fear God more than you fear conflict” and “love God more than you like making people happy”.  This means we take risks, dear ones.  We are called and commanded to risk our well-being and our reputations for the sake of the little ones, for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of the gospel.

We seek God by serving others.

Even if it feels risky or scary, we fulfill our responsibility in God’s covenant by living into the upside down expansion of the law through the tradition of Jesus.  We fear and love God above everything else…and we love our neighbors and the little ones as well and as much as we love ourselves.
And God loves us all.

[1] The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, 2000, p 347

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