Rev. Rebecca Messman
October 31, 2021
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘”he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’-this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
I like getting to church early. Maybe its prayerful prep time or an antidote to anxiety. So, last Sunday, my first Sunday, I was the first one here with the exception of some charismatic squirrels. I opened the door to the church with my brand new key that was shiny and still sharp on the edges and stepped in with a mug full of glee and anticipation that comes with every new key. The motion sensor lights snapped on and it felt like the Book of Genesis. Let there be light.
I placed my sermon on my new desk, straightened a pile of folders full of operating manuals that promised to tell me exactly how this church operates, and crowned my sermon with a fresh bulletin, which for Presbyterians functions as a safety harness so no one falls out of any chairs unexpectedly.
With everything decent and in order, I moved to the hallway, for a reason that soon seemed not worth it, because my office door then closed behind me, with my sermon, keys, purse, and phone locked safely inside. Alone in the church, I heard myself say “Well, God, I guess you’re stuck with just me now.” I could feel the quiet embracing me, a love that was old and unconcerned by doors and locks. It raised the hair on my arms. Then, I heard a car door slam. “Oh, it’s not just me. Hallelujah!” You better believe I felt a love of neighbor in that moment. A surge of interdependence. The thrumming need for community. I flung open the door, startling two deacons like a tame Halloween gag, and eventually was let back into my office. Thank you Charlie.
I didn’t plan it to go that way, but it was Church 101. There have always been just two keys to the church: The first, love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And the second, love your neighbor as yourself. We call this the Great Commandment. In modern lingo we might say, receive love, give love, repeat. That has a nice ring to it.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all feature some version of the Great Commandment. But Mark is unique in his Jewishness. A scribe asks Jesus to rank the commandments, and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. That is called the Shema. The Hebrew word for hear. You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and your soul and your strength… Jesus adds to it, “And all your mind.” Every teacher delights in that. My grandmother would say, God gave us minds and wants us to use them. Then Jesus links that ancient, very familiar command with another one from Leviticus like a bonus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe repeats it back like a model student, and then says something like, “And that is more important than the offerings and the financials.” And Jesus responds, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God.” And whether he meant that to say “yep, basically that” or “look, this is way bigger than you,” either way, the Bible considers this a Jesus mic drop moment because the text ends with “After that no one dared ask him any questions.”
The famous preacher Barbara Brown Taylor was speaking about the great world religions and highlighted how all of them have a version of the Great Commandment. She said, “We are all fingers pointing to the moon, at something so luminous, so numinous, the light that shines on each and all, casting the same reflection in every eye, even a basketball sized whale eye, though never the same reflection two nights in a row… “ Then she zeroed in on Jesus here in Mark, “The Great Commandment does an odd thing to those who think the sacred is up there. It takes the finger pointing to the moon and turns it to point at something much closer, at a neighbor or a stranger or a grey whale or a Japanese bush warbler, and then it bends it again to point to the self’s own heart… Near or far, coming or going, it is all one love, one love, one love, one.”
The Christian faith always points beyond itself. Any time we think we own the moon or can lock up the light, you can bet God will call forth the un-lockers to free us from that illusion. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus presented Peter with the keys to the Kingdom, the very first church keys that ever there were, though they were probably only words, these words. Throughout art history, if you see a guy with a halo and a key, you know it’s Peter. I often feel smart knowing that. Apparently that began in the 5th century, and appeared in sculpture and paintings and then came to symbolize the papacy.
Along the way, though, the church started locking up the light. Empires do that when they are nervous. And instead of devoting itself to the Kingdom of God and the poor, it started charging people, primarily poor people, for forgiveness. And so, God called forth an un-locker. That’s why today we celebrate the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. He protested the way the church had commodified grace and made itself the grifting hand of the government. Grace can never be purchased. It can only be given, and as such, we give to God not as a way to stave off damnation or acquire worthiness or avert budget short-falls or even get what we want, but we give out the depth of our gratitude for this one love, one love, one love.
After the Reformation, of course, the faith continued to point beyond itself, and it continued rattling some old doors. You see, for a while the church thought that women ought not have all the keys to the church. They could have keys to the kitchen, maybe, or the Sunday School wing, but not the Pastorate. They were welcomed to open their wallets for the plate but not their mouths in the pulpit. And, again, God called forth un-lockers. Though she was not alone in hearing that call, on October 24, 1956, 65 years ago last Sunday, God called forth Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. From then on, many girls started to notice that their keys opened doors that no one had knocked on before.
That was the case for a woman named Rev. Roxana Atwood and a group of Christians in the Burke area who met in homes and a community center. They knocked on doors in this area and grew a new church. In 1980, the Washington Post quoted Atwood, “ ‘The children of our church will have to think of the church as people, because their building keeps moving around!’ said Atwood, one of only a few organizing women pastors of a Presbyterian Church.”
What a fortunate thing, to know the church as the people and to imagine from the start that buildings can move and change, if those same two keys are used. Those keys helped you open preschools and trade schools and churches in Kibwezi, Kenya. More than 300 children a week go to those schools who might not have. Those keys unlock housing for those who might have been sleeping in their cars. They unlock a place to laugh and cry and laugh again for the bereaved. Quiet for the stressed. Incomparable belonging for the LGTQ neighbors. A handbell for a 9 year old to ring and a place in the choir for those who need weekly reminders that human beings still can learn how to harmonize. And of course, those keys lead us to a big table, to feed the church on Christ’s grace so we can keep moving.
What a fortunate thing that the children of the church knew the church was the people and that the building could move around when a pandemic hit and the building needed to expand yet again. So of course, you learned how to point to God on screens and pray while typing on computer keys. Of course you figured out a drive-through Christmas Eve nativity and delivered a healthy lasagna to a neighbor who had lost her spouse so she would not have face an empty fridge too.
Someone told me this week, “gosh, kind of stinks to start ministry at a church during October, you know, Stewardship season. You get your key and then pass the plate, huh?” And I said, “I honestly love it.” The person looked at me as if I was an alien or an undercover church consultant. Both are rather scary. But I said, “Giving works on me. I know I can put a check in an envelope, or bake something for a neighbor, or give my kid an extended hug, or make a caring call or this week, vote, and it’s like the ignition of holy kind of engine. I start to think about all the ways people have cared for me and loved me and shaped the world for me, whew,” I fan my face, “suddenly I get weepy with gratitude and I can run on that energy for a long time.”
The bottom line is, giving to God always gets me out of my own way. It unlocks me from fear and consumerism and selfishness and sends me blinking in hope. That’s the core teaching of the Reformation. Of course, there is brokenness in the world. Marriages fail. We lose people we think we can’t live without. Racism and greed stomp on the fragile. But because God so loved the world, God did not dodge that brokenness in us or detach from it or commodify it or tweet about it. God sent Christ to free us from all that harms and divides us. To give his life for us that we might have even more life through him, and then God made of us Christ’s body so that we might spent all our days becoming un-lockers ourselves.
The other night, I was on my first BPC Women’s Bible Study Zoom. We were studying the story of Tamar. Spoiler alert: Tamar’s love story is no Hallmark movie. But being good Reformed Christians, these women studied those words with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength and all their beautiful minds. One of the prompts from the curriculum asked participants to share their wedding photos. Women pressed their wedding pictures onto the Zoom screen, some of them grainy with age, others with sleeves that foretold they were from the ‘80s. Some women shared that they not married, or well, not anymore. And then came the deep stories that needed a tissue or a few minutes with the camera off. And you could almost hear the clink as people unlocked some stories that had been sealed off, locked up, pushed down for a long long time. And around the Zoom, they shared honestly. They gave each other luminous grace. They helped each other see beyond the white hot pain of now to something hard to grasp but still very good. Not the promise that everything would be fixed. But the promise that it could be shared and that is liberating. Light from God’s heart reflected from face to face, one love, one love, one love.
The 14th century poet Hafiz wrote this poem:
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
Here’s what I know. When we give to the church, we unlock all sorts of things. Those keys might have rather mundane labels like Sunday School supplies or Christ House or Kibwezi partnership or personnel or choir. But in the hands of Christ, they break chains of poverty and unlock music from the mouths of children. They bind up the brokenhearted and set the captive free, including us.