Boiling It Down

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

Matthew 22:34-46

Every year at about this time my family gets a bunch of apples and Melinda and the kids use them to make homemade apple sauce. Sometimes we go out to an orchard and pick them, but sometimes we just get some bags from the store. To make the apple sauce, Melinda removes all the skin and the core and then places them into a big pot on the stove with some water. I’m not actually certain about her whole process because I basically show up to partake of the final product, but I know it makes the house smell so good and it’s a fun activity for the whole family.

What always amazes me, though, is how many apples it takes to make one small batch of apple sauce. Melinda says that it’s not even worth it unless she has at least two dozen apples. That’s about 8 or 9 pounds of apples, depending on how large your apples are. The process of boiling down those apples is key. As they go in the pot and are heated up, the sauce starts to form. Boiling it all down makes it so rich and apple-y and helps it get that creamy texture which is so delicious. What you end up with is basically the pure essence of the apples.

This morning we hear Jesus boil it down for the Pharisees. They come to him one more time with a question that is a veiled attempt to test him on his knowledge of Jewish law. “Which commandment is the greatest?” they ask him. It’s a way of saying which commandment is the most important, which is the one that really needs to be followed most of all?

Jesus doesn’t just choose one as his answer. He manages to boil it all down for us—all the law of Moses and the words of the prophets, all the commandments that God has given God’s people, all the statutes and ordinances that the religious leaders hold dear can essentially be put in a pot and boiled down to love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And, he quickly adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Religious scholars say that at the time of Jesus the law codes of the Jewish faith consisted of 613 different commandments, all covering a wide variety of subjects regarding morals and ethics and cases one might encounter in daily life. As you can imagine, it had become very complicated to follow all of them, to dot all your I’s and cross your Ts and make sure in each and every scenario you were obeying the law. And when it was thought that your ability or inability to follow God’s law was connected to God’s love of you, then the pressure is on, right?

In a way, we can’t fault the Pharisees for the thrust of their question. It is easy for religion to get barnacled over with a lot of extra provisos and conditions, like hauling around a whole heavy sack of apples when all you want is a bowl of the delicious, smooth sauce. For Jesus, as he responds to the Pharisees, the essence of it all is love. What’s more, Jesus says all the law and prophets hang on those two commandments. That is, everything in God’s word intends in some way to point to establishing and maintaining this relationship of love that God has for God’s people and that God’s people reflect back to God.

The command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind was undoubtedly something most rabbis in those times would have settled on as the greatest. When Jesus relates that love with love of neighbor, essentially linking them as one unit, he says something new. The bond of love between God and us is not all that different from our love of each other. In fact, the two cannot be separated. We can’t read God’s Word and come away with the impression that we can love God like crazy and treat our fellow human beings like trash. That is the essence of it all.

As it happens, Martin Luther found himself having to boil things down for the medieval church. Things had gotten rather complicated then, too, when it came to life before God. So much about faith had gotten convoluted, at least as it appeared to Luther and many of his contemporaries. He himself had struggled as a young monk with trying to follow all of the ritual guidelines and purity codes, keeping himself clean from impure thoughts and incorrect actions. It tore him up inside, because he was constantly worrying whether or not he was following all of the church’s rules and restrictions in order to receive the life that God promises in Jesus.

Along came a man named Johannes Tetzel in around 1517, an official of the church in Rome. Tetzel was selling indulgences, which were basically pieces of paper that guaranteed, for a certain price, the purchaser would get into heaven quicker. This was confusing lots of people and misleading them in their faith. Luther had had enough and decided it was high time to boil things down. That is one way to think of reformation and the act of reforming something. Boil it back down to its essence and, if necessary, get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter, the peel, the seeds, and whatever else.

For Luther, the essence of Christian faith is grace. The core nature of God is unconditional love. At the core of God’s being is a desire to set us free from the sin that holds us back without requiring anything from us beforehand. This is why Jesus goes to the cross. He goes to lay his life down purely out of his love of God and love of us. We do nothing to deserve his sacrifice, and it is pointless to think we can do anything to earn it or purchase it or hoard it. When we boil it all down—all the thoughts and statements about what God is like and who God is—you get the cross, the forgiveness of sins, the compassion of sacrifice. We simply receive it. All the things that the church does and all the beliefs and doctrines that the church holds should and must proclaim that.

Martin Luther was willing to say that some things that the church was doing and saying, like the selling of these indulgences, had to go. They no longer upheld that notion that God was gracious. They didn’t fit into that essence that the gift of love in Jesus Christ—the love that involves all his heart and soul and mind to redeem us from sin—comes with no strings attached.

We can’t deny that there has been something very reforming about life over the past eight months.  Living during a pandemic entails a constant boiling down of everything, and it goes way beyond making apple sauce. My family and I are constantly thinking about what is really necessary for us to do, where are the essential places we need to go, and what are the essentials for us to have. Toilet paper, as it turns out, is high on that list.

The debates in society are at a boiling point over these matters too—we’re still arguing over essential businesses and what kinds of behavior we should be able to expect from one another at a minimum. I think many of us can say that although we’re ready for all of this to be behind us, we’re also undergoing many reformations. We’re learning what we really need to survive and what kinds of things are important, what we’re willing to sacrifice for.

Life in the church has been no different. Last I checked no one has gone around nailing 95 Theses to our doors, but we have had many conversations on staff and with groups in the congregation regarding what are we really about right now. We can’t get together like usual.  We can’t sing, which is particular difficult for Lutherans. What kinds of things should the church be doing in a pandemic that clearly communicate God’s grace and love?

Thanksgiving donations in a previous year

A lot of things have fallen by the wayside, at least for the time-being, but what I’m seeing is giving me great hope. This congregation has not stopped loving the neighbor. We have undertaken food drives, blood drives, and drives for household products. People are finding ways to bring in supplies for the quilting group and kits for Lutheran World Relief. We continue to house some community groups that need meeting space, and last month we opened up our parking lot to the Richmond Symphony Chorus so that they could practice in a socially-distanced format.

Our on-line presence has been a huge blessing, both for me and for many others, and we’ve found, like many other churches have, that people are eager to experiecne God’s Word through Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. The other staff and I have had conversations with and received contributions from people we’ve never personally met but who feel a part of our community because of our on-line ministries. And although we sometimes find it a chore to implement safety standards, we are encouraged by the fact there are many people who value gathering for worship in the sanctuary together. We’ve even added in a children’s sermon on Sundays now at our in-person worship because several children have been attending each week.

And people are craving the sacraments. We’ve had just as many baptisms this year as we ever do, if not more, And multiple parents have emailed me wondering how they we can arrange first communion for their children. These are essential things.

I’m not sure how this season will affect the church’s message and ministry long-term. The fact of the matter is we’re probably not even through it yet. Things may be very different on the other side. But I do know that in my life I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the words of the final verse of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” have had such deep meaning. The other night when the Bargers and I gathered to record it for this worship service, And I thought of the trials of COVID-19 and the millions who’ve been affected and those who’ve lost loved ones, and the struggles of loneliness we’ve all had because of the shutdown, I felt the Holy Spirit was hurling our words out into an empty sanctuary and darkened world with the force of a choir of multitudes. It as is if we were saying “Hear this, O world, you stupid virus. This is the essence of Christ for us, boiled down:

‘God’s Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away.
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours. Forever.’”

How ‘bout them apples?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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