A Baptismal Love Letter to Beckett H.
Pentecost XXIV (25A) October 26, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I know you’re too young to ask for advice, but, given that today is the day of your baptism, and given today’s Gospel lesson, I simply can’t resist.
I realize that you won’t be reading this for yourself until it comes time to prepare for the Sacramental Rite of Confirmation, but I’m hoping your parents tuck this Baptismal Love Letter into your Baby Book and that someone remembers it 10 or 12 years from now.
This gospel passage is a classic, revealing Jesus at his Rabbinical best. For the past couple of weeks that we’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel, the Sadducees and the Pharisees have been putting him to the test, asking him trick questions, and thus far he’s been ‘Ace-ing’ the test.
Today, he hits a home run right out of the theological ballpark.
The first thing to know is that the Sadducees, who had been stunned into silence by the responses of Jesus, were a very conservative group of Rabbis. In fact, they were pretty rigid and didn’t adapt very well to change. They had 613 laws, based on the 10 Commandments which God gave to Moses, and they wouldn’t even consider the words of prophets like Amos and Isaiah.
If you asked asked a Sadducee, “What do I need to know to be a good Jew?” They would say, “Here, take these 613 laws and memorize them.”
The Pharisees, on the other hand, took a different approach. They were constantly trying to interpret and re-interpret the laws and the prophets, so that their understanding of God and what it meant to be a good Jew was even more complicated than the Sadducees.
If you were to ask a Pharisee “What do I need to know to be a good Jew?” They would say, “Here, take these 613 laws and these books which explain what some of us think they mean, and then read these books by the prophets, and when you’ve read all of that, come talk to us.”
And you think studying for Confirmation is hard!
So, here’s the set up, Beckett. The Pharisees have heard that Jesus absolutely stumped the Sadducees, so it’s really important to them to be able to stump Jesus.
They get a lawyer to ask Jesus, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Remember – there are 613 laws, plus the 10 Commandments. Everyone has memorized those 613 laws, and, no doubt, everyone has a favorite.
You can almost hear the Pharisees snickering in the background saying, “We’ve got him now. He’ll never get out of this one.”
In just two sentences, Jesus responded to the concerns of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and in the process, got to the heart of what one must do to be a person of God.
Jesus said to him, "'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."
It’s really quite brilliant, actually!
Jesus has taken out all the extraneous stuff, gotten to the heart of the matter, and, in just two sentences, given all that is important about obedience to God.
Everything you need to know about being a good person, to be in relationship with God, you can learn in these two sentences. And, just for good measure, Jesus has also stumped two squabbling schools of theological thought.
Okay. I’ll admit. Watching Jesus put the Sadducees and the Pharisees into their place is NOT as exciting as watching a play off between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees – or, for that matter, even this year, watching Tampa Bay play the Phillies. (You’ll have to ask your parents how that happened. God sometimes works in mysterious ways that are even beyond the ability of an Episcopal Priest to explain.)
So, I’ll get right to the part about unsolicited advice.
The whole point of Religion is not to complicate your life, but to help you pay attention to your life.
That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. As a matter of fact, when religion works really well, it simplifies, not complicates your life. Let me explain.
Take that first part of the summary of the law: “Love your God with your whole heart and soul and mind.” If you put God first in your life, Beckett, everything else will fall into order. If you love God with your whole heart, soul and mind, it makes it easier to love your neighbor as yourself.
If you want there to be peace in the world, if you would like to see a sense of justice as we read in the first lesson this morning from Leviticus (19:1-2, 15-18), or live in a community of faith as St. Paul describes in his first letter to the Thessalonians (2:1-8), you have to have your priorities in the right order: Love God, love neighbor as yourself.
Religion should help you pay attention to that order so that you might celebrate and care for the gift of your life, this one life on this one planet. It’s all we get, Beckett, and your job is to pay attention to it and tend after it, in St. Paul’s words, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her children.”
Religion helps you get your priorities in the right order so that you are freed up to pay attention to your life and the world around you, so that by being a person who is in relationship with God, you might help to create a more just and moral society, a more peaceful world, and a safer, cleaner planet.
That’s a tall order, I know, Beckett, and, believe it or not, religion can help you do that. But here’s the thing – here’s the piece of advice that I’ve been wanting to give you. It’s the lesson that’s buried in these stories of all the ways Jesus was tested by the Pharisees and Sadducees which we’ve been reading in Matthew’s gospel the past few weeks.
It’s this: Any religion which cares more about its rules than its people is not a religion that will help you with the priorities of Jesus and become a good Christian. Any religion which puts more of an emphasis on complicating God’s laws will not help you simplify your life.
If you go to a priest or minister and say, “What do I need to do to be a good Christian?” and that priest or minister hands you the 10 Commandments, the Creeds and the 39 Articles of Faith and says, “Memorize these things,” well, that person is someone who is more concerned with building up religion than edifying your soul. Any religion which concerns itself more with testing your knowledge of the law does not understand that it is God who will “test your heart”.
So, as you prepare to recommit your baptismal vows in your Confirmation, Beckett, be mindful of these things. The spirit in which you were baptized is the Spirit of God who loved you into being and tenderly watched over you those long months when you were in the hospital. The spirit in which you were baptized is best known to you in the Spirit of God who gently tends to you through your parents love of you.
If you want to know who you are, and whose you are, just remember your Baptismal Covenant and the Five Promises you make to God in them.
More than anything else, these things - the Baptismal Covenant and the Five Promises - are what will shape your identity as a Christian who is an Episcopalian.
Remember that Jesus is the Word of God and that Scripture contains the words of God. The Bible is a guidebook, not a rule book, despite what some will lead you to believe.
You don’t need to memorize 39 Articles of faith to have faith – you only need a Baptismal Covenant, the words of God, and these words of Jesus: '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.'