This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 11, 2010.
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Psalm 25:1–10 (antiphon v. 4)
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Gracious Father, pour out upon us the Holy Spirit, that we may keep your Law in our hearts and minds and actions, showing your Love to you and to all people, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Listen to a few little pictures in words,
and pick one that speaks to you.
You have some sandpaper in your hand
and you rub it back and forth
over the curves of a piece of pine
you have shaped into a toy for your grandchild.
To give the wood a smooth finish and feel,
you need to use sandpaper with a fine grit
and only take away a little wood at a time.
It’s a hot and humid morning,
but even so your family would enjoy
some homemade pancakes from your scratch recipe.
You don’t have the quantities written down,
but as you mix the flour and milk,
the eggs and butter and baking powder,
you make little adjustments in proportions
so that the batter flows just right,
not too thick or too thin.
Your favorite knife is a little dull,
so you pick up the sharpening stone
and the oil and get to work.
The best edge comes with patient honing,
using even, rhythmic motions,
gradually working away the tiny flaws in the blade.
You love your dog and you enjoy the walks
in the cool of the morning
almost as much as your best friend enjoys the smells
only it can find in the tall and dewy grass.
When you get home, you turn on the outdoor faucet
and run the hose gently over those gritty paws.
Today, your dog seems to know what’s coming,
and for the first time lifts a paw for you to wash.
I hope one of these pictures speaks to you.
But whichever one you might pick,
look for the little common thread
winding through that illustration
and entwining itself with the threads
coming from the other pictures.
They all have something in common.
It’s a simple thing, almost invisible.
But it’s there and we know it,
even though we may not be aware of what we know.
The changes that matter,
that make our days better,
are often the ones that build up slowly, over time.
They can begin like a whisper in the dark,
like small drops of rain kicking up dust on dry ground.
But then, as time passes,
the small changes accumulate,
they grow like whispers rising into conversations,
like raindrops falling and forming into puddles.
This is the kind of change that God often works
—imperceptibly, invisibly, incrementally—
through almost ignorable little actions in our lives.
But just as we gently rub on wood to make it smooth,
and subtly tweak a recipe to make fluffy pancakes,
and carefully hone a blade to make it sharp,
and gradually train a dog to make it obedient,
God trains and hones and tweaks and rubs us
with his Law, his Word.
That’s how he makes our will match his will.
This is not to say that God can never work drastic changes in our lives.
Sometimes he does,
and we encounter changes both sudden and sharp,
like flipping a switch to bring light into a dark room.
That’s what Jesus did when he called fishermen
who dropped their nets, left their boats, and followed him.
That’s what the risen Christ did
when he struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus
and blessed him with the calling
to serve as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
And maybe God has worked a sudden change in your life.
Perhaps you treasure a moment in your memory
when God touched you with his power,
and your life divides neatly into “before” and “after.”
That is a great gift,
one for which to give God thanks and praise.
But for many of us,
and for most us much of the time,
God works almost secretly in those small ways,
where we are like wood and batter,
blade and dog,
and he makes us attentive and sharp,
fluid and smooth
through the quiet and irresistible power of his Law.
This is the only way we can grow into our calling
to live as God’s people,
to serve him with joy,
to touch others with his love,
to give ourselves up for his glory.
And so, when we overhear the lawyer and Jesus
in conversation about love and the Law,
we shouldn’t feel confused by what they say.
It’s really true that for us to live as God intends
and for us to love others selflessly,
we must keep the Law.
That’s why Jesus agreed when the lawyer said,
“You shall love the Lord your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NRSV)
Our Lord doesn’t mean for us to be confused or overwhelmed
by his desire for us to live and love by the Law.
But we can easily feel that way.
How can we find the strength, the resolve,
to go all in and to love God without limits and conditions,
with our whole mind and strength and soul and heart?
Jesus knows that we wonder about this,
that we fear what will happen if we live totally for God.
He knows we have those feelings,
just as the lawyer did when he tried to put limits on the Law,
on God’s calling for all people to love him and neighbor alike.
That is why the lawyer asked,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Because it we can define neighbor a litle more narrowly,
leaving out some people out there on the fringes,
then we can contain the calling of God’s Law,
we can build in some safeguards, put some limits,
manage our expectations and responsibilities.
God wants us to love him and to love others just the same,
but if there are reasonable limits on who those others might be,
then the demands of loving and living by the Law
only go so far and then they stop,
leaving a little energy and life just for us.
And so Jesus tells that familiar story
of the Samaritan and the man beaten by thieves,
who watched through his pain
as religious people passed him by twice.
They were the ones who knew
what were the reasonable limits when asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
But the story paints a vivid picture of neighborhood as God sees it.
Even two strangers—
one a man, presumably and Israelite,
and one a Samaritan despised by the people of Israel—
are neighbors in the eyes of God.
And to be a neighbor,
to show love without reserve,
to live by the Law,
to give God our whole lives without holding anything back,
does not require us to make great and grand gestures,
to take dramatic and earthshattering actions.
It’s the small things:
to be moved by pity;
to bandage another’s wounds;
to give someone a ride;
to take care of a stranger;
to give some money;
to make good arrangements;
and to meet the needs that arise.
It’s the simple acts of service:
to comfort someone who grieves;
to share your food with someone who is hungry;
to make peace with your adversary;
to pull up your pride by the roots and plant humility;
to squash your prejudice and disdain for others;
to seek out times for acts of kindness;
to respect each person as brother, as sister.
These are the simple, small acts
that work together to fulfill the Law,
to fill our lives with love for others and God,
to help us submit to his will.
Through these everyday tasks,
God trains and hones and tweaks and rubs us,
conforming us to his will,
so that in his good time,
we will rise refreshed at the dawn of his bright and glorious day,
greeting one another as neighbors who live by the Law.
On that day, we will love God our Father
with everything that is in us,
with heart and soul and strength and mind.
And we will love one another as brothers and sisters
of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.