Series: The Secret of Life
Jul 7th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Exodus 20:1-21
There are a lot of things I like about being a Presbyterian Christian, but one of the most cherished parts of being a Presbyterian is our Book of Confessions. For those of you who aren’t aware of the Book of Confessions, from time to time, throughout our long history, Presbyterians and Reformed Christians have entered into a time of reflection and conversation, in order to formulate a statement about who we are and what we believe. Some of the ancient creeds are a part of the book, like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Others are more recent, if you can call the 16th century recent, and right up to the present day. Included are the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms, the Scots Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, the Brief Statement of Faith, the Belhar Confession, and under consideration for inclusion is Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But, for our sermon’s purposes this morning, it is the Heidelberg Catechism that we will consider. Written in 1563, in a small Calvinist pocket surrounded by Lutheranism, the Heidelberg Catechism has served as a basis for preaching and teaching ever since. It is divided into sections for each Lord’s Day and the idea was that a congregation could work its way through the catechism over the course of a year.
On the section for the Second Lord’s Day, the questions are about sin. “Where do you learn about sin?” “From the Law of God.” “What does the Law of God require of us?” “To love God and to love neighbor.” And then comes this question: “Can you keep all of this perfectly?” And the answer is startling. It shocks us to read it and it is even more shocking to hear it come from our own lips. The answer is: “No, for by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.”1
It’s shocking to hear, isn’t it? Left to my own devices, relying on myself and my innate goodness, trusting in my own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, “I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.” We want to disbelieve that. We want to deny that. We want to erase that from the record. We want to believe that we are good and that things are good.
But then we look around.
The poor are struggling as never before.
Homelessness is still a problem after decades of attention and too many still live in sub-standard housing.
Hunger is real in the most prosperous land on earth.
The earth itself is falling apart and may be uninhabitable sooner than had been predicted.
Adultery and false witness, which had been decried by religious leaders, as recently as 20 years ago, are now accepted as normal and acceptable.
Injustices of every stripe and variety abound and are dismissed by some as “whining” and “bellyaching.”
And that is but a scratching of the surface. Nationalism, which was a principle factor in World War II, is on the rise. Racism, which has been a battle in this country for over a century, is on the rise. Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behavior and treatment is on the rise.
What is going on? How did we come to this? Why does everything seem so messed up? The answer, from the Heidelberg Catechism - from a theological perspective - is simply this: “we are prone to hate God and neighbor.” We reject God’s way of life. We refuse to acknowledge that there is a different way of living - a better way of living - a way of living that brings wholeness and happiness, instead of division and sadness.
What went wrong? How did we end up like this? Why is the world like it is? These are the practical questions I am being asked today.
There are political reasons for it, but I’ll leave that to the political scientists and philosophers. There are economic reasons for it, and we’ll leave that to the economists. There are educational reasons, and - again - we’ll leave it to the educators and administrators to explain it to us.
But, we are here as people of faith, so it is a theological explanation that we are looking for this morning.
From that theological perspective, we can say this: God has given us a way for us to live. Jesus told us that the summation of the law was, “love God and love neighbor.” The details behind that summation are what you and I call “the Ten Commandments.” These are not laws, such as the laws which govern us as citizens of this country. These are the terms of God’s covenant with us - God’s way of living that produces the outcome God desires for us. God has given us a clear pathway to life as God intended it to be lived.
When we abandon that path - when we choose other options - when faithlessness, falsehood, covetousness, greed, disrespect, arrogance, and all the rest - become the pattern of our lives, life will not be what life can be. When we devalue other human beings, take from others what is rightfully theirs, and ignore God’s presence and working in our lives and theirs, we have left the way of God behind and shown the truth of the Heidelberg Catechism: “for by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor”
But wait, you say, didn’t Jesus come to do away with living by the Ten Commandments? Absolutely not. That’s one of the great heresies of the church past and present. Jesus did not come to abolish the commandments but came as a fulfillment of the commandments. Jesus’ ministry was all about showing us how to live the life to which God calls us. Jesus is the example that a human life can be lived in accordance with God’s will and way.
Jesus lived his life “in sync” with God. He resisted and subdued that most natural of all human tendencies “to hate God and neighbor.” In fact, Jesus’ outrageous love for God and neighbor is one of the reasons we remember him to this day. Even when God asked the hard things of him, Jesus lived “in sync” with God. Even when his neighbors turned on him and led him to death, Jesus lived “in sync” with God. Jesus lived out those commandments we resist and lived the fullness of life in communion - in connection - “in sync” with God.
And that is one of the secrets of life. When I think back over 33 years of ministry, the people I remember who were the happiest, the most contented, who knew and expressed joy, were those who lived close to God - “in sync” with God. They may not have had much by the world’s standards, but they were happy and shared that happiness with others. They may not have taken extravagant vacations, or drove expensive cars, or delighted in fine food and wine, but they lived in a contentment and gladness that was enviable. They grounded themselves in God’s way - they lived the life God designed us to live - and they unlocked the secret that life is best lived when lived in love for God and for neighbor.
Uncle Charlie Burnsworth was one of those people. Uncle Charlie, which is what all the kids at church called him, was married and lived in a simple little house that I passed everyday on my way to school. Charlie and his wife had no children of their own, so the kids at church became surrogate children. Uncle Charlie sang a rather iffy tenor in the church choir, which was positioned so that they viewed the entire congregation from up in front. After worship, we kids would find Uncle Charlie who always had a pocket full of hard candy - peppermint discs, butterscotch discs, and root beer barrels (my personal favorite). He taught us to shake hands and then would give us a piece of candy. He was always smiling, always generous. It may be that Charlie was the first person to teach me, in Garrison Keillor’s words, that “nothing you do for a child is ever wasted.” Uncle Charlie loved God and loved neighbor and lived in that love and shared that love in such simple ways that even a child could see it and remember it when not a child anymore.
There is an old saying which reminds us that “you cannot rub your hand against the grain of the universe and not expect a few splinters.” The simple reality is this: God created this world to function at its best when it lives in connection to God and neighbor. The foundation of that connection is love: love for God and love for neighbor. It is an alternative to the way of life that surrounds us every day, a way of life that is based on hate, detestation, arrogance, superiority, lies and falsehoods, and dehumanizing others in order to feel better about ourselves.
When we choose to pilot our own course and leave God’s way behind, we shouldn’t be surprised when that doesn’t go real well. When we choose to practice anything less than love for God and neighbor, and revert to the natural abhorrence and rejection of the world around us, life will not be - cannot be - what God intended it to be.
So, the invitation for the morning is simply this: live in sync with God. Live in the way God created us to live. When you need a reminder of what that looks life, take a look at the Ten Commandments. They will provide the initial ideas for this new life with God. And when you get them firmly in hand, remember Jesus’ summation of the commandments: love God and love neighbor.
Let that love guide you in your daily walk and through all your days. God’s way will become your way. God’s will will become your will. And you’ll find yourself living in peace, happiness, contentment, and fulfillment - with God and neighbor,
It’s one of life’s best kept secrets. Live “in sync” with God.
For now and evermore. Amen.
1.) Heidelberg Catechism, Question 5