Sunday, October 31, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First reading • Psalm • Second reading • Gospel reading
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 19:40; sermon starts around 26:04)
I talked a little bit about the Re:Formation conference (AKA TheoCon) in my sermon last week: how Bishop Rinehart spoke about this time as liminal space, a time of transition, time for rest and listening and discerning whatever it is that comes next. One other really fun thing I got to do at the Re:Formation conference was to go to a workshop led by the one and only Lisa Kramme, the Synod Director for Faith Formation. (Council members might actually remember meeting Lisa at our retreat back in July – she is a delightful human being!)
Lisa’s workshop was a story lab – a hands on kind of lab with lots of different activities to help us work on our storytelling skills. The very first activity we did was to write an autobiography of sorts. We didn’t have to write a comprehensive life story, but we did have to share something meaningful about who we are – and we had to do so using exactly twelve words. No more, no fewer.
I had been joking around a lot with Lisa all morning (we used to work together, so she and I know each other pretty well) – so for my twelve word autobiography, I ended up writing: “I’m from a family of people who like kind-spirited, irreverent jokes.” I felt like I had done a pretty good job capturing an important slice of who I am, what makes me me. But then the assignment changed. Keeping our words in the same order, we were then asked to cut them down to just six words… then three… then finally just one. My autobiography shrank from “I’m from a family of people who like kind-spirited, irreverent jokes.” to “I’m from people who like jokes” and then to “people who joke(s)” and finally just “jokes.”
“Jokes” wasn’t necessarily the word I expected to end up with – but it was really challenging to choose which words to keep and which words to let go. And it was kind of surprising and revealing to see which words each of us had decided were most important. It’s hard to capture the fullness of something in so few words, when there are so many words to choose from.
I mean, think for a second about your families. Think about what your family is like when you’re together – whatever shape “family” takes in your life. Now imagine: if you only had three words with which to describe your family, what words would you choose? Try to think of three words that kind of capture some of the essence of who your family is. I’ll give you a second.
Would anyone like to share their three words? (I think mine for my family would be “humor” (obviously), “food,” and “driving”)
So these three words – whatever your three words are – this is how you see your family. But now think about it from the perspectives of other people in your family – your spouse or your kids or your parents, etc.: do you think they would choose those same three words to describe your family? Or how about your next door neighbor, or your dentist or someone else in the community? Would they be likely to choose the same three words to describe your family?
My guess is that they probably wouldn’t. Even within the same family, we all look at the world, at ourselves, and at each other from many different perspectives. We notice different things – and we prioritize different things. I told John and Lemay earlier I might pick on them, as an example – if you were to tell John and Lemay a story about going on a trip to a different town to go shopping for quilt fabric at a craft store, well, John and Lemay would hear two very different things. Lemay will want to know: where did you go? what store was it? what kind of deals did you get on that quilt fabric? John, on the other hand, is only going to be interested in: what vehicle did you drive to get there? (lol) We hear things in different ways, based on what’s important to us. That’s why we can all look at the same world, the same family, and see them through totally different lenses.
This is often a gift – one of the really beautiful parts of being community together. But at the same time it can also be really challenging – especially when it comes to the way that we read and talk about the bible together. We all come to scripture with our own set of assumptions, our own perspectives and histories and priorities – and all these things shape our own unique lens through which we read the word and the world. There is no truly neutral way to read the bible – we are all always reading it through some kind of lens, whether we realize it or not. And that lens is what we call a hermeneutic. Heh, surprise! – it’s time for another vocabulary lesson with Pastor Day! Hermeneutics, broadly speaking, is what we call the particular lens or perspective that each of us brings to our reading of scripture – it’s how we make sense of what we’re reading.
Hermeneutics are important. The bible is a big and sometimes bewildering book. It is composed of writings from dozens of authors writing in many different genres across the span of hundreds of years. And I’m sure you have seen for yourselves how easy it can be to take bits and pieces of scripture out of their original context and mold them to fit a particular viewpoint or agenda. And that can be dangerous. Depending on what your guiding hermeneutic is, real harm can be done. This is how people throughout history have used the bible as a tool to exclude and shame others, to justify violence and sexism and even slavery.
It can be hard to know where to even begin to wade into the fray on some of this. I think this is what makes people nervous sometimes about participating in bible study. It’s easy to feel lost, not knowing what interpretations to trust. But this is where we actually have some really great news. One of the best gifts of our Lutheran theological heritage – the heritage that we commemorate today, on Reformation Day – is that we have a really clear hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. For Lutherans, our hermeneutic – the primary lens through which we read and interpret the bible – is Christ. We read scripture through the lens of Christ. Luther himself wrote that the whole of scripture is the “cradle of Christ.” And therefore, as Lutherans, we interpret all scripture in light of the life and teachings of Christ.
What does this mean for us? Our gospel reading for today offers us some really great insight. In this passage from Mark, a scribe has been listening in on Jesus’ teachings. He recognizes the great wisdom in the things Jesus has to say, and so he asks Jesus a pretty big question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words, which commandment is the most important? It’s an interpretation question. And Jesus answers him: “The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus adds that on these two commandments hang all the law and all the prophets – AKA all of scripture. This is Jesus’ hermeneutic: it’s love. Love is the lens through which Christ himself interprets scripture, faith, and life.
And therefore love is the central lens, the central hermeneutic of our faith. As Lutheran Christians, when we read the bible, the measuring stick we use to evaluate any and all possible interpretations of scripture is the love of Christ. If a given interpretation fails to reflect that love, then it doesn’t reflect the truth of scripture. Because everything about Christ, from his birth and life through his death and resurrection, is about love. God spent millennia chasing down God’s wayward people out of love. After covanenting with humanity and then watching them wander away again and again, God declares, “I will write this love not just on stones, but on their hearts.” God takes on flesh and comes to earth – not to judge or to condemn, but to heal us and to teach us and to show us how to love.
And honestly, what else would you expect? God is love. If you went back to that exercise we started with, and you asked God to choose three words to describe God’s family (AKA: us), God’s three words would probably be: love, love, and love. Or I guess, going by scripture, they might be: faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is definitely love!
Love is the hermeneutic, the lens, through which God sees and interprets the world. And God calls us to do the same: to love one another as we have been loved, and to read scripture, God, our neighbor, ourselves, and all creation through that same lens of love.