smallCatechism, the First Commandment
We fear, love, and trust, not because we must,
but because god is god!
This year, August 29 is a Sunday. Here in the church, it’s the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. But it, also, happens to be the fifth Sunday of the month. One of three or four such Sundays, any given year. And for a decade now, it’s on a Sunday just like this that we focus our attention on a bit of the smallCatechism. The commandments. The creed. The Lord’s prayer. The sacraments. Whatever, at the moment, happens to float my boat! Last time we did it was January 31st, when we reflected on a morsel most don’t, even, know is in the Catechism. “The Household Chart.” “The Table of Duties.” This time, grist comes from an article I read just before Easter. An article that sent shockwaves through the church. As if a pandemic wasn’t enough. Now, we had to worry about the latest poll. “Fewer than Half of U.S. Adults Belong to a Religious Congregation.” Only forty-eight percent! Less than half! Christian! Moslem! Jew! The lowest it’s been since they first beganasking the question, eighty years ago! I read the article. I re-read it! Thought about it! And it’s haunted me, ever since. Only forty-eight percent belonging to a religious organization of any kind.
My first reaction was to look at the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods!” The way Luther explains it, “We are to fear, love, and trust god above all things.” You know. Lack of commitment. Misplaced priorities. Maybe it’s time to point a finger! Shake a fist! Give ‘em hell! Surely, doing those things would make a difference! Would reverse the trend! Bringing more people into the church! After all, that’s why god commands, in the first place, isn’t it? So, we obey! But the wave of righteous indignation, of self-righteousness, passed quickly. And when it did, I began thinking about the fifty-two percent who don’t belong! Especially about those I know! From what I remember, the problem isn’t that they are uncommitted. It’s that they’re over-committed! It isn’t that their priorities are misplaced. It’s that there’s too many of them! They try to do it all! And Sunday mornings? Well, Sunday mornings are luxuries they can’t afford.
Look at it, this way. In the catechism – the largeCatechism – Luther wrote for pastors, he describes a god as “that to which we look for all good” and “in which we find refuge in every time of need.” In other words, a god is anything – everything – in which we put our trust! Anything – and everything – on which we stake our life! Luther’s not saying that some believe while others don’t. He’s saying that everyone trusts! Everyone believes! Everyone has faith! It’s just that they trust and believe and have faith in different things! Words like atheist and agnostic have no meaning, here, in this place. The problem, nowadays, isn’t that we are no longer religious. We are. The problem is that we’re TOO religious!
Think about the commercials you’ve seen, recently. But think about them as small worship services. Word proclaimed. Sacraments administered. The goal of each is to create faith! We believe … in the aspirin we take! In the ibuprofen! In the acetaminophen! We believe in the shampoo and the conditioner! Believe in the car! In the gasoline we put in the car! Remember … a god is that to which we look for all good! A god is that in which we find refuge in time of need! They’re all gods! Each! Every! Not in the sense of Jesus or Yahweh or Allah! But in the sense of refuge and good! And even the fifty-two present of U.S. adults who don’t belong to churches have faith!
It’s just that their “god” isn’t reliable. Their “god” isn’t trustworthy. So, they believe until the next, better thing comes along. The next upgrade. The next version. The next new-and-improved. Thus, commandment number one: You shall have no other god! Not for god’s sake, but for ours! Fearing! Loving! Trusting! Because there’s no other god quite like ours! We trust because god is worthy of trust! We love because god first loved us! We fear … we fear … well, because nothing exists without god!
All other gods ask for something, first. They never give … unless … until. We get nothing for nothing. It’s always something-for-something. All other gods dispense life, one quarter at a time. Like gumball machines. But THE god … OUR god … gives it all away! Whether we believe or we don’t! Whether we belong or not! God’s still there! God’s still here! Nothing bought! Nothing sold! Everything a gift! Created by grace! That’s what we are! Created by grace! Saved by charity! Transformed by love!
God says, “You shall have no other!” It’s not a threat. Or a warning. It’s not an ultimatum. Or, even, a commandment. It’s, simply, a promise! God telling us who we are! Telling us who we will become! Not a should! Not an ought! Not a must! But we will! We will! We will have no other god, because god has no other universe! No other creation! We believe because god’s so believable! We trust because god – this god, our god – is so worthy of that trust! We have faith because god is so very faithful!
You see, this god, our god, loves! Loves without condition! Loves without strings! Loves with all god’s heart! Loves with all god’s strength! Loves with all god’s being! We have no other gods, because compared to this one, there are no others! No others quite like him! No others quite like her! Quite like them! And so, we fear … and we love … and we trust … Not because god told us we have to. But because, when you meet a god like this, there’s nothing else we can do! God loves and we fear! God loves and we trust! God loves and we love! Love! Just! Like! God! And this, my friends … This is most certainly true!