Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sermon: Who Will Be a Witness?

Matthew 22:34-46
The Greatest Commandment

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He 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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

The Question about David’s Son

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

For the past three weeks, I've had the pleasure of facilitating a study of the Book of Romans with the Rainbow Class. We had some wonderful discussions, dug deep into the text, and wrestled with what Paul was saying, and not saying, in this important letter.
During our second meeting together, after we had broken down Paul's language in Chapter 1, we started in on Chapter 2 where Paul is instructing the Romans not to judge others, for in doing so, we condemn ourselves. In our discussion of how handy this verse would be to have in our pockets as a response to anyone who might impress their exegetical understanding of Romans 1 upon us, one of our class members raised a question. One member quietly offered: "If we have all of these things that divide us, including how we read and interpret the Bible, then what is it that unites us?"
What, then?
I will confess that I was totally stumped. The class member's observation was astute. As Christians, we are very clear about the things that divide us – our views on ordination rights for women or self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, our interpretation of Scripture and whether or not the Bible is the inerrant word of God, or inspired. We argue over how and why Jesus was born and died. We differ politically, morally, and theologically in almost every way. What, then, unites us?
Sisters and Brothers, I want you to know how concerned I am as a Minister of Jesus Christ that I am unsure what it is in the Christian community that unites us as a body. I am deeply troubled and worried. I wrestled with this question all week, posing it to other clergy friends. None of us could come up with a decent answer that made it seem like we understood what our identity as Christians should be. We got bogged down in liturgical and worship practices, whether or not we all say the Lord's Prayer or celebrate the Sacraments. But this isn't what defines us as the Body of Christ. These practices may fit us for one hour a week, but what about the other six days and 23 hours? How, then, are people to know we are Christians?
Our text in Matthew 22 drops us into a time of questioning. Jesus has been teaching and questioned repeatedly about what his presence in the world means for the people around him. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, in particular, have found themselves in a game of truth-seeking for the narrow minded. Picking up their racket, the chief priests and elders begin the match by lobbing the important question of Jesus' authority to teach such things in the temple. Jesus answers, Socratically, by matching their question with another: "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or of human origin?" Stumped, the chief priests and elders respond indecisively. Fifteen-love.
The Pharisees served up another question, seeking to entrap him in what he said. "Tell us, impartial teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Jesus was sly and quick, and returned their point into the heart of their own territory: "Whose head is on this coin?" "The Emperor!" Able Pharisees responded. "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Thirty – Love. The Sadducees tried their skills by asking about whose wife a widow would be in the resurrection." "God is not God of the dead, but God of the living," Jesus swings – as if with one hand tied behind his back. Forty-Love.
As the audience, we read the end of Matthew with intrigue as each of these parties volleyed questions back and forth in a debate of dull wittedness, each side assuming that their men possessed the right question to stump this man who was looking more and more like a Prophet each day. Jesus has been saying troubling things all along, but this is where it starts getting particularly good. The Pharisees and Sadducees are endless in their pursuit of their own version of truth. Unfortunately, what they seek is not the Truth of God. Despite their flawed and mistaken motives, they do wind up asking pretty good questions. Or, at least, getting pretty good answers.
The Pharisees set up for their last shot at scoring a point. They sent forth their best man: a lawyer. He throws out a question that is dear to his own heart: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Surely Jesus would have an answer for this. But, as we all know, devout Jews followed all of the laws in the Scriptures. All of them. So, this was it – the big one. A vote one way would support the Pharisees, the defenders of moral law. A vote the other way would imply that the Sadducees were right as defenders of ceremonial law. Jesus was finally going to show some partisan leanings in his answer.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest 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." Game. Set. Match. Right?
One would think. Except that Jesus takes this time to ask the Pharisees their own question. Rather than acting on the defensive, Jesus attacks: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" The Pharisees, studied and prepared, respond: "He is the son of David." But Jesus, having already won the match, slams his response deep in their court: "How is it then that David, by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet."? If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"
No one was able to give him an answer, nor did they dare to ask him any more questions. They had tried, tested, questioned and succumbed. But their defeat was worse than the end of their inquisitiveness. After he addressed the Pharisees for the last time, he turned to the crowds and his disciples and denounced the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, over and over again in his own litany of rage and prophecy. This is no modest victory for the Son of Man. This was the moment where the false teachers lost their credibility and the Messiah proclaimed without apology what it meant to stand against the work of God in the world.
So, then, for us to begin our questioning again must be done with fear and trembling. For there is much we claim to understand about God and God's presence in the world. How, then, have we gotten so far from the unifying Word of Jesus Christ when he said: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." These days, it is increasingly hard to love our neighbors. Each morning, when I drive to work after dropping the boys off at school, I drive through a section of town I've dubbed "The Republicrats." Neighbors, right and left, north and south, sport signs in their yards witnessing to their choice of Presidential candidates. It is the most diverse stretch of road I've seen in Atlanta this fall. Out in Decatur, we're a pretty homogenous bunch, so our yard-witness looks more like Groupthink than personal ideology.
I admire the Republicrats on Johnson Rd. Somehow or another, they've decided to be bold about their witness for their preferred candidate, and there is a sense of harmony in their dissonance. Indeed, it's likely that the vote of one will simply cancel out the vote of the other, but I admire the fact that there is something beyond their political ideology that makes these folks neighbors. For starters, they all make a lot of money and live in lovely homes in a great area of town. So, looking out the window and seeing an opposing viewpoint can be a little less maddening behind rose-colored glasses and after a short commute. I am making assumptions about these folks that I cannot verify, but I do hold to one truth of the matter: In their differences, they are witnessing to two things: the importance of this election to them, and their choice to live in harmony with their neighbors, despite their differences.
Now, I cannot speak for these folks or their faith stories or their job situations or their familial harmony. No assumption I can make would be true or accurate. But I do know that their witness is calling me to consider my own witness in this world. Let's revisit our earlier question: What is it that unifies us, as Christians? (Spoiler alert: the answer, as we know, is LOVE. We are called to LOVE the Lord our God, and to LOVE our neighbor.) But, Sisters and Brothers in Christ… how are we doing that?
Let's first think what it means to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. I cannot answer this question for you. I cannot be the one to tell you what this would look like for you. But I can tell you how important it is to believe that God, who made you and calls you by name, also LOVES you to your core. Do you know how powerful this love is? That this is not a love that judges or is disingenuous? Do you know that God's love for you – you, my friends – is more powerful than any enemy's hatred, any brother's wrongdoing, any sister's unkind word, any parent's neglect, any partner's dismissal, any friend's misunderstanding… God's love is more powerful than anything else we have here that glimmers in an attempt to compare.
We, my sisters and brothers, are a pretty broken bunch. We can do our best to love with arms wide open, but we will close them slightly when worried about what others will think if we lose control and love to our fullest. But the good news is this: God's love is relentless, abiding, passionate and considerate. God's love will be present for us in all that we see and do if we are simply open to receiving it. God loves us so much that God even gives us the opportunity to realize on our own how great this love is. We're not hardwired to say "yes" to God the instant that God presses our "on" button in the womb. Rather, we're given the chance to get out into the world and to experience love from our parents and friends to see how great it can be, even though it's sometimes painful.
How, then, can we love our neighbors as ourselves? By not ripping our their candidate's sign from their yards in the dark of night? Fortunately for us, there's more to it than that, and Paul is thoughtful enough in Romans 12 to provide a short list of things that mark a true Christian, and in its pithiness, it reads a bit like advice one would give to a recent graduate. Paul writes: "Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; out do one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not claim to be wiser than you are. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink." (Romans 12: 9-20)
For Paul, loving one's neighbor is not difficult. It doesn't call us to donate organs or sell all we have for the sake of living in harmony together. Rather, Paul says that a true Christian does what is right, rather than what feels good. "Do not repay evil for evil. Remember that Vengeance is the Lord's, and when we give our enemies something to drink, it will heap burning coals on their heads." See, Paul understands that we want our enemies to feel it when we respond to their actions. But Paul doesn't encourage us to use actual burning coals, however much we'd like to. No – Paul says, return evil with good. And then watch 'em squirm. And beware – they just might squirm their ways into our hearts as friends, not enemies.
Let me pose another question, as well: What is it that sets us apart, as Christians? How is it that we are called to act differently than anyone else, to be in this world, but not of it? I hope that we can all claim faith in God and Jesus Christ as a unifying factor in our lives together. Today, we celebrate a baptism of an infant, and together we will promise the parents of this child that we will love him and support him and teach him about Jesus. I hope you know that we're blessed to be a part of a community that would make such a promise. Many of you heard that promise in your infancy or young adulthood. Those churches may very well have raised you up to be good Baptists or Methodists, Episcopals, Catholics, or Presbyterians. But maybe those churches said or did some things along the way that made you feel like the promise they made to you wasn't good anymore. Maybe they told you that you were no longer welcome to worship there. But today, we make a promise together to this family in saying, not only do we promise to raise up your child in the faith, but we renew the vows that were taken at our own baptism so that we will know that those promises are still good today. Here. Now.
Today, you have the chance to be a witness for this baby being baptized. Today, you have the chance to do something differently because you are a Christian. Today, you have the chance to consider what you're doing on this planet and how you can be more thoughtful, more conscientious, more consistent with your beliefs. If you believe that God created this world and called it good, then let us celebrate in the goodness of God's creation! Take today to reconsider the food you eat and the clothes you wear and where they came from and how they were made. In this brisk fall that we're enjoying so unseasonably early for Atlanta, take the time to be outside in the cool air. Try walking or biking to work or MARTA and burning a little less gasoline. Carpool. Make homemade food tonight, and eat it all week long with friends and neighbors. And if it's terrible, then hope that your friends and neighbors do the same.
These are such small steps, but God is calling us to be a little more considerate and consistent with how we treat one another and this gorgeous creation we've been given. Today, you have the opportunity to consider your witness as a Christian. What will you do? What will you do differently? How will you live out the call that God has given to you to think and to do and to be different than you were before you knew how much God loves you? Remember – you're not doing this alone. We, brothers and sisters, are in this community together, and we have made a promise to raise each other up in the faith, repay good for evil, and to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our souls and all of our minds. Beloved, Let us love one another.

1 comment:

Loving Landon said...

WOW - wish i heard it in person...