Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: PRESENCE - God With Us | We Are With God

Stewardship Sermon Series, Part 2: Presence
God With Us | We Are With God

Matthew 22:34-46

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They said to him, “The son of David.”

43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

            This week we are beginning our second week of our Stewardship Sermon Series, which will focus on “Presence.” This is tricky, because as a membership vow (and a part of our vision statement), “presence” is the intention we have to share ourselves with God and others. Quite simply, it means we will show up. Here we are, ready to hear, learn, sing, pray and worship together. We do this because on Sunday mornings together because worship is the core of our Christian experience as the body of Christ. Certainly we can experience God in a variety of ways, for God is found in many places and in good company or solidarity. But, the church is called to worship God and to support one another as we grow in faith, particularly through the sacraments, which are a unique part of our life together. We can only share in this when we do it together, because we need God, and we need one another.
            The core message of our text today highlights this basic point, as Jesus responds to the last of the scribes and Pharisees pointed questions in this particular chapter. One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Listen to this. The lawyer, the attorney, asks Jesus a question about his specialty. He doesn’t ask it that he might be a better lawyer; he does it to test Jesus. He does it to argue, to stir up conflict. He asks this question with an answer in mind, and so Jesus answers him clearly, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
            This, my friends, should come as no surprise to the Pharisee. As an attorney, an expert in the law, these should be words which he has bound to his forehead and written on his doorposts: Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  This man, this Pharisee, can almost be heard exhaling in exasperation through the millennia. If I read carefully between the red lines of Jesus’ words, I can hear the Pharisee’s eyes rolling. Of COURSE Jesus said this is the greatest commandment. It is the Shema (which means “hear”). It is something the faithful are instructed to recite twice daily. These words were taught to him, and shared with his children. They rest in the מְזוּזָה‫‎ mezuzah, which means "doorpost.” But, does the Pharisee understand how to demonstrate this love, this loyalty to YHWH? When Jesus echoes the Lord’s command in Deuteronomy, he reminds him that he is to love with his heart (the core of human intellect and will), the soul (the vitality of one’s own self), and might (which appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible, in reference to “capacity”). These words are to be both internalized and made external – worn on the body and posted in the home. There should be no secret about the Israelites’ devotion to God; it should be as evident as his family, as public as his name. This love for God should transcend communication because everything, verbal and non-verbal, communicates it.
            To the end that Jesus has to tell the Pharisee that this is the greatest commandment underscores that the Pharisee may have done the external things, the rote activity of binding the scriptures to his arm, but they are not written on his heart.
            The Pharisee is not alone in his failing. Sitting with him is the scribe, whose duty it is to pen the words in indelible ink onto parchment, which is placed inside the mezuzah. Upon the parchment are inscribed specified Hebrew verses from the Torah, namely the ones which Jesus has just quoted to them from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The parchment is prepared by a qualified scribe, who has undergone years of meticulous training. His work, his focus, his training is upon the letters and the script, but not upon the transformation of his heart. The Pharisee and the scribe, Jesus is subtly saying to the disciples, have not become transformed by the words they have studied.
            So, the greatest commandment, Jesus says, is to love the Lord your God, with every fiber of your being and every post in your home. This transformative love is beyond our capacity to love in an erotic way. This sort of love is overwhelming and life-changing. This sort of love is something we do not open ourselves up to very often, because the sort of love we share for each other comes with such great risk. God would only ask such a love from us if it was a love worth trusting. We can love the Lord our God because God has first loved us.
            It is the second part of the commandment that is more complicated, because it requires us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quotes directly from Leviticus 19:18. The surrounding text in Leviticus underscores the basics of human relationships, in which God tells Moses that the Israelites not to hate in their hearts anyone of their kin, nor take vengeance upon or bear a grudge against their neighbors. Love, then, is not an “emotion,” or something simply to be felt. Rather, it is command to reach out to and befriend the neighbor. And, what, then, is a neighbor? It would seem as though God was telling Moses that the Israelites were only to care for each other, but in Leviticus 19:34, God says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, they shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This means that God is telling the Israelites that all who come to their land, to live in peace and build up their families, shall be treated as neighbors, with the same rights as citizens and the same dignity as family.
            When Jesus answers this simple question for the Pharisees and scribes, he is not simply summarizing all 613 Hebrew laws in two simple mandates. The Torah cannot be condensed so easily. Rather, Jesus is subverting the entire structure upon which the power of the Pharisees was built. Matthew’s Gospel is highly political, and this is the peak of the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, when he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he is demonstrating both utter orthodoxy and offering a profound threat. The most curious thing is that Jesus declares early in the Gospel of Matthew (5:17) that his purpose is “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law. How, then, is this to happen?
            It happens in how we are taught to love. Love, for Jesus, is not a withering feeling that comes and goes. Agape love is not the love I feel for the first sip of coffee in the morning or the sunset in the evening. Agape love ἀγάπη which describes “the love of God for humanity and of humanity’s for God."
            It’s likely we would all rather see a sermon than hear one, but “Jesus is more theocentric in his preaching. A sermon is a sermon when it’s about God. We learn implications for human behavior only after we learn who God is and what God is up to.”[1] And what God is up to is overthrowing the bounds of our understanding of God’s presence – no longer in burning bushes or in the mouths of prophets. Rather, God breaks the bounds of heaven and earth by becoming one of us – Immanuel, God With Us, is the most radical and distinctive part of our Christian identity. What it means to love God with all our heart, all our soul and all of our might (capacity) has been demonstrated to us by a God who knows no bounds, who loves beyond intention and history. We love a God who loves with all of God’s capacity, so that we might learn how to do so, as well.
            But, typically, “our definition of ‘love’ is often suspiciously easy on and for us. But this is not the definition of love that Jesus is working with in Matthew. The Jesus we see in these stories thinks that to love God with the whole self, with ‘all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind’ (verse 37) is demanding and risky. Following the path of love leads him to jump into debates and conflicts with his whole self. Love leads Jesus into all kinds of situations that are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Eventually, love gets him killed.”[2]
            The Shema Yisrael is the prayer we bind to our hearts, to our minds, to our might, to our foreheads and arms and to our homes is the prayer that binds us to God and to one another. It is the way in which we demonstrate not only God’s presence in our lives, but our presence with God. So, when we are called to “love God as Jesus commands, we must point to the world around us at the concrete, tangible ways where this vision of love can be expressed. We must show them what the love of God looks like."[3] 

[1] William H. Willimon,
[3] Prince Raney Rivers,