Saturday, October 20, 2018

Matthew 22:34-46 "Four Letter Words"

         The setting is Jerusalem, the Holy City.  The season is Passover, just a couple of days before Jesus’ arrest in the garden, his subsequent monkey trial, and his unbearably painful and humiliating crucifixion. 
Prior to this particular day, in the name of Yahweh/God and the Holy One’s dream for the world, in the name of Yahweh/God and all that this God of Israel stood for, Jesus had entered the City riding a donkey.  Since then, he had been doing just about everything possible to get on the wrong side of the Jewish temple hierarchy: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests and temple scholars who survived and thrived only because they were in the pocket of the oppressive Roman Empire.
         So far, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that had wilted and died before their very eyes.  He had told three offensive parables – one about two sons, one about a wicked tenant farmer, and one about a wedding feast – all of them designed to uplift the down-and-out and the honest ones and scare the pants off the powerful and mighty.  In a fit of anger that not even his disciples had ever witnessed before, he had wreaked havoc in the temple atrium, freeing sacrificial doves and lambs, overturning tables, scattering tribute money, and whipping the vendors who tried to stand their ground.  
         In the atmosphere of heightened fear and hostility that he had singlehandedly created, with their power and prestige challenged, it was no wonder that the temple hotshots were out to get Jesus.  And so, on this sunlit morning, the testing committee arrived, led by the brightest and the best of the Old Guard.  They were convinced that they were coming from a position of strength, intending to use the 613 laws of Moses as their battleground and their nitpicking questions as weapons. They were certain that they could outwit and outfox a backwater Messiah wannabee if for no other reason than because everyone knew that nothing good ever came out of Nazareth.
         In their little minds warped by their own sense of power, the questioners figured it would be like a first century reality show.  The point was to test Jesus, throw him off his game by entangling him in endless complicated disputes, so that he would end up, perhaps unwittingly, giving answers that were either stupid or downright blasphemous.  Then they would victoriously send him home, humiliated, his tail between his legs, his Messiah dreams destroyed – all this with lots of people watching. 
As Methodist pastor, Alyce MacKenzie imagines: “Let’s see if Jesus can sing a cappella like on ‘Sing Off’.  Or lose fat and gain muscle like on the ‘Biggest Loser.’ Let’s see if Jesus can dance for us like on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.  Let’s see if he can survive in the wilderness like on ‘Survivor.’  Let’s find out if he can cook like on ‘Chopped’…. Let’s give the savior a pop quiz and see if he passes.”
         And so they do.  Curious listeners come and go, but the debate continues non-stop.  The Pharisees ask about taxes and what should be rightfully paid to Caesar and what should be set aside for God.  When Jesus’ response made sense even to those trying to trip him up, they fabricated an outlandish scenario about a woman who had been married seven times and who had outlived all her husbands before she herself died.  Then they wanted to know whose wife she would be in heaven. 
When Jesus neatly got himself out of that little imbroglio, they pulled out all the stops and asked him what they were so certain would trip him up.  A temple scholar with slicked-back hair and eyes that glittered with malice carefully clear his throat before he stepped forward in the late afternoon sun. He paused dramatically prior to dropping the big one, the question on which all the hopes of the temple Old Guard lay: “So, Jesus,” he queried, “Of all those 613 commandments given to us by Moses himself, what is the greatest commandment?”
The crowd gasped and leaned in closer to hear Jesus’ answer.  His response was almost a prayer, so like the daily Shema that every good Jew repeated each day: “‘You shall love the Lord your Go with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.‘ This is the greatest and first commandment.” 
And then when everyone nodded and turned to leave or began to murmur amongst themselves, figuring that this was Jesus’ final answer to a final question, our rabbi declared, “Oh, hold it a minute.  There is more.  Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
One blogger I read had this to say about the final bombshell Jesus dropped. “What probably was a bit surprising to the Pharisees was the second commandment that Jesus lumps together with the first. ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
This commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18 and was a much lesser known commandment than the first one Jesus talks about. It’s a bold move by Jesus to elevate this commandment to the level of the scripture that inspired the Shema. Jesus is really throwing a curveball at the Pharisees. How can you put love of neighbor on the same level as love of God?
And if we’re really looking to complicate things even more, how can you love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself? Love of self is implied in order to love one’s neighbor. So now, in a sense, we have three great commandments: Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. Confusing stuff, and probably not what the Pharisees were expecting to hear.”
All in all, the rest of the afternoon fell apart.  Jesus ended up asking questions of the Pharisees, questions they could not answer.  And as suppertime neared and the crowd dispersed, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the priests and religious scholars faded one by one into the inner sanctum of the temple.  They left in silence, and we are told that no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. 
Because, you see, in the end, there was only one question, a question that lies at the heart of Christianity, a question that arises mostly unanswered in moderate Protestant congregations worldwide today as cultural priorities shift and attendance drops on Sunday mornings and families read the newspaper or cheer for their little athletes or drop their kids off for voice lessons instead.  What does it mean to love God – and oh, wait a minute, there is more, to also love your neighbor as yourself? 
That is the question that lies at the root of who we envision ourselves to be as the church, and specifically, as the church here in Raymond.  What does it mean to love God – and love your neighbor?  Who is God, and who exactly is my neighbor?  And just how do I go about loving them?  How are these two commandments that Jesus lumped together as the single most important commandment intertwined?  Wrestling with these questions – and living these questions -  lies at the heart of discipleship, at the heart of who we proclaim ourselves to be as Christians.
A man was working on a crossword puzzle and was having trouble getting a couple of the words to fit with each other.  He asked, "What’s a four-letter word for a strong emotional reaction toward a difficult person?"
Someone listening said, "The answer is hate."
Someone else exclaimed, "No, wait, the answer is love!"
Though that little four letter word certainly does have an emotional element, Biblical love is more than a feeling.  Lutheran pastor Clayton Schmit put it this way: “To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God's eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.
Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.
But, biblical love is not passive (Schmit goes on to say). It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do…. To love (one’s) neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.” 
Schmit seems to be saying (and I agree with him) that we can control Biblical love.  It is something we choose to do.  In short, when we love God's people, we are always, and at the same time, loving God. In fact, that is the only true way we can love God.
Love as the commandment that Jesus put forth as the single greatest one is not what we feel.  It is what we do – and it is always a choice.  Loving God and loving your neighbor are not just similar statements.  They are one and the same.  Only when we are loving our neighbor are we really loving God.  Only when we are intentionally engaged with the world – with God’s creation – are we capable of loving God.  
I like what Episcopal priest Rick Morley had to say about the church and worship in this creative tension between love of God and love of neighbor. 
You see, I think so most if not all of us come to worship with the express purpose of demonstrating our love for God.  We get up early on a Sunday morning, and we sit in these hard, wooden pews for an hour or so.  We praise God through heartfelt prayer and phenomenal music and by avidly listening to Scripture and by trying to keep our eyes open during the sermon.  Surely that is showing our love for God.
And, yet, listen to what Morley has to say: “The Church spends a lot of time on a lot of things. We have programs and initiatives, we have theological arguments and conversations, we build buildings and we seek to expand our reach. But, we cannot forget the core, the foundation of love.
We are redeemed by love, and we are to be known for our love of others. Love for those near us, and those far; those like us, and those alien to us; those who we like, and those who we have a hard time stomaching; those who are nice to us, and those who have injured us greatly; those who think like us, vote like us, pray like us, and those who work for the very opposite things. We love. We encourage love. We are to build people and communities and cultures on love.”
In the end, being a Christian, being the church in a difficult, jaded, oftentimes selfish and cynical world, is about being passionate about love – having a passion for God and a passion for the world.  It is about trusting that, with God’s help, this crazy mixed up world we live in can be transformed at least in the direction of God’s dream of justice and peace. 
Can you imagine a world where there would be no hunger because we could not sleep at night if our neighbors did not have something to eat?  Can you imagine a world without war because we could not imagine subjecting our neighbor to anything we would not want done to us - and they would not be able to imagine doing it to us, either?  And can you imagine politics in such a world - no negative ads, no deceit and dirty tricks and hidden agendas?  There would be no alternative facts, and not even fake news would be able to get a foothold in that world that God dreams of.
Loving God and loving one’s neighbor is about realizing that God is seldom found hanging around churches but instead is discovered when we step outside of our own little world and actively engage with the vast and beautiful tapestry of humanity all around us. 
We can say we love God when we come to church every Sunday, but we really do not love God if we are not actively concerned with and engaged in the world. Love:  It is a four-letter word that is tricky in its seeming simplicity. The more we love, the more we know God and viscerally understand what God is like.  The more we love those around us, the more we love God. 
In the end, that four-letter word lies at the foundation of who we are as Christians.  It grounds us. It anchors us.  It connects us to our neighbor which, in turn, connects us to God.  How we as a congregation actively and intentionally express that love and those connections will define us as a church and will determine how many people enter those doors to be a meaningful part of this community.
Whether or not we survive and thrive as a church is our choice, and it is as simple and as complicated as a four-letter word and how we as a congregation choose, with God’s help, to express it.  As we enter our stewardship season when you will be asked to financially support the ministries of our church, my prayer is that, as I said to our son, Paddy, and his new wife, Megan, when I officiated at their wedding this past weekend – when all is said and done, and only faith, hope, and love remain, for you (and for us as a church), may the greatest of these have been love.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Acts 20:7-12 "Wake Up!"

         When I went to college, we still had Saturday morning classes, and first year students were not allowed to cut them.  I remember taking an introductory geology course that initial winter term.  It was fondly called Rocks 10, and it was designed for students like myself who needed to fulfill a science distribution requirement but would never have made it through biology since that introductory course was designed to weed out pre-meds. 
A lovely elderly professor, Duncan Stewart, taught the course.  Each class period, he brought along his equally elderly dog who curled up at the front of the classroom and slept through the hour and ten minute lecture.  Professor Stewart also took us on several field trips to Minnesota outcroppings loaded with fossils, and he always had the bus driver stop on the way back to campus so he could buy us each an ice cream cone. 
         The only problem with Rocks 10 was that one of the three weekly classes was Saturday morning at 8:00 A.M.  That meant getting up in the dark on a weekend and making my way across campus in sub-zero weather.  That also meant sitting in a darkened classroom trying to take notes on the slides of rocks that marched unrelentingly across the projection screen.
Nice as Professor Stewart was, it was not enough to keep everyone awake – certainly not me.  By about the fifth slide, I would feel my eyelids droop and my eyes lose their focus.  Sometimes I would feel my head nod forward and then jerk back up again.  All in all, it was not a pretty sight – but the course did ensure that the first third of my required science courses would be handily reflected on my transcript come graduation
         Teachers and preachers can have that soporific effect on people – and the Apostle Paul was no exception.  He was on one of his missionary journeys when we encounter him this time.  He had made his way through Macedonia and Achaia in Western Greece.  He was headed to Syria and most likely on to Jerusalem.  However, on the evening we encounter him, he had stopped in Troas in northwestern modern day Turkey.  Paul had been there for a week, and this was his last night with the Christians in the area.
         As you might expect from an apostle and saint, Paul used these final hours in a revival sort of way – singing, reading Scripture, praying, sharing in communion – and preaching.  And how Paul could preach!  We know for sure that his letters could sometimes be abstract and convoluted, and that brevity was not his strong suit.  One can only presume that his sermons were along the same lines.  Paul would have been, most likely, a firm believer in the modern proverb: “Sermonettes make Christianettes”.
         In his defense, however, surely Paul felt he had so much to say to his listeners.  After all, he was leaving the next morning and, who knows when he would pass this way again.  Yet, he clearly did not know when to zip it and sit down.  Instead, he preached on – and on – and on – until it was well past midnight.
         United Church of Christ pastor Dee Eisenhauer describes what happened next this way: “In spite of (his) wish to stay awake out of respect for the speaker, if nothing else”, young Eutychus (kind of like a modern day millennial) “is interested in the preacher, but when (Paul) launches into a complicated excursus about the Law being a custodian or some such, he loses the thread.
The blazing oil lamps fill the stuffy, crowded room with soporific smoke. Eutychus had seated himself in the window sill, hoping a breath of air would aid him, but it’s no use.  His eyes close, feeling like they were weighted with cement. His head hits his chest and jerks up, several times.  Then he loses the battle to stay awake, and falls into a deep sleep.”
         That would have been bad enough, but then the unthinkable happened.  Eutychus fell out of the third story window and hit the dirt below.  There was a collective gasp from the congregation, enough to make even Paul stop to take a breath.  The entire flock of Christians bolted down the three flights of stairs and out of the building, only to find the young man sprawled on the cobbled street and apparently dead
         Paul went out with the crowd as well to check on Eutychus.  As one Bible translation reads, “Paul stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. ‘No more crying,’ he said. ‘There’s life in him yet.’
With that, Paul and the congregation headed back up the three flights of stairs to the sanctuary.  Paul served communion and then returned to the pulpit, preaching until dawn.  It is quite amazing really.  He is not thrown off his game one single bit.  And on that note, he departed from Troas the following day, leaving the rattled congregation and the resuscitated Eutychus to inject some meaning into the bizarre happenings of the past 12 or so hours.
There you have it!  This untoward event is the first historical evidence of someone being literally bored to death by a sermon, bored to death by church.  And that is also undoubtedly why church sanctuaries are always on the first floor.
One pastor/blogger I read while preparing this sermon shared his church experience growing up.” When I was a teenager, (he wrote,) I went through a phase when I found worship a little boring. Not all of it was boring. The church I grew up in had an organ, and I liked that. I enjoyed the hymns, and the choir. And the communion services held a certain mystery and fascination. And the offering--I enjoyed the offering in my church, because it was very dramatic. The organist would suddenly transition from nice quiet music while the plates were being passed to the stirring opening chords of the doxology and the congregation would rise and sing heartily while the ushers marched smartly down the aisle bearing the plates. That was very exciting.
But the sermons, I tended to find boring. Our pastor was a nice man, but his sermons were just not very captivating. And they would kind of just go on and on. So once I asked my parents whether I could take my Hardy Boys mystery novel along to read during the sermon. They didn’t think that would be a very good idea.
But the thing is, my parents also found the sermons a little boring. So sometimes we’d skip out. My father sang in the choir, so occasionally, when the choir had finished its anthem, and before the pastor stood up to preach, he would duck out the side door of the choir section, and my mother, sister and I would slip out the back of the church. And we’d scamper down the basement hallway and exit by the back door so that no one would see us. And that was really exciting, the kind of thrill a young adolescent feels when they break some stodgy rule. “
He goes on to note that “today more and more people are finding not only sermons, but worship, and church in general to be boring. And they also are slipping out the back door—or, kind of like this young man Eutychus, they are falling out of the church window.”
So – the question for us as we seek to figure out just what role our church here in Raymond can and should play in the post-modern world is this:  Why are people slipping out the back door or falling out of the church window?  What makes church seem so darn boring and irrelevant to folks today?  I have a couple of thoughts.
It could be that those individuals and families who choose to remain outside these walls think that all we who are inside these walls do is sleep our way through the world’s problems. It could be that they think that all we do is talk about – and maybe pray about - the pain, the hunger, and the brokenness that abounds all around us.  It could be that they think that we think that committing our lives to Christ means little else than assuring ourselves of a ticket on the train to heaven and that what Jesus stood for is secondary to our own self-interest.  It could be that they think we are more concerned about getting more people in the pews who will make a stewardship pledge, so the church can keep its doors open than we are about living in meaningful and authentic ways.  It could be that they think we are having one big slumber party in here – safe in our own little world.
In the weeks to come as we define a vision and path forward for our church, if we take nothing else from this little story in the Book of Acts, we should take from it that we need to stay awake.  We need to remain awakened to the needs of the world around us and, with God’s help, respond to those needs in a meaningful and intentional way.  We need to wake up and move outside of our own little world.  We must not snooze away into cynicism, apathy, and jadedness.  We must not snooze our way into indifference or downright antagonism toward and distrust in those who see the world differently than we do.
Instead, we need to be awakened and cognizant of and above all trusting in the workings of God’s redemptive spirit, a power that will surprise us even in the most tragic and seemingly broken of circumstances. 
Surely we need to wake up to the world around us – and reflect that wakefulness in our worship.  So – let me ask you this: What if our worship together was a time to think less about ourselves and more about our faith in the power of the love of God, a time to think less about our personal comfort and more about all that Jesus stood for,  a time to think less about maneuvering God into the leftover parts of our busy lives and more about molding our lives into God’s dream for the world, in short, a time to recognize and celebrate all that God is doing in our midst even as we become renewed and refreshed, so we can move outside of our little world to love and to serve?
In the end, if we are to survive and thrive as a church, we need to wake up, step out of our own little world, and embrace all that Jesus’ stood for.  Author Rachel Held Evans said it well in her blog when writing about the church and the millennial generation. 
 She made the point that the church should not presume that her generation (Millennials) is gullible enough that putting a few contemporary tweaks on a worship service will keep them in the church (J. Shannon Webster). She wrote: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we’re against. We want to ask questions that don’t have pre-determined answers. We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the Kingdom of God over allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities. We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers. You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
Let’s be the church that wakes up – and finds Jesus in our midst.