Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sermon: Through the Lens of Love

Lectionary: Year A, Proper 25
Gospel Text: Matthew 22:34-46 (NRSV)
Sermon Audio (23 minutes)

If the picture of God we’re projecting to the world isn’t first of all love,
then our theology is likely wrong.

Thesis: All of us build theological and cultural “boxes” which help explain God, the world, and our place in it. But we must never allow these to turn into gods – idols – that prevents us from hearing and seeing God more perfectly.

imageQuestions: What kind of God does our proclamation of God say about him? What kind of power and authority do we picture him wielding?

This sermon was given at the Presbyterian Church on October 26, 2014.

This passage consists of two conflict stories, which upon first glance seem somewhat disjointed and unrelated. Upon closer examination, however, it can be seen that the first is the explanation for the second.

The Greatest Commandment

The first part of the passage is the “test” presented to Jesus by a lawyer from the Pharisees in which he asks which is the greatest commandment. This is a story that is familiar to nearly all Christians, young and old, in which Jesus responds with “love God” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Where we 21st century Westerners get hung-up is with the ordinals, “first” and “second”. First and second usually mean “first” has priority over “second” so when Jesus says the “second is like unto the first” we subconsciously think that “love God” is slightly more important than “love your neighbor” even when we intellectually know that both are supposed to be equal.

When “love God” is taken by itself as the most important commandment, Christians often end up with some kind of performance-based, individualistic set of codes that are meant to improve devotion to God.

The proper way of understanding and applying Jesus’ statement is to take to heart what he said: that both are truly equal, that there is no “first” or “second.” In fact I believe it is quite proper to see “love your neighbor as yourself” as the application of “love God.”[1] The “love your neighbor” comes from Leviticus 19:9-18, in which the text quite clearly provides concrete examples of what that looks like. Jesus tells his audience that loving God cannot happen apart from community.

So, after all his preaching and teaching, after all his travels and miracles, here, just days before his crucifixion, our Lord names his center—the center of his ministry, the center of his mission, the center of the kingdom he has been sent to proclaim and build—and it is love. Love of neighbor, care and concern for each other.[2]

What Is the Messiah?

The second conflict is one which Jesus initiates against the group of Pharisees still in the vicinity. He asks them what they think about the Messiah and whose son they think he is.

The Pharisees respond by saying that the Messiah is David’s son.

Jesus uses a quote from Psalm 110:1 and asks, then how could David call the Messiah “my Lord” if the Messiah is David’s son as they just claimed?

Separated by time and culture, this is a particularly puzzling and enigmatic question for us. It doesn’t make much sense and we have difficulty comprehending how this is connected to the rest of Matthew Chapter 22. What we need is a little cultural exegesis.

It is almost unheard of in an ancient Near Eastern context for a sovereign like David to call one who comes after him “Lord,” thereby granting the descendant even greater authority than the patriarch. By conventional logic, this threatens the stability of the whole patriarchal system, which depends on the head to retain permanent authority, which then gives security, identity, and stability to those who follow in the line. This is why the Pharisees are stunned and unable to give an answer to Jesus, who is arguing that David, in his enigmatic statement in Psalm 110:1, is daring to expect that someone even greater than he will emerge in his wake, to whom he will gladly submit. The Pharisees, recognizing that this could undermine the whole basis of their authority, grow silent and cease from asking Jesus any more questions.[3]

The Jewish religious interpretations were not expecting a divine Messiah. They were expecting a warrior-king Messiah in the pattern of David, coming to wield military and physical might and re-establish the Jewish kingdom on earth. They were expecting a Messiah to affirm and abide by their longstanding traditions of their ancestors.

They were not expecting a Messiah whose power and authority were based on self-sacrificing love. They had a theological and cultural box with certain expectations about the Messiah, and Jesus did not fit into that box. This is how the two stories in this passage come together. In the first, Jesus proclaimed the foundation of his kingdom. In the second is the explanation of why the Jewish powers rejected Jesus.

Core to the tension, perhaps, is the central teaching of Jesus itself. Both to his followers (7:12) and to his opponents (22:34–40), love is the commandment on which hang all of the law and the prophets. Love, not power; love, not heritage; love, not law.[4]

Love is the Lens

imageThe Jewish authorities saw everything through the lens of law, tradition, ancestry, and patriarchy.

Jesus tells them, “you are wrong” (c.f., 22:29). “You don’t understand the scriptures nor the power of God” because you have failed to see the real power of God—love.

Could we become so attached to our religious and cultural boxes that we become blind to God’s power of love? What does our theology-in-practice show about God and his power? If it isn’t love, our theology is wrong.

[1] C.f., Romans 13:8-10 where Paul distills all of the Law into “love your neighbor.”

[2] Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Location 7232.

[3] Feasting: Matthew, location 7334.

[4] Feasting: Matthew, location 7416.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sermon: Complicity // Matthew 22:15-22

imageLectionary: Year A, Proper 24, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gospel Text: Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)
Sermon Audio (23 minutes)

Question: We cannot escape complicity in the unjust systems of this world. So how should we live as citizens of the kingdom of God in this world?

Thesis: We cannot avoid all complicity with the world's systems, but we can still seek to honor God in our participation.

Additional texts used in the sermon: Psalm 50:10-12; Romans 13:1-7; James 1:5; Romans 8:26-28; Matthew 7:7-8; Matthew 9:13; (Hosea 6:6)

This sermon was given at the Petersburg Lutheran Church on October 19, 2014.

Application (from the notes)

Three things to recognize
  • Recognize that we cannot avoid a certain degree of complicity with this world's systems
  • Recognize that navigating this world with the values of the kingdom of God is a complicated affair and that oftentimes the right course of action may be ambiguous and difficult to discern
  • Recognize that ultimately, God is the owner of everything, including the kingdoms of this world
Our Part
  • Three suggestions for our daily walk with Christ in his kingdom
    • James 1:5 - seek wisdom
    • Romans 8:26-28 - seek the Holy Spirit and stop worrying
    • Matthew 7:7-8 - ask, seek, knock; and trust that God will guide your steps
  • When faced with a decision ask these three questions - Matthew 9:13 (Hosea 6:6) - mercy, rather than sacrifice
    • What is the compassionate thing to do or say?
    • What is the merciful thing to do or say?
    • What will relieve oppression and bring true justice?

Closing Statements (from the notes)

"Our problem is that most of us would like to be disciples all our lives and never have to risk ourselves and our dignity by becoming apostles. We like the comforts of the cocoon rather than the uncertainties of the wider world." George R. Knight, Exploring Mark, p. 131

We bear the image of God. We belong to him. We are called to do his work, to give ourselves to his purposes.

We'd often rather wait to engage the world until we have all the answers in black and white, until we can perfectly address the issues this life presents. But that's not how the Christian life works. Just as Jesus sent his disciples out into the world for real-world training, we are being sent out into the world with less than perfect knowledge. I believe that it is in our taking the risk to engage the world and in our struggling with real issues, that the gospel displays its power. When we are honest with our imperfections, when we respond with integrity to difficult issues, that those around us will see the light of Jesus Christ shining through us.