Oconee Street United Methodist Church May 3 Online Service
Announcement: Stay Connected!
Psalter: Psalm 23
My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is His name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed, Beside the living stream. He brings my wandering spirit back When I forsake His ways, And leads me, for His mercy’s sake, In paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death Thy presence is my stay; One word of Thy supporting breath Drives all my fears away. Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, Doth still my table spread; My cup with blessings overflows, Thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God Attend me all my days; O may Thy house be my abode, And all my work be praise! There would I find a settled rest, While others go and come; No more a stranger, nor a guest, But like a child at home.
Response to Sermon
Prayer & The Lord’s Prayer
Refrain: Alleluia alleluia, alleluia!
Glory to God who does wondrous things Let all the people God’s praises now sing, All of creation in splendour shall ring: Alleluia! (refrain)
See how salvation for all has been won Up from the grave our new life has begun Life now perfected in Jesus, the Son: Alleluia! (refrain)
Now in our presence the Lord will appear, Shine in the faces of all of us here, Fill us with joy and cast out all our fear: Alleluia! (refrain)
Call us, Good Shepherd we listen for you Wanting to see you in all that we do, We would the gate of salvation pass through: Alleluia! (refrain)
Lord, we are open to all that you say, Ready to listen and follow your way, You are the potter and we are the clay: Alleluia! (refrain)
If we have love then we dwell in the Lord, God will protect us from fire and sword Fill us with love and the peace of his word:! Alleluia (refrain)
Proverbs 29:11 Fools give fool vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.
I was filled with rage.
I was crippled with anger as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to continue its discriminatory policies on LGBTQ people. I shot argumentative texts back and forth with Carla about leaving the church. I scoured the internet, consuming fiery responses from like-minded Methodists. I provoked social media debates with those who disagree with me.
But none of my actions mattered. The outcome of the General Conference vote didn’t change. The words in the Book of Discipline weren’t altered. I didn’t convince one person to think differently. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel any better.
I was a fool.
In the immediate aftermath of General Conference, I single-handedly took on the issue without God, convinced that my outrage was the solution for the injustice of the day. But my anger did nothing to help the people who were persecuted by the decision — LGBTQ Methodists who were labeled as “less than” by the governing body of their own church.
Don’t be mistaken, I’m not downplaying the importance of speaking out against injustice, but it must be done with God at our side, prayerfully, reflectively and intentionally.
The theme this Lenten season is “Make Room for God.” It’s critical that we take this message to heart as we discern how we — individually and as a church — move forward. Although we cannot change the decision made at 2019 General Conference, if we allow God to help us, we can be confident our way forward will bring calm, peace and love to those who need it most.
Prayer: Dear God, we are hurting today. We are sad. We are angry. We are letting you in. Please guide us. Amen.
In my lifetime of being a United Methodist, I’ve never experienced the level of anxiety in myself or across the board for the future of their church. As you all know, today is the first business day in the Special General Conference that will determine the future of the church—not just on human sexuality, but perhaps on the makeup and structure of our denomination as it moves forward.
Everyone is trying to picture the future of the church. What will it look like? While I have absolutely no idea what if anything will happen as a result of the next few days of deonimational deliberation, I think that in order to help us picture the future of our church and the denomination, we could hardly do better than draw on the image that Paul suggests in 1 Cor, but maybe with a little help from postmodern architecture. Now before beginning, let me say that no image of the people of God is perfect or complete, and that’s why Scripture has so many of them. Last week, Paul told the believers in Corinth that they were like plants organically connected to the field where God brings growth and new life, but now he provides a metaphor from the building trades. Hear this word:
1Cor. 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? …. we are God’s servants, working together; you are …God’s building.
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must take care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
So if GC2019 is like the denomination trying to decide how and where the church should be built in the future, then we would do well to heed this advice from 1 Corinthians and make sure that the church is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There are some people who say, “If the foundation is poured concrete, then by God, the whole thing is gonna be poured concrete. Let’s form this thing up and reinforce it. Let’s make the connection to the foundation obvious and literal.” What might that position look like if it were a building? Well, fortunately for our exploration this morning, there is a school of architecture called Brutalism!
How would you like to live there, or work there? As much as we want to ensure that our church is built on the foundation of Christ, if the result is ugly, then we might need to reconsider. Scripture often talks about “the beauty of holiness.” That is, what is good and true is also beautiful.
Now on the other hand, there are some who might be tempted to build something creative and beautiful while saying, who cares if it’s structurally sound as long as it looks good. At first glance, the instructions to build on a foundation that has already been poured might seem like a hindrance to creativity. But I actually think that the more our work is “tied in to the foundation,” the more we will be able to extend ourselves even further and to push the forms we’ve been given. For instance, consider an example of postmodern architecture like the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art in Columbus, Ohio.
The Wexner Center is not just a place to hang contemporary art, or a roof to keep rain off your head. Like a lot of contemporary architecture, it’s an attempt to say, “this is what architecture ought to do.” It’s playful and fun, it’s de-centralized rather than having one main resting point for the eye of beholder. I see several possibilities that this building suggests for the future of Oconee Street.
1. It’s connected to traditional forms, but clearly distinct.
Notice how it is situated next to these other buildings. Their straightforward, rectilinear form provide a contrast to the creativity and playfulness of the Wexner Center. It’s very possible that as a result of General Conference, some churches may exit left or exit right, (or both), but no matter who keeps the name UMC, or whether or not there are two denominations or three Connectional Conferences, we won’t be alone.
2. There is another aspect to consider in the next view of The Wex:
The Wex is provisional and playful with historic forms. You see these white geometric poles? Those evoke scaffolding, like a builder would put up to work on the walls. Scaffolding suggests that the work of architecture is constantly under revision, that it’s not fixed and final.
Similarly, discerning the will of God for the church is work that has to move forward through time. Every generation has new challenges to work through, and the work of building on the foundation of Christ is never done.
3. The Wexner center is interesting for the way it builds on its foundation. It’s connection to the foundation is complex—more connected for being less obvious.
One of the most interesting features is a column that playfully deconstructs what a column is. It doesn’t rest on the ground, but hangs from above, it doesn’t support the roof overhead but is itself supported by the roof. But notice. The cross members that it hangs from are supported by what? The wall at the edge of the building. And that wall is resting on what? Not a hovercraft, not a gaseous substance or water or mud. The wall that holds the cross member that holds the column is itself resting on a solid foundation. Reference to the foundation can be deferred, but not disregarded altogether.
Just because we’re built on the foundation, that doesn’t mean that the connection has to be obvious. Sometimes the church might need to cantilever it’s ministry into new terrain, or to make room for new ministry and new people. But a floor that cantilevered out over nothing in some ways has to rely on the foundation all the more. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house called Falling Water.
The horizontal floors echo the dramatic rock formations below, and to achieve the effect of flying out over the water, they had to extend past the foundational supports. About 20 years ago, major cracks began to appear as the cantilevered concrete began to pull away from the foundation. As architectural historians began to cull through the details of its construction, they discovered an angry correspondence between the architect and the construction foreman, in which the lead on-site builder tried to tell the Wright that the building would never last and that it would require twice as much steel reinforcement than Wright had specified. When the restoration of Fallingwater got to a certain point, they realized that despite the architects protests, the men who built it did in fact double on the the reinforcements to the foundation, and the only reason that the building lasted as long as it did was because those who built it took great care to build on the foundation that had been laid.
Paul says that the work of church leaders will one day be judged, not just in the slow breakdown of material by natural processes like gravity and erosion, but by a decisive gesture of God. The true nature of our work is not how good it looks, or how obviously it hews to the foundational footprint, or how big it is or how grand it is. What separates lasting material from ersatz imports can only be known by the revelation of God. There will come a Day when the Chief Building inspector asks us to show our work. Straw roofs will be consumed with fire, and wooden walls will be tinder in the fire, but there will be parts of the building that will remain in all their golden splendor.
While the judgment of God might seem a foreboding prospect, if we care about the future of the building, we will welcome it now so that we don’t have to fear it in the future. Because we’re the children of God, its kind of like “knowing somebody down at the permit and inspection office.” We don’t fear their judgment but welcome it. There are several stages of getting construction inspected—the foundation, the framing, electrical and plumbing all have to be approved before the work is covered up with sheetrock. If we didn’t have those preliminary inspections, how much more trouble we would have to go to if something leaked or arced and the entire wall had to be torn off. Better to show our work while we’re still in process. Better to welcome God’s inspection of our church, knowing that it’s provisional and unfinished and maybe a bit messy and hard to explain to people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do here.
In these days of uncertainty it’s important to remember that we are not the ultimate judge of what will last and what will not. This Special General Conference is important for the future of our church, but it is by no means the decisive moment that reveals which parts of the UMC that have been built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. General Conference 2019 is more like a remodeling job whose worth will only be proven in God’s good future.
There is something in these proceedings that makes us impatient for that future. Every plan and piece of legislation has its advocates, with the various factions determined to win out over their foes and to some extent that’s necessary. Take heart in this season of uncertainty. In the end as at the beginning, we are God’s building through and through. General Conference 2019 is not the Day of Judgment. It will not fully determine once and for all who is faithful and who isn’t. That is for God to do. Nor will General Conference determine how the church will look in the future. That is also the creative work of our Chief Architect who allows us to participate in good work of building the church. Back here at Oconee Street we can have the courage to extend ourselves in love because we are tied in to the foundation of Jesus Christ.
“Showing Your Work” Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15 Feb. 24, 2019
The Way Forward concerns possible changes to language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline concerning “homosexual practices”, ordination of homosexual persons and marriage of non-heterosexual persons within the church. Over recent decades, efforts to change this language at General Conference has led to impasse after impasse. There are many members and churches who do not think thy can be true to their understanding and remain in the church with expanded roles for LGBTQ+ persons. There are many members and churches that cannot abide the use of faith language to deny full participation to all children of God.
General Conference in 2016 approved the Commission on a Way Forward proposed by the Council of Bishops. Methodists representing all jurisdictions and a range of perspectives were appointed to examine and consider revisions to the Book of Discipline provisions regarding human sexuality and to identify options that might maintain unity within the church.
A Special Conference will occur in February to consider their report which proposes three plans: the One-Church Plan which is supported by the Counci of Bishops, the Connectional Conferences Model and the Traditionalist Plan. You may want to consider:
– An Simple Plan Overview – final that was coauthored by our own Sally Askew who spent many long years serving with the United Methodist Church Judicial Council in addition to her leadership in the Women’s Division and her years as a clergy spouse
– Furthermore, there is another option which was not included in the Way Forward report but may possibly be proposed from the floor of the Conference in Feb. It is supported by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus and their Simple Plan Overview – final includes their commentary.
I hope many of you will join us next Wednesday for what I hope will be an enlightening and meaningful chance to respectfully share about an issue that is crucially important in our communal faith lives.
I have been fortunate throughout my life to have found that at each stage, it was the best, most challenging time ever. That was true in my 20’s when I was in college and graduate school, married and became an English teacher, in my 30’s and 40’s when I became mom to Sean and Meg, and left teaching to work as a medical office manager. And it was never more true than when I entered Candler School of Theology two months before my 50th birthday to study to become a pastor because I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
God has blessed me beyond measure in this late calling. In my first appointment, the good people at Corinth and Pentecost UMCs in Winder welcomed me, their first woman pastor; they encouraged and taught me, and put up with me as I learned the ins and outs of pastoral ministry. Then after 4 years in Winder, I moved twenty whole miles up the road to Athens and to Oconee St. and Athens Urban Ministries (as Action Ministries was known at that time.) I was the Director of AUM for 8 years, retiring from that position in 2009 but continuing on as the part time pastor of Oconee St.
Little did I know in 2001, that my second pastoral appointment would last for 15 years and contain so many joys and blessings along the way. My hope was always to be able to use the gifts God had given me in concert with the individual and corporate gifts of a congregation, so that we could be church together – because, as you know, it truly takes all of us. I believe that has happened here beyond my greatest expectations.
We have been through a lot together, and that’s putting it mildly! And through it all, God has been good to us. I looked back a few days ago over the names of those whose memories we hold dear in our hearts, many of whom were here to greet me when I arrived, and who now have gone home to God. And then I looked at the names of all the babies whom I have been privileged to baptize in this church. Lucy Hines started it all, and now as I look at our children, I smile every time I remember the unbreakable bond of baptism that I have with so many of them.
We have grown in many ways – in membership, programming, mission, and outreach, always guided by our desire to be a church that welcomes everyone regardless. And if I were to choose which characteristic most describes you, it would be your gracious, inclusive welcoming of each person who comes through our doors. You’ve experienced that welcome yourself, and you pass it on each Sunday.
We have also experienced hardship as well as joy. The fire in 2013 forever marked those of us who were here at that time. We will never forget that event, where we were when we found out, how we felt, what we did in the first days afterward, and how we grieved together and planned together for the future. In those first months, our guiding scripture was from 1 Thessalonians “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” And then later, we transitioned to Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And finally last June we did see it! And in August we celebrated it!
During the rebuilding time, we grew stronger, more compassionate, more trusting, more reliant on one another, and more committed to the mission and ministry of this church that has been a beacon of hope to so many for over 145 years. I think we also became more aware of and grateful for what we have and who we are because of the deep sense of loss that we experienced together.
I am so very proud of you and have such confidence in you. I know that you can do anything. It is because of that, I can share with you now that I will be retiring in June at Annual Conference, and a new pastor will be appointed to Oconee Street.
Why now? Scripture says that for everything there is a season. First, there is that sense of your strength and resilience that allows me to step back, knowing that you will be OK and will go on to greater things, supporting your new pastor as you have supported me. But additionally, I believe it is time now for me, at 72 years of age – 72 and ½ by Conference time (but who’s counting?) to spend more time with my family and my grandchildren who are now five and six. I feel very strongly about this, perhaps because my own mother died when my children were 2 and 7. None of us knows the number of our days; we only know that they are held within God’s good hands. And so, I want to spend more time with my boys; I want them to remember their grandma.
I have a few health issues too, but who doesn’t at 72 and so I’ll look after my left knee, gather all my courage, and have knee replacement surgery, work hard at rehab, and come out so much improved that I can enjoy the cruise my son in law has promised me for after Christmas!
I hope in the weeks ahead that we will have time to visit together, to share stories, to talk about the future, and to prepare ourselves for our lives ahead. There will be some tears, but also some laughter along the way. Both are evidence of loving and being loved, and an indication of God’s blessing on us; so I welcome them and I hope you will too.
Maxine, who led us through the rebuilding, is now the chair of our Pastor Parish Relations Committee . We can have confidence that she will lead our transition with the same dedication and sense of service to God and congregation that so characterized her work with the rebuild. We could not be in better hands. Pray for our Pastor Parish Relations Committee, for our District Superintendent and Bishop; pray for me, and above all pray for the new pastor – there is someone out there right now who will be standing here on June 19. How comforting and encouraging it will be for him or for her to know that you have been praying for them since January. I’m already doing that every day.
“Hope Greater than the Shadows”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Nov. 30, 2014 • First Sunday of Advent
Michah 5:2-5, Mark 13:24-37
When I was a child, it was my family’s tradition to enjoy an abundant Thanksgiving dinner and then in the evening to drive into downtown Atlanta to Rich’s department store, a store so large that it needed two buildings that faced each other across a busy street. To help shoppers avoid the traffic, there was a several story bridge across the upper floors connecting the various clothing departments located on one side of the street with the “Store for Homes” situated on the other side of the street. Every Thanksgiving, crowds would gather in that street which had been blocked off for the occasion, so that they could see various levels of the bridge light up with Christmas lights and hear church choirs singing at every stage. The grand finale of the evening was the lighting of the “big tree” which was a huge Christmas tree held securely to the roof on the very top floor of the bridge. Inevitably there would be a loud gasp and then applause from the crowd beneath as the tree burst into light. When that happened, I knew it was finally Christmas time, and not a moment before.
Times have changed. Christmas starts now before Halloween, when lights and decorations show up for sale in many places. Commercials for the ideal gift begin and Santa arrives before Thanksgiving to listen to the requests of eager boys and girls. Thanksgiving Day is cut short by stores cashing in on Christmas shoppers, so that as one commentator has put it, as soon as we’ve given thanks for what we have, we can rush out to buy more. It’s no longer news really, when fights break out, sometimes even violence and mayhem, on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers tussle with one another over gifts to be given in the name of the prince of peace.
And that’s one of the reasons I’m so very thankful for the season of Advent. While much of America is gearing up for this extended and massively marketed holiday with cards, carols, parties, and above all, shopping, and stretches now from before Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (exhausting just to think about it!), the church insists on proclaiming the end of the world as we know it! And it is a bracing and needful corrective.
Although we may be doing some holiday preparation, we as Christians are significantly also pausing to reflect on the shadows and the darkness that permeate these days before December 25. It’s not all sparkle and light, 24/7! The days are becoming increasingly short; shadows take over earlier and earlier, both in our streets and sometimes in our lives. Many people become depressed around this time of year, unable to make the leap from the shadows of their own lives to the Christmas brightness. And even for those of us who do not suffer in this way, it is difficult to ignore the almost cruel juxtaposition of festive activities with the realities that greet us every day around us and in the news.
In Advent we, as Christians, prepare for the first coming of Christ – the event we celebrate on Christmas Day, but we are called to prepare also for what is sometimes called the second coming of Christ – a time when the injustices and evils of the world will finally be put to right and everyone will live in peace and in harmony with one another and there will be war no more, nor hunger, nor poverty, nor dis-ease of any kind.
The desire for a world of justice and peace is ancient. The prophet Micah, whose words our children studied this morning in Sunday School, lived in a time of great transition as the world as he knew it was rapidly changing. It was a time of economic and political instability when the rich and powerful used their influence to exploit the vulnerable and create even greater inequalities of wealth and influence, and where much of the country’s wealth was used for defense – for arms and for fortifications to protect against warfare with the Assyrians, rather than for the care of those in need. As usual, it was the poor, the hungry, the children, those without means or influence who bore the brunt of these actions. And so Micah predicts that terrible days are coming because of these inequities, and that God will make things right again, but not before there is suffering and loss because of the poor choices that have been made.
He also offers the people hope in the midst of their despair. To those who saw no future, no way out, nothing but more of the same or worse, he offers the hope that a messiah, like King David of old, will once again rise up from the little insignificant town of Bethlehem to become a shepherd for God’s people and to lead them from their current place of desolation into a time of peace and security.
Forward about 800 years to the time of Jesus when the Romans occupied and oppressed Israel, and we find in Mark’s gospel that Jesus speaks to his disciples as he prepares them for his impending death at Roman hands, sharing with them the hard truth that in the days to come the temple will be destroyed and persecution will follow them all because of his name. The disciples ask him when will this happen and how will they know when it is about to take place. He answers no one knows the time but that there will be various signs of crisis both in the heavens and in the world, and their task is to keep awake and to stay alert to what God is doing.
And now here we are 2000 plus years after Mark’s gospel was written, in the midst of our own set of world, national, and local crises. We don’t face the imminent invasion of the Assyrians. And we are not suffering from the cruel oppression of a ruthless conqueror. And yet we know something about what Micah and Jesus were trying to explain. We still live in a broken world; a world broken in some of the same ways as their worlds were – there are still power imbalances. The rich still exploit the poor with great efficiency; if that were not so, why would we have “black Friday?” We still worry more about defense and protection than about feeding the hungry; hence Congress is quite willing to cut back on food stamps and to beef up an appropriation for an airplane that the Pentagon doesn’t even want.
In our country today in Ferguson, Mo. and in other towns and cities there are people every bit as hopeless as those in the past who were exploited by the rich and powerful or abused and killed by oppressive forces. They too see no future, no way out, and nothing but more of the same or worse. Thank God for Advent, which frankly, couldn’t have come at a better time because it gives us a theological framework in which to consider and to confront life in the shadows because, “Advent isn’t about our best world; it’s about our worst world.”[i] And it gives us a community in which to do that necessary and painful thinking. Separately, we might sink into bitterness or hopelessness or despair. But together, we can face the reality of our worst world, and help one another to remain awake and alert to the activity of God in the world — activity, which is usually of the small, quiet Bethlehem variety, rather than the large, splashy New York City or Hollywood type we so much prefer.
Our question for this morning is can we see beyond the shadows, the darkness, the brokenness of our world or of our lives, to catch a glimpse of the world made whole; and, against all reason, can we find a reason for hope? Not happy-clappy optimism – but true hope. Hope that is of the kind described by Paul in Romans 5 – that comes as a result of suffering, which then brings about endurance, which in turn develops character, and which finally results in hope, a hope that does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out for us in Christ Jesus. The kind of hope that is not unacquainted with brokenness, the kind of hope that does not feel easy, inevitable and unchallenged, the kind of hope that embraces suffering but says that suffering and shadow will not have the last word.[ii] The kind of hope that is defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s a kind of hope that is active and doesn’t sit quietly and do nothing while it waits for a turn of events. It’s the kind of hope that is expressed daily as mercy and brings comfort abd that sees injustice, and speaks out and offers action. It is the kind of hope that tries to make real to those who can no longer make meaning of their world, that there is a future worth believing in.[iii] On a very concrete level, it’s the kind of hope that doesn’t simply note the sad fact that millions of children go to be hungry each night here in the richest country in the world, but instead, goes about feeding children. This is the kind of hope I see in our participation in Food to Kids and Seamless Summer, as well as Our Daily Bread and I rejoice in it.
Advent is a time to face the darkness, but not to wallow in it or become lost in it. Because Advent is also a time of watchfulness when just as the darkness seems to blot out all light, if we are awake and alert, there comes a glimmer, a glimpse, a moment of light, a conviction that God is up to something, and that we can be in on that action. While others are busy this season with lights and greenery, egg nog, apple cider, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, we join together to face the dark realities of our world where violence and injustice often seem to rule the day, and we encourage one another to look close, to see God a work doing small unexpected and unnoticed things. And to remember the true meaning of Christmas – God comes to us now – today – just as God came to shepherds living under Roman oppression in Bethlehem, and in the midst of our dark night, angels proclaim once again to us peace on earth, good will to all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Christena Cleveland, “Advent/Darkness,” blog, November 28, 2014
[ii] Guy Sales, “Preaching Advent Hope while Millions are Reading the Left Behind Series,” Journal for Preachers, XXVII,I, 2004, 12.
[iii] Sally A. Brown, “Hold the Chicken Soup: Preaching Advent Hope,” Journal for Preachers, XXX,I, 2006, 12.
The Greatest Commandment
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Oct. 26, 2014
There is nothing more frustrating, nothing more irritating, than trying to have a conversation with someone who is not really interested in knowing what you think, or in learning from you, but is intent only on trapping you in a contradiction or a misstatement of some kind in order to undermine your position and your credibility. In the political arena recently, maybe you heard the news about Allison Lundergan Grimes, who is running as a Democrat in Kentucky to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell. She tried her best to evade answering a question posed by a Kentucky newspaper that was designed to trap her. “Who did you vote for, for President in 2012,” they asked. They didn’t really care who she voted for; they could pretty well guess who it was. She’s a Democrat, right? So she probably voted for President Obama. But if she goes on record as saying that she did, then it can be used against her in a state that is not fond of our President. She tried to get around it by claiming the sanctity of the ballot box, saying her vote was a secret vote. And all that did was give her opponent a different kind of weapon – she’s not brave enough to say who she voted for. Either way, she loses! But then, that was the purpose of the question.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is an even worse predicament because there’s no debate like a religious debate since the parties all claim to have God on their side, and feel great urgency to oppose and to silence those who would challenge or reinterpret long-standing positions. The setting is Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week of life. He’d come into the city with the acclamation of many, but since his arrival the tension has been mounting between him and the religious authorities. They pose many questions to him about paying taxes, loyalty to Caesar, and the validity of the resurrection. Not that they want to know the answers to the questions – they know they already know. But they’d like to discredit Jesus by exposing his ignorance.
They are put out by this itinerant, laboring class teacher from Galilee. Who does he think he is? They have spent their lives studying and being trained professionally as leaders of Israel’s spiritual life. They knew every detail. They are the ones who know; they are the ones who are the authorities. Jesus and his followers, on the other hand, have very little experience, very little education, and therefore should have very little authority or influence over anyone or anything.
However instead of effecting his humiliation and undermining of his authority as they’d hoped and planned, Jesus has held his own with them. So they pull out all the stops and have a lawyer, one well versed in all the laws of Moses, to ask the final question. Which commandment is the greatest, he asks? Which of the 613 laws of Moses is the most important? The plan is obviously whichever law Jesus picks, the lawyer will ask why he didn’t pick one of the other ones.
And besides, there isn’t one that is greater than another, all 613 were to be observed and were considered of equal importance. They all hang together; to violate one is to violate all. Some even divided the 613 into 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for each day of the year, and 268 “Thou shalts,” one for each bone of the body. Thus, the law applied to all of ones times and all of one’s movements.[i]
So which one are you going to pick, Jesus? Gotcha!! It’s a no-win situation! But Jesus’ choses to answer by stating the essential core of their faith, from which all of these rules have sprung. “It’s the love!” he says, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. “Everything else in scripture—all the law and all the prophets,” Jesus says, “relates to these two things.” Now, who’s got whom?
The heart of our faith, Jesus insists, is about loving God. We are to love God with all that we are – our heart, our soul, and our mind. For the Pharisees that would have meant adherence to the 613 rules that governed all of life and required living every day in mindful attention to all the laws of God. And, for us as United Methodists, John Wesley stressed the importance of regular routines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, worship, and partaking of the sacrament of holy communion. In this commandment we are taught that part of ourselves is separated from our complete devotion and love for God.
This first law would have been enough to answer the lawyer’s question, but Jesus adds the second law, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because he knew we really cannot love God with our entire heart, soul, and mind, unless and until we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The second greatest commandment is not secondary to the greatest commandment then. It is essential to it, for, as we heard in our Epistle reading, we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors whom we see every day. There are too many people, now as then, cling to the first commandment and somehow have forgotten the second; they proclaim their love for God, while continuing to treat others outside their personal circle of friends and family quite badly. But Jesus doesn’t instruct us to love only our brothers and sisters, but to love the neighbor, the one—whoever she or he happens to be— whom we encounter regardless of circumstances.
Why insist on love? Can’t we just toss a dollar into someone’s hat and walk quickly away? Can’t we just give to the church, or let some agency take care of it? Then haven’t we done our duty towards our neighbor? Not really; the kind of love Jesus is speaking of makes it impossible to see someone in need as beneath ourselves, or to consider any one or any group as a nameless, invisible entity. Instead, we are to see each person, each group of persons as worthy of the respect and consideration that we want for ourselves.
If our nation were to love as Jesus commands us to love, what difference might it make? As we think about the big three right now – Immigration, Ebola, and ISIS! As we think about education, housing, healthcare, job training, minimum wage? Locally, what difference might it make? I have been meeting lately with a group of Athens pastors to discuss what we as a faith community might be able to do to influence the negative response that our city government has given to the idea of resettling 158 refugees in the Athens area – not in downtown Athens, mind you, — in the greater Athens area. Many of these 158 persons are Christians who are seeking asylum in America because they have been persecuted in their home country and fear for their lives. They are not coming here just because they want a better job or to see the world; they are coming here to save their lives. So they’ve already been persecuted once. And now our government is saying, “Not yet; not now.” And they put aside and consequently are persecuted again. How might we be able to love these would be neighbors and help them to live abundantly as God intends for all of God’s children to live? What might that look like and how could we help so that the burden placed on public resources does not push us to the breaking point, as has been suggested? I don’t believe this should be simply a governmental responsibility, but it should be a community responsibility, to respond with love to these desperate neighbors. I personally believe that in welcoming these strangers and in being concerned for their needs we will be welcoming God among us in each one of them.
Now, you might think that Jesus would have quit while he was ahead. He’d answered the question; he’d said, as Paul would say later, “love is the fulfilling of the law,” (Romans 13:10). He’d held the mirror up to them and called into question how well these expert law keepers had been keeping this most important law that lay at the heart of Israel’s faith. But he has a question now for them. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
And they give the rote answer, the traditional answer, the answer they’d been taught, just as their fathers and fathers’ fathers had been taught: “The Son of David.” If there was anything they were sure of and knew about it was the subject of the Messiah. They only understood this one meaning of Messiah. They had that one idea; and had no room for another. Why bother to think further about anything when you already have all the answers.[ii] It’s the same way with us when we confuse our idea of God with God, because our concept of God is not God.
They couldn’t imagine the Messiah as any different from what they’d always imagined. And Jesus responds them, not completely disregarding their answer, but showing them it might not be as simple and as easy as they’d thought. He quotes from the 110th psalm, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, by the way. “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I put my enemies under your feet.’” Now, the psalms were thought to have been written by David, and so Jesus wonders aloud, If David calls the Messiah “Lord,” how can the Messiah be David’s son?
Obviously, they’d never thought about it that way before. The question had never come up in their discussions of the Messiah who was always thought to be a descendant of David and an even greater, more powerful and successful king that he had been. Son of David is certainly one way to think of the Messiah; the crowds had called Jesus that when he’d entered Jerusalem earlier that week – but are their others? Whose son really is the Messiah? Those first hearers of Matthew’s gospel would have remembered earlier verses, in which “a voice from heaven said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Jesus and his questioners were at an impasse, there was no more reason for conversation. And so, they withdrew to plan how to hasten the day of when he would be arrested, executed, and a problem no more.
Without the ability or openness to see new things, and think new ways, they were unable to recognize the one standing in front of them as anything more than an irritant at best and a threat at worst. How sad, how tragic for them, they missed the Christ standing in front of them because he didn’t look the way they’d always assumed he’d look.
And for us as well, if our hearts are not open, if we do not love with all we are and love our neighbors as ourselves, if our minds are closed and we are satisfied that we know all there is to know, we may miss the opportunity when we come face to face with the Christ to know in whose presence we stand, and turn away unaffected and unchanged. I will always remember the words I heard years ago in a sermon preached by Rev. Art O’Neill, III, reminded us that we are wrong when we see a less fortunate person and think to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead, he said, we should be thinking, “There by the grace of God goes God.” May God grant us the discernment to sense God’s presence within ourselves and within our neighbors. Amen.
[i] John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 22:34-46, “ October 17, 2011.