Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19A: Make us love what you command

Lectionary: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Living in covenant relationship with the Almighty can be a challenge. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.

Being a follower of Christ means being pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, and trusting that God is guiding us in every circumstance we face. It means remembering the promises of God and embodying hope in the face of earthly injustice. It means responding with love in the face of hatred or fear. It means being awake and constantly alert so that we can notice and serve the needs of our neighbor – even when that neighbor feels like our enemy.

I have to admit though, I struggled with the wording of the second half of our Collect: “make us love what you command” so that we may obtain your promises. Is this implying that unless God forces us to, we won’t love what God commands? ‘If you make me, I will get the prize - and I want the prize. So, you do the work and I’ll take the goody.’

The truth is, we do struggle to love what God commands. For example, we know that God’s justice always includes mercy, that God delays justice to allow for repentance, and we’re grateful for that when it is our sin God is judging and redeeming... but then… we also want anyone who hurts or betrays us to be punished – or at least be held publicly accountable – so that everyone will know the truth, and our sense of justice will be satisfied.

You see, for most of us that is the prize – satisfying our sense of justice. But for God, the prize is the reclamation of a lost soul.

Another example: we know that Jesus was an innocent victim, murdered by the religious and politically powerful of his time. His trial, conviction, and execution weren’t fair. It seemed, at least to those experiencing it then, that evil was triumphing over good, that hope was lost.

In the face of similar injustice today, most of us don’t die as willingly on our crosses as Jesus did on his. The cross is the place where the self dies for the sake of the other, and we have been commanded to take up our crosses and do just that. That’s why I say that loving what God commands can be a struggle. And it truly is a challenge living up to the responsibilities of covenant love.

In today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew, a second group of Scriptural experts asks Jesus a question meant to test him - to trip him up: what is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers by holding up the divine command for covenant love.

Quoting first from Deut 6:5, which is also the second line of the Shema, a prayer his listeners would have prayed every day, Jesus holds up what our part of covenant love with God looks like: we are to love God: totally – with all our hearts, minds, souls.

Then he completes his answer by quoting from Leviticus, holding up what covenant love with one another looks like: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Ending with this quote, Jesus reminds them (and us) of God’s command, spoken through Moses, that we are to be holy, for the Lord our God is holy.

Jesus then asks the religious authorities a question of his own – one that went directly to the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? This was an impossibility in the cultural understanding of Jesus’ listeners.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think Jesus asked these questions to win intellectual battles. His purpose was to open the minds of the listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions might be inadequate.

And it worked. The leadership was confounded, and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. This is probably one of our greatest challenges as well – letting go our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem right now.

One of the reasons I like a Christus Rex (bloggers: see the pic of the cross with the risen Christ as the body on it) is that it visually forces us to go beyond our imagination, to go beyond what makes sense in our thinking. The gospel writers tell us of a resurrected Jesus who was unrecognizable to his closest friends (at least at first), who could do something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane and unremarkable as eating fish with his friends.

The Christus Rex illustrates for us the truth that we can’t understand the resurrected Christ by our thinking. We can only know him by our faith.

The work Jesus began in today’s gospel – that of undoing preconceived notions - continues in us today. What do we think about the Messiah? And in what ways might our thinking or assumptions be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now?

For the early Christians, God’s redeeming work was limited by their understanding of inclusion. The issue then was circumcision. Did a person have to be a Jew, and therefore circumcised, in order to be a Christian? In the end, the answer was no.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my family was moving into an exclusive, gated community. The covenants were such that the home-owners association could “interview” prospective home-buyers before they could close the deal on the exorbitantly expensive homes they wished to purchase.

After a series of interviews, my family was “approved” and invited to a celebratory afternoon tea to welcome us. One of the neighbor ladies graciously apologized to my parents for the “grueling” admission process. “We have to be careful to keep the wrong kind from getting in,” she said. “I’m sure you understand.”

My mother, always a bit devilish in the face of elitism, responded innocently, “No,… what do you mean?” “You know” the neighbor lady said, “the blacks, the Puerto Ricans… we have to be careful that the wrong kind don’t get in.”

“Oh,” said, my mother, who is Puerto Rican. “Too late – we’re in!” And we left the party.

From which neighbors are we being careful to protect ourselves? Will we take down those barriers and invite them into our friendship, our church, our lives? Who are the lost souls we can help to reclaim by offering forgiveness and mercy, trusting in God for justice? Will we take up our cross and die to self for the sake of another? Are we willing to hear and answer cries of our suffering and needy neighbors and embody hope for them?

In the providence of God, we have an opportunity to live out our covenantal responsibility to neighbor at “Connect, Commit to Change” next Saturday at the Cleveland fairgrounds from 10 am to 2 pm. We also have the pleasure of honoring one of our own today, Drew Rogers, who has met these responsibilities in a real and important way. We’ll do that together at his Eagle Ceremony after we share the peace (at the 10:30 service)

Till then we continue to pray: increase in us, Lord God, the gifts of faith, hope, and charity – and make us love what you command – that we might commit ourselves totally to you in covenant love, and be holy, as you, O Lord our God, are holy. Amen.

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