Sunday, October 25, 2020

21 Pentecost, 20-A: Practitioners of covenant love

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46 

Living in covenant relationship can be a challenge. So many things can divide us from within and without. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. As followers of Christ who are pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, we seek to hold fast to our faith that God is guiding us in every circumstance so that we might embody hope in the face of injustice and respond with charity to hatred or fear. 

About every week I have at least one conversation with someone who has hit their wall. The top five culprits in their dead-end experience are the helplessness they feel over how or when we might stem the destructive tide of the coronavirus, their heartbreak over revelations of a systemic racism they simply hadn’t noticed before and what to do about it, their anxiety over an increasing sense of economic instability for so many, the daily assault of our political divisions in the news, and relationships on the brink of rupture or already lost, either to illness or ideology.

We may not have solutions to the ills of the world - yet, but we can do two things; love God and neighbor as self. At least that’s what Jesus recommends. 

In today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, another group of religious experts, lawyers this time, makes their attempt to publicly entrap and discredit Jesus. Feigning respect by calling him Teacher, they ask Jesus to teach them which commandment in the law is the greatest.

Without hesitation, Jesus answers them by holding up the divine command for covenant love - and it is two-fold. 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 the strength of our hearts, minds, and souls.

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. This love, agape love, is active and concerned with the welfare of the other. As one commentator says, “The person who loves with agapao love will want to do something positive for the beloved––to find a way to help.” On these two commands, which have equal weight, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets.

Then Jesus asks the Pharisees a question of his own and it seems he had two purposes in mind. The first was to confront the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. Whose son is he? They answer David’s son but Jesus proves them wrong using Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my lord…” How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? He can't.

The second was, I think, to stop the useless intellectual battling and open the minds of his listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions just might be inadequate in comparison to the abundant graciousness of God. His plan worked. The religious leadership was confounded and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The challenge of letting go of preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem, however, continues for us to this day. What do we think?

Are we called as Christians to win arguments? To what end? Does doing so keep the divine law of covenant love?

There is a symbol in the church called the Christus Rex. It’s a cross with the body of the triumphant risen Christ on it, robed in white, arms raised in prayer, and a crown on his head. This symbol visually forces us to go beyond our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about death and resurrection life. It connects us to the scriptural stories of the resurrected Jesus, who was unrecognizable to his closest companions - at least at first - doing something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane as eating fish with his friends on the beach.

Whenever we think we know something with certainty, all we need to do is look at a Christus Rex to remember that all we know is what we think we know, and our assumptions may be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now.

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

Today, God’s redeeming work just might be being limited by our preconceived notions and our lack of discipline in keeping the divine command of covenant love. The evidence we have of that is that there are real divisions among us fomenting growing helplessness, hopelessness, and broken or lost relationships.

When we rely on our thinking to address these issues we rely on an inadequate tool. Jesus teaches us to focus instead on the divine command for covenant love and act from that. Our purpose is not to be right but to be loving.

And we discern how to do that, how to practice covenant love, by praying together, holding fast to our friendships instead of our biases. Then we can build our servant-listening muscle remembering that what may sound like anger is often fear, and what may seem like a big to-do over nothing is often a hurt that is inadequately expressed or understood.

Approaching someone with agape love is the only way we will hear what’s behind their words and perceive what’s behind their actions. Only then can we do something positive for the beloved one before us, and find a way to help. Then will the graciousness of God be upon us, prospering the work of our hands. (Ps 90 :17)

Let us pray. God of love and mercy, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, that we may become disciplined practitioners of covenant love. Amen.

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