Thompson’s Sermon from Oct 23, 2011

October 24, 2011

Indiscriminate Stupefying Love
Matthew 22:34-46

22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

What a good passage of scripture we have to contemplate on this Sunday we have designated as “Reconciling Sunday”. This passage of scripture doesn’t leave any doubt as to what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. We are to love God with our whole beings, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus spoke these words to men who weren’t inclined to be very inclusive when it came to defining their neighbors, but the only division Jesus seems to acknowledge is the one between ourselves and God, and love largely eliminates that line.

It’s unfortunate that it’s necessary for us to bring attention to this line that’s been drawn within our church, but when certain people have been excluded from full participation in the church I think it’s important for us to call attention to the un-Christian nature of the lines that are currently in place.

If nothing else, this passage of scripture calls attention to the problems that occur when religious structures become too exclusive. This business of setting aside people to manage religious communities is probably necessary, but it’s inherently fraught with danger. It’s easy for us to get particular about who is most deserving of God’s love and grace. It’s easy for us to forget Who’s community this really is. It’s hard for us to believe that God’s love is as expansive as it is. It’s important for us to see that God doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we.

It’s always dangerous for us to design processes that discern who is called by God to be leaders in the church. Inevitably we will make mistakes in regard to who has the skills for such work, but when we declare a particular classification of people to be unqualified for professional ministry we have aligned ourselves with the worst form of religious tradition. By declaring that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are categorically unqualified for ordination I feel that we are standing with the legalistic Pharisees who couldn’t accept what God was doing through Jesus Christ – because Jesus didn’t fit their criteria for the One who would come in the Name of the Lord.

We don’t know if these highly trained experts in the field of Jewish law asked Jesus what he thought was the most important commandment because they wanted to know what he thought, or if they thought they could show themselves to be craftier than their religious rivals, the Sadducees, who had been unable to ask Jesus an unanswerable question. The scripture says they were testing Jesus, but testing isn’t all bad if you are wanted to get to the truth. They seem to acknowledge that he answered their question well, but Jesus was moved to ask them a question, and it left them speechless.

You just don’t want to try to get the best of Jesus – it’s not going to go well, and I think that’s essentially what we’re doing anytime we try to reign in the indiscriminate love of God. These ancient religious experts approached Jesus with a question they thought would put him to the test, but they were putting themselves on trial, and they went away speechless – stupefied. I like that word, stupefy. It conveys a profound sense of the need to stop talking because you’ve encountered a larger truth.

I’m not silent about this ordination issue because I believe it’s our denominational policy that needs to be quiet. I’m not silent because I know people who have left ministry in our church because of our misguided policy. I don’t know what was going on within the ancient Jewish community that gave rise to these verses in the book of Leviticus that people now use to justify the exclusive language we have in our Book of Discipline. I don’t exactly know what Paul was dealing with when he wrote what he wrote the words he wrote that are used by some to disqualify others, but I do know that my friend and peer in ministry was driven out of his job because he was in a committed relationship with another man. When someone in a position of authority over him made this an issue he chose to leave rather than fight because the Book of Discipline was not on his side.

My friend is fine, he isn’t employed by the United Methodist Church anymore, but he’s engaged in ministry, and he always will be. He’s been called by God to share the expansive love of God, and he will find a way to do that, but I still get mad about what happened to him when I think about it. I don’t know the people who are behind the names on each of these stoles, but I dare say each one of these stoles represents an outrageous story of some kind. And each of those stories represents the way in which fearful people have tried to contain the voice of God.

But God will not be stupefied. I don’t know if God will find a way to change the United Methodist Book of Discipline before the institution becomes irreparably irrelevant to the bulk of our neighbors, but God doesn’t care about the maintenance of an institution. God cares about the wellbeing of our neighbors, and God’s concern for all people will not be silent.

Which is something that really scares me. A remarkable thing happened last week. Now the exact nature of this number is hard to pin down, but some would say that world population topped 7 billion people this last week. The world may not have suddenly felt a bit more crowded to you, but let me give you some perspective. Jesus had about 200 million neighbors in the world while he was walking around the Palestinian countryside, and it took about 1,800 years for world population to reach 1 billion people, but it only took us 10 years to go from 6 billion people to our current level of 7 billion people.

Now our rate of growth is diminishing. It may take us twenty years to obtain our next billion people, and twenty five to obtain the next billion, but we’ve got a lot of neighbors out there, and those of us who live in the United States aren’t being very neighborly in some significant ways. We Americans make up about 5% of the population of the world, but they say we use about 30% of the world’s resources – which makes me feel like we aren’t being as loving as we can be toward the bulk of our neighbors.

Now I know none of us set out to place any burdens on the rest of our neighbors in the world, but I don’t think we need to remain ignorant of what it costs our neighbors in the world for us to maintain our lifestyles. I don’t say this with the intention of generating guilt about the way we live, but I do find statistics like that to be very informative. It reminds me of what it is we really need to be wrestling with as opposed to the things we often find to get upset about.

It seems to me that we church people often get caught up somewhat irrelevant religious observance issues and we fail to recognize the larger picture. It seems to me that we need to be more concerned about how more people can simply have dinner than to worry about who someone else has chosen to have dinner with.

It’s easy for us to get distracted in our pursuit of loving God with our whole being. We can even get so caught up in good causes that we fail to love God with our whole heart. The path that Jesus blazed for us is hard to follow. Jesus didn’t just love the victims of the policies that were generated by ignorant religious bigots. Jesus loved the bigots as well. This love that Jesus spoke of and practiced was for all of our neighbors – not just the good ones. This is not to say we don’t need to address the problems that some of our neighbors generate, but we always need to go about our work in a spirit of love.

The truth is that we are all poor neighbors in some ways and our only hope for peace in this world is for us to learn to address the various problems that exist between us in direct but loving ways. Jesus had this remarkable capacity to be loving toward all people, but he was also very clear about bad behavior. He didn’t act like it was fine for power to be misused. He used his power in a perfectly loving way toward all people, and we are called to do the same.

You might say there are many different battle lines that are drawn within our world. We’ve got them within our denomination, we’ve got them within our families, within our nation and with other nations. Jesus didn’t avoid conflict and neither will we. We can only hope that others will resist us in loving ways when they feel that we are misguided in our thinking and behavior, but we are always called to treat others with love.

We’ve got a lot more neighbors than Jesus had, but it never has been easy to love any number of neighbors. This business of loving God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves is off-the-scale difficult, but this is the most important thing we are called to do. Nothing else really matters. It’s love for our God and our neighbors that will enable us to have reconciliation within our denomination, and it’s that same love that will enable us to live in harmony on this planet.

It’s that indiscriminate nature of God’s love that has drawn us together this morning. It’s that love that moves us to sing praise to God, and it’s the extent of that love that leaves me – stupefied. Amen

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