Proper 25a, October 26, 2014

October 27, 2014

Equipped For the Journey
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.

Last Spring I attended a mandatory Gathering of the Elders at 1st UMC in Jacksonville. For those of you who aren’t familiar with United Methodist lingo – an Elder is an ordained minister. You might say it’s a person that’s been admitted in to the United Methodist preacher’s union. And there’s hardly anything that gets United Methodist preachers as excited as a semi-mandatory meeting on a Friday morning. A semi-mandatory meeting is a meeting you’re supposed to attend but there aren’t any consequences if you don’t. But I showed up, and honestly, I thought my four-shot Americano would be the most stimulating thing I would encounter that morning, but we had a presenter named Doug Hester who captured my attention. Doug Hester is an ordained Lutheran pastor who works primarily in pastoral counseling. And he’s a student of the school of thought known as the Murray Bowen Family Systems Theory.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist who developed a method of psycho-therapy that’s rooted in looking at the way in which individuals are shaped by their family dynamics. He created a way of doing therapy with individuals, families, businesses or any other type of organization that’s based on identifying the ways in which patterns from the past continue to play out in the present, and how those patterns keep individuals or organizations stuck.

I had heard of this method of analyzing situations. There’s a book called Generation to Generation, by Edwin Friedman that’s based on the research of Murray Bowen. Many of my preaching peers purchased this book a few years ago, and a few of them actually read it. I had been hearing people talk about this way of understanding church dynamics for years, but I had never actually read anything about it or looked in to it.

Maybe it was my low level of expectation that set me up for a positive experience, but as I say, I found Rev. Hester’s presentation to be compelling. Doug Hester isn’t what you would call a dynamic speaker. He’s sort of soft spoken and academic in his presentation, but I was gripped by much of what he said.

One thing he said was that everybody gets stuck. And by everybody he was talking about individuals, couples, families, churches, and every other type of living organization. Getting stuck is just one of those things that happens to us. And when you get stuck you really can’t think your way out of the situation. It’s hard to think your way out of a situation because it’s hard to not focus on the things you already know, and the things you already know are probably the things that got you in to the situation you are in.

I don’t know if this is actually what he said, but this is what I thought I heard him saying, and what really got my attention was when he said the best way to get unstuck is to go on an adventure. And what he meant by an adventure is not just a physical journey. What I understood him to say is that you go on an adventure when you go in a direction that you haven’t gone before.

Heading out in a new direction can be disruptive to a family, or a couple, or a church, or any other system that has achieved a form of stability, and disruption is hard to deal with, but it can also lead to health.

And I think this is a great way to understand what transpired between Jesus and the religious establishment of his day. Jesus was distressed by the way the faith of Israel had become so distorted. Judaism had become this odd mix of practices that were driven by contradictory demands. The faith practices of the day were largely shaped by people who were overly focused on hyper-religious purity – people like the Pharisees, but it was also informed by people who were driven by the need to comply with the demands of Roman occupation – people like the High Priests and Sadducees, and there were also these people who had replaced their love for God with fervor for the Jewish nation – people like the zealots. Judaism had become a strange creature, and Jesus had become very frustrating to every arm of that odd body.

Representatives from all of these groups had offered challenges to Jesus, culminating in today’s passage, where the Pharisees asked him what he considered to be the greatest commandment, and he gave them a straight answer. He told them what was most essential to God, and in spite of the way that all of the various interest groups had replaced the most fundamental teaching of their faith with lesser agendas, no one could dispute the answer that Jesus provided.

Jesus reminded them of what they were to be about, and in so doing he identified what he was all about. Jesus was never confused about what was most essential, and that’s what drove him to do what he did. You might say this agenda to love God and neighbor was the basic equipment that Jesus took on his journey, and it proved to be the adventure that Israel needed.

I like a good adventure. That may be why I liked what I heard Rev. Hester say at the Gathering of the Elders last spring. I had been contemplating a bicycle trip before I went to that workshop, but his words put me over the edge – so to speak. It’s not that I was feeling particularly stuck at the time, but it’s easy for me to believe that most of us are pretty stuck most of the time. We all get comfortable in our routines, and we don’t even know what motivates us to do what we do. I don’t generally think we are badly motivated, but I think we are often unconscious of why we do what we do.

The truth is that my two weeks on a bicycle didn’t provide me with any great revelations about what motivates me or what I’m doing with my life, but it was nice to step out of my routine for a little while. And I think it did leave me wanting to be a bit more intentional about how I operate.

And there’s one thing I know I learned from that trip – having the right equipment makes all the difference. I didn’t do an over-abundance of training for my trip. I have a little body maintenance routine that I’ve been doing for years, so I wasn’t totally out of shape for my trip, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on my bike before I left. In fact the longest ride I went on before I embarked on my trip was 37 miles. So I knew two things on the day of my departure. I knew my body could hold up for at least half the distance I planned to go on the first day of my trip, and I knew I had good equipment.

I had a good bicycle. I knew I could trust my bicycle to hold up under the weight of my stuff. I knew I had good bags that the rain wouldn’t penetrate, and I knew I had good racks to hold those bags. I had a great little holder for my iphone that provided me with relatively good information about where I was going, and I had an extra battery to keep my phone going. I had new high-pressure tires that were very durable but with little tread, so I knew there was a minimal amount of friction between me and the road, and I was happy about that because I knew I needed all the help I could get. And I spent a good amount of time contemplating and shopping for the clothes I would wear. I had to strike the perfect balance between comfort, durability, protection, visibility, and fashion.

I probably spent more time getting my equipment together than I did actually training for the ride, but I think that was time well-spent. I believe it was that good equipment that enabled me to keep going.

Now I also know that equipment isn’t everything. Better equipment is not going to improve my ability to play golf, but it could if I didn’t have decent equipment. I know it’s easier to hit a metal driver than a wooden driver. Having the right equipment is essential for most undertakings, and maybe it’s a stretch, but what I’m thinking is that the right concept of God is a powerful piece of equipment.

Knowing what’s most essential is a powerful tool. Remembering what Jesus said was the greatest commandment is what equips us to live intentional lives. Regular examination of the words of Jesus can help keep you from falling in to an unconscious pattern of living, and appealing to the Holy Spirit to illuminate his words can help you get out of those patterns when you do.

It’s not easy to stay focused on the most fundamental teaching of our faith. Just like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we are vulnerable to the non-essential pressures of our day, and it’s easy for us to substitute those lesser causes and agendas that unconsciously guide our lives for the most important commandment that Jesus identified.

I’m not sure what question Jesus would ask us that would cause us to recognize our own faulty logic, but Jesus was able to do that to the Pharisees. He wasn’t able to cure them of their misguided agenda, but this question about the lineage of the messiah somehow gave them pause. Today’s scripture ends by saying they dared not ask him any more questions – they dared not ask because they were afraid of what they might find out.

Our spiritual wholeness depends on our ability to welcome the truth. Such wholeness is an elusive quest, and it can be a confusing journey. It’s so much easier to stay on familiar paths that take us to comfortable places than it is to go in a new direction, but we should never settle for comfort when there is the possibility for renewal. Jesus was provocative to the religious people of his day, and if he’s not somehow provoking to us we probably aren’t paying attention.

The journey of discipleship is far more interesting than we often allow it to be. I don’t believe we should ever stay home when we have the opportunity for an adventure, and that’s what we are offered by Jesus. Jesus invites us to join him on the adventure of a lifetime. The destination is true life, and we already have the only equipment we need. We have been given the greatest commandment – let’s not keep it hanging in the garage or buried in the closet any longer!

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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