Sermon Seeds: God’s Story, Our Stories
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25)
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Worship resources for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25) are at Worship Ways
God’s Story, Our Stories
by Kathryn Matthews
Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew is only one small piece of a conversation we’re overhearing, between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It’s a little bit like listening in on a family argument, but with higher stakes.
The displeased leaders uncomfortably recognize Jesus’ parables as “speaking about them”: “They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:45-46). Feeling offended and “disrespected” and perhaps threatened, they fight back with the only weapons they have: their learning, and their way with words.
Like our modern presidential debates, these exchanges appear polite on the surface, but the tension underneath is hard to miss. In Matthew’s descriptive account in chapter 22, the authorities “plotted to entrap him” (v.15), and “Jesus, aware of their malice,” calls them “hypocrites” (v. 18) and tells them that they “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (v. 29). Perhaps we might understand Jesus’ hostility if we (as always) consider the setting: after his triumphal procession into Jerusalem, he immediately “cleansed” the temple and confronted the religious leaders who then questioned his authority to teach on their turf. Clearly, they’re not fans.
Jesus knows what he’s talking about
Jesus hasn’t applied for a license to preach or passed their test of orthodoxy, and yet his answer today to a question about the heart of the law, the heart of his people’s tradition, shows that he is an utterly faithful Jew. On round three of theological questions, the Pharisees have sent in their “big gun,” as Beverly Zink-Sawyer describes this legal expert (New Proclamation Year A 2008), to get to that heart of the matter. Richard Swanson continues the image: “The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload.” The lawyer has asked a “Do-You-Have-A-Clue-About-Being-Jewish? question,” Swanson says, and “Jesus clearly has a clue about being a Jew” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
If we turn to a baseball metaphor instead, we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. Even though the Pharisees want to trap Jesus in heresy (i.e., saying the other 612 laws are less important), scholars seem to agree that Jesus isn’t the first to put together these two laws about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). But as always there’s a twist in the way Jesus interprets the tradition, a twist that turns our perspective around today just as much as it “confounds” his listeners long ago. (Isn’t that one of the most important roles, and gifts, of a good teacher: to turn around the perspective of their listeners?)
What the Law is about
Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, Jesus paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that “hangs together.” Even more, Thomas Long tells us that Jesus sees the law very differently than its experts do, and his response, rather than understanding the law “as rules and regulations,” emphasizes “love”; the law is “about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
We might begin our closer look at these two commandments by asking how humans can indeed be “commanded” to love. Some of us might ask what kind of love it is if it’s forced. And then we might look more closely at how we tend to define love mostly as a feeling that then causes us to behave in a certain way. When we don’t feel love, it influences and even justifies our behavior, or our lack of right behavior.
Love as a setting of the heart
We claim that no one can force us to feel something we just don’t feel, but Douglas Hare notes that Jesus is talking about “biblical love,” a love that is marked not by “warm feelings” of gratitude but by “rather stubborn, unwavering commitment” (Matthew, Interpretation). And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two.
This kind of love, a setting of the heart, a decision to act that then affects how we feel, may involve giving generously to support our church (and finding that we then love it more), or faithfully prioritizing the needs of our spouse or children, no matter our mood or inclination at the time (and finding those relationships deepened), or perhaps learning to forgive as a spiritual practice that makes us more forgiving people.
A thing of mystery
It seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God’s way of getting us to do what we need to do, what’s good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it’s a thing of mystery.
The great scholar Marcus Borg has famously called these two commandments the “great relationships,” and he even ends his excellent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, with this “remarkably simple vision of the Christian life. It is not complicated, though it is challenging.” It’s as if it all comes to this, for “at the center of a life grounded in the Bible is the twofold focus of the great relationship.”
Two great relationships
So at the heart of being a faithful Jew, and at the heart of being a faithful Christian, we have these two great relationships, intertwined in yet another mysterious mingling for people of faith. Beginning with the second, we know that we’re called to love one another, not just the people we feel love for, but all of God’s children, which is where justice comes in, what Borg calls “the social form of love” in the Bible (The Heart of Christianity). As Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
The tradition in which Jesus taught and lived called the people of Israel (as we are called today) to “justice, mercy, and faithfulness,” Douglas Hare writes, “forms of behavior demanded by the prophets but beyond legal regulation” (Matthew, Interpretation). We know that Jesus interpreted this law of love to cross boundaries that were in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.
What boundaries do we draw?
We might also ask what boundaries we have placed around our own commitment to love our neighbor: which of God’s children live on the other side of those boundaries, what kinds of walls we have built to “defend” ourselves from having to love them, and how comfortably we live on this side of those walls, all the while thinking that we too are faithful to the two great commandment/relationships. God didn’t mean for us to love those people, right?
And yet Jesus made clear the reason we love even the stranger, even the “least” among us: later in Matthew’s Gospel (the well-known Chapter 25), he said that we will be judged by whether we were able to see him, to see Jesus, to see God, in every single person we encounter, and he describes that love in what we do, not what we feel.
We might also consider how it feels to be on the other side of that wall, when others judge or reject us, or find us unworthy of God’s love and grace, and therefore unworthy of theirs. What is most tragically ironic–and a sin–is the mis-use of religion to justify these walls, this judgment rooted in hatred and bigotry. There is no way to reconcile the two Great Commandments with such abuse. And we wonder why young people, among others, are “turned off” by religion.
Jesus was a radical
Turning then to the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we once again consider the orientation, or setting, of the very center of our being: “Within ancient Jewish psychology,” Borg writes, “the character of the heart depended upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered in…what mattered was the orientation of the self at its deepest level, its ‘center’ or fundamental loyalty” (Jesus: A New Vision). Jesus was a radical, Borg says, in teaching that we are to be centered in the Spirit, and not in the many other things that call for our loyalties, “rival centers” like “family, wealth, honor, and religion.” (I have a feeling an entire Bible study discussion could be held on this paragraph alone.)
Two thousand years later, it might be obvious to ask if nationalism, for example, has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God. If God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives, that would be evident in the way we live our lives, personally and communally, as people of love and justice, not simply of symbols. But Borg’s list pushes us to consider values and loyalties that are, so to speak, closer to home, especially family and religion.
Willing to bear the price
Both of these values (family and religion) are certainly good, but isn’t it possible for them, and our definition of them, to take on more fundamental importance even than God in our lives? For example, religious wars/violence are the tragic but perhaps logical outcome of deciding that our loyalties and convictions require us to make others submit to our belief system. In light of our world situation and the tensions around religious interpretation of both texts and law, that particular “rival center” strikes me as especially pertinent. In response, we should be prepared to follow in the way of Jesus, to be called a radical, and to bear the price as well.
Two writers (among many) have provided exquisite reflections on these two great commandments. Stephen J. Patterson describes the “basic reality” of God as love, for “to love God is to love love itself.” We have Jesus himself as a role model in that “radical” (perhaps even shocking) way of loving: “He loved prostitutes. He loved sinners, traitors, tax collectors. He treated the shamed with honor and declared the unclean clean. He loved the unlovable. He loved his enemies.” (We should all be so radical.)
Jesus loved everyone he met
That was Jesus’ “fundamental” orientation (to combine Borg and Patterson’s language): from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met. When we’re trying to figure out the meaning of life, when we’re trying to make sense of everything, Patterson points us toward this “reality that can give life its richness and ultimate meaning….beckons us to live better than we live….[and] exists as already present, an Empire ‘within you,’ that can be as powerful in the shaping of human life and relationships as we want it to be” (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning). (I find his use of the word “empire” here so challenging: if we wrestle with whether “reign of God” conveys the same meaning as “kingdom of God,” how does “empire” of God sound to our feminist-theological ears?)
We’re not surprised, then, that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: “Love,” he wrote, “is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God” (A Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, editor: I highly recommend this book!).
The end of the debate
The long and contentious debate between Jesus and the religious experts ends, fittingly, with a question about the Messiah, a question that is really about Jesus himself. Thomas C. Long writes, “Jesus challenges the completeness of the Pharisees’ answer,” for “He is David’s true son, but he is more. He is Messiah and Lord” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Perhaps this reminds us of the incompleteness of all of our understanding, and the human limitations of our ability to love.
However, Patterson explores the mysterious power of love that comes from God: Jesus, he writes, “embraced that power, lived it, spoke of it, storied it into existence, and surrendered to it….This is how, even in death, Jesus could become an experience of God to others” (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning). As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the world today (the world that God so loves), how can we each day become “an experience of God to others”?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
C. S. Lewis, 20th century
“Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.”
J. C. Ryle, 19th century
“All heaven and earth resound with that subtle and delicately balanced truth that the old paths are the best paths after all.”
John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”
Henri Nouwen, 20th century
“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 20th century
“I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 20th century
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
With a lawyer on the attack, Jesus answers by returning to his core message: love. The lawyer wanted to ensnare Jesus in a legal and rhetorical trap. By asking him to elevate one law above all the others, he was forcing Jesus to disavow the established view that all commandments should be ranked as equals because no human can presume to know the mind of God.
Jesus’ response was at once simple and radical: first, love God, and second, love your neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (v. 40). While love as a guiding principle may still seem simple, is it still radical or even helpful in the face of matters as serious and as huge as white supremacy or climate change?
Recently, as I scrolled through various Facebook posts, an article shared by a friend caught my eye. It had the provocative title, “Ibram Kendi, One of the Nation’s Leading Scholars of Racism, Says Education and Love Are Not the Answer.” I saved the article to read later. It would seem that as a minister of the gospel I had a lot riding on whether Kendi’s argument was true. If love isn’t the answer, then that means God and Jesus aren’t the answer either.
To be honest, part of me agreed with Kendi before I even read the article. The word “love” gets tossed around so much as the answer to everything that the word can easily be associated with countless clichés and simplistic prescriptions. Indeed, upon reading the article, I liked Kendi’s core argument that racism is not about ignorance and hate. It is about policies driven by self-interest cloaked underneath racial rationalizations. Kendi’s mission is thus to strategize about policies that could ultimately eliminate racism.
But why strategize in the first place? Are debates over policy simply a matter of pitting the self-interest of some against the self-interest of others? Maybe. Or, perhaps, this is where faith becomes important for some of us. I certainly believe self-interest is a powerful factor driving the actions of many, but if life was all about self-interest, I wouldn’t be interested in living it. I prefer to believe that life is made meaningful by something else, and that is love. Ultimately, this is why I choose to have faith in God, even in the face of seemingly intractable societal ills.
For such reasons, I find myself returning again and again to love in the struggle for justice. Specifically, I find myself focused over and over on the Three Great Loves: love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation. I believe these comprise the heart of what will fundamentally motivate people to seek the policy level changes our society so desperately needs.
In this way, I find that love is still indeed the answer as simple and as radical as that might sound.
The Rev. Brooks Berndt serves as Minister for Environmental Justice at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
This passage from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica turns our attention to the courage it requires to live as Christians and to preach the gospel. The temptation is to strive to live safely, comfortably, even quietly, and to think that this is living not only as a “peaceful” people but as true Christians. And yet, we know from the example of Jesus and of Paul that preaching the good news will often provoke a negative, perhaps even violent, reaction.
Paul speaks here of the suffering he has endured for the sake of the gospel, but he speaks without regret. He sees his reward in the faith of the people of the church of Philippi. His words about motive remind us of Kierkegaard’s definition of being “pure of heart” as “to want one thing.” If Paul’s preaching and our own as well have no motive apart from wanting to please God, we will be pure of heart in our words and in our goals.
Paul does not come across as powerful and strong in this passage, in the sense of being overbearing, but his authority is rooted in tender care and generous sharing of his own life. He clearly cares about this little flock in Philippi, and we can imagine that he would care about our own little flock today, wherever we are the church. What are the oppositions that your church faces today in preaching the gospel? When are the moments of tender care, not only for the children but for each and every member of the church, and for those who come through your doors, in need of sanctuary and good news? In what ways are they embraced? In what ways does your church need to grow in its embrace of those in need?
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain–that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees–as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
O God, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth
and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting
you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
For a thousand years
in your sight
are like yesterday
when it is past,
or like a watch
in the night.
You sweep them away;
they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed
in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes
and is renewed;
in the evening it fades
Turn, O God!
on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning
with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice
and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days
as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years
as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest
to your servants,
and your glorious power
to their children.
Let the favor of the Sovereign
our God be upon us,
and prosper for us
the work of our hands–
O prosper the work of our hands!
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight
is in the law of the God,
and on God’s law
they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do,
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff
that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous;
for God watches over the way
of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?
“If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!