Please God. (Please, God.)

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 

Matthew 22:36, NRSV

I’ve written before about a moment in worship that touches me particularly.

When my wife offers the benediction to her congregation, she often uses the one with the phrase, “Hold on to what is good,” and as she says it, she pulls the fingers of her upraised right hand in toward her palm. My hand involuntarily clasps every time I see her do it.

This week I’m thinking about what comes next, how her hand opens again as she goes on to say, “Return no one evil for evil.” In our current situation, when doing evil is so commonplace, this feels important to highlight. It can be hard to let go of the desire to pay it back somehow. 

Jesus, in Jerusalem, has been sparring with religious leaders, and one after another they have gone away speechless and dissatisfied. Regrouping, they put forward a lawyer, who asks a question they hope will lead to a misstep. Jesus gives them an answer they cannot dispute, along with its corollary. For many Christians, this pair of commandments forms the foundation of our faith and practice. Love God, love neighbor. That’s the way to please God. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything else grows from this.

Still we wrestle with the things the world tells us matter more. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul testifies to his priorities, formed by his faith. He brings the good news “in spite of great opposition” and with no “pretext for greed” or desire for “praise from mortals.” His love for this newly-formed church made him as gentle as “a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” We live in a time when gentleness is disparaged instead of being seen as strength. We live in a moment when threats of violence are not private or shameful but encouraged by public officials. 

In our current situation, how can we, the church, love God and neighbor?

In a Sunday School conversation this past week, someone noted that our individual efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket. How can one person make a difference? There’s so much that needs to be done, and most of it not something one person can do alone. We need to reevaluate our interpretation of the great commandment. If we’re putting too much emphasis on the personal portion, on the individual portion, we’re missing the opportunity. The counterpoint to feeling like our efforts are drops in the bucket is to look at the bucket we are filling together with the drops of our effort, our faith, and our love. 

I hope for the day we will find the bucket is so full and so heavy to lift that to carry it requires a wider communal effort. Our shared efforts can work to alleviate systemic racism, register people to vote, care for people on the economic margins both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and give us strength for conversations with people who don’t agree with us. We can live into the commandments that Jesus told us were the most important. We can open our hands and let go of the urge to return evil for evil.

Please, God, help us to do this now. To love you well. To be kind in a world that is cruel. To be fierce in our work for the good. To love you with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, together.

For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you.

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Whose are you?

Whose are you?

When my daughter, Lucy, was in 8th grade, she overheard a news report about undecided voters. The very notion shocked her. She was a being raised by a Democrat, who was raised by a Democrat, and so on back down the generations. (Like the Weasleys, forever in Gryffindor, aren’t all members of the Spong family Democrats?) She knew there were other parties, and in Maine, where we then lived, there were always Independent candidates in the mix, too. But how, she wondered, could people be undecided?

In school that fall, her class was studying how to make good choices. Th e teacher explained that when faced with a decision, they could employ their “tools” to determine their actions. Lucy applied the same rubric to voters. If presented with a candidate or an issue, why don’t you just use your tools—your thinking, your feelings, your intuition—to help you reach a determination?

Lucy had been in the voting booth with me, as I had with my father. What do they do if they get there and still don’t know, she wondered? Flip a coin?

Those conversations feel so innocent to me now. Over the weekend, Lindsey Graham said, “If you’re a young, African American or an immigrant, you can go anywhere in this state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.” He said it as if the identity of “conservative” would outweigh any other more visible identities and convey a cloak of invulnerability. He said it in the midst of a campaign season so charged that we can hardly talk to each other about it unless we feel sure we will agree.

The people of the church in Thessalonika were learning to embody a new identity, having “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,” setting themselves apart as followers of one God, while still living in a society in which the worship of idols representing many gods set the rhythm of life. 

Whose are you? 

When we read the questions addressed to Jesus in Matthew 22, we would do well to remember how we feel standing in the voting booth reading about Question Z or Bond Issue 732. Some propositions are worded to confuse us, to turn our brains around and make us question what we know to be true. Jesus, of course, understood, but let’s place ourselves in the position of the disciples, listening to this question from disciples of the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus as a matter of faith; he called their practices into question and threatened the religious status quo. The party of King Herod, that monarch propped up by the invading Romans, had another set of interests. They had power because they supported Rome. If they heard Jesus speak against paying taxes to the emperor, they would have to prosecute him. The disciples of the Pharisees brought them along, certain that one way or the other they could discredit Jesus. If he supported taxes, he would let down his followers, who hailed from an area known for revolutionary feelings toward Rome. If he didn’t support taxes, he might wind up in jail. 

“Show me the coin used for the tax.”

Whose are you? 

In the public arena, our faith is low stakes, despite the claims of persecution made by some American Christians. But it was high stakes for the Pharisees under occupation, and it would be high stakes for the early generations of Christians, as faith in Jesus Christ spread beyond Galilee and Jerusalem and into the Roman world. The Thessalonians risked themselves to worship one God instead of the “appropriate” gods, the gods for particular purposes, the gods special to your family, the gods favored by your benefactors or bosses or the Emperor. 

Whose is the church? Have we turned to God from idols, to serve a true and living God? We so often rest in the comfort of being undecided, inoffensive, appropriate. In a time when a political party claims identity with one faith and rejects the faith of anyone who doesn’t fit their definitions, we may wonder.

I use my tools – my thinking, my feelings, my intuition, and my faith – to inform my values. I am led not just by who I am but by whose I have decided to be. 

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Out of Tune

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying … 

Matthew 22:1, NRSV

It’s that dreaded parable. In this week’s gospel lesson, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and despair, and leaves us longing for Luke’s not entirely parallel version. This telling feels out of tune with what we want to hear from Jesus.

We may move reflexively to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course, we think, the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death raining down feels like the end of the world, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the original audience for Matthew’s gospel, who were most likely followers of Jesus from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem, now destroyed by the armies of Rome. Resettled, they continued to worship together with their fellow Jews. Conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Devastating loss piled onto devastating loss. The images of destruction in the parable painted a picture of violence familiar to them.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?" (Matthew 22:11-12) 

Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”*

Why is the King picking on Mister Buster? Why would he expect a last-minute guest to have the appropriate garb?

A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”**

As we get to the last few weeks before the U.S. election and reflect on our current situation, we’re not exactly singing a harmonious tune about COVID or immigration or Black Lives Matter or climate change. I have a meeting scheduled soon with people recently whose point of view felt so anti-Christian when we last met that I have to consciously remind myself to look for what I know is good in them. We’re feeling the tension of disagreement even when we’re not sitting across the aisle or the table from people who take the other side. How would we talk to each other if we could be in the same place physically? Do we know how to behave when we get there?

Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland, writes in the Guardian about how we talk to people we disagree with in order to win them to our ideas that we need to be “a defiantly open heart who protects and bolsters valid information systems required for people to truly decide for themselves.”

That sounds like an in-tune gospel message to me.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9) 

*Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 247.
**Long, p. 247.