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Are You Listening?

(a sermon for January 17, 2021, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Samuel 3:1-20)

The story goes that two men were at the local diner one day, talking over a cup of coffee.  And the first man says, “You know, I’m concerned about my wife.  She’s talking to herself a lot these days.” And the second man thought about this for a moment, and replies, “Ayuh, my wife does that too, but she doesn’t know it.  She thinks I’m listening!”

LISTENING, it can be said, is one of the most important tools for a marriage or any relationship, and conversely, the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment.  As a pastor, I can tell you that I talk to people all the time – couples, parents and children, family members and friends – for whom this holds very true.  And as a husband and father, I can vouch for the fact that the vast majority of any conflict in our home can be traced back to a lapse in listening skills (and I will leave to your imaginations as to who that involves!).  Listening, you see, does not always come naturally to us, nor does it come easily; in fact, our dilemma is wonderfully expressed by the title character in Marjorie Kellogg’s book (and subsequent 1970’s era movie), “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.”  In that book, she declares to one of her closest friends, Arthur, “The trouble with you, Arthur, is that you seldom listen to me, and when you do you don’t hear, and when you do hear, you hear wrong, and even when you hear right you change it so fast that it’s never the same.”

So does that sound at all familiar?   I’m guessing it probably does, because the sad truth is that this is precisely how a lot of us listen to each other; but what’s even worse, especially for us who are people of faith, is that this is also how a great many of us listen to God!  

I’ll say it again: listening is one of the most important tools for any relationship, and the lack of listening can be its greatest detriment; and this is especially true as regards our relationship with God.  Let me put this another way: if God calls our name, how will we know unless we’re listening?  How will we know what God is saying to us or where God might be leading? For that matter, how will we recognize that it’s actually us that God is talking to; or even if what we’re hearing is God at all, as opposed to, say, some other overpowering voice in this world that demands our attention?  How will we know any of this… unless we’re truly listening?

One thing is clear: listening – and this applies whether we’re talking about our relationships with one another or our relationship with God – involves more than merely hearing; listening, in truth, is all encompassing.  It’s no accident that in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for listen is also the word for obey, which means that to listen to God is to open one’s whole life and self to God; and to attend wholly to that to which God is calling.

We see this very clearly in our scripture reading for this morning, the story of God’s call to Samuel; who was to become, as a judge and a prophet, one of Israel’s great leaders. But at the point we pick up the story today Samuel is still just a 12-year-old boy; who’s been sent by his mother Hannah to live in the temple as a servant of God under the authority of an old and blind priest by the name of Eli.  Right from the outset, we’re told that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days,” and that “visions were not widespread;” but what’s also true about those days is that Israel’s leadership at the time was particular corrupt in nature.  For Israel, this was an era of moral ambiguity and societal degradation that happened from the top down; not unlike our own time, really, when a voice of true faith can easily be drowned out in the sheer cacophony of all the world’s noise.  So yes, you can kind of understand how under such circumstances one might miss God’s call; after all, when there’s a hundred different voices clamoring for your attention, it’s hard to discern the one voice you’re supposed to be listening for!  

Actually, Samuel did hear that one voice; it’s just that he mistakenly assumed it was Eli calling his name.  This happened three times; and each time Samuel arose from his bed to go to Eli, assuming that the old man was in need of something. Samuel had no idea at all that it this was the voice of God calling him; it was, in fact, old Eli who finally began to realize that it was the Lord calling the boy.  “Go back and lie down,” Eli says to Samuel, and “if the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God, I’m your servant, ready to listen.”

And sure enough; it’s when Samuel understands that it’s God who is speaking to him – and then, of course, when he starts to really listen – that’s when things start to happen.  Did you catch what’s the first thing that God says to Samuel:  God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  Tingle!  Don’t you love that?!   That’s the perfect word for this; as author and UCC pastor Donna Shaper has written, it’s the experience of “hope kicking into high gear, forgiveness writ loud… [feeling] pins and needles all over your body because you [are] so excited” over what God is about to do!  In this case, what God is about to do essentially results in the fall of Eli’s house and the rise of Samuel’s; so what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a new life for Samuel as a messenger of God, and the thing is that it begins at the precise moment that Samuel stops to listen!

What this story reminds us is that ours is a God of intrusion; and by that I mean that just when we’ve assumed that, in times like these when the word of the Lord does seem to be rare; when we reluctantly decide that religion ought be something best kept silent and settled, here comes God… quite literally bursting forth into our lives and living, bringing change and disruption and newness of life!  Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this; she says that “God’s language is not limited… [and] God’s word is not chained.  We cannot capture it in church, in time, in culture.  We cannot even capture it between the covers of the Bible, because if [scripture] is God’s true and lively word, then [it’s going to be] inventing new words all the time – percolating with the same creative energy that made heaven and earth.”

Perhaps at the end of the day that’s why you and I are so often reluctant or even afraid to listen: for in truth if we were to really listen for the word of God – in the silence of our hearts; in the journey of our lives; and even in the work of the church – if we really did listen, we might feel that tingle, and that would change everything for us forever!

Some years ago now, I attended a training seminar in Florida as part of the Stephen Ministry program; which is, if you don’t know, a wonderful and very worthwhile ministry of Christian caregiving for laity. I was actually being trained as a Stephen Leader, so that I could go back to my own congregation and equip the people of our church for a ministry of caregiving.  Well, part of that training involved learning the mechanics of peer supervision, in which those trained as caregivers gather regularly to discuss their own experiences in a nurturing and confidential manner, so to assure that those people you’re trying to help get the best care possible.

In that regard, we’d been asked the day before to come up with a case study of sorts; to either make something up, or, if it was to be based on something out of real life, take it out of the distant past or at least change it in a significant fashion.  And then we would do these role plays as if we were actually meeting as “Stephen Ministers” dealing with a caregiving situation before us.  So we’re around this table – there’s eight of us from all over the country and from across the “denominational spectrum” – and through the process we decide to discuss in-depth the situation of this one woman at our table, whose “care receiver,” according to her case study was an 18 year-old boy battling severe depression and now rebounding from several unsuccessful attempts at suicide. 

In the course of that conversation, we talked a great deal about how difficult a thing it can be to be a caregiver to somebody in this situation; we spoke about how hard it is to have your heart not break when you see what they’re going through.  We talked about the necessity of boundaries, the need for faith and the power of prayer; and we talked about letting go emotionally, and letting God carry the burden.   I’ll tell you, friends, I’ve never been a big one for role play as a way of learning (it’s always seemed a little too much like theater to me) but I must confess that afterward I was struck by how very real this experience was and how much I had learned.

Well, then it was all done; we went on to something else, and in fact, I didn’t see that woman again until the last night of the seminar at our closing service of worship.  After we had sung a closing hymn, as part of our benediction we passed the peace of Christ to one another; and this is when this woman comes over to me, gives me this big hug, and says simply, “I just want to thank you.”  And of course, I’m just kind of looking at her with this clueless look on my face because I don’t know what she’s thanking me for; but then she says, “You know the 18-year-old that I spoke of the other day?  That was my son.  And I know he’s going to be alright now… but now for the first time in a long time, I know I’m going to be alright.  And I just wanted to thank you for that.”

I’ve never forgotten that, mostly because even all these years later I’m still not sure what I said to her that made that kind of difference.  But I think maybe it was just that I listened; that all of us around that table listened.  In that moment, you see, it didn’t matter that we were in all actuality this group of random strangers who were totally from different places and backgrounds; all that mattered is that when we started to really listen to what was being said in that place, we became kindred spirits in the Lord, and somehow, God’s remarkable, ear-tingling, life-changing word got through.  And when that happened, things immediately started to change… for the better.

This is something I’ve always believed very strongly, but it’s something I don’t think that I have said often enough, especially in these days when we’ve all been scattered as a congregation.  And that’s that we’re all ministers, you and me; though I might have the “Rev” in front of my name, in this tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what that means is that every one of us – every one of you – is called to the work of ministry, and invited to it challenges and its joy.  It also means that we’ve been equipped and empowered by God; so that we might do what God needs to have done. 

Who knows what form that will take in each of our lives… maybe it’ll be to speak the words of love and support that need to be said at a crucial moment; perhaps it’ll be the opportunity we have before us to “teach our children well,” and to nurture them in the Christian faith; maybe it’s to be caregiver of one sort or another; and maybe it’s to stand up and work boldly toward a strong vision of the kingdom of God in this place and in these strange and difficult days.  Or maybe it is simply to listen: where you are and to whom is with you at that moment; which trust me, beloved, is no small gift. 

But whatever your ministry happens to be, it starts… with listening.  There is no limit as to what God can do through you and through me; but it all begins as we tune out the noise and chaos of life and fear and violence and the politics of the world around us… and begin focusing our ears and hearts on the sound of God’s voice in the midst of it all; to listen to God’s call and God’s plan.  

God is calling us, beloved; I pray today that we will have the grace to answer, “Here I am, Lord… speak, for we, your servants are listening.” 

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Practiced in Joy

(a sermon for January 10, 2021, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Text: Isaiah 60:1-6)

I remember the moment as though it were yesterday.

It was the fall of 1982, I was living in Houlton, up in Aroostook County, Maine and serving as student pastor of the church up there while commuting back and forth to seminary classes in Bangor. I actually hadn’t been in town too long; in fact, I was still in the process of trying to get “settled in” at the church and in the community. And one day, I’d gone to the local drug store to buy something or other, and as I put my items on the counter, the cashier looked at me for a moment and said, “Aren’t you that new minister at the Congregational Church?” Surprised by the question and nervously looking around to make sure she wasn’t talking to somebody else, I stammered back, “Yesss… that’s me… I guess.” 

And immediately, as I was soon to discover was and is a fairly common thing up in “the county,” this woman started talking to me like she’d known me all her life!  She wasn’t a member of my church, she said, but she knew folks who were, and “those ‘congregationals’ are good people… especially dear old Mrs. Smith… she used to be my kindergarten teacher, you know!” And isn’t Houlton a wonderful little town… you’re really going to like it here!  And that’s how the conversation went: we talked back and forth like that for a good ten minutes and finally, as I started to leave, this woman, still smiling from ear to ear, said to me, “Well, it was really nice to meet you; you have a nice day, and God bless you, pastor!

I’d barely made it back out to the street when it hit me like a thunderbolt: she’d called me pastor!  For the very first time in my life, somebody had recognized me as “the minister!”  Even all these years later, friends, I cannot adequately express to you how that felt. Understand, it wasn’t that there was this perfect stranger who had recognized who I was; nor did it have anything to do with being able to puff out my chest and say, “Look at me, everyone, I’m the new minister in town!” Rather, it was the sudden realization that for the better part of a decade (since I’d been 15 years old, in fact!) everything in my life – spiritually, academically, even socially – had been focused on a singular calling, a calling that I sensed to be of God, a calling that I should become a church pastor. And now, here I was, standing on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Houlton, having been recognized as just that! It’s no exaggeration to say that I was now standing on the threshold of the rest of my life, and the realization of this filled me with an incredible joy unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

Now, after close to 40 (!) years in my vocation as a church pastor, I can tell you that I’ve felt that same kind of joy on many other occasions, most certainly on the day of my ordination, but also in the midst of other, seemingly random times and circumstances over the years: worship services, weddings, even memorial services; times when it’s been clear that God is present and at work, and I’m suddenly aware that I’m just where I’m supposed to be at that moment. And it’s not necessarily “happiness” I’m talking about here, per se, nor is it some fleeting joy that passes with the moment, but rather a joy that’s pervasive and lasting because it’s been a long time in coming. It’s a joy that’s greatly anticipated because it’s a joy that’s been well-practiced.

But, then, you know what I mean, don’t you?  It’s like when a child is born: it’s not just the joy of the birth you feel – although that’s very real – but it’s also the culmination of nine months of this child’s of growing in the womb; it’s the joyous relief that comes in finally knowing that all is well and the baby is healthy. Same thing applies for those who are seeking to adopt: the joy that’s felt in that moment when everything comes together for a family is a joy that had its birthing, so to speak, long before the birth itself. 

Recent events notwithstanding, much the same can be said about the permutations of an ever-changing world: I’m put in mind, for instance, of a newspaper photo I saw recently, one that dates back to 1994, of Nelson Mandela voting for the very first time in a South African election after years of apartheid rule in that country.  It’s basically your standard-issue news photo; except that in it Mandela has this look on his face of a kid on Christmas morning as he performed the very simple act of placing a voting card through a slot into a wooden box. There was a profound joy in the act of voting, yes, but even more so because this represented the fulfillment of generations’ worth of hope and struggles for freedom. So when the joy finally came to pass, Mandela and so many others in South Africa knew it for what it was; nobody had to tell them what to feel or how to react, for this was a moment they had anticipated for years, even amidst the times and situation when there seemed to be no hope that such a moment would ever come to pass. When the moment finally came to pass, you see, they were well-practiced in their joy!

Well, that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about: joy well-practiced and joy fulfilled: “Arise, shine;” the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Lift up your eyes and look around… then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  I love this passage; everything about it carries an air of proclamation and triumph. And although these words were written many generations before the birth of Christ, it does seem to bring something of a fitting closure to our re-telling of the Christmas story over these past few weeks. Did you notice that there’s even talk of kings “coming into the brightness of… dawn” and of camels – “a multitude of camels,” we’re told – bringing gold and frankincense? Sounds familiar, and one reason that this passage is traditionally read, along with the story of the Magi, on the Day of Epiphany. But even though this passage is full of celebration and triumph, we need to understand that for those for whom these words were originally intended, life was anything but triumphant.

This is another portion of Old Testament scripture that can and should be viewed in a couple of different contexts: historically, it was addressed to Israel in the years just after their exile to Babylon, returning home to Jerusalem only to find that city in ruins and their life as hard, if not even harder, than before. And spiritually, of course, we view it prophetically, anticipating the coming of a Messiah; of light entering into a darkened world in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the promise that God’s glory will be seen in the midst of his people, that the life of those people will be restored and that they will be honored among all the nations. And so, when the prophet says unto Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” it’s a promise that is, in fact, “not yet,” but which is so very real, so very close, so immediate to them in that moment that their joy is already full and triumphant in its expression.

And so, when Jerusalem is restored and when the Messiah does come, it will be the fulfillment of something they already know, not unlike how we know before it happens that the sun will rise in the darkness of the eastern sky to bring forth the dawning of a new day.  When God’s presence brings joy and hope into the darkness of their despair, their oppression and grief, they will know that presence for exactly what it is; no one will need to tell them what to do or how to act – they will rejoice! – for they will already be well-practiced in joy!

Actually, you know, it occurs to me as we come to the end of yet another Christmastide, that perhaps this is part of our problem regarding Christmas, and for that matter regarding our faith in these days of confused situations: the fact is, friends, we are not practiced in joy! Oh, we’ve heard the familiar words of Christ’s birth and of light coming into our darkness, but are those words real to us and do they stay close to our hearts? We’ve celebrated the promise of joy to the world, alright, at least as much as time and pandemic would allow us this year (!); but is the truth of it that this joy has gotten put away as quickly and easily as do our decorations come the first of January?  

How does this happen to us, friends?  How does the Advent of God into our world become something we could put in a box and place up into the attic?  Isn’t that word of promise and hope as much for us now as it was for Israel so long ago!?  “Arise, shine!  For your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you!”  Have we forgotten that the glory of the Lord comes to us even now in the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? That Christmas is merely an expression of what we know to be true as God’s people 365 days a year and in every year of life now and eternally? And that “peace on earth, goodwill amongst all people,” is more than merely some verse on a greeting card but the very principles by which you and I are called to live and, might I add, to govern ourselves? 

Now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we need to proclaim that joy is ours in the coming of the Lord and that it is made manifest in the Lord’s love and his sacrifice and his mercy and his goodness and his salvation; but also that it must be practiced in the way that Christ lives within us and among us… in the way that his work is our work… as persons, as a people and most especially as the church.

We know all-too-well that we live in a world severely lacking in hope and woefully unpracticed in joy. And as though we needed another reminder of this, the horrific events at the Capital Building in Washington this past week served to show us, amongst other things, that in such a sinful and divided world as this, peace on earth does not always prevail. Truly, amongst the great ironies (to say nothing of the great sacrileges) of the violence that took place on Wednesday is that it happened on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, our Christian celebration of God’s light being revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. And as sad as it is for me to say, especially as someone who truly loves and believes in this country, it ended up as a stark reminder that our first allegiance and our hope as believers can never be unto the government – no matter who we voted for – or even unto the nation itself, but our allegiance can ever and only be unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, however, there is something important for us to remember as the world seems to be spinning out of control; in truth of fact, the same message that we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks: that GOD IS WITH US as we go into the world. To quote Halford Luccock, the great 20th century Methodist commentator, the first words of the Christmas message from the sky were, “Fear Not!” and those still are good words for these days of “jittery,” fearful apprehension. And they are words we need to take to heart right about now.

Fear not, friends, for God is with us in the uncertainty of life in these times.  Fear not, for whatever struggles come our way as persons, as a people and as a nation in this year to come, we are not alone, but in the presence of a Savior who will carry our burdens on his shoulders. Fear not, for even in those moments when the darkness the world surrounds us, we have been given a light that will burn brightly and can never be overcome.  Fear not, for we will be given the vision and strength not to truly love one another as the Lord has loved us, but also to love those who the world has chosen not to love.

Fear not; in fact, rejoice!  For despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Christ is working in us, through us and around us even now; and that is reason enough to be practicing the joy of it in all that we do. Beloved, let us be well-practiced in joy, so that when the Advent of God comes in its fullness we will know it for what it is, and no one will need to tell us what to do or how to act.

We will simply rejoice!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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The Real Deal

(a sermon for October 25, 2020, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 22:34-46)

There’s no pretty way of saying this, so best to come right out with it:  our text this morning represents a fervent effort to expose Jesus as a fake! 

It’s true; our reading this morning from Matthew is in fact the culmination of several attempts on the part of the religious “powers-that-be” of the time – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – to question Jesus’ authority and to seek to discredit him amongst the people.  And in all honesty, looking at it from their perspective who could blame them for trying? 

Remember, all of this is taking place soon after Jesus has made his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, which in and of itself was pretty much a subversive act; and then almost immediately, Jesus turns over the tables of moneychangers in the temple, he curses a fig tree as though to put the whole religious establishment on notice, and then he goes on to tell at least three parables that were thinly veiled denunciations of the so-called righteousness of said “powers-that-be!”  It’s no coincidence that no sooner than Jesus had finished his teaching, those who would put Jesus to the test started to arrive, and not kindly: isn’t it true, after all, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, that “when those with prestige and position are challenged, when their presuppositions are upturned, they react with hostility and fear?”  Better, they reason, to try to trip Jesus up with impossible questions and humiliate him in front of all the people than perhaps actually have to listen to what Jesus is saying and realize that maybe the world – and they – will need to change because of it; in other words, if Jesus is made to look like a fake, then he goes away, life goes on and the status quo is maintained.

And like I said before, I understand; I get why they would do that; because the truth is, I’ve lived it.  And so, I’m guessing, have you.

Pastorally speaking, it’s there in the experience of having someone tell you that they’d never go to church because it’s filled with hypocrites; or else, when they let you know that while God is very well and good, they’ve got a real problem with “organized religion” (at which point, I am always tempted – but never quite dare – to reply, well, then, why not try our church, because we haven’t managed to get ourselves organized yet!).  More seriously, I hear it from those who tend to back themselves far away from faith because of all the sorrow and suffering that goes on in the world; why would a just and loving God ever let that happen, they reason.  And besides, they’ll say, aren’t there “extremists” to be found in every kind of religious tradition, and isn’t that really the problem in the world today?

So friends, I can certainly attest to the fact that in this modern era, just as in every one that’s come before, there will always be those who would seek to put Jesus to the test; people in the midst of the predominant culture and the politics of the time who would look at what we believe, what we stand for and who we follow, and wonder if it truly is “the real deal,” so to speak, or if there’s a way to be found to have it simply… all go away.

What’s interesting is that leading up to our reading for this morning, the Sadducees and Pharisees had been doing their dead level best for exactly that to happen!  First, in order “to entrap” Jesus, the Pharisees “sent their disciples” (aka, their lackeys!) to ask a question about taxes being paid to the emperor (Matt. 21:17).  And then the Sadducees, who were famous for not believing in resurrection, came along to try to trip Jesus on a tricky question about what would happen in the afterlife if one widow ended up married to more than one brother in a family!  It was all about creating a conundrum, an impossible riddle for Jesus to solve; but each time they try it, Jesus not only avoids the trap, but does so with theological depth and finesse.  In short, their attempts to paint Jesus as nothing but a charlatan and rabble rouser, so far had failed miserably.

But then they decided, why not get to the heart of the matter; this time, the Pharisees would come to Jesus in person and ask of him a single question; one that, by the way, happened to be a pretty common topic amongst the faithful of Jesus’ time:  “Teacher,” one of them asked (and you have to know that the title of “teacher” was dripping with what is often referred to these days as snarkiness!), “which commandment of the law is the greatest?”   It was the perfect question, at least as far as the Pharisees were concerned: they figured that whatever commandment that Jesus chose, they could then assume that apparently Jesus didn’t really care much about the other nine; and so then they could proclaim to everybody in Jerusalem that not only was this Jesus a flagrant commandment breaker, but a blasphemer as well (truthfully, I have to imagine that at the end of this proclamation, they’d end with their own 1st century Palestinian version of “we’re your scribes and Pharisees, and we approved this message!”).  Simply put, no matter how Jesus responded, they’d have the goods on him at last.

But then Jesus answered the question. 

And the answer was… brilliant.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This,” Jesus says, “is the greatest and first commandment.”  And, by the way, it pretty much sums up the first five of the Ten Commandments; covering false worship, idols, taking God’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath, and honoring one’s parents.  And Jesus isn’t done:  “And a second is like it:” he goes on, “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  That would pretty well cover the second five commandments – that is, lying, stealing, coveting, adultery, false witness and murder – thus bringing all ten commandments into one razor sharp focus; or as Jesus concludes, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I would have loved to been there to see the Pharisees’ reaction; because whether they were willing to admit it or not, Jesus had not only avoided the trap they’d set for him, but he’d also answered their question correctly; deep down, they knew Jesus was right!  The Pharisees, remember, were all about the law; specifically, following the law to the letter; and to be fair to them, following the law to the letter was for them an act of great and pious faith!  But now here’s Jesus, to remind them that at the heart of all that law and deep in the midst of its interpretation and practice, is to be the one simple truth of LOVE.  Loving God… and loving people.  In the words of Hillel, an ancient teacher of the Jewish faith, it’s all about loving God and loving people; “the rest is commentary.” Every law, every rule, every custom and tradition we have, every act of piety we embrace as people of faith pretty much comes down to – or ought to come down to – LOVE.  And it’s LOVE, you see, that ultimately reveals Jesus – and our Christian faith – as “the real deal;” as something neither fake nor transitory nor empty in the face of the struggles faced in this world, but rather, in fact, that which is “the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Now, I know that as we look at this story, this all comes off as a pretty basic tenet of our Christian faith, does it not; I mean, if it isn’t all about loving God and loving our neighbor, then what is it that we really stand for as Christians or as the church?  But the fact is, this story of the Scribes and Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus actually raises for each one of us an important issue; and that’s whether or not we really understand how central love is to who we are and what we do?  Because in truth, the reason that there are many out there who are suspicious of faith and of those of us who espouse faith is that they don’t always see, or feel, or experience the love through us or in us!  What is that famous quote from Mahatma Ghandi:  “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   That sounds harsh – and it is – but how are we ever to convey to the world the truth of our Christian faith if we ourselves are not “the real deal” where love is concerned?

The late Marcus Borg, the renowned Biblical Scholar and theologian, has written that so often “we have made being Christian very complex, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right.  But being Christian,” Borg says, “is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple.”  And basically, it comes down to this: being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves; and what God loves is the world… “not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation.” 

Being Christian is about our working with God to become that kind of person; understanding of course, that we’re not talking about love in some sort of passive sense, but love actively; doing what we can do to be about the business of God’s love in the world: bringing light into darkness, lifting up the fallen and bringing them hope, doing justice in the places and amongst the people where “the power of politics, and the politics of power” seem to reign supreme.  It’s about living unto the love we have for God by letting it be transformed into the love we show for others; a simple thought, to be sure, but where the law and the prophets are concerned – as well as the mission of the church and, might I add, our own Christian walk, yours and mine – it’s where everything starts and on which its success truly hinges.

You might have noticed that there’s a brief postscript to our reading this morning, in which Jesus essentially turns the tables on the Pharisees by offering up a test of his own.  The question has to do with the Pharisee’s own interpretation of whose son the Messiah is supposed to be, and the exchange ends on a rather ominous note:  “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any questions.”   It was the kind of exchange that those involved in the art of debate live for – the “drop the mic” moment, as it were (!) – the final, definitive statement that shuts down all further argument.  Of course, we know the gospel story and understand that once the Pharisees had retreated, the inevitable plan for Jesus’ death had already begun to unfold; so in a larger sense, the ending of these tests signaled the beginning of something even more crucial. 

Actually, read on in Matthew and it’s all there:  will we keep our lamps burning in anticipation of the kingdom to come?  Will we be investing our talents for the sake of the Master?  Will we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned?  Will we truly love our neighbor as ourselves, loving God by doing so?  And will we walk with Jesus, even if that walk inevitably leads to the cross?  Will our faith, our love, our loyalty be as fleeting as that of the disciples when they scattered, or will people see in us true faith, and know that we are “the real deal?”

Seems to me that that’s a test of a whole other sort!

Let us pray that as the test unfolds in our own lives this week, we’ll be able to say that we passed!

So might it be; and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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