Sermon -- Oct. 25, 2020: "Living Toward a More Gentle World" -- Clara Thompson

Amos 5:21-24                                                                                    

Matthew 22:34-46                                                                              

 

Living Toward a More Gentle World

By Clara D. Thompson

 

            None of you will be surprised when you hear me say, “We are living in contentious times.”  With an important national election just over a week away and as the rhetoric becomes increasingly in-your-face, tensions are running high.  Accusations are made and counter accusations quickly follow.  Impassioned speeches are given, and sometimes even the best of neighbors either argue with one another or refuse to speak with one another because of the divisiveness.  And the Commission on Presidential Debates felt it had to change the debate rules ahead of Thursday night’s final presidential debate in order to try to insure that each of the candidates had some uninterrupted time to speak.  We are living in contentious times when the leaders and potential leaders of our country need to be muted so that another voice can be heard.  My friends there is a better way, and our lectionary Gospel reading for this morning leads us there. 

Jesus himself is in the midst of a series of debates with the local leaders of his day.  Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson had the Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This led us to think about our own allegiances, our priorities, and how they should be reflected in the living of our daily lives.  In Matthew’s Gospel the Sadducees were the next to challenge Jesus in an effort to try and trip him up, and at the end of that encounter we hear that, after the crowd heard the interaction, they “were astounded at (Jesus’) teaching.”  In this morning’s lesson, it is the Pharisees who gather once again, and this time it is a lawyer who asks Jesus a question in order to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  It was another trick question lobbed at Jesus from across the divide.  You see, according to tradition, there were 613 commandments in the Old Testament.  Is the lawyer trying to put Jesus in the position of saying that some of the laws of the Torah are not important?  That would be awkward!  Or perhaps the Pharisee has grown tired of trying to juggle ALL of the 613 laws and wants to know which ones he should focus on in particular?  We don’t know the full reason for the lawyer’s question, but Jesus’ response is clear.  He begins by quoting the familiar words of the  Shema from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, the most prominent prayer in Hebrew tradition, sometimes referred to as the cornerstone of Jewish faith and practice:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  Jesus says, “This is the greatest and first commandment.”  He then goes on to quote from the 19th chapter of Leviticus:  “And a second (commandment) is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus says.   (Matthew 22:37-40) 

God’s law, finally and forever, is a law of love.  It’s that simple.  Christ makes clear that there is an intimate connection between these two commandments, and in a sense he makes the two commandments one.  We can think of it as a unity, as if they were two sides of the very same coin.  The commandment by which we are to live in faithfulness to the Lord is to love one another as a mirror of our love for God.  Our relationships with other persons are a reflection of our relationship with the Creator.  How we treat one another, how we seek to love one another, even and perhaps especially with those whom we disagree, that’s a reflection of our relationship with God. 

Now, I am not suggesting that we need to be buddy-buddy or all kissy-face with everyone we meet.  I am not even saying that we need to LIKE everyone, or their political perspective.  As Danny Gokey puts it, “You can still love people even if they don’t believe the same things you believe or act the way you act.”  I would add, not only CAN we love them, but we are CALLED to love them.  My friends, we need a more gentle world, and you and I are called to help build it.

The prophet Amos calls to us from the 8th century before the Christian era.  Amos was speaking to a prosperous nation, to a people who were economically affluent.  Regardless of our own economic situation, Amos is also speaking to each of us.  Hear again the word of the Lord: “I hate, I despise your feasts.” (5:21)  God is saying in essence, ‘I’m not interested in your solemn assemblies.  Your offerings mean absolutely nothing to me.  I reject what you offer because of its utter hollowness.’  “But,” God says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24)  Eugene Peterson in The Message, a Bible in contemporary language, doesn’t mince words when he puts this passage this way:  “I can’t stand your religious meetings.  I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.  I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals.  I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.  I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.  When was the last time you sang to me?  Do you know what I want?  I want justice – oceans of it.  I want fairness – rivers of it.  That’s what I want.  That’s all I want.” (Amos 5:21-24)

My friends, we need a more gentle world, and you and I are called to help build it.  Both Amos and Christ are clear that the requirement that our love for God is to be shown in our actions with one another.  As the Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states, (our) “daily action in the world is the church in mission to the world.” (9:37)  What we do, how we live, how we treat one another, how our faith in Jesus Christ affects our lives matters, and it matters deeply.  Being among those who work for justice and fairness, righteousness, is a critical reflection of our love for God.  I hesitate to share a quote from a former President of the United States because I do not want to imply a political bias from the pulpit, but the words of former President Jimmy Carter speak to this very point.  Carter writes, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something … My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”  Hear it again: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”  Having turned 96 years old earlier this month, Jimmy Carter is still working for and supporting Habitat for Humanity, putting his faith in action by successfully removing the stigma of charity and substituting it with a sense of partnership.

Before we wrap up the sermon this morning, we ought look at the 2nd portion of this morning’s Gospel reading.  “Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them (a) question.  “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  “The son of David,” they say.  That’s the correct answer, but Jesus isn’t quite finished yet.  “How is it then, if David calls him Lord, how can he be David’s son?”  The Pharisees have no answer for that, and our reading for this morning ends with these words, “nor from that day did anyone dare ask (Jesus)  any more questions.”  I want to call your attention to the fact that Jesus got the last word in his final debate.  And the last word is love.  After all of his preaching and teaching, after traveling the countryside and performing miracles, now, just days before his crucifixion, Jesus has named what is at the very center of his ministry, his mission, the center of the kingdom he has been sent to proclaim and to build – and it is love.  We are called to love and take care of each other.  Not just the people we like.  Not just the people who share our political perspective.  Not even just the people we know.  We are called to love ALL, to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; to be a people who work for justice – oceans of it, and fairness – rivers of it.

My friends, we need a more gentle world, and you and I are called to help build it.  Roger Wolsey encourages us in this year 2020 when he writes, “Don’t give up on this year.  Keep fighting for the good.  Keep showing up.  Keep loving.  Keep giving back.  Keep being kind.  Keep being brave.  Keep caring.  Keep trying new things.  Keep showing grace.  Keep on.  The world needs you to believe in the good.”  From Mindful Christianity Today, “After all of this is over, all that will really matter is how we treated each other.”  Let us go forth to live the love we profess.  Amen.

 

 
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