Sunday, November 1, 2020

Beyond the Basics - a sermon on love & justice


Beyond The Basics - a sermon on love & justice
text: Matthew 22:34-46 
21st Sunday after Pentecost, year A
preached on Zoom on October 25, 2020
for the United Church of Cookeville

One of the first sermons I ever had the honor of giving, since following the call to preach about nine years ago, I preached it in my Mom’s church in the Detroit suburbs, the same church I attended in high school. The title of that talk was, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.” It was thrilling to teach on one of the familiar miracles where Jesus feeds the masses, and it was just as fun to come up with that title: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.”

You have now figured out that I was simply messing with the words from an old familiar song, that I remember from church in the 1970s and from church camp in the 1980s: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. Such a strong, simple sentiment. The first part of today’s gospel is rooted in this idea of Christian love. Jesus is clear. Jesus is so transparent that this text has been paraphrased by our contemporaries into a short-hand for what it means to follow Jesus in our world. The bumper-sticker t-shirt version is this: Love God. Love People.

You have heard that way of saying it before, haven’t you? Love God. Love People. And maybe you have heard people ponder: Why can’t we just get back to the basics? If we get back to basics, the world will be a better place. If we get back to the basics, we will “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds” and we will “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Sounds easy, but it is not.
Love God. Love People. We have not only seen that on bumper stickers and t-shirts, we have seen it on church signs and banners. That is back to basics Christianity. I wanted to call this sermon Back to Basics, but I realized something stark and sobering as I prayed and studied, so much that it gives me the shivers. Back to Basics is not working for the American church right now. If we are going to get back to the basics, first we need to go beyond the basics to see where we may have gone wrong. 

Surveys of Generation Z, that is the young people born this century and late last century, surveys of these Zoomers, as they are sometimes called, they don’t say they recognize Christians for their love as much as they say things like, they recognize Christians for their hypocrisy. Experts on the American religious demographics speculate that this new generation might be the first genuinely post-Christian atheist generation in American history. All that despite the efforts of some evangelicals and some conservative Christians to unite the flag and cross in a frenzy of nationalism. 

If we are to get back to basics, we need to go beyond the basics. We need to talk about love, but we also need to talk about justice, and even power. I am grateful to be having this conversation this morning in a United Church of Christ congregation. 

The UCC has been historically aware and active to address how to translate a “back to basics” approach in a way where it is “beyond the basics” to genuinely help others. So for example, the UCC sign doesn’t just say, “Love God. Love People.” The United Church of Christ specifies how y’all do that, by saying on one of its more popular signs:

“Protect the environment; Care for the poor; Embrace diversity; Reject racism: Forgive often; Love God; Fight for the powerless; Share earthly and spiritual resources; and Enjoy this life.” 

These encouraging, specific, and generous words are displayed on banners by your churches across your denomination, to share with the world what the denomination is about.

Now you know there is that part in many preachers, where we just want to say: not only is it back to basics, it is back to the Bible. When I was preaching regularly in Sparta until recently, I loved to channel my favorite Black baptist preaching mentors and lead into every scripture quote with the exhortation: “The Bible says . . . . .” 

The Bible says a lot of amazing things. It remains the authoritative text in our faith tradition. But the Bible also says confusing things, even problematic things. I know some of y’all well enough and the UCC tradition well enough to understand that y’all are okay when our shared conscience requires us to dialogue with scripture and to push back at it from time to time. 

The second half of the text today got me hung up in just that fashion. The first part of today’s text is all about love, but the second part of the text is all about authority and even power. 

So the text does something super strange today. Now, we are aware of the audacity of the Christian claim, “Jesus is Lord.” We are aware that the church sees Christ, not the Bible and perhaps not even the historical Jesus, but the one Richard Rohr calls the “universal Christ,” we see Christ as our ultimate authority. 

Yet this gets super complicated and awkward in Matthew’s gospel today, because the Bible implies here that Jesus is the Son of David and the Lord of David at the same time. And Jesus explains this by quoting the Psalmist David. In chapter 22, verse 44 of Matthew, we read an excerpt from Psalm 110, “'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet."'

Now some readers will have no problem entertaining many theological premises simultaneously, such as the pre-existence of Christ before the birth of the historical Jesus, the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, and the all-encompassing authority of the trinitarian Christ, so much that the poet King David would be pledging his allegiance to this Christ, some 1000 years before Jesus was born. 

Christians are so familiar with authoritative Christian impositions and interpretive retrojections into the Hebrew texts, that we can tend to read them uncritically. God refers to Godself in the plural in the opening lines of Genesis, that must be the Trinity. The story where Abraham almost sacrifices Issaac, that is just getting us ready for Jesus’s execution on a Roman cross, and all those passages in Isaiah that end up in Christmas carols and Christmas pageants, they are definitely, unquestionably about Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Duh, didn’t you go to Sunday school? Wait, I thought you went to seminary? 

I hope you will not be surprised when I tell you that I read a commentary on today’s text by a Jewish rabbi, and he came to dramatically different conclusions about Matthew 22:44 than most evangelical Christian commentaries do. Yes, the rabbi I consulted claims that this particular exchange may never have happened and that its common interpretation is so much insulting and incorrect “Jews for Jesus” gibberish. 

While we do not necessarily reject traditional Christian teaching on the universal power and unchanging nature of Christ, neither do we haphazardly insist that every passage in the Hebrew Bible that we want to make about Jesus, was actually about Jesus. History has shown us how anti-Jewish interpretations of the gospels in church can lead to anti-Jewish hatred in the real world. 

To preach just a few days before this United States Presidential election, it is not enough to say that we as Christians respect religious pluralism and political integrity and ethnic diversity. 

We may also have to remind ourselves that as Christians, we can and should reject Christian theocracy, Christian nationalism, Christian superiority, and Christian warrants for sexism, homophobia, and white supremacy. We can name as sins, yes sins, the heresies that lead churches and their leaders to support abandoning our covenants to empower the poor and release the prisoners and practice peace and protect the natural world. It is not enough to say “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not at the same time work for what that love looks like out loud and in public, in our communities and in our country. 

In late 1967, less than a year before a bullet took him out at a Memphis motel, Martin Luther King preached the sermon speech “Where Do We Go From Here” at an SCLC gathering:

“Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.” 

Some folks may make an exclusive claim about the authority of Christ, but we also know who Christ is through Jesus, the One who would always be inclusive of the misfits and misunderstood and always intrusive to the haters and hypocrites hoarding worldly power. The authority of Christ is never authoritarian, and we cannot surrender our loving generosity to those who have so twisted our Jesus to where they are never loving and never generous, when it really counts, like the American Christian, who has said about politics: 

“When I'm looking for a leader . . .  I don't want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek. I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”

If we settle for a kind bland bumper sticker back-to-basics approach, our love will never lift up and empower, but we might get stuck in our empty platitudes and promises without the practice that prefaces the coming kindom. Beyond the basics might take us to the book of James to remind us that our faith-without-works is dead. Let’s get back to the basics of love by always going beyond the basics to include justice. Amen. 

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