I’m about to take a huge risk by sharing one of my wife’s sermons with my friends in the blogosphere. When it comes to preaching, Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee blows me out of the water. This is the woman who made me want to be a preacher. During our dating and newlywed years, her sermons shaped my spirituality at a very deep level. So I’m excited to share one of them with you today. This was preached yesterday (10/23/2011) at Westernville Presbyterian Church. The text is Matthew 22:34-46.
Have you heard the story about the pastor who asks a group of kids a question during the kids’ conversation: “what has a furry tail, lives in trees and eats nuts.” One of the kids raises his hand and says, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer is Jesus.” It’s a joke that always makes me cringe a little bit, because it feels a little too close to home—I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a Sunday School class, either as a child or as a teacher, when I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, or God, or maybe church or the Bible. It is so tempting to reduce our faith into a series of right answers.
The Pharisees and Sadducees who are interacting with Jesus throughout this section of Matthew seem to approach their faith in a way that assumes there are right answers. Faith or religion seems to be a puzzle and if they have all the right pieces, they can generate the right answers and teach those to people to make them into right—or righteous people.
Or, in the case of these interactions with Jesus, test him to find out if he has the right answers, and hopefully expose that he is wrong.
But Jesus refuses to play the game. He doesn’t see faith and tradition as a puzzle with one right answer. He sees it as open to interpretation—complex and mysterious and hard to pin-down. Instead of giving the “right” answer or “the wrong” answer, Jesus punches holes in all those boxes and challenges these religious leaders to ask better questions.
Last week we read how the Pharisees confronted Jesus with a question about taxes designed to force him into one political camp or another—to test him. After that, the Sadducees confront him with a question about resurrection—a kind of rhetorical question meant to show how illogical it is to believe in the resurrection, but Jesus pokes holes in their logic, leaving them dumbfounded. That’s when the Pharisees come in with their lawyer—the pull out the big guns.
Now, Jesus probably gave them exactly the answer they were hoping he would—it would have been fairly common for people in those days to consider the she’ma—Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength—the greatest commandment. And if there were any controversy, loving your neighbor as yourself would be the next contender. At first, it may have seemed that Jesus fell straight into their trap—giving a simple answer that they considered the wrong answer. See, it’s likely that this was a trick question to begin with—no law should be more important, or greater than any of the others, because they all come from God—that would be the right answer.
But Jesus seems to anticipate the trick, because after naming the two greatest commandments, he explains why they are the greatest—on these hang all the law and the prophets. Jesus refuses to fall into their trap—none of the other laws are less important, but they depend on these two—these two form the base or the trunk of the tree on which all the other laws hang like fruit. Not the right answer, but not the wrong answer, either, Jesus succeeds again and again at complicating the questions, reframing them.
And now, after this series of interrogations, Jesus turns the table, and he initiates a question: Whose descendant is the Messiah? The Pharisees probably rolled their eyes. Really? Everyone knows that—he is David’s descendant. But Jesus isn’t done. Okaaaay, he continues, if so, why does David refer to the Messiah as Lord—a title reserved for fathers and elders? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If David is the Messiah’s ancestor, then shouldn’t the Messiah call David, Lord and not the other way around?
Hmmm. The Pharisees don’t have an answer for that. They leave in an embarrassed silence, and never muster up the guts to confront Jesus with questions again. Instead, we know, they plot to have him killed, because Jesus makes things complicated and mysterious, when the Pharisees want clear cut answers.
We may not identify with the questions that are getting tossed around in these confrontations—questions about resurrection, Romans taxes, and Messianic lineage are not particularly hot-button issues in 21st century North America, but the dynamic of the interaction is all too familiar. Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees, 21st century Christians still like clear cut answers, don’t we? We still want faith to boil down to right answers—clear, simple truths that we can teach to our children and use as a litmus test to determine who is right and who is wrong—or at least, who is with us and who is against us.
One of the supposedly clear-cut questions that is used to draw dividing lines in churches and denominations all over the country is the question: What does the Bible teach about same-sex relationships?
I’ll admit that I grew up thinking this question had a clear answer, but then Jesus threw a wrench in things. Through relationships with people God brought into my life, and through watching the ministry of people I grew up thinking shouldn’t be pastors, I began to read the Bible with different questions in mind. I started confronting questions like—why is the church fighting over this issue, and hurting lots of people who are already hurting, when Jesus never talks about it at all? Why aren’t we talking about the things Jesus really did spend most of his time talking about, like how we use our money—how we share our resources—how we treat the poor, outcast, and misunderstood?
And speaking of the outcast and misunderstood—didn’t Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were kicked out of the religious life of his community—welcoming people who were considered unclean or immoral, because scripture said so? And didn’t Jesus treat those people with dignity and compassion and love?
One of the big eye-openers for me came as Barrett started a mid-week Bible study and communion service in Utica. His goal was to make it a welcoming place for people who did not feel comfortable going to a typical church on Sunday morning. He was really expecting to attract homeless people. We knew from work in Vancouver that a lot of homeless and near-homeless people are intimidated to walk into a church on a Sunday morning because they don’t feel like they can dress appropriately, or they know that they smell bad, or because when they ask for help they are usually asked to leave. And sure enough, we have had some homeless folks involved in the community over the three years we’ve been meeting.
But what neither of us could anticipate was the number of gay and lesbian folks who started showing up—every single one of them with a story of being wounded by a church—stories of being told implicitly, and sometimes explicitly that they didn’t belong at church. And every single one of them has come, longing to be a part of a community of faith—to find a place to belong—a place where they could talk about their experience of God, their love for Jesus, their search for spiritual truth. If Jesus welcomed the outcasts, the people kicked out of the synagogues, then shouldn’t our churches figure out how to do the same? And what does that look like?
These are uncomfortable questions, aren’t they? Jesus makes things more complicated—when we want to boil faith down to clear-cut answers, universal truths and straight-forward moral imperatives, Jesus throws a wrench in the well-oiled machine of our religious institutions and reminds us that faith is about knowing and loving and trusting God, and God is a mystery. We don’t trust in our answers, we trust in the mystery—the huge, complex, unfathomable, frightening mystery of God. Being a Christian is not about having the right answers—it is about loving God and loving neighbor. When we learn to do that, we might even learn to love the mystery—to delight in asking better and better questions—questions that lead us deeper into the mystery of God’s love, rather than simply settling for easy answers.