Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Greatest Commandment

October 25, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 22:34-40[1]

Peace to this house.

I saw a bumper sticker once that read: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ I’m pretty sure he meant ‘Don’t kill them.’”  Yes, love God, and love your neighbor, but Jesus went even further, saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[2]

Here we have Jesus being challenged again.  The lawyer asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”[3]  I mean, if you had to pick just one, any one, whatever comes to mind.

He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

There it is, the Law and the Prophets summed up in three sentences, two simple points.  Love God. Love your neighbor.  Jesus didn’t make this up, it comes from scripture, from the Laws of Moses that he would have learned in his youth.  If the first one wasn’t clear from the Ten Commandments given in Exodus, it is clarified in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”[5]

The command to love your neighbor, though implied in the Ten Commandments, is made explicit in the Torah, in Leviticus 19:18. There we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Rabbi Hillel was a Jewish religious leader, sage and scholar associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who died right around the time of Jesus’ birth. Hillel summed up Jewish law in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”[6]

Okay, that’s easy enough.  My neighbors are fellow Israelites, right?  I can love them; they’re just like me!  As long as I can hate my enemies, I’m fine.  That’s in the scriptures too, isn’t it?  Sure enough, in Psalm 139 it says: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”[7]  So, yeah, that’s in there.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard enough.  But Jesus gives an even greater challenge: “Love your enemies.”[8]  While the Psalms are nice poetry, the Law is in the Torah. Jesus goes back to the source.  Leviticus 19:34 reads: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”[9]  From there, Jesus expands the Law.  Love the alien.  Love the stranger.  Love your enemy.  Remember that parable in Luke’s Gospel of the “Good Samaritan”?  Jesus tells us that the enemies of the Israelites, the aliens that resided with them – the Samaritans – are precisely the ones that should count as neighbors.

Whoa!  Love my neighbor and my enemy?  That’s a lot to ask.  I mean, really, my enemies?  Those guys are out to get me!  I suppose if we were stuck in an elevator, I could tolerate them, but love them?  That’s fine for Jesus, he’s like, God, or the Son of God, or something.  He can do anything.  I’m just an average guy.

Well, who was Jesus?  We believe that Jesus was the Son of God, surely, but Jesus was also a human being like the rest of us.  He lived, breathed, ate, slept, had friends, laughed, cried, sang, prayed, and learned the scriptures.  Only a few people knew about him before he was baptized and began to preach and teach.  He was a person with an above-average understanding of God.  He understood, in a way that most of us struggle with, how much God truly loves us, all of us, and what that means.  And he tried to show us that we are, all of us, children of God.

God created the world, and everything, and everyone in it.  God loves all of us, for we are all God’s children.  God created all of us, all human beings, in the image of God.  There is a part of God in each of us, in you, in me, in our neighbors, and even in our enemies.  When we look in the face of an enemy, Jesus tells us that what we should see is not what divides us, not the hatred that burns between us, but rather what connects us, what binds us.  What we should see in the face of our enemy is the image of God, a human being that is loved by God just as much as we are loved by God.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God's image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.[10]

Dr. King reminds us that loving our enemy can begin with simply recognizing the good in that person.  Well, maybe “simply” isn’t the right term.  Finding the good in a person you hate, or who hates you, takes effort, practice, discipline.  This is hard work.  Following Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy.  But the rewards are heavenly!

One more thing. If all of this weren’t hard enough, Jesus goes even a step further.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[11]  Oh, come on!  How can we be perfect like God?  What is “perfect” anyway?

In this context, to be perfect means to be complete, whole, to have integrity.  The New Interpreter’s Bible says that, in this text, to be perfect means “to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in devotion to… God.”[12]  The NIB goes on to say that this perfection is not the abstract ideal of being untouched by the material world, but that, for Matthew, “it is precisely amid the relativities and ambiguities of concrete action in this world, which is God’s creation…, that the disciple is called to be perfect.”[13]  In the rough and tumble world, with its dangers, trials, and tribulations, we are called to follow God with integrity, with our whole being.

Perhaps if we look back at Leviticus again, we can get a grasp on this where this concept of perfection may have come from.  There, the word that is used to describe service and devotion to God is holiness.  Leviticus 19:2 reads: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”[14]  A note in my Study Bible explains that being “holy” was a description of the nature of God and the goal of humanity.  We are not, and can never be, God; but we are commanded to emulate the holiness of God, to imitate the love of God for all people, including aliens, and our enemies. [15]

Holiness, perfection, this is the goal we strive for.  It is not, I think, a matter of attaining divine perfection or holiness so much as seeking it, living toward it, responding to God’s call to love everyone, even our enemies, and all of creation.

In order to love our enemies, we must learn to see things from the perspective of others.  We must try to understand where the other person is coming from, what matters to them, what their hopes and dreams are.  Other people do not see the world in the same way that we do, though there is much that we each share in common with another.  Your deepest concerns and wildest dreams are not mine.  I can only know your world through what you tell me – so loving is linked to listening, searching for understanding, and being ready to step outside of myself and stand in your shoes.

Jesus asks us to love as God loves.  Treat others better than we have been treated.  Love those who seem unlovable.  Jesus wants us to commit stunning acts of kindness and indiscriminate generosity.  Let us join in the struggle to transform the world with the only power that can – the power of love.

[1] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 5:44-45.

[3] Matthew 22:36.

[4] Matthew 22:37-39.

[5] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[6] Note on Galatians 5:14 in The HarperCollins Study Bible, Copyright © 1993 by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, p. 2190.

[7] Psalm 139:21-22.

[8] Matthew 5:44.

[9] Leviticus 19:34.

[10] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957.  Article online. Available from:

[11] Matthew 5:48.

[12] NIB, 196.

[13] NIB, 195-196.

[14] Leviticus 19:2.

[15] Note on Leviticus 19:1-37 in The HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 182.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Whose Image Do You See?

October 18, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 22:15-22

A saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”[1] Taxes are literally on the ballot this year, and as Americans we argue about taxes quite often; it’s part of who we are. After all it was the Stamp Act of 1765 which stirred a raid on tea shipments in Boston Harbor, and helped inspire our declaration of independence from Great Britain.

There have been disputes over taxes ever since there have been governments to collect them, so it’s no surprise that Jesus was confronted with the question of taxation. In the first century, Israel was a Roman-occupied colony, and the Jewish people had to pay taxes to Rome. Those taxes paid for roads and bridges, plumbing and sewers, but they were also used to pay for the army that occupied their country.

Just as we may support or oppose taxes in our time, and Revolution-era America had loyalists who supported the British government and those who opposed it, ancient Israel had supporters of the Roman rule under Herod Antipas, and those opposed it like the Pharisees.

The Herodians, who supported Herod as ruler of Israel for Rome, were in favor of paying taxes to Caesar. The taxes had to be paid with Roman coin. Caesar considered himself to be a god, and may have been viewed that way by others. The coin which bore the head of Caesar also had an inscription which read, “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” The Pharisees, committed as they were to the details of Jewish law, viewed the coins to be blasphemous idols, icons of a rival god. Since the commandments forbade worshiping other gods and the making of idols, the use of the Roman money was a violation of religious law.

These two groups, Pharisees and Herodians, opposed as they were to one another, shared at least one thing in common: their desire to get rid of Jesus. They plotted together to entrap him with a question about taxes. They started by flattering him as one who is sincere and impartial, and then cornered him with the gotcha question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (v. 17).

If Jesus declared to his followers that it was lawful to pay the taxes, the Jewish people would turn against him and view him as a Roman sympathizer. If he opposed paying the tax, he could be accused of treason or sedition against Rome.

Jesus slips the trap by not taking a side. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). The coins, they have the image of Caesar on them, they must belong to Caesar. If it is money that motivates you, then you belong to whomever controls the money. If you wish to be a good Roman citizen, you have to pay your taxes.

The question implied by Jesus’ response, though unspoken, is “what belongs to God?” What is it that bears the image of the true God? The image of God is found in the face of every person, created in the image of God. If it is God that motivates you, then you belong to God. If you would be a good citizen of the kingdom of Heaven, you have to give yourself to God.

There is a kind of dual allegiance at play in the answer as it applies to us. We are accountable to both God and country. We have a responsibility to be good citizens, to pay our taxes, follow our laws, and vote for people to represent us. We also have a responsibility to be good Christians, to love and serve God and our neighbors, to avoid sin and seek forgiveness, and to work for peace. Most of the time the responsibilities of citizenship don’t conflict with the responsibilities of our faith.

What happens when they do conflict? How should Christians respond when the government uses violence against its citizens? What should we do when laws support or oppose the marriage of a gay couple? Where does our faith come in to play in how we respond to immigrants and refugees? When are laws written a thousand miles away superseded by the needs of the person right in front of us?

There are not always simple or easy answers to the problems and challenges we face. I suspect that it is easier to pay Caesar than it is to resist. It may be easier to walk on the smooth-paved Roman road than to follow the footsteps of Jesus on the sand by the lakeshore. Yet it is the image of God, not Caesar, that is imprinted on our souls. When we look at each other, or even at ourselves, we may see only the tarnish of life, the dirt and scratches left on the surface by the lives we have led. But underneath it all, the imprint of God remains. Let us render unto God what belongs to God.  Amen.

[1] Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, 1789.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

You're Invited

October 11, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 Corinthians 13; Matthew 22:1-10

A king gave a wedding banquet for his son. Imagine the pageantry, the sumptuous feast, the decorations and music! Think about the people who will be there, the rich and famous, the beautiful and bold! Who wouldn’t want to go to this banquet?

Excuses. “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business” (v. 5). Not only that, they killed the messengers. What is going on? Is this some terrible king, someone beneath notice? Maybe this king is not any good, so the very important people dismiss the invitation.

Maybe this king is bad in another way. A tyrant, maybe, who sends the troops in and burns the city. Going to the banquet may be walking into a trap; it’s dangerous. Or it could be like a time-share meeting. You go because of a promise of a big reward at the end, but the meeting never seems to end. Maybe no one likes the son, the one for whom the banquet is being given. You’re throwing a party for that guy? No thanks!

Perhaps this king keeps throwing parties, week after week, the same party, the same food, the same music and pageantry. It was interesting enough at the beginning, but it’s boring. We go, and we eat, but we’re not being fed. We’re not satisfied with the feast anymore. Besides, we’re busy, we’ve got things to do. The cows need milking and the business doesn’t run itself. There will be another banquet, another time to go, but not now.

Are we the ones who won’t go to the banquet? There are plenty of things to occupy our time. We have jobs, volunteer work, clubs and time with friends. We have food to cook, dishes to wash, children’s activities to manage, and the laundry, always the laundry. There are things we’d like to do if we ever had time, but even in the COVID downtime we still didn’t manage to do them. So much to do and so little time, energy, and motivation to do them.

There are those who wouldn’t get a chance to go to the banquet. The nobodies, the poor, the strangers and weird ones. Some don’t get that first invitation. Perhaps there are some who don’t even know that there is a banquet at all. There are some who are simply alone, lost, or forgotten.

The kingdom of heaven is like a banquet where no one came. So, the king sent word: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (v. 9). The wealthy and powerful are too busy? Fine, bring in anyone you can find. Everyone is invited. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the normals and the weirds. Everyone has a place at this table, everyone who wants to be here can get in the door.

There’s that old hymn, “Oh when the saints go marching in.” We want to be in that number, but even if we’re not, even if we’re not saints, but sinners, we’re invited. The doctor and the doorman, the maid and the magistrate, the students and CEOs are all invited. Imagine it.

Imagine sitting down to eat with your hero, the woman you most admire, the athlete or author who captures your dreams. But don’t stop there, imagine sitting with the ones who admire you, who find you to be amazing and brilliant. Imagine sitting with your best friend, an old enemy, or someone you could never have known.

Our friend Errol has left this world behind. I imagine him sitting in the great banquet hall surrounded by those he had loved and lost. A celebration indeed, and we can join him there one day if we but come when we’re called. The invitation has been extended to all. Will you come to the banquet of the kingdom of heaven?

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Law, a Prophet, and a Vineyard

October 4, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Exodus 20:1-20; Matthew 21:33-46[1]

The Israelites, set free from slavery in Egypt, begin to establish a new culture. In the wilderness they discover their identity as God’s people.  Having set the people free, God gives them the means to remain free.  The law, beginning with the Ten Commandments, sets this people apart as the people of God – the Lord God who brought them out of slavery to freedom.  And the people of God worship and honor God by obeying God’s laws.

The law is not meant to be a punishment, a burden, or an obstacle to freedom.  True freedom requires responsibility.  Freedom without responsibility, without limits, is the mob rule, freedom for the strong and the powerful, but slavery for the weak and defenseless.

In order to be a free people, we must be at peace with one another, able to trust one another, responsible for the well-being of one another.  And God, by giving the commandments, by setting the boundaries, has provided the means for the people to remain free.  If the people worship God, resist temptation, and take responsibility for one another, they will prosper and remain a free people.  The law would shape the life and identity of the people of God, and be a force that would preserve it against every threat. Through the giving of the commandments God fulfills a promise made earlier in Exodus: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”[1]

God is in a relationship with the people, not unlike the relationship parents have with children. God sets the rules, not so that we can’t have any fun, or have to check off a list of good behavior in order for God to love us. Rather, God show us love in giving the law as the means to have a good and happy relationship with one another and with God. In this sense obedience becomes a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do. God has given us the commandments to help us to be good people, good neighbors, good citizens even. Without the rules, all of our relationships – with our neighbors, with God, even with our selves – are endangered.

Long before this list of rules, God gave us some work to do. What was the first job that God gave human beings? God made us the gardeners in Eden, and after that bad business about disobedience, we became farmers. Most people throughout history have been farmers or have belonged to agrarian societies. So, it was natural that when Jesus came along, he used agrarian imagery such as the vineyard in our story to talk about the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught people about God’s desires for us using stories that connected with the experiences of the people, so in this story Jesus puts us in a vineyard.

If you work in the vineyard, you are expected to do your job, care for the growth of the vines, and provide the owner with the harvest. You’re also expected to remember that it’s not your vineyard. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, seeing all that the wicked tenants have done, what will the owner do to those tenants?

In Matthew’s story, the answer they gave to Jesus was, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (v. 41). Who is Jesus talking to? There is the crowd, of course, and the disciples, but they seem to be mostly spectators. It is the chief priests and scribes who answer Jesus’ question. And his response turns the tables on them.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?[2]

“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (vs. 42-43). Matthew ends this passage by telling us that “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (v. 45).

The parable is a test of leadership. Whose vineyard is it? God planted the vineyard. God is the owner. As the people most responsible for leading the Jewish people at that time, the chief priests are the tenants. The grapes, by the way, are the people to be tended and harvested for the Kingdom of God. We expect good tenants to pay the rent, to do the work that is expected, and to turn over the harvest to the owner. But these are wicked tenants. As one commentary on Matthew’s Gospel tells us, the wicked tenants are those who (1) do not want to give fruit to the owner (or perhaps are unwilling to produce the proper fruit); (2) reject the owner’s authority; and (3) work for themselves.[3]

By rejecting the authority of the messengers, the tenants reject the authority of the owner as well. The tenants see these messengers as a threat to their own prosperity. They have it pretty good in the vineyard, and they’ve worked hard. They expect to keep the profit for themselves. I mean, who needs the owner, right? We’ll just kill his son, the heir, and then the vineyard will be ours! The owner, he’s never around. Who needs him?

The fruit of the vineyard is the grapes, and in this story, we might see ourselves as the grapes meant to be harvested. The wicked tenants want to keep the harvest for themselves. In other words, they want to keep the people, God’s people, for their own purposes. Those in authority want to exploit us. They have taken the first commandment and put themselves in the place of God. How do you think that turned out?

The warning that Jesus gives to the chief priests is that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (v. 43). At the time that Matthew wrote his Gospel, war had swept through Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. The priests of the Temple, with all their power and authority, essentially disappeared from history. Those who had tended the vines and had the responsibility of leading the people were gone.

Leadership of God’s people moved from the Temple in Jerusalem to synagogues and churches. The high priests and Pharisees were replaced by rabbis and ministers. There are new tenants in the vineyard, new caretakers, and we hope that they produce the fruits of the kingdom.

If we pull this analogy up to the current time, those we have put in power are not always the best caretakers. There are those who make a big deal of noise about laws and rules like the Ten Commandments, but only as they apply to people other than themselves. There are those who put on a big show of working for the owner of the vineyard while intending to keep the harvest for themselves. There are those who have forgotten, if they ever really knew, that we are all in relationship with each other, and the well-being of each of us matters for the well-being of all of us.

Perhaps the grapes should reclaim the vineyard. The grapes know how important it is to stick together, to hold each other up, to be thankful for the sun and the rain. I think it is important, no matter who the tenants are, for the grapes to remember who the vineyard belongs to. Whether you fancy yourself a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay, or a Riesling, we’re all just grapes, and we all need the vine.

The vine is what connects us all. Jesus said, “I am the vine.”[4] Christ is the vine that holds together the grapes; whether we are Catholic, Baptist, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, or Congregational, we are united as the Church of Jesus Christ. Other vines grow with us, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and many others; and they also need responsible care from the tenants.

We must recognize that there are rules that must be kept, laws that hold the authority of commandments, which allow us to live in peace with one another. We must also recognize the purpose of the laws, which is to set us free from slavery, to give us the freedom to live in respectful relationship with one another, with our planet, and in good relationship with God.

There are special celebrations happening around this time of year in many religions. For Protestant churches such as ours, this is World Communion Sunday. On this day Christians around the world will celebrate the Last Supper of Jesus, symbolically seeking unity with one another. Now, more than ever, it is time to seek peace with one another, peace with the earth, and peace with our Creator. May God’s vineyard bear much fruit for the Kingdom. Amen.

[1] Exodus 6:7.

[2] Psalm 118:22.

[3] Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith, pp. 298-299.

[4] John 15:5.