First Congregational Church
October 25, 2020
19th Sunday after Pentecost
“When We Can’t”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Things that make you go, “hmm.” Every year the television channel, ABC, cuts down the length of A Charlie Brown Christmas--a movie about the over-commercialization of the holidays—to make room for more commercials. The site where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC is now a no-kill animal shelter for homeless cats. According to researchers, duct tape should never be used for sealing ducts. Sweden’s celebrated Ice Hotel has a smoke detector.
A famous teacher in Onekama, named Naomi Kolehmainen, posted an article on Facebook yesterday that was so good. The title of it is “Please Stop Expecting Normal from Kids (and Teachers) Right Now.” It was written by middle and high school English teacher, wife and mother of boys, Julie Mason - sort of like that famous teacher in Onekama.
Ms. Mason pointed out that since things are so different this year, in so many aspects, we shouldn’t expect “normal” things from our schools - like standardized tests, teacher evaluations, assigning homework, rethinking grading and reevaluate extra credit, because all those things are intended to assist in comparing apples to apples, and we don’t have apples this year. We’ve got bananas, and those bananas are all in different states of being, i.e., unripeness vs. ripeness.
And Ms. Mason has got a great point. If any student had a house fire and lost all their possessions and sense of well-being in that fire, every single teacher worth their salt would cut that kid all kinds of slack - for most all of the year. Whether any one of us has a house on fire right now - in terms of the virus or health issues or financial issues or even mental health issues - we might think about cutting people some slack - more than we might have in the past.
I know, there are some egregious things that people do and are doing, and they need to be dealt with within the proper channels. But this point is for most of the people with whom any of us might interact in any given day.
Within the book of Matthew and this morning’s text, Jesus wasn’t experiencing a day like any other given day. It was a day between his entrance into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, during the festival of Passover, and the day he died on the cross. Jesus had turned the tables in the synagogue and had been telling parables to the disciples and anyone else who would listen to him.
The chief priests and elders had been trying to catch Jesus in any sort of a religious crime or misdemeanor. They sidled up next to him, asked him some questions, then went off the edge of the crowd to continue their plotting. Not all that much time later, the Pharisees got involved, also planning to arrest Jesus away from the crowds. When they went away, the Sadducees came up to Jesus and he ended up sending them away, too.
Scripture Matthew 22:34-46
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied.
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’[c] 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Thank you, Jeanne. Father Michael Renninger is the pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia. In his thoughts on this passage from Matthew, he recalled the time, when he was eight years old, when he, his younger brother and parents decided to go on a camping trip. Usually, all four slept in one large tent, but for that particular trip, Fr. Michael’s father brought along a pup-tent. He told Michael that since he was the oldest boy, he could sleep in the tent himself.
When they arrived at the campground, Michael’s dad told him, “In just a minute, I’ll show you how to set up the pup tent. But, as Michael said, he “was eight years old, and I already had a male ego.” So he told his dad, “I can do it myself.” Fr. Michael wouldn’t need to tell any of us of the disaster that ensued.
Not knowing how to put the poles together, tie the knots, put the clamps into the ground, and that Michael wasn’t going to ask for help, there is no real surprise that later that night, the tent collapsed on his face. And then, of course, it started to rain. Fr. Michael owned the fact that there was at least a little humility when he went over to the dry tent and told his dad that he needed his help. In finishing the story, Michael said that his father - who could have responded in any number of ways - said, “Come on. I’ll show you how to do it.”
It’s a cute story, but it was what he said after that that really captured this heart - and perhaps yours. Fr. Michael was recalling how challenging the last weeks were, in terms of the Bible passages. There was the parable about the vineyard owner, who paid all the workers the same wage, regardless of the number of hours they worked, and that Jesus asks us to radically change our sense of fairness. Fr. Michael said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” Like Michael, we do know how, but we don’t, at the same time.
And then there was the parable about the wedding banquet (even though we didn’t delve into that one here that week), and the lesson that Jesus wants us to always be ready for the banquet, without telling us when it’s going to happen. Again, Fr. Michael said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.”
Last week it was the parable about figuring out how to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s. And then from today’s passage, we’re told we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as our selves.
Here at FCCF, over the last weeks, we had messages on how to do these tasks God requires of us, and there were some stunning gems in some of those messages. And yet, we get tired, distracted and just don’t wanna.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart? Sounds good! Amen, Jesus! But then, squirrel, swing, or whatever other object or issue comes by and swipes the attention away from loving God with every fiber of our being. Even the happiest and most content of those among us can find our heart becoming restless sometimes. The eye wanders, the brain starts to daydream. Passions start to prickle. How can I love God with all my heart if this fickle heart won't stay focused hour by hour?
And then Jesus says, love your neighbor. But what if your neighbor is a pain in the neck? Or some other body part? What if your neighbor is the wrong color, or the wrong sexual orientation? What if your neighbor speaks through wrong language? Who came from the wrong homeland? What if your neighbor is going to vote the wrong candidate? What if your neighbor is the wrong candidate?
Wait, I love them? Are you kidding? Well, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. What if you were one of the countless millions who have low self-esteem and fear that you are unlovable, due to some aspect of your life? What if society has taught you that you have no inherent value due to your gender or your race or your economic background? How do I love God and neighbor as myself if I don’t know how to love myself? Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor and self with our whole reckless heart. How do I do that? How do I do what I know that I should - and I want - to do?
In laying what appeared to be impossible impossible goals of discipleship, Jesus is not setting us up for failure. He doesn't do that. He's opening up an invitation. He's not setting the bar far too high, showing us how to stoop down low. He's not judging us. He's waiting for us to crawl out of the collapsed tent and to say with real humility, I can't do this myself.
Redefine your sense of fairness. Be ready for the invitation to the wedding celebration. Discern what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Love the Lord and your neighbor with every ounce of strength do you have.
And when you reach the point of saying, I can't do this on my own, I need your help, you've reached the place where authentic discipleship begins. I think Fr. Michael’s whole point on this is that while God is asking the impossible of us, and since we are human beings who probably won’t do it as well as God would hope us to do, God has given us the Holy Spirit to sit with us and fill in all the places that don’t make sense.
Even when we don’t know what to pray for or don’t know how we’re feeling, when we finally get the idea that we need to ask God to help us figure it out, even then, we don’t have to do anything great and profound. That’s the point when we can put all our doubt and anger to be held in the hands - the Holy Spirit’s hands - of love. That’s when, as Stephen Garnaas Holmes suggested this week, that in my desire to love with my whole being - I can put all my fears and desires to be held in the hands of love. So shall we sit a spell with those hands of love as we pray?
Holy God of Love, we know you want so much for us, and sometimes, we don’t do so well in working with you and for you. Forgive us in our naïveté that we can do everything ourselves and our arrogance in that we don’t need you in all the nooks and crannies of our lives. We know you want our whole heart and soul and mind, and yet, you know that we can’t give those things on our own. Thank you, that we don’t have to measure up or jump through hoops for your love. Encourage our spirits, that we may find the wherewithal to attempt - to the best of our abilities - to be your holy people, regardless of age or gender or experiences, whether we are apples or bananas. Remind us, especially in the next few weeks, that while we have a call to be your good people on this side of eternity, we are really residents of a larger, eternal life in your love. For all your encouragements, strengthening and inspirations, when it feels like we can’t and you do, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.