Jesus’ Brave New World

The Rev. Sarah Buteux

October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday, Lect. 30, Year A

Matthew 22:34-46

“The message of Christianity is not Christianity

but a new Reality,” Paul Tillich

         

I got a call from a friend this past week who wanted to see me because he needed some reassurance. He’d recently had a talk with some well-meaning Christian friends, but the conversation had gone a bit sour when they let on that they disapproved of some of his lifestyle choices.

He was frustrated and understandably so. I expressed my sympathy and agreed that in this case his “choices” were really none of their business.

“Yeah,” he said, “You know, I just can’t stand…” and then he stopped short, looking at me. “Religious people?,” I said, “me either.” And we both laughed because of course I am one, and so is he. In fact, it’s because we both are that he called me in the first place.

But hey, I get it.

Andrew did the grocery shopping this past week, which is something Andrew almost never does. That’s my job in our household. And can I just say: God bless the husband, wife, or partner who takes that task on every once in a blue moon, because God knows they’re never going to get it right. Can I get an “amen?”

And it’s not there fault. There are just too many decisions we make on the fly when shopping, and no list in all creation can cover all contingencies.

In this case, Andrew came home with cinnamon raisin bread that was made without flour, a condition which I admit, I found less than promising. Not only that, it was called Ezekiel 4:9 bread. Not just Ezekiel Bread, Ezekiel 4:9. It had actual scripture – chapter and verse – printed on the packaging:

Take also unto thee

(I’m not kidding!)

wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt,

and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it…

Really, I thought, Ezekiel? Of all the parts of the Bible you could take literally, you’re going to go with Ezekiel? What is wrong with these people,” I wondered, popping a piece in the toaster.

Well, apparently nothing.

Turns out they make absolutely divine low carb bread.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that religious people freak me out, and if you’re the type to print scripture on the side of your baked goods, your shampoo bottles, or your car I’m sorry, but you freak me out even more.

I may be a religious person, a religious professional no less, but that doesn’t mean I feel safe around the rest of us. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, religious or not, you sometimes feel a little wary around our kind too.

I mean let’s be honest, we can be a little scary, what with all our certainty and faith, our scripture and conviction. We take this stuff seriously, very seriously, sometimes too seriously, sometimes so seriously that it’s not really all that good for us, or anyone around us.

And I regret that it is my duty to remind all of us that Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of patience for that sort of behavior.

In fact Jesus, if I may be so bold, didn’t have a whole lot of patience for religion in general.

Now before I go any further, let me just say a little more about what I mean when I use that word, “religion,” because I’m not talking purely about certain types of religion, Islam or Buddhism for example.

Nor am I talking about the postures we take in the context of our own religion. This isn’t about the choice between Judaism and Christianity, faith vs. works, liberalism vs. conservatism, fundamentalism vs. postmodernism.

There are good ways to understand the word “religion,” and certainly good ways to practice one’s religion.

What I think Jesus is taking issue with here, is actually about something that runs much deeper. This is about our need as human beings, our fundamental human need, to bring order into our lives, to know right from wrong, to live in such a way that we bring about the best outcome for ourselves and those we love.

It is about our desire to crack the code so to speak, game the system, our longing to know the rules that we might play by the rules, or at least learn to manipulate the rules to our advantage, such that we win the game called life.

I mean if God ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Right? So one of the deepest, most primitive questions in the human psyche – the question people look to religion to answer – is how do we keep God happy? How do we get God on our side: make God love us, feed us, heal and forgive us?

[A]ll of us long for religion,” writes Sarah Miles:

In Jesus’ time every part of life – hygiene, food, sex, money, agriculture, economics, …health, ethics, marriage, death…- was governed by a catalogue of religious laws that attempted to shape human life to please the Divine.

And although it’s easy, at the distance of centuries, to mock a religion that specified exactly which fabrics were acceptable to God, we still share our forebears’ desire to codify our lives in order to manage God.[1]

Psychologists call this magical thinking: the idea that you can think or say or do certain things to bend reality to your will, to make God do what you want.

This kind of thinking, this kind of religion, whatever it may be, this set of beliefs we maintain in order to make sense of the world – (and I think we all have one be we hard core atheists, bleeding heart Baptists, or dyed in the wool liberal Protestants) – this kind of religion (be it Christianity, Karma, the golden rule, or knocking on wood) this kind of religion is precisely what Jesus takes issue with… no matter what you believe.

Because it is our belief systems, our categories, our sense of right and wrong – as helpful as they can be – that also have the potential to lead us down the path of exclusion, away from God and the children of God with whom we disagree, away from God and the children of God who don’t seem quite right, away from God and the children of God who would compromise the delicate babbling tower of cards we have built up to heaven.

Religion helps us sort things out, yes. Religion helps us judge right from wrong, yes. Religion can help us create the boundaries inside of which we feel safe, yes, but also righteous and pleasing to God, if not pleased with ourselves. This kind of religion gives us the answers such that we stop thinking for ourselves, so much so that we can become blind to the truth right in front of us.

This kind of religion is like cruise control for the soul, and Jesus is yelling at us all to wake up!

All these parables he tells – the good Samaritan, the generous landowner – all his crazy public stunts – befriending prostitutes, eating with sinners – all his signs and wonders – teaching the lame to walk and the blind to see – are really Jesus saying:

“Wake Up! Your religion will not save you.

Wake up! Being good enough will not save you.

Wake up! Your righteousness will not save you.

Why?

Because – Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! – Because God…

…God is not out to get to you.”

***

When the lawyer asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus had 613 laws to chose from – 365 “you shall nots,” one for each day of the year, and 268 “you shalls,” a number that corresponds to the number of bones and major organs in the body.

The law therefore, in the Jewish imagination, encompassed a person’s whole life; their every day, their entire being. As a Jew, no part of your lived experience was exempt from the law.

Now I know that can sound onerous to those of us who think we are free of the law thanks to Christ, but here is what is so very interesting about all of these laws.

These laws were designed – if you really look at them – not to keep people on the straight and narrow just for the fun of it, fresh scrubbed and spit shined for the Lord of Hosts – but to protect them from themselves, from their own worst impulses.

These are laws designed to place limits upon us, limits upon our greed to have and to own and to control everything and everyone around us.

“No!” – it’s such a tiny little word – but “no,” “no,” is sometimes the most loving thing you can say. No, you can’t work seven days a week, week after week, world without end, amen and amen.

No you can’t say to the foreigner this was my land first, you go and find your own. No you can’t just eat anything, sleep with anyone, or go anywhere you desire.

“No you can’t have everything, hoard everything, own everything. Yes, there are all kinds of laws in both the Old and New Testaments,” says David Lose, “but they all boil down — as Jesus says …to love. Love God. Love your neighbor.

And, as it turns out, these two aren’t all that different. (Because) Love,” he continues, “ isn’t an interior emotion, affection, or attraction in the Bible. It’s an action, (it’s) a behavior, (it’s) a commitment to seek the good of another no matter what.”[2]

This love we are reading about today is not some “sloppy agape,” as my colleague Tadd Allman-Morton so brilliantly put it in Bible Study this week. We’re not talking warm fuzzies here or some banal “can’t we all just get along,” sort of rhetoric.

This is a love, to paraphrase Douglas Hare, characterized by “stubborn and unwavering commitment,” a love with the capacity, “to imitate God in taking” our neighbor’s needs seriously even if that neighbor happens to be our enemy.

This is a love meant to encompass a person’s whole life; their every day, their entire being. As a child of God, no part of your lived experience is exempt from this love.

So listen close to me now for this is the point. Please understand that God did not give us the law because God gets off on controlling us. God gave us the law because God loves us, you and me, and God loves them too, whoever they might be.

Following the law, upholding our religion, doing the right thing, should not be about getting God on our side. No, says Jesus, open your eyes. Wake up and see that the law has been there all along to get you on God’s side.

The law was not given to you so you could get God to love you. The law was given because God loves you already, and not just you, all of you, every last one of you, and longs for every last one of you to love one another.

So stop wasting your energy trying to please a God who could not love you any more than God loves you right now, and use that energy instead to love all those whom God loves: the righteous and the unrighteous, the saints and the sinners, your neighbor, whoever that neighbor might be.

***

It’s a bit counterintuitive, Jesus’ gospel, this idea that God loves all of us… already, this idea that we are all forgiven… already, that the kingdom is ours… already, this idea that religion can not save us because we are saved….already. The gospel is counter-intuitive indeed. It always has been. It always will be.

“The message of Christianity,” to quote Paul Tillich, “is not Christianity (not a new religion, not more religion) but a new Reality.”

Which is why, I think, Jesus takes the liberty of phrasing his answer in our reading today the way he does. Jesus answers the lawyer’s question by reciting the Shema, the most familiar prayer in all of Judaism.

He wasn’t saying anything they didn’t already know. It comes straight from Deut 6:5. He wasn’t even the first to sum up the law in this way.

Years before, the Rabbi Hillel, when challenged by a Gentile to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, is said to have responded: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

But Jesus was the first to rephrase the Shema. Instead of saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your…” what? “…your mind.”

Speaking to these Pharisees who have been so intent on trapping him with their word games, Jesus calls all of them, and by extension all of us, to free our minds.

Wake up, says Jesus, and free your minds from the mistaken assumption that you can earn or that you need to earn God’s love.

Wake up, says Jesus, and free your minds from the idea that if you just do the right things with the right people at the right times in the right way that you will tip the divine scales in your favor.

Wake up, says Jesus, and free your minds from the mistaken notion that there is anything or anyone in all of creation that could ever separate you from the love of God.

Wake up and realize that God is already on your side, that God loves you, that God is here for you and you and you and you and you. God loves all of you so for God’s sake go forth with all the audacity you can muster and love one another.

Wake up!

Amen

 

[1] “Jesus Freak,” p 16

[2] Working Preacher .com