This is the sermon I delivered yesterday:
Vulnerability: Challenge and Joy
A Sermon on 1 Thess 2: 1-8 & Matt 22: 34-46
October 23, 2011
So in today’s gospel story, we see the Pharisees working to entrap Jesus, just as the Sadducees before them had. No surprise here, we’ve seen it all through the gospels. The two groups were working hard to stop Jesus, to discredit him. By the way, this, you should know, is kind of akin to the Tea Party folks and the 99% folks working together to stop someone. The two groups were not generally in alignment, were, in fact, usually in direct opposition to one another. This tells us how dangerous Jesus was to the status quo, to the people who were interested in keeping things comfortably as they were, that these two groups would come together with the common goal of eliminating this threat.
The Pharisees are trying, here, to trick Jesus into heresy. Jesus, however, goes with tradition and says that, of course, the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Like any good Jew, he is quoting directly from Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the shema, the closest thing Judaism has to a creed & something that pious Jews recited every morning & every evening. Then, before the lawyer querying him could respond, he tacked on a second commandment, taken from Leviticus 19:18, to love your neighbor as yourself, and equated it with the first. He says that not only are these two commandments above all the others, but that they basically cover everything that is written in the Law and in the Prophets. In other words, all the most important Jewish scripture hangs on these two things. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most influential scholars in Jewish history, born about 100 years before Jesus, said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it." This saying was well-known among Jews of Jesus’ time.
If Jesus had been talking about a touchy-feely, mushy version of love in which love is merely an emotion that you feel, this would not have been a dangerous thing to say. If it was all about warm fuzzy feelings about everyone and maybe hearts in our eyes like Pepe LePew, this commandment combo would have been robbed of its power to frighten the power structure. However, in Jesus’ time, the heart was considered the center of will and action. What Jesus was talking about was love as a choice, love as an active verb, love as active mercy. Love, for Jesus, wasn’t a passive emotion that one feels but a way of acting toward someone. In his culture, you simply didn’t act in a loving way toward just anyone. There were rules to be adhered to, standards to be upheld, class distinctions to remain in place. The culture of the 1st century was very strongly based on in groups and out groups. Just like in middle school, if you wanted to remain in the in group, you sure didn’t sit at the table with someone from the out group. But this Jesus guy? He insisted on doing it all the time! The nerve!
And, honestly, whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, we still have in groups & out groups. While the lines are not nearly as rigid as they were in Jesus’ day, and the consequences of breaking across the barriers not so severe, we can definitely see the lines. We can see it when a white person driving on Gettysburg locks their doors when they might not do so on Xenia Ave. We see it when a poorly-dressed person goes into an upscale store and is immediately followed by security guards who would not follow someone clad in Prada and Chanel. We see it when writers of daily devotionals take on the “spiritual but not religious” and speak of them with a contempt that would horrify them in another writer who was writing about Muslims. Much of this division is unconscious, driven by what seems like good sense. I’m not saying never to lock your car doors. But I want you to consider, as you do so, what it might feel like to the person on the outside of the car, hearing your defenses click into place at the mere sight of him. It may be funny when comedians like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock joke about it, but imagine what it feels like to be a 15 year old boy who knows you are so afraid of him, without even knowing him, that you lock your doors when you see him.
These automatic responses, enculturated in us from when we were tiny kids, are some of the things Jesus may well have been calling us to notice and challenge in ourselves. One of the women in my ecumenical educators group is a tax collector and every time she introduces herself as we sit down at table together, she makes a little joke about it. But for a good observant Jew like Jesus, sitting down at table with tax collectors was a revolutionary thing to do. Now, I don’t know about you, but being called to act in a revolutionary manner doesn’t sound very comfortable to me. It’s so much nicer just to sit in a cozy chair with a mug of Earl Grey and a Nevada Barr mystery novel. Or to spend the afternoon baking and decorating cookies. Or to chat about travel and t.v. shows instead of addressing issues. I’m only one person, anyway, so what difference can I make? Besides, I have responsibilities. I can’t be a revolutionary.
The trick is, though, that we can all be revolutionary. We all should be revolutionary, if we are to name ourselves Christians, for it is to being set apart from the culture of division that Jesus calls us. Jesus reminds us that we are all deeply connected. Last week at the annual conference of the Great Lakes Association of United Church Educators, the keynote speaker was Steve Clapp, an expert on church vitality & congregational life. His topic was “The DNA of Inclusion” and he shared with us a number of ideas to make our churches more welcoming places both to visitors and to long-time members. I really appreciated his talk because I want to be the pastor of a congregation that is truly welcoming to all, regardless of where they fall on any number of scales by which we measure one another, you know the ones: political spectrum, color of skin, composition of family, economic class and so on, ad nauseum. I was speaking with a regular visitor to our church at Coffee Shop Hours on Wednesday & she commented on how lovely the diversity at David’s is. It made me proud. I don’t want a homogenous church or even a church where everyone agrees with me. What I do want, what I think Jesus calls us to be, is a church where everyone celebrates differences, learns from one another and treats one another with respect, with love.
Steve shared with us a number of ways in which we can be that church. He talked about the attractiveness of facilities, about friendliness of members, about the importance of watching our assumptions. I’m happy to say that we’re already doing a lot of the things he recommends. But what really stuck with me was a story he told. When Steve was a parish minister, he had an octogenarian parishioner named Louise who came to him with a concern. A new family had moved in next door to her. They were an unmarried, interracial couple who had 6 kids. As a gesture of welcome, Louise had taken them a plate of cookies. They reciprocated the following week with a pie. The exchange had gone back and forth and Louise was getting to know and really enjoy the family. The trouble was, she wanted to invite them to church because she loved her congregation so much and felt they would, too.
However, she told Steve, she was worried that they might not listen to her or be willing to come because she was old. She worried that they might find her irrelevant because of her age. And, really, some people might have. Age is another of those terrible –isms that is entirely too prevalent in our culture. People treat children, teenagers and old people as though they couldn’t possibly have anything of value to contribute. But that’s another soap box for another day. The important thing here is that Louise was worried they might think this. Steve said, “You’ve taken them cookies, Louise, they’ll listen to you.” So, Louise decided to invite them. They didn’t come right away, but Louise kept inviting. Perhaps she knew the classic marketing Rule of 7, that people have to hear your message at least 7 times before they take action. Finally, maybe after the 7th invite, the whole family came. They received a generous welcome, much like what you might expect of David’s. Not only were they greeted warmly by ushers and greeters upon their first visit, but people throughout the church continued to include them and show hospitality. The family became very active in the church and enjoyed it so much that they began inviting people. Steve said that because of this family, 26 other people have become members of the church. All because of a revolutionary plate of cookies made by an eighty-something woman. Bring a Friend Sunday is November 6th, so keep Louise in mind. One person can make a difference. Small acts of kindness can make a difference. By sharing herself, not just the Gospel, Louise made a tremendous difference. This is how we show love. This is how Paul showed love.
When we love our neighbors, we are also loving God. And one of the main ways we can show our love is by sharing ourselves. Who Louise was, at least in part, was a friendly old woman who liked to bake cookies. When she shared herself, and got brave enough to make herself vulnerable to rejection when she tried to share her church, what a difference it made! Perhaps you are good at fixing things. Share that with your neighbors by offering your assistance. Maybe you’re really good with dogs. Take that out into the community by sharing your well-trained dog with people who need the comfort of a four-legged in their lives. Look at who you are and see how you can share the best youness with other folks, as a gesture of love.
But remember, it’s not just our best we are called to share. We’re called to be utterly vulnerable and share our worst. How terrifying! When I was growing up at Westminster Presbyterian in Xenia, I always assumed that I should put on my church face when I went to worship or any other activity in the church, for that matter. I didn’t think anyone there wanted to know all of who I was, flaws and strong opinions and sadnesses and all. I smiled and was polite and said what I thought my Sunday School teachers, my pastors, my elders wanted to hear. I was afraid they would reject me if I allowed myself to be vulnerable, allowed myself to show them the real, imperfect Daria.
Finally, after years getting my spiritual nourishment from places outside the church, years of being “spiritual but not religious,” (and by that I mean quite dedicated to God and to neighbor in practice and in heart, but not affiliated with a religious body because they felt either hypocritical and judgmental or irrelevant to me) I decided to return to church. Jeannene and I, after all, had two boys who needed some religious education. I started back to regular attendance with my church face firmly in place. I soon began to tire of that, though. I finally decided I was just going to venture my opinion in Bible study and if everyone thought my answer was stupid, so be it. I was going to disagree in committee meetings and if everyone got mad at me over a refrigerator, so be it. I was going to be all of who I am. Was this scary? You bet. Did I get a lot closer to folks there when I admitted my shortcomings, my doubts, my fears, as well as my joys and faith? Absolutely. While I had to leave the PC(USA) when I was called to ordained ministry (ironically, because I want to be honest about all of who I am), I maintain a great deal of respect and love for folks from Westminster with whom I could be vulnerable. I was unquestionably hurt by the church but I also received deep nourishment from them. And still do.
Because I am committed to love, which means sharing who I truly am, I am committed to working hard not to wear a church face here at David’s. I invite you all to drop yours, too. Come to church when you’re utterly delighted and floating on the ceiling. Come when you are so depressed you can hardly get out of bed. Come to church when you can be one of the biggest givers. Come when you need to receive more than you can possibly give. Come to church when you feel like everyone here is family. Come when you’re so angry with people here you could spit. Come be the church, the body of Christ. Come be vulnerable. Come be love. For, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Love God. Love your neighbor.