Monday, October 27, 2014

Ordinary 30A -- October 26, 2014

Who Do You Love?

Guest Preacher:  Alan Olson

            So for the past couple weeks I’ve been hitting the books pretty hard. The other day I took the Worship & Sacraments exam for the PC (USA). This is one of the four ordination exams that Candidates for Ministry must take before the Commission on the Preparation for Ministry—the CPM—can certify the candidate as being ready to receive a call to ministry. One of the other things that a candidate must do before certification is preach a sermon before a member of the CPM. And hey, look, there’s Tom Smart, a member of the CPM. Hi, Tom!
            So on Friday I took the Worship & Sacraments exam. Maybe it would be more accurate to say I retook the exam. I took this exam back in July, along with the other three ordination exams. This was two and a half weeks after I got back from Africa. I passed the other exams the first time around, but not Worship & Sacraments, which was the subject that I thought I knew the best. But I overloaded my schedule and I didn’t realize that after I got back from Africa, I’d be too tired to study. I tried to study. Really, I did, but I just couldn’t concentrate.
            This time around I’ve put a lot more time into my studies. I’ve been reviewing old exams and writing practice essays every day. I’m really sick of paging through the Directory for Worship. And I’m busy doing all of this right before I have to preach a really big, important sermon. Notice a pattern? I didn’t see it until I started writing this sermon; but clearly, I have a habit of overloading my schedule. I try to cram too many important things into a narrow passage of time. What can I say? I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
            So, on Wednesday night, I was trying to do some work on this sermon and I was trying to work through one . . . more . . . essay! By 11:30, I’d had it. My brain was fried and my body was beat. The well was dry. At that point, any sane person would have brushed his or her teeth and gone to bed, but this is me. And I saw a link to a blog entry in the Huffington Post, and it looked really interesting. Notice a pattern?
            The title for the blog entry was “Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever.”[1] The writer discussed an article from Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale. In his research, Kahan looked at how people processed information about politics. It was fascinating. Now before I say anything else about this study, I want to emphasize that I am NOT trying to lead a political debate from the pulpit. So I won’t go into too many details about the experiments, but what Kahan found is that our political beliefs affect our ability to do math. Seriously.
            Kahan showed some numerical data to the people who participated in the study. First he said the data were about a skin cream, and then he asked the participants to analyze the data. Most people were able to correctly analyze the data. However, when Kahan showed the same data, to the same people, and said those data were about some political topic, people were unable to reach the same conclusions. In other words, when people believed the data were about a skin cream, they could do the math. But when they thought the numbers were about politics, they couldn’t do the math; no amount of objective information could convince people that their political opinions were misinformed. Politics was more powerful than math. Now before you go convicting your neighbors for their misinformed opinions, please remember that I left the political details out of this sermon. So I want you to hold all of that stuff about how we process information in the back of your head while we consider this morning’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons.
            This story in this morning’s Gospel lesson also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Jesus’ adversary in this version is described as a Pharisee, and a lawyer at that, and he asks Jesus which commandment is greatest. As usual, the authorities are trying to trick Jesus into making a mistake; as usual, Jesus offers a better answer:
“‘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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus responds by quoting Scripture, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18; Jesus says that all of the law and all of the prophets hang on these two pieces of scripture. So let’s take a closer look at the text from Deuteronomy.
            The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a series of speeches—sermons, actually—given by Moses, to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. In these sermons, Moses recasts the law that was given to the Israelites in the Sinai. In fact, the name Deuteronomy actually means, “second law.” Most scholars think that Deuteronomy was composed over a number of centuries, and long after Moses died and the Israelites entered the Promised Land.[2] The Book of Deuteronomy articulates covenant theology, which is the “shape and substance of Israel’s faith.”[3] It provides a systematic interpretation of what it means to be in a right relationship with God. The authors of Deuteronomy were trying to reaffirm and revitalize the central tenets of the Jewish faith. And so is Jesus. Notice the pattern?
            In a dispute with a Pharisee, Jesus begins by quoting a portion of the greatest statement of faith in the Old Testament: Shema y’israel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad. That is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Scholars refer to these verses as the shema. Practicing Jews also know this as the shema, because that is the first word in Hebrew: Listen! Hear! It’s a command. You can almost hear Moses preaching to the Israelites: Listen to me, guys! This is really important! The Lord is our God; the Lord, alone! This is the great statement of monotheism. It sets the Hebrew religion apart from all other religions of the ancient Near East. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin identify the Shema as the essential statement of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity.[4]
            Why would the authors of Deuteronomy need to restate this? Why would the covenants that were expressed in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus need to be restated and then placed in the mouth of Moses? One answer is Israel had a long history of questioning God and worshiping other gods when they doubted God’s love and care. Think of the golden calf. Think of the Second Commandment. Remember, too, that in the time of King Ahab, the people of Israel were trying to worship both God and Baal. And Elijah said to the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.”[5] There is even archaeological evidence of these divided loyalties: there are inscriptions at cultic sites from the Northern Kingdom dedicated to “YHWH and his Asherah.”
            Yet for all this, for all the times Israel turned away from God and worshiped idols, God still welcomed the chosen people back. And when even that wasn’t enough, God didn’t give up on humanity. No. God sent Jesus into the world, so that humanity might have another chance at reconciliation. Notice the pattern?
            Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. What does God do when humanity still can’t get it right? God sends Jesus. What does Jesus tell us to do? Love God with every fiber of your being. It’s worth noting that the verb, to love, has a different sense in Hebrew than it does in English. In English, the verb describes a state of being. I love my mother. I love pizza. I love the Steelers. At no point in the last three sentences does my love require me to act. Though I love pizza, I have no plans to eat pizza after church today. Now I’m going to watch the Steelers today, but in March or April, I will still love the Steelers, even if there is no game to watch. I might even love them more because they’re not playing and I won’t have to watch a bad football game. My love doesn’t call me to action.
            The Hebrew language is very different. It’s a language of verbs. The verb, to love, implies action on the part of the one who loves. To love God is to act on that love. To love God is to act ethically in service to God and on behalf of God. So Jesus reminds us that we are commanded to love God. We’re not supposed to argue which of the Ten Commandments is most important; we’re supposed to love God with every fiber of our being and in everything that we do. Oh, and Jesus says something else. He reminds us of Leviticus 19:18; he commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This isn’t just a state of being; this is about acting on our love. We must demonstrate our love in tangible ways—for God and for the rest of humanity. God created our neighbors, too, so showing love for our neighbors becomes an act of love for God; it is a way for us to remain in the covenant with God.
            But that’s not easy. Some people are difficult to love. And there are so many problems out there. At times, it doesn’t seem like our love is enough. Sure, we all want to be God’s church, sent out into the world, but it just seems like it’s harder to do that nowadays. Thirty years ago, it seemed like it was easier to be the church.
            Something changed. We see that something is different, but we don’t know who was responsible or why it happened. We want what we used to have, but it’s gone. We can’t quite figure out where and what God is calling us to be. We see lots of data and we hear lots of explanations—conflicting explanations. We talk about things but we don’t seem to move forward. We’re stuck.
            We’re stuck and we’re busy trying to figure out where we went wrong. This is true in all of the mainline denominations. It’s as true for the Lutherans and Methodists as it is for us in the Presbyterian Church. Our congregations are in decline and we miss how things used to be. We miss the families that we don’t see in the pews anymore. Maybe it was easier to be the Church when there were more people in the building, but they’re not here anymore. And we’re bogged down, trying to figure out what went wrong.
            Despite our best intentions, things changed. I’ve only spent a little bit of time here at Emsworth, so I don’t know all of the bits and pieces of your story. But here’s what I believe to be true about the changes that have happened here over the last generation: it isn’t Susan’s fault. It isn’t Bob Downs’ fault. Nor is it George Leitze’s fault. It’s not even your fault. The world changed. That’s it. Now we have to find a way forward.
            Remember that study I talked about a few minutes ago? Once we start talking about politics, we lose the ability to do simple math. I think what that study shows is that we don’t want to let anyone challenge our identity. If you and I have different opinions about the President, and I say something about the economy, and then you offer some piece of data that conflicts with what I just said, then you haven’t just challenged my statement about the economy, you’ve challenged my identity. The question about politics really becomes a question about identity, and I’m not going to let anyone challenge my identity.
            The bigger problem is we trust too much in our own ideas. We form our identities around our faith, yes, but also around our ideas, our sense of place, our political ideologies, and our cultural sensibilities. We construct our identities around these other things, and then we hold them sacred. We are not to be questioned or challenged on our beliefs about guns or birth control or the righteousness of loving the Pittsburgh Steelers. The problem, really, is that we do not base our identity in God and in Christ. At best, that’s just part of our identity, one part among many, competing for our loyalty.
            The answer, the way forward, is Jesus. Recognize the pattern? When we get bogged down, when we turn away from God, God doesn’t turn away from us. When we can’t figure out where to turn, God sends Jesus into our lives. And what does Jesus tell us? Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all of our might, and also, to love your neighbor as yourself. What stops us from doing these things? We don’t trust enough in God’s love and God’s faithfulness in us. We make idols of ourselves, our minds, and our past. The way forward is to turn away from our idols and toward Jesus. The way forward is to find our identity in Him. When we let go of our idols and embrace God, we show our love in visible ways. We love God in the original sense of the Hebrew verb and we do the same for our neighbors. This is how we are called to be the Church in the world. Not the church of thirty years ago, but the Church of today! So turn to God and turn to Jesus and love the Lord with all your heart and all your might and all your soul! Thanks be to God! Amen!

            Now, friends, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that we are commanded to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. Remember that we are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And remember that love is an active verb; love leads to visible acts of faithfulness, justice, mercy, and peace. So go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love and act upon that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say,

[1] Marty Kaplan, “Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever.” Retrieved from Huffington Post, 10/23/14:

[2] Clements, Ronald E. Deuteronomy. In Volume 2 of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press (1998), 278.
[3] Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Nashville: Abingdon Press (2001), 17.
[4] Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (1990), 14-15.
[5] 1 Kings 18:21