Sunday, October 26, 2014

The "Greatest" Issue: a sermon

Year A Proper 25, October 26, 2014
“The Greatest Issue”
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

Mel Brooks, dispersing his wisdom through laughter, sums up most of the world’s point of view with a single line.  “It’s good to be the King.”  We wrestle with this notion, no matter our perspective.  There are implications to his statement, and there are even more implied.  If you are King, then things are supposedly the best, despite the paranoia about losing one’s position and the sycophants who wrestle for attention.  But the implications are what it means to be anything other, or one far from the seat the power.  The pull to be the best, or to side with the best, is so steeped in our approaches and understanding that it is a hard thing to shake.  We are aiming to position ourselves, or wheedle our way to the center, whether we are conscious of it or not.

As the children are becoming more and more social in middle school where I teach, the jockeying and ranking is ceaseless.  Even if it is to not be the worst.  The meanest and nastiest of comments come from the kid that thinks he can stay out of the bottom rank in whatever position they are in if he can just put someone else in the position below him.  She turns on anyone who can be seen as less than her if she thinks it can work.

The games do not stop when we leave middle school.  If only.

We keep up with the Joneses.  Or we play the “More Humble Than Thou” game.  Looking to see who is best, or where we rank.  And it is hard and almost impossible to opt out.  They even tried to drag Jesus into the ceaseless ranking game in today’s passage.

The Pharisees, assuming the priority and importance of their religious and social stances were out to put the young rabbi to the test.  This itinerant preacher could not be all that, just by the sheer nature of who was following him.  Today’s reading is the third of the gotcha scenarios tossed at Jesus from competing parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees had just been put in their place, when a young Pharisee lawyer asked a common question that had been wrestled with in Jewish circles for years.  

“Rabbi,” the lawyer asks, “of the 613 commandments in the Scriptures,” remember this is just the Torah, the Five Books of Moses we are looking at here, “Rabbi, of these 613 commandments, in your opinion is the greatest?   In your own words, please.”

Jesus 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.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  

Jesus said nothing new here.  Rabbis and commenters had been saying and teaching this approach across the years.  And while these learned men gathered to come back with a response, Jesus poses a question of his own.

22:42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David.”

Now, as a portion of the gathered followers of Jesus, we have a hard time not hearing this question as Jesus being self-referential.

Now the Pharisees probably saw it as a theoretical, or a rhetorical tit-for-tat.  We asked him some questions to watch him dance in front of the crowd he had gathered there in the Temple.  He had told some accusatory parables that we have preserved in chapter 21 of Matthew.

Jesus quotes Psalm 110. He directs the Pharisees attention to a Psalm attributed to David, speaking to how the Messiah will conquer his enemies.  The Messiah is at the right hand of the Lord.  The Lord will deliver his enemies under his feet.  Jesus continues here:

22:43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
22:44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

In Jewish society, the son could not be seen as greater than the father, and a son could not be Lord to his elder.  Jesus is playing a verbal and cultural challenge with the Pharisees.  The Messiah is the “son” of David, a descendent.  But from the very words of David, he is seen to acknowledge the supremacy of the Messiah, one foretold to be his descendant and potential heir to his greatness.  Jesus’ query won the day, as we see in the closing of today’s reading:

46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

SO, Jesus wins the semantic battle.  He is the greatest.  We see him as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises and hopes, and would seem to be the greatest in our books, too.

But here is the problem.  The sticking point, that we know the rest of the story.  Jesus, while the greatest, did not allow himself to be put in that role.  He refused to play the game.  

There is a hymn of the early church that Paul quotes in the second chapter of Philippians.  Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, and he, by his choices, fulfills and embodies these to the fullest extent possible.

Philippians 2:5-8

5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

Jesus loved God with all he had, his heart, his soul, his mind.  And he loved us, his fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey as much, if not more, than himself.

If we stop at the point of Jesus being a good and moral teacher, he did not say anything new that had not been said before.  Others had quoted these two commandments as the greatest.

If we look to the miracles Jesus did, Deuteronomy, in fact the very passage we read cites Moses as the greatest miracle worker that has ever been seen.

So what makes Jesus so special?  What makes him worthy to be seen as the Messiah?

By what he did, being obedient to death, even death on a cross, and rising in new life is what makes him the greatest.

Jesus in his choices over and over again, said that his way would not be the way of the world, where it is seen as good to be the King.  When he was lifted up, after miracles and at the Transfiguration, he demanded silence be kept until after…

And, at the Triumphal entry, he did not come riding in on a stallion, challenging authority, but on a humble donkey.  A statement of what type of authority he would be in and of itself.

The issue of greatness, of raising oneself up, is a challenge and a hardship that is as great a temptation as ever, if not more so.  We live in an age of celebrities are celebrities because they have been named such whether they have done a single thing of value or not.

In the Thessalonian passage, Paul again, points to how he came into the city, proclaiming the Gospel without demands and facing adversities.

2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;  6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Like Christ came to the world, Paul came to the city of Thessaloniki, humbly, and over the course of time, he came to love and care for those to whom he was sent.

The greatness expounded upon today, finds its nature not in domination or supremacy, but in deep and abiding love.  Paul’s love for Thessaloniki.  Christ’s love for us all.  Our love for those given to our care and nurture.  So how do we do this?

Looking back at Jesus’ words, his commandments we are to love God with all of us, without hindrances or compartmentalizations.  And how do we do that?  Look at the second command, to love our neighbors.  Now we can play the play the semantic game of who is my neighbor, and Jesus’ response to that was the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we were urged, to “Go, and do likewise.”  But rather, instead of looking at who is not our neighbor, let us just look at who is.  Let us start there.  There are many who need our love, our ministry, our attention.

The world may say that it is good to be the King, but we are called to show what we find to be the greatest by what we do.  And they will know that we are Christians by our love, yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock