Making The Familiar Strange

Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He 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.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground. 

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.

Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence. 

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. 

Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.

And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.

This is no easy task.

For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love? 

And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.

Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.

That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.

And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along. 

That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.

But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.

Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”

“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.” 

The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.

“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.

It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.

And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.

Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor. 

Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”

More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.

When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.

When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.

When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.

Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything. 

However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn. 

We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?

A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”

Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.

Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)

Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!

The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen. 

But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities. 

And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization. 

Instead, love looks like the cross.

And that kind of love is dangerous.

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.  

Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point. 

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.

To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.

And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.

It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.

In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it. 

Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change. 

And, God is love. 

Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen. 

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