Impossible


First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
October 23, 2011- Ordinary (30 A)
Psalm 90:1-6
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

Last Saturday I went down to New Orleans for my brother-in-law’s wedding. If I were a person who believed in a vengeful God or instant Karma I would say that my recompense for missing the Presbytery meeting was to get lost in the French Quarter. When I finally arrived I had actually missed the ceremony, but was still well received for the reception.

I only knew about 5 people out of the 150 that were present – and that included the bride and groom. I was, of course, introduced to those I met as a minister. I am certainly not ashamed of that honor, but it is always interesting meeting folks in that way. One never knows the baggage or expectations that may be encountered.

I met a man – whose name I have sadly forgotten – who surprised me more than any I’ve ever met. He was in his 60’s and from his reaction I could tell that he was probably a bit more conservative than me. Red flags of impending judgment and ambush were waiving in my head until I realized how genuine this man’s interest was in another person who believed in Jesus.

He wanted to know about our church, and he was excited to hear about our various ministries and the quality of our fellowship and our deep relationships. He was not interested in determining the correctness of our theology or practice. He was truly interested in – and affirming of – the differences that strengthen the witness of the church. This man did not speak of his own authority. He spoke with the humility of a person who is aware of his own sense of revelation. Yet he was also aware that the more he knew, the more there was to know.

Honestly, I did not think it was possible to be that comfortable in your own spiritual skin before meeting this man. Even though I do not remember his name, he has become quite dear to me – as Paul says about the Thessolonians.

The scriptures we read and proclaim today speak of impossible things. The Psalmist reminds us of our limitations and of the limitless actions of God. It reminds me of the prayer of a good friend and mentor who used to say, “Thank you for being God. Thank you that I am not.”

God is God and we are not. That seems pretty basic, but from the tree of knowledge to the Tower of Babel, and on through the prophets, and into the ministry of Jesus – we are constantly working to exhibit what we do not have: control.

Of course it is not only impossible but down right irresponsible to suggest that we should not try to find and create order in the world. After all, we are created in the image and likeness of the one who is, was, and will be in the habit of making order out of chaos. Yet, if nothing comes into being without God, then God must have some part in the creation of chaos as well.

I think that is why the concept of giving ourselves over to the Lordship of Christ is so hard. In the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses a lion named Aslan to represent God. The classic and crucial description of Aslan is that he is not a tame Lion, but he is good.

God is not tame, but God is good. There is still risk in allowing God to rule our lives, but even so God is still at work in us – maybe even in spite of us. And God is good. Allowing God to be in control is what the heart of the Gospel message is about, you know. Jesus is quoting passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and invoking the authority of Moses, the tradition of priests, and the prophets who spoke for God – all to say that we can and must allow God to be God.

And the risk in that is found in the command to love God in a hokey-pokey, whole self in kind of way! The risk is found in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The risk is found in understanding our neighbors – no matter how much “we” don’t like “them” – are not only a part of us, but they are the venue for loving and experiencing the very presence of God!

Understand that Matthew is not particularly talking about the poor or the downtrodden here. Matthew’s version of Jesus summarizing the law is not really concerned with describing the neighbor at all. He is describing an ethic of participation in the lives of others.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for those of us who are the product of two centuries of rugged individualism. For us, this command to love others usually comes across as an internal thing – a moral expectation of the way we should feel about God and others. We hear “love God and neighbor,” and we think of things like giving thanks to God for our blessings and being nice to those who do not have what we have.

Not so for Matthew’s audience. For a first century Jew, Matthew is describing a pattern of behavior that expresses allegiance, fidelity, and concern for something more than the self. Matthew is describing something that is not based on what we feel internally but on what we express externally – not simply works righteousness but more of a reflection of our true identity.

It’s kind of like saying, if we love God with all that we have and all that we are, then we will also love what God loves with all that we have and all that we are. That may be true, but what about the times when we do not live up to that standard? Where is the grace of God in all of this?

Well, just as we ask that question Jesus turns the tables once more by asking this weird question about the lineage of the messiah. Why does this matter? It matters because the Pharisees could not understand God’s saving action outside of their own desires. It matters because this was Jesus’ way of saying once and for all that God is God, and we are not.

That turns out to be a good thing. Remember the unnamed wedding guest that I mentioned before? Well, I was telling him about all the incredible things this little congregation does. I told him about the Community Grill and the new ideas that are bubbling because of the fun we had honoring our Meals on Wheels drivers. I told him about C.U.P.S. and the Christmas Basket Ministry. I told him about the emergency food bags that you have provided for others. And there is so much more with our work through the Presbytery, the Wesley United Campus Ministries, and Family Promise. We’ve even started supporting a Girl Scout Troup. Volunteers of America is going to hold their annual worship service here this December. We’re even going to sponsor a pet adoption in November to care for neglected animals.

As I talked to this man, I got so excited about who we are and what we are doing – but I did have to admit that I have some questions about how we are going to move faithfully into the future. I’ll never forget his response. He said not to worry, because any vision that you can objectively expect to come out in a certain way is probably not of God. The only way to be certain that your vision is in keeping with God’s will is to be sure that you are trying to do something that is so big that you could not possible accomplish it without God’s help.

Salvation will not come from a king, an elected official (including the ruling or teaching elders of the church – of which I am one of the later), or any human lineage. Hope can only be fulfilled by stepping into the space between “us and them” and “me and you”. Hope cannot be determined by my comfort or yours, and it is perhaps most evident when we choose to become uncomfortable for someone else – for therein lies the space to know and experience the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. God is God, and I am not. But through Jesus Christ we can make the bold and ridiculous claim that we can speak the word of God and participate in the actions of the God who is ever present and ever loving – even here, even now – and for that I give thanks! Hallelujah! Amen.

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