God Loves First 10/29/2017

Sojourn Sermon – Matthew 22:34-46 – October 29th 2017


It’s not all that common for me to talk about the love of God. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think part of it has to with my own baggage from the kinds of theology I grew up around. For me, God’s love for us has been deeply entangled with different kinds of escapist theologies of personal salvation and simple moralism the seem to have pretty well hijacked mainstream, broadly evangelical Christianity. In my mind, these theologies have diminished theologies of justice, mercy and peace, which I believe need to be reclaimed by the church and to become guiding principles in life of faith.


A real robust theology of the love that God has for us, however, has been an unfortunate casualty in my thinking, and it is made worse by the fact that I am called to preach the Gospel on a weekly basis. My theology of God’s love is so underdeveloped that I had no idea what to make of this passage this week.


Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. I can preach about that.


Love others. No problem I can preach that.


…as yourself? Well what does that mean. I have no idea.


Part of this, I think, emerges out of my own relationship to myself. My relationship to myself is not one of love and building up. Just the opposite in fact. I’m really into this personality text called the Enneagram. And the purpose of the Enneagram is to help you decipher what your personal motivations are. What are the kinds of emotions that drive you?


Those who know me very well will probably chuckle when I tell you that my primary motivating emotion is anger. I am a one on the Enneagram, and the healthy manifestations of this anger in a one is that he or she turns this anger into a righteous anger that moves a one to seek justice in the world. But an unhealthy manifestation of this anger is directed at the person him or herself. We turn our anger inward, hold ourselves to unrealistic standards and chastise ourselves when we don’t feel we’ve measured up.


In my own life, this tendency has made my relationship to myself fraught with anxiety, stress, and depression. I continue to view much of what I do as failure, and convince myself that I am unworthy of love. In my own mind, I can carry a good veneer, convince people that I’m something I’m not so that they will be tricked into loving me, but I often remain convinced that people saw me as I saw me, they wouldn’t be all that impressed.


I know I am not alone in this. We all come up with reasons to convince ourselves that we are not worthy of being loved. We may not always find anger to be our motivating emotion, it may be fear or shame or some other emotion. But I’d bet that at one point or another in all of our lives we’ve been convinced that we are not worthy of love, that there is something so fundamentally flawed about us that we are unlovable. Some of you may be feeling that way today.


My tendency has been to focus on the first part of Jesus command. Love God and love others and almost intentionally reject that final phrase, “as yourself.”


But I want to share something I realized this week. If we neglect that final clause, our own theology is just as escapist as the theologies I mentioned earlier. We may not retreat from issues of justice, mercy, and peace. Instead we retreat from knowing ourselves as loved by God.


Our text for today is the last in a long series of disputations that takes place between Jesus and the religious leaders in the Temple grounds. You may remember from a few weeks ago that this whole narrative section begins with a question of Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ response is pretty typical. Rather than try and defend himself or prove his authority, Jesus responds with several parables. The point of these parables to show that the religious leaders and political elite had a history of ignoring God’s messengers, and that the leaders were guilty of this same thing in his own day. And that is kind of the focus of this entire section that stretches from 21:18-23-39. Jerusalem is the city that kills the prophets, Jesus says later.


Finally, after the Pharisees and the Sadducees each try their hand at out smarting Jesus, the Pharisees decided to give it one more go.


“Teacher,” they ask him, “What is the greatest commandment?”


Now to us, these seems like an innocent enough question, but it is a very political question. At this time, Judaism is pretty well dominated by a religious school called the House of Shammai. The House of Shammai was founded by a man named, you guessed it, Shammai. And Shammai ascended to the highest echelons of the religious elite, and he was known as a strict observer of Mosaic Law. The Talmud tells us that Shammai tried make his infant son fast during the Yom Kippur, but he was dissuaded by his friends. During the Festival of Booths, when Jews sleep in tents to remember their time in the wilderness, Shammai’s daughter went into labor. When the midwives brought her into the house, Shammai climbed onto the roof, cut a hole in it, and draped a cloth over it so it would technically be a tent.


Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees had been heavily influenced by this man’s strict teaching on following the Torah. When we look closely, at the gospels, we notice that questions concerning strict observance to the Torah occurs in several places. At different times in the Gospels, Jesus is asked about washing hands, working on the Sabbath, fasting. These questions are grounded in the prevailing religious interpretation of the day: to be a follower of Judaism is grounded in strict observance to Torah. And it’s worth noting that the Pharisees and the Sadducees had two different reasons for following the law as closely as they did. The Pharisees believed that if they followed the Law as closely as possible and purge themselves of evil that God would raise up a new warrior king that would expel Rome from the Holy Land. The Sadducees believed that strict observance of the Law would inspire God to bless them with great wealth.


The House of Shammai, however, was a newer interpretive school in Jesus day. Shammai was likely a contemporary of Jesus. And there was another interpretive school that was older, and it was in the process of being replaced by the House of Shammai. This older school was known as the House of Hillel.


Hillel was famous for taking a more relaxed view toward the law, and rather than strict observance to a literal reading of the Law, he advocated following the spirit of the law. Just as a footnote, I think Jesus was probably a Pharisee himself, why else would he always be hanging out with them, and I also think that Jesus was a member of this interpretive school.


Some famous quotations from Hillel include:


“Do not judge a fellow until you are in his place.” And, “Whoever destroys a soul is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. Whoever saves a life is considered as if he saved an entire world.


Hillel’s most famous interpretative maxim was, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.”


Sound familiar? It is Golden Rule but inverted. Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you this is the law and the prophets,” in Matthew 7, and in a similar vein, in our text for today he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself this is the law and the prophets.”


It’s important to notice this affinity between Jesus and Hillel, especially when talking about Matthew, because it is unlikely that the author of Matthew saw the Jesus movement as a clear break with Judaism. The author of Matthew and the Matthean community is probably still a part of the synagogue system. In fact many scholars agree that the whole purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to convince Jews that the Jesus movement is the true heir of Judaism.


After the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, questions abounded about how to be a Jew without a Temple. The Sadducees where really tied to the temple system and strict observance of cultic ritual, so they were unable to continue after the temple was destroyed. Certain Pharisaic schools had more resilient philosophy and were able to persist after the destruction of the Temple. However, by the middle of the first century, the School of Shammai had become closely linked to the Zealots, many of who were also Pharisees.


In AD 66, the Zealots, a militant Jewish faction, ignited a rebellion which was put down by Rome, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The School of Shammai begins to die out in the following years.


The House of Hillel then reemerged as new dominant system, and is considered the founding school of Judaism, in all its varied forms, as we know it today, which we call Rabbinic Judaism.


This is why this question is so political: (1) In Jesus own day, the question placed Jesus on the contemporary interpretive spectrum as someone who did not see the law as an oppressive yoke that would overburden the people. For Jesus, as well as the House of Hillel, the Law was a kind of virtue ethic, aimed at guiding people in the way of mercy. (2) In Matthews day, this story was grounded in the same interpretive school that had succeeded in carrying on the Jewish faith, and rather than representing a clear break with 1st Century Judaism, Matthew sought to show that following Jesus was perfectly consistent with it. It is important that we recognize this as Christians because, as you know, Christians have not always realized the affinity we share. And Christian have been pretty terrible to Jews for the last 2000 years, even in our own day, but really our Rabbi is one of theirs.

The other thing to realize when we look these two religious schools is that from a purely historical point of view, in addition to a theological point of view, the interpretive methods that call us to love of God and love of neighbor are the views that persist in the face of oppressive violence. Those theologies that can lead to separatist violence, usually sow the seeds of their own destruction. Theologies of compassion and love may find themselves oppressed at time, but they are incredibly resilient.


This is remnant theology. The prophets continued to try and remind people that theologies that force people into strict observance of cultic ritual or moralism that that become oppressive without love of neighbor, those theologies will fail. They lead to destruction. But the prophets also promise that there will always be a remnant that sees God law for what it is: a law of grace, and love, and peace. These are the kinds of theologies God continued to bless.


Now there has been a tendency throughout Christian history to basically use these two interpretive frameworks, Shammai and Hillel, or in Christian language Law and Grace, and to basically accuse one’s theological opponent as over emphasizing one and ignoring the other. This, for example is how the Protestant Reformation started, Luther accusing the Catholic church of being like Jews in Jesus day, what he really referred was a certain sect of Judaism. The church he believed was too focused on earning salvation through right practice, while he preached a salvation by faith.


In some ways, I think progressives have tended to see the conservative/progressive distinction in similar terms. Progressives tend to accuse conservatives as having a theological system based on moralistic action. Voting pro-life and against LGBTQ issues.


Progressives run into problems, however, when we make a law of our own issues. And I want to be very careful here, and say that I don’t think we need to send mix messages on our view about race, LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, or economic justice. In fact I would say we need to be loud and committed to these issues.


But if our theology isn’t ground in grace, and love, and peace, even for those with whom we vehemently disagree, I’m not sure we can count on God’s blessing. God’s love is a scandalous kind of love. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t really make sense. I continue to come back to this image from the book of Joshua Chapter 5. Joshua and the people of Israel or outside Jericho, and Joshua goes out to pray. He sees an angel, and Joshua asks, “Are you one of us or one of our adversaries?” And the Angel responds, “Neither, I have come as the commander of the Lords army.”


This is our continual call: to ask how do we love more like God loves.


Part of this call, I think is realize our identity as Gods beloved. See the truth is, we are not called God’s beloved because we march for immigrant rights, or because we fight racism, or because we are LQBTQ inclusive, or because we strive to realize economic justice. That’s not why God loves us. We do those things because we are beloved by God.


God loves us first. God love you first. God loves me first. And nothing changes that.


Paul says in Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


Believe it or not, I often have a hard time accepting this massage. And even giving it. I have a tendency to make the gospel all about expectation. But that’s not really good news. If we lose the elements of God’s love and grace and make the gospel all about the work, then we’re just slave drivers by another name. And Jesus comes as a new Passover lamb, which means, if we’re slave drivers, we’re on the wrong side. If we lose sight of God’s love for us, then we run the risk of losing sight of God’s love for others, and if we lose sight of God’s love for others, we lose sight of loving God.


So if you’re like me, and your relationship to yourself is fraught with anxiety, fear, anger, shame, frustration, depression, or whatever, the invitation is look at yourself through God’s eyes. You’re invited to lay those burdens down. To be freed suffering you put yourself through. You’re invited to remind yourself that you are a beloved Child of the most high.


In your bulletin you’ll find these book marks. The mountain states conference has kind of accepted this as our conference prayer. So today I’m going to invite us to do two things: (1) is to read this together in one voice, using your own name where you see it, and (2) to take this book mark with you, and be reminded as you go through your week that you are Called Child of the Most High. Be reminded of God’s unfailing love for you, even when you feel like you’ve not measured up.