October 29, 2017
Scriptures: Matthew 22:34-40, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
It seems that the word or prefix ‘Alt’, which stands for ‘alternative’, has come into prominence of late throughout our political and social dialog. And it speaks not only to the huge political divide that exists between the seeming polar opposites of left and right, liberal and conservative, but also to the confusion and distrust that has settled in upon the majority in the middle…those who are more moderate and not really extreme at all but who as a result of this muddying of the waters as to what is truth and what is not, between what are actually facts and what is instead ‘fake news’ are feeling disconnected, unsure, fearful of something…but they don’t know what.
Never before in our nation’s history has the underlying fabric of knowledge and understanding of what is truth and what is falsehood been so deeply attacked and called into question, and the consequences of this loss of trust and reliability both in our leadership and in the media have created a deep underlying sense of unease and dislocation among many. There is so much negativity and despair across the board…in fact more deep-seated and internalized fear than any time I can remember since I was a youngster in grade school, and we were forced to worry about nuclear war through the regular practice of air raid drills spent huddled in hallways with our heads tucked down between our knees.
Which is not to say that these divisions are new or that we have not always had points of serious disagreement, but rather to note that as a result of all the uproar, certain criteria by which people tend to objectify or discriminate against others who are different than they are have come back into the forefront of our common social consciousness, exposing long-held prejudices and tearing scars off of wounds that had barely begun to heal since the advent of the millennium.
This “Alt-reality’ or alternative way to understand what used to be common knowledge shared by all has become the new and latest blueprint to justify the worst impulses of humanity. And at the same time it is offering a roadmap for the creation of new and deeper divisions and seems to be threatening at least the beginning of a slide into chaos both as a people and as a nation.
I was sent the picture that I put on the front of the bulletin by my son a month or so ago and it struck me how much it spoke to the increasing discomfort I have been having since the beginning of the year. And not just in terms of the political spectrum but much more so by the number of those who claim to be of the Christian faith who seem to have become comfortable with what truly seems to be an ‘alt-form’ of the gospel. Those whose behavior and rhetoric reveals the truth that they are perhaps unknowingly but comfortable just the same with a faith understanding that stands fully contrary to the core message of Jesus. His message that called us to love one another just as he had loved us…his message that challenged us to love every ‘one-another’…not just some, not just those within our own particular persuasion, not just those who look, sound, dress, or worship as we do but rather every ‘one-another’ that the Spirit places on the pathway before us.
And if you look at the picture on the bulletin carefully, each of those statements; fear everyone, expel the stranger, blame the poor, ignore the sick, feed the rich, love only thyself, trust only Caesar, and throw lots of stones, brings quickly to mind the teachings Jesus gave specifically on those ideas and understandings. When Christ called us to stand against these ideas and to embrace the pathway he walked before us, he never promised us that it would be easy, in fact he cautioned that in doing so we too would be carrying our own cross. However he also promised that he would never leave or abandon us on that walk.
Unfortunately it seems that so many of our brothers and sisters in the conservative Christian faith have chosen to walk along a much less difficult path, unfortunately at great cost to the cause of Christ and surely deeply responsible for delaying the realization of the Kingdom of our Lord which Jesus taught was here and available.
Today’s passage on the two greatest commandments reminds us that we are called to live into the opposite of the sentiments which are expressed on the sign placard…reminds us that loving one another will result in the casting out of fear, that we are to welcome strangers into our midst and into our homes…that it is the rich and not the poor who will have a difficult time justifying their lifestyle before God…that we are to pray for and to care for each of the sick in our midst… that we are to love others in the same fashion and to the same extent that we love ourselves…that we are to trust in the Lord and not to trust, follow, or imitate those who lord their power over others. And, that only if we are without sin ourselves are we permitted to cast the first stone at another, which of course puts every one of us out of the ‘stone-throwing’ business.
In short, much of right–leaning conservative Christianity has become fairly lax about studying or following the actual ministry and teachings of Jesus, in particular when they run counter to the prosperity-based me-first lifestyle we are told is the sign of a successful life. Make no mistake about it, there is in fact very little authentic Jesus-teaching-based Christianity being shouted by the loudest voices out there. These charlatans have distorted the message of the gospel into a safe, non-threatening message meant to place moral perfection as the highest good and care for others in need as often the least and last priority.
The distorted belief understanding reflected in the sign placard is in fact the polar opposite of the call Jesus issued when he gave the command to love your neighbor as yourself. And do not forget that when questioned who that ‘neighbor’ actually was, Jesus told the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, indicating that those most despised among the Jews, the ones who were derided as ‘untouchables’ were as much a neighbor as one’s closest friends and family.
No, today’s ‘sellers’ of false teachings which are meant to uphold, protect, and in many ways control the dominant center of our society, to minimize or turn away those seeking help and to encourage the aggregation of personal wealth all supported by an ethic of deepest judgement and prejudice will surely have to account for their theft of and distortion of the gospel of love that Jesus gave all to convey.
So, what can we do? What is the best course of action to pursue if we are truly seeking to follow Jesus as he is clearly pictured in the gospels and if we are actively trying to live up to the two greatest commandments? It may be a valid question to ask if it is even possible to live in such a world that puts so much pressure on conforming to the errant dominant majority line of social and religious understanding. The question brings to mind the closing words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, just prior to his arrest where he prayed for his followers who would find themselves ‘in the world but not of it’. Where he prayed so fervently that we in our own walk could follow his lead in finding a way to uphold the core message of the gospel even though it may run fully counter to the dominant current social narrative?
Throughout his short-lived ministry Jesus stayed within this small space of upholding the essential holiness of the Jewish Law while at the same time being sharply critical of ways the faith had been distorted away from God’s nature by the interpreters of the faith. Paul as well was one who tried to share a profound change in understanding of the faith as he sought to share his newfound knowledge of the one who had struck him blind on the road to Damascus. Overnight Paul went from one who had persecuted the ‘Way’ of Jesus to one who was willing to step away from all of the rules and religious constructs that kept God at a distance. As we hear in the well-known passage from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul came into the awareness that his life was to be spent sharing the love of God, and to do so as we hear him express in our passage, ‘Gently, as though a nurse caring tenderly for her own children.’
Our call is to stand against distortions of our faith which conceal the true nature of God and to work diligently to illustrate God’s love for all through a life spent caring gently, deeply, and honestly for one another. To the dominant narrative’s injunction that we are to live a life filled with fear…Jesus tells us to trust in him and to set aside fear through the depth of our love extended to all others. Fear must be defeated for it is the tool of choice of the powerful to control those who are not strong enough to resist.
To the dominant narrative’s call to join forces as we vilify and seek to expel every one of the strangers in our midst…Jesus tells us instead to welcome the stranger and to extend grace-filled hospitality to all in need whose shadow crosses our pathway. The Book of Hebrews encourages us further saying that some who welcomed strangers into their homes actually entertained angels. Truly we need not fear any opportunity we are presented with to share the blessings that have so enriched our lives.
To the dominant narrative’s call to blame the poor for all of the ills in our society and to deflect from our unwillingness to otherwise help those among us less fortunate…Jesus tells us that God has always had a preferential love for those least among us. That it is only in fully knowing that what we have truly belongs to God that we will be freed up to share the blessings of God equally to all in need, trusting that if God has so far provided for the work of actively loving one another, that this same God will continue to replenish the coffers of those engaged in Christ-like witness. It truly is the poor who help us to see just how rich we are and just how deep God’s commitment is to care for all God’s children.
To the dominant narrative’s call to ignore the sick…Jesus asks us to intervene directly in seeking health and wholeness for all…through prayer, through the extension of comfort and grace, and by staying the course until God’s will is revealed. No one should suffer or worse die all alone because the richest society on earth refused to extend the help needed to at least give them a chance for a measure of restoration of health and wholeness.
To the dominant narrative’s call to feed the rich…Jesus asks if anyone heard his warnings throughout the gospel of how very difficult, in fact impossible it is for one to be both rich and undistracted by that wealth. The acquisition of wealth should always be a temporary thing…a holding of resources for the use of the Spirit in helping the ‘others we are supposed to love’ make ends meet. Truly Jesus told us that he came that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’…but unless and until all those in need are cared for and have a share in that God-given abundance we will not have fully realized or expressed the command to love one another. However, in the promised Day of the Lord all shall have all they need, and it will be the peace of God and not those with wealth and power who shall rule the earth.
To the dominant narrative’s call to love only thyself…Jesus remains silent. For God knew when the gift of free will was given to humanity that selfish distortions of ours and God’s true nature would have occasion to surface. This is why the command to love God and one another is the greatest and most important call upon our hearts…for it is the only way to liberate the true nature of the Spirit of love which resides within us. And tho’ the command does call for us to love ourselves it does so in a comparative sense, we are to love others ‘just as we love ourselves’…with the same care and attention and with the same degree of unconditional forgiveness. Truly if we were to extend the same love to others regardless of any preconditions as we show to ourselves, our own hopes, wants, and needs…then we would be much closer to bringing forth the day when lions, both real and figurative, would lie down in peace next to the sheep, and swords and other implements of warring and hate would be beaten down and re-forged into tools with which to tend the garden of our Lord together as one family.
To the dominant narrative’s call to trust only Caesar…Jesus remembers the shouts of those in the palace courtyard of Pontius Pilate who declared that they ‘had no king but Caesar’…just prior to Pilate sentencing Jesus to death. Both then and now the chosen leaders of the state were nothing but men…human beings capable of great things…as well as great folly. Truly God was saddened when the Hebrew people decided they had to have a king to rule over them instead of being watched over and guided directly by the Lord. But then as now it was fear that drove the decision, for they too gave as their reason the need to have a strong leader to lead them out into war, as all their other neighbors had as well. Is it so hard to believe that the Lord will be faithful to enable us to continue the work of the kingdom if we reject any and all leaders who call us to step fully away from our true faith and from the call to love one another? Trust in the Lord is what remains after love has driven out fear…and the Lord is faithful to those who trust in him.
To the dominant narrative’s call to throw lots of stones…Jesus remembers the crowd who had gathered before him shouting the exact same words. In that case it was of a woman whose crime called, not for forgiveness or understanding but rather for death by stoning. Jesus, recognizing the distortion of God’s word which had resulted in this rigidity left no room for grace or mercy challenged those present to look within and if upon doing so they could see no sin of which they too were guilty then they would be permitted to throw the first stone. Slowly all of them turned and walked away.
The human condition has always had moments of strength and moments of weakness. There is not a person alive who has not fallen short of the image of love in which we each were created. And the acceptance of this truth, along with the call to love as Jesus did without condition removes from us the ability to cast judgement on another thereby taking away the permission to be the one who casts the first stone. The trouble is that it is much easier to throw stones and to shout together as a group then it is to stand alone before God and to confess that we are in need of forgiveness…but that is what we must do.
We must ask for forgiveness each time we choose to remain in a place of fear in spite of the Spirit’s call to trust and to keep on walking forward…
We must ask for forgiveness whenever that fear, either of being taken advantage of or of choosing to keep our wealth and blessings intact causes us to side with those who counsel that we should expel the strangers form our midst…
We must ask for forgiveness each time we blame the poor for their problems without actively seeking to alleviate them as best we are able…
We must ask for forgiveness each time we ignore the sick…but particularly so when they are others not of our family or tribe…when they are poor, or undeserving (in our estimation)…or even when they are contagious…for fearless love covers us with grace even here…
We must ask for forgiveness when we take care only of our own needs, our own appetites, or our own future…for when we feed the least of those among us, when we clothe or provide for those among us who no one else will…we are doing it directly unto our Lord…
We must ask for forgiveness whenever we place our full trust in human leadership that seeks to lead us in ways contrary to the way of God’s all-forgiving, all-encompassing love. We must stand against all that seeks to destroy any of the least among us even if it means that this path ends on a hill named Golgotha…
And we must ask for forgiveness whenever we pick up a stone in judgement against another; for the Spirit will lead us in how it is we are to respond to instances of injustice or injury. But perhaps more importantly, we must never allow the habit of carrying stones color our perception of the goodness waiting to be revealed or coaxed out of each child of God. No…when we realize that we too are not perfect and that we too have sinned and very much missed the mark of Jesus’ call to love one another, we must drop our stones altogether as we journey on towards the dawn of the kingdom our Lord promised.
There is one Lord Jesus…the one who can be found throughout the actual words of the gospels…the same one who stood up to the authorities of his day and called for the creation of a contrast community of love…a community that would light the way towards a day of peace and prosperity for every one of God’s children.
There is no ‘alt-Jesus’ worth even considering…and any hint of that must be strongly resisted…for only as we learn to truly love every one another, will we have the strength and the right to call Jesus our Lord.