October 26, 2014 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. If there were any girls who lived there, I was too young to notice. Paul lived across the yard. Ric lived across the street. James lived at the end of our block until he moved away, but then Travis moved into his house. Zach lived around the corner. And all of us played together every day. Football, baseball, wall ball, hide-and-seek—we spent all our time in and out of each other’s yards, playing until Mr. Garrick’s shrill whistle interrupted our fun, reminding all of us that it was time for dinner. And, the whole time, we were trying to avoid our younger siblings.
I have two younger brothers. One is more than eight years younger than I am, so, although a threat to tattle on us when we were doing something we shouldn’t, he never really got in our way. But my other brother is only two and a half years younger than I, which meant that he always wanted to hang out with us, and that meant that we never wanted him to. I did everything to keep him away from us. I snuck out the side door when he wasn’t looking. I got him in trouble so he wouldn’t be allowed outside. But the best ploy I used to keep us apart was the series of “admission tests” I contrived to keep him out of our secret club for older boys.
When I was in the first grade, the test had addition and subtraction problems on it—questions a kid in preschool could never answer. When I was in the second grade, the questions grew in complexity to ensure he wouldn’t catch up. By the time I was in the third grade, I used multiplication and division to keep him out of our club. Actually, come to think of it, we never really had a club. I just enjoyed making up tests to remind him that he couldn’t hang out with us. I didn’t care what answers he gave. It wasn’t supposed to be a test he could pass.
I kind of feel that way about today’s gospel lesson—that both the Pharisees and Jesus are administering tests that no one is supposed to pass. First, the Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the Law. “Teacher,” one of them asks him, “which commandment is the greatest?” That’s a little like asking a parent which child is her favorite: there is no such thing as a good answer. There are 613 commandments in the Jewish Law, and they range from “worship God alone” (Exod. 20:3) to “remember to season your offerings with salt” (Lev. 2:13). Some of them are hugely important, and plenty of them are esoteric, but all of them are necessary. Collectively they give structure to the relationship between God and his people. The 613 mitzvot are the foundation of Jewish life. To pick out just one as the greatest is an impossible feat, which I suppose is why Jesus gives us two instead.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Together they pretty much say it all. Love God and love each other. Do that, and you’ll be ok. There is a lot to be said for living in peace with one’s maker and with one’s fellow man. That’s not a bad way to live, and, if Jesus stops there, it might be enough. But he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t want the Pharisees to walk away thinking that it is as simple as that, so he gives them a test of his own.
“Whose son is the messiah?” he asks them in return. That’s an easy enough question. “David’s son, of course,” they reply. The trap is set. “Then how is it that David by the Spirit calls him Lord?” Jesus asks, going on to quoting Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord…” Now, don’t worry too much about making sense of what Jesus is asking. It’s a silly question based on a very limited reading of the Psalms. But Jesus knows that, and so do the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t want an answer. He wants them to see how pointless these questions really are. He wants to show them and us that faith in God is about relationship and that relationships cannot be built on a test.
How many times have you heard a preacher say that God loves you no matter what? How many times have you heard a preacher say that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s love? How many times have you heard a preacher say that good works won’t get you into heaven—that the only thing that can save you is God’s grace and your faith in his promises? Then why do I keep hearing you say that what God wants is for you to be a good person—to love him and to live by the Golden Rule?
Why? Because we all love a good test. They used to come in magazines, and then we found them on websites, but now they’re all over Facebook. What’s your love type? Which apostle are you? What’s your super hero? What’s your bible name? What foreign country should you live in? How smart are you? How kind are you? What should your career be? We love them. We can’t get enough of them. Judging by their popularity, I think the productivity of our nation has taken a nosedive in the last six months. There is something about human nature that says, “If you can put it in a test, I’ll take it.” But there is no test for a real relationship. There is no test for real faith.
We fall into the same trap that the Pharisees fell into 2,000 years ago. “Come on, Jesus,” we say, “just tell us what we’re supposed to do, and we’ll do it. Love God? Love each other? That sounds easy enough.” But, as his exchange with the Pharisees shows, there is no lasting satisfaction in trying to do the right things. We think that being a Christian is about passing a test—that God wants us to show up for church and be nice to people. But you know what? Coming to church every Sunday and treating other people with respect won’t get you into heaven. God doesn’t care where you spend your Sunday mornings, and he doesn’t care whether you give $5 to the homeless guy in the parking lot. If that’s what you think really matters, you should go sponsor a canned food drive at Starbucks. The coffee’s better, and the seats are more comfortable.
Faith isn’t built on doing the right things. It’s built on love. Think about the relationships in your life that really matter—your spouse, your parents, your kids, your siblings, your closest friends. How many of those relationships depend on you doing the right things—on you passing some test that proves you’re worthy of their love? I know that if my marriage hinged on me not screwing up it would have fallen apart a long time ago. And yours would have, too.
Jesus came to show the world that God loves us no matter what. He came and lived and died and rose again to prove that there is nothing we can do to change the way God loves us. God doesn’t ask us to do anything in exchange for that love. All he asks us to do is to trust that his love is real. Think about your relationship with God. What does it look like? What is it built on? If you’re still trying to figure out what God wants you to do, stop. That’s not faith. And if you’re still looking for all the right answers, stop. That’s not faith either. Faith is believing that God really does love you—no matter who you are or what you do or what you think. That’s where a real relationship starts. It doesn’t start with passing a test. It starts with knowing that you’re loved. Amen.