A Sermon for 23 Pentecost – Proper 25A
Sunday, October 23, 2005
The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns – Trinity Episcopal Church,
May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.
That’s why I say that we are all fundamentalist about something. And this is not all bad. In fact, it is absolutely essential. None of us can comprehend it all. God and the universe are too big and our heads and hearts can only hold so much. We have to start somewhere. The question is whether we stay there and what we do with it.
I remember a wonderful line from the series The West Wing when a religiously and politically conservative senator corners Toby Ziegler, the White House Director of Communications over an anti-gay marriage or civil union laws amendment that President Bartlett withdrawn from a budget bill. The senator won’t budge and Toby must persuade the senator. In the conversation, the senator testily asks Toby “Do you believe that the entire Bible is the entire word of God?”
Toby says, “Yes sir, I do. It’s just that none of us are smart enough to figure out what it means.”
We all pick and choose what we will take seriously. As we get to know our inner-fundamentalist, we discover much more about us and our will than about God and God’s will. When we look hard at the rigid streak in each of us, we find what we choose to go to the stake for and what we rebel against. Look past that rigid place and we will see what we fight for and what we let pass. Most of all, we will discover where our anxieties live and what we fear the most.
Even Christians who have known and experienced the transforming power of God can still have deep anxieties that need to be cared for appropriately. Even Paul had to address the stress of the Thessalonian Christians early in the game. Not even ten to fifteen years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find that the first (oldest) book of the New Testament shows us a community with signs of deep end-time anxiety. What is the solution to their fears? Not a harangue but gentle caring. (Which is saying something, because the apostle Paul can sure harangue if he wants to!)
The problem is when we wear our fundamentalisms on our sleeve or impose them on others, it distorts and warps our message. Look at what Christians spend their time and energy on, look at how various Christian’s stake their claim. And then look at how those outside the Church see us. Many simply assume that all Christians have complicated end-of-the-world scenarios, wherein the will escape and the bad guys will get theirs.
The prejudice and hatred of many Christians against gay and lesbian people is so well documented that many outside the Church simply equate Christianity with homophobic rage without a second thought. These assumptions are not always wrong, in some ways we have earned them. They are distorted perceptions because so many of us have distorted the message.
Yet, how many people who have divined the scriptures on the seven passages about homosexuality or the very specialized material on the end times, have really looked at and know the hundreds of verses in nearly every book of the Bible about justice to the poor, that decry abuse of power and privilege and warn against human pride? But then again, that may be my bias. You see, when we get in touch with our inner-fundamentalist, we discover that we take what we like and throw out what we dislike. That’s okay as far as it goes. Just know that this is telling us something. Something we may not want to hear.
What do we do about it? In today’s Gospel Jesus is asked to reveal his fundamentalist streak, let’s see how he handled it.
In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by members of various religious parties who want to challenge Jesus and trip him up. Round One: One group asked if it was lawful to pay Caesar taxes or to use the dirty, unclean, pagan Roman money that no good Jew would be caught dead with. Jesus got them to admit that these righteous folks had some the filthy lucre in their change purses, and then said it’s not what you carry—it’s how we set our priorities. Ding! Round Two: Another group tries to get Jesus caught up in a strange question that only people who really work hard at their religion could come up with; a question that managed to mingle sex and marriage and death and resurrection all into one kooky package. Jesus replied that the risen life is about attentiveness to God. Now comes Round Three: Some Pharisees and bible scholars want Jesus to name the Most Important Bible Passage Ever.
Do you see the temptation here? If Jesus chooses one out of the over 600 possible laws as his favorite—say the one about the length and style of one’s hair—then they can come back and well, what about the one about where cattle and people can sleep? Huh? What do you think? That would draw Jesus into an endless debate worthy of an Episcopal internet chat-room. Pointless. Endless. Emotional. Distracting.
Jesus quotes from the most familiar part of Jewish worship (who could argue with that?) and then from Leviticus—the fundamentalists friend—to remind us that if we are going to be fundamentalist about anything, then let it be about loving God with our whole being, and about loving our neighbor as ourselves. On these two, everything else hinges.
If you are going to quote me Leviticus, then start here: God is holy, so you also must be holy and set apart. Don’t judge unjustly; don’t abuse the poor and coddle the rich; don’t slander people or kill them for their personal gain; I am the Lord. Don’t fill your heart with hate, don’t take vengeance or bear any grudges—but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. Jesus knows his audience knows their Leviticus. If you’re going to quote Leviticus, Jesus says, start here and work out.
May I please share with you how some lay people put me in touch with my inner fundamentalist last night? Our happy band of worshippers were gathered in the chapel for Eucharist and healing. It was raining hard outside. During my sermon, we heard the lobby door open and close, but no one came in. We could hear people in the lobby but during the prayers, but still no one came in. As we approached the altar healing prayers and laying on of hands, I asked one of our group to see who was in the hall and invite them in if they wished. (Probably I was annoyed at being disturbed.) The people they invited in were two homeless men—actually their home is a makeshift tent in the wood just north of the toll bridge. You’ve met them, they’ve been here before, or at coffee hour or at the Soup Kitchen before. They are regulars and they were soaked to the bone.
Now I start thinking things like: now what? What agencies are possibly open on Saturday night? Is
Fortunately, alert laity had listened to the same Gospel we just read and were not willing to stand on ceremony, so to speak. They welcomed them to come in and sit, and get a little warmer and a little drier. They invited them to receive healing prayers, they passed them the peace of God (with hugs) and shared communion with them. And then, not content to give a stone when bread was required, these folks gave them blankets from their cars, some food from their groceries, and have brought back a tarp to repair their tent.
Can you imagine that? Here I stood thinking like an ecclesial bureaucrat, and while I was thinking and worrying, these lay people acted. These questions are important; just don’t let them get in the way. On my way to waking up, I actually became proud of these folks, but in a perverse kind of way. I had this picture of myself standing before the heavenly maitre-de saying “I’m with them.” Of course, that was still my anxiety speaking, wasn’t it?
Actually, I am still proud but more than that I am grateful. We taught each other a lesson in practical, functional compassion. Once again laity were divinely naïve and divinely spontaneous enough to show their care in generous ways as sisters and brother in Christ have done in my life--and yours?-- over and over again.
What I learned last night is that my inner bureaucrat and my inner-fundamentalist are next-door neighbors. They thrive on insecurities, fears and worries that make simple things complicated; they need to create instant and lasting judgments because the job of the inner-fundamentalist has very little to do with holiness and a lot to do with keeping our anxieties safe and contained. Last night in a little tableau in the Chapel, some laity acted automatically and we taught each other a thing or two about loving God and neighbor. They did not save the world; these two men are still homeless. They are also just a little drier and a little warmer.
We are all, deep-down inside, fundamentalist about something. We all have a place where we will stake our claim, and from that spot we will view the world and approach our God—or our little gods all in a row. Jesus says there is only one thing to be fundamentalist about: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. And let everything grow from there. God does not let that inner fundamentalist streak go to waste. It can teach us something. If we find ourselves making it hard for ourselves or complex for others, stop and listen. That may be our anxiety speaking. So, start small. We can only do so much. And that’s okay. It is probably more than we realize and besides God will do the rest, anyway. We all have to start somewhere. The question is whether we stay there and what we do with what God has started in us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.