Today’s gospel story is very much like something that happened when I lived in Galveston. I was part of the ministerial alliance, just as I am here in Sterling. But Galveston is a larger city and also very diverse, and so this was a much bigger and more diverse group that included the rabbi and the imam. Every year on the National Day of Prayer there was a gathering on the steps of the courthouse. Over time one church had gradually taken over the coordinating of the event. The purpose of the NDOP is to unite us all in praying for America, but it had become much less ecumenical, despite having invited the rabbi and the imam to lead prayers, so at our ministerial alliance meeting we decided that the rabbi would meet with the organizing pastor to find some common ground for unity. This rabbi knows the Bible well, both Old and New Testaments, and he asked this pastor what he thought was the most important scripture. In essence, the same question these Jewish leaders are asking Jesus. The rabbi expected this pastor would answer the same way that Jesus had, and this would be a point of unity. Instead, the pastor said, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.’” They did not find common ground that day.
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, some pharisees have come to Jesus with a question, the last in a long series of leaders questioning Jesus, all of them trying to trap him into saying something for which he can be arrested. This one seems like a no brainer to us, but for them it was the hot topic of the day. There are 613 commands in the Jewish law, the torah, the first five books in the Bible. They often had discussions about how to prioritize God’s law.
When we hear the word “commandments,” we might think of the ten commandments that we find in Exodus 20. They even have their own movie, the 1956 Cecille B. DeMille classic about God giving the commandments to Moses (Charleton Heston).
If you grew up in church, maybe you even had to memorize those ten. The ten basically summarize the 613, and Jesus narrows it down to two that summarize those ten quite nicely, as the first four are about loving God, and the other six are about loving your neighbor.
The first part of Jesus’ answer might seem even more like a no-brainer because they are the words of a prayer based on Deuteronomy 6:4-5 called the Shema.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Faithful Jewish people recite this prayer three times a day. The second, love your neighbor as yourself, is in Leviticus 19:18 in the midst of a chapter full of specific ways to love your neighbor, like leaving the edges of a field unharvested so that poor people could come pick some for themselves (v9), or paying a laborer on the same day they performed the work (v13).
Then Jesus turns the tables and asks them a question, which to them was also a no brainer. Whose son is the Messiah? That’s easy. David’s, they answer. Well then, Jesus responds, what about what it says in Psalm 110:1?
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”Matthew 22:43-45 NRSV
They are stumped. Though they knew this scripture, they had never looked at it in quite this way, and they couldn’t imagine another way to see it. They could imagine a messiah who was a great prophet, a great priest, or a great king, but they couldn’t imagine a messiah who was even more than that, a messiah who was God. This would also mean expanding their view of God, to accept that God is not bound by our understanding or by time or space. Instead they were stuck on their preconceived ideas.
What about us? How might we be stuck and in need of some divine imagination?
We all have imagination. Whenever we read a story without pictures and we see the story in our minds, we’re using our imagination. Think about all those political ads we’re seeing right now that are telling us to imagine how horrible the world will be if their opponent wins the election. Those wouldn’t work if we didn’t have imaginations.
None of us knows the future. Only God does. And God invites us to remember that there are limits to our human understanding and to trust that God is preparing us for our future. One of my favorite places where the Bible shows us this is in Isaiah 43:19 – Behold, I am doing a new thing! Another one is in Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you. In both of these scriptures God is speaking to people who are stuck in the consequences of their sin and fearful about the bleakness of the future. God reassures them and gives them hope by encouraging them to imagine God’s future.
We too get stuck instead of letting God lead us into God’s divine imagination. How do we get stuck?
We listen to the voice of judgement.
Writer and pastor Susan Beaumont, in her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, says that the voice of judgment offers us certainty through black and white thinking. This voice uses our past fears to make simple, concrete interpretations of current situations, and puts negative labels on anything that is threatening or doesn’t seem to belong. The voice of judgment battles against the voice of hope.
The Jewish leaders seem to have done this with Jesus. He threatens the status quo and he doesn’t fit into their understanding of the messiah, therefore he must be a false messiah, a heretic, an evil that must be eliminated.
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to be careful about listening to the voice of judgement. He said we’ll will be judged by the same standard with which we judge others (Matt. 7:2 CSB).
Those who did believe in Jesus were the ones who were able to be amazed at Jesus’ teaching and healing (E.g. Luke 5:26). We experience awe and wonder when we allow ourselves to experience what God is doing in the moment without trying to analyze or critique it.
The Psalms help us remember to experience God with wonder and awe. Psalm 90, the psalm Amy read for us as our call to worship today begins with words of wonder:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.Psalm 90:1-2 NRSV
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength means allowing ourselves to be amazed even when we don’t fully understand.
Another way we get stuck is listening to the voice of cynicism. Cynicism prevents us from seeing what God is doing, and gets in the way of loving our neighbors. This voice tells us that others are only motivated by their own self-interest, and seeks to protect us from anything that might damage the ego by assigning negative labels to anyone who seems to be a threat. This voice leaves no room for giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe these Jewish leaders were cynical. They were maintaining the status quo to preserved their power. Listening to Jesus and giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt would threaten the existence of the religious structures they controlled.
Judgment and cynicism get in the way of our efforts to eliminate the racism that exists in our culture. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, the writer of Raising White Kids, the book one of our small groups is reading, describes how this happens through stages of development in our understanding. We are taught that all people are equal, but as we begin to see ways in which that is not true, we struggle to understand why. We experience cognitive dissonance as we try to make sense of that.
Harvey tells about an experience in grade school when another little girl asked her to join a club she was forming just for white kids. A teacher was quick to tell them not to, which jarred Harvey into a new understanding that there was something dangerous and emotional about race. She had thought things were fine, and suddenly she saw that things weren’t fine. For many of us, the graphic vision of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer shook us out of the belief that things were fine. We may all be equal, but our experiences are not equal.
Harvey says that we may resolve that dissonance by retreating back into our naïve understanding that we are all equal and pretend it didn’t happen, or we try to reframe our understanding by blaming the person of color. Judgment and cynicism come into play. We do this with more than just people of color. We also blame poor people for being poor, and large people for being large, and LGBTQ people for their own struggles. This helps us find a way to make sense out of what doesn’t fit our understanding of how the world works. And in doing so, we are, without even realizing it, accepting the falsehood that white, skinny, hetero, rich people are better than everyone else.
There’s a meme that pops up in Facebook every once in awhile that says, “If your religion requires you to hate someone, you might be doing it wrong.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5, 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
We have to be willing to let go of judgment and cynicism, let go of the idea that if someone’s having a rough time it must be their own fault, and let God help us imagine a different way, a new way, in which we allow ourselves to be openhearted enough to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, even if that makes us vulnerable.
Another reason we get stuck is fear. What will happen if we allow ourselves to consider things differently? What if we try to love our neighbors but say or do the wrong thing? Or worse, what if it turns out they hate us and say mean things to us? What if I speak up for someone who’s being discriminated against and it costs me my job or my friends?
What if’s are often worst case scenarios and they are good at keeping us stuck. Someone asked me when I was considering whether to take a new pastoral call what was holding me back. I said, “What if I fail?” And she said, “What if you fly?” If we never try we’ll never fail, but we’ll also never fly. We have to be willing to try and fail, and trust that if we’re letting God guide us and seeking God’s help along the way, that God will works things out. Not always the way we might expect. Not always in ways that we can readily see. But God promises us to never leave us.
Jesus says, “I am with you always.”Matthew 28:20
What gets us unstuck? Letting go of judgment and cynicism and fear, and allowing ourselves to wonder and be vulnerable and grow. Be assured that whatever happens is grounded in the goodness of God and God’s constant presence in us through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus made it basic and simple: Love God, Love your neighbor. But life is full of challenges and new situations in which we have to trust God to help us figure out how to put that into practice, just like we at UPC are learning new ways to put this into practice as Matthew 25 church.
How can we break free from seeing things the way we’ve always seen them?
How can we adopt a stance of wonder? Be openhearted? Consider other options?
How can we use our divine imagination?
 Michael Lee in the article on this scripture in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, Carolyn J. Sharp. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Location 13296). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 The Ten Commandments (1956) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ten_Commandments_(1956_film)
 Rabbi Albert Abraham I. Slomovitz, PhD, A New Look at Rabbi Jesus: Jews and Christians Finally Reconnected (Murray’s Inlet, SC: Covenant Books, 2019), p153.
 Beaumont, Susan. How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going (p. 35). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Harvey, Jennifer. Raising White Kids (p. 108). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
 Beaumont, Susan. How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going (p. 36). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.