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Sermon for September 12, 2010

The Habits of Healthy Churches: Devotion

When the crowds heard him, they were astounded at his teaching. But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” -- Matthew 22:33-40

I have some questions. They are some of life’s unanswered questions:
Do cemetery workers prefer the graveyard shift?
Do Lipton employees take coffee breaks?
Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
Can you be a closet claustrophobic?
If 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year why do they have locks on their doors?
If a parsley farmer is sued, can the court garnish his wages?
If aliens are smart enough to travel through space, why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on earth?
If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?
If you throw a cat out a car window, does it become kitty litter?
Who’s cruel idea was it to put the ‘s’ in the word lisp?
Why do doctors call what they do practice?
Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?
Why is it you get a penny for your thoughts but have to put in your two cents worth?
Why is it that when our kids are naughty we ask “do you want a spanking?” What are they going to say, “Yes, please. May I have two?”
Sometimes, when I’m reflecting on life and work, I ask some questions of the church, too.
Why are people more spiritual than ever but leaving the church in record numbers?
How does the church get people’s attention in a fast-moving world?
What are we here for and what do we do?
Can we love without changing others?
What if we are wrong about thinking we are the only ones who have the complete truth?
Who is left out of our churches? How has that served us? Who is our neighbor?
Why is there so much controversy in churches? Why can’t people of the same faith get along with each other better?
I think church controversy began with the church founder himself. Jesus constantly debated and confronted religious people who believed that they knew the word and the will of God. People of his own faith tempted, tested, and questioned Jesus.

In today’s reading, we hear some of this conflict. It’s a conversation between Jesus and his “pastors.” It’s actually the last time there will be conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. On this, their last conversation, they ask Jesus a question. “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” It’s a trap. Hebrew Scripture has 613 commandments to follow. Obeying all 613 at once is virtually impossible. How can anyone even remember all 613 commandments? So they ask Jesus, “If all 613 commandments could be summed up in one or two sentences, what would you say?” The religious leaders feel threatened by Jesus’ authority, so they ask a question designed to publicly humiliate and belittle Jesus. To them, Jesus is a simple, unlearned, working class teacher from the backwoods town of Galilee. His followers don’t have a semester’s worth of theological credits between them. The religious leaders, on the other hand, are professionally trained leaders of Israel’s spiritual life. They are learned practitioners of every detail of Jewish law. They try to push Jesus into a corner by asking that he pick one commandment out of all Jewish law as being the most important.

Jesus’ answer takes us to the essential core of religion. Out of all 613 commandments, he picks two verses from Scripture, and combines them into one: “It’s about the love!” ”‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Everything else in scripture,” Jesus says, “Relates to these two things.” His answer to the religious leaders is a way of accusing them of breaking the greatest commandments. Those who claim to be the most committed law keepers of all are guilty of missing the heart of Israel’s faith! Jesus and his religious leaders had two different visions of the purpose of their religion.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on the religious leaders. At one time or another, all of us get all tangled up in the web of “little things” and miss the “big picture.” Churches do it all the time. We get so wrapped up in our traditions and our programs and our property, we can lose sight of who we are and why we’re here. It’s easy to lose focus. Vision becomes blurry. Sometimes churches realize what’s happening, and they regain their sense of purpose. Others get stuck in the pattern of worry and anxiety. If something goes well, the church gets credit for it. But if something goes bad, the church system is not at fault. Instead, an individual or group gets blamed for the problems. If a person voices problems with the church, that person will be marginalized, put down and discredited. We sense the same pattern happening in Matthew’s gospel. When put on the spot, the religious leaders attack Jesus instead of examining their own traditions.

I want to suggest one question that can help us determine where we are as a church. Finish this statement: “Our church is best known for ______________ .” What would you say?
  • Our church is best known for our beautiful building?
  • Our church is known for its worship services?
  • Our church is best known for our programs for children and youth?
  • Our church is best known for keeping traditions alive?
  • Our church is best known for managing money and resources?
  • Our church is best known for the quality of its caring and outreach?
If we are on target as a congregation, the completion of this sentence will relate directly to what Jesus identifies as the greatest commandment of all. I think first and foremost, a healthy church will say, “Our church is best known for our devotion to God and to one another. It’s all about the love.”

One of the crucial lessons in this passage is that getting lost in the nit-picky details of religion can cause us to miss God entirely! If my heart is not open, if my mind is already made up, if there is no room for me to challenge my assumptions, I put myself in the very precarious spiritual position of missing where God is going and what God is doing. The point is simple. Healthy churches love God with all we’ve got and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

This is Jesus’ challenge to us when we are tempted to give our first love to people and things other than God. Jesus confronts our competing devotions. Some Christians think that our job is to protect the Bible and the reputation of historic Christianity. We’ve seen a great example of this with Pastor Terry Jones of Florida and the media frenzy over his threat to burn the Qur’an. I hope you can see this story for its utter craziness. Not the crazy pastor. No, the crazy media and how they promote a silly local town story to blanket our national media reality. In one corner, we have an unknown, swivel-eyed Pastor of a tiny church in the swamps of Florida. In the other corner, we have the Commander in Chief, his Secretary of State, and his top US and NATO Commander. Who really cares what this mini-church does? Somehow, someone wanted the world to see America as a Qur’an burning, Islam-hating nation of bullies. If he wakes up in time, Pastor Jones might realize he and his 50 members were being used to make a statement on behalf of all 350 million Americans to a watching and waiting Muslim world. He was manipulated into making a statement that America is not saying at all. And now he’s being used as a pawn in the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” debate. Someone noticed a trivial and stupid act that should have been ignored and elevated it to a national policy debate. The story should have been nothing more than the local town news. It’s the same as reading about the Sheriff’s daughter who comes in third at Garlic Queen Pageant, or the minister who locks himself in the church steeple and won’t come down until the church raises $8000. Here is the story: “Crazy Pastor Jones is at it again. After the success of Qur’an fire, he promises to burn Catcher in the Rye next week. Bring your copy. Free hot dogs served in social hall after the bonfire.”

For me the issue is that Pastor Jones feels he has to protect Christianity, actually Christian America, from an outside menace. He threatens to burn a Qur’an because of THEM, as if he has few other choices. His faith needs to be protected from outsiders and infidels. He wants the church to be best known for its devotion. But devoted to what? To purity? To the authority of the Bible? To his interpretation of the faith? To the elimination of competing ideas?

Pastor Jones forgot what Jesus said just before he was murdered. Jesus didn’t scream “Someone has to stand up to this abomination.” He said something far more provocative “Father, forgive.” Now that is a story all of us still haven’t come to grips with. Don’t burn the Qur’an. Burn the hatred, burn it and bury it. Let love rise in its place. It’s all about the love.

More than devotion to purity, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to judging others, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to doctrine, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to eroding traditions, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to our congregation, we devote ourselves to love.
More than devotion to the bible, we devote ourselves to love.
In other words, we are to do the impossible. But we can at least keep trying.

On the day that we meet Jesus, all of our arguments will end. That which we thought mattered the most will be put into proper perspective. We may have to answer a couple of questions.
1. Did you, the church, abandon yourself to love?
2. How did you make the love of God and the love of your neighbor the center of your life together?
Devoted love to God and neighbor. This makes healthy churches. This makes healthy lives.



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