Sunday, October 29, 2017

Idolatry Between the Goalposts

PROPERS:          PROPER 25, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 22:34-46

ONE SENTENCE:        The ideal is for the Summary of the Law to be the primary motivation we have in life.

            A primary way I have of understanding situations is metaphor.  That it is to say that I describe something complex as like something less complex or more descriptive.

            I love metaphors and use them a lot.

            I had the insight of an important metaphor this week.  It has to do with football.  But, first, some context.

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            Many years ago, I was a college football fanatic.  I was a rabid Ole Miss fan.  I went to my first Ole Miss game at age seven and came to maturity in the era of Archie Manning.  I knew the ins and outs of football statistics and to this day I can repeat facts about games of those years.

            Nora will tell you that I was not easy to be around.  She was a very good sport about it, though, arriving with me at football games even before the stadium opened.  When Ole Miss lost – which was very frequent during my college and early adult years – my weekend was ruined.  I would be in a dark mood for days.

            Something had to give.

            Some years later, it was with a great deal of amusement to many people when I was called to be rector of Church of the Resurrection, Starkville – home of Mississippi State University, the archrival of Ole Miss.  The president of the University was a member of the parish.  He even gave me a maroon blazer at my installation. He invited Nora and me to sit in the president’s box for the Ole Miss-State game that year.

            Friends laughed at me, and ribbed me good naturedly.  How do you do it, they asked?

            I had a standard answer.  It was from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people that some might be saved.”

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            Actually, it was me who had been saved.

            I have said over the years that part of my spiritual maturity was being healed of football.  It happened during the years between my obsession with Ole Miss football and my arrival in Starkville.

            It was part of my call to the ordained ministry.  It was the grace of God, pure and simple.  And while we might chuckle about it today, it was an incredible development in my life.  It was a metaphor for God’s movement in my soul. I had been freed from an unhealthy compulsion.

            Jesus is being challenged by the Pharisees in today’s gospel.  They are doing their best to trap him in his words. They ask him: Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?

            His response is what we call the Summary of the Law: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

            That seems so easy – so straightforward.  If that is all we have to do, we’re okay.

            As I mentioned last week, Jesus’ responses to questions are never easy.  As I said, they complexify the situation.  If you dig into his response, you find there is much more to be done.

            How do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind?

            How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?

            Those are tall orders.

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            It was that call… that approach to life… which drew me from the pit of my own obsession during the early chapters of my own spiritual journey.  Jesus and his teaching became the North Star which I could rely on during the dead reckoning of life. It was a different style of life with a different focus.  Other things faded into the background.

            But, as we all know, we live life imperfectly.  None of us – certainly not me – lives a life completely in sync with Jesus’ teachings.

            However, we can grasp hold of it as our own – as the central tenet in a life of complex decisions.  And like a hand-held compass, it can draw us back to the direction we hope to travel.

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            So, it was this week, as I attended a YMCA Gridiron dinner.  The speaker was Eli Gold, “the voice of the Crimson Tide.”  He was hosted at the event by our daughter, Leigh.

            There was a fabulous silent auction for college football memorabilia – including some of the most amazing items I have ever seen.  There were autographed memorabilia from many SEC football greats – many going back to my salad days. I was taken back to days of yore and to the old passions which stirred my soul.

            It was like a trip down memory lane.

            The next day I reflected.  I thought of those re-stirred passions. My rekindled love of college football – rising during this season – and the old animosities toward specific schools came back to me.

            I was uncomfortable.

            Questions challenged me. What really matters?  What makes a difference?  What is important to me?  What is the motivating force in my life?

            This may seem trivial.  College football may not be an issue for you.  But for me, it is a metaphor.  It is a symbol for idolatry.  It is a sign of my life being out of balance. I asked myself: What is the focus of my life?  Where do I place ultimate value?

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            Jesus tells us today.

            “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

            That approach does simplify our spiritual journey.  But it also complicates it.

            The love for God and for our fellow human beings is to be our guiding light… our animating force… the focus of our lives. 

            Sure, we will fall short… we will lose our vision for our goal.  We are, after all, human. We are afflicted with the human condition.  Perfection is not an option.

            Our challenge, though, is to recognize when we have lost our focus – and return.  Return to our source of life and the source of meaning.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Rendering Unto...

PROPERS:         PROPER 24, YEAR A          
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 22:15-22

ONE SENTENCE:        Our response to God’s gracious goodness should come after reflection, prayer, and thoughtful consideration.      

            Twenty-five years ago, I was serving as an associate at a large, wealthy southern parish.  I had been out of seminary for five years, having served primarily as vicar of a wonderful little congregation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

            At this large congregation, I was one of seven clergy on staff – four full-time priests, two part-time priests, and a part-time deacon.

            This congregation was located at the crossroads of a very wealthy neighborhood.  It was an institution of wealth and power.  On the first Easter after it was founded three decades earlier, more than 1,000 people attended the service.

            The church included a staff of over twenty people, including two full-time sextons.  A pre-school and kindergarten, with several hundred students, was located in its buildings.  A paid choir led the music.  More than 800 people typically attended the three Sunday services.

            At the 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service, I preached to more than 1,000 worshipers.

            You get the drift.

            The Vestry was comprised of CEOs of prominent corporations.  These people did not come to town on a watermelon truck.  As one might guess, the primary focus of Vestry meetings was finances.  Members pored over the financial statement with gimlet eyes for the details.

            That fall – 25 years ago – the congregation was entering into every member canvass.  The chair of the canvass was invited to address the Vestry to share his plans for the approaching campaign.  A cynical perspective might have been that, given the affluence of the congregation, the every-member canvass was like shooting fish in a barrel.  But it was not that simple; there was a massive institution to support.

            The chair of the committee came to the Vestry meeting to speak and share his plans.  The grace of God has allowed me to forget his name.  His opening salvo captured the essence of his plan:

            “I think our campaign theme should be simple – ‘Pony-up for the lord.’”

            No complicated theology.  No deep spirituality. Nothing to prompt thought or reflection. Simply pony-up.

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            Jesus is on the horns of a dilemma in the gospel lesson today.

            Keep in mind the setting in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus has already entered the Holy City of Jerusalem triumphantly on the day we call Palm Sunday.  Likewise, he has caused an uproar on the Temple Mount by throwing the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.

            To put it mildly, he has stuck his finger in the eye of the religious authorities.  So, the various influence groups of that day are seeking ways to trap him – in words or deeds.

            Significant groups would play their parts in the coming days.  The Pharisees were the experts on the Law and its many nuances of application.  The Sadducees were the wealthy, influential group, closely aligned with the ruling Roman authorities.  The third group, the Herodians, were closely tied to the Roman-sponsored, titular king, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

            In the gospel lesson today, it is the Pharisees and Herodians that are trying to entrap Jesus.  They conspired to ask him a question – a question which they believe has no suitable answer: “Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”

            They believe they have crafted the ideal question.  If he says that it is lawful to pay taxes, there would be an uprising from the Jewish population – a people who suffered under an oppressive and arbitrary tax burden from Rome.

            If, on the other hand, he said it was not lawful to pay taxes to Rome, he would offend the Roman authorities, who would quickly crush such a view.

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            Jesus is not going to be drawn in to one of their expected answers.  He says, “Show me the coin… Whose image is on it?”  The image on the coin, of course, is Caesar’s.

            Jesus’s response both avoids the obvious and invites reflection: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

            The questioners left in stunned silence.

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            It seems to be the case that Jesus frequently does not answer questions simply or easily.  To coin a word, he complexifies the answer.
            Over the last 10 years, people of all political stripes have differed over the things that are Caesar’s – or, to bring it closer to home, the things that are Washington’s… or, the things that are Montgomery’s.

            We make our views known through the ballot box, and some of us even express ourselves in communications to our elected leaders.  And every April 15, we render unto Caesar.

            The tension between the two poles – what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God – is complicated by this theological statement: “Stewardship is what we do with everything after we say, ‘I believe.’

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            Jesus’ model, as always, is a good one to follow… unlike the superficial slogan, “Pony up for the Lord.”  He does not simplify the challenge.  He actually adds layers of complication.
            He invites reflection.  He encourages discernment.  What belongs to God?

            That is a question which each of us should answer.  But it should not be without thought… without prayer… without heartfelt consideration.

            Such thought and reflection is the soul work into which Jesus invites us.  To discern what we are called to be and do.  To consider how we apportion the blessings of our lives.