October 29, 2017 Sermon

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 25


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                       Scripture: Matthew 22:34-46

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30


Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to embolden us to trust that in Jesus you have given us so much that we need not fear being equally as generous toward you and others through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


If there is one thing we might all universally dislike, maybe even fear, it is tests.  There are math tests, history tests, English tests, computer skills tests, and many more.  Just the word test can make us tense, nauseous, anxious, or break out in a cold sweat.  We don’t like to be tested.  Tests put us on the line.  Are we prepared?  Do we know?  Are we competent?  And, the bottom line, maybe I’m not so smart.


I remember a spelling test in the first grade.  There may have been five or six words.  The teacher had told us to expect the test.  I thought I would do a little extra preparation and wrote the words on the Crayola box, stored beneath my desk.  Yes, I had intended to cheat if I could not recall the spelling.  As it turned out when the test was administered, I did remember the correct spelling.  Never did I surreptitiously glance down at my box of crayons.

The teacher graded our tests on the spot.  She walked by our desks one by one.  Looking at my test, she gave me a grade of one hundred, but as she rose up from grading my paper, she bumped my desk and out slid my box of crayons. There was no way I could explain that I did not cheat, though I had certainly planned for the possibility.  Seeing the words on the box, she scratched out the 100, gave me an F, and jerked my ear. The fear of tests can motivate us in ways we might not normally behave.


In my years of getting an education, there is no telling how many tests I have taken.  There are, though, tests that are other than found in the traditional classroom.  Most of us have known them in respect to our jobs or professions.  In that respect the Series Seven Test, which I took in order to get licensed as a stock broker, especially stands out. After spending a week in a cram course, all of us went from Birmingham, AL to Atlanta to be tested.  The large testing room was amphitheater in shape.  My fellow test takers and I were jammed in, virtually elbow to elbow. Monitors watched us like hawks.  One did not dare let one’s eyes rest other than on the glaring white pages of the test for fear of being accused.  The test was bad enough, lasting 6 hours, without being accompanied by paranoia.


Perhaps, the tests we complain about the most are those which test our patience.  You know, long lines, traffic, or worst of all, talking to some non-English speaking computer technician about what is wrong with our computer.  Even worse than any of these tests are those over which we have little control.  We cannot study for them or tell ourselves that patience is a virtue.  No, we are mere victims before them, hapless onlookers, praying and hoping for the best.   You know them.  What’s your cholesterol level; how’s your blood sugar, what about your blood pressure, your liver chemistry, or your white count?  These tests test our state of health.  With them the question of making the grade, takes on an entirely different meaning; indeed, our very lives may hang in the balance.


In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we observe that it is Jesus Himself who is again being tested by the Pharisees.  In last Sundays’ gospel He was tested by both the Pharisees and Herodians.  They asked Him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  His answer amazed them, and they went away. Today’s test question to Jesus was also an attempt to trip Him up.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?


We are so used to hearing the answer to that question that we might think that the answer was an easy one.  However, if we consider that by the time of Jesus the Jews had managed to turn Ten Commandments into 616, maybe a multiple choice question then wasn’t quite as easy as we might have experienced.  A lot of time had passed since Moses.  A lot had happened since then.  Priorities can change for better or worse and maybe what was once the greatest commandment in the law was no longer.  Recently, I came across the following, as a disturbing illustration.


A number of Christian groups in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area sponsor The Harvard Veritas Forum. The promotional literature includes a little reflection on the official symbol of Harvard, a shield bearing the one word Veritas [Truth]. It was not always so. The original symbol had Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae – “Truth for Christ and Church.” That, in the original, was followed by John 8:31, 32.  And Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching … you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” In addition, in the original, the shield also exhibited three books, two opened and one turned face down, acknowledging the limits of human reason.


Today, Harvard’s symbol makes no reference to Christ and the Church, or to John 8. In addition, the third book is now opened, suggesting that we know it all, or soon will. Today, Harvard proclaims just Veritas. Veritas for nothing, which can mean Veritas for anything, which, as human experience instructs us, can turn out to be the death of Veritas, so observed Richard John Neuhaus (First Things, February 1993, 76.)  Of course, Harvard is just one example of how priorities have changed and not for the better.  What is the first and greatest commandment of this country?  Is it thou shall not offend thy neighbor?


As we heard, Jesus answered the Pharisees’ question about the greatest commandment, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is a cozy, curl up with a good book kind of answer—a feel good kind of answer that makes us nod with approval, as it probably did the Pharisees.  “What the world needs now is love sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there is just too little of,” right?  (Remember Dionne Warwick singing that.) The Pharisees did not object to Jesus’ answer.  It was spot on.  He had passed their test. Who could argue or disagree with love, love for God, love for neighbor, but is it that simple?


The now deceased motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, tells the following story in his book, See You At The Top: “An old man stood on a Virginia riverbank many years ago. He was waiting to cross the river and, since it was bitterly cold and there were no bridges, he would have to “catch a ride” to the other side. After a lengthy wait he spotted a group of horsemen approaching. He let the first one pass, then the second, third, fourth and fifth. One rider remained. As he drew near, the old man looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, would you give me a ride across the river?”


The rider immediately replied, “Certainly.”  Once across the river, the old man slid to the ground. “Sir,” the rider said before leaving. “I could not help but notice that you permitted all the other men to pass without asking for a ride. Then, when I drew near, you immediately asked me to carry you across. I am curious as to why you didn’t ask them and you did ask me.”


The old man quietly responded, “I looked into their eyes and could see no love and knew in my own heart it would be useless to ask for a ride. But when I looked into your eyes, I saw compassion, love and the willingness to help. I knew you would be glad to give me a ride across the river.”  The rider was touched. “I’m grateful for what you are saying,” he said. “I appreciate it very much.” With that, the rider, Thomas Jefferson, turned and rode off to the White House.   Ziglar reminds us that our eyes are the windows of our souls. Then he asks a pointed question: “If you had been the last rider, would the old man have asked you for a ride?”


Ziglar’s example of loving one’s neighbor is well taken, but what of loving God.  Did not Jesus say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love of God comes first and before love of one’s neighbor.  We might cast that first priority aside, thinking it a bit vague.  How does one love God, anyway?  Here’s the thing.  Can we really love our neighbors, in all their various permutations, if we don’t love God first?


I would suggest that this is exactly where Harvard and others have lost their bearings.  They love their neighbor, but without loving God first they love only a certain preferred group of their neighbors. This is why evangelism, bringing people to Jesus, is the first step in bringing about harmony between disparate groups in our society, and not by some kind of sensitivity training.


Jesus passed the Pharisees test about which commandment was greatest in the Law, and now it was time for Him to give them a test.  You and I have the advantage of hindsight here, but the Pharisees had no such perspective.  It is one thing to be tested in school subject like math or history, but what of being tested by God?  Can we prepare for His test, never mind pass it?  Jesus, is God, right?


Let’s admit it.  For the most part we like things in black and white.  We want ideas clearly articulated.  We want facts that are practical and practicable.  Show me the best way to raise my children or show me how I can improve my marriage.  We like things to be measurable and tied up with a bow, so that we can easily carry them around with us.  Don’t give us a test that, well, takes us out of our comfort zone.  I want the familiar, the same old tried and true way.  Isn’t that what we say to ourselves?  Part of the distress that some feel about what is going in this country today is about just that.  They want the familiar despite that the familiar was falling much shorter than realized.


So Jesus, that is God, posed the Pharisees a question, and boy was it a doozy! “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 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?


Most of us, I suspect, have heard those riddles that asked a similar kind of question.  How can your uncle be your brother and the grandfather of your children, who are your first cousins?  In a sense, it is the kind of question, the kind of test that Jesus threw at the Pharisees.  It is the kind of question that leaves us scratching our heads and for sure left the Pharisees scratching theirs.  How can one answer such a seemingly preposterous question?  It would seem to be a test that all would fail.


In the fall of 1997, before seminary, Emily and I went to St. James Episcopal Church in Fairhope, AL for a teaching/healing mission by Bishop David Pytches.  Pytches is not only a proponent of the gifts of the Spirit, healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues along with interpretation as well as the rest; he is also an authentic practitioner, meaning that when he ministers the Holy Spirit moves mightily.  As I stood before him and he prayed for me, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully, causing me to rest in the Spirit.  As I lay there on the floor along with a number of others, I heard God speak to me through my thoughts. This is what he said: “I have given you more than I gave you.”  “I have given you more than I gave you.”


The verb tense gave me pause.  Had God somehow made a revision in what He had given me, and now given me more?  What did that mean?  God knows the future.  Why the change in plans?  I must confess that I still ponder the meaning of His words.  What more had He given me?  Was I, am I now living into that more He gave me?  It is a mind teaser.


In other words, Jesus had asked the Pharisees to think outside the box.  What’s the expression—don’t put God in a box?  The Pharisees had done just that, no less perhaps than we ourselves have done.  We put God in a box, expecting Him to act in a certain way, do a certain thing.  It says right here in the Bible that if I pray a certain way, God will do this, doesn’t it?  If I am good, won’t God answer my prayer?  So, what gives?  Why has God not done the way we thought He would or should?  Have we put God in a box, or is it really ourselves we have put in a box?


Jesus was telling the Pharisees, though they had yet to comprehended it (i.e., they were in that box) that God was giving them more.  Yes, the messiah was the son of David, but He was also the Son of God.  God was giving His people in Jesus more than He had given them in the Law of Moses, perhaps even more than the prophets had foreseen.  This is beyond the simplicity of black and white, but no less real.  What then does the question about the greatest commandment have to do with Jesus’ question about whose son is the messiah?  Is that the unspoken test question in today’s gospel reading?


I am not sure there is an easy answer to that question. Maybe, it is a false question.  We can say this, though.  The Pharisees had asked the very person who commanded the commandment in the first place—God in Christ, what is the greatest commandment.  There is almost humor in that thought.  Equally amusing, they did not know it was that God in Christ who was speaking to them.


The title of this sermon is Tests, and we have looked at several.  There is, though, one test left and it may surprise you.  Did you know that we can test God?  We find this in the Old Testament book of Malachi 3:10.  Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.


Yes, this does have to do with stewardship.  God through the prophet Malachi has said for us to test Him.  Test Him by giving 10 percent of our income, our talent, and our time and He will bless us until it overflows.  What about it?  Are we willing to test God on this point? Give Him 10 percent and watch Him bless us beyond our imagining.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.