Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Zoom Summer Worship – 8th after Pentecost
July 18, 2021
Psalm 90.1-6, 12-17
A Prayer of Moses.
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
You can see why the Pharisees and Sadducees stopped asking him questions. That last answer, about David and who calls who Lord, was too confusing to argue with. It was a piece of insiders’ language game. Two thousand years later, the Biblical scholars still can’t agree on what exactly he was talking about.
In some ways you say that this passage exemplifies all that is right and all that is wrong with our faith. We begin with pristine and unassailable truths. Here Jesus plainly states that love is the centre of everything – the basis of devotion to God, and of our connection to the world around us. And that loving God and neighbour are really the only two commandments. As he puts it, all the law and all the prophets hang on this. Stick to the basics, he said. Just love God and love your neighbour.
But then that second bit, about who reports to who on the throne of heaven: it adds complexity without clarity, crashes over the stumbling-block of hierarchy. It is a distraction. And you could say that that is the story of Christian history. People begin with something simple and true but won’t leave it alone. Start with a diamond and then add layers of costume jewellery. Go from a stable in Bethlehem to a palace in Rome.
In her book The Great Emergence, the American theologian Phyllis Tickle notes that about every 500 years Christianity has a gigantic rummage sale, sifting through its attics and basements and spare rooms, throwing out old junk, sometimes rediscovering old treasures. The most recent of these rummage sales was the Reformation, when Western Christianity divided broadly into Catholicism and Protestantism. In that great down-sizing, they threw out the sale of indulgences, and the authority of the Pope, and clerical celibacy – and one of the treasures discovered was the reading of scripture in one’s own language. In the United Church, our own inheritance of faith has been shaped profoundly by that major upheaval, and we give thanks for the reformers on this October day. On Reformation Sunday we commemorate the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany.
People say that the church is in one of its rummage sales right now. Different people identify different signs of this – the collapse of numbers in the northern hemisphere, the distancing from political influence, the dramatic rise of Pentecostal Christianity throughout the developing world, the increased interest in interfaith dialogue, and decreasing interest in denominational boundaries. More experimentation? More theological freedom? A general reconfiguration to shed our colonial and racist past? I am not sure we know what is going on, because we are right in it. But it is clear that the church that we have known is not the church that is emerging.
And there is some encouraging news. If a year ago we thought that big changes to church life would make it too hard for people to sustain their faith journey, we now have some evidence to the contrary. If we had said let’s try not gathering in the sanctuary, let’s not sing together, or share soup and a sandwich afterwards, people probably would have said, forget it. If someone had said, let’s do church by ZOOM, I think many might have said, I’m not doing that. And yet here we are, discovering by necessity rather than by choice that the essentials of our faith are not bound up completely in the habits we have had. We have found new ways to worship, and to connect with one another, and to explore the dimensions of our call to serve the world God loves. If anything, we have discovered that our tradition is to not stick to our traditions. However challenging these months have been, they have reminded us that what the church is is simply whatever we do to help each other love God, and love neighbour. The prayers and phone calls, the support to local food programmes, the engagement in anti-racism studies, the invitation today to talk with John Sewell about policing* – in all these things, we are being the church.
And we will be able to continue, even as the months wear on and we begin to see which changes are permanent and which need even more adjustment, if we can keep love at the centre. Jesus told his disciples then and now to stick to the basics, and for this we give God thanks. Amen.
[*Note, John Sewell spoke to the congregation after worship when this sermon was first delivered on October 25, 2020.]