Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 25, 2020
Matthew 22: 34-46
There are times in life when we experience something that clearly defines for us what might be termed, ‘the way it is.’ Like a dose of reality served up in one easy package. These experiences are as varied as human experience. They serve to inform our world view.
Experience can define us; it can control us; or oppress us; experience can free us.
Sometimes we have no choice in the matter. Sometimes we are the ones who make the choice.
When I was 12 years old, I went along with my pals Marty and Craig while they made their paper route collections. It was a warm summer night, a Friday in fact. We rode our bikes. My bike was a clunky one speed that my folks bought at a police auction. My friends had decent bikes – three speeds or sting rays with banana seats.
We rode over and made some collections and then decided to leave when bigger boys started throwing rocks at us. We were making good progress on our bikes when they jumped on their bikes and made chase.
Marty and Craig could get away on their bikes, but I couldn’t on mine.
It was only right that they should save themselves along with a promise to “go get help.”
Soon thereafter I was surrounded.
There were too many of them for me to have any chance of fighting my way out and so I decided that whatever happened I was not going to cry and that would be victory enough. The leader of the pack stepped up to me. He wasn’t the biggest of the lot, but he was the meanest and he was two years older than me. They took what little money I had, shoved me around a bit and broke my glasses.
Then the head honcho said to his pals, “Okay he’s had enough.” And he put out his hand to me and said, “Want to be friends?”
Not sure what to think, thinking maybe what have I got to lose, I put my hand out and said, “Okay.”
Then he punched me in the face and said, “Some other time!”
They rode off just as Marty and Craig were rounding the corner with the promised reinforcements.
That moment crystalized for me a particular meaning of life – the promise verses the reality. Or I should say, the false promise.
The hand of friendship followed by the punch in the face.
The older we get the more we learn to live with realities that don’t meet our hopes and dreams. The longer we live the more we experience life as the proverbial punch in the gut. The challenge is learning how to take it in stride. Learning how to take a punch.
I believe that somewhere amidst all the mixed messages of our world, that there is the genuine hand of God reaching out in authentic love. How we find God’s love, how we embrace it and experience it is the journey of our lives.
When I was growing up, I became involved in a church where the people were serious about their religion. They presented a religion of absolutes. There was right and there was wrong – yes or no – no shades of grey – heaven or hell. In a world of uncertainty, I welcomed the idea that some things were absolute. When I was young, I wanted to know God on absolute terms; no messing about.
When you’re a child you tend to take things at face value. If the minister says you need to be saved by the blood of the lamb, or you’re going to hell, then I wanted to know how to pray that prayer. Especially when they were always reminding you, “If you die tonight …”
But I always wondered, “How can you be so sure?” If I asked the minister or people I respected, “How can you be so sure?” they usually said, “Pray about it and God will show you the way.” I used to own an answer bible that had different subjects listed in it. You could look up a problem or an issue and then find out what the bible said about it. All the studying and praying I did still left me wondering.
I decided to go to seminary to train to be a church minister. I wanted to be one of the people who knew things for sure on a way down deep basis. I thought if I spent some years studying faith, then I would be sure. Along the way someone at the church said to me, “Be careful when you go to seminary, John. People go there with good intentions, but they end up losing their faith.”
Oh don’t worry about me. That will never happen to me. I will never lose my faith. But sure enough, by the time I was ready to finish seminary, after four years of study on the subject, I had indeed “lost my faith.” The belief system I came in with was not the same as the one I carried out the door.
There was a time when I thought I should be able to carry God around, rather like a cell phone with the latest apps on it. But the more I pondered about God, the bigger God became. In time God got so big that God no longer fit into the neat little package that had once been my faith.
That happens when people outgrow their religious upbringing. One option then is to stop believing altogether. If I can’t trust in an either/or answer for everything, then there must not be a God. If God is an angry tyrant that says you’re going to hell if you think the wrong thing, then there must not be a God. If God is just a violent bully who throws pain into your life to teach you a lesson, then there must not be a God.
Another option, and maybe the harder option than just not believing altogether, is to believe in a God who cannot be contained within the limits of human thinking; to realize that God is beyond measure; that God is mystery. That kind of God raises a lot of questions; questions that don’t have easy answers.
It’s when we give up thinking we have to carry God around, that we discover God is carrying us. When we let go of our need to defend God, we discover God doesn’t need our defence. We find out that being certain is not important. Faith is more like the writer describes it as, “Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
People asked Jesus about faith. Some people who were full of their own sense of importance would argue with him about it. He didn’t seem to worry about winning them over. He focused on his mission, to reach people who wanted to hear the good news. They were often the ones in the margins. The poor, the sick and the lame. The lepers and the outcasts. The sinners and the people broken down by life. The folks who might just be receptive to the message of love; of God saying, “let me share the load.”
One time someone asked Jesus what the most important rule of life was; the first commandment in front of them all. That was simple: “the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Basically, he was saying, “Put God first. Don’t worry about trying to figure out God, or to explain God. That you cannot do. Just love God; that you can do.”
That seems odd in a way. In order to know God, love God. You would think that Jesus might say, “In order to know God you need to study on God.” But when you think about it, the people you know the best tend to be the ones you love the most.
That’s probably why Jesus didn’t leave it at a simple answer. He said, “There’s a second one close to it: love your neighbour as yourself.” Don’t worry about trying to earn extra credit through some complicated assignment. Just love God and love your neighbour. That is a formula that has yet to be improved upon.
Jesus told him, “Everything hangs on this.”
We can see all to clearly how our world is filled with hatred and violence and religion that promotes the lie of a hateful and violent God. But we know in our heart of hearts that’s a reflection of our own fear and loathing.
I tend to tell folks, “Live your hopes and not your fears.” For me it’s not a pie in the sky fantasy; for me it’s a reality that can carry us through difficult times. Like the present times. Living with hope is described for me in a statement from one my colleagues in Australia. It speaks to me, I hope it speaks to you:
Some years ago, I came across a statement by a fellow named Bruce Prewer. It has become part of my manifesto; it speaks to me, so I hope it speaks to you:
“Although I may spend all my days with disjointed relationships around and conflicts within me, I believe in ultimate reconciliation.
I believe in the reconciling of all things through the grace of Christ.
Personal relationships shall not remain locked in alienation forever.
Misunderstanding and suspicion shall not always subvert openness.
Resentment and revenge shall not prevail over forgiveness.
Tyranny and exploitation, shall not perpetually trample on justice
Violence, terrorism and war, shall not always outgun peace.
Carelessness and apathy shall not forever diffuse compassion.
Personal and political deceits shall not overwhelm integrity.
Prejudice and discrimination and shall never strangle goodwill.
Graft and corruption shall not put paid to honour and trust.
Ignorance and blind dogmatism shall not finally divide and rule over truth.
I believe in peace.
I believe in grace.
I believe in love.
I believe in God.
Because I believe in Christ, I believe that love will have the last word.”
God is love – no matter what. When God reaches out the hand of love there is no hidden agenda. When God asks, “Do you want to be friends?” it’s not a trick question. Amen.