“Good News for Hard Times” by Pat Conover

October 29, 2017

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

I’ve had a couple of months to think about what I want to lift up in this sermon and I’ve changed my mind several times. Deborah began her sermon earlier this month with a list of her concerns about some of the bad things happening since Trump became President. It caught my attention. Some additional comments within our mission group, and some of our prayers, have steered me to look for the good news of salvation in our current disheartening context.

I follow Elizabeth in seeing Matthew’s gospel in the context of the exile narrative in Hebrew Scripture. This sermon picks up the exile theme, but differs from Hebrew Scripture in an important way. This sermon is about exile in place, not exile in a foreign land, not much focused on land ownership in general.

I confess I feel alienated from Trump, and have constructed enemy pictures of the people who still support Trump, but I am not about to give up my hopeful vision of the United States. I’m not about to step aside from the challenges Trump poses and moan about my powerlessness. I offer just a taste of my alienation from Trump by drawing upon Aristotle’s Book One of Nichomachean Ethics, a book referenced for the current School of Christian Growth Class on virtue ethics. Aristotle describes a man named Sardanapullus, a man in a high place, as an example of the most vulgar type of men, men who prefer a life suitable to beasts, men who focuses on being entertained as the highest good. I did not do all that was mine to do to stop Trump and I accept some of the guilt for the results. And let me clear. I would have felt guilty in a different way if Hilary Clinton had won.

I’m thankful that many of you are doing some things to resist Trump and to elect better government officials. I’m particularly thankful for those of you who have accepted the opportunities in the almost here elections in Virginia.

There is always another election to care about. The food we need for the long haul is character, commitment, guidance, and morale. And most of all we need a desire, grounded in love, to act to help those most in need. Our weekly Prayer of Commitment asks for more than weak wishing. Claiming our citizenship opportunities is one way to help those in need. With our challenges in mind, this sermon looks to Matthew for guidance.

We don’t know anything about the author of Matthew as a person other than that he clearly cared about Hebrew Scripture and that he wrote in Greek. I think this is enough to picture him as a diaspora Jew who was trying to make sense of Jesus in that context. We do know a lot about his narrative, his audience, and his terrible circumstances that cried out for Saving Truth.

Matthew addresses a very different audience, in a very different historical and cultural context, than Jesus did. We can reasonably consider the stories Matthew tells about Jesus as they are relevant for Matthew’s concern about the divisiveness in the churches that were his audience.

Matthew’s selectivity, and the concerns of Matthew that shaped the image of Jesus that he wrote, make for a dim and cloudy image of the actual Jesus. Scholars have tried to bring light and clarity to the actual Jesus for centuries. My best understanding is that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who was welcomed to speak in synagogues in and around Galilee, a rabbi trained in the Pharisaic tradition of Hillel rather than the Pharisaic tradition of Shammai. Shammai Pharisees are the opponents of Jesus named by Matthew as just Pharisees. A lot of the disputes between Jesus and Matthew’s Pharisees fit pretty well with images of conflicts between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai, conflicts that sometimes included murders. By Matthew’s time the dominance of Shammai Pharisees was much reduced and the prestige of Hillel Pharisees much enhanced.

It is clear to me, and some other scholars, that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and that some or all of his close followers were also followers of John the Baptist. Taken together, Jesus and his followers were Galilean Jews worshiping in the context of synagogues. Jesus continued the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist and took his prophetic message to Jerusalem where, in one way or another, he confronted the temple priests who were colluding with Kind Herod in ruling Judah and Israel for the economic benefit of Rome. The priests teamed with Pilate and crucified Jesus in about 33 c.e.

Jesus, understood as a follower of John the Baptist, attacked the religious practice of food sacrifices as the heart of temple ritual and income, imaged as overturning the tables of the money-changers. Repeatedly propitiating an angry image of God with animal sacrifices was replaced by preaching once and for all forgiveness of sins by a loving God through the ritual of baptism. After the crucifixion of Jesus, it was a small theological step to explain the shaming death of crucifixion as instead the act by which God put aside his anger and once again showed love for those who believe in the loving God images also found in Hebrew Scripture.

The rebellious image of Jesus as a Galilean Jew, perhaps without saying a rebellious word, challenged the collusive hypocrisy of the priests with Rome. The responsiveness of the crowds can be understood as an expression of Jewish dissatisfaction with the religious and political aspects of their status quo.

Matthew wrote his gospel at least fifty years after the death of Jesus, perhaps as much as ninety years after the death of Jesus. Some very big things happened in the intervening decades. The times of Jesus were pretty harsh. The times of Matthew were devastation and multiple aspects of calamity.

Like a lot of progressive scholars, I am far more interested in Jesus and his close followers than I am in Matthew and his interests. To be blunt, I don’t like a lot of what Matthew did in retelling the received narratives of Jesus. However, facing into the challenge of looking for the Saving Truth coming out of Matthew’s pen, has prompted me to more sympathy for Matthew. I am more thankful for what Matthew provides, even though I remain irritated with his framing, irritated that he left out so much that I want to know about Jesus and his close followers, and never will. Oddly, I think my challenge to appreciate Matthew a little more has illuminated my understanding of where Saving Truth can be found in the darkness of our here and now circumstances.

First, a brief history lesson which includes a couple of things I learned in preparing for this sermon and wish I had learned a long time ago.

The First Church of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem around Peter and James the brother of Jesus. There were synagogues in Jerusalem, not just the Temple. The First Church of Jesus was a collaboration of Galilean followers in Jerusalem, perhaps housed in a Galilean oriented synagogue, perhaps just a friendship network, meeting in homes, such as the famed Upper Room where the narrative of the first communion meal took place.

After Jesus was crucified, the courageous disciples returned to the Temple Court Yards where Jews commonly gathered. They spoke out to continue the disruptive Saving Truth of Jesus, even though they met the same resistance and threats of the Temple Priests who had engineered the crucifixion of Jesus.

A catastrophe changed the First Century Judaism that was the context for the spiritual development of Jesus, that gave context and meaning to the life and ministry of Jesus. It changed the awareness of “world” for the close followers of Jesus. In the year 66 ce, Florus, then Roman Procurator in Jerusalem, stole a lot of silver from the Temple. This prompted a big riot in which the small garrison of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem were killed. Cestus Gallus, a Roman general in Syria, responded by sending a Roman troop to quell the uprising. The Jerusalem Jews killed the troop. It was a heady moment for rebellion and a lot of Jews rallied to the call of revolution in the tradition of the Maccabees.

Rome realized that the situation was getting out of hand, so they redirected an Army of 60,000 heavily armed professional troops to take over. The first and only large scale battles took place in Galilee, which was the most radicalized area of Judaism. That bit of history had escaped me and has adjusted my picture of what it meant to be a Galilean Jew. The Jews in Jerusalem did nothing to help the Galilean Jews. The Roman Army killed, or sold into slavery, about 100,000 Galilean Jews.

The remaining Galilean Jewish fighters retreated to Jerusalem, the walled fortress on a hill that had withstood many attacks down the centuries. The Galileans killed many of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who had not come to help them. The Jerusalem Jewish leaders had prepared for a siege of Jerusalem by stockpiling a lot of food. The Galileans burned the food in a failed effort to force the Jerusalem Jews to join them in fighting Rome. When Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, starvation was terrible. More fighting broke out in Jerusalem between the Galileans and the citizens of Jerusalem. In 70 ce the Romans broke through a wall into Jerusalem and an orgy of killing and destruction followed. The Temple was destroyed. Thus ended the dominance of Temple Judaism. The historic path of Judaism became the path of synagogue Judaism in the diaspora, in exile.

The Roman genocide of Jerusalem, in addition to destroying the Temple, also killed off the First Church of Jesus. The influence of the close followers of Jesus in shaping the religion of Jesus as a Jewish sect, was mostly lost. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all treat the close followers of Jesus, reimaged as the Twelve Disciples, as people who didn’t understand or appreciate Jesus. Instead, Matthew and the others picked up on the theology of Paul and emphasized the Risen Christ. This refocusing can be understood as a theological response to existential exile, referenced to the feeling: this world is not our home.

In addition to existential crisis, economic crisis, and political crisis, the churches in the time of Matthew were struggling with the cultural calamity of transition from a Jewish ethnic base for theology and tradition, to a Gentile cultural base for theology and tradition. For example, Matthew focuses heavily on claiming that it is Christians, not Jews, who have the true claim to be the promised people in the narrative of Abraham. They claimed that Jesus was and is the Messiah the Jews had long sought, even though Jesus didn’t act like the Messiah imaged in Hebrew Scripture. Though named as Son of David, Jesus did not restore the Davidic realm.

Matthew and others claimed that the calamity of Jerusalem and Temple was God’s punishment of the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. With that theme of prophecy and theology, it is easy to see why the two groups in Matthew’s churches were moving toward total separation. The Great Commandments are loving guidance for healing divisions, but that didn’t make it easy guidance. It isn’t easy guidance now.

The First Church of Antioch became the First Church of Christianity. Some scholars think that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Antioch. The First Church of  Antioch may have been killed off or dispersed in the Second Jewish revolt in 132 ce. There are still remnants of Christian groups carrying a tradition going back to the times of that early church. What is left of them have been mostly forced into exile by the current war in Syria.

ith this history in mind we are better prepared to understand and appreciate Matthew’s Gospel. The collection of diaspora Jews and Gentile believers had preserved some oral stories of Jesus, had a document of the saying of Jesus that scholars call Q, and had the cobbled together narrative notes we call Mark as the narrative backbone for Matthew.

The stories of efforts of the Sadducees and Pharisees trying to get Jesus on record for traitorous provocation made sense in the context of memories of the great calamities in Galilee and Jerusalem. The leaders of the two Jewish factions in Jerusalem were part of the Sanhedrin We can think of the Sanhedrin as sort of Jerusalem’s court and legislature, with the temple priests backed by Rome as sort of being the executive function. The Sanhedrin, at least within the narrative of Matthew, was guilty of silence as an acceptance of collusion in the face of the power of of the temple priests and Rome.

The scripture we have in today’s lectionary continues the theme of Jesus being clever enough to fend off the Shammai Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both Jewish factions knew and cared about the Law and the Prophets as fundamental guidance. Jesus appealed to their core values. The story of Jesus quoting the great commandments, and linking the second to the first, is in full accord with the guidance of Hillel who emphasized interpreting the spirit of the law. Remembering that most of contemporary Judaism also looks to Hillel for guidance, points to the opportunity for bridge building, to a dialogue of sympathy and cooperation between progressive Christians and progressive Jews.

In our time, we can do more than merely being friendly with progressive Jews and progressive Muslims. We can examine and claim theological commonalities as shared faith guidance to challenge the collusion of Trump with right wing Christian fundamentalists such as Franklin Graham and Roy Moore. We can claim faith reasons for challenging the idolatry of white nationalism, sex and gender exploitation, religious bigotry, environmental degradation, and hostility to those most in need. We need to do our part even when that is difficult and uncomfortable. We need to do it for the sake of our own salvation, and for the sake of the people we claim we care about.

Let’s listen freshly to verses 34-39 of the Twenty-second chapter of Matthew as found in the New Revised Standard Version. I’m reading the word translated as Teacher as Rabbi.

Hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees came together in a body, and one of them tried to catch him out with a question: “Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment in the law? He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the greatest, the first commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.”

Will we take the Great Commandments seriously in our personal lives and together in Seekers. These commandments require a lot more than tithing, a lot more than voting.

Will we love God, ourselves, and our neighbors with all that we are in our inward journeys, in living into Seekers as our spiritual community, in following our callings in our outward journeys?

We are not directed to get rich according to the heresy of the prosperity gospel leaders. We are not directed to become famous or powerful. We are not directed to measure ourselves and each other by the success of our efforts. Being wrong in the right direction is good enough for entering and remaining in the heart of Christian community. We run on confession, forgiveness, and repentance; not on prestige, recognition, and good works.

I drew the easiest interpretive task by preaching today. The simplest statement of Saving Truth is not a statement that sets Jesus apart from Judaism. It isn’t John 3:16 commonly read as a divisive rallying cry. Jesus, speaking out of the heart of Judaism, focused on sufficient guidance for hard times. It is more radical than a mere cry for justice. Saving Truth is not defeated by injustice. It is courage to right what is wrong that is not the same as romantic heroism treasuring the status of fighters. Even when it is time to fight, we are lovers first. That is the source of our courage and hope.

We are not in prison. We are not powerless. We need not be estranged from governance. We bear the burden, guilt, and opportunity that comes with being religious leaders. We bear the burden, guilt, and opportunity that comes with being citizens and friends of Rome, who can support Rome and change Rome.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the greatest, the first commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything in the law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments.”