Slideshow image

I think you’ll agree that the so-called children’s talk is a bit of a misnomer. Often, it is the place in the service where we all meet up to think about some of the foundational matters of our faith; matters that often continue to challenge our hearts and our minds into adulthood and beyond.

This morning we talked about how scripture can act as a mirror, reflecting, for good or ill, the values and personality of the person reading it. Bible passages can also resonate with the reader’s contemporary culture in a way that the original scripture writer did not intend.

All this to say, I don’t think the writer of Matthew meant for today’s gospel passage to read like a Facebook comments section gone bad, but when I picked it up earlier this week, that’s indeed how it struck me.

You’ve got all the players in place for a public show down. The Sadducees have just been knocked out of the running. Jesus has smacked them down in the exchange just preceding today’s gospel, in which Jesus parries their trick question about a widow with seven husbands, and life after death. Now, with the Sadducees silenced, the Pharisees step into the ring.

The Sadducees, an elite, conservative priestly group, have long-running disputes with the Pharisees, who in comparison are somewhat more liberal keepers and interpreters of Mosaic law. But they have found a common enemy in Jesus, who days before has entered Jerusalem to great popular acclaim, overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple, and is now telling stories that challenge the moral authority of those who govern religious observance.

So the Pharisees send out their best wordsmith, a lawyer, and we are told this lawyer asks a question to "test" Jesus, asking him what the greatest commandment is. Jesus comes through with the commandments on loving God and neighbour. Then Jesus parries back: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They answer "The son of David," which is an accurate retelling of the prophecy in the book of Samuel, so points to them. But in a surprise move, Jesus quotes back the first verse from Psalm 110, attributed to David, in which "the Lord" confusingly speaks to "my lord." Jesus points to this odd narrative construction and zings back with: "If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" Boom!

These days, we call that a 'mic drop.' A triumphant, show-stopping ending to a speech or performance. And, indeed the next verse reads: "No one was able to give [Jesus] an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions."

Well, that’s a great ending if you’re an aggressive Facebook poster, one of those folks who just love to get the better of each other on social media, arguing back and forth with so-called evidence to prove their view is the "right" view. But out here in the real world, is that really how we want our our debates to be resolved, with the losing party silenced and afraid to ask any more questions?

If we read on in Matthew, we read of Jesus charging the Pharisees and Sadducees of hypocrisy in no uncertain terms; his insults rival Shakespeare’s in their colourful imagery. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." (That’s a pretty good one, actually.) Or this: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth."

I mean, this stuff really stirs the blood. And it makes for good lines in epic movies, like Passion of the Christ. And scripturally, of course, it fits well into the grand narrative arc of Jesus’s last days in Jerusalem and the final battle between life and death, in which life ultimately triumphs. But again, as I read through Jesus’s various insults (like John the Baptist, he also indulges in some 'Brood of vipers" name-calling), I’m not sure we should be looking to this approach as a model for our conversations in the community. Let’s just say if I was planning an anger management seminar, I don’t think Jesus would be on top of my list for facilitator.

Righteous anger does, of course, have its place, and when battling great injustices in the world, push does indeed sometimes come to shove. But I suspect that for most of us, most of the time, our role in building God’s kingdom is not served by hurling insults, humiliating people, or pulling scripture verses out of context to try to prove a point. That’s called "proof texting," and the verses used to squash someone else’s views are sometimes called "bullet texts." I think we’ll all agree, though, that there are far too many bullets in the world as it is.

So how does scripture guide the manner in which we interact with the world around us? I think today’s epistle, an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, points us in the right direction. Paul says that in sharing the gospel, even in an environment opposed to it, "our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery." In other words, we aren’t trying to score one over on those who disagree with us. We truly must have others’ wellbeing in mind; be prepared to meet people where they are and walk alongside them without trying to shape them in accordance with an agenda of our own, an agenda that may be designed for our comfort more than theirs.

In his letter Paul says "We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us."

In other words, we act out our faith, as much as or more than we proclaim it. We walk the talk. We use scripture to ground and guide us more than we use it to force others’ way of thinking.

Our study of scripture makes us members of the oldest book club in the world. As I have said before, it is endlessly fascinating to me that we recite and consider and pray the same Hebrew passages that Jesus did. For thousands of years, sermons and poems and stories and articles have sprung from the same biblical passages we read each Sunday. Our commitment to a faithful, loving study of scripture puts us in kinship with this great cloud of witnesses. We, too, can find ourselves in the biblical story and trust that there is a place within it that is written just for us.

Any gardener will tell you about the benefits of deep roots, roots that continue to draw water when the plant’s surface roots are trapped within dirt dried out through drought or neglect. Whether you are an individual, a community or a culture, it is life-sustaining to remain connected with - not shackled by, but connected with - the deep roots and powerful stories that formed and nourished you.

In fact, our first and foundational baptismal promise is to keep growing those roots by continuing in the apostles’ fellowship and teaching, the breaking of bread and saying of prayers. It is in doing so that we gain the strength and resources to live up to the baptismal commitments that follow: promises such as resisting evil, serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice, and safeguarding the integrity of Creation.

A couple of years back we offered a Lenten study using the book How to Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible. I went back to it this week, and re-read the section in which Jesus is being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Like today’s gospel, it’s a story in which Jesus is engaged in a battle of wits and both sides are, accurately, quoting scripture to score points. However, the author of the book, Miranda Threllfall-Holmes, points out that Jesus calls up a quote from Deuteronomy that aligns his experience in the desert with the Israelites’ long exile in the wilderness. The author writes that it’s like Jesus is saying to the devil:

If I’m the Son of God? Well, I’m certainly a Son of Israel. This is my heritage, these are the promises I can claim and this is the greater story in which my own story takes on a wider meaning. My identity as a beloved child of God is unshakeable, because it rests on these firm foundations.

She goes on to say:

Knowing your roots is important for being able to stand firm when your sense of identity is questioned. This in itself provides a good reason to read the Bible and be familiar with its core stories. When all is going well, you may not feel you need it; but when things are difficult, having that foundation to stand firm on can be a lifeline.

So I urge you to throw yourself into the Bible, again and again and again. What do you see in it, and where do you see yourself in it? What do you hear that seems to speak directly to your own challenges and circumstances? And parallel to that, is your understanding of the Bible only a reflection of your own values and experiences? If so, what might we learn and how might we grow from hearing how the same stories are understood by people whose lives are vastly different than our own? One lifetime is not enough to learn all the lessons the Bible has to teach us, but we can make a start.

You can read the Bible in various versions, in hard copy or on your phone. You can reflect with others during our weekday Bible studies, or you can look at the interesting resources Jessica Schaap offers up on our diocesan website; I will include a link to that in the online text of this sermon. But please don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, the most enticing Advent study, or the newest study guide - those good intentions can magically morph into ongoing procrastination. Rather, just pick up the Bible and dive in. I  hope to see you there!