Division is nothing new


Sermon for October 25th, 2020


Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Division is nothing new. 

People have been divided from one another almost since they first walked the earth. We love to separate ourselves into factions, into parties, or clans, or races, or cultures, or nations; we divide ourselves up into groups and then we look for and find easy ways to sort people into one group or another. Are you using the right words or the right language? Do you look like someone that I might like? Are you hanging out with the right people? Are you supporting all of the same causes that I support? Very often we will find out one thing about someone and we think that that tells us everything we need to know about that person. Humans have always been prone to doing this; it seems like division is a terrible problem right now, and it is, but it’s not new. 

There is real division going on in the background in today’s gospel passage. You may not immediately recognize it, the names of the parties may be unfamiliar, but Jesus is preaching to people that are divided. And I’m not talking about division between the Jews and the Romans, I’m talking about division within the Jewish people. Jesus’s own people, people of the same race and the same religion are divided amongst themselves. There were different parties of Jews in Jesus’s time and the two main parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 

Now we aren’t a church where people generally take notes or write things down during the sermon, but please at least make a mental note of this distinction, because the conflict or the division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is going on in the background throughout the gospels, and Jesus and his followers are often getting caught in the middle of it. You need to understand who these people are.

The Sadducees are Jews that take a very strict narrow reading of scripture and they are really only concerned with the Five Books of Moses. The prophets, the histories, the wisdom literature, the Sadducees don’t care much about those scriptures. The Sadducees are in charge of the worship in the temple. The rituals and the sacrifices, these are the things that are the primary concerns of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were also the elite. They had the political power and influence at the time of Jesus. There is also one other curious thing about the Sadducees: they didn’t believe in an afterlife. The idea that someday the dead would come back to life, the idea of resurrection which eventually becomes a central tenet of the Christian faith, the Sadducees didn’t believe that. Once you were dead, you were dead, that’s what the Sadducees believed.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very concerned with the study of scripture and with tradition. And the Pharisees didn’t just study the law (the five books of Moses), like the Sadducees, they also studied the prophets. And while the Sadducees ran the temple in Jerusalem, it was the Pharisees that ran the synagogues throughout the land. The Pharisees cared about ethics and right conduct, because the Pharisees believed in a future judgement. The Pharisees had a bit more of the common touch about them; they were more popular and perhaps a little less elitist than those Sadducees that ran the temple. And most distinctively, the Pharisees believed in an immortal soul. The idea that someday the dead will rise again, it is the Pharisees that believe that and that belief is forevermore causing friction with the Sadducees. 

So you have these two Jewish parties that don’t agree and don’t really like each other. And then you have Jesus, who comes along preaching to both groups. Now you will recall that the Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, but Jesus does believe in a resurrection. Jesus says he IS the resurrection. Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees than he does with the Sadducees. Jesus studies the prophets; Jesus worships in the synagogues as well as in the temple. Jesus has a lot in common with the Pharisees, and maybe that is why he is so critical of them. 

But one time the Sadducees tried to make fun of Jesus’s belief in the resurrection. They asked him if a woman marries seven times and then dies, when she is resurrected who will she belong to? And Jesus answered  them and said: she will belong to God. Well that shut the Sadducees up for a while. And when the Pharisees heard about it they said to themselves “aha! This guy is on our side!” So the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into making an overt statement that would condemn the Sadducees. They wanted to force Jesus to pick a side. Maybe they wanted to use Jesus to further their division with the Sadducees. 

So they ask him “what is the greatest commandment?” 

Well Jesus was never afraid of being controversial, but this time his answer was completely uncontroversial: Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. This was straight from Deuteronomy. This was something that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have agreed upon. They had different ideas about how to go about it, but even the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, even they loved God. The Pharisee that asked this question probably hoped that Jesus would pick something that the Sadducees disagreed with, but he didn’t. He picked what united them.

And then he adds, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law…and the prophets…I imagine Jesus added, glaring down at the Pharisees. You want to use your tradition to separate yourselves from one another…and all the while your own tradition and your own God, is telling you that you need to love one another. 

People have been trying to use Jesus as a tool and as a wedge in their own divisions since he walked this earth. But Jesus wouldn’t play that game then, so I can’t imagine he’s going to play it now. The Pharisees were looking for another reason to be separated from their neighbors the Sadducees, and instead Jesus gave them a reason to come together.

When we ask Jesus what is right, are we doing so because we actually want to be closer to God, or are we asking so that we can separate ourselves a little more from our neighbors? Are we looking for reasons to be divided, or are we looking for reasons to love? 

I think that human behaviour has been much the same throughout history, but so too has been God’s response. We want to tear ourselves apart; God wants to call us back together.

Why did Paul write this letter?


Sermon for Sunday, October 4th, 2020


Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In our second reading today, we hear Paul addressing the Philippians. We’ve gotten little snippets of this letter for the past couple weeks, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re only looking at a little portion of a scripture to get the bigger picture. It’s not enough to just sit and hear a few verses of scripture and then go home and think you’ve got it. You need to be prepared to ask the scripture some questions. You need to dig a little deeper.

Now the questions that I usually start with, whenever I approach a scripture are the 5 W’s that most of us were probably taught in high school or junior high: Who, What, When, Where, Why

Who is writing this? What are they saying? When was this written? Where was this written? Why was this written?

Now if you get a good study bible, and I highly recommend that you do get a good study bible, you may find the answers to some of these questions in an introduction in front of each book. Answers to questions like “who do we think wrote this?” “When do we think it was written?” “Where do we think it was written?” I say “we think” because to be honest we don’t always know for sure, but sometimes we have a good idea because the text gives us clues. 

So for instance, this is the Letter to the Philippians, it was written by the Apostle Paul, probably late in his career in the early 60s AD, Paul was writing it in prison, but we’re not 100% sure where. So that answers The Who, the when, and the where. So what about the what? What is Paul saying in this passage we heard this morning?

Well, this morning Paul gives us a tiny little glimpse of his background: he was a faithful Jew, he was raised to take God’s laws seriously, he was someone who strove to be righteous, he was an accomplished person,

 but he says none of that means more to me than knowing Jesus Christ. 

Paul wants to know Jesus. That is what Paul is saying here. Paul wants to know Jesus.

Now Paul knows that he’s not Jesus, he knows that he’s not following Christ perfectly, but that is his goal. Paul wants to know Jesus and to be like him as much as he possibly can, even if that means suffering and dying like Jesus did. 

So that is some of what Paul is saying in his letter, at least the part we heard today, but why is Paul saying it?

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Well, they know he is in prison and likely suffering, so we can begin by saying he is writing to encourage them and to console them. Don’t worry about me. I’m ok. 

They slipped him a little money in their last letter, so he is also writing to thank them, even though he also wants to assure them that he really doesn’t need anything. 

So consolation and thanksgiving, those are a couple reasons why Paul is writing this letter, but they are very near the surface. There are some deeper why’s. 

 You see, I think that the word “why” is one of the most important, powerful and, sadly underused, words in the English language. The word “why” is like a shovel, the more you use it the deeper you go. The more we ask the question “why” the more we understand our own motivations and our own assumptions, and the more we are likely to understand what makes other people tick. But we don’t ask “why” enough. We get a surface answer and stop too soon. Sometimes, I think we stop asking “why” because we don’t want to go too deep, maybe we’re afraid of what we will uncover. Maybe we will find assumptions, and emotions and motivations that we don’t want to be there. But if we want to understand ourselves or anyone else, we need to go deeper. And with someone like Paul we need to go even deeper. We need to keep asking why.

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Why is Paul writing letters at all?

Why is Paul in prison?

Why is Paul content whether he has a little or whether he has a lot?

Why is Paul prepared to suffer and die?

Why did this accomplished, educated man willingly give up his privilege, his money, his freedom and his life for the sake of others? 

Why was this gospel he was preaching so important?

Why is he constantly calling followers of Jesus Christ to live to a higher standard?

Why is Paul able to rejoice while sitting in chains?

Why is a man on death row more concerned about his future than he is about his past?

There are so many “why’s” that I want answered about the Apostle Paul, and the more I keep digging the bedrock that I keep hitting in my excavation is Jesus. 

You know, by my count there are 103 verses in the entire letter of Paul to the Philippians and in those 103 verses Paul uses the name “Jesus”, “Christ Jesus”, or “the Lord” 50 times. He only uses the word “gospel” about 9 times, but the name of Jesus, that is constantly on Paul’s lips. He says the name 7 times in today’s short passage alone: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 

The more that I keep digging into the “why” of Paul the more I keep finding Jesus. Paul believes that Christ Jesus has made him his own. Paul had an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul knows that this man Jesus has power over death. Paul believes that in Jesus, God has done something to forever change the world and human history, and Paul believes that because of that his life and his future belong to Christ. It is not his own anymore. Now he belongs to Christ, and not just Paul but also the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians, the Romans, everyone that is a member of Christ’s body belong to Christ now and because they belong to Christ, Paul believes that should change how they live in this world. “Because God has done this, therefore we should do this”, that seems to be part of what Paul is saying here. When Christ makes us his own that should change everything for us. It certainly did for Paul. Jesus became the “why” for Paul. Jesus wasn’t afraid of prison. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge people or call them on their own hypocrisy. Jesus suffered all things, including death, and showed the world that he had victory over death. That is who Paul belongs to. And although Paul may not be able to follow him perfectly, knowing Christ and allowing Christ to shape and change his life, well that means everything to Paul now. Knowing and following Christ has changed everything for Paul, so the question that I am left with, reading his letter to the Philippians a couple thousand years later on the other side of the world, is has knowing and following Christ changed much for me? Have I been transformed by belonging to Christ? Because I bear the name “Christian” does that change how I live in this world? Do I get the courage and the determination and the hope that Paul gets from knowing Jesus? 

You know, you can look at Paul and see all sorts of things on the surface. People really struggle with Paul because his letters and his words have been so misused and abused over the centuries. Paul’s words have been used to support slavery, his words have been used against women and against gay people, but if you can keep digging past that and keep searching for what is really motivating Paul…if you keep asking “why” well, I think what you will find is a man whose life has been turned upside down by Jesus. So I have learned to love Paul because I think he is a testimony to what Jesus can do when he gets his hands on you. Paul is someone who knows that his life belongs to Christ and that guides everything he does.

I wonder if we dug deep enough into our own lives and our own motivations and if we asked ourselves constantly “why we do this” or “why we do that,” well I wonder if we could say the same.