Text: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Matthew 22:34-40
“Do you not believe what the Bible says about homosexuality?” Having recognized me as the “pastor who marries gays,” this is the question the woman asked me as we stood in line together at a store in downtown Raleigh the other day. “Excuse me,” I said as if I hadn’t heard her question clearly; but really I was just buying some time. She repeated, “Do you not believe what the Bible says about homosexuality?” Really, I thought. You want to talk about this here. But I decided to play along. “Well” I began, “you have suggested a rather complicated question—both about the Bible and about homosexuality.” “Yes or no” she snapped with a growing frustration at my less than straightforward response. In hindsight, it would have been so easy to just say “no.” After all, I imagine that is what she expected and wanted me to say. But her question felt like a trap and in that moment I had to quickly decide how I would respond. It’s amazing how many thoughts can run through your mind in a nanosecond. My first thought, imagining she of all people would appreciate my thinking, I wondered: “What would Jesus do in this situation?” And so I asked her, “Do you think people should be allowed to own slaves now?” You know, Jesus will get you in trouble if you start using his methods of biblical inquiry. Well, I’ll end this story by saying that my question back to the woman abruptly ended our conversation.
Needless to say, this little encounter has stayed with me; especially the question of how we read the Bible. Even a cursory read of the Bible reveals that there are many conflicts and contradictions within the biblical text. Theology and homiletics professor David Lose explains the difficulty this way. He writes:
[think about] the many and various offenses listed in the Bible that call for the death penalty: murder and kidnapping, which perhaps shouldn’t surprise, but also adultery, homosexual practice, cursing a parent, owning an animal that repeatedly attacks others, and being a “medium or wizard” — and all this from only two chapters (Exodus 21 and Leviticus 20). And these, of course, are just capital offenses; there are numerous others that call for losing various body parts or being expelled from the community.
To be sure, there are also many important and salutary laws that we might well heed today, including caring for the most vulnerable, loving one’s neighbor, releasing the debt of those overwhelmed by their obligations, always making provision for those who are poor, not taking vengeance on others, planting and harvesting in a manner that today we would call “sustainable,” and not lending money in a way that disadvantages the borrower — and all of those also from a small set of chapters. (Ex. 22-23, Lev. 19, 25). Think how different our debates about health care, relief for those facing foreclosure, agricultural policy and the regulation of would be if we consulted these passages. Notice, though, that the chapters from which the “good” laws come are disturbingly close to those containing the “bad” ones. And that’s just the problem [he concludes]: the Bible seems regularly and simultaneously to offer counsel that we deem both awful and excellent.
This past week I was at a conference for pastors in which the purpose of the conference was to discuss how to use the language of our faith to talk about moral issues in the public square. One of the speakers, Dr. William Turner, professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity, suggested that our times call for a new hermeneutic—a new way of interpreting the Bible—when it comes to reading the Bible; and that new hermeneutic is asking the question: Where do you lay the weight? In other words, when things are not always clear as in the case with the Bible, what do you focus on? When you shift through it all, what is the thread that connects it all?
It seems that in our gospel lesson this morning Jesus is engaging this exact hermeneutic. Once again, Jesus is being tested by a lawyer who asks him which commandment of the law is the greatest. This particular question comes in a line of questions that the religious people were asking Jesus to try trap him in the law. First, it was a question of paying taxes: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? They followed that question with an obscure and somewhat hilarious question about marriage and afterlife. You remember that story? They quoted Moses as saying that if a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother. But there were seven brothers; the first married the widow and died childless, so does the second and third, all the way down to the seventh brother. Then they ask: “In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” And now they ask this third question about the greatest commandment.
Jesus, the great economists of words, responds: “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember, there were Ten Commandments: the first five dealing with Israel’s relationship to God and the second five addressing their relationship with each other. But Jesus, using this new hermeneutic sums up ten commandments into two without losing an ounce of meaning. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Where do you lay the weight?
It’s easy for us religious folk to get caught up in the details debating the shape or form that something takes. We can discuss and disagree all day long and into the night about what is an idol and what is not. We can justify and sanctify all the ways we avoid keeping the Sabbath holy and even feel self-righteous in the process. We can redefine what constitutes adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting our neighbors stuff. We are especially good as church people getting caught up in the details, the shape, and form of our life of faith. Should our worship be traditional or contemporary? I can’t worship if we sing those old hymns. I don’t like the new hymns, I can’t sing them. I’m not pledging this year because “they” cut out of the budget the one thing I care about. I don’t come to Wednesday nights because I don’t like the food. Where do you lay the weight?
Jesus says, “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
With this answer, Jesus is following in the tradition of the great prophets that came before him. Time and again the prophets choose one passage by which to interpret others. Amos, for instance, declares that the Lord despises all of Israel’s solemn assemblies and religious sacrifices because of its neglect for the poor. For Amos, he believes that passages about caring for the poor are more important than those about proper worship and sacrifice. Again, where do you lay the weight? When the 16th century Reformers suggested creating a “canon within a canon,” they were asking the same question: Where do you lay the weight?
One of the great affirmations of Pullen Church is that we have laid the weight of our faith in these two commandments: loving God and loving our neighbors. For sure, there have been times when we have gotten sidetracked with shape and form—getting a bit lost, okay sometimes a lot lost, in the details. But consistently, and I would say authentically, we always find our way back to loving God and loving our neighbors. These two commandments are in our DNA going all the way back to our founder, John T. Pullen—a flawed but faithful man who indeed loved God and his neighbor.
Like the Bible, we are a complex, complicated congregation. It is very hard to characterize a Pullenite – we do not fit neatly into one box. But I know for sure that if you are here today and offering yourself as part of the Pullen community, you are about loving. I’m sorry to say that there are communities and even congregations that gather centered around hating, themselves and others. But this place, and these people, have a longing and a fire to love. That is not to say that we know how to do it! We love God, and yet we don’t know how. So we come together to fumble our way through it. We feel called to love our neighbor, but it is hard, and we need reminding and supporting. And we long to love ourselves, and so we come to one another hoping to find in each other the permission and the recognition that makes us feel worthy of that love. And as we build one form of love, we build them all. As we learn to love ourselves, we deepen our love of our neighbors. And as we care for our neighbors, we grow our love for God.
Today is pledge Sunday and we are asked to make a financial pledge to the church for next year. Unlike last year, there are no big puzzles to put together, there is no goal of how many pledging family units we are shooting for, and there is no sermon on what the Bible says about money. The form and shape of our pledging season this year is quite simple: “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” By choosing Pullen, you have decided to lay the weight on love. The rest is simply the details.
Your church needs your financial support if we are to keep laying our weight on the two greatest commandments: loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And may we love ourselves well!