Struggle to Love - thrive UMC Official Blog

Struggle to Love

Today we’re wrapping up our quick little May series called Don’t Tell Anyone: Sharing Our Struggles.  And what we’ve been doing in this series is taking a look at a couple of particular instances in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus has specifically instructed his disciples to be silent regarding two different discoveries they made, so that we might have our eyes open for a bigger, clearer revelation of who God is, and who we are intended to be.  Now, if you missed the last two weeks, or you just don’t remember, the two discoveries the disciples made, about Jesus, were that 1.) he’s the Christ, and 2.) that there’s something supernatural about him.  In short, what the disciples discovered was that Jesus was more powerful, and a bigger deal than they had initially imagined.

But the problem here is that, although the disciples had seen something, they hadn’t quite seen enough.  They knew the title and the facts about Jesus’ true identity; but they hadn’t yet witnessed and experienced how that would play out exactly.  And they have no idea yet of where it will take all of them.  So as we read through the rest of the story we find out that the missing piece was the more important one.  The thing they didn’t know, and hadn’t yet seen, was that this supernatural Christ they had in their midst would die a very gruesome, human death. So Jesus instructs them to be silent–because they’re still in the in-between time.  They’re all leaving one phase of their lives behind and entering a new one; but they don’t yet fully appreciate how different and how startling this new form of life is going to be for them.

Which, by the way, is a lot like life for our graduates, isn’t it?  Several of us know or are connected to young people who have –or are about to- graduate.  Maybe they’re graduating preschool or high school or college; but regardless of their particular age, all of those young people have left one phase of their lives behind, and they’re about to start something new.  And they probably know what this new stage is called –be it elementary or college student, or adulthood or whatever.  But while they know what to call the thing, they have absolutely no idea how life is going to go for them it yet, do they?  To use a psychological and a religious term, we call that ‘liminal space’ –it means being on the threshold, in that strange in-between-times space: you’re standing in an unlit doorway, without haven’t yet stepped inside.

And for all of us who have been there ourselves already, we know that liminal space is scary, don’t we?  It’s scary because there’s so much that’s unfamiliar and unknown in what’s truly new. When you’re in that liminal space, things can happen to you that you previously did not know could happen to you.  For instance: while I was in college, I discovered that you could turn the water off at the end of your afternoon shower in the communal bathroom and discover that someone had run off with your towel and all of your clothes.  So somehow, you’ve got to move from point A, the shower, to point B, your room 25 yards away, cold, dripping wet and naked. Way too often, that’s what liminal space feels like.  And once you find yourself there, you’ve got no choice but to MacGyver your way through that stuff with the meager resources you have at hand, because it’s all completely new territory.  That day in the shower, all I had left that day was a little bar of soap, a washcloth, and a bottle of shampoo.  So I strategically put the washcloth and shampoo in the front, and the bar of soap that wildly failed to cover the back behind me, then off I hobbled down that hallway faster than I’d ever hobbled before… only to discover that just about every door between the bathroom and my dorm room at the very end of the hall was open and occupied, by not only the guys who lived on my floor, but several of their girlfriends as well.  You see, what I didn’t know then was that news of my impending nudity had reached all of them while I was still blindly lathering my hair within the steamy confines of the shower stall.  “We just took Jeremy’s clothes!” the wily prankster had announced. So most of my floor was waiting to see how I would navigate this surprise liminal space.

Before that day, if you would have told me that the mere sight of me bring such big smiles to two girls faces at the same time, I would have never believed you.  But now, unfortunately, I do.

That’s why human society does everything it can to make the jump from one place and phase to another as smooth and as small of a transition as possible.  It’s why ‘pre-schools’ and prep-school –in fact it’s the reason why all schools were created: so that we can be prepared for that next phase, whatever it might be.  But you can’t tell anyone what something is like until you’ve been there, until you’ve experienced that.  Otherwise it’s just words.  And Jesus’s disciples were charged with spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God: they were about to enter a time in their own personal journeys where it would become their responsibility to take up the mantle of Jesus and call people around them to change their hearts and lives.

Two weeks ago we talked about the struggle to believe.  Because sometimes we have trouble realizing what’s happening to us, even as we’re going through it.  And that can have a disorienting effect upon us.  Then last week we illustrated the struggle to connect, where we explored how our relationship with God is too often limited by our timid and dormant imaginations.  In this way, if our imaginations aren’t equipped to recognize or accept the work of God in a storm or the more mundane and ordinary experiences in life, then we might fail to recognize the presence of God in our lives –and thus mistake the very identity of who God is.

And we closed last week with the image of letting go –of releasing- so that we could grab on to each and every new present moment as it’s offered to us by God.  This is how progress works, this is how we grow: we move into a new stage in our lives and then we pass through it. And in order to reach the next new stage again, we have to leave that prior stage behind.  We have to let go.  You can’t climb a ladder without being able to release the rungs once your shoulders have moved above them.  In the same way, you can’t stay in your fifth grade classroom and also move on to middle school.  And again, you can’t hang on to your bachelor or bachelorette routines and habits as you move into marriage.  We all have to learn to let go.  So that our hands and hearts are free to embrace God and others as they meet us again in each and every renewed present-tense.

Just for a moment, I want you all to take a look at your hands.  Your hands are incredible devices.  Go ahead and wiggle your fingers.  I’m like a kid –I still get amazed when I notice that I can literally move my hands with my mind.  You can just desire to have ‘jazz hands’ … and suddenly you do! It’s incredible, right?  Unless maybe you don’t have rhythm; I don’t know.  But go ahead and put your hands in your lap and I want you to close your hand into a fist, and I want you to make that fist as tight as you can.  Imagine you’ve got like a lump of coal in your palm and if you could just squeeze it hard enough a diamond will come out.  Do it with both hands.  Squeeze it and hold it.  Then, without opening your hand or releasing the pressure at all, I want you to stop and notice how your hands feel.  It might help to close your eyes. What’s happening with the nerves and muscles in your hand?  Then, while still squeezing with everything you’ve got, I want you to notice how you feel.  If you can put a name to the mood you’re experiencing, all the better.  But at least try to just feel the feeling.  What’s it feel like in your spirit to have your hands squeezing as tight as you can?  And as soon as you at least feel that feeling, I want you to let go.  Just relax your hands – you don’t need to pull them open, but just release them.

How does that feel?

Did you notice a change that happened within you –beyond just the feeling in your hands- when you let go?  For me, when I release my hands, it feels like my heart slows down too.  There’s this sense of calm I feel throughout my whole body when I’m given the chance to just release my hands, after I’ve been holding on to something way too long.  I notice this all the time when I’m in the gym lifting weights, and that moment finally comes where the exercise is done and I get to put the weight down.  It feels sooo good, like I’ve been freed from something.  I think that’s my favorite part –getting to put the weight down.

Or if I really, really have to go to the bathroom but I can’t, because I may have just drank 64 ounces of pop in the first half hour of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and I absolutely don’t want to miss anything, so I just hold it all in for the remaining –I’m not kidding you- 106 minutes of the film.  And then I continue to hold it, almost all the way through the credits because I know that all Marvel movies have teasers for the next upcoming movies randomly spliced in, and I don’t want to miss that moment of self-satisfaction that always comes along with being a comic book nerd and getting the obscure reference from an unexplained 5 second clip. So then I see it, and it’s totally Adam Warlock, and I can finally leave the theater, and I somehow miraculously make it to the bathroom.  What sweet relief! Sooooooooo good!

Because being able to release is such a good and necessary thing, right? We know how good it is to be able to let something go.  But we almost never celebrate it, do we?

Especially in the church, we always tend to make it about holding on.  Remember the rules!  Maintain the ritual, the routine!  Hold on to the doctrine! Let’s try and believe the exact same thing about everything as they did 500 years ago!  Don’t forget about that time when something really awesome happened!  Let’s try and do that same thing over again!  Bring your Bible!  Cling to Jesus in your heart!  It’s even in the way we pray!  Have you ever noticed that we teach children to pray by clutching their own hands?

But it’s a different experience when we pray with our hands open.  It’ crazy: for me, when I pray with my hands open, I way more often feel like I receive something in prayer than when I pray with my hands closed.  

And last week we read how Jesus expects his followers to let go.  ‘Say no to yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me,’ says Jesus.  When I hear this, I believe Jesus is calling us to move outside of ourselves.  To follow is a commitment to enter into motion.  Let go of yourself, so that your hands are free to pick up the cross.

This morning we’re going to read what I hope is a familiar passage to most of you; but we’re going to read the surrounding context instead.  We’re jumping a few chapters ahead in the gospel of Matthew, and Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem, shortly before he’s arrested. He’s been teaching about the Kingdom of heaven to the crowds in parables, when he’s confronted by the local political and religious authorities.  In that day, there were what you might call two competing schools or parties: one called the Sadducees and the other called the Pharisees. And they’re both trying to discredit Jesus. We’re reading Matthew, chapter 22, starting in verse 23.  It says this:

23 That same day Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus. 24 They asked, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man who doesn’t have children dies, his brother must marry his wife and produce children for his brother.[a] 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married, then died. Because he had no children he left his widow to his brother. 26 The same thing happened with the second brother and the third, and in fact with all seven brothers. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 At the resurrection, which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her.”

29 Jesus responded, “You are wrong because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power. 30  At the resurrection people won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like angels from God. 31  As for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what God told you, 32 I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?[b] He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 Now when the crowd heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[c] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[d] 40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

41 Now as the Pharisees were gathering, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”

“David’s son,” they replied.

43 He said, “Then how is it that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called him Lord when he said, 44 The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool’?[e] 45  If David calls him Lord, how can he be David’s son?” 46 Nobody was able to answer him. And from that day forward nobody dared to ask him anything.  

Although we might not have noticed it as we were reading, here we witness Jesus dismantle the agendas of the two prominent religious establishments of his day.  These two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, in many ways parallel our religio-political parties of today.  In all cases, each group has their predominant issue –some stance they take which sets them apart and gives them their identity.  For the Sadducees, one of their defining issues was their stance against resurrection: for them, what you see was what you got.  When you die, you die; and that’s the end of the story.  But here Jesus points out a very well-known sentiment from the Hebrew Bible, which is that their shared deity is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And since everyone knows that God is not some kind of underworld deity like the pagan god hades, then God is instead, explicitly, God of the living.  And therefore that means that when God says “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” they must then all be alive somehow.

In a very similar manner, Jesus then turns to the Pharisees, who are politically invested in seeing Israel become an independent, self-governed nation once more. And this is a big part of what makes them so popular, and what gives the Pharisees their power with the larger Jewish populace.  But Jesus, with only a couple of questions and a reference to the 110th Psalm, shows them that their picture of how this is all supposed to work, according to the scriptures is flawed.  Because it was never David who set the people free –it was God!  It was always God!  So why are they looking for another guy like King David, when the God who sets people free has never left????  Instead of watching for what people are doing, they needed to be looking for what God was doing.  And God was right there, literally with them in their midst, offering freedom, if only their political agendas wouldn’t have been there blinding them.

What an embarrassing, humiliating observation!  That they spent all that time waiting for some special savior-person to come along, and they’ve been ignoring and neglecting the very God they proclaim to worship!

And here’s the really crazy part: in the middle of this is the stuff that no one can argue about: the bottom line is that we need to love God with all we’ve got; and love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s the right answer.  That is, or those are, the commandments that matter most: the ones that call us to love.  The ones that draw us outside of ourselves. The ones that draw us into deeper relationship –that should be the absolute, fundamental focus of all we do.

But we can’t be faithful to those commands when we’re so preoccupied with trying to be right!  We can’t be loving when we’re trying to discredit someone else!  And we can’t honor God when we’re only set in a negative stance against God’s other creatures.  We can’t serve and follow when our arms, hearts and mouths are full of personal and political agendas.   Let’s pray.