Closer Than You Think

Rev. Sarah Buteux
November 4, 2012
Stewardship Sunday
Ruth 1:1-18 Mark 12:28-34

If you tuned in last Saturday the top news story was probably still the presidential election. But by Sunday, as you well know, a new story was gathering steam even as it’s subject was gathering force such that by Monday all anyone was talking about was hurricane Sandy. In fact, the hurricane had become such big news that it totally wiped news of the election off the map.
 
Until that is, the fact that no one was talking about the election anymore became a story in and of itself at which point some of the focus shifted back on to Obama and Romney. We learned that both camps had halted campaigning lest they seem insensitive or, even worse, as candidates willing to capitalize on a tragedy to further their own political agenda.
 
For you see, if there was one thing both the media and the candidates could agree on at that point, it was the fact that now was no time for either party to be playing around with partisan politics. In the face of a tragedy of this magnitude it is important to remember that before we are Republicans, Democrats or Independents, we are all Americans, and politics aside, we need to take care of our own in times of great need.
 
Enter Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, who began appearing on national television Tuesday morning praising the president and the federal government for responding immediately to the needs of his state. In the wake of a long and bitter campaign and so much immediate suffering, here finally was a story we could all feel good about. It was great to see our leaders putting their political differences aside and working together to get the job done. It was a brief shining moment of hope in the midst of a great deal of dysfunction and destruction.
 
Unfortunately, the trouble with a brief shining moment of hope is that it only lasts for, well, a brief shining moment, and the 24 hour news cycle, well, lets just say the 24 hour news cycle demands more. Much more! So much more that even a storm with all the rage and force of Sandy was not enough to fill the airwaves indefinitely. Therefore, even as we watched footage of our Democratic president and this Republican governor touring the devastation, even as we listened to them repeatedly profess their admiration for one another and their willingness to work together, even as we heard Chris Christie himself assure us that presidential politics were the furthest thing from his mind at this moment, the media began to speculate.
 
The media began to speculate about whether or not Chris Christie was praising Obama because he actually thought Obama was doing a good job and he really did care more about his state then the presidential election, or was Christie’s praise of Obama actually an end run around Romney. The theory being that if Romney should lose to Obama then Christie could run for president in 2016 and have an even better chance at winning the whole political game precisely because his performance now would make him seem like a politician who cares less about politics than he does about people later, even though the reality would be that he had been playing an elaborate political game all along.
 
Yeah. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty convinced of two things:
 
One, I need to stop reading so much news. Yeah, I don’t think it’s good for my head. I don’t think it’s good for my heart.
 
And two, you can call me naïve but I’d like to think what happened between Christie and Obama was real. I’d like to think it was true. I’d like to think it was genuine.
 
And if it was, well, then I’d go so far as to say that I think it was kind of holy.
 
Yeah. I think it was kind of holy. Now “kind of holy” might be a bit like saying “sort of pregnant,” and I don’t want you to misconstrue what I’m saying and think I mean that either of these two men is holy. For I have no doubt that are as flawed as you and me.  
 
But what happened between them, if it was real, well let’s just say that I think whenever people are able to set their differences aside, whatever those differences may be, and simply see each other, hear each other, treat each other as people - with all the respect, dignity and care that should imply - that something powerful, something sacred, something truly holy begins to take root.
 
You see I believe we live in a broken world, a world full of division and prejudice, fear and heartache. And in response to all of that we throw up walls and we draw lines. We circle the wagons and surround ourselves with people who like us because they are like us, which more often then not only serves to make our problems with those who aren’t like us even worse.
 
But when we willingly allow for some cracks in those defenses, when we reach across the divide to lend a hand, when we allow compassion to dominate our discourse and truly listen to one another, I believe we make a way for God to slip in and something holy to break lose. I’d like to believe that’s what happened between our president and this governor, and curiously enough, (segue way alert) I see something very similar happening in our scripture reading for today.
 
You see, much like all the candidates we will choose from this coming Tuesday, Jesus is coming off a long hard period of having his authority and abilities publicly tested. We are finally in Jerusalem, during the final days of Jesus’ ministry, and the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, and the Pharisees, have been coming at Jesus hard, asking him trick question after trick question in the hopes of getting him to stumble and make some public gaffe that will cause the people to turn against him.
 
But Jesus is doing well. So well that had Gallup or Rasmussen been on hand they would have found Jesus polling quite high in the run up to his crucifixion. So well that he is beginning to win over not just the independents and undecideds, but, as you can see from our reading this morning, some key people from the opposition.
 
Our story begins today with a scribe drawing near and finding himself favorably impressed with Jesus almost in spite of himself. As a vital part of the establishment that Jesus has been openly criticizing, this man would have had every reason to view Jesus as a threat, an enemy, and yet, upon hearing him speak, the scribe wants to know more of this Jesus, more about this Jesus, wants more from this Jesus.
 
He jumps into the fray and ask a question of his own, a question that you could certainly hear as one more in a long line of trick ones. After all, as my friend Andrea pointed out in Bible Study, publicly asking a religious authority which commandment is most important is bit like asking a parent which of their children they love most. You’re either going to bore them by playing it safe and saying that they’re all important and you love them all, or offend the lot by naming one above the others.
 
But for whatever reason, what could have been nothing more than a “gotcha moment,” becomes a moment of genuine interaction between these two men.  By the time the question hits the air, I think both Jesus and the Scribe realize that this man actually wants to hear what Jesus is going to say. He wants a real answer rather than just a politic one. He wants to have a genuine dialogue rather than just another a public debate. It turns out t that this scribe has come forward to draw out the truth rather than just draw blood, because what is at stake here actually matters more to him than who wins the higher approval rating once this exchange is over.
 
And Jesus, perceiving all this, responds in kind:
 
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
 
And rather than jump on the fact that Jesus just kind of cheated by choosing two commandments rather than one, the scribe responds, “You’re right,” because Jesus is.
 
In that moment all the politics and agendas, fear and posturing, are set aside. What could have been a contest has become a genuine conversation full of humility and warmth. 
 
“You’re right,” says the scribe, in the end it really does all come down to loving God and our neighbor. Showing love to God and one another is so much more important than all the technical stuff we end up focusing on and arguing about. Loving God and our neighbor is so much more important than going through the motions of ritual – the burnt offerings and the sacrifices. Loving God and our neighbor really is what this is all about.
 
“You are right.”
 
“You are right.”
 
“You are right.”
 
Those three little words can be the hardest thing in the world to say. But they can also be the most liberating.
 
Friends, had the scribe been locked in battle mode perceiving Jesus as an enemy, he never could have said those words to Jesus, precisely because it wouldn’t matter what Jesus said. But because, for whatever reason, the scribe was able to break out of that mode, he was able to hear Jesus and in hearing him was able to learn from him. They were able to communicate with each other. They were able to meet in the middle and share in something good and true, something larger and more expansive than either could have experienced on their own.
 
“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” said Jesus, nor was Jesus far in that moment either thanks to the humility and vulnerability of that scribe. In their exchange with one another we glimpse, if only for a brief shining moment, the kingdom come.
 
Well dear ones, what happened back then between Jesus and that scribe, what I hope happened this week between Obama and Christie, I’ve got to say, I see that happen here, in our church, all the time.
 
I think our congregation is a really amazing place, a place of sanctuary for others and the other because we honestly try to welcome one another no matter what. We value one another here, and listen to one another here, and care for one another here, in spite of the fact that the labels people could ascribe to us out there would give you every reason to think otherwise. 
 
And given that we are launching our stewardship campaign today, I want to say how important it is that we support this place and others like it for precisely this reason. Rather than pouring our resources into growing vast echo chambers of people incapable of hearing or agreeing or even seeing each other as human, I think part of our role as Christians in this world is doing all we can to build up places of sanctuary like this one; places where we can learn to safely disagree, where we can open ourselves up to see the merit in ideas we ourselves might not share, and find the humility to listen for a higher way, for God’s way, rather than just your way, my way, or the highway.
 
Do you know that that is what Congregationalism is all about?  Congregationalism is not about us all agreeing with one another or even creating a church where we can all agree to disagree with one another, but about coming together to listen to one another, truly listen, the better to hear the voice of God. 
 
I love this church and I support this church as generously as I am able in part to build up such a place in the world: a place where we can come and be vulnerable, ask questions and request prayer, let down our guard and just be human. I think it is so important to create sacred places where we can experience the love of God and others regardless of our past or our politics, our race or class, our sexual orientation or previous denominational affiliation.
 
In fact, if you ask me, it is that love and acceptance that makes this place sacred, rather than the other way around, for it is when we show such love and acceptance that we, like the scribe, draw near to the kingdom.  It is by showing such love and acceptance that we show our love for God because the fact of the matter, to quote Rob Bell, is that “how you love others, is how you love God.”
 
Thy Kingdom come.
 
Thy will be done, HERE, as it is in heaven.
 
So may it be.
 
Let us pray.  O Lord, you have blessed us with your wisdom and shaped us with your love. Help us to hold firm to those truths that sustain us, but help us to hold firm with love for one another as our guiding principle. Lord we pray for the grace to be good stewards of all you have given us, especially one another. May we continue to uphold each other, build up your church, and do our part to heal the world, in your name Lord and through your grace Lord, grace so abundantly given. Amen and amen.