Sunday, October 23, 2011

Matthew 22:34-40

“Love Made Real: Personal Responsibility & Corporate Justice”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris

To hear this Sermon Podcast, click HERE:  111023SermonPodcast


To see this sermon as a Videocast, click HERE:

I assume most of you who are regular attendees here at Franklin Circle Christian Church know and understand the dilemma I am consistently faced with as your pastor in terms of the classic understandings of minister as pastor, priest, and prophet.  I work very, very hard to be your pastor, ministering to you as a shepherd of the flock, and seeking to console you in times of heartache, anxiety, inquiry, and hopelessness.  Likewise, I seek to do my priestly duties of leading worship, administration, community building, and ministering at significant milestones, such as baby dedications, baptisms, weddings, house and apartment blessings, and funerals.

But I also take seriously my ministerial role as prophet, reminding myself and us all that the role of preacher is, in the words of Reinhold Nieburhr, not only to “comfort the afflicted,” but to “afflict the comfortable”(1)  This isn’t easy, for many reasons.  I, myself, dislike being challenged to reflect on and, perhaps, even move out of my comfort zone, to change my ways, and certainly believe you to be no different.  I’m also a classic ENFP on the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory scale, and bringing joy, consolation, relief, and peace is far more my style than to offer provocation, self-examination, critical evaluation, and sometimes even outright opposition.

Now, interestingly enough, I have no hesitation to be prophetic in my own private life.  I take my civic duties quite seriously.  Personally I have no qualms about writing or calling public officials on an issue that I think affects the quality of life for our community, city, state, or nation.  I am perfectly comfortable as an individual going to a rally protesting an injustice or inhumane condition.  I’ve even marched and lobbied as a citizen at several statehouses and in Washington, DC.  But, for the most part, I’ve kept my prophetic commitments and my ministerial duties separate.

Occupy Cleveland Rally October 8, Photo by Peggy Turbett

Oh, every now and then I let a concern I’ve been addressing privately sneak into a sermon or newsletter article, but, considering how passionate I am about so many issues of our day, it’s been pretty minimal.  But that was before the advent of social media, and Facebook, especially, which has caused any “firewall” I might have had between my public ministry and my personal commitments to crumble completely.  And the past few weeks, my involvement in the Occupy movements, especially the one here in Cleveland, has moved me unlike anything in recent history.  Just as this movement’s deep anger at the growing chasms between the rich and the poor and the seeming indifference of the highest compensated chief executives of the world’s largest mega-corporations and the many lobbyist-friendly politicians has moved people to the streets all across America and, indeed, the world, it has also moved me to speak out and act up.

Yet, even still, I have pretended like my carefully attended separation between my public ministry and my private protestations were still intact.  But then I read an article this past week on CNN’s Belief Blog that simply asked why, “three years after an implosion of the nation’s financial system pushed the country into its worst nosedive since the Great Depression, pastors are still trying to figure out how to address people’s fears from the pulpit.”(2)  The article’s question, and the interviews it offers with pastors as theologically diverse as Joel Osteen and Jim Wallis, dug deep into my soul and stirred it up ferociously.

It also made me face up to the fact that perhaps, just maybe, my carefully bifurcated world between pastor/priest and prophet wasn’t so impenetrable.  It also caused me to ‘fess up to the realization that since so many of you know my political and justice commitments milli-seconds after I express them on Facebook and Twitter, my pretending they don’t affect my ministry may look either syrupy sweet or simply false.  My social justice commitments do, in fact, affect, imbue, shape, undergird, empower, challenge, strengthen, and embolden every single aspect of my ministry.  Unequivocally.

Like many of you, I am not part of a diverse, community-focused, urban congregation by accident.  I am here, at Franklin Circle Christian Church, because I believe that God speaking through us has something to say to the world around us that is constitutionally different from what churches of other locations and different memberships can say.  Therefore I think it is imperative that all of us take more seriously what it means to have a prophetic preacher, or at least one that aspires to be so, and what it means to be a prophetic community.

Marvin McMickle, former pastor of Antioch Baptist Church and public figure here in Cleveland, wrote a small but pointed book entitled, “Where Have All The Prophets Gone? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching In America.”(3)  In it he reminds us that not only is there at least 1,000 years of prophetic proclamation tied up in the books of the Bible from Isaiah to Malachi, but that Jesus began his ministry reminding his own home congregation, in the words of Isaiah, of his own prophetic calling:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Luke 4:18-19

At the core of prophetic preaching and prophetic living is to “speak truth to power.”  I thought of this in reading the scripture for today’s sermon.  The Hebrew Prophets and Jesus did this a lot!  In Matthew Chapter 22, as elsewhere in the gospels, we read of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day seeking to entrap him by his own words and actions, as his people’s movement had begun to threaten their power, and, more importantly, had caught the attention of the Roman authorities who manipulatively granted the Sadducees and Pharisees whatever power they had.  In last week’s sermon the children talked about how Jesus was challenged on the issue of taxes paid to the Roman government.  Today, Jesus is simply, but slyly, asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”  And for a tradition that understood all 613 laws of the faith as being equal and equally important, this was a trick question.

And so Jesus pulls two out and links them inextricably together forever: the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  And then he added, in case there was any question about his intentions, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Biblical scholar, Douglas Hare, notes, “By adding verse 40, ‘On these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets,’ Matthew takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry, to the programmatic statement in 5:17-20, which opens with the words, ‘Do not suppose that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets; I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.’”(4)

I find it pastoral, priestly, and prophetic for Jesus to confront the powers of his day with a bold choice of words about love as the primary calling for a person of faith.  Loving God, ourselves, and our neighbors as the primary act of a faithful, devoted, God-fearing person is both delightfully simple and mind-numbingly difficult!  For, as author Hare reminds us, “In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment.  Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deuteronomy 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment.  Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them.  To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.” (5)

So here are the connections I’ve been making this week between Jesus’ commandment to love God with every fiber of our being, and to love our neighbors – which includes our enemies for Jesus – just as much as we love ourselves, our families, our friends and the Occupy Cleveland movement and other prophetic demonstrations about justice happening today.  I find in Jesus’ words an unmistakable linking of a call for personal responsibility and for corporate justice.  In these, the greatest two commandments, Jesus forbids us from focusing only on the individual’s responsibility to improve their living conditions or to address injustice NOR focusing solely on the broader responsibilities of corporations, government, or society as either the culprit or solution to our ills.  Let me explain.

I think all too often when we address social ills or societal problems we feel compelled to take one side or the other: ultimately it’s the individual’s responsibility or it’s society’s responsibility.  This leads to encampments that are all-too-familiar in our political landscape today.  From the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality of the conservative or libertarian positions to the government-and-corporations-are-the-root-of-all-evil mindset of the democratic or independent perspectives.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the solution is a “both/and” and not an “either/or.”

Thus, prophetic preaching in the context of the current outcry against greed should understand both the individual’s responsibility in this crisis as well as the role of executives and boards of corporations, and the politicians who either aided or ignored what they were doing.

So, to put a face on it, the mortgage and foreclosure crisis of the last few years, of which Cleveland has been at the epicenter, has both personal and public facets to it, and to focus on only one or the other is to do a disservice to loving God, self, and neighbor equally.  We show our love for God and self when we admit that, at times during the feeding frenzy of the last decade, some people were wowed by the low-interest loans and easy terms offered by real estate brokers and they bit off more than they could chew, mortgage-wise.  I do not think, as the cheap accusations have asserted, that there were tons and tons of people buying opulent homes vastly beyond their income level.  As my friend, Bud Randolph Perry noted on a Facebook post about this, “Driving around Cleveland and seeing all the foreclosed homes, one realizes immediately the foreclosure crisis is not made up of McMansions.”  But I do think many of us too easily bought into the mystique of the “American Dream” with the little house with the white picket fence, and, in that dream state, didn’t put pen to paper and figure out exactly what we could afford and if this was the right time to take the real estate plunge.

At the same time, we show our love for God and neighbor by admitting to the fact that many in the real estate world became giddy with the momentum that seemed to be taking place as more and more homes were being sold, and speculative investment folks became giddy as they got better and better returns on their investments and began to get more and more creative in how to “buy, bundle, and sell” our mortgages in ways that we never could have known or imagined as individuals and families sat signing closing documents on a new home.  It is an act of loving God and neighbor to point out the insanity of creating financial investment products that actually allowed banks and other investors to bet against their own mortgage holdings, and thus gain income from the failure of the very mortgages they held!  No matter how responsible an individual was – or even if every single mortgage holder had been impeccably responsible – there was no way to avoid a fiscal meltdown except from the very top echelons of corporate and governmental power.

We love God and self when we take responsibility for our own actions and live within our means.

We love God and neighbor when we call to accountability corporations and politicians who fail to act in the public interest.

And this scenario could be played out in almost any social justice problem of our day, from racism that acknowledges both personal prejudice and institutional and systemic racism; to environmental concerns that call us to reduce, reuse, and recycle and condemns energy companies that destroy our natural world and calls for appropriate regulations that protect our air, water, and soil.  As long as we pretend that justice is only the individual’s responsibility or only hold institutions accountable, we will be playing into the hands of those who would entrap Jesus by forcing an either/or.

The central role of the prophet, priest, and pastor is to recognize the myriad of ways our personal lives affect our neighbors, and our corporate activities affect our private lives.  And, I believe with all my heart, soul, and mind, that it is here, in this house of worship, this place of faith, that we must openly, honestly, and consistently ask the tough questions that afflict the comfortable so that those who are afflicted may truly and forever be comforted.

And this is why we must commit ourselves to congregations like ours who love God, self, and neighbor together.  This is why we must give our offerings to God by supporting the operating expenses Franklin Circle Christian Church to ensure that it will continue to be able to be a place for pastoral, priestly, and prophetic ministries to have a home and to extend out into the neighborhood and broader community.  This is why we must give our time to the many opportunities for service and mission that happen in this church and through this church so that God’s people will not only survive but thrive.  This is why we must give our hearts to God by worshiping and praising God here in this building, and taking that praise into the streets to inspire and witness to the people of our community.  This is why we must give our wisdom to God through the deepening of our faith as it seeks understanding and knowledge in order that we might be our very best selves at home and in the world.

If you believe that in the love of God as it embraces ourselves and our neighbors cannot be simplistically packaged for quick and easy consumption, then I call you to support this church.  If you believe that the love of God as it speaks to individuals and to the larger community never should pit one against the other, then I call you to support this church.  If you believe that the love of God made manifest in love of self and love of one another is less either/or and more both/and, then I call you to support this church.  If you believe that the love of God, self, and neighbor is the best way to fully be pastoral, priestly, and prophetic, then I call you to support this church.

Won’t you join me in this ministry?


(1) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, found at:

(2) Preachers confront ‘last taboo’: Condemning greed amid Great Recession

By John Blake, October 1, 2011, CNN Belief Blog

(3) Marvin A. McMickle“Where Have All The Prophets God? Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching In America.” (Cleveland, OH, The Pilgrim Press, 2006)

(4) Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 258

(5) Ibid, p. 260.