Matthew 22:34-40

The Greatest Commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Every week, during the prelude of our church’s worship service, we have this question, “Where have you seen beauty this week?”  Now, I know with Covid, we’ve had to make adjustments to our Sunday mornings, so I haven’t been asking many questions at the beginning of sermons in order to get folks out quickly as we can’t be inside too long together.  Which is wild, I know, but even in this season of wilderness, of a new formation of our church, a deepening of our discipleship and faith, and even a time of grieving in many ways, we have seen amazing beauty.  

Since before I arrived, this church was asking how to be a community engaged church, going from the outside-in…how to see the beauty of God’s work going on already in our neighborhoods and how to follow God there.  This is a conversation that is going across the church universal as we move away from a corporate business model of church towards a more relational, neighborhood based church.   In this process, we move towards a listening and seeing presence in order to see God’s work in and around us. 


I have shared this story before, but I was reminded of it this week.  Several years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who worked for Vida Joven in Nicaragua.  We were talking about the concept of doing ministry in a certain way, we had a phrase for this way that probably comes from the business world:  “quality of excellence”.  This means that we want to do ministry at a high level, we want to do it well, pour in resources, and make it attractive.  There is some good to that, but it’s not what they strive for with Young Life in Nicaragua much anymore…they don’t have all the resources that we have in the states, so they strive for something better:  “beauty”.  It’s beautiful to see teenagers sitting on a hill at a camp sharing life, laughing and crying together.  It’s beautiful to see folks believing in each other and giving and receiving grace.  As you see that beauty, you begin the pathway towards depth and deep love.

I believe that this pathway to love is demonstrated in this morning’s scripture passage.   Our passage in Matthew 22:36-40 that Cindy read earlier finds Jesus in the midst of four  debates with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus had been doing well, so the religious leaders were going to try a theological question, “Teacher, what’s the greatest commandment?”  They were asking a question with the intent of trapping Jesus, a familiar refrain with these gospel lessons, they wanted to put Jesus in some sort of religious box.

Jesus takes this question and gives a beautiful answer in two parts.  The first part is this:    “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment.”  

These words have power and intimacy.  We are to love God with all we’ve got, everything.  God does not want to be number one our list, God permeates everything on our list and it’s our job to cultivate a recognition of that.  All of our lives are interpreted and have meaning through this love for God and God’s love for us.  God created us out of love.  In God’s very nature of being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Trinity, there is deep relationship bonded by love that created us, saved us, and sustains us…this God loves us so much, and the love that God has for us and has placed within creation, believes in us and gives us the capacity to love others and love God and even draws us up into the community of the Trinity.

This love also gives us the ability to love ourselves and to see the beauty within ourselves.  We cannot truly love our neighbors until we begin to see how valuable we are within ourselves.  God created us good and in his image.  As we recognize that, we become our true selves and we can then begin to love God and to love our neighbors.

Of course, that begs the question then, who are our neighbors?  Well, everyone really.  The folks we live next door to, the folks on the other side of town, folks across the world really.  We are called to see everyone as being made in the image of God.  That can be hard sometimes, folks are different, have different tastes, cultures, personalities, mannerisms.  I get that we simply don’t get along with folks at times.  We have former friends or even family members who may have wounded us deeply.  Yet, God calls us to simply love, which requires a lot of hard work of self-reflection, cultivating our identity with God, and wisdom in how to deal with the persons around us. 

I believe that God calls the church to do this as well as a community of faith.  But, it requires an “outside-in” mentality.   So many times in churches we start from the inside and create “stuff” for people to come to, then we’re surprised when folks don’t show up.  What we should probably do is start from outside the church, talk to people, hear their desires, and let them co-create something with us.  As we do this, we begin to recognize the beauty all around us as we focus on others.  

So, where do we start doing this as a church.  

  1. Know that God has placed you where you are in your neighborhood and church.  So often in church we talk in terms of scarcity, not enough money, not enough people, not enough vision, etc.  Yet, I believe in a God of abundance! All that God needs for beautiful things to happen, for community transformation, is present in this room.  You are enough.
  2. Practice gratitude and practice life together
  3. Listen to yourself honestly.  Don’t be afraid to look into the darkness of your own life.  You won’t be alone there, God is present everywhere.  Get a spiritual director that will listen to God with you. Be in community with others.  
  4. Listen to your neighborhood.  Get involved in the local school, ask local business leaders what they see or need, open the doors of the church to civic groups, meet for coffee with folks from other churches.  Don’t have an agenda other than building relationships and being curious about what God may be up to in your community.  Then, get behind what God is already doing and get into that sweet spot where God’s Spirit will carry you.  

Know that seeing beauty and being a part of the beauty of God’s relational and community work is simple, yet it’s also the hardest thing that we’ll ever do.  There is a lot of darkness in this world, we do have a lot of distractions.  Yet, God is with us and the time is now to be faithfully present with each other and with God and to be a part of God’s kingdom presence and transformation in our lives and communities.  

My good friend Bart Campolo a several years and lifetimes ago summed up this Matthew passage with this phrase:  “Love God.  Love others.  Nothing else matters.”  Friends, you are loved and you have loved.  May we continue on and grow deeper in our understanding of what it means to see beauty in each other, in ourselves, and in God’s vibe throughout our city.


Matthew 22:15-22

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

This first verse in today’s Gospel lesson is so interesting, isn’t it?  The Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus with what they thought would be a trick question.

It seems like that’s been going on since the beginning of time.  How to win an argument, prove a point, be correct (at all costs), or defend your point of view or way of living at all costs.  

Looking around, I’m wondering, how is this working for us?

We look around, see all of the wealth, the technological advances, and we give ourselves a pat on the back and say, “look how far we’ve come” as a country, as a world.

I mean, look at Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat (is that still popular?), TikTok, etc.  We have creative ways of communicating…and, that can be good…yet, we still come back to a problem.  Making ourselves look a certain way or defending ourselves.

Now, I know, I used social media to stay connected, and many of you all do as well.  In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing.  But, we also know that in this fast paced world, that we sometimes fall into some temporary had places, especially as we try to catch up to what is happening around us and within us.  

It seems to me, that we have simply accelerated the art of talking past each other and not really listening.

That isn’t something unique to us, Jesus was dealing with it as well 2,000+ years ago.  The Pharisees, in this particular passage, came to Jesus with this question.  They wanted to make Jesus look bad as he had quite a following and it felt threatening to them…to their way of life.  And, let’s be clear, what Jesus was saying was threatening…but, not to them personally, but to the system that they had become comfortable in, that was benefiting them, but not everyone.  

A little biblical de-coding here…Jesus and other biblical figures often refer to the “world”.  World, in this context, does not mean creation or people, it means “system”.  Something that has been set up by humans wanting some form of power that is not as God intended.  God’s intentions are always for the common good, to see a beloved community take shape as folks seek the Kingdom of God, or God’s Presence which is characterized by shalom, by outgoing and in-flowing radically inclusive love.

The Pharisees send some of their students to Jesus, along with some Herodians, which would be Jewish folk who were also in the power structure and aligned with King Herod, a Hellenist Jewish leader who was propped up by Roman power.  

They ask him about paying taxes to the Roman Emperor.  In Jerusalem, there was a tax imposed by Rome on all of it’s inhabitants, it’s interesting to note, that those who lived under King Herod, did not have that tax.  It was contentious, and many devout Jews resisted paying it…there was even an armed revolt at the time because of the tax.  If you were a devout Jew, you probably would not want to even carry around Roman coin as it was contentious.  

So, what does Jesus do in this moment?  First, he asks them why he’s putting him to a test and calls them hypocrites.  Why?  Because they were.  Jesus, a devout Jew, and a Rabbi, doesn’t carry a purse, does not have Roman coins on him.  Asks, THEM, for a coin.  Pharisees and Herodians, persons of power, many of whom depended on their livelihood by maintaining Temple worship…a system that kept God in a box inside this grand building in the middle of Jerusalem.  Where access to this God was through them by paying a temple tax and other fees.  They tried to play all sides, and they were making money off of it.

And, yes, the had a Roman coin, the denarius.  Which, they handed to Jesus.  Jesus asks them who’s head and inscription was on one side of the coin.  They answered, the emperor, Tiberius in that moment.  Who, wasn’t too bad, compared to other emperors.  

Jesus defuses the argument, by saying give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God, what is God’s.  In other words, rulers come and go, some good, some not.  Why are you putting your faith in them, when God is bigger than any earthly ruler.  Jesus is saying to them, which, in the nuance of the moment, and something we may not entirely see 2,000+ years later, is reminding them of something that they knew from their Jewish faith, God is everywhere and God is one, and we live in God.  All governments, rulers, and peoples…all creation, belongs to God.  Therefore, give to earthly governments, their due, but not your allegiance.  Your allegiance should be larger, more expansive, and to a God who demonstrates a radical love to all creation by giving God’s self away to it.  

It seems like Jesus is always using these moments to remind us what Paul would say later, Christ is all and in all.  And, Christ is the expression of God into humanity for all of time.  And, what are we?  We are the body of Christ…the expression of God in this moment and throughout time.  

Our allegiance is to God, and God alone.  You’ve heard me say this before, the first creed of the church was “Jesus is Lord”.  That’s a very subversive statement.  It became a creed later, when the Roman Empire was ruled by a much more horrible emperor.  On the other side of the denarius, it would say, “Caesar is Lord”.  The early church was reinforcing the message to earlier followers that we live and breathe a divine love that subverts the systems of the world.

One last example from Jesus.  Today, we talked earlier about our love of children.  You’ve heard me say this before, when Jesus brought the children to him, that was a subversive act of overt love for all peoples.  Children were not considered fully human until adulthood.  Jesus said no, they are a part of God’s family, as we all are…therefore, we have to love them well.  Friends, as the body of Christ, we, Fleming Road UCC, are following in that radical pattern of Jesus love by how well we have loved kids!  Even during this pandemic!  We are a part of a long history of listening, of not just talking or trying to win arguments, or even maintaining some sense of power, we have been actively giving ourselves away to others, including children, even during a time of so much uncertainty!  Friends, well done!  Let’s find ways to continue that legacy!  


Matthew 22:1-10

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

1 John 4:7

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

This passage from Philippians is a letter to the church in Philippi.  It’s a great letter, I’d encourage you to read it, it seems like Paul had a special place in his heart for the Philippians.  And, it was a letter.  One of the few letters that we can say with a bit of certainty that was actually written by Paul

It reminded me of a letter that I wrote in my late 20’s.  I may have shared this piece of the story, but many of you may remember me sharing about a road trip I took with two of my best friends, Jeff Tait and Jay Borck around 1996.  We travelled all of the western US and Canada.  We kept a very colorful collective journal.  One night, we were driving through Montana.  I was sitting in the back looking out at an amazing evening sky full of what I call “pensive boy” vibe.  I ended up writing a letter in the collective journal to God saying that I was either going to marry Debbie or I was never going to get married.  The letter was about 5 pages long.  I got made fun of by my friends…but, Debbie and I reconnected that fall and were engaged soon after!  

So, letters can be powerful, and full of possibilities.

This letter from Paul is full of interesting and encouraging words.  First of all, he mentions these women, as we talked about in our church’s Bible study this past week, women in leadership was not just accepted, it seems to be more of the rule in the early days of the church.  Considering this was a patriarchal society, the Jesus movement was revolutionary in that it was fueled, maintained, and grown through female leadership.  This was certainly in the way of Jesus.  Jesus broke down in very relational and beautiful ways the power structures of his day by lifting up those on the margins…which is also the biblical trajectory from the beginnings of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, to Paul’s and others letters and even today in theological thinking.  

Then, he moves into this poetry around “rejoice”.  The Philippian church was being persecuted, they had unjust rulers and a religious power system that was keeping them down.  But, Paul is telling them to be encouraged by their gentleness, to not worry, but to pray and to supply what they need to move towards peace.  

Peace in this context would be from the Jewish understanding of “shalom”.  Shalom means:  peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility.

I also found this online in describing “shalom”:  In the book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, author Cornelius Plantinga described the Old Testament concept of shalom:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

Paul is inviting us to live in God’s peace out of God’s love for us.  

The Gospel lesson in the lectionary is from Matthew 22:1-10, it is the story of God inviting us to a banquet, to the Kingdom of God.   In the story, the wedding banquet master invites folks, but they don’t want to come…they are comfortable…they don’t want to be bothered, even though the master is inviting them to a great feast.  So, he invites those on the margins.  This is keeping with the previous stories in Matthew around the status quo being shaken.  The Gospel writer is conveying to us a message from Jesus that we forget sometimes:  that God is loving us and trying to communicate that to us by inviting us to this feast of love, to participate in love that brings peace that passes understand.  To know what it means to have love that does win.

We are kicking of stewardship season today and our theme is “3 great loves”, which are love of children, love of creation, love of neighbor…

In effect, we are inviting everyone to a great banquet built on this love, will we come?  

In so many ways, our church has already accepted that invitation, especially in this season of covid.  As you consider your pledge in time, talent, or treasure in the days to come, you’ll hear testimonies from church members on how Fleming Road UCC has shown this kind of love, extending shalom to all, living out the Kingdom of God and inviting folks to God’s great banquet.  

This verse from 1 John 4:7 sums up what it means to live in peace, to participate in God’s banquet:  

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

Let us continue to find ways to grow in that love and to spread that love to those around us and in and through this church!


Matthew 21:33-46

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

    has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

    and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

How many of you had siblings or friends growing up and you’d have to share something like candy with them?  I’ve been thinking a lot about that with Halloween coming up this month…of course, not sure what Halloween will even look like this year!!!

But, as a kid, I remembered my sister and I splitting our candy haul…when I was younger, my older sister would always do the splitting like this:  “one for you Rich, and two for me…one more for you Rich, and three for me…”…I’m sure y’all know that game…it took me a few years, but I caught on eventually.  

Our daughter did a similar thing with our son when they were little children.  She, being the elder, had received some change back for something, she was supposed to share it with her little brother evenly.  It was a few dollars and lots of change.  She “sold” him on what sounded like a great bargain to a 4 or 5 year old, “Brennan, I’m going to give you all of this change…there’s more of them, and they are shinier than these pieces of paper”.  He thought she was so generous…of course, we watched the whole thing go down and stepped in after laughing a bit…she’s resourceful!!!

Our gospel lesson this morning is a continuation of Jesus being questioned by the religious leaders in the first century…he answers with questions, and also with parables that have questions and deeper lessons that are planted like seeds within them that eventually grow within you.

Jesus tells this story about workers in a vineyard.  Back in the first century, tenant farmers would be allowed to live on the land of an owner, work the land, and give an agreed upon portion of the produce back to the landowner, and then keep some for their own.  This was apparently a great farm, had a winepress, and even a watchtower.  

When it came time for the landowners servants to come and collect what was due to the landowner, it seems like the tenants had not saved enough for the landowner.  They wanted more than the agreed upon share.  So, they beat up not the servants, killed one, stoned another.  The landowner sent more servants, given them some mercy even…they did the same thing.  The landowner then decides to send his own son, his own flesh and blood…surely they will respect him he says.  Yet, they also killed him.

Now, there are some things problematic with this to our 21st century understandings…the servants were slaves, and seems like human life was kind of cheap.  And, then, why send the son?  Well, we do have to remember that there’s a different way of thinking…and, 1st century hearers would look at this as much more in an honor and shame frame of mind…and in a way that is saying that the landowner, who was obviously not living in the vineyard was trying to get what was due him.

And, the point of this parable, is that God has been sending folks to Israel, to get their attention, to get them to be in relationship with God and one another.  But, they were not living for the common good.  They had set up a patriarchal system, a power system that kept them at the top and gave them more than their fair share of resources.  And, they wanted more.  God had called Israel to be an example of Jubilee, of Shalom, to the rest of the world.  Jubilee being a mind and heart-set of forgiving debts, of restoring the land, and releasing folks from slavery.  Shalom being peace, or folks willing to live within community, diverse community filled with authentic relationship, including others, and working towards the common good.  Both aspects of what the Kingdom of God looks like.  

Yet, Israel was mimicking the kingdoms around them.  These kingdoms seemed to be flourishing at times, and Israel’s leadership wanted to be like them, so they set up these patriarchal, power and control kingdoms based on other nations, and not on what God intended.

God sent prophet after prophet, telling them to “repent” and to live as God intended.  Like the landowner’s servants, those prophets did not end up so well.  God even came as God’s son, the Trinity incarnate, in the flesh.  And, yet, we know what happened to Jesus.  

The pivot in this scripture is when Jesus says that the landowner will give the vineyard to other peoples, or the original Greek is “ethnos” or “nations”.  God’s message will find fertile soil to be planted in and to grow.  God’s intention has always been for all peoples to share in God’s relational flowing love.  And, if the tenants, or Israel, weren’t going to live as God intended, others would.

Jesus goes on to talk about a cornerstone.  A cornerstone is a part of the foundation of a building.  It gives it strength and standing.  Without the cornerstone, the building isn’t as stable.  Jesus is the cornerstone, and as Paul talks about later, the cornerstone rejected by the religious leaders, or the system that they had created.  Jesus, as the cornerstone was about relationship…relationship within the Trinity, extended to all peoples, staring with those diverse voices from the margins.   This cornerstone was the fabric of the universe, authentic relationship that holds everything together in wonderful creativity and healthy tension that leads to growth.

The rigid systems, the dogma of the powerful that kept people in their places, and the patriarchy of that time would be crushed on this cornerstone…and it was, and still is being crushed, even today.  

The religious leaders knew that Jesus was talking about them, and that a new movement was upon them.  They wanted to stop it.  But, they were afraid of the crowds.  So, they waited until they could gin up a different crowd that eventually led to Jesus’s death on a cross.

But, little did they know that this cornerstone was much stronger and deeper.  And, that their system, and all of the systems that followed, ones that exploited marginalized folks, kept a small group on the top of the proverbial heap at the expense of others, would be and will be crushed by the cornerstone…the life of Jesus, demonstrated and carried throughout history, from the beginning, and at right now, and even into the future, continues on…and even grows and expands.  

This relational flow moves in every nook and cranny of our lives and in the lives of others…as well as in all places and things.  Christ is everywhere as our early church fathers and mothers proclaimed!  Friends, we may feel overwhelmed with the events of this season in life, but know this…God’s love for us is personal, and it is also corporate…it is not just intimate, but it is flowing in the public square…eventually crushing all injustices.  

All of you are a part of that flow…you are a part of this Jesus movement that cannot be stopped, nor can it be understood…but, it can be caught and lived into. God’s relational flow is taking us places that are wild, unexpected, hard, and beautiful!