Matthew 22:15-22; Psalm 99
An act of imagination opens Psalm 99: The Lord sits enthroned upon the cherubim. The cherubim are powerful creatures. Two cherubim, with flaming swords, are left to guard the Garden of Eden. Cherubim and seraphim – pretty scary angels. Some angels sing in the choir and others fight in the Lord’s army. But I have known some sopranos you wouldn’t want to mess with about the Christmas Eve solo. The psalmist has entered the sanctuary and the first image that fills his eyes, mind, and heart: The Lord is in the house upheld by the best security team in the universe! Can you see the angels hanging from the ceiling?
The psalmist refers to worship at the footstool of God and to worship at the holy mountain of God.
There’s a lot of worship that languishes at the footstool, but if we worship only at the footstool, it will neither suffice nor sustain. When that happens we will no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness. The spunk will go out of our faith and we will become church administrators of policies and programs instead of the living power of Almighty God. We will start to think that the only power is secular political power and we will sell our souls to one party or the other.
Footstool worship gets infected with worldliness. We have replaced the spiritual with scheming to get our way. The whole nation has gone negative. We are using God-given, God-endowed gifts, talents, abilities, and intelligence for perverse and pitiful ends. We are doing irreparable damage to our nation. Nothing can save us but true worship of the living God and we have to get off our duffs at the footstool and head for the mountain.
We have become a nation of schemers. The law is used and manipulated. Both sides care only for winning no matter how small the disagreement . Even if the nation would profit, one side or the other will block what would be good for all. Each side knows for sure they are right even though the policies of both have often driven us into the ditch at one time or the other. Scheming, cheating, lying, deceiving – are these the politics of a righteous nation?
Did you know that the book of Proverbs warns us endlessly about allowing our spirits to be contaminated by the ways of the world? Let’s do a quick run through of Proverbs – the teachings of wisdom for a foolish nation:
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?
For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.
A scoundrel and a villain goes around with crooked speech, winking the eyes, shuffling the feet, pointing the fingers, with perverted mind devising evil, continually sowing discord; on such a one calamity will descend suddenly; in a moment, damage beyond repair.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.
A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.
The treacherous are taken captive by their schemes.
Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent.
Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated.
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.
The church has to disentangle from the ways of the world. It is killing us. Abraham Lincoln, in 1862 said: “We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” Disenthrall: to liberate, to set free from bondage.
Look, there’s a mountain for us to climb. Nothing matters more to me than church and church matters not only for how we live as Christians but how we do worship and theology and ethics and politics. All the experts, some of them happily, tell us that mainstream churches like ours are dying. Well, if they are right, we might as well die for the right reasons. If we are dying, let’s go out making sure our practices are actually Christian. That means that confessing our sins is a Christian practice. We have resources not available to the world and the world has nothing that we need. We have a message that saves – the good news of Jesus. We have a meal that sustains the world – the sacrament of Holy Communion. We have the power of prayer and healing.
I want this church to be the mountain. I want a church that makes me less like the world, a church that makes me not give in to the temptations of division, hatred, spite, getting even, and being mean and vicious. I want a church that helps me confess my sins. I want a church that teaches me to do what I don’t like to do but need to do in order to have the discipline to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. I don’t need “rah rah;” I need spiritual strength and power to live in a complex world.
If we are going to have the ability to show up here and worship God in joy and passion, in love and adoration and enjoy the true meaning of life we have to make sure we develop divinely engendered and sustained cultivation of actual Christian practices. After all, “Christianity is the name given to that company across the generations that have learned from one another the skills necessary for the worship of the God made known in Jesus Christ.”
“The worship of God requires mastery of skills acquired by those who practice diligently and consistently.”
I want a worship that moves the spirit and puts a flutter in the heart. I’m talking about a a nervousness about standing in the presence of God. I’m talking about an Isaiah experience: I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; Seraphs were in attendance above him. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” We should know we are in trouble when instead of shouting, “Here am I; send me!,” we shout, “What’s for lunch?”
How easy to forget that we are a mountain people. The bush burned for Moses on Mount Horeb. Moses received the 10 commandments on the mountain. Elijah took down the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Peter, James, and John saw Elijah and Moses with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They hung Jesus on Golgotha’s mount. We are mountain people. This sanctuary is our mountain! Here we have an appointment with God! Here we are reminded that once we were closer to God. Here the godliness rubs off from the neighbor, and here we stop going around unforgiven (Carlyle Marney). Here we say, “Lord we will climb this mountain or die trying.”
In the liturgy of the ancient church there’s a prayer called The Collect for Purity: Cleanse the thoughts of our imaginations by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name, through Christ our Lord.” Brad Kallenberg, professor of ethics at the University of Dayton, once sent me an email reflecting on the question: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” Brad wrote, “I was thinking about Ps 99 this morning and was reminded of how it is the pure (or cleansed?) rather than the warrior who is invited to the holy mountain in Ps 24:3-4.”
Jesus was the greatest imaginer in history. Jesus’ teachings, I now believe, were a series of speech acts, that once uttered are in the process of becoming reality. Our mission is to bring the speech acts of Jesus to reality. And it all starts with imagination.
Imagination doesn’t require many props. As a child, I stood every day under a large hickory tree in the front yard of our Louisiana home. In my hand was a stick and on the ground were all these small rocks. I would pick up a rock and imitating a television baseball announcer, I would say, “We are in the bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series, bases loaded, two outs, and Rodney Kennedy at the plate. The left hander is hitting .333 on the year and with the score, 4-1 he has a chance to keep the Braves in the series. Here’s the pitch.” If I swung and missed the rock, I would simply replay the entire scenario until I hit the rock and could say, “There’s a deep drive to right field, way back, way back, and it’s outta here. The Braves win 5-4 on a walk-off home run by center fielder Rodney “Hot Rod” Kennedy. Imagination fills a child’s life with meaning. I never played in the Major Leagues but that doesn’t take away any of the pleasure of those hot summer days.
This church is our mountain. Our worship is to help us imagine the world differently as a kingdom of God where grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love dominate. Here we prepare to face the tumult, confusion, and craziness going on back in the valley of everyday life. Remember when Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration to find his disciples disoriented and unable to heal a sick boy? Well, it is on the mountain that we gain the imagination to provide healing for the world.
A vision of God’s holiness, an imagined interaction with a holy God on the mountain, and the creation of power and zeal are the purposes of our worship when we hustle in here on Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. We bring God into our consciousness through prayer and praise. We can imagine things that exist or things that do not exist at all. â€œIf I ask you to imagine a green polar bear wearing a blue dress, you can imagine that even though you have never seen or experienced a green polar bear wearing a dress (Well, maybe some of you back in the 60’s).
With holy imagination we know that we have not come to an ordinary building on an ordinary Sunday during Ordinary time. “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Now do we understand? All that we are and all that we have and all that we do are the result of our holy, cleansed imagination. The Lord the King is in the house! Lift up your eyes and cry, “God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes me tread upon the heights.”M