Monday, October 27, 2008

The Proper of Yesterday: Pentecost XXIV

Wow, the Roman numerals are getting very long this time of year! Yesterday we at St. Thomas's gathered as we always do on a Feast of Our Lord. We recounted the story of the death of Moses, for me one of the saddest passages in all the Bible. We continued to read from Paul's 1st letter to the Thessalonians, and then from Matthew's Gospel, the excellent and thought-provoking Summary of the Law. Here's what I offerred at the lectern. As always, I welcome your comments!

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 25A RCL 2008
Deut 34:1-12; Ps 90:1-6,13-17; I Thes 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in your site, O Lord our Redeemer, Amen.

I can’t help but think of the game show, “The Weakest Link.” Do you remember it? That’s the quiz show where you and your team answered questions for higher and higher amounts of money, and at the end of the round you had to vote someone off your team. Remember Anne Robinson? She was the very stern and insulting quiz show host, who was nicknamed the “Queen of Mean.” He signature line was “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”

It sort of seems like the Pharisees are playing “The Weakest Link” with Jesus today. And really, they have been at it for a while now. Last week it was the Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus with the trick question about paying taxes. The week before it was Jesus, in the story of the very bizarre wedding banquet, zinging the temple leaders about who would be worthy to be invited to the Great Feast. And at the beginning of October it was Jesus again going after the Pharisees in the Parable of the Vineyard. Seems like they’re all playing a dangerous game of The Weakest Link, or maybe Survivor or Big Brother. Someone gets voted off the Island or the team or the mansion. Who will it be? Stayed tuned to find out!

Unlike the questions you get on game shows on TV for the most part, these quiz questions that Jesus gets are meant to be emtrapment and are dangerous. Although there was no TV back in the day, if Jesus gave a wrong answer, he could very easily have been arrested or worse, beaten up by the crowds. It was a dangerous game the Pharisees were playing. They were determined to get him, any way they could. It’s kind of interesting that, because we tend to use a more-or-less sequential reading of the Gospel, by the time we get into October and November every year we’re reflecting on places and events that happened, like this passage does, during Holy Week itself. In our church year we don’t get there until April, and there’s a long time between now, the first few days of that week, and the second week in April, when we take up the Passion narrative again. But make no mistake. The temple authorities were playing for keeps.

This time, though, I wonder if the temple leaders hadn’t made a strategic mistake. Even though they are trying to get Jesus in trouble, they pick a pretty esoteric topic to do it in. You might know that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, which means Teaching, and that includes the Ten Commandments and all the rest. There had been ongoing scholarly debate in Pharisee circles about which of all the 613 were the most important. After all, the temple purity laws were needed in order ot have ceremonially ready priest to offer the sacrifices. And the food laws were important in order to keep the people pure and not mix in with the heathens. Or maybe it was the laws about what to bring to the Temple when a pilgrim came to the Temple. Pharisees, of course, were the strictest and they wanted to follow all the Torah scrupulously. They tried, at least. But even they knew that some were probably more important than others. But which ones?

I wonder if this wasn’t a mistake because, except for the Pharisees, most Jewish people probably didn’t care too much which of the 613 were most important. They had a hard enough time trying to get by under foreign occupation and just keep as much of their own uniqueness going as they could. 613 separate commandments? You’re nuts, I can hear Jacob the Plumber saying. I’ve got mouths to feed and taxes that I can’t afford to pay. You want me to concentrate on what?

Of course in hindsight, we know what Jesus is going to say. His reply is the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” And then he goes on and asks them a trick question back. According to Matthew, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

For Jesus at least, the quiz was over. There would be more to come later on that week, unfortunately, but we know that even that final confrontation was the beginning of the end for sin and separation in the world. But it begs the question then, does the Summary of the Law have anything to say to us today? After all, the Good News is that we are not finally separated from God. That ended on Easter morning. Even in this physical life, we know that Jesus is among us right here and now, and most especially in the Holy Communion we will share in just a few minutes. When we say, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” we really mean it. So what happens at the end of our worship then, after we agree to go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord? Does something that summarizes the 613 commandments of Torah, even if it is the words of Christ himself, mean anything to Christians today?

Think about it. We know that our salvation, the end of our separation, occurs when we are baptized and adopted as God’s own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters to Christ himself. That salvation is completely free – we can’t earn it, we can’t just follow the rules and be assured that all is right with God. After all, if that were true, then who needs Jesus at all? That’s what the 613 commandments were for, to keep people in right relationship with God. As we heard in the parable of the vineyard from a few weeks ago, though, it wasn’t working. God finally sent Jesus to finally and forever break down the separation we know exists. So how can two of those 613 commandments be good for us, if following them or any of the 613 won’t get us any closer to God than we are now?

It’s absolutely true that we can’t earn our way into God’s love. God won’t love us any more or any less than God loves each of us right now. It’s the entire life and ministry and death and rising again of Jesus that actually is a witness to that completely unbelievable love of God. But Jesus, who is literally the embodiment of the Good News of that love, he says something which cuts through all the red tape. He says to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. He makes it clear that neither is more important than the other commandment. Both are equal in importance. Here’s the amazing part:

If you love God as hard as you can, you will find you have no choice but to begin to show love to those around you, your family, friends, next door neighbors, members of the community here at St. Thomas and wherever else you associate. Why? It’s paradoxical that it’s a commandment, but remember you can’t love God any more than God already loves you. It is impossible for us humans to reciprocate God’s love. We can’t do even one one-millionth, one one-billionth, one gazillionth of what God already does. And so in a way the command to love God is not much of a command, because we can’t. Not like God does. But what we can do is show the love that God shows to you and to me and spread it around. It’s the opposite of the Survivor or Weakest Link or Big Brother, because instead of voting people off the island, we do what Jesus does and vote them in. Anyone who wants to, just like Jesus did. That’s why Jesus pointed out that the two commands are equivalent, because in a way they are only one command. If you accept the salvation that God offers to you in Jesus, if you want the personal relationship that God has designed for you since the Big Bang itself, the way you love God with all you can is to begin to love your neighbor as yourself.

I want to point out a curious thing about this. I hope you do not think I am conceited, but I actually disagree with Jesus on part of this. Jesus says there are two commandments that are in actuality the one unified way to live out your salvation. Actually, there are three commandments here, not two. The first commandment is love God as hard as you can. The second commandment to be listed is to love your neighbor, and the third commandment is to love yourself. Really. The little word “as” is very very important. It says that your love of neighbor is predicated on how much you love yourself. You are your own closest neighbor. Think about that for a minute. You will not be able to show love to those around you if you are not taking good care and loving yourself. You’re created in God’s own image, after all. God doesn’t make junk, as the bumper sticker so rightly puts it. So if you aren’t showing your own self the care and attention and affection and desire for what’s truly best for someone – and that someone being you – then you will not be able to expand that love to anyone else and you will not really be loving God either. The love of God and neighbor means accepting yourself as God accepts you – honestly, clearly, with no preconceptions, no filters, just as you are.

And that’s hard. We all have things we wish were not part of our lives. Things we perhaps did in the past that we regret. Habits we know aren’t good for us. Baggage from old relationships long ceased that we still find we can’t put down. Internal DVDs or tapes from mentors or parents or friends – messages that pull us down that should mean nothing today but that continue to play in the background of our hearts. Separation from self is really the first separation that God says is over in Christ. God looks at each of us with complete clarity – nothing is hidden from God. All the things we hide even from ourselves, all the things we wish we could keep hidden from God. And the astounding Good News is that God loves each of us anyway!!!!! It doesn’t matter what we have done or said or been or, as the confession has it, left undone either. God wants to be in relationship with you and with me, unaffected by anything that has or has not happened in the past. And my unease, my discomfort, my discombobulation over that, and perhaps yours too, is that if God sees everything about my broken self and still loves me, then God invites me to see my own self with the same loving and clear eyes that God uses. And that means confronting those broken and sinful parts with love and honesty and acceptance. That doesn’t mean leaving them that way. If I begin to see myself as God sees me then I will want to work on those less-then-whole parts of my life. That’s the continual conversion to the mind of Christ that I open myself up for when I begin to let him into my life. I begin to want what he wants, which is wholeness for my own self, which is living my life as God desired for me in the first place anyway.

So does this last round of Jesus-vs-the Pharisees mean anything? It means everything. It was the final straw - the beginning of the end – for Jesus’ earthly life. But for you and for me, it’s the end of the beginning of our old lives, the lives marred by separation from God and others and our own very selves. So this week, my hope and invitation for you is to take some time and quiz yourself. Instead of Howie Mandel or Anne Robisnon asking the questions, though, let Jesus do it. Your quiz questions are simple. You shall love God and your neighbor as you live yourself. How do you fall short of loving yourself as God loves you? What are the broken parts of your life that you’d rather not remember, that you wish God didn’t already see? Take five minutes each day this week. Pick one thing you don’t like about yourself, or something you’ve done, or a habit that is causing you to be less than whole, less than living the life God wants you to live. And give it God. God knows all of it and loves you anyway! And then do one thing for yourself that you like to do, that gives you joy. That’s a reminder that God wants your entire life to be full of joy and wholeness. This is a way to begin to love yourself, so you can eventually love others and demonstrate in your very life the love of God too. In this quiz, there are no wrong answers. You won’t be voted off the team. And the grand prize is nothing less than your very life itself!
In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


1 comment:

Rick+ said...

Wonderful sermon! Full of wit, insight, grace and Good News. Well done.