Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24; Romans 3:21-25a, 28; Matthew 7:21-27
When I was little, I loved my stuffed animals, and I was absolutely convinced that my stuffed animals loved me. Long after I was too old for tea parties and Barbie dolls, I still snuggled up with my favorite stuffed toy – a small gray cat who I’m told was once white and fluffy. I imagined – or did I actually believe? – that she was the wise old leader of my stuffed animal collection, and that, when I left the room, she would gather the others together to talk and play and have stuffed animal adventures. I never heard Kittycat or the others speak, and I never saw them move, but I was certain that they could.
And so, I’ll admit my now all grown-up heart took a delighted little leap back into childhood when I sat in a darkened movie theater and watched Toy Story for the first time. Right there on the screen, Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog, little green army men and Barbie dolls, and all the other toys came to life right before my eyes. I knew it!
Of course, long before Toy Story reminded us of the special relationship between a child and a toy-that-becomes-more-than-just-a-toy, there was another beloved story about just such a relationship. It is the story of a little boy who finds in his Christmas stocking a fat and bunchy, brown- and white-spotted, with real thread whiskers, sawdust-filled velveteen rabbit.
I’m sure you know the story. The Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t get played with much at first, passed over for fancier toys, models of real boats and soldiers, toys with moving and mechanical parts. He’s sad, and wonders if he’s worth very much at all. In that child’s room, the wise old leader of the toys is the Skin Horse, whose words inspired not only the Velveteen Rabbit but countless children and adults who read the book.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
We – you and I – human beings – start out with a good deal more life than a stuffed animal. We are made with far more intricate care and detail. Somewhere in the tiny curves and fissures of how we were made, we understand that we are, of course, quite real – we exist – we breathe – we speak – we move...
But today’s readings suggest there is something more to life than breathing and speaking and moving. When it comes to living as God, who made us, intended for us to live, I wonder if we are Real yet. Or are we more like stuffed toys – wondrously made, yes, but seemingly lifeless. Perhaps we, too, have to become Real along the way.
Our scripture stories tell us that for a long, long time we have been loved, REALLY loved. That’s what Torah, the law, was supposed to be about – how much the Hebrew people were loved by God. At its heart, Torah was God’s revelation of how the Hebrew people could live out that love each and every day, in the ordinary circumstances of their lives, in their breathing and speaking and moving. It began with the most important law of all, carved first on those stone tablets as the foundation of a life lived in faith: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Torah was about being in a special relationship with God, not as chosen individuals but as a chosen and loved people. Always, being loved by God has been meant being in relationship not only with God but with all of God’s people. It is an intimate relationship individually, meant, as our reading from Deuteronomy tells, to permeate our hearts and souls and bodies – all of who we as individuals are. But it was also an intimate relationship corporately, meant to be passed on from one generation to the next, to permeate entire households all at once, to mark even the gates that stand between one household and the next – all of who we as a community are.
As the story goes, in time, the people of Israel began to lose sight of the heart of Torah, God’s revelation of how to live as loved people. If the law continued to be fixed on their foreheads and written on their doorposts at all, it was as a checklist against which they suspiciously measured one another’s performance as chosen people, as though the law were a pre-requisite for God’s love instead of a response to it. And so the law, given to bring the community of God’s people to life, slowly became as something stiff, rigid, stuffed, staring straight ahead out of eyes wondrously made, perhaps, but fixed on self-preservation and self-promotion.
This was not the Real life that God desired for us who have been loved, REALLY loved, from even before we were made. And so the story does not end there. God became one of us in the person of Jesus so that in Jesus we might finally understand that loving God and loving those whom God loves (which is to say, everyone) are inseparable. Jesus was for us a living Torah, a Real life whose breathing and speaking and moving were centered on God, not on himself.
Today’s gospel reading comes at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he talked at length and in great detail about this kind of Real life, with words that have long-since permeated our hearts and souls and bodies and been handed down from one generation to the next. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart….let your light shine….turn the other cheek….love your enemies….do not parade your piety….pray this way, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”….do not worry about tomorrow….do not judge, that you may not be judged….ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find….do to others as you would have them do to you…It’s all in there.
But a Real life, Jesus wanted to be sure we understood, is one lived this way because God loves us, not so that God will love me. Because God has chosen us, not so that God will choose me. After all, the first commandment was not impress the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might, but love. REALLY love.
A life that has become Real is one that is lived, one that loves, because God loved us first, because God chose us already, because we are already in relationship with God before our living according to the law, before our living as Jesus taught us to live, ever begins. Our entire life is built on God’s desire to be in relationship with us, God’s love for us….a solid rock that cannot be moved, that cannot be chiseled away, that will not crumble, that can support the weight of the entire world.
To believe we can make it on our own, that our good works will somehow earn us a greater share of that rock, that love, that salvation…it’s as foolish as building a house (no matter how wondrously made!) in a dry river bed the day before the rainy season begins. Jesus warns today that those of us who live a good life because we want God to love us, and those of us who live a good life because we know God loves us – we all end up building good houses out of good works. But only one will stand. Only one is Real.
To the world, of course, those of us building on rock will appear to be the foolish ones. The commandments the world would have us live by are all about self-preservation, self-promotion. Love your neighbor as yourself? Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Sure, if it helps you get ahead, if it makes you look good. Ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find? How about, take, because you deserve it?
Becoming Real, it seems, is hard work. It goes against our instinct to look out for ourselves, to seek personal success, to remain a wondrously made, fat and bunchy, brown- and white-spotted, sawdust-filled, velveteen rabbit. Beautiful by the world’s standards. Lifeless by love’s standards. Becoming Real is hard work.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful…. “That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. [That’s a perfect description of my Kittycat]. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” [That’s also a perfect description of my Kittycat].
Jesus is always truthful, too. He tells us that, no matter where we build our houses, our lives, our relationships, the rainy seasons will come. Time and again we will be faced with a decision – do we seek to preserve our own lives, or do we trust that God to preserve us all?
If we try to build our houses, our lives, our relationships on ourselves, out of fear that God’s love has limits, that there isn’t enough to go around and so we must grab as much as we can, we will become a rigid structure, easily toppled by the storms of life.
But if we build our houses, our lives, our relationships on God who made us, who loved us first…well, remember what our seniors told us a few weeks ago. Together, we are living stones, set on the foundation of Jesus Christ to form the household of God, in which there is room enough for all of creation. The storms of life will batter us, but living stones will sway in the wind and not break. We may lose a few shingles and shutters, and our paint may peel and crack, but to the one who understands, we will be Beautiful. We will be Real.
Let us build together a house on the rock of God’s love for us all, love that preceded our making and will outlast our living. Let each of us become a living stone that helps the others to stand. That’s how we become Real. And, as the wise old Skin Horse told the Rabbit, much, I’m sure, to Jesus’ delight, “Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” Amen.