Sunday, October 23, 2011

Preach One: Proper 25A

Preached at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Crystal Springs, MS, and St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Forest, MS.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

"Do not let the cabin door slam."  It was always a rule at the summer camp where I worked as a counselor.  One of our first-day-of-camp traditions, after everyone had made up their bunks and taken their swim tests, was to work together on a list of cabin rules.  "Do not leave food in the cabin," someone would add, perhaps remembering a mouse incident from the summer before.  "Do not talk after lights out," we had to put on our list, but everyone knew it really meant, "Do not talk loudly-enough-for-the-counselor-on-night-duty-to-hear-you after lights out."  Of course another rule was always, "Be kind and respect each other."

It was a pretty good list of eight or ten rules that would help us live together at camp.  Which of the rules do you think was most important?  I know the answer should be, "Be kind and respect each other," but I was partial to the rule I always contributed to the list, arachnophobe that I am: "Kill your own spiders."  I could start a fire in the rain, comfort a homesick camper, sing countless bedtime songs, and inspire my campers to win the most cabin inspections, but if someone found a spider in their bunk, they were going to have to take care of it themselves.

Our ancestors in faith had a few more than eight or ten rules to help them live together in community.  Hebrew scriptures list 613 laws in all, 613 commandments: 248 "thou shalts" and 365 "thou shalt nots," covering every imaginable courtesy, every imaginable quarrel, every imaginable way one might help or harm another.

It had all started, of course, with the commandments Moses copied down on stone tablets and carried across deserts and rivers and mountains to the very edge of the Promised Land.  We just wrote our cabin rules on poster board and hung them beside the not-to-be-slammed door.  Eventually, the commandments came to be kept by religious authorities who studied them rigorously and applied them vigorously so that, by Jesus' day, the commandments seemed to set people against one another rather than binding them together.

It was impossible to follow all the rules at camp.  Racing out of the cabin after rest period, swimsuits and towels in hand for free swim, someone always let the door slam.  There was always a secret stash of candy or homemade cookies.  Late night whispers would always give way to giggles and loud shushing.  Someone was always more afraid of spiders than I was.

If our eight or ten rules couldn't be faithfully kept, surely it was all the more impossible to follow all the commandments of God.  In the wilderness God's people broke the rules before the rules even made it down the mountain, worshiping a golden calf instead of God, and while God forgave them time and time again, the religious authorities were less lenient.  So it was that they took issue with Jesus, who seemed intent on breaking the rules left and right.  He touched people who were unclean.  He worked on the Sabbath.  He ate with sinners.  He called himself God.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the religious authorities grew even more alarmed.  The people loved him, showing him all glory, laud and honor as they waved their palm branches and shouted their hosannas.  But at every turn and with every word, Jesus seemed to disregard both the law that ordered Jewish life and the leaders who ordered Jewish law.  He had torn down tables in the temple courtyard, shouting something about unfair sacrifices people were forced to make there in order to make the faithful sacrifices commanded in the law.  In parable after parable he had claimed God's kingdom not for those who carefully guarded its gates but rather for those who slipped in through its cracks.  Furious, and frantic to preserve the order they worshiped, the authority they enjoyed, the commandments they kept, Jerusalem's religious leaders sought to reign in this rabbi.

Which of the rules do you think is the most important? a lawyer among the Pharisees asked Jesus, and there was no way for Jesus to answer correctly.  Rabbinic teachings interpreted the law in a variety of ways, counting and ordering and weighing the commandments differently, sot hat no matter how Jesus answered, no matter which commandment he chose, the lawyer could claim a different interpretation and prove Jesus wrong.

And so Jesus did not choose a single commandment.  He chose all of them.  And he named them all, Love.  '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.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

There wasn't a single commandment, Jesus answered, that wasn't about love - which is to say, about God - at the center of life in community, at the center of all our relationships, of all our encounters with one another, with our neighbors, and with our deepest and truest selves.  Love - which is to say, God - is at the center of it all.  Not the feeling kind of love, the warm fuzzy kind of love that makes us weep at weddings or at the sight of spectacular sunsets, but the kind of love with which God loves, the kind of love that God is, the kind of love by which God created us and called us into community in the first place.

Scriptural scholar Douglas Hare writes, "The primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment...stubborn, unwavering commitment," no matter how many times the rules are broken.  I will be your God, and you will be my people, God promised, and God has kept that promise, loving us thoroughly and unconditionally and not at all warmly and fuzzily, although assurance of God's love deeply comforts our hearts and souls and minds.  God's love is fierce.  It is active.  It is forgiving.  It is redeeming.  It is reconciling.  It is welcoming, healing, nurturing, embracing, seeking, celebrating, weeping, aching, leading, longing love.  God loves with all of who God is.  God is all Love.

And God, with every rule God gives, commands us to love, to be committed to God and our neighbors and ourselves with all of who we are, with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.  Not just with the part of ourselves that feels affection.  Not just with the part of us that is afraid.  Not just with the part of us that is tolerant.  The rules say to love with all of who we are.

But all of who we are knows all sorts of other rules, too, written and unwritten, more even than the 613 laws of Hebrew scripture.  Rules like, Nice guys finish last.  You get what you deserve.  We can't all be winners.  Winning is everything.  Skinny is beautiful.  Real men don't cry.  Time is money.  Money is everything.  There are rules for success, rules for fitting in, rules for standing out, rules for getting what we want.  There are rules for what families should look like, what jobs are acceptable, what assistance is sufficient, what differences are tolerable.  There are so many rules that make demands of our time, our energy, our resources, and our attention.  How can we possibily give all of who we are to love, sharing as Paul and his helpers did not only the good news of God in Christ but our own selves, heart and soul and mind?

There is hope.  God chose us, God called us, God saved us, God loved us long before there were commandments carved in stone, long before Moses ever climbed that mountain.  In the beginning, God created us.  In God's own image, God created us.  And as Thomas Merton writes, "To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.  Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name."  God does not ask us to do or be what we are not - in commanding us to love, God commands us to be who we are.  We are people made to be in community.  We are people made to be forgiving.  We are people made to heal, to nurture, to embrace, to weep, to ached, to seek, to reconcile, to love.  Sometimes we break the rules.  Sometimes we are afraid to keep them.  Sometimes we are braver than we realized, defeating spiders, or braver still, letting them live.

What rules are we living by today, in our lives, our communities, our church?  What rules shape our relationships, our encounters, the way we regard ourselves?  How would it be if we lived by only one rule?  What if that rule was Love?  Amen.

Artwork: "Thoughts on Communion," by Barbara Desrosiers; "God's Love," by Lee Ribal.

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