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October 26, 2014

Neighbors


Sermon for Year A, Proper 25
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 26, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church


Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
If that can be improved upon, I have yet to find a way to do it.
It’s the heart of the law for Jesus, and so it has to be the heart of the law for us, too.
Where this is not practiced, you find something other than faith as we should know it.
When I say “something other than faith,” I mean false religion as defined by Jesus;
 And as authorities on Holy Scripture go, he seems like a good one.


Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
This may sound sacreligious, but stay with me.
If you threw your Bible in a blender -- see, I told you --
 If you threw your Bible in a blender until it came out in little pieces,
 Then you put all that paper in a big pot of salty water and set it to boil, then to simmer,
   And you just let it live over a very low flame for the next week,
   Within a few days your whole house would smell of a wondrous and amazing aroma.
After a week on the stove, every last extraneous element would have burned off
 And been carried away on a vapor trail,
 Leaving a rich and lovely and true sauce.
And if at the end of that week you took the lid off and saw what you had at the bottom of the pot,
 There would only be this neat summarization of the one true law of the Bible:
   Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s just that simple. And, may I say, delicious.
It’s a rule that, if followed, makes life heavenly and scrumptious.


“Oh, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”
Remember that Sunday School song?
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
It just won’t reduce any futher: this is the beginning point and the end point:
 It all comes back to this: it’s always about this: Unconditional love.
And no response we can give, no matter how articulate, will ever come close
 To simply living our lives as if to say, Thank you, God. I love you, too.


God loves us; we love God back. Also, our neighbors -- bring them into the bargain, too.
Why not?


This is normally the part in the sermon where I would turn the thing I just said on its ear,
 And I would say, So tell me: If loving God and neighbor is the only only thing that matters,
 Then why is it so hard to do?
The truth is, I’ve been just out living my life a while now, and I’ve changed my mind.
I don’t think it is hard to love God and love your neighbor.
I think it’s easy-peasy, like falling off a log.


And that’s what I’d call Good News for today. The Very Good News.
Part A: God loves us unconditionally. If you need a sign, Jesus is the absolute equivalent.
Part B: It really is very easy to love God and to love our neighbor.
Like falling in love and staying there.
It may appear to be hard, but it isn’t. At least, it doesn’t seem like work.
I’m convinced.


What’s at stake? The redemption of the world! Remember that song? --
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
 Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”


But also -- and this is true at precisely the same time -- it really can be difficult to love, right?
There. See? I went ahead and contradicted myself!


Unconditional love is not anything-goes love: it is fierce love, discerning love,
 Wanting-the-best-for-all-involved love, love that judges and decides
   And is the basis for every jot and tittle of law:
 Love that advocates and gets us involved in precisely the things and people we’d rather not
   Because we can’t stand to watch each other be destroyed, however fast, however slow.


Back in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the mid-90s,
 I was a grad student in mass communications at Oklahoma State.
Jacquie and I lived in the Crosswinds Apartments.
It was a sea of buildings built and managed for students living on the cheap
 And for other folks who didn’t have a lot to get by on.
Eight units a building, four units a floor that all faced out on to each other
 In a kind of shadowed concrete patio.
Crosswinds was a good name, if unintentionally.
You couldn’t really live there without learning how to be in someone else’s face.
Turns out, it was trying times for some folks in those buildings.


I could tell you, for instance, about the friendly conversation I heard one day
 As it turned into a shouting match that eventually reduced
 To fists swinging and blood spilled and the police being called.
The subject of the conversation was the Holy Trinity.
She believed in the Father and the Baby Jesus and the Spurrit; him, not so much;
 Hs money was all on God, and really who gave a fig for the Baby Jesus?


I could imagine the early councils of the church being just as exciting and violent
 As they dropped to fisticuffs, arguing over the divinity of Christ.
Theology. It’s always theology, isn’t it? that gets you in a rumble.


Anyway. At the Crosswinds,
 We shared an interior cinderblock wall with a man whose name we can no longer recall.
Let’s call him Lenny.
Lenny used to wait until about 11:30 at night, when my eyes were failing me
 But I still had hours of reading left to do for classes,
 And he would crank up his stereo. Crank it way up.
11:30, midnight: this thumping starts: “Purple haze // All in my brain!”
Lord have mercy -- Jimi Hendrix was setting fire to his guitar next door,
 Just on the other side of that cheap wall.
And I had no choice, you know, but to bang on Lenny’s door so loud he could hear me,
 And to ask him to Please turn it down. Never knowing what I was going to see when I did it.
One night around 3:30 he got locked out of his apartment, or so he said,
 And he thought he could somehow climb up to his second-story window
 Just clinging on to the side of a bare brick wall.
He got about twelve feet up and got scared and froze,
 And suddenly finding himself with nowhere to go and not much to do and all this free time,
   And because you sing to yourself when you want to feel better,
   He started singing “Purple Haze” to himself and, as it turned out, to about twenty of us.
Nothing brings out the police quite like ten or eleven simultaneous calls from startled neighbors
 Unaware that there was a man clinging to the side of their building halfway up.
Oh, Lenny. What can you say?
I said, “Lenny, you’ve got to be more careful, man.” And I shook my head good-naturedly.
And I went in my apartment and started packing.
See, I was young, and I was selfish,
 And there wasn’t a thing about that situation
   That I was willing to stop and understand or help with.
“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”


Lenny -- or, God bless him, whatever his name was -- he was a test case for me.
All my life I had had polite neighbors, unassuming, Sunday-smorgasbord-and-nap neighbors,
 Quiet, fence-respecting, penny-saving, lawn-mowing neighbors who basically stayed put.
Neighbors with proper oak china hutches with little glass figurines in them
 That got dusted every other Saturday.


When I was about seven, my mother sent me across the street to Mrs. Reed’s house.
Mrs. Reed was the longsuffering widow who entertained me
   With enormous good humor, with ginger cookies and ice cream,
 Whenever I got too hot or bored or cranky when I was out riding my bike
 And I judged that it would be too much trouble to go home.
(Our front door being about 60 feet directly north of hers.)
On this day I was sent south to Mrs. Reed’s front door
 With instructions to borrow just two teaspoons of vanilla.


I’d been given a four-cup measuring cup to carry said vanilla back home.
I had big feet, and a big cup was like insurance to keep me from sloshing it and losing it.
The bell rang, Mrs. Reed came to the door, and I held out the four-cup measuring cup.
The house smelled of furniture polish and cinnamon.


“Hi, Mrs. Reed. My mom’s baking a cake. She needs to borrow some vanilla, please,” I said,
 Forgetting the exact measurement requested.
Mrs. Reed looked at me. She looked at the measuring cup. “A whole four cups?” she said.
“Sure, I said. Fill ‘er up.”
(“Fill ‘er up” was a phrase I’d heard down at the Goodman’s 66 filling station a month before,
 And I’d been actively searching out excuses it to use ever since.
I liked the sound of the expression -- it seemed somehow so urbane and sure of itself.
“Fill ‘her up.”)


Mrs. Reed opened her door a bit more, and I got the scene.
Most of the Ladies Aid Society had crammed itself into her front room to play bridge,
 And the gossip had already started that my mother Sue couldn’t bake a cake to save her life
 Before she’d even had a chance to slide the thing into the oven.


Mrs. Reed excused herself, repaired to the kitchen, and returned a moment later,
 Offering me her entire bottle of vanilla. “That’s all I have,” she said.
“And tell your mother, -- good luck with that cake,” she said,
 And she said it as dry as a sawdust sandwich.


You see, with neighbors --
 Whether they are the actual across-the-street or over-the-wall type or just people you know --
 Sometimes you’re the grad student who has to call 9-1-1 for the first time in his life
   Because there’s an odd guy hanging on a wall
     Or a sudden guitar solo is cutting into the air at 3 a.m.


Sometimes there’s a suffering and a cost to be extracted from being the neighbor,
 And it is easy to imagine the power will always flow in that direction with you at the top.
I daresay every living situation in the world has at least one Lenny of one sort or another.
But practice mercy and grace, too, my sisters and brothers,
 And extend every form of hospitality and love at your disposal,
 Because one day you will find you’re not the grad student in this equation --
   Sometimes you’re Lenny, after a fashion,
   Hanging on a metaphorical wall twelve feet up with nothing to do but sing some Hendrix,
   Or even just the kid who in an act of selfish forgetfulness both befuddles the neighbor
   And sullies his mother’s reputation as a homemaker, her good name,
     Which, I can tell you, was about the most important and only thing she had at the time.


We need to love our neighbors so very badly when they mess up and when they don’t
 Because we are also their neighbors.
Proximity over time is a great equalizer;
   And given enough time we will need their generosity, their forbearance, their kindness,
   Just as much as they once needed ours. And so it goes, on and on.
Mostly, though, we need to love our neighbors -- nearby or far away --
 Because of the simplicity of that powerful theological truth already expressed this morning:
 “Oh, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.”
“Neighbors are rich folk and poor, // Neighbors are black, brown, and white,
 Neighbors are nearby and far away.
 Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love // Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”


I didn’t earn that love; I can’t begin to understand it; and I certainly can’t contain it or qualify it.
I can only return it and keep giving it away, keep giving it away ...
Unconditional love is simply unconditional love.
It is God’s only way of relating to each and every thing in all creation
 From the great many-armed spiraling galaxy
   Right down to every last little quark and atom in our bodies.


I have been treated this way -- that is, I know I am loved! --
 “Jesus loves me this I know” --
 So I will in turn treat the world around me and everyone and everything in it
 With exactly the same care and forgiveness and deep, honest kindness.
Love given for the love I’ve received.
I love you, my neighbor.


So yes, it’s hard.
And yes, it’s easy.
Just relax into the pattern,
 And follow wherever and however Christ leads you through it,
 And let it take you finally into the ever-further, ever-deeper, grace and knowledge of God,

 Where love resides and rules.

October 22, 2014

Thoughts on Matthew 22:34-46

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

41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 
44“The Lord said to my Lord, 
‘Sit at my right hand,
 until I put your enemies under your feet’”? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Simeon the Just was among those left from the Great Congregation. He used to say: “The world stands on three things: on Torah and on worship and on acts of kindness.”-- Mishna, Aboth 1.2
 It happened again that a certain stranger came before Shammai and said to him: “I will become a proselyte providing you teach me the whole Torah while I'm standing on one foot.” Shammai knocked him down with the builder’s rule in his hand. The stranger came before Hillel, who made him a proselyte. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn it!”
-- Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a

I find the attempts to summarize the core of the faith are often helpful reminders of what to bear in mind (or at least the back of the mind) as being most essential in any given approach to the text. There are a number of such attempts: one could look to Proto-Isaiah’s kingship oracle (33:15-16) and find there a recipe for right behavior, or to the postexilic Isaiah (ch. 58) and his take on the difference between false and true worship. Amos 5:1-15, with its call to break bonds imposed by those who pervert justice, is compelling in its own way. And, of course, the famously durable sixth chapter of Micah, in which the prophet litigates the covenant between YHWH and his people: “[YHWH] has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (The fact that these are all in the form of prophetic utterance ought not be lost on us.)

Now we come to Jesus’ succinct summarization of the law as it is rendered by Matthew, and we find that it’s no seashells-and-balloons type moment. In fact, it’s within a coldly bitter context. It occurs at the end of Matthew’s fifth narrative block (chapters 21-27), where the question of Jesus’ authority is being hotly contested. Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, lawyers, and scribes parry and thrust, post and riposte, around a substantial problem: By what authority does Jesus do these things, and who gave that authority to him? (21:23). (Or, in the words of an Old Testament professor extemporizing on the prophets in the courts of kings, “Oh yeah? Well, who the hell are you to tell us what to do?”) Of course, it’s going to get even worse after this: standing in the temple, Jesus will go on from here to heap curses and predictions of apocalyptic ruin upon all those who bear the mantle of the ruling religious elite: the scribes and Pharisees; poor, bosom-less Jerusalem; and finally the temple herself, a key symbol of correspondence with the divine. All that, as I say, yet to come.

If Jesus – here functioning as both teacher and prophet – seems quick to dig his heel into their graves, perhaps a word or two of what makes up the whole section. In this lection, Jesus is asked a question by a teacher of the law (a scribe of the Pharisees) and then poses a question to the gathered Pharisees. This is immediately after his having been asked two rather more pointed questions on the law, one by the Pharisees and one by the Sadducees. The business between Jesus and the Pharisees gets pretty nasty over the matter of paying taxes, and they’re completely stymied by him (22:22). Then the same thing happens with the Sadducees when it comes to the resurrection, and he shuts them down, too (22:33). Such conversations and questions are built around snares – setting rhetorical traps for Jesus to step into (22:16) – but his refusal to fall for it frames his teaching authority as being extraordinary in nature. (Surely that’s a not-too-subtle way of answering the question on the table about authority, is it not?)

It’s only my opinion, but Jesus’ summarization of the law is a way of telling these teachers of the law that they’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to be about; it’s an early form of condemnation for the much stronger coffee he’s got brewing for chapters 23 and 24, the apocalyptic fire sale where everything must go but the very center of the beating heart of the law. It must also, for Matthew, be a fundamental teaching device for telling the gathered community of the people of the Way how to treat one another and walk reverently before God (even though Matthew, clearly, has borrowed it from Mark/Q).

So anyhow, Jesus summarizes the law in the presence of the Pharisees and then, doubling back on them, he returns to the question of authority, only in a different way. “What do you think of the Messiah?” Their answer is not wrong, but neither is it connected to the conversation they’ve just had with respect to either Jesus or messiahship, so he reframes it by citing Psalm 110:1 – the pre-exilic oracle of the royal psalm, which maintains that the Lord grants earthly power and authority to the ruling and priestly office of the king. That this was said by David in the Spirit.

In other words, that he may well be David’s son (Matthew’s genealogy takes such cartoonish pains to point that out), but that his authority is the very authority set over David to begin with. David is a type of a messiah, the adopted Son of God, the oily-headed righteous ruler of Psalm 89. What sets all that in motion, however, is the greater power – the selfsame prerogative out of which Jesus tries to teach these petty elite. David’s enemies only became his virtual ottoman in an act of deference to the One ruler who, in scripture, ideally uses the power of an undivided government as a great light to which the nations are meant to stream. And that light, in practice, is supposed to look like the prophets’ summation of the law: the summation upon which everything else hangs, and in the light of which everything else appears as minor detail.

So here’s Jesus, before the Pharisees with these words still ringing in the air about who he is, and with all their rhetorical crowns already gathered at his feet. You’d only have to go a little way from here to connect the dots, but even in the best of circumstances you can’t make a horse drink no matter how well led. Thank God for the element of choice, but if these ruling religious elites won’t recognize his authority – especially after what has just happened – then there’s really nothing left to say.

Worse yet, I’d bet a month’s salary many of them do understand well enough but are incapable of properly acting on this new knowledge. They’re impotent, calcified; they’ve become inured to the power of the truth by virtue of their enviable social positions. I can see the disciples kicking around the edges of this transaction, deeply mistrusting of the crowd but also kind of jealous. Peter’s comment from John 6 reverberates – We can’t go with anyone else but you, Jesus – but when you look hard enough, you can just sense their very human envy.

In any case, Jesus will now proceed with his sharpest attacks against them, and they will retreat and gather support to get rid of him.


That’s a bummer, all right. And, it may not be the “good news” part of this gospel lection. But even in this parting of the ways, drawn so clearly between Jesus and the religious authorities around him, there is given both a summation of the law and a still-further setting-of-the-face toward what is to come. To exercise the prophetic utterance, to become vulnerable to the long knives of the ruling elite, is, for Jesus, a way of embracing the cross before him.