Hang all the law and the prophets!: A Halloween Homily

Well, here we are gathered for the Holy Eucharist on All Hallows Eve—Halloween—the day before All Saints Day, when the ghouls and the ghosts romp.  It is well-known that I love all things Celtic, and the Celts were preoccupied by this day, when the veil became especially thin and things spooky could pass over from the other side to our world.  I was tempted to suspend the lectionary and preach on Halloween, but then I worried that my esteemed predecessors in this pulpit might haunt me for it, so I’ve decided instead merely to open this sermon with a few corny Halloween jokes:

Why don’t mummies have friends? Because they’re too wrapped up in themselves.

Why did the vampire read the newspaper? He heard it had great circulation.

Why did the headless horseman go to business school? He wanted to get ahead in life.

Why do skeletons have low self-esteem? They have no body to love.

Halloween: Ghosts, Goblins, Treats, and Dancing? – The Matador Messenger

There are some real stories from Christ Church Cathedral lore that are worthy of Halloween.  The first is, of course, of the body supposedly buried somewhere on our campus.  Only Ardell and Canon Logan knew the who, what, and where, and they’re both gone now, so the mystery endures.  The second story is of Jean Richardson, beloved wife of beloved Dean and later Bishop Milton Richardson, who upon her very first worship service at the Cathedral, walked up the chancel steps toward the altar, glanced at the stained-glass window above the east choir stalls, and gasped, “What kind of church is this?!?”  The window she spied murderously declared—and declares, “Hang all the law and the prophets!”  With images of creepy gallows, Mrs. Richardson must have thought she’d walked into a Halloween horror film.  Luckily, someone quickly pointed out to her the top half of the window, usually obscured in shadow, which provides the first portion of the quoted bible verse: “On these two commandments…hang all the law and the prophets.”

That’s a relief!  Our window quotes Matthew’s version of today’s Gospel passage from Mark, in which a genuinely-searching scribe approaches Jesus and asks which is the most important of all God’s commandments.  Jesus answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

Or, as Matthew says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  In other words, our Lord is telling us unequivocally that nothing in all the utterances of God takes precedence over these.  They are the key by which everything else is to be interpreted.  All else in scripture hangs on what Jesus says today.  The scribe agrees, and so Jesus says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

That’s a most interesting coda, from the mouth of Jesus.  It is not that following these two commandments is some dogged duty; it isn’t even that fidelity to them earns one’s way into some ethereal heaven.  The kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t refer to heaven; it means living in communion with the divine: connecting to God in the here-and-now in ways that grant vitality and light, and then living our lives in light of that reality.  What Jesus says to the scribe, and what Jesus means for each and every one of us, is that if we desire to be near the kingdom of God—if we want to encounter the grace, power, and presence of the divine—we must love God with our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength; and we must love our neighbor not just a little bit, not occasionally, and not with some small part of us, but as we love our very selves.  When we do these things—when we orient our lives in these ways, toward God and neighbor—then we will have entered into the orientation of Godself, like stepping into and floating upon the current of a river.  We will rest our lives upon the kingdom, and that makes all the difference.

I’m glad I didn’t disregard the lectionary today, because this turns out to be one of those weeks when the Gospel and Old Testament texts truly speak to and through one another.  We might ask, “What does it look like to love God and one’s neighbor?”  And Holy Scripture presents us with the story of Naomi and Ruth. 

Naomi travels with her husband and two sons from her home to the country of Moab to escape a famine. There, the men in her family all die.  Shellshocked and presumptively alone, Naomi makes plans to return to her home, and she bids farewell to her widowed daughters-in-law.  The younger women are Moabites.  Despite the deaths of their husbands (Naomi’s sons), they have kith and kin in Moab.  If they will look out for themselves and tend to their lives, they will be o.k.  And yet, as Naomi departs, Ruth takes hold of Naomi and offers words that, through the eons, still rend the heart and buoy the soul.  Ruth says to Naomi:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die.”

Ruth and Naomi: A Story of Redemption - National Shrine of the Immaculate  Conception
Ruth and Naomi relief from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Ruth recognizes that love for God and neighbor is the recognition that the three—God, neighbor, self—are in the end not separate, but the same.  Loving God with heart, soul mind, and strength is loving the neighbor.  If one does not love one’s neighbor, one does not love God.  Loving oneself is loving the neighbor.  If one does not love one’s neighbor, then one fails grant the self the joy of such love.

And loving neighbor is not academic or theoretical.  It is as it is for Ruth.  It is cleaving to the one in need in acknowledgement that we both extend from God and from God’s love.  When the neighbor despairs, we despair.  When the neighbor rejoices, we rejoice. 

There have been times in each of our lives when we desperately needed to hear someone utter Ruth’s words in solidarity with us: “Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”  To hear such words means that we are not alone; that we have fellow travelers on this journey with us; who will carry the load alongside us; who will not walk away.  To hear such words means we have neighbors.  To speak them means we are blessedly near to the kingdom of God. 

Ruth is a Moabite.  In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, Moabites are not included as neighbors.  The Hebrew scriptures initially ostracize Moabites.  Moabites are banned from the presence of God forever.  They are anathema.[i]  But then the people of God, through iconic Naomi, actually meet a Moabite and discover that Ruth is not only their neighbor, but their salvation.  By the Middle Ages, the rabbis had taken Ruth’s speech and turned it into a catechism explaining what it meant to be a good Jew.  In other words, against all odds the Moabite became the model for what it looks like to be a child of God.  Miracle of miracles.  That kind of transformation in understanding, that kind of recognition of our need for one another across all divides, is only possible when we approach Jesus as the scribe and humbly ask the Lord, “As we walk through this world, what is the most important thing of all?” We must love the lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength.  We must love God with everything, and that means we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  And then, the kingdom of God will be here

[i] Deuteronomy 23:3

Second Trombone

From the sixth through the eighth grade, I was second chair trombone in the Paragould Junior High School band, and I was all-in.  I practiced every night.  At first, I practiced in the dining room.  After the first night, I was asked to move to the study…and close the door.  By the second week, I had been banished to my parents’ bedroom at the very back of the house.  Apparently, not everyone embraces the beauty of second trombone.  More about that to come (I promise).

Did you know that there are three creation stories in the Old Testament?  Many Christians are aware of the first two.  They appear in the first and second chapters of Genesis.  EfM graduates and other Episcopalians who regularly study the bible are aware that these are two separate accounts, from two different and unrelated strands of the Jewish tradition.  The first is a hymn (not a science text, by the way), which tells of God’s wondrous creation in a series of stanzas that chart the creation by days.  At the end of each stanza, as a kind of refrain, the Genesis 1 hymns says, “And God saw that it was good.”  The Genesis 1 creation story is grand, bombastic, and cosmic in scope, like a Wagner opera.

The second creation story, in Genesis 2, is much more localized and down to earth.  It is in this second story that we find the Garden of Eden.  It is in this second story that God appears as an anthropomorphized character, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
In Genesis 1 & 2, human beings are the centerpiece of creation.

There is one shared theme for both of these stories: At the culmination of creation, whether grand or intimate, God creates humanity.  Genesis 1 says that, on the final, ultimate day of creation, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  And God grants humankind dominion over all the rest of creation.  In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and Eve and as the inhabitants of Paradise.  In both accounts, the creation story turns out to be a story about, and for, people.  We are the denouement of God’s creative acts, the center of things, those for whom all the rest is made.  To return to where I began today, in the Genesis creation stories we are first chair violin in the orchestra, or if you prefer, lead guitar in the world’s rock band.

It is rare that even biblically-literate Christians are aware of the Old Testament’s third creation story, but it is there, and it may even be more ancient that the stories in Genesis.  It is found in Job 38-41, and we read its beginning verses today.  To catch us up to speed, Job has been inflicted with every manner of distress and disease.  His life has fallen completely apart; his friends claim that he must be at fault (though he knows differently); and he has demanded that God appear and answer for his malady.  In Job 38, God obliges.

In the ensuing chapters, God combines the cosmic scope of Genesis 1 with the intimacy of Genesis 2, as God recounts the creation for Job via a series of pointed questions.  Today we heard the cosmic part: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?  Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?  Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”?

Reformed Commentary on Job: Chapter 38 – Orthodox Christian Theology
William Blake’s depiction of Job 38

A few verses later, God will extol all of God’s beautiful, majestic, tender, and awkward creatures.  God mentions the lion, deer, the hawk, the horse, monsters of the deep, and even the ridiculous-looking and acting ostrich as each invaluable and precious.  As God speaks, Job undoubtedly awaits the culmination of God’s peroration, a mention of humanity—Job himself—as the apex and center of creation.  But the mention never comes.  God finishes speaking with no final, culminating day of creation; no Garden of Eden; no mention of humanity at all.

The implication is clear, and Job gets it.  After God has finished speaking, Job replies, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I repent in dust and ashes.”[i]  Whether or not we grasp the implication, and whether or not we can accept it, is the question. 

We have each and all spent a lifetime, and before us humanity has spent eons, both consciously and unconsciously embracing the Genesis creation stories.  We believe that we—humanity as a whole and each of us individually—is at the center of things.  We believe that we are the apex of creation, that we are the main characters in the story, that our joys and accomplishments deserve accolades and that our pains and sorrows deserve the sympathy of the world.  Collectively, this self-regard imperils the natural and social nexus of our world.  Individually, it often strains our relationships to the breaking point and leads to very many of our disappointments in life.

This is certainly the understanding of James and John, the “sons of thunder,” in today’s Gospel.  They believe that they are at the center of things and that they deserve to be at the very center of the story Jesus is writing.  Their only dispute is which of the two of them is the greatest, which one will play lead guitar in the “Jesus saves the world” grand tour.  Everyone and everything else is peripheral.

But the creation story in Job tells us that none of this is true.  The creation story in Job tells us that we are not at the center of things.  God loves us, yes.  In God’s eyes we are incredibly precious.  We matter.  But not more than the deer, or the hawk, or the ostrich, or the earth.  We are not first chair violin, virtuosos for whom all else stops when we begin to play.  Perhaps we are, instead, second chair trombone. 

Mahler 2nd symphony brass choral Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, D. Gatti -  YouTube

Second chair trombone matters.  If it were removed from the Arkansas fight song, you’d notice its lack.  It is a complementary component of the whole, part of a symphony of music that lifts and carries God’s song forward.  In a way, second trombone is a much harder part to play.  Rather than setting the pace and driving the melody, the second trombone must recede at times, only to bellow forth at just the right moment in support of the whole song.  Second trombone must be especially attentive to the other instruments, so as not to overpower or underperform.  And, second trombone must reconcile with the fact that, alone, its part makes no sense.  Second trombone is not in the center.  It is not the most valuable, but it is essential.

This recognition is the cup from which Jesus asks James and John to drink today.  It is hard elixir, the toughest medicine to swallow.  But drink it, they ultimately will.  They will give up the presumption of their elevated self-importance and becomes apostles of the Gospel, serving and sacrificing for it, and speaking its Word of Truth rather than getting in its way.

Will we?  Can we?  Can we, with Job, acknowledge that we have always assumed a human-centric and self-centered world, when in fact we are not the be all and end all?  Can we give up the adolescent dream of playing lead guitar and instead play second trombone?  In this stewardship season, as we are each called to support the ministry of this place with our time, our talent, and (now especially) our treasure, can we recast Genesis 1’s badly-translated “human dominion of the earth” as, instead, “human stewardship,” giving up the starring roles for lives of service to God, whose creation is so wonderful as to be beyond our understanding?           God does love us, just as God love all of God’s creation.  If we can embody a little less Genesis and a little more Job, then the dissonance of our lives will become harmony, and we will play our part in the symphony of God’s song.

[i] Job 42:3 & 6

The world is in your hands

I am a lover of myths, both ancient and new.  As anyone who has attended many of my classes knows, and as those about to participate in the Anglican Way series will learn, myths are not false stories, but rather stories that express truths so deep that normal declarative or didactic speech simply cannot convey them.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the brilliant author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings wove myths as profound as any ever crafted.  A devout Christian, Tolkien expresses a divinely-permeated world, Middle Earth, that includes various categories of sentient creatures such as elves and human beings.  In some ways, Tolkien’s elves are greater than people.  They are immortal, and they have strength that humans do not share.  But in other ways, the elves are less than women and men.  Their emotional lives are less complex.  They are not as fully-formed.  And most importantly, they are receding.  By the end of Tolkien’s grand tale, the elves will leave Middle Earth, and the stewardship of the world is left to people.  The world is theirs to do with as they will, for good or ill.

10 Best Lord Of The Rings (Middle-earth) Swordsmen (Ranked)
Elves and humans in the film adaptation of LOTR

I’m always reminded of myth generally and Lord of the Rings specifically when I read the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Like the best myths, there is mystery surrounding the Letter to the Hebrews.  For starters, it’s not a letter at all.  It’s something more like, but not quite like, a sermon.  Second, no one knows who wrote it.  Over the millennia various scholars have claimed authorship for various saints, but all that is pure conjecture.  The letter (or whatever it is) begins like the best myths: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”  It is as if Hebrews emerged from the mists, full of power and truth.

And, Hebrews talks a lot about angels and humans in a manner that is reminiscent of those elves and people in Tolkien.  As Tolkien clearly loves those elves, Hebrews is preoccupied with angels.  The author is clearly fascinated by them.  Angels are, he says, creatures close to God and of great power.  But angels are also simple creatures.  They having nothing at all to with redemption, either the need for it or the receipt of it.  And so, they are in one way more than human but, in another, less.  Hebrews says, of human beings—of us, “You [God] have made them only a little lower than the angels [and] you have crowned them [human beings] with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

Every time I read it, that last line stops me in my tracks.  The mysterious author goes on to add, “In subjecting all things to [human beings], God left nothing [in creation] outside their control.”  That is awesome and profound.  It should make us pause, and shudder at least a little bit.  Not to the angels, those heavenly creatures of power and glory, but to us, with our creativity, beauty, hope, and joy—but also with our brokenness, pettiness, destructiveness, and sometimes myopic vision—God has left the stewardship of God’s world.

Toni Morrison: 9 Essential Books, Works by Nobel Laureate - Rolling Stone
Toni Morrison

This reminds me of the story Toni Morrison shared when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993[i]  It is another profoundly true myth.  Here it is:         

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise…  [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.  The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”

Do we understand this myth, this story?  Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted God’s whole world.  Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how we hold it.  There are those who would encourage us to believe the world is there for our use and amusement, that it is in our right to smother it for a laugh, or a dollar, or in order to fulfill our own ego needs.  Those people are wrong.  It is not in our right, but it is in our power.  It is equally in our power—and it is our responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the potentially deadly grip in which we hold it. 

Boy Holding Earth In His Hands by UltraHDenis_new | VideoHive

And so, we ask: What will make the difference?  What will determine whether we smother the world or help it to flourish and fly?  I believe with all my soul, as the author of Hebrews also believes and contends, that the answer is the Church, and increasingly so. 

Daily, the world is more and more atomized.  Daily, the barometer of what is acceptable and true is only what I believe benefits me or my tribe.  Not so, says Hebrews.  You see, the Church exists as a witness to the world of a different vision.  We here, who Hebrews says are only just below the angels, are being redeemed and sanctified through Jesus, who is, as we read today, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  In Jesus, God becomes one of us so that, through Jesus, we might understand how to steward God’s world.  In the Church, as nowhere else in the world, we find ourselves empowered to release God’s world to flourish.  Later in Hebrews the author pointedly says that the Church exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”[ii]  Think about that:  Where else in the whole world do we learn that this is the way to live?  How is the world to breathe and fly if we don’t learn it?  That is why the Church matters now more than ever.  The scholar and preacher Fred Craddock calls it “tenacious faithfulness.”[iii]

We have entered into the stewardship season at Christ Church.  We are in the midst of our Every Member Canvass.  2022 promises to be the Cathedral’s most financially challenging year in decades, due to revenue lost to the pandemic.  The world is in our hands, and before that, the Cathedral is in our hands.  In order to be tenaciously faithful in 2022—in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds—we must support the ministry of this place, and that includes financial support, ideally with a pledge.  Your vestry and I have all made our pledges for the coming year.  I hope you will join us.

Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted the stewardship of God’s world.  We are empowered by the Jesus who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  At this moment, we are blind to what will ultimately be, but we know this with certainty: the future of the world, and of this place, is in our hands.  It is in our hands. 

[i] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/

[ii] Hebrews 10:24

[iii] “Hebrews.”  The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. XII, pg. 13.