Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
You want to hear a ghost story? I’ll tell you a ghost story. A man died suddenly and unexpectedly, and therefore unprepared. That’s something the church has always tried to prevent, by encouraging people to always have a relationship with God, to pray frequently, every day, at least. The dead man was not a member of Saint John’s, but some of his family had worshipped here from time to time. They didn’t call me to alert me of his death or to do his funeral. They called me because, two days after he died and his body was taken out of the house, they were very concerned. They were so sad, and afraid, and exhausted when they told me, he’s still here. Can you help us? And of course they were afraid I wouldn’t believe them, wouldn’t respect them.
I don’t know how many of my colleagues would have tried to convince them there’s no such thing as ghosts, or offer some kind of platitudes over the phone. I suited up and went in. Who you gonna call? Cassock, surplice, black stole, three prayer books and a candle. The whole family was gathered in the living room and kitchen. I went through making holy water the old-fashioned way according to the English Ritual, lit a candle, and said some prayers with them, then headed up to the bedroom. The site of the death. Only a couple of them came with me. His wife, I think, and maybe one of his children. Very quiet. From the Book of Common Prayer, I read the prayers you pray at the moment of death, what would have been the last rites if there had been someone to anoint. Then, from the Book of Occasional Services, I blessed the room, applying holy water liberally.
We rejoined the family downstairs and I completed the blessing of the home and the family. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. I don’t know if anything supernatural happened, but something deeply human happened. Despair and fear gave way to warmth, gratitude, hope. They no longer felt the unwelcome presence of death, the vicarious spiritual irritation of things left undone.
While it was an unusual pastoral visit, still, because I’m your rector, and because you support Saint John’s, I’m free to make pastoral visits and respond to other needs, without working around the schedule of a secular job. I aspire to be an approachable symbol of God’s love, as every Christian should; the clergy just have additional responsibilities and, ideally, the training to carry them out. These encounters with the needs of the world can be powerful experiences, but the mechanics that support them are quite mundane. That’s the way goes with acts of love, sometimes they’re intense, sometimes routine. The routine of making and fulfilling our pledges is, or can be, deeply prayerful, but seldom dramatic. But the stability of a healthy parish allows for extraordinary moments and life-changing ministry, much of which happens out of public view.
We practice love. All of us, all the year. We all have stories to tell, and I encourage you to keep sharing them. Because we need to be reminded that we actually can fulfill the two commandments that Jesus said define the whole law, that is, the whole relationship between God and humanity.
We should take a moment to consider that Jesus’s answer to the lawyer’s question was both traditional and revolutionary. Jesus and his enemies agreed that God had revealed truth to humanity that was recorded in the Hebrew Bible, which therefore held authority and commanded respect. Particularly the first five books, together known as the Torah, the Law. The Torah was both a sacred story of the relationship between God and humanity and a vision of what that relationship could, or should, be. They also agreed that there was some sort of hierarchy among the commandments of the Torah. The first passage Jesus quoted: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” would not have been controversial. They all already worshiped, prayed, and studied. God’s sovereignty, greatness, and goodness made a loving response not just appropriate but natural, almost like how the Earth’s mass causes us to be attracted by its gravitational pull.
So now you see why the rest of Jesus’s answer was revolutionary. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving another human being is as important as loving God? We, who are so much less than God? Yes! Not because we are in any way God’s equals, but because we are in every way God’s beloved. God revealed that love to us throughout history. That’s why the Bible is so important, why it even exists: when God reveals things that are counterintuitive, you better write them down!
The second part of this passage is harder to unpack and I don’t have time to go through it in detail, but it does relate to the first. Jesus’s question about the Messiah, “Whose son is he?” isn’t really about genealogy, family, or inheritance. While Jesus was a descendant of King David, that wasn’t the most important thing about him. If it were, then restoring the monarchy would have been his mission. But Jesus’s most important relationship is with God, and thus his mission is cosmic, not national. Jesus wasn’t there to establish a nation-state, but to reconcile all humanity to God, the ultimate act of love.
Many sermons on this passage dwell on the impossibility of obeying these commandments, and it’s absolutely true that our sins and flaws and limitations render perfect practice impossible. But just like with being a parent, there’s no way to be a perfect Christian, but there’s a million ways to be a good one. Jesus’s act of love makes it possible for us to be like him in the most important way. Our most important relationship should always be our relationship with God, and the grace which Jesus makes available to us means that this relationship can be purely joyful and life-giving. In our life with Jesus, we no longer fear the unwelcome presence of death, nor the spiritual irritation of things left undone. Jesus is present in every act of love, and so we become free from despair and fear, we enjoy warmth, gratitude, hope. Great or small, no act of love is ever done in vain.