Christ is in the Tangles of Life
[This is a sermon that I delivered on 29 October.]
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been troubled by today’s passage from chapter 22 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. After all, Jesus seemed to be a pretty nice guy, who wouldn’t hurt a flea. He always meant well, and mainly he only wanted to help people. Given that, why in the world would the Sadducees want to trip him up? And why would the Pharisees think they would succeed where the Sadducees had failed? Why did it matter to them? And why should their experience matter to us?
When the Pharisees asked Jesus to single out the most important law, they already knew what to expect from him. The love of God and love of neighbor took highest priority in the Jewish tradition, and they and Jesus and everyone else knew that already. Had Jesus named any other law, everybody would have been very much surprised. And had Jesus done so, they would have sprung the trap. But Jesus didn’t take the bait; he said the right thing. Meanwhile the Pharisees heard what they had expected to hear, but not what they had wanted to hear. And so they quietly walked away to come up with Plan B.
God could have gone on and on, piling one regulation on top of another, but for the moment that was enough. However, elsewhere in the Old Testament God does return to these kinds of specifics — particularly in the words that he puts into the mouths of the prophets.
That may be the sort of detailed answer that the Pharisees had hoped to hear from Jesus. About those sorts of issues there could be endless debate, because the devil is often in these sort of details. But in those details is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out the Two Great Commandments. So it’s fair, for example, to ask how the words of Exodus apply to us. What exactly does God expect us to do about the alien in our midst? What exactly should we be doing for the widow and orphan, besides not oppressing them? How exactly does God’s law figure into ethical business practices?
But for the moment Jesus refused to get bogged down in the devil’s details and went to the core of God’s law. We must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our being. Into every fiber of our being and into every moment of our day we must allow the grace of God to flow. And from that unity with God derives the second great commandment: we must love our neighbor as ourselves.
The important thing, it seems to me, is to realize that Jesus was not trying to avoid the hard and detailed questions of life — the very sort of things that the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up on. And it’s definitely not because these things did not matter to Jesus. In fact, when Jesus singled out the two great commandments, by extension he underlined the importance of all those other items. The details matter — not as debate topics or excuses for inaction — but because they are the expression of whether we take love of God and neighbor seriously , or not. How we treat aliens and widows and orphans and the poor matters because we love God and neighbor. Those peoples are the detailed handiwork of God, just as are we.
I’m fond of quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, especially when he offers insights into his own troubled pilgrimage through life. Augustine was troubled for lots of reasons, but not because he thought that life or God had been unfair with him. Rather, he came to realize the fundamental connection that we have with God and how that makes all the difference in the details of the here and now. For him there will always be uneasiness until we bring into alignment our love of God on the one hand, and how we choose to tease that out into our lives. And so it is that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Does our work make a difference? Will our lives matter? On the one hand I think we need to forge ahead anyway, regardless of the answers. And we do so in confidence that ultimately God will be the judge of those things.
But on the other hand, only when we take the plunge and immerse ourselves in the messy details of life, only then will we discover a great surprise. We may have thought that the devil was in the details. But in fact it is the Lord Jesus whom we see in the details. And through the tangle of life it is the face of Christ peeking out at us.
+My major activity of last week was the retreat that I gave to members In Obedience in the Order of Malta. It is a yearly gathering that takes place at San Damiano Franciscan Retreat Center, located in Danville, CA. Danville is in the East Bay, south of Oakland, and it was spared the fire that had ravaged nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Had we been scheduled to have the retreat during those fires, we would not have met. The smoke was intense, and in the event of a fire we would have been toast. The center sits on the top of a small mountain, and there is only one winding road up (and just as obviously, one road down.) Today’s post is a sermon I gave to them on October 29th.
+By coincidence a group of extern sisters from Carmelite convents from around the country were also gathered at San Damiano. The extern sisters are the ones who deal with the business of the convent, while the nuns in the community remain cloistered. This brought to mind stories my mother had told of her contact with the Carmelites. Before she married she worked at a school run by Carmelite sisters in Oklahoma City, and years later she often visited the cloistered Carmelite nuns who lived in nearby Piedmont, OK. I mentioned this to one of the sisters at the meeting, and her face brightened as I spoke. She was from the community in Piedmont. So it was a small world that day.
+On October 27th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s. The two inches did not last long, but it is a reminder that seasonal change is in the offing. Just a few days earlier it had reached 80 degrees, so this is a rapid transition.
+The photos in today’s post come from the Cité de L’Architecture, a museum in Paris. The museum houses plaster casts of historic architecture from around France, and it’s the perfect place to go if you want to see a lot of stuff without having to go very far. The photos above depict the Abbey of Sainte Foi in Conques.