Sunday, November 14, 2021
"You Are Not Far From the Kingdom of God” A Sermon on Mark 12:28-34 October 31, 2021
Tonight is, of course, All Hallow’s Eve, the beginning of the three principle days of Allhallowtide, for centuries a time in the liturgical year for remembering the dead, especially the saints (known as the hallowed) martyrs, and all the departed. It used to be celebrated for an octave—eight days, prior to the the Roman Catholic Church abolishing it in 1955. However, an Anglican tradition of Allhallowtide has remained, mostly in the United Kingdom. We gain more insight into All Hallow’s Eve Sam Potaro’s Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feats and Fasts (Cowley Press, 1998), p. 199. Potaro views All Hallow’s Eve as traditionally using “the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule, to confront the power of death.” Now, the appropriation of the fearful and of dread for pleasure is everywhere present in our society; the unending stream of horror films, books, television shows are all evidence of our appetite for a good scare. And what is a good scare? It’s a safe one. One we know won’t really hurt us. This isn’t a Halloween story, but it makes the point: When I was a boy of 11, my grammar school had a paperback book fair. I only had a little money, so I bought one book: Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’d never seem the film, but that’s what I walked out with. And later that very afternoon, my twin sister and I discovered that our beloved grandmother had died. I couldn’t bear it, not right away. I hid, and feverishly read Dracula. Because even at 11, I knew that I was safe from the Count and his three brides. That book kept me from falling apart, the good scare protecting me from my first experience of loss, of death, of separation. Most of all, it protected me from the experience of losing one of the key sources of unconditional love I’d ever known. The loss of love is perhaps the greatest human tragedy. Halloween teaches us to laugh at it, ridicule it, play with it. Because Halloween is not about the devil, or the occult, not really. It’s about rejecting the finality of death. It’s about rejecting fear, or, rather, putting it in its place. Ultimately, it’s about refusing to accept the ultimate death of love. By playfully treating death, and fear and all of the ghastly creatures and things associated with death, we cut them down to size, reaffirming that death will not have the last laugh—or even if it does, we will have laughed first, and better. It’s a half-conscious assertion of the Greek Neoplatonist Plotinus’s maxim that “nothing that truly is can ever perish.” The Gospel appointed for this evening feels on the surface like it’s miles away from this evening’s sermon—it’s a daylight story in which Jesus defeats one set of questioners only to bond with another. It’s another in a series of controversies between Jesus and the established religious authorities. Of these debates, this is my personal favorite. Normally, these things follow a pattern: Religious authority figure—a Pharisee, a scribe, a Saducee—poses a question to Jesus. Of course, it’s not posed in good faith; it’s a trap. The classic of the genre is reported in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, it’s posed by the Pharisees, although Mark adds “some Herodians” to the mix. Luke has the question posed by “spies.” But the question is an inherently dangerous one: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” The idea, of course, is to trip Jesus up—he’ll either hew to the Hebrew law, and qualify as a rebel in the eyes of the Roman authorities, or he will choose submission to Rome, and lose his status as one “teaching the way of God without partiality.” They’ve constructed a perfect lose-lose scenario for Jesus here. Except, of course, that they haven’t; he foils them easily, asking whose head is on the coin, and, seeing the Emperor’s, answering give to the Emperor that which is due to the Emperor, and to God what is God’s. Sensation! Jesus wins again, as the baddies slink away, gnashing their teeth in frustration. And there are multiple variations on this theme throughout the Gospels. So tonight’s variant looks like it’s going to be yet another Wile E. Coyote-style failure. Except this one goes off the usual rails. The scribe comes near, and hears the Saducees disputing with one another, largely because Jesus has trounced them in an effort to trap him with a ridiculous hypothetical—If a man marries and dies, and each of his 7 brothers marries his widow, each dying in turn, whose wife will she be in the Resurrection. Jesus takes them down easily, pointing out that in the Resurrection, there will be no marrying, but living as angels in heaven do. And then he pointedly reminds them that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And God, speaking to Moses said I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—meaning that they are in a very real way, still alive. Our scribe, having witnessed the trouncing of the Saducees, sees that Jesus answered them well, and asks “Which Commandment is the first of all?” This inquiry doesn’t feel like a trap—the scribe seems to genuinely want to learn from this itinerant prophet who has just reduced the so-called experts to futile bickering. Jesus answers without hesitation: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all mind, and with all your strength.” He then adds, “The second is this “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe answers enthusiastically “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and there is no other. He also adds that “to love one’s neighbor as oneself—this is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus sees the sincerity and the wisdom in the answer. He doesn’t just parrot Jesus’s own answer, he goes a step further, placing the love of God and neighbor at the pinnacle of our duty. And so Jesus gives him a rare compliment, telling him “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” He has embraced the core of the Law—the core of Jesus’s own teachings—that love is the indestructible, unending source of our being, and our returning that love toward our Creator and our fellow human beings—that is the sum and substance of our duty to God. Do we love? Do we let that love spread beyond our narrow little hearts to join with the love we have received? If so, we are not far from the Kingdom of God. It’s right here. Tonight is All Hallow’s Eve, and the monsters walking outside are children seeking candy, or playing silly tricks. The monsters in our hearts— fear, jealousy, anxiety, hatred—they may try to make a home there, but if we join the generations who mocked their fears, their hatreds, their nightmares—then we are set free to love, like the Souls—our sacred dead, by whom I mean those we ourselves have lost, and long for—and the Saints we celebrate the following day. And in doing so, we stand with the wise, open-hearted scribe, learning from Jesus the lesson the Saducees couldn’t understand: Death is the human tragedy, but it does not have the last word. The loving Creator has the final word, bringing us home. Nothing that truly is can ever die. And we—you, me, everyone here and throughout this world. We truly are, and we are called not to death, but to life.