Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma Washington on September 7th, 2014.
The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A
When my son was a senior in high school, like many students before and since, he studied Hamlet, by Shakespeare. His English teacher, unlike most teachers, gave us, the parents, a homework assignment. She explained that in the play, Hamlet’s friend, Laertes, was heading off to study in a distant city. Just as he was about to board the ship, his father, Polonius, sent him off with words of advice. Some of those words are very familiar to us. Words like, “To thine own self be true,” and “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
The teacher invited us to write a letter to our sons and daughters, offering words of blessing or advice as they would soon be finishing high school and heading off on new ventures of their own. She then passed them out for them to read to themselves, during class.
I heard that many of the students were a bit choked up and there were even a few tears. They recognized their letter for what it was. It was not just another lecture about “inappropriate behavior,” telling them what they should or shouldn’t do; how to run their lives. It was not just more unwanted, unsolicited, old fashioned and out-of-date advice.
No, it was a love letter. To a dispassionate observer, it may have looked like a set of random instructions. But to the heart of the beloved it was understood as an expression of love of our deep desire for the well-being of our beloved. It was sharing our wisdom, although limited, gained through life, through experience, of what well-being means, and how it can be attained.
I don’t remember much of what I wrote, but I do know he saved it. He still has it, tucked away amongst other treasures and mementos. In the years that followed, we developed a sort of short-hand love letter. When he was out, doing who knows what, I would sometimes, okay, often, shoot him a text message, “Be good, be safe, be wise.” It became something of a ritual. Now grant you, it probably was met with an eye-roll at the time. But still, he got the message: “You matter – you are loved and cared about and are part of someone else’s life. And I know you are capable of making appropriate choices.” He still remembers those times and will sometimes say it to us when we’re going out. Be good, be safe, be wise.
The Christian tradition has some of those short-hand reminders, too:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
What do you think God would say in a love letter to us? I invite you to hear this morning’s readings as excerpts from a love letter from God.
To a dispassionate observer, they may sound like arbitrary instructions, but to the heart of the beloved, they are expressions of love. You are God’s beloved and you are part of something bigger than yourself; you’re part of your family, your community, this community of faith, the Body of Christ.
You matter. What you do and what you say matter. You belong to God and God’s deepest desire is your well-being. Out of that deep desire, God writes a love letter to us.
Through Paul, God tells us, “Owe nothing except a debt of love. Loving another fulfills the Law for love can cause no harm to another. Live honorably – do no harm to yourself, but love yourself.” So first and foremost is Love. Love others, love yourself.
The Gospel lesson continues this letter of love.
Today’s lesson skips ahead a chapter or so from where we left off last week and lands in the middle of Jesus’ discourse on the church. Jesus begins that discourse with little children. “If you would be the greatest,” he says, “you must become like a little child. Be like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he goes on to warn, “woe to any who would lead them astray.”
He goes on to tell the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd discovers that one of the sheep is missing and leaves the rest of the flock on the hillside while going in search of the one that has gone astray and brings it back, rejoicing because it has returned and the flock is whole again.
And then he comes to today’s passage about reconciliation. Now, to a dispassionate observer, it may look like instruction about church discipline; what steps we must take before finally kicking someone out of the church. However, with the heart of the beloved, we can hear that this is ultimately about love and the well-being of the beloved. It is about the importance of community and God’s desire for the well-being of the beloved community. And it is about our accountability to the community.
When wounds fester and become grudges, the whole community is harmed. So Jesus tells them, when you have been harmed, reach out to them first. Don’t wait for them to come to you to ask forgiveness. Seek reconciliation. And if it doesn’t work the first time, try again, and again; and enlist the help of the community if needed. And although Jesus doesn’t say this explicitly, in seeking reconciliation, we may realize that we, too, played a part in the rift. I may have harmed the other as well. Jesus acknowledges, though, that we are not yet fully in the kingdom and at times it may be that the well-being of all is best attained by separation.
Jesus continues the discourse by stressing the importance of praying together. He promises that when we gather together to pray He will be among us. Next week, we will hear the conclusion of the discourse when Jesus speaks about forgiveness.
Finally, we come to the Old Testament love letter. Because of God’s love for the people, God is rescuing them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. God gives them a ritual, with very explicit instructions to help them remember in generations to come, how God acted on their behalf out of love. They are to roast a lamb and eat it hurriedly, dressed for the road; ready for their escape from bondage, prepared for a long, difficult journey. Through this ritual, they remember who they are and whose they are. They remember that they are beloved of God. It’s a ritual that has been repeated around the world for thousands of years.
In just a little while, we will participate in the ritual God gave us through Jesus; a ritual that has been repeated around the world for 2,000 years. We remember how God, out of love, acted on our behalf. In the bread and wine, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, we remember who we are. In the Body of Christ, we are bound to God and to one another – God’s beloved.
Be good, be safe, be wise – it’s our family’s shorthand love letter.
Perhaps God’s shorthand love letter would be:
Love others, seek reconciliation, pray together.
And share the rituals.
Remember, you are God’s beloved.