October 29, 2017
Matthew 22: 34-46
All around the world, Lutheran pastors are today preaching sermons about the 500thanniversary of the Reformation and about how the church is always in need of reform. But seeing as I am not actually a Lutheran pastor and because we jumped the gun and celebrated the reformation last week, I’m instead going to be preaching on Halloween, of course. Yes, Halloween–the crème de la crème of Christian holidays. Because nothing screams Christian more than folks dressed up like witches and demons, and scantily clad little red riding hoods—am I right? Or, if I’m wrong and we aren’t used to thinking of Halloween as a Christian holiday, I guess I’m suggesting that maybe we should. Because I’m wondering what this day has to teach us. When all the rules get thrown out the window and when we do things we’d never do on any other day of the year, I’m wondering what this has to teach us about a God who is a bit of a trickster herself. I’m wondering if Halloween is perhaps one of our best vehicles for showing how God in God’s awesome creativity has an infinite number of tricks up her sleeve that she uses to infuse our stubborn hearts with grace and freedom.
But if the idea of Halloween being a means of grace strikes you as odd, I get it. Growing up in a fundamentalist church, Halloween was the one holiday good Christians were expected to boycott or at least display some performative anxiety about it. Instead of allowing kids to go trick-or-treating, parents would take them to church dressed up as Bible characters. Within the safe confines of the church gymnasium, parents could rest assured that no heathen neighbor would slip a demon into their kid’s butterfinger. So, when I say that Halloween is deeply Christian, I’m not talking about Christianity as an identity. I’m not talking about some religious club, in which we maintain our status based on listening to a lot of bad music, posting endless prayer warrior chain letters or by avoiding things that scare us like Halloween or queer people or muslims. I’m talking about Christianity as a way of life where we are radically free to imagine all kinds of possibilities for what our lives can look like. I’m talking about a way of life where we are encouraged to imagine the sacred in all things, especially the things that scare us, and where we stand together in order to lean into the fears and anxieties of life. I’m talking about a way of life in the shadow of Jesus and his cross, which points to a God who uses every trick in the book to sneak grace into our lives, even when that’s the last thing we’re looking for.
We hear from this trickster Jesus in today’s gospel, where we find Jesus using some pretty slick moves to slip grace and love into a conversation that was setup to shame and destroy. However, the trickster aspect of this gospel reading tends to go unnoticed. The part we’re probably most familiar with is Jesus saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But these words of Jesus come at the end of a long line of questioning from the religious authorities and scholars that is meant to discredit Jesus, the hick from Nazareth, or as Pastor Nadia puts it, this Jesus of Commerce City. All the parables we’ve heard this fall are all creative and sly counterpunches that Jesus throws at the Pharisees in the course of this long debate. And the debate ultimately bring us to the final trick or riddle that Jesus presents in today’s reading.
The Pharisees are like, “Riddle me this! Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” In response, Jesus does what he often does, he tells them the truth rather than give them what they are looking for. So, instead of giving them a commandment, he gives them two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the greatest and first commandment.And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” It’s sort of like when someone asks you one of those annoying questions like what’s your favorite music and you say, “Well, I like everything but country.” In responding like that, you’re performing a kind of sleight of hand like Jesus does, and like Jesus you’re saying that you don’t really like the terms of the question.
But the Pharisees are looking for Jesus to confirm what they so desperately wish to be true – that they can be saved through their religion. But Jesus cannot give them what they are looking for. Jesus knows that he cannot just give the religious leaders one more rule or explanation of a rule that free them. And so Jesus does a magic trick of sorts, he gives them an anti-law, an anti-commandment.
This is an anti-commandment because it is a commandment that cannot be met by religion. It is a law that requires more than following rules. It is a law that requires grace, and where there is grace, laws and rules and prohibitions wither away. For who can stand before such a law and say, “Yep. I do that?” Who can truly say that they love others as they love themselves? Therefore, it is a law before which all other laws crumble, before which all religion crumbles and before which we can only fall on our knees and cry out for help. Which is why I suspect the gospel says that from that day no one dared ask Jesus any more questions.
I just finished reading Pete Rollins’ recent book “Divine Magician: the Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith.” And in this book, he demonstrates how the central human problem is our desire for some thing to make us whole and perfect. Whether that be a relationship or a job or a drug or sex or a belief system- we are on a constant and neurotic pursuit of that thing which will fix us. Yet, what we find revealed in Jesus is that this pursuit for total wholeness and perfection is an illusion. An illusion that robs us of our ability to enjoy our lives right here, right now. And thus what Jesus does in his ministry and ultimately on the cross is that, like a divine magician, he makes religion and the pursuit for perfection disappear. When Jesus dies on the cross and the veil in the temple rips open, we find that the Holy of the holies is empty. The inner sanctum of the Jewish temple where God was believed to dwell is empty, but through the resurrection we discover that God isn’t over there in a box, or in a list of commandments, but that God is everywhere. God is in here, in me and in you, and in all things.
Therefore, to live a Christian life is to concede to the divine magic of Jesus. It means to yield our lives to all the tricks that are up God’s sleeves that uses to breathe grace and love into all things. Much like the magic that permeates Halloween and says that the world is not as it seems, the Christian life says, no, the world is not as it seems. All is sacred. There are not sacred places and profane places, sacred people and profane people. “The sacred is no longer that which pulls us away from the profane, but rather is that which emanates from the profane,” says Rollins.The Christian life, thus, runs towards the profane and not away from it.
Twenty years ago, on Halloween, I had an experience of the sacred flowing from the profane. It was on October 31st, 1997 that I first confessed to another man that I too loved watching the Golden Girls. In other words, it was the first time I came out of the closet. On a day when human beings can suddenly become a bottle of ketchup or a bumble bee or a zombie, why couldn’t I be honest about being gay? That seemed a lot less far fetched than what everybody else was coming out as. And so, on this day when we put on our costumes and stop for a moment to wonder what if, God stepped in and turned my “what if” into a “why not?” Because with God, all things are possible. And so, if I had to pick a single day in my life when I “became a Christian,” it would be this one: Halloween 1997. Because it was on this day that I began to love the person God made me to be. And it opened me up to the vastness of life and to God’s unending creativity. I began to see love and grace flowing in places where I had previously thought there was no way God was at work. And so this Halloween, my prayer is that God will begin to transform your what if’s into why nots? That God will continue to dig up her sleeves and pull out all her tricks and liberate us from the chains that bind us. Amen.
- HFASS observed Reformation Sunday in 2017 on October 22.