February 20, 2011
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
the Rev. Elizabeth Molitors
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”
This past Monday, on Valentine’s Day, the New York Times invited their readers to become writers. In keeping with the theme of the day, they asked people to share their love stories. But there was a caveat: each story had to be exactly 6 words long.
Just how much love and how much story do you suppose you can you fit into 6 words? Well, quite a bit, actually. These were a few that caught my eye:
– Age 62: Match dot com successful.
– Dog approves: maybe this guy’s good?
– Thirty one years. Still too few.
– Met in Vegas. Best gamble ever.
Some of the stories told of love lost or gone wrong:
– Fell in love. Then fell out.
– Note to self: no more surfers.
– Buy dog and cleaning service instead.
Still others were quite poignant and touching:
– Met, loved, married 46 years. Alzheimer’s.
– Sitting in wheelchairs, we hold hands.
– I can’t walk; he doesn’t care.
These 6-word narratives can’t tell us the writer’s whole story, of course, but even without much detail, we still get a glimpse of their experience of love: love as attraction and connection; as an unexpected late-in-life gift; love as disappointment; love as faithfulness and commitment. Whether heart-warming or cynical, happy or sad, these are the kinds of expressions of love about which poems and songs are written and movies are made.
And though it was longer than 6 words, our opening Collect seems to continue the love narrative:
“O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love…”
Based on the content of that prayer, you may have been expecting to hear more of this poem/song/movie/epigram-worthy type love in the scriptures.
But then we come to the reading from Leviticus. If you’ve ever sat down with the Bible, intending to read it cover to cover, you may have found yourself bogged down when you reached this third book of the Bible. Although this morning we read just 12 verses of Leviticus, if you were to read the rest of it, you’d find that the format is very much the same: lists of prescribed and proscribed behaviors, with great detail as to how to make offerings to God; permitted and restricted foods; the rituals to be observed after a woman gives birth; how to diagnose and deal with lepers. On the face of it, this book of laws seems to beg the question posed in the Tina Turner song from the 80s, “What’s love got to do with it?”
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen.” There’s nothing about love in harvesting grain and gathering grapes…until you realize that this instruction to leave some food in the fields is a way to provide for the poor and the stranger, who don’t have land on which to grow their own food.
Love the stranger: leave some wheat.
“You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” is a way of protecting those workers who live hand-to-mouth, who need their day’s earnings to buy food for that evening’s meal for themselves and their family.
Love the worker: pay on time.
“You shall reprove your neighbor” sounds like a license to criticize, but actually, it’s an invitation to reconciliation – to approach the person with whom you have an issue, to work things out, rather than harboring anger and resentment.
Love your neighbor: make peace now.
The love contained in these laws is not the love of romance or personal ads or love-at-first-sight or growing-old-together with your beloved. It is not an elusive, ethereal, fleeting or hoped-for future thing. The kind of love that the law refers to is sacramental – outward and visible signs of the inward, spiritual grace that God grants to each of God’s creatures. In the law, we are called to be Epiphanies – Manifestations – of the love that dwells inside of us. And not at some future time in some other place, but here and now. As it says in Deuteronomy (30:11-14), “…this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven…Neither is it beyond the sea…. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Rabbi and author Harold Kushner retells a story in his book, “Living a Life that Matters.” It’s a legend about a young boy who receives a bar mitzvah gift of a beautiful scarf that he uses as a prayer shawl; it’s a gift that he absolutely cherishes and treats as sacred. One day, when the boy passes a beggar in the street who is dressed in rags, he recalls the ancient teaching that the Messiah will appear on earth as an outcast and stranger, waiting for “someone to recognize him and reach out to him, at which point he will reveal himself and redeem the world from sickness and misery.” The boy gives away his prized possession, so that the beggar has something with which to wrap up his bare and bleeding feet; the boy is hoping, of course, that the beggar is the Messiah, and that he will have helped usher in the age of redemption. As it turns out, though, the beggar is not the Messiah, just a person grateful for the care from another human being.
Rabbi Kushner preached about the legend at his own son’s bar mitzvah, and offered this interpretation: “…no matter how much we would like to, we can’t bring the Messiah and solve the world’s problems. Nor can we bring the Messiah for ourselves and solve our own problems. But maybe we can bring the Messiah for someone else. We can be the supporting actor who gives someone else’s life story a happy ending, and we can hope that someone will come along and do the same for us.”
Earlier this week, I was on the receiving end of sacramental, manifest love, of someone being the Messiah – Christ – for me; and a couple of days later, I had a chance to play a small, supporting role myself.
On Wednesday, in my haste to fit a bunch of things into my day, I ignored the fact that my gauge indicated that my gas tank was dangerously close to empty. I thought I had enough fuel to get me through my day; I was wrong. My car started bucking and lurching as I drove down Schick Road – it finally died – but I was lucky to have just enough momentum to carry me into a side street, out of the busy traffic. I thought about calling a friend or a co-worker to rescue me, but in the end, I just went and knocked on the door of the house in front of which I was parked. I told my story to the woman who answered the door, thinking that I would just get directions to the nearest gas station. The woman barely hesitated a half-second before volunteering to take me there herself. It was a busy time of day for her, dealing with two young children just home from school (both of whom had special needs), and there was every reason for her to say ‘no’ to me, a stranger. But she said ‘yes’, and chose to be sacrament, to be a manifestation of love.
At last month’s Vestry meeting, the St. Mark’s Vestry voted to have our church listed on the website Gaychurch.org which includes, as part of its site, a directory of Christian churches around the world that welcome and affirm gay, lesbian and transgendered people. On Friday, I contacted the website administrator to figure out how to make this happen. A few short emails later, St. Mark’s was in the list, standing together with other Episcopal, Lutheran, UCC, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, among others. When I clicked the link to test it, my eyes filled with tears as it took me to the St. Mark’s website, proud of the fact that this church, this denomination, is working to make manifest the sacrament of baptism, wherein we promise, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to live out the great commandment to ‘Love neighbor as we love ourselves.’
“…this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”