Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, October 25, 2020.
Texas oilman, Dick Bass, was an adventurer and the developer of the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah. Bass used to tell a story on himself about taking a transcontinental flight. As he sat down in first class, his plain-looking seatmate recognized him and gushed, “I just read your book – Seven Summits. I loved it!” Bass, a Texas flatlander, was the first person to climb the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents.
For the next three hours, Bass hypnotized his admiring seatmate, recounting his ascent of Mount McKinley, his climb up Aconcagua in South America and his ascend of Mount Vinson in Antarctica. He described climbing Elbrus in Europe, Kilimanjaro in Africa and Kosciusko in Australia, and teetering on a knife-edge ridge on Mount Everest at almost the same altitude as the jet airliner. For good measure, he described climbing the Matterhorn with his children, swimming across the Dardanelles and retracing Pheidippides’ run from Marathon to Athens that inspired the modern marathon.
Bass told one story after another until the captain interrupted and announced that the plane was preparing to land. Horrified, Bass said, “I just realized I’ve been talking about myself the entire flight. I haven’t asked anything about you. I haven’t even asked your name.” “Oh, that’s okay,” replied his good-natured seatmate, offering his hand. “I’m Neil Armstrong. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps someday, I can tell you about a few of the places that I have visited.”
I love that story, because it reminds me that if we are so full of ourselves we create no room to allow others to share their gifts with us. If we talk too much, we will miss things of great importance. If we are so full of answers and puffed up with knowledge, we won’t receive the wisdom of others. If we’re inundated with work or vastly overscheduled, we will miss gifts that might otherwise come our way. That’s why humility, simplicity, stillness, silence, attentiveness, and wonder are at the heart of the spiritual journey and part of becoming fully human.
It reminds me of this morning’s gospel lesson, which comes at the conclusion of a series of stories where adversaries fired questions at Jesus, like reporters facing a presidential candidate. Each question was an attempt to publicly confront and discredit Jesus. His interlocutors asked him about taxes, life after death and by what authority he performed his miracles. Jesus countered each question with his superior biblical knowledge and irrefutable logic. Then a lawyer put him to the test, asking. “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” In other words, let’s cut to the chase. Give us your bottom line. What is the essence of God’s law?
Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This was a summary of Jesus’ mission, for these two commandments interpret one another. To love God is to love what God loves – namely, everything. The first commandment forms part of the Shema, which every Jew memorized, just as we learn to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance.
Jesus’ Jewish listeners easily grasped the first commandment, but without missing a beat, he added, “There’s a second commandment. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Wait a minute, they thought. Where did this come from? The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, the second commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18. Both are in the Hebrew scriptures, but no one had ever combined the two. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that Jesus was stating that you can’t say “God” without saying “neighbor”; it’s almost hyphenated – “God-neighbor.” To love your neighbor is the active form of loving God.
The genius of Jesus was to boil down 613 laws to something manageable – like a moral compass. God gave Moses 248 positive injunctions and 365 prohibitions. That was so much to memorize and carry out. When we fill our heads with countless rules and regulations, we lose sight of what God actually intends. It’s like Dick Bass being so full of himself that he had no room to listen to what Neil Armstrong. He clearly missed out.
This is Celebration Sunday and a chance for us to celebrate the stewardship that every member offers to help make what God is doing a reality at Christ Church. You’ve noticed that we no longer pass the alms basin because of Covid-19. That’s probably a good thing. Because I’ve never seen anyone give a major gift of cash in the alms basin. When people say, “I don’t pledge, but I put money in the collection plate,” I have found that’s almost always code for “God isn’t a priority in my life, at least not yet, at least not financially,” because, frankly, what we value, we always invest in financially. Jesus said, “For where you heart is, so will be your treasure.”
There’s probably nothing in your or my life that is really meaningful that we don’t channel our financial resources towards. Our family is precious to us. Our parents, our children, our friends, education, recreation, travel, vacation, exercise, arts, entertainment, medical care, fine dining, being in nature and owning a beautiful, comfortable home or two. These are all priorities, and we channel lots of money into them.
What impresses me is never when people spend lots of money on themselves – their house, their car, their second home, their boat, or fancy vacation. What impresses me is what people give away. Years ago, the Episcopal Bishop whose diocese included the Dakota Indian tribe told me that among the Dakota Indians the person who is greatest is not the person with the most money, but rather the person who has given away the most wealth and possessions.
If a person has a million dollars or 25 million dollars or even a billion dollars, it doesn’t impress me. What’s impressive is someone like Chuck Feeney, who founded the Duty Free Stores. The Feeneys had a house in Lakeville, Connecticut, and my mother got to know them well. Chuck has since given away seven billion dollars in his lifetime and has just a few million dollars left to his name. He plans to give everything away before he dies. That, my friends, is truly impressive.
If we don’t give things away and if we don’t share the incredible resources with which we have been blessed, we become bloated. We become poisoned by the very things that we seek to hoard. If we supersize ourselves with stuff, things, trips and travel, there’s really no room for many people to enter our lives and to share their gifts with us and to benefit from what we’re so fortunate to possess. We’re simply too full our ourselves to be a blessing to others.
Think about it. Dick Bass had an opportunity to have a three-hour private conversation with Neil Armstrong and learn about walking on the moon and flying through space, but Bass chose instead to retell his old stories ad nauseam. He lost the opportunity to learn from one of the few persons ever to step on the moon. There was no emptiness, no silence, no inquisitiveness, no hunger to listen, learn and receive gifts from someone else.
If you ever have the chance to visit the Holy Land, you will see two major bodies of water. The first is the Sea of Galilee. It’s wide, deep, full of life and teeming with fish. Water flows into it from the north and flows out of it from the south via the Jordan River. The other body of water is the Dead Sea. It’s large, but dead. Nothing lives in it. Water flows into it, but nothing flows out of it. It receives, but never gives back. Thus, it is dead. There is no life in it.
The same principle holds true for us. If we only inhale air we would quickly fill up and suffocate. The only way to live is to inhale and exhale. Likewise, everything that we receive could make a good gift for someone else. And it is those who have learned the secret of letting something come into our lives and flow out of our lives to enrich the lives of others, including our wealth and money, that we begin to emulate God and discover our greatest joy and the essence of life.
That’s the genius of what Jesus told the lawyer. The 613 laws only distort our concept of God. If we strive to follow all of them, we are likely to envision God as someone with a great, big stick, ready to punish us for every mistake we make. We will view God as clutching a book and recording all of our sins in view of some ultimate day of judgment. Hence, Jesus boiled down the 613 laws into something manageable, moral compass – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Thus, Jesus reminds us that love is the sine qua non, the essence of life. The purpose of the church is to open us to the One who made us and loves us and to remind us that when we take in resources and let them flow out of our lives to bless God and others, we blossom as human beings. The church is meant to teach us the art of loving. Hence, the mystics always insist that love and humility are sisters. As we learn about love, we seem to get smaller and smaller and the wonder of God gets greater and greater. Amen.