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Gospel according to Tree

This story about Tree** did happen in this exact way, and I’ve always wanted to get it into a sermon.  However, the exact language he used is…colorful.  In a PG-13 sense.  And I never managed it before now.

So, hooray for Tree.  May you be safe, happy, and continue to bless others as you blessed me that day.

Sermon for October 25-26

Poem by Hafiz—sufi poet in middle ages

Man goes to Hafiz because he’s been having this marvelous visions and he wants to find out if they’re divine or not

Hafiz listens to the man go on and on about these visions, listens very closely.

then he asks—how many kids do you have? 

Man is confused. 

Hafiz asks—how do you treat your wife?  Are you kind to animals?  Do you have many friends?  Do you give to the poor?  Are you fair to all you meet? 

Hafiz keeps pestering him with questions, until the man blows up at him—Look, I came here to ask you about these visions I was having, not so you could interrogate me about my life.

Hafiz replied:  You asked me if these visions were true, if they came from God.  And I’d say that they were, if they made you more human.  If they made you kinder to every living thing you met.

That’s not unlike what is occurring in the gospel today—

in a rare break in the arguing, the gathered together lawyers and Pharisees come to ask Jesus some questions, because they’re impressed he’s gotten their rival political faction to be quiet. 

So they ask him to sum up the law to its most essential point—boil it down to its cliff notes version.  Just the facts.

Jesus says:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Everything else is based on these two.”

Now here’s the thing—-


They knew this, of course they knew this.  Rabbinical writer Hillel says “There is no greater law than this: Love the Lord your God with all your heard, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—the rest of the Torah is commentary.” 

What’s more—it’s in Deuteronomy.  And it’s in Leviticus.  Jesus does a lot of smart things, and he pulls a lot of stuff out of his own Messianic brain, but this is not one of them. 

Everyone he was speaking to that day knew perfectly well what the greatest commandment was—this was hardly a revelation. This wasn’t news—that’s part of why it was a test. 

But what they wanted was a different answer.

They wanted Jesus to make it easier for them.  They wanted Jesus to tell them how to shrink down this requirement so it wasn’t so hard, so they could find some loophole somewhere, because this is HARD.

I used to lead a bible study in NYC for the guests at the feeding program at the church where I worked during seminary.  One day I had a guy join us who was new.  He gave his name as “Tree”—which he confirmed wasn’t his real name, but he also confided that he couldn’t give me his real name or I might be in danger too.  So I decided that he was off whatever meds he needed to be on.

This was the passage we were supposed to discuss, and as we read this part about loving your neighbor as yourself, Tree suddenly threw his Bible to the ground, put his head in his hands and exclaimed —and this is edited for use in church—“GEEZ, That’s hard!  I mean, I thought serving out my bid at Riker’s was rough, but man, that’s some tough stuff right there.  I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it.  Man.  Tough stuff.”

I nodded mutely, and said ‘Indeed, Tree!  It is indeed difficult!” 

It is hard.  What stuns the Pharisees here is less that Jesus gives them a new answer (he doesn’t) but that he doesn’t shy away from the one they know is the right one. 

Yet even as we know what the answer is, what we have to do, we struggle, bc it’s hard, Because the world is big, and people aren’t so loveable, and so we look for an easier way.  We look for loopholes.  for watered down answers.  For limits. 

How about if I exclude them?  How about if vengeance is ok?  How about if violence is acceptable if I don’t really mean it or hate really was called for or if I say it was only a joke so you should lighten up? 

We look for people it’s ok to not care so much about, since caring gets exhausting after a while.  For people who mightnotreallybepeopleafterall, so let’s only really panic about ebola when it gets into our country.

There aren’t any loopholes.  There aren’t any watered down answers.  This is hard.    

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  When you can’t manage it, God forgives you, and you try again.

Everything else flows from that. 


**probably not his real name, but I’ve seen stranger things, so who knows.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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