A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Willa Goodfellow
March 9, 2005
“When you was a little girl…” That’s how the story began, told by a woman who was born in 1911 in Drumright, Oklahoma, to another woman who was herself no longer a little girl, and yet she still is. And she hung on every word.
“When you was a little girl, you was the sweetest thing. And you loved that baby Jesus. Your mama would bring you over at Christmas time and you went straight for the figures. You loved to play with the baby Jesus. Then when you went home, as soon as your mama walked in the door, the phone would be ringing. ‘The baby Jesus is missing again!’ And there he would be, in your tight little fist.
“We was always takin’ that baby Jesus away from you, and you’d kick up such a fuss. Then you started hidin’ him in your undershirt. Your mama would find him, when she got you ready for bed.”
You loved that baby Jesus.
So here is a proposal for you. The Christian life is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus. Because Jesus is in love with you.
Here is a proposal for you. The Bible is a love story, the story of God being in love with us, before we were ever born.
God created you because God was in love with you, before you ever were created, when you were just a twinkle in his eye. And once we were created, then the rest of the Bible is about that love affair. Sometimes that love is requited. Sometimes it is not. And sometimes it is misunderstood, as an obligation and an anger that must be satisfied. There are always misunderstandings in a love affair. But if you keep at it, you can clear up the misunderstandings.
Some people think that the Bible is about what you are supposed to do, and what you are not supposed to do. They know that God loves everybody, but they go to the Bible with the question, “Where do you draw the line? God loves everybody, BUT…”
Now there is a long tradition of that question, “Where do you draw the line?” In fact, you find that question in the Bible itself. It’s part of a debate that goes on in the Bible itself. People can find an answer to the question, “Where do you draw the line?” Because part of the Bible answers it.
They used that part of the Bible to build the temple. The very architecture of the temple was an outline of the Bible’s answer to the question, “Where do you draw the line?” There are several lines in the temple. And different people could cross, or not cross, different lines, depending on who they were.
The first line was the outer wall. Gentiles could not cross that line. Well, that cuts us out, right there. We could close the book, pack up and go home, if it weren’t for Peter and Paul, who realized that Jesus erased that line. But let’s assume that it was still there, and that we have done what we needed to do to get past it. Then there’s another line, that women cannot cross. Let’s assume that we do not do what we would need to do to cross that line. So some of us can get further in, and the rest of us will wait for you outside. The next line cannot be crossed by anybody whose body is not whole. That cuts out a few more of you. The next line cannot be crossed by anybody who does not belong to a particular family. The next line cannot be crossed by anybody who is not from a particular branch of that family. And the last line cannot be crossed except by just one person, who can cross it only on particular days, if his soul is in a particular condition. Then he can enter the curtain that separates everybody else, everybody else but that one person from the Holy of Holies. Then that one person can approach the One who created us all because he loves us.
Now there are parts of the Bible that spell all of this out in great detail. So that you know exactly where you stand, and where to draw the line.
Of course, there are other parts of the Bible, the Old Testament even, that erase all those lines, that invite us into a love affair with God. But you don’t find those parts of the Bible, when you ask, “Where do you draw the line?”
When Jesus quotes the Bible, he quotes those other parts. See, Jesus entered into the debate that was going on in the pages of the Bible of his day, what we call the Old Testament. It was a debate that was going on even in the streets of his day.
He knew his Bible. He knew where the lines had been drawn. He himself quoted the Book of Leviticus, the book that specializes in drawing lines.
Does anybody here know which verse Jesus quoted from the Book of Leviticus? “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Imagine that. Out of the whole Book of Leviticus, one of the books of the Torah, the Word of God, that is the verse that Jesus quotes.
He also quotes from the Book of Isaiah. He usually quotes from the Book of Isaiah, or from the Psalms. In the debates of his day about where to draw the line, Jesus took the prophets’ position. Jesus looked to where the prophets looked, not to the words on the pages of the Bible, but to where the Bible pointed.
You know, I have a dog named Mazie. That’s short for Amazing Grace. Mazie is amazing, and she is graceful. She is a very spiritual dog. And she loves us very much. She wants to please us, and take care of us. However, Mazie is not a pointer dog. And she simply cannot grasp the concept of pointing. When the squirrel comes to eat out of the bird feeder, we point to the squirrel. We try to direct Mazie’s attention to the squirrel, to prepare her to chase the squirrel away from the bird feeder. And Mazie loves to chase that squirrel. But when we point at the squirrel, Mazie looks at our finger. When we get more insistent, when we say, “Look, Mazie! Squirrel!” then she sniffs our finger. It’s very frustrating.
I wonder if God gets frustrated, too, when God’s prophets point to him, and everybody else to whom God revealed his love, and we keep looking at their finger, and debating about the finger, sniffing the finger, instead of directing our attention to the love affair to which that finger points.
Jesus looked to where the prophets pointed. So Jesus quoted this part of Isaiah, Isaiah 56:
Let not the foreigner, the Gentile who has joined himself
to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast to my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
which shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
every one keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant –
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
It’s the last bit that Jesus quoted, the week before he died:
For my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.
Jesus did more than quote those lines. Because Isaiah was pointing to him. Jesus acted them out. When he died, he tore that curtain in two that had separated everybody but the high priest from God. Everybody. Now everybody, anybody can approach the One who loves us, can participate in the love affair to which this Bible points.
In the Episcopal Church, when we are baptized, when we bind ourselves to Jesus, we make some promises about how we will act, to participate in this love affair. We promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
See, that’s not about lines. That is an invitation to do something, to get up out of bed every morning, and go out into the world, searching for and expecting to find the beloved, the Christ.
When you expect to find him, you do, even where you didn’t know that he would be. That’s confusing sometimes. It expands the mind and the heart and the soul, the better to love him with.
And when you think you have to decide where he is and where he isn’t, then you don’t find him where you didn’t already know that he would be. And you don’t expand your mind and your heart and your soul. So you miss the opportunity to love the beloved.
And that makes me sad for those who think they have to draw the lines. Because I am in love with Jesus, and it gives me such joy in my life that I hope for you that you can find him everywhere. The more places you can find him, the more you will discover him in yourself. Which is where he is, because that’s how you were made, and who you are invited to become.
So that is my prayer for you, that you go out from here to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to discover him in all the places you would never dream of looking. Because he is there, and he will love you there.
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