Sermon, 2/12/23: UNDER CONTRACT

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6 Epiphany

Psalm 119:1–8; Deuteronomy 30:15–20; I Corinthians 3:1–9; Matthew 5:21–37

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’  (Matthew 5:37)

Because I have not recently been involved in what is called “the housing market,” I have paid little attention to how volatile, sluggish, bearish, or steady the selling and buying of residences have been, whether as evidenced in single family, duplex, or condominium offerings.  I understand that the winter months do not usually produce much activity in “the housing market,” because, or so it has been said to me, families do not like to uproot children who are in school, which is fair enough.  In our hemisphere it is cold, and no one likes to change residences, unless absolutely necessary, when the sky is overcast and the streets are snow-covered.  No one looks forward to abandoning the warmth, comfort, and familiarity of place, where, in addition to family, one knows ones neighbors, however intimate or fragile that neighborly relationship might be.  Fair enough.

Though with no interest in moving, thoughts of moving occurred to me, because this week past I had occasion to drive three times the short distance from my home to our church campus site.  These were no emergencies, just the almost routine conducting of business on behalf of our congregation.  On the one occasion, I had debated whether to make the five mile drive, but something moved me to come anyway, and what a surprise awaited me, as I exited my vehicle and made my way to the St. Francis Hall entrance.  A young woman, walking her dog, called out after me.  In the conversation which followed, she informed me that on other random occasions, always during the week but not never on Sunday, she had stopped by, wanting to speak with someone.  And so we spoke, in the warmth of St. Francis Hall, with her dog at her side.  I could not resist inviting her to come and see what we do on Sunday.  My conclusion, to wax religiously for a moment, was the rest is now up to God. 

However, I digress.  On each of the three occasions, as I began my drive hither, but still quite close to home, in fact in walking distance, a realtor’s sign on the lawn of one of the homes caught my attention.  Just the sign itself attracted notice, as residences in my neighborhood do not change ownership often.  But also, it was what the top portion of the sign said: “Under Contract.”  It was that terminology which piqued my interest.  Other signs have read: “Under Agreement” or “Sale Pending.”  This sign read “Under Contract.”  Not having expertise in this profession, I make the assumption that all three seek to convey the same information, namely real property is about to change ownership.  A sale has been successful.  Two perhaps previously unknown parties have reached an agreement, monitored in its final phase by real estate agents, attorneys, and legal authorities in the jurisdiction, an agreement which is acceptable to both.  Perhaps even more likely is the possibility that seller and buyer never ever met each other, for both parties may live in different cities or states.

That sign, “under contract,” caused me to think beyond the immediate notification that the real estate agency could announce and boast of another successful sale.  So thought I, as I drove, about procedures, about process.  In speaking to those in that profession, I have learned that it is currently almost standard practice to show property only to those who “have been pre-approved.”  I thought, oh, my good Lord!  What if the church, what if we at St. James opened our doors only to those who have been “pre-approved?”  The realtor who shared this information with me, informed me that “pre-approval”  makes for a more efficient use of his time.  Yet, I should know that “pre-approved” was only the beginning of a long process.  Thereafter, because of the bank failures in the early two-thousands, especially should the client need to apply for a mortgage, an investigation is undertaken in such detail, as to leave no stone unturned. 

Still before the “Under Contract” sign gets affixed to the real estate’s sign, a novelty, unknown in my parents’ generation and also not in my own transactions, has emerged.   Subjectivity meets Objectivity.  My real estate informant, as well as acquaintances informed me of a newly introduced element into the equation of buying and selling.  Buyers are strongly encouraged, said they all, to write a letter to the seller, in which buyers express their interest in and worthiness of acquiring the property.  This is to assure the seller that his/her property will be taken care of, loved as much as he/she has loved it.  Receiving this information left me speechless.

Again, I thought: How is the integrity of such declarations to be verified?  Are those of us in the God Business equipped to investigate whether an inquirer attended church school, participated in and Episcopal Youth Camp, and knew anything about Godly Play, the newest curriculum in our parishes?  How are we to judge the person’s sincerity, by inquiring whether he or she has volunteered at a local Food Pantry or in the Peace Corp, or taught in America Reads?   And if we did so, would that not be in violation of the Good News of Christ who spoke out against those of his time who sought to do exactly that.  Did not Christ speak to any and all who came to him.  No pre-approval was required.  Indeed, were not those who sought to justify themselves or to elevate themselves before others of lesser means reprimanded?  At what point might I or another clergyperson, Rabbi or Imam be authorized to give to someone who comes through our doors, or through the door of any church, Synagogue or Mosque a pendant to hang around his neck that would read “Under Contract?”  A cross, a Star of David, a Crescent Moon, perhaps?

To be “under contract” should not come as a surprise to any of us.  Perhaps, it is merely to apply the term to describing our lives as people of faith that is unsettling?   If you possess a driver’s license, whether from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or another state in the United States, you are “under contract.”  You agree to observe the rules of the road.  Should you use a Charlie Card, or even pay cash, to travel on public transportation in our area, you do so “under contract.”  The credit card, with which you purchase items, has been issued you “under contract.”  And then there are those contracts which are verbal only, not written down and signed, but which hold the same value and expectations as the endorsed ones.

These are appropriate questions for us today, as we shall, in not too many minutes hence, engage in an annual assessment of how we have performed while “Under Contract.”  I shared with you last week my assessment, which has been reproduced in the Annual Meeting brochure which will be distributed at the meeting.  Our lections of today provide us with the framework, not for buying and selling, but how we should enter every encounter, even with the stranger on our path.  And details?  The Deuteronomist has recorded them for us, as given him by God:
By loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances. (Deut. 30:16)

St. Paul, in his down-to-earth letters to the people in Corinth, could not be more explicit:
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.  (I Cor. 3:9)

You and I are under contract, the one with the other, and we all with those whom we meet.  The quality of the new neighborhood, into which you and I, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth have move, the quality of our neighborliness will be judged very simply:
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times.  ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool…And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’’  (Matt.5:35f.)