Sermon - 20 Pentecost
In the Name…
I’d rather have answers than a long list of open questions. But I am not going to get my way. Life is dynamic. People change. Just when I think I have figured something out, the rules of engagement seem to morph. I have experienced these shifts by moving from one country or culture to another. I have experienced these shifts because of the passage of time and the attendant change of public sensibilities. I have experienced these shifts because my own life’s experience has shown me that a previous stance was on shakier ground than I had imagined or a more excellent way just might be beckoning me to step beyond my comfort zone.
Some days I just don’t want to think about it anymore. I’d like the world to stand still and to be able to count on some enduring clarity without having to think about everything. I want some outside authority to relieve me of responsibility by stating: “This is bad. That is good. Always!”
I don’t want to have to work so hard to see the right way forward. And I really don’t want to have to either change or to continue to have to work hard in order travel on a path of greater righteousness that has suddenly become illuminated.
But my way of thinking, my desire, is too small. My current working hypothesis will always be too limited when held up against the fullness of life and the boundless love of God… So maybe, maybe I am asking the wrong questions, even as I seek definitive answers to them.
Like many of the characters in the Bible, the questions I ask telegraph my concerns and seek to limit my exposure to ideas that may extend beyond the safe bounds of my current biases and preconceptions. I can be quite legalistic in my desire to avoid risk or failure or criticism. I bend and juggle to make scripture support what I want. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that I am not alone in wanting to have my point of view affirmed.
I see that there are a lot of lawyers in the Scripture. They seek to define a known way, to place some milestones to guide the traveler. Some are Scribes who know the Law of Moses and render decisions about what is lawful and what is not when the specifics of a situation are not clearly spelled out in holy texts. For example, much commentary was made, written and passed down about honoring the Sabbath by not working on that day. “We know we are not supposed to work on the Sabbath,” people would say, but then they’d ask, “But what is to be considered work?”
Is pulling your ox out of a ditch permitted on the Sabbath? Or should you let it suffer or perhaps die in your attempts to be religiously scrupulous? What about feeding the hungry? Is that more important than resting one day a week? To put the tensions in a more contemporary context, let me riddle you this: “If a Christian priest feeds a hungry mother and her child on the street by giving them all the reserved sacrament is that priest offending God or honoring God?” That act is analogous to the time King David fed his men the show bread from the Temple. Can mortals be permitted to eat the bread heaven simply out of hunger and outside the usual rite? What is the most important thing? Can’t we be definitive?
Perhaps we cannot proscribe ahead of time what righteousness will look like. Perhaps we are called to be open to a radical love that seeks God’s intention in the actual moment. Perhaps we are to risk looking for Christ in every person we meet, to seek to sense the righteous response in the midst of real life, rather than looking for rules.
Is it righteous to follow the letter of the law but not its spirit? That’s the question addressed in the Book of the Prophet Amos when God’s reply to commerce gone wild sweeps away the desire to keep up appearances even while taking advantage of others:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
Sometimes legal arguments are conclusions seeking confirmation. The asker of the questions is NOT seeking to open their heart to God or their neighbor but to limit their accountability and to achieve some predetermined end. We can see this at work in another Gospel passage in which a Pharisee asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
The desire behind that question is to seek permission to limit compassion. The notion that everyone is our responsibility can be overwhelming. Can’t we narrow that field somehow. There ought to be a law.
Yes, we have commandments carved on stone tablets that give us the “ten best ways to live” but we cannot live lives with a heart of stone as our guide. God so loved the world that God came down – became a heart of flesh broken for us, that we might be embraced by a more excellent way that redeems our brokenness, heals our blindness and seeks to draw us into greater love.
We will succeed in our attempts to love, in moments of achingly beautiful brilliance. We will fail in our attempts to love in indelible, agonizing ways, leaving acrid smoke and rubble behind instead of the loveliness that might have been.
Hardening our hearts to avoid the challenge and pain of life is not actually effective. Seeking rules that limit our exposure, our accountability, is a similarly hopeless endeavor. Whether we are wrestling with the nuances of a more distance neighbor or trying to comes to terms with the changes and challenges of life with that more intimate neighbor, our spouse, life requires that we be open to asking new questions rather than clinging to old answers.
In the marriage rite we claim that Christian marriage is, at its best, a reflection of Christ love for the church. And that is the ideal. And then there is the practical challenge of living into it.
Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes the right path is to get in a car, take the kids and drive away as fast as possible. And God loves us as we try to find the right paths in our real lives. God weeps with us when we feel broken by our own inability to see straight or make choices that seems righteous. God rejoices when love triumphs in any moment in our life.
And God assures us that we will, ultimately, be redeemed not because of our efforts, or right thinking, or even right actions. We will be redeemed because a heart of flesh has gathered us to itself and will not let us go.