A baptismal meditation preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, June 30, 2002, Pentecost 6, dedicated to Jacob Davis Bishop on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(I of VI in the summertime preaching series "Seven Lost Keys to Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus")
Deuteronomy 5:1-22 and Matthew 5:17-20
I have never tried this before! I have never delivered a sermon series throughout the summer. August, yes! The whole summer, no. So, let's give it a whirl! Several years ago I came across a little book by Clyde Fant on the "The Misunderstood Jesus." Like Dr. Fant and like many of you, I believe Jesus of Nazareth had some amazing teachings that were either lost or culturally co-opted through the centuries. In this series, I will look at seven of Jesus' teachings and try to unpack them for you. They are: Law, Grace, Sanity, Meekness, Anger, Contentment, and Touch. I know all of you will not be here all the Sundays of July and August. However, I hope you pick up the sermons on-line, in the information rack or by mail or e-mail. I am hopeful that they will begin to form a patchwork of understanding the misunderstood Jesus, which may look something like a quilt by summer's end . . .
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
This past week, the law and our legal system have been making headline news. From the 2-1 court ruling in the 9th District Court of Appeals to uphold a decision making it illegal to use the pledge of allegiance in public schools because the phrase "Under God" doesn't permit atheists to freely participate in the pledge, to laws broken by WorldCom, Xerox, and others in corporate America in misreporting of billions of dollars of profits and costing thousands of jobs in the aftermath! , to the recent Supreme Court decisions on school vouchers and suspension of death penalty in cases concerning mentally retarded inmates - the interpretation of civil law has been causing civic ballistics to fire off and demonstrations to ensue just days before the 4th of July festivities kick-off! (On the pledge issue -at least two questions come to mind - First, why not choose the discipline of silence when challenged by part or all of the pledge? Second, I couldn't help but wonder how citizens - and foreigners come to our shores - feel about this case when they have not experienced "liberty and justice for all," even though they may strongly believe we are "under God"?... Anyway . . . ).
Whether we delight or despair in civic and criminal Law, the law of our land based on the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, currently mandates, and past decisions is always shifting under new interpretations by juries and judges who change the legal landscape. This past week, I took the opportunity to speak with handful of attorneys inside and outside of our congregation about the law. The question I posed was, "Why do you love the law?" Consistently, these women and men spoke of their profession as "a calling," their love for the practice of law, their beliefs in fairness and equity for all people, and their desire to help people resolve problems and conflicts which the persons they defended could not resolve alone. Jim Pohlman, whose name I use with his permission, quoted Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in which the president (a lawyer) spoke of a new nation growing from the heart of civil war which would have `Malice toward none, and charity for all.' These words, fully consistent with Christian theology, provide, in Jim's belief, clear and convincing guidance for all lawyers to follow in their daily practices and lives." I was deeply moved by the conversations. I realized how seriously our members who are attorneys in their chosen vocations hold their vows to uphold the constitution in congruent tension along side their Christian baptismal vows to "show love and justice" for all!
As a rabbi (and as beloved Son of the Most High), Jesus knew Judaic law. And he was clearly a reformer of that law - not unlike the author of Deuteronomy whose interpretation of the ten commandments found in Exodus, we heard read by my wife this morning! Yes, Jesus also loved the law, but he believed the first law was Love. Of the 613 Judaic laws found in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, Jesus felt the other 611 rested on these two: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, AND you shall love your neighbor as yourself." He delivered this belief to others in hostile times. But, his message was consistent with the message of Moses, and the prophets, and many rabbis before him. His interpretation of Judaic Law was grounded in his abiding understanding of Torah. As Jesus said, his mission to fulfill, not to abolish the Torah, or law. Let me explain . . .
To translate the Hebrew word Torah as "law" is misleading. Except for the late biblical tradition when Law meant Pentateuch, the word always had a broader meaning. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Meditating on the Word:
Torah, the law, originally meant that which was determined by casting lots . . . Torah is God's cast of the lots over humanity. It goes beyond all human thought and expectation. (In the words of the Psalmist) "The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage" (Psalm 16:7). God's judgment is grace and life for all human beings; it is life before God and with God through the forgiveness of sins . . . Not an "it," an idea, but a "thou" meets us in the commandments. (And) a further sign of this is found in the Hebrew word for "Commandments" in Psalm 119:4. Commandments is a word which cannot be translated into a single word of ours. It derives from the verb for seeking, visiting, paying attention to. Hence, the commandments are what God looks at, pays attention to, and the means by which God seeks and visits human beings. The commandments then reflect God's way toward human beings. (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Meditating on the Word, edited and translated by David Gracie, The Upper Room, Nashville, TN.: 1986, p. 116).
In other words, the Torah of God is the entire will and way of God in relation to humanity. Torah is not a collection of dusty rules, dry and impersonal codes and directives from the "Boss" posted on the workplace bulletin board next to the OSHA regulations! Torah is encounter of God with humanity through events, through daily living as well as through the scripture's poetry, decrees, wisdom literature, and narrative truth! The Psalmist is 1:2 is not delighting in the particularities of Hebraic law, rather the gift of divine revelation itself!
Torah also can mean simply the teachings or instruction of the Lord our God. The prophets, the poets, the artists, the rabbis, the teachers, the healers, the true law receivers of Torah found and still find their delight in the divine origin of the commands, not in the use of these commands to stomp out law breakers!
However, in the history of Israel, things changed following Israel's bitter exile in Babylon. When they returned, the Law became the basis for life in Israel. Their was a widely held belief that the temple's destruction and their exile itself was caused by disobeying God's holy law. Therefore, it was resolved not to make the same mistake twice. For the individual, obedience to the Law was necessary to maintain membership in the community of faith. If you failed to obey, you were cast out. The same was true for the nation. If the nation disobeyed, it would be cast from God's favor. Life developed around the synagogues and not the temple. In this period, one's ancestry was the most significant mark of entrance into the community. After all, the logic went, didn't the arrival of foreign gods, brought in by foreign wives, lead Israel astray in the first place? Religious practice and the adherence to more and more constrictive codes and behaviors guided this period as religious fundamentalists took hold of Israel. The priests became all knowing and their word, during this period, became law! (See Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus, pp. 29-31). Perhaps most significantly during this period was the elimination of stories in which God communicated through angels, dreams, and even animals. Rather, God was presented as one who acted through the priestly channels, principally through offerings and sacrifices. Words like mercy/merciful, grace/gracious, repent/repentance, and loving-kindness never occur in scripture during this priestly period (Ibid., p. 31). All this said, after the pain of the exile, the Israelites return shaken, confused, and seeking answers. The answer given by the priestly leadership is stricter conformity to ritual sacrifice. Into this period, the prophets rise up with a vengeance! Isaiah and Amos cry out against these priestly (not Godly) ways.
By the time Jesus arrives in the First Century, a group of lay leaders known as the Pharisees, or the "separated ones" has arisen. This group is dedicated to upholding the law. They are intent on inculcating true piety and devotion to the Lord. The Pharisees attempt to straighten people out about the rules on purity, food and tithing. Needless to say the law-abiding Pharisees and the law-reforming Jesus don't see eye to eye on things! The Pharisees are constantly shadowing Jesus and criticizing his every word and deed. Addressing the Pharisees, Jesus says in Matthew 23:23-26:
"Woe to you . . . hypocrites! You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others! You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you . . . hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First, clean out the inside of the cup so that the outside also may become clean!
When we study the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, we always need to bear in mind that he was a religious Jew contending with other religious Jews for no less than the true understanding of Torah! For Jesus that meant inclusiveness, widening the criteria for acceptability before God, even wider than most of the liberal parties of his time. He did not want people weighed down by the "heavy yoke of the law." He said, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). Jesus saw that the Torah, once viewed as the will and the way of God in relation to humanity had become a huge burden to humanity (and thus to God) as humankind's will and way for oppression - not liberation.
If law meant anything to Jesus, law meant liberation. It meant release from legalism and human fears related to the human condition. Again from Meditating on the Word, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the liberation of the law in this way:
When your son asks you in time to come, "what is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God commanded you?" then you shall say to your son, "we were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt" . . . That is the answer to the question about the Law: God's deeds of deliverance, God's commandments and God's promises . . . God's law cannot be separated from God's act of deliverance. The God of the Ten Commandments is the God who liberated you out of the land of Egypt (Ex.20:2)...
Jesus struck this chord in his preaching and teaching about the reign of God. He found people under oppression, just as Moses found his people in Egypt. This time they were bound not only by the Roman Empire, but also by ecclesiastical oppression. Burdened by political and religious oppression, Jesus sought to liberate God's (and His) people on both accounts.
We in the church have much to learn from the inclusive, liberating Lord we say we seek to follow. First, we must remember, he came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. As the founder of our faith, we Christians have not done particularly well through the ages being inclusive and liberating. It was the church in Galileo's day that banned his use of the telescope in Florence based on the text from Acts 1:11, "men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" It is the church in our day which, in the name of church growth, follows the H.U. principle rather than the Jesus principle. The "H.U" principle means the "Homogenous Unit" Principle - going after members who all look them same, sound the same, adhere to the same narrow belief systems, and come from the same neighborhoods and income brackets. Friends, most of the growing churches in America follow this principle! They encourage their members, whether explicitly or implicitly to invite and welcome only people who are the same as they are! Thus, the H.U. Principle! Now, I might add - it is good to invite neighbors, family, and friends to church! But, in an inclusive church, that means that we grow in color, ethnicity, theology, socioeconomic diversity, and a range of sexual orientations as well!
The Jesus principle you ask? You have heard it already! It is the principle of love. In the love of Christ, we return to the law of Torah and the will and the way God intended from the creation of the universe.
In closing, I offer this thought from the Chasidic writings. Writings in the middle ages, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk offered this interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:6 which says "Set these words, which I command you this day, upon your heart." He said, This verse does not say, "in your heart" for there are times when the heart is shut. But, the word of God rests upon the heart, and when, in a holy moment, the heart is open, the word of God sinks deep into it.
May the Torah of God, and the liberating, inclusive revelation of Torah brought by God's Son, Jesus Christ, be upon your hearts this day! Amen.
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