Monday, October 30, 2017

The Great Commandment is Not: Thou Shalt Be Right!

The Great Commandment Is Not: Thou Shalt Be Right! 

Psalm 1; Matthew 22:34-46 

The Psalms open up the celebration of God in poetry and song. There is a theory that the Psalms were originally a hymn book, where the lyrics are written out, but the you were expected to know the tunes. Another theory is that the Psalm tunes were more like the ancient chants of the religious communities, where there were musical structures that served all of the scriptures and any could be “read” in a singing voice. 

I went to a “minor seminary” for High School. We lived in community under a modified version of the Order of St. Benedict, which is the model for life in most Roman Catholic religious orders, that prescribes a code of limited personal space, property, and decency. One of the highlights for how we practiced the rule, was to be silent after the final prayer in the community in the evening. That, “Grand Silence” was observed, except for directions during work periods, through prayer and breakfast, until the close of the first class session and outdoor recess. 

On Sunday nights, we would gather in the chapel with the priests and brothers, and we would sing the evening prayers, one side of the chapel singing the odd verses, and the other side of the chapel answering with the even verses, in dim light, voices raised, without instrumentation. 

The chants were in the smooth round syllables of church Latin, easy to interpret, and always rich in the open vowel sounds. “In Nomine, Nomine  Domini.” It was easy to have your spirit quieted and lifted in such a circumstance. I have never found anything comparable except maybe the use of Taze’ hymns during Lenten contemplative services. 

The Psalms are related to David. The tradition is to say that David “wrote” the psalms. It is likely that many of them existed long before David, handed down in an oral tradition. The reign of David did establish a level of normalcy that was beyond what had been known in the land of tribes in perpetual skirmishes. By unifying the North and the South, David was able to establish a kind of peace. This domestic peace permitted and encouraged a regular and consistent routine of worship and the establishment of Holy Days. The Psalms are all about regular worship. 

There is increasing evidence, or perhaps it might be better to say, there is an increasing assumption in the academic world, that the written form of all of the Bible only dates to the period around the Babylonian Exile. In fact, it is hard to find evidence that the Hebrew people developed a clear set of expectations for literature and how to represent it physically before that time. Since all of the technology for writing and preserving the written word were so short lived, it is quite unlikely we will unearth archeological examples that predate the pieces already in existence. Speculation is that the Hebrew people acquired the technology for writing during the Exile, from 600 to 538 BCE. 

All of that permits us to speculate on the freedom allowed by the early scribes in capturing and recording the several variations of those stories that existed in the community. And a more sophisticated theory now traces a potential for editing and redacting the drafts in the hands of the priests of the newly reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem after the Exile. 

When Jesus debates with the scribes and teachers in the Temple, they do not get hung up on issues of authenticity or authorship. The scriptures point to the God of Creation, and serve as a guide or rule to living on earth in a manner that would please that God. 

In the Old Testament, the rabbis had counted 613 commands; 248 positive commands - that corresponded to the known parts of the human body; and 365 negative commands, that correspond to the days of the year. One school of thought declared that all laws were equal in the eyes of God, and any ordering was a temptation towards human sin. 

Since this story sits within Matthew’s recalling of three tests of Jesus in the Temple, (sort of reminds us of the temptations by the devil in the wilderness at the start of his ministry) we might suspect that the question posed here was intentionally a setup to have Jesus misspeak. The Greek text actually says the lawyer was “tempting” Jesus. In Luke’s telling of this story, Jesus asks the questioner to offer his own answer, and then confirms it. In Matthew, he is establishing the authority of Jesus to interpret the scriptures and speak for the will of God. 

The presumption is that the Temple held claim to the authority “over” the scriptures. If the scriptures were a product of the Temple, if the interpretation of scriptures was the prerogative and discipline maintained by the Temple, then outsiders had no validity. 

Jesus is no slouch at grappling with the scriptures and their complexity. This is something you and I take for granted, but it is a marvel for the day and age. Some major synagogues might have a limited collection of biblical scrolls, but it is highly unlikely that the folks in Nazareth had much more than those passages that they had memorized. 

It is hard to imagine, trying to rely on human memory for the elaborate texts of the scriptures. Today, when you might have several translations of the entire Bible on your smart phone, there was little opportunity to fact check each other’s memory about how the text actually read. So when the itinerant preacher from remote Nazareth debates the scholars of the Temple, it should be a ridiculous mismatch. 

So once again, the Pharisees - lovers of the Law - turn their attention to Jesus, they are bit more wary this time, since Jesus has proved to be remarkably familiar with the text and its interpretation. But the answer Jesus offers is not characterized by the divisions of Pharisee, Sadducee, or Herodians. In fact, Jesus was consistently referring to the point of view of the God of Heaven. 

You and I try to see God through the eyes of Jesus. But honestly, we are very influenced by the thinking of our day. I recently read an article about the trusted Revised Standard Version (RSV) that was the jewel of the 1950s and the favored version in mainline Protestant churches during the hey-day of post World War II, when the churches were full. 

The scholar showed example after example of critical texts re-interpreted due to the influence of Karl Barth. Barth was a giant of theological thought. He was the one that brought the entire idea of substitutionary atonement - Jesus died for our sins to appease the offended God - into mainstream thinking. I admit, I was surprised to learn that that has not always been the “go to” understanding of the crucifixion in the wider Christian community. I never knew there was a choice of beliefs. 

Whenever I discover the human origins of different ways of reading the texts, the more I am encouraged to sit with the scriptures and listen to God. I feel released from the pressure to reason my way to agreeing with the narrow way of seeing the words, and a narrow way to read even the creedal statements of our past. 

So I celebrate the freedom afforded to us in the United Church of Christ. This is a freedom to wrestle with God. It is a freedom to look for the deeper truth about God that cannot be limited by versions and translations. This freedom does not proclaim that if we knew what the writer of the biblical book actually meant we would know the truth. God is the truth, the text at its best - can only point us to God. Hat in hand, we go to God, unprotected by translation, language, or the power of the sophisticated theologians. We stand in awe and humility before the truth and power of the almighty. 

The great debater of the Pharisee’s asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. We do not know what the Pharisee believes. It is hard for me to honestly suggest what he may have been trying to get at. But the answer he got from Jesus is an invitation into a relationship with God. Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

It is all about the relationship. 

These are not commands demanding discipline or obedience. These are not commands demanding mastery of ancient languages and arts. These are not expectations of extraordinary moral or intellectual discipline. We are not required to be the smartest, the strongest, the most clever or the best looking. We are not told to be more than the one next door, by any measure.  

Nothing in these commandments expects us to compare ourselves against anyone. There is no hint at being “more correct” than the next guy. The very heart of our faith is relationship. 

If you and I would imitate Jesus, we would disarm the debate of being more holy, or more fully in compliance with the “Law of God” by defaulting to relationship. We would accept the opportunity, whenever it is offered, to show the love and concern of God for those near us. 

No doubt, the Pharisaic lawyer, could debate all 617 laws in the books of Moses. Jesus says, “all the law and the prophets hang on these” the Law and the Prophets are the most authoritative of the scriptures for the Pharisees, and Jesus has the authority to name them, the confidence to support the selection, and the compassion of God to invite us to follow him. 

It does not matter who is right. It does not matter who can recite the most verses of scripture. It is not a contest. It is not an honor reserved for the brightest and the best. This is a call to honor relationships as the highest value in the Judeo-Christian value system. 

It is so easy to lose that perspective, and fall in love with our favorite theology and way of thinking. It is so easy, to place an idol of human construction on the altar of our mind and heart. Sometimes we can even make an idol out of the Bible, or even our favorite verses. Don’t give in to the temptation. Let Jesus, the model and perfecter of our faith, show us once again how to love God and neighbor. Amen. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pictures on God's Refrigerator

Pictures on God’s Refrigerator 

  • Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); Matthew 22:15-22 

I have to tell you, I review the scriptures from the lectionary, pick usually two of them, decide on a theme and a sermon title months in advance so that the Music Director and ensemble leaders can choose music selections and rehearse for worship. I have never tried to work so far ahead as I am doing here in Morton. I had to laugh when I got to the sermon title for today’s service. If I were choosing a title today I would have picked “Other People’s Money.” 

I like “Other People’s Money” as a title because no one is ever so rich as what their neighbors think they are. There is something in the culture that has us obsessed with the wealth of others. We also are likely to poor mouth our own circumstances and financial situation. 

I have two full sets of The Interpreter’s Bible commentary, in addition to specialized ones. One set of Commentary was released, volume by volume, throughout the time I was in seminary, and assembles a fair cross section of biblical scholarship at the turn of this century. The earlier set was a gift from a retired pastor, released in the mid-1950’s and represents the heart of the mainstream protestant biblical thinking as I was growing up. I often look at both of these sets, recalling the thinking I grew up in, and then seeing the adaptions influenced by the theologies of feminine, womanist, queer, and the liberation theology of Central and South America. 

This week I was startled as I read page after page in the commentaries of theoretical discussion of how this snippet summarized Jesus take on the faithful person’s relationship with the world of politics. In the 1950s the debate was, do the spheres of politics and religion ever overlap? This was a decided pushback against the “Social gospel” that took root in the 1870s through the Great Depression. 

The Social Gospel worked to define salvation both socially and personally. It became the foundation for labor movements that ended child labor, worked for living wages, and eventually underscored the break up of the monopolies associated with the “robber barons” of that day. After the Second World War, in the blush of national pride and the booming economy, the theology in the pulpits took a decided turn toward personal piety.   

At the turn of this century, there were broad statements carefully trying to limit what “endorsement” of empire Jesus was making in this text. The theologies centered in the perspective of the people at the margins of society, are very sensitive to any attempt to make it sound like it was easy for Jesus to be co-opted by the powerful. These contrasting perspectives remind me of the various kinds of sermons you and I have heard over the years regarding this very same text. 

This story appears in the gospel of Mark, and is retold in both Matthew and Luke. It carries a message well because it is not abstract in the least. Whenever we want to get attention, we make a claim about other people’s money, or other people’s taxes. Almost always, these allegations are made without reference to actual facts, but based on pure conjecture. 

There is a contrast, made clear in Matthew’s telling of the story, as he identifies two distinct groups as the questioners of Jesus. The Pharisees think that by paying taxes to the occupying Roman Empire, you are a traitor, supporting the enemy and not honoring God’s Chosen people in their own land. While they were not as radical as those refusing to pay the tax, they argued that it was a case of honoring a false God. 

The contrasting partners in the cornering of Jesus, were the Herodian’s. Herod’s people count on tax money. Herod the Great was a big builder. He built cities, and palaces and even rebuilt the Temple. It takes a lot of money to maintain huge construction projects. Herod’s son, Herod the not so Great, rules Jerusalem and vicinity during the lifetime of Jesus. The setup is they ask Jesus a “Yes or No” question, “Is it legal to pay the tax to the emperor?” and no matter how Jesus answers, one group is sure to be outraged.  

So Jesus asks for a coin used to pay the head tax. The people in Matthew’s community would know that the tax; 1) was required to be paid in Roman currency; 2) the coins bore a picture of Caesar; and 3) the inscription read “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” 

They would also know that the Temple rules were clear that people were expected/required to leave their “foreign” currency out of the Temple. The money changers would exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, for a nominal fee, in the public space before entering the Temple. These are the “money changers” who experience the wrath of Jesus in our Holy Week stories. The questioners showed themselves idolatrous to have the coin with them. When they produce the coin in the Temple, Jesus has already defeated their claim to superior piety, though this point is not expressed directly in the text itself. 

The debate marked the ability of Jesus to see through a shallow concern of what separates and divides us, and use that concern as a platform to lift up a more clear picture of a better way. Offer to God the things of God.

You and I are made in God’s image. Recently I heard a theologian offer the view that we are born out of God, born out of the same stuff as God. In this manner all that we are, and ever will be, is the very stuff of God. She proclaimed it in such a way as to emphasize the maternal nature of the creator. “Born out of God.” It has a different visual and emotional way of framing our relationship, and the attachment God has for all of creation. 

The call then, is to acknowledge our selves as children of the almighty, invested in an eternal relationship with the everlasting. It is a call to see in each of us, the picture of the divine, and an inscription, “Child of the Divine Creator,” each of us - a prized coin of the realm of God. 

Then as a child of God, we are the pride of the divine parent. Every thought, word, and deed, of love and compassion - registers within the heart of the divine. Rather than count our transgressions, and wait in anger to pass judgment, we might visualize the almighty, seated in peace and surrounded by joyous and beautiful music, selected and rehearsed for this occasion, gazing on images of our acts of mercy and justice, as so many pictures on the refrigerator. The angels of God put up fresh ‘selfies’ of God and child, saving the previous - that are carefully stacked and preserved - to be savored together at the end of the age. 

The tax that we pay to God, is to love - as God is love. We strive to feel as a family might feel, for all of creation. We name and confront the sin of separation and replace it with a sense of belonging to each other, and caring about and for each other. 

We regard those whose behavior marks them as selfish and self indulgent, as immature children who need prayer and need to repent. In the Temple Jesus did not shame those who confronted him. They likely went away, not having their hearts changed, but respecting the power of his intellect. 

As an aside, I often pause reading the gospels and think about those people who got to be in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine, being so sure of what you think you know about God, that you deny the truth of the vision offered by Jesus himself, and not have it touch your heart. So when I get frustrated by religious leaders in our own day, who become so self assured of a narrow vision of God and God’s love, I do not consider them as anything but sincere. 

Today I have provided you with some specifics about the tax and Temple practices that I did not know 20 years ago. For me, the heart of the text is to show how you and I live in two worlds at once. We have a life that stands in the economic and political reality of our time and place. We must be citizens of the world God created. And, we live in the Kingdom of God, both the Kingdom that is, and the Kingdom that is to come. 

As I read the times, we are challenged to honor our personal relationship with God, and also advocate for a society that honors the integrity of the biosphere, and respect for the peoples of the world. I believe that the requirement to pay our taxes is not all that needs to be said regarding our social responsibilities. 

This text in hand today, is focused on our relationship with God. It is personal and relational. It requires us to let God be the God in our lives. While I fear for the health of our experiment in democracy, I read this text as a reminder that it can be a distraction to permit myself to get so focused on cataloging the evils in the world, that I lose my grip on the priority. Our first step is to love God and neighbor. 

Most importantly, we live with the reality that life in the wider community falls short of the glory of God, and does not represent our allegiance to the God of love and parent to all of creation. We owe to God the things that are God’s. To that end, we are joined together in prayer, and provide here a faith community with a wide welcome, and an intentional respect for diversity. Then together, with the gifts we have been given, advocate for respect of nature and respect for all of God’s children. Amen. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Make Time for the Good Stuff

Make Time for the Good Stuff 
  • Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 

Have you seen the illustration where there are containers of rocks, and stones and sand. The only way you can fit the big pieces in, is to get them in place first, before the smaller stuff takes up all the space in your life. 
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The story told in the gospel of Matthew is an allegory, not a real wedding feast. This is the first time that Matthew speaks of the eternal life at the end of the mortal age. 

Matthew’s gospel reflects a lot of the pain felt as the communities of the Jews and the followers of the Christ were pulling apart in the years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE, and some of that pain is reflected in this parable. In those moments where we take stands that we cannot or will not let go of, there is pushing apart, and in the heat of the moment say hurtful words. 

This is a painful time to be the church of Jesus Christ. The world is flush full of temptations of the flesh, all available 24/7, from Amazon Prime with free delivery to your home. You can have exactly what you want, from the pseudo-god of consumerism. 

In the political world, the Justice Department and individual states are taking back the equal rights granted to women, gays and lesbians, and people of color - often under the banner of religious freedom. How religious freedom becomes defined as my right to limit another’s status, I do not understand. All around us we are glorifying the sin of separation, “us vs. them.” Where is a faithful Christian expected to draw the line? 

This congregation knows something about the pain of separation. I have not heard too many people express a continued sense of loss from the departure of the Sheltons as co-pastors of Community UCC, though I am sure that at the time, there were plenty of folks - who  did not understand why they had to leave. 

Several folks have confided that they feel awkward about the way Pastor Laurie Hill was released at the end of her contract. There was little warning given to Laurie, and her accomplishments were not well celebrated. It was not the congregation’s best display of gratitude. 

I have met more folks here who knew the good and pastoral side of Jeff Johnston and are still sorry to have experienced his leaving. I am sure that some who never experienced his difficult side, may have felt that his problems might have been exaggerated. 

When I was serving a congregation as a student pastor in seminary, a woman of the church took me aside to share some hard earned wisdom. She said, “When a woman in the church, tells you her marriage is in trouble, and her husband’s behavior is the cause, DO NOT interrupt her and tell her it is ‘not so bad.’ It is likely far worse than she has words for, and it took a long time before she was able to reach out to her pastor for support.” Her advice changed forever the way I listen to people in pain. 

There are times when being in a church complicates things. We try to say things in a nice way, even if they are not nice things. We will often bend over backwards to make room for some behaviors, even when they are inappropriate, especially if we like the person. It makes it hard to hear about the pain others have experienced.  

When we hear things we do not want to believe, we can sometimes hold those things in suspicion, waiting to see further evidence. I know when I look in the mirror, I will spend more time today arranging the remaining hair on my head, as a testimony to the full head of hair that was once in place, and I never fussed with my hair when I thought it would be thick forever. 

It is never hard to fool ourselves. Part of the shock of a funeral comes  when we consider that one day, it will be our death that folks will be talking about. There are no guarantees we will see another day. This mortal life is fragile. 

So Matthew says we are all invited to the wedding feast, the banquet of all banquets. But we act as though we have better things to do, our hands are full of distractions. When will we learn to do the first things first? When we learn to treat the relationship as more important than the task? 

I know a man who cannot bear to let his wife drive on their vacations because she will only drive at the speed limit and it will take forever to get there. I asked him if the drive was part of the vacation, part of the time together to be enjoyed. He looked at me as if I had a third eye growing on my face, so I knew he heard me. I also know that he would think about it, later. 

This is the challenge of trying to be responsible and live in a fast paced and complicated world. We need to have a business sense, we need to have a plan for our personal finances, we need to be attentive to the primary relationships in our lives. Still, under it all, we need to be in touch with the presence of God. 

While it should be the most natural thing, to see ourselves as a child of nature; and we might on our best days see ourselves as brother and sister to all living things; the larger part of our daily lives is spent evaluating, judging, and then acting, based on the criteria at hand. 

To be effective in sharing the love of God, followers of Christ need to be good at seeing and remembering that God is always present in their lives. When we are all business, or reflecting on investment choices, or trying to work with our spouses and children in times of high emotion, God is present. 

As a pastor I have visited some homes where the TV is on 24/7. It is true. If I ask them to turn it off during my visit, all they can manage is to mute the volume. One house had a separate TV for the family dog.  

I know many people, of a variety of ages, who are seldom without the cell phone in their hand. Slowly, I am learning not to judge and pretend I know what they are doing. People do a thousand things on their phones anymore.

I get it. Sometimes you will hear me say something, and automatically you will want to fact-check me. I get it. Go ahead. One of the pastors whose tweets I follow, says that when she was serving in Washington, DC, everybody fact checked everything. 

In the midst of available 24/7 media and social media, it can be hard to quiet your mind. It can be hard to believe, heck, it can even be hard to hear, when the pastor says your best approach to the presence of God - is not in your rational mind. You find God when you quiet your mind, and open your heart. Ugh. I know. What can that even mean? 

It means something like, God is not the result of some elaborate logic puzzle. Time after time, week after week, I see faithful people messaging each other, “God has a reason for everything that happens to you.” I hate that message. It makes me want to scream. 

Life is hard. Bad things happen. God is present and blesses us in the worst of situations, but God does not create hardships just to get your attention. 

We do get blessings from God in all situations, and we have reason to praise God even in our duress. I will tell you what I have seen. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, strained and broken relationships have been restored. Lost family members return. Broken hearts step forward for words of healing. Wholeness may be restored, even if health continues to be elusive. 

A week and a half ago, I went to a conference on the theology behind immigration and race relations. It got to be pretty muddy water for a white, middle age, middle class guy to navigate. Colonization is pretty much the mind set, based on the Doctrine of Discovery, that is still alive and is the common root of racial tension. And colonization is pretty much a white guy thing. 

The instructor, a pastor in the UCC Cleveland Office of racial justice summed it up in short hand for me. “Racial justice issues are rooted in the white community, exist in the hearts and minds of the white community, and will never be fixed until the white community recognizes that this is their problem to resolve.” This is hard to hear, and harder still to dodge. 

We bristle at black athletes protesting racial injustice at the hands of the justice system, and feel like they are being disrespectful. So we interpret the NFL protest to make us comfortable. Those athletes are:  disrespecting the flag, the national anthem, the veterans. We say that to make ourselves feel justified - when we do not want to listen. This is a classic case of institutional racism. We decide what their protest means. We decide it is out of place. We decide to stop listening. Racism steps into the light of day in the Metamora High School football team. This is our reality.  

We are all invited into the banquet. The presence of God will bless us when we are good, and bless us even more, when we stand in the need of prayer. We need prayer to try to stop rationalizing it is OK to stop listening.  We need God’s love to accept that racism is our problem. God help us to deal with our anxiety. God help us to put the “love one another” rock into the jar of our lives in a meaningful way. 

There is pain when people we love prove to be flawed and human. It is a tough challenge for a community of faith to decide when some behaviors are unacceptable, and some people have to move or be removed from the community. These are painful choices. 

There is pain when we as a culture realize that all the progress we thought we had made, has not taken place at all. The truth is, taking a knee during the National Anthem is a call to make us “One nation under God.” 

We have been called to share in God’s banquet. As people of faith, we know that our life in the faith community needs to be a big piece that we put in the glass jar early. And our faith begins with “Love God and love one another.” We know that others will see that faith, and see that we value it more than money, or popularity. 

We are imperfect people, living in difficult times, and God is present with us. God is not with us in our pride and indignation. God does not accept us when we refuse the wedding gown - asking God to bless our exceptionalism - so we can stand apart from our brothers and sisters. God is present in that part of our souls, made in God’s image, that make us one with all of our brothers and sisters. God is with us, beyond the control of our rationalizing minds, but within the reach of our heart of hearts. 

The love of God touches us where we feel the pain of separation; the losses we feel in the congregation. The love of God touches us where our racist upbringings challenges us to feel the pain in protests, asking for the justice system to protect all. The love of God needs to strengthen our resolve to live up to the promises we have made to our LGBTQ siblings, and reject the call from the nation’s capital to deny our diversity, and attack the weak, the poor, the minority populations, and even the health of our children and the planet. 

May God bless us as we wrestle with the implication of putting this non-rational faith, this faith that is so different from what we thought we shared with everyone in town 30 years ago, and put into our transparent jar. May we be blessed with the courage of our convictions, and the temerity to say Yes! to God, and question the values of the world. Amen.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Salvation Does Not Come from the Law

Salvation Does Not Come from the Law 
  • Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14 

“Lady Justice” is the personification of institutional justice, attributed to the Roman Caesar Augustus. Since the 1600’s the female character is usually portrayed with a scale, and a sword, and wears a blindfold. The blindfold is intended to represent a lack of bias. In theory, true justice performs equally for the poor and the rich, and has an impersonal passion for the facts. 

The first five books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible are called “The Law.” The authorship of these books are attributed to the authority of Moses. In conservative speak, the Law of Moses reaches its ultimate height in the 10 Commandments - cue the dramatic music and flash pictures of Charlton Heston in costume. 

The 10 commandments, historically carved in stone for a people with the most rudimentary of language skills, are often interpreted as a call to personal piety. In fact, the commandments are issued to the community. It is unlikely the concept of an individual being pious in contrast with the society was within the imagination of ancient people. 

Human justice invokes the posture of; IF you are convicted of doing A, the consequence will be in the range of B to D. Justice in the eyes of God is more like love and forgiveness. And who could blindfold God? But I am getting ahead of myself. 

Now just between you and me, I prefer the story of the call of Moses, especially the “give and take” at the Burning Bush, to be a more inspiring invitation into relationship with the immortal God of creation. It is God sending the faithful to rescue the faithful community. But that is just me. 

What I want to do with this introduction is highlight the contrast I want to make. The rush to make the Law of God - look and follow the order of human justice, is a disservice to our good and generous God. 

There is plenty of language in our hymns and prayers that sound like the Bible is The Word of God. It has a comfortable ring to it. The gospel of John makes the claim that Jesus the Christ is the actual Word of God. And all of this “word” stuff is a word play on the opening of Genesis, where God “speaks” creation into being. The Word of God then, is the power of the almighty, making all things out of the creative mind and commands of God. 

The ringing words of the gospel of John’s introduction, “In the beginning was the word, and word was with God” opens John’s testimony to the significance of the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ. The “God Is Still Speaking,” tagline of the United Church of Christ, voices our contention that the Bible is not the final word of God to creation - nor the final word of creation. 

So if God is still alive, then God is still speaking - speaking words of love to and for Creation. As followers of Jesus, we seek to live out those words of love in the world God called good, just as Jesus did. Just as Jesus did, we speak words of love and comfort to those at the margins of society. 

Just as Jesus did, we seek to prophecy against the powerful who believe that: there is not enough to go around; we cannot feed the poor; we cannot educate the young; we cannot have justice for all; but there is always enough for making war, and imprisoning whoever frightens us. 

I have already told you that when I hear the words “Law and Order” in society today, I want to ask, who is protecting their own privilege and advantage over whom? When the televangelists invoke the Law of God, I wonder the same thing. Who are they picking on now, and what is in it for them?  

Paul is eloquent on this point in today’s excerpt from Philippians. He makes it clear, nobody was ever a better Pharisee than he was. The Pharisees took great pride in making a show of identifying and meeting the myriad laws prescribed in the “Law of Moses.” Like a military officer’s dress uniform, or a Boy Scout on the day he is promoted to Eagle Scout, the Pharisees had badges of honor and elaborate “costumes” for special prayerful occasions.  

And Paul pulls no punches as he identifies his own background, his dedication to imposing a fastidious understanding of the law, that made him a mean protagonist and persecutor of those who would follow “The Way” of the Christ. Sisters and brothers, I fear that this mentality is still alive. 

As a teen I lived through the open brutality of the Civil Rights movement. I saw how the federal government was needed to uphold the dignity of black lives, especially in the south, but later in Los Angeles and Detroit. 

I remember a terrible year where progressive leaders were assassinated, one by one, and I feared that the union was going to go up in flames. I graduated High School only months and 20 miles away from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, that showcased the violent reaction to a nation gone deaf to the cries against war and oppression. 

I remember how this movement created the model for activism necessary to promote women’s rights, and the present and ongoing struggle to defend those whose gender identity and attractions are more fluid than the simple binary, an “either / or” that obscures the beauty of diversity present in a thousand ways in our lives. I know how these experiences have framed my understanding of injustice. 

In January I travelled on a “Peacekeeper’s Tour of the Holy Land.” It was organized and lead by Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, where I have taken several classes over the years on better understanding myself, and Mediating Conflicts. 

We were able to meet with a variety of people on the ground, dedicated to promoting peace between the Palestinians and the State of Israel. The Fellowship and Extension Boards have offered to host a Pot Luck and travelogue where I will show some pictures from this trip on a Sunday afternoon in January. 

I was amazed at what little I knew or understood of the oppressive nature of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I spent several days in the West Bank, in order to see firsthand how Israel treats the Palestinians. 

More than simply becoming angry with Israel for its inhumanity, I was stunned by the model of institutional injustice that is so pervasive in the country, and how the model is being replicated by conservative movements throughout the western world. The “Law and Order” defense is employed so automatically, that the people of Israel are blind to the racism inherent in the posture. 

Paul understood the application of institutionalized power of “Law and Order” because he lived it. It ran in his blood, or so he believed. He thought that his passionate devotion to the law was what made him close to God. After Paul was confronted on the road to Damascus by the Risen Christ, he saw that all of that was”rubbish.” He had misunderstood the use of the law, and had promoted the misuse of the law. The law is not a source of life. 

Judge Roy Moore has become the Republican nominee for the US Senate from Alabama. It is a familiar name. Wikipedia states the facts: Moore was elected to the position of Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001, but removed from his position in November 2003 by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments - commissioned by Moore - from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite orders to do so by a federal court. 

Moore was again elected Chief Justice in 2013, but was suspended in May 2016, for directing probate judges to continue to enforce the state's ban on same-sex marriage despite the fact that it had been deemed unconstitutional. Following an unsuccessful appeal, Moore resigned in April 2017.      

Judge Moore believes a narrow application of “Law and Order” is a useful tool in protecting and promoting the sense of social order that makes him comfortable. Since he is able to win popular elections, there is no reason for him to repent or rethink his position. To say that Judge Roy feels like he is honoring God, is an understatement. 

A part of the human condition, is to promote divisions in mankind, a thousand ways to say, “us and them.” This hunger to see things in a simple binary; right or wrong; is what Richard Rohr would say is evidence of the sin of separation. Rohr says believing there is a distance between us and God, believing that we are separate from each other, means that we have missed the big picture. 

The big picture, is that God is love. We are included in that love. The presence of God within us does not vary, only our perception of that presence, and our willingness to live as God’s love within us directs us. If we would draw close to God, we would draw closer to each other. 

Every bit of name calling, promotes the sin of separation. Every time we use the law of God to clobber others, we are promoting the sin of separation. You may rightly wonder, “Well then Pastor Chuck, what is the law for?” 

The law is a guide. It tries to make plain, how simple human activities can distract us from the love of God. In different hands, in different situations, at different times, we can preach and wax eloquent about the use of the law to identify the sins of others. Only a prophet dare use the law to draw attention to the sins of their own community. 

The law of God should point out to us that the stuff of everyday life can be an expression of God’s love, or a promotion of separation from God’s love. You want a simple binary, try that one. Love one another, or recognize you are living in sin. 

The 10 commandments were written on stone tablets, stone that did not survive and are not available to view. The 10 commandments point out that simple human activities can distract ordinary people from the love of God and love for one another. 

When we make boundaries and rules for our kids, they thrive, because they know they are loved and it matters to us that they are safe. 

When humans obsess over making rules for others, it’s an indication that our relationships are failing. We are not telling each other what matters to us and why, or, we have become so worried about our stuff that we stopped caring for our people. Human Law is a way to make standards impersonal. But love cannot be impersonal. Lady Justice should peak from under her blindfold, and see who has their cheating hand on her scale. 

God speaks words of love, and love comes into the world. Jesus comes into the world, to seek out those on the margins, and include them in God’s love. As followers of Christ, guided by the Law, we continue the effort to let the love of God direct our hearts, and our tongues, and our hands. 

The salvation of God is born of love, and nurtured in community. Let us not forget, we live in Morton, and Community is our first name. Amen.