Posted by: owizblog | August 30, 2015

Sermon: Inside and Out, Sermon, UCB, Sunday 30 August 2015

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

1

“You’re unique among the nations,” says God to Israel. “You have my Law. You know how I want you to live, from me.” We’ve said it before, and no doubt we’ll say it again – in fact, we’ll say it every time we read from the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, which we know as Deuteronomy: Deuteronomy means “The second giving of the Law.” The book doesn’t date from what we usually think of as the time of Moses, which would probably be about the thirteen-hundreds BC. It comes from perhaps six centuries later than that. It’s the book found in the Temple in Jerusalem, towards the end of the seventh century, when Josiah, the King, had renovations and repairs underway. It was during what we’d think of, in the Church of Scotland, as the Quinquennial Property Inspection, that they found a book – old, but not that old, and brought it to the King. And he read it, and became very disturbed, and tore his garments, and set about reforming the whole life of the people in accordance with this new discovery. This new law.

We know it’s a new law, because it demands things that were never mentioned before, and couldn’t go all the way back to Moses, not least that there be only one Temple, and that it be in Jerusalem. We saw last week that it wasn’t until the reign of Solomon, David’s son, that there even was a Temple in Jerusalem. It wasn’t until David’s reign, long after the era of Moses, after Joshua and the time of the Judges, after the time of King Saul, that Jerusalem was captured, and became David’s personal property. That’s right – David’s personal property. It didn’t belong to the Twelve Tribes – not the Ten Tribes of Israel, or the two Tribes of the Sons of Rachel, Judah and Benjamin, which David had ruled over while Saul’s reign fell to bits. It was conquered by David’s men, and that’s depicted in the stained glass window down here to my left, and your right.

So Deuteronomy has to date from much later than all of this. Yet it’s grounded in the ancient and developing Law – and that’s the point. It’s the Law presented new, for a new age. Old materials revisited, reworked, reinterpreted. And that’s how the Law of the Old Testament worked. It wouldn’t stop with Deuteronomy, because Deuteronomy is actually a lot earlier than Leviticus – where again, ancient materials, which God’s people have lived with, are taken up and reworked, and re-presented, and, yes, added to…

What are we saying? Well, we’re saying something like this: the Law is a living thing. It changes, as the lives of God’s people change. Its emphases shift, it calls for new things, sometimes at the expense of the old.

And the passage Fiona just read from Deuteronomy sums it up rather beautifully: the Law is a living thing, because it’s an expression of Israel’s relationship with her God. It’s that relationship that brings the Law to life.

What does that mean: “It’s that relationship that brings the Law to life…”? Here’s a little story which may help. It’s an exploration of that very theme.

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Sermon West Wing 1

The West Wing, the drama about life in the US White House, that ran for seven years, is a monument of American television. It has its weaknesses; it tends to idealize America, to present an America that its audience would love America to be, rather than the reality. It certainly idealizes its President, the fictional Josiah Bartlett – yes, Josiah, though he’s usually known as Jed – played magnificently by Martin Sheen, who is idolized by his idealistic staff. Certainly in the earlier series, punches are pulled; but not always.

In series one, there’s an episode in which a drug dealer has been sentenced to death; but there’s a legal window for the President to commute the sentence.

Sermon West Wing 2

There are reasons for doubt that justice has been fully served, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has refused an appeal on these grounds. Yet the President can still stop the execution. The Law demands, but the Law also allows. It’s a very big issue, and everybody in the White House is preoccupied with what the President should do, and how it will look.

The man’s lawyer, the Public Defender, is one of those strange quirks, a pushy, aggressive, bullying man, but someone who does have a sense of duty and justice. A rough player – but we have the sense that he’s on the right side of this whole issue. And he’s all out for his client, and clear that he is about to suffer a monumental injustice.

So it’s all down to the President. But the Public Defender knows someone on the White House staff.

Sermon West Wing 3

Not a friend; in fact someone whom he once bullied and pushed around. But he makes a call to Sam Seaborne, who is one of The West Wing’s main characters. In fact, he makes several. And in the course of one of them, Sam discloses that his boss, the highly moral and puritanical White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler, attends such-and such a synagogue.

3

Sermon West Wing 4

It’s the Sabbath. Toby Ziegler, with his is sitting in the synagogue, listening to the Rabbi preaching the sermon.

“We’ll… be reminded by the Haggadah, the simple truth. That violence begets violence. Vengeance is not Jewish…”

Sermon West Wing 5

Toby’s phone rings. He gets up from his pew, and goes to the back to answer it: “Sam, I’m at temple right now…

Sam says: “Yeah, by any chance is your rabbi giving a sermon on capital punishment?”

Toby listens: The Rabbi is saying

“No matter how deep our desire to witness the sufferings of our enemies, we are commanded to relocate our humanity. Vengeance is not Jewish. We are commanded to relocate…

Says Toby, suspiciously: “Yeah, he is. How did you know that?” At which point, as you do when you try to do anything quietly during a service, he knocks over a pile of metal folding chairs and everybody turns round…

tumblr_mlvfq66O0i1rrkbwwo1_r1_400

Let’s enjoy the moment briefly!

So this ruthless lawyer got to Toby’s Rabbi.

Clearly he made the calculation that for a devout and highly moral Jew, the way to get him to influence the President to exercise clemency is to get to his Rabbi, and speak to him through the sermon. As a preacher, I find that very encouraging! And it does get to Toby, so much so that on the Sunday – the scheduled day of the execution – he is back talking to the Rabbi, at the now-empty synagogue.

Sermon West Wing 6

“Rabbi, you [and the Public Defender] – what were you expecting of me when you gave your sermon yesterday?”

“Well, I suppose it was some hope you might take the Sabbath day to consider your

position.”

“You want me to go into the Oval Office and say, ‘Vengeance is not Jewish’?

Why not?” says the Rabbi.

The discussion unfolds a bit. Toby says “The Torah doesn’t prohibit capital punishment.”

“No.”

“It says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”

The Rabbi answers: “You know what it also says? It says a rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death. It says homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death. It says men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable. For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time, but it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard. Society has a right to protect itself, but it doesn’t have a right to be vengeful. It has a right to punish, but it doesn’t have to kill.”

You might or might not agree with the Rabbi. Toby might, or might not, agree with him. The President might, or might not; actually, the end of the episode suggests that the President does agree with him – but he doesn’t extend clemency to the prisoner, who is executed.

Sermon West Wing 7

And the President is tormented by what he has done – and the suggestion is that he is tormented, because he acted in accordance with what other people wanted the Law to be, wanted the Law to say, and he knew that he didn’t have to, because the Law doesn’t work like that. The Law can be interpreted in each situation, in fact it has to be interpreted, has to be applied.

Because even the law of the land, the law of men, is to do with relationships – our relationships with each other, and our relationship with each different situation, each different set of circumstances.

The law is grounded in these things. And the Law of God is ultimately grounded in the relationship between God’s people and God himself. It evolves. But also, for Christians, it’s completely redefined, and redefined by Jesus Christ. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…

And that’s what our Gospel reading is all about. Beyond, and behind, the laws and commandments, is the relationship. And that’s something that’s not outside of us, not outside of you, or me. It’s not a matter of following the rules and regulations perfectly. It’s a matter of the truth of our being, the often difficult truth of what we are, really are, and how we respond: ultimately, how we respond to God.

We’ll think of this now, as we sing our next hymn:

[Break: Hymn 115 Come down, O Love divine]

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It isn’t what’s outside, it’s what’s inside. It isn’t other people’s failures to live up to the regulations. It’s my relationship to what is demanded that I be, as much as what I do.

Jesus was confronted by people who didn’t want to look at that. They didn’t want to look at the reality of lives that were driven by whims, wants and compulsions.

The Pharisees in the Gospel reading there: they ask Jesus why his disciples don’t conform to the usual religious regulations about washing hands before eating. This isn’t to do with hand-sanitation; in a world two thousand years before the very idea of germs, dirt wasn’t really the issue, so much as ritual dirtiness, and the need to approach the whole business of eating in a religiously correct way. Even then, for some people this would be a way, a profoundly important way, of honouring God and respecting God’s gifts, and of course, it was a sign of specialness, of the special relationship with God, through the God-given Law, that made Jewish people Jewish, and still does. But for others, it was a way of judging, of establishing who was in and who was out, who was a better Jew, a better person, than others – and who fell short.

And Jesus says: you’re worrying about the wrong thing. More than that, you’re choosing to worry about the wrong thing. You think that if you wrap yourselves up in the regulations and stipulations, you’ll be fine with God. But God’s demands are to do, not with those things that go into us, and through us, and out of us, but with those things that start with us.

And he lists them. Not foods, but certainly appetites, and tastes; an appetite for dissention, for folly, arrogance, slander, theft, murder, lewdness, adultery, envy, greed, malice, deceit, and sexual immorality.

Does that list sound a bit different to you from the list that was in the Gospel reading? All I did was reverse the order of the elements, and I did that because it’s so easy to hear “sexual immorality” as the first item, and to hear nothing else, to imagine that Jesus is as preoccupied with these things as so much of the contemporary Church is. It isn’t that uncontrolled desire, and the tendency to see other people merely as objects for one’s own gratification isn’t a deep distortion of our humanity – but it’s so easy to hear things we don’t think we’re guilty of, and then to think of the people we think are guilty of those things, and think that God condemns them, and that we are different to them. Judge not, says Jesus, that ye be not judged.

There’s no sliding scale here. Arrogance, slander, folly, envy, greed, malice, deceit, these things distort our living, our relationship to each other, and our relationship to God, just as much as the other items on the list.

There’s a theme here, that’s deeply a part of the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus, that Paul develops much more fully. And it’s the theme of grace.

If we reduce our lives of faith to “keeping the rules”, we discover that the rules condemn us, because we don’t keep them. If we turn ourselves in our own minds into lawyers, we have turned God into both prosecution and judge.

What the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel does, is what the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel does in the Sermon on the Mount.

He makes us look at ourselves.

He makes us look into ourselves.

He makes us face the truth about ourselves.

And that’s an end to self-justification, and an end to the judging of others.

It means a sitting-in-silence, and a contemplation of the complicated truth about ourselves. We aren’t the people we thought we were.

But here’s the thing.

God knew, all along.

God knows the truth of us.

The love and acceptance we meet in Christ is nothing to do with our desserts, our keeping of the rules, our being “Well, not perfect, but better than them!

We aren’t what we should be. But love, and grace, meet us anyway, in this Christ. We aren’t what we should be – and we should always aim our living at what we should be. We aren’t what we should be, and we need to face the truth of that. But the truth of what we are, in Jesus Christ meets the truth of what God is. And God is, what Jed Bartlett knew God is, but couldn’t bring himself to act on. God is pardon, and acceptance, and forgiveness, and love, and grace.


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