Posts Tagged ‘law’

Did you ever wonder how to be perfect? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. All you have to do is follow all six of these rules that are laid out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, no hotheaded words, lust, hatred, and, as the passage concludes, you will be perfect.

Now I don’t know about you, but I need to hear some good news! This passage from the fifth chapter of Matthew is known conventionally as “the Antitheses.” It was first named, best guess that we have, by an early Christian named Marcion, after whom we also named one of the earliest Christian heresies. It was Marcion’s goal to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish about it. He cut out the Old Testament right off the bat, and then he put out a revised version of what he thought was the original words of the New Testament. Obviously, his history classes weren’t very good, because he left Jesus and Paul in there. The Marcionite heresy has reared its head again and again, most horrifically in Nazi Germany, when the German church attempted to do the same thing – to purge the Bible of all that was Jewish, while the German state attempted to purge the world of all that was Jewish.

At the core of Marcion’s idea was to decide, based upon his assumptions, what the canon within the canon was, what the Bible within the Bible was. And thus the heresy. He called these the antitheses because of his version of verse seventeen. Our version reads: Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Marcion’s Jewish-free version reads: “I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” And so, each of these antitheses to Marcion rendered null and void the Jewish law and replaced it with a better, purer, Christian law.

Well, I have news. These are not antitheses. Jesus is not annulling the earlier version. What we have here are six laws, some of them from the Old Testament, some from other places in Hebrew scripture, some simply accepted as widely regarded teaching, and some are from the Ten Commandments. These are the six laws after which Jesus says, “But I say to you . . .” and replaces it. But he doesn’t replace it, he takes each of these to a different, deeper level. In some ways it’s like he is raising the bar. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote that the law that had been inscribed on the tablets would be inscribed on our hearts. Or the apostle Paul writing about the rule of circumcision saying that the important circumcision is not of the flesh, it is the circumcision of the heart. So Jesus gives the root, placing these very public offenses into a very private, heartfelt place. Let’s go through them one by one.

The first one is murder, as in, “thou shalt not commit.” At its root, we learn from Jesus saying, “But I say to you . . .” that murder is a denial, or a devaluation, of the other. Anyone who calls another a fool or who calls one a raca, in Greek – in English the best translation is “empty head” – is just as condemnable for their mockery and for their abuse.

Second is adultery. At its root is this lust that objectifies one and destroys many. Divorce is third. We’ll come back to divorce. Not because we should skip it, because to do so would create our own form of a Marcionite heresy. But because while the rest of these are, in some sense, very private, divorce is quite public. We need more time to digest that one.

Fourth. Bearing false witness. Again, as in “thou shalt not.” At the heart of bearing false witness, we see from Jesus, that swearing by things in God’s creation aren’t ours to swear by. You do not swear by the heavens for it is God’s throne; you do not swear by the earth for it is God’s foot stool. It isn’t ours to promise. The only thing that is ours to promise is a simple yes or a simple no.

Fifth is retaliation. Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now we need to understand what came before this ancient Jewish law was this understanding in the Ancient Near East and the culture that surrounded Israel that it was a brother for my eye, and a village for my tooth. It was all out and out destruction. And so this Jewish law, brings it to a new level of restraint. Jesus takes it one step further. Because he reveals its heart by letting us know that the turning of cheeks is a witness first and foremost to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” except we are to do unto others after they have already done to us.

And so the same goes for the sixth: loving enemies. Take the upper hand. Establish a new law; the one that is written on your heart, with the one who despises you.

Now we go back to divorce. We take a little more time with it not because it’s worse, but because we are tempted to skip right over it. First of all, it is a public event. I am aware that in this community we have members who serve this church faithfully and well, who are divorced. That being said, I am also aware that we have members who fall short somewhere between five and five of the other five. An afternoon commute on the Downtown Connector will take care of four right there. Divorce, at its root, is the breaking of a public vow. It happens, and it will continue to happen, as long as we remain a broken, imperfect people.

I share a story with permission from a friend of mine, who’s a pastor that I went to divinity school with. He was talking about his recent divorce. We talked about it in the context of this Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You know, I know that the divorce was the right thing. Marriage is a human institution, not a sacrament, and at best, it’s imperfect and we enter into for all kinds of the wrong reasons. But at the same time, I also knew that I had made a promise in front of all of those people, and I said ‘until death do we part.’ And to break that vow showed my weakness. It showed my imperfection and it reminded me that I, too, need God’s grace.” And so it goes for the other five. Divorce is no better or worse than refusing to give up all your clothing to someone who asks you for your coat.

It is our failure to comply, our inability to follow through with these steps towards achieving perfection – and I’m pretty confident that none of us have complied with all of these rules – that demonstrates our own imperfection. We are imperfect. As we read the last verse of that passage where Jesus says, “You will be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” it takes us in two directions.

The first is the first half of that – “you will be perfect” – because it leaves us in that wonderfully Protestant place, knowing that we have done everything in our power to achieve perfection on our own, and we have failed, leaving us broken, repentant. This is the good news that Marcion and his heresy so desperately wanted to change. Jesus says, in the passage that precedes these verses, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And so these six steps to perfection have been fulfilled by the very one who outlined them in the first place. And so the good news is that we have failed. We are not God. Praise God! That’s one point.

But there’s another point at work here. Because there’s something in us that wants to respond to this anyway. There’s something in us that calls to us with this desire to live better lives. To try and stitch together an ethic out of all of this that hears that law written on our hearts and responds with our lives. At different times and in different places, we can think of examples of Christians who have done this. Turning the other cheek became a way of life for Martin Luther King and others who preached non-violence; it also became a way of death.

I remember an interview on a panel, where the topic was: what do you do when someone asks you for money on the streets. There were a variety of responses from a variety of folks – pastors, economists, ethicists. The one response I remember came from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who just passed away this week.

The interviewer asked him, “What would you do if someone came up to you and asked you for money?”

He said, “I’d give it to them if I had it.”


He said, “Yes, everyone, because I’m commanded to do so by my faith.”

Now there are certain groups within the Christian tradition who owe their roots to the Anabaptist tradition, who refuse to swear in court, because their yes and their no should be good enough. I remember my grandfather, who remembered very little of the Bible, but he could quote verse 22 from Matthew 5, by heart. That was the worst sin of all in his mind, to call another person a “fool,” and I remember being pulled aside and corrected.

There’s something in this that calls us to a higher standard, something that is placed on our hearts. There’s something that we are responding to. It seems that at the root of all of this, is the value that is emphasized in section number six. Love. Unconditional, agape, love. It is this love that is meant to replace anger and heated words. It is unconditional love that should stand where lust, erotic love, stands. Broken promises and falsehood should give way to this love. As should violence, greed, and hatred. We are called to be creatures of love, because we are called to be in relationship with one another in a particular way. Each of these six rules are about relationships. We are, before we are anything – husband and wife, neighbor, enemy, member, elder, deacon, pastor, friend – before all of these relationships, we are brothers and sisters. Because, first and foremost, we are children of God.

And that, too, is good news, because when we look at the second half of that final verse, the one that calls us to perfection and leads us to a place where we know that we fall short, the second half reminds us that we have a perfect heavenly parent. Ours is a god who is perfect, who created us, by virtue of our very being, by carving the law on our very hearts, by calling us salt and light – created us for good works. We are called to good works, rooted in that love, that unconditional love, that strives to undergird everything that we do. But above all, we have a perfect heavenly parent whose grace, despite our every failing and stumbling, surrounds us with good news. We have a perfect heavenly parent whose love, despite our every imperfection, is perfectly unconditional.

How can we be perfect? We can’t. And that’s good news. Because then we have no choice but to trust that God is guiding us, strengthening us, gracing us, surrounding us, loving us, forgiving us. And that’s as close to perfect as it gets.



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If you had a personal mission statement, what would it be?

Mission statements are a way of focusing organizations. Some of you remember that, a few years ago, our Session leadership here at OPC spent some time working on a mission statement for the congregation. Through multiple conversations and input from you all, we ended up with a statement that says, in part:

Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is an inclusive community of faith that uses our gifts and resources to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus. We exist as a church not merely for ourselves.

And then comes the part many of you will recognize from regular usage here:

The broader community is our congregation.

This was not a way of forging new ground, but a way of drawing up out of our history and out of our current context what it is that drives and motivates us. As we know well from our involvement in ministries of compassion such as the Food Pantry (and the Bargain Shop and other activities which help to fund that our Food Pantry), what drives OPC more than anything is that God-given mandate to take care of the least of these – in Biblical terms, “widows and orphans” – by reaching out a caring hand to the community in which God has planted us.

So what if each of us had our own personal mission statement; what would it be? In other words, what drives you? What motivates you to get out of bed each and every day? What is it that makes your heart sing? Where is it that, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet”?

Is it family? Friends? Relationships? Is it a political or humanitarian cause? Is it your job, your fitness, your health? Is there a verse of Scripture or a personal sense of God at work in your life that roots you firmly, or cheers you on? And if you are able to narrow that down, if you can fill in the blanks, saying with clarity, “I am truly here on this earth to ______________,” can you drill down? Can you find where that purpose is linked to the God who created you, who gifted you, who provides for you each and every day, who, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, gives you that daily bread?

We find some help in the prophet Jeremiah’s rehearsing of God’s decree. The time is an uncertain one forIsrael. Depending on how you read the book of Jeremiah, the nation is either about to be overrun by the Babylonians or already has been, in which case the people have been taken into exile. Up until this point, what has united God’s people are the decrees which came down from Mount Sinai, the tablets of the law as summarized in the Ten Commandments and which echo throughout the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

What has also given them both political and theological purpose is the land. They have come to see the nations of Judah and Samaria and the united kingdom of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s promise to them, and so Jerusalem has been set aside as a holy city, and the Temple has been built in order that the people might rededicate a mere portion of that land to give glory to God.

But now, all of that comes crashing to the ground. And so Jeremiah gets to wrestle with the questions left behind: What does it mean to be God’s people of land and covenant when all of that is about to be taken away? Has God removed all form of blessings? Is this some kind of  divine version of March Madness, with ancientIsraelfalling out of the bracket, another nation ready to take its rightful place as champion?

Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy relates to the “why”. To be fair, the people haven’t exactly kept up their end of the bargain. They’ve become so consumed with the power of kingdom-building that they’ve forgotten how it is that it happened in the first place, and who it is that had sustained them as they moved out of slavery through wilderness into promise. And so, yes, some of this is punishment for wrongdoing.

And yet, that’s not the totality of it. By the time we get to the section of Jeremiah we read this morning, we learn that God’s promises remain true. Those physical tablets, that written law, may have been destroyed; but there is another law, one written on hearts, that can never be destroyed. The people will no longer need to be reminded of God’s presence in their lives, because they will know it deep down in their very souls. They will understand what is that God has created them for!

Kind of a mixed message, don’t you think? On the one hand, the physical nature of God’s faithfulness – land, Temple, kingdom, tablets, law – all of those have been stripped away. And yet, because of this, the people’s faith will be strengthened, not weakened. It is as though these things which had been meant as tangible signs, reminders of the covenant, had become instead distractions, political and religious trappings and practices, now devoid of their central purpose and meaning. Perhaps, as the saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Not quite…The trick is not to get so caught up in what “used to be” that they miss sight of God at work in the “here and now”. As they leave behind what they knew, they head into the unknown. As the Israelites are taken into captivity, God goes with them. The story of faith isn’t finished; in some ways, it has just closed its first chapter.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what is at work in our New Testament lesson this morning from John’s gospel. Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat, whose purpose is only served when it is dead to the world. Once it is out of sight, buried beneath the ground, that is when it can fulfill its purpose, nurtured by water and light, sprouting and bearing its fruit, providing sustenance for the hungry.

It is clear that Jesus is speaking of himself, the living water, the light of the world, whose own death and burial has its purpose in satisfying our hunger for spiritual nourishment. As we move through Lent and toward the highs and lows of Holy Week, we are clearly being prepared for this, reminded of the purpose of the Last Supper and the crucifixion and the empty tomb. And yet, hear again what Jesus says:

Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go in reckless love, you will have it forever.

There is a paradox at work in faithful living. As the great theologian Sting once wrote, “If you love someone set them free.” We are asked to let go of the things that we hold precious. Those things which have become distractions will go away. And those things which have true meaning and anchor us will come back – but the risk is that they might return in a form that we don’t recognize: law written on hearts, not stone; a risen Lord, once crucified; a refined and resurrected sense of purpose in life that now clings to the heart of God.

Some of you may remember the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams plays a boarding school teacher who energizes his students by throwing out the rule book and bringing literature alive in new and passionate ways. In one particularly memorable scene, he recites a Walt Whitman poem:

O me! O life!…of the questions of these recurring;

Of the endless train of the faithless – of cities fill’d with the foolish;

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light – of the objects mean – of the struggle ever renew’d;

Of the poor results of all – of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;

Of the empty and useless years of the rest – with the rest me intertwined;

The question, O me! so sad, so recurring – what good amid these, O me, O life?

And then, after the desperation of these questions, comes the answer:

That you are here – that life exists, and identity;

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

In the film, Williams finishes his recitation, turns to his students, and puts the question to them:

“What will your verse be?”

What about you? What will your verse be? What is it that you need to let go of this Lenten season, trusting that God will send what is needful back to you? What is it and where is it that God has called you to be? Know this: you do not go alone. God goes before you, and God goes with you.


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If you want to train an elephant, start when they’re young.

That’s what you come to church for, right? Good, solid, practical advice! Now, don’t be so quick to dismiss this teaching. Maybe one of you is thinking of starting a circus; perhaps one of you is expecting to inherit your uncle’s prized pachyderm; maybe you think you’ll win this magnificent creature on a radio call-in show. You can call him Stampy, and he can sleep nestled between the cars in the garage. But if not, maybe this advice can still have some helpful meaning for you today.

Many of you have heard this already, I’m sure. But have you ever seen a magnificent elephant at the circus with one ankle bound to a simple wooden stake and wonder why they don’t just rip it out of the ground and go on a stampede? It’s because the trainer starts when the elephant is young. The elephant calf is tied to a steel stake, one that is, in fact, strong enough to withstand their brute force. They learn very quickly that they can’t yank it out of the ground, and seem to be resigned to their fate. Slowly, as the elephant grows, the trainer replaces the steel stake with lighter and lighter materials until what is left is a simple wood stake that could easily be yanked out at a moment’s notice, should the elephant decide so. But by this time, they’ve given up trying. And so the elephant, with a simple trick of the mind, is bound by something that really has no hold on them.

This morning, we begin a new sermon series. In a few weeks, we’re going to start reading this book, Unbinding Your Heart, as a congregation. We already have four groups scheduled throughout the week, and if there is more interest, we will organize more. The overall theme of the book is how is it that we take this faith, no matter how small we think it might be, as it resides within us, and set it free to work its power and wonder in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And so, as we look forward to this study together in September, we’re going to spend the next few Sundays painting a picture of what it looks like to be “unbound”, set free, in our own lives and in our own faith.

Maybe this doesn’t speak to you at all. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not even sure that I believe any of this nonsense.” I think you’re probably in good company here today. And if so, then I think these conversations are for you in particular.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s jump back to the gospel lesson for a moment. There is Jesus teaching again in the synagogue. This is the third time in Luke that Jesus runs afoul of the synagogue leaders. And as he’s teaching, he sees this woman come hobbling in. For eighteen years, it seems, she has been afflicted with a crippling kind of scoliosis. And rather than ignore her and keep on teaching, or, indeed, rather than even waiting until the end of the lesson and going over to her, he calls her over and proclaims, “You are set free from your ailment.”

And she was – standing up straight, and praising God!

For Jesus, there was no separation between what he was preaching and what he was doing. He was traveling around the Galilee proclaiming that a new day in God’s creation was already at work – a new way of being for each of us. And so that folks didn’t get too caught up in making this a purely mental exercise, a simple reorientation of an outlook on life, Jesus made it clear that this new way of being, this re-creation, has implications for the way that we live. And on that day, this unnamed woman happened to be the living example of God at work in the world.

The amazing thing is that the conversation that ensues has nothing to do with what has just taken place. No one is debating whether or not Jesus healed, or by what means. Instead, for the synagogue leader, this is all about following the proper ancient protocol. “We don’t heal on the Sabbath,” he says. “This could have waited until tomorrow!” And for the religious teaching at the time, he was absolutely right. We tend to get sidetracked by these arguments. By simple virtue of historical accident, we automatically take Jesus’ side. And we assume that this truth must have been just as self-evident. But the reality is that, in the way that cultural assumptions had aligned themselves, Jesus was fully in the wrong. The synagogue leader was absolutely right.

What Jesus demonstrates in this conflict, however, are two things. The first is the people’s hypocrisy. They already break the Sabbath, worried about the health of their livestock, untying them and leading them to water. And yet they would do that and ignore the plight of this “daughter of Abraham”, this fellow child of God? Those who oppose him are humiliated by this line of logic, we are told.

And there is yet another point to Jesus’ whole approach here. And that’s this: the letter of the law has its purpose; but if we betray the Spirit at work behind that law, then we’ve missed the whole point of it. As he says elsewhere, his ministry isn’t about abolishing the law; it’s about perfecting it. Practicing the rules, as it were, has a point: the desired effect is to lead us to faithfulness.

But if, instead, we follow the rules, and cease to follow God, then we’re way off track. They are no longer tools for our freedom in God, but tricks to bind us and weigh us down.

Which brings us back to the elephant.

Can you see yourself in that image? Maybe there’s something tied around your ankle that, if you pulled hard enough, it would surprise you how easily it came out of the ground. But by virtue of circumstance, you’ve been trained to think that there’s nothing that can set you free. It could be a difficult childhood, an addiction that keeps clawing its way back into your life, assumptions that others or society in general make about you because of your gender or age or race or background or income or life experience.

What you have thought was an iron-clad trap is, in fact, something that would splinter easily, if only you could retrain those muscles to react as they’re supposed to.

We can see some of this freeing at work in the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. We catch this prophet early in his formation, before he becomes this legendary teller of truths to people in power, pronouncing God’s dissatisfaction with the way things are going. And even at this early moment, as God speaks to Jeremiah, proclaiming him as prophet not just to his own people but, as it says, “to the nations”, Jeremiah is already bound. “I’m only a boy,” he says. “I’m too young to have anything valuable to say to anybody.” And in essence, God says, “You’re right, in a way; because it’s not about what you are going to say. I’m going to send you, and I will tell you what to say.”

And that’s the truth about our desire to be free. Perhaps we are captive to our own fears and desires; but we’re not the ones who set ourselves free. Later on, Paul will say to early Christians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” It is God working through us that gives us the courage and the desire to be free for the sake of loving God and living out God’s love.

This is the freedom that comes to the unnamed woman in the synagogue, weighed down by this crippling disease. Can we find some connection with her? Or are we too caught up in the literal meaning here? Do we know either in our own lives or in the lives of those whom we love a physical ailment that has earnestly yearned for healing all this years, but has not been cured?

Where is Jesus in the cancer, or the arthritis, or the depression? “I’d like to stand up straight, too,” you may find yourself saying. “Where’s my miracle?”

The truth is that there’s no easy answer to your question, and there is not nearly enough time to address this fully at this moment. I do believe that there are healings that defy explanation. And I have seen them at work. But they are the exception, not the rule. And I have also seen healings that can be explained by virtue of medical science, or counseling and therapy, or medication and good habits of diet and exercise. And these are no less the work of God than anything else we might see.

But let us not get too weighed down by the literal implications to miss the life-altering meaning at work in this lesson. What is it that ties you down? Is it the daily concerns of making ends meet, of a family member or friend that seems to be in permanent crisis? Is it anxiety that cripples, fear that holds you captive? Do you find yourself bound by a deep-seated need to be liked, or to be right? Is it grief for a loss that happened years ago that still won’t heal? Does resentment have a hold on you, a wrong against you that you are still waiting to see righted, or just a general sense of anger at the injustice you see all around you, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and nice guys and gals finish last?

If any of these things have triggered a nerve within you, then you’ve got good company here today. Everyone of us, I suspect, is weighed down, whether we know it or not. And for many of us, I also suspect, we’re like that elephant, tied down to a stake that really holds no power over us; we’ve just been trained otherwise. If so, then these conversations, this book study, is for you. It’s a chance to engage with a group of fellow strugglers what it means to be set free in Christ, to know that the past, with all its burdens, really is behind us and that the future stands before us, unbound, full of hope and possibility and life and love. Are we willing to give it a tug?

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