Monday, February 13, 2017

Raising the Bar

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation

I want you all to think back to when you were kids. What if you heard your parents say this? “You know, you probably shouldn’t run out into the street when there’s a car coming. You might get a little bit hurt. And that hot stove? I wouldn’t recommend touching it without a potholder. Your call, really, but it’s just a suggestion.” What if your parents had said that?

Now let’s imagine something different. What if your parents had said, “Here’s a list of 613 rules for you to follow. You have to keep every one of them, and never, ever break one, even by accident. If you do break one, you’d better apologize right away, because if you don’t, you’ll be grounded for the rest of your life.”

Which kind of parent would you prefer? Which kind of parent is God more like?

What if God were more like the permissive parent, setting the bar really low? What if God said, “Well, here are some commandments. But they’re more like suggestions, really. Do try to keep them. But if you don’t, well, no big deal. I’ll forgive you”? I think most of us live our lives as if God were kind of like that. But a quick glance at today’s readings tells us something very different, and more than a little alarming!

Look, first, at the impossible standard set by today’s psalm: “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord … who never do any wrong, but always walk in his ways.” Who are these people? Well, it may be helpful to know that Psalm 119 is a long acrostic poem: 22 stanzas, each of which contains eight verses, each beginning with one of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza contains the most basic theology, because in ancient times it may have been the first one children were taught as a means of learning written language. So the audience is children, the law of the Lord is the school subject, and living blamelessly fulfills the learning rubric.

Psalm 119 points to the Law of Moses: that is, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In Jesus’ time, the scribes interpreted the Bible like constitutional lawyers, and the priests managed procedures for making restitution when laws were broken. But at the center was a basic understanding, which we heard just now from the apocryphal Book of Sirach: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments.” God is good, and God’s Law shows us how to be good. We have free will, so let’s choose to be good like God. Easy, right?

Under a systematic, codified approach, people of relative privilege like the Pharisees could keep most of the rules most of the time. Some rules about purity were inevitably breached periodically, and then there would be certain animal sacrifices, so that citizens could be accepted back into the community. But the poorest of all couldn’t afford the sacrifices, which placed them forever outside the community of God’s people. And those with physical disabilities like blindness, or with chronic diseases like leprosy, were caught in the same trap, with no recourse. These were left behind, shut out, kept from the promised benefits of society. We have such people today as well, don’t we?

Jesus loved the Law and the Temple, but he also saw that the system had become abusive, focused more on correctness than on mercy … and this made him angry. We might expect Jesus to say, “You know all those rules that the Pharisees use to oppress the poor? They don’t matter at all! Break them. Make your own rules. Just be groovy and love each other—that’s all God wants.” We often think of Jesus’ message as being rather like this, because he did break some of the rules repeatedly—I’m thinking especially of the Sabbath, and of purity codes regarding women and people with diseases. But instead, in this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says something like this:

“Of course murder is against the law, but is it so hard not to commit murder? I say that even if you are angry with someone, you might as well have killed the person! If you say, ‘You idiot,’ you deserve to be thrown on the garbage heap! Adultery is wrong, but if you even fantasize about it, then you’ve already done it! So if your eye wanders into lust, pluck it out! If your hand wants to strike someone, cut it off!” Jesus certainly has our attention, but now he sounds rather like the God of 613 laws. Now what do we do?

Well, let me ask if you this in all honesty: Have you ever broken a law? Ever gone four miles over the speed limit? Ever downloaded digital content that you didn’t pay for? Ever lied to cover your tracks? Ever stretched the definition of what the money was earmarked for? Ever backstabbed a friend? Ever promised to do something and then didn’t? Show of hands for any or all of the above?

Want a good series of books about how difficult it is
to be a moral person? Read A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Source: Flickr
Not all of these things are directly comparable, of course, but what’s clear is that we’re all in the same sinking ship. We don’t typically teach this to kids right off the bat. But in his book The End, children’s author Lemony Snicket writes, “It is very difficult to make one’s way in this world without being wicked at one point or another, when the world’s way is so wicked to begin with.”

I think of Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Les Miserables, who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, gets caught, and winds up serving 19 years on the chain gang. Immediately upon his release, out of desperation, he steals again, this time from a bishop. And then that bishop shows Jean Valjean both mercy and grace, and in so doing, he changes a criminal into a saint.

We teach our children to follow rules, and well we should. But I hope we don’t stop there. As they get older, hopefully we teach them that there are many kinds of rules, and that some are more important than others, and that some are enforced more rigidly than others, and that some change over time, and that some rules conflict with each other, and that some people live in situations that make certain laws very difficult not to break, and that there have been times in history, even in our own country, when our laws were so bad that those of good conscience absolutely had to break them!

All of this must follow, yes. But first, we teach children that law and order is important. Jesus isn’t throwing away this basic truth. God has standards. The thing is, it seems that God’s standards are way too high for us to live up to. And ironically, sometimes the mere presence of rules can make us prone to breaking them. “See this delicious-looking fruit? Don’t eat it!”

Paul writes extensively about this in the Letter to the Romans: if law and order could save us, it would have done so a long time ago. God has given us free will because love must be chosen freely. You’ve heard it said, “You can’t legislate morality,” right? It’s true: no rule can force us to love God, and no rule can force us to show mercy and compassion to others.

When we encounter people living outside the bounds of society’s laws or of our interpretation of God’s laws, how do we treat them? Are we eager to learn why a person has broken a rule? Do we know if they had a choice? If so, do we have a full understanding of the factors that went into that choice? Do we know what might drive people to make different decisions than we ourselves would make? Can we understand why another person might prioritize the rules differently than we would? Only when we seek that depth of understanding can justice be tempered by and strengthened through mercy and grace.

Truly, as Jesus did make clear on other occasions, the only law is love, and all other good laws, whether religious or civil, can teach us how to tackle the one law. So what does God expect of us, really?

Thomas Powers, onetime contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, told this story many years ago: “The composer [Igor] Stravinsky had written a new piece with a difficult violin passage. After it had been in rehearsal for several weeks, the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said he was sorry, he had tried his best, the passage was too difficult, no violinist could play it. Stravinsky said, ‘I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.’”

God doesn’t expect perfection, but sincerity and true repentance. Following the Law is all well and good. But trying to follow the Law and failing? Sometimes, with God’s help, that can be even better. Our inevitable failure to follow the Law is steeped in God’s grace. God cares more about how much we care than about how lawful we are.

Jesus knew the Law of Moses inside and out, and he loved it and lived by it. He didn’t abolish it; he refocused it on love, and in so doing, Jesus held a mirror up to all his people, whether or not they believed themselves to be sinners. Jesus raised the bar so high that none of us can ever jump it! And that’s good news, because it means we can let go of perfectionistic judgment. It means we don’t have to be afraid anymore. We can use the rules to grow! And once perfectionists like me get that into our thick skulls, God can finally, really get to work in our lives.

So don’t avoid hell by keeping the rules more stringently. Rather, embrace heaven by trusting in God’s love more deeply. And when you fail—and you will, again and again—be gentle with yourself, and be gentle with others. Sometimes we just mess up, and then we need both justice and mercy. Sometimes we commit great acts of evil and need God’s justice and mercy all the more. But sometimes we break rules because we didn’t see any other way forward, and then we need grace from God and, more tangibly, from each other. You have your own stories; learn the stories of rulebreakers you don’t understand.

“If you choose, you can keep the commandments.” God gives the growth. Trust that you will grow, and that the people you love will grow, and that your enemies will grow. With God in charge, growth is inevitable. It’s in the tough, heartbreaking work of trying and failing and growing and trying again that life becomes joyful, love becomes real, and the Kingdom of God comes more clearly into view. Amen.

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