Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Two Sermons on the Law

Dean of the School for Deacons, Mr. Roderick B. Dugliss, gave this wonderful sermon last Sunday.  

August 31, 2015
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The cover of most recent Sojourners magazine caught my attention. The headline read:
“My theology changed the day Michael Brown was shot.” Inside, the article by Ryan Herring--”Now is a Time for Theology to Thrive”--was one of many excellent essays dealing with depth and dynamics of the racial divide in the United States. It is a sharp division which has been made painfully clear in the year since “Ferguson” became a tagline.
Ryan identified himself as an “evangelical” who, as I read him, spoke from a rich reformed tradition in this country and not from those who are claimed for the fervent base of the Republican party..
As I read his essay my take was not that the killing of Michael Brown—and the ever-growing line of other young black men after him, and the Charleston nine—changed Ryan's core theology. But it radically altered how he applied it to his life in community. Two trenchant quotes stood out for me because they speak as much to us of the cool, progressive, mainstream as they do to his evangelical community.
“The church cannot be challenged without also challenging our theology. When I began seeing protest signs that read, 'James Cone Was Right' and 'This is What Theology Looks Like,' I knew that for the majority of Christians in this country there would be a wide gap in understanding. Many Christians would not be familiar with Cone and his black liberation theology, would not understand that systemic oppression requires theological analysis, would not know how to respond to the injustice that systemic sin creates or feel comfortable doing so.”
In your experience, does Ryan in any way describe an Episcopal congregation you know, or where you might someday be called serve as the deacon?
He continues, “If our theology renders us silent and docile in the face of oppression then, it is quite frankly toxic to our faith. What good are we to society and to God's kingdom if we are sitting in pews while the world around us suffers and burns?”
I suggest that for this assembly, this is quintessentially a diaconal question.
And one more: he asks: “If this movement [#blacklivesmatter] challenges the church's theology, then is it a moment of theological crisis? For Christians such as me who feel that too much of U. S. Christianity has been co-opted by values of empire, the answer is an emphatic yes.”
I submit that this is the voice of a prophet for our time who informs the prophetic voice of the deacon. Further I find the root of this prophetic message in today's Gospel.
When we recite the words of confession in any of our offices or liturgies, we confess our culpability or our self-identified sins as expressed in “thought, word, and deed.” As with so much in our ritual language—where praying shapes believing—these are profound words.  Two quick things to say about them:
1)     although this would be new to 98% of Episcopalians, the inclusion of confession as an act in our corporate worship is meant to be the opportunity to acknowledge and seek forgiveness for our corporate or communal sins. In so many ways we are implicated in the violence, degradation, and inhumanity of our society and its structures. It is all that the confession in the Enriching Our Worship rites names as “the evil done on our behalf.” Almost invariably, we consciously or unconsciously ignore our being in community and personalize these confessional words into thoughts I have had (the “impure thoughts” that were the bane of every Roman Catholic boy in the confessional), words I have said, actions I have taken.
2) Secondly, we usually keep each word in a separate box—or in popular business imagery, a stovepipe: here, bad thoughts—full stop; next, bad words—full stop, and then, isolated from the others, how have I misbehaved. Thoughts, words, deeds are a coherent whole—which is the point Jesus makes quite clear in today’s Gospel.
Jesus sharply corrects the central position of the Pharisees. Life in covenant is not about ritual cleansing nor what Judaism later names as ‘keeping kosher.’ Life in covenant, and later in the Kingdom, is about a faithful relationship with God, which informs a loving relationship with neighbor. These essential relationships arise from our deepest being and shape our thought which prompts word to generate action. It is one connected reality. And that which gets in the way of relationship—which is a way to define the word ‘sin’—also arises from within.

As we are wont to do with our (mis)-understanding of the words of confession, we also tend to take Jesus long list of that which defiles, in Mark's text, as a catalog of personal sins. Yet each human flaw named points to a communal, societal, political, economic construct that participates in what theologian Walter Wink explores as “principalities and powers,” and which Ryan Herring names as “the values of empire.” When we stovepipe and then personalize the words with which we confess, as we seek to be in right relationship with God, we deny the reality of and the work needed to realize the Kingdom Jesus preached. We obscure the Holy Reign of God that we teach. We totally miss the Dream of God that Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry challenges us not just to desire, but, to strive for.

So here is where the life and work of the deacon is most difficult and most necessary. How does the deacon invite, encourage, cajole, implore the Baptized ministers who have said words about proclaiming by word and example, seeking, and serving, and striving for all that is implied by the word ‘justice,’ how to make these words become the work for God’s Dream? How does the deacon help good Episcopal folk to connect word to action? How can God's people be enticed away from their comfort of weekly worrying about thoughts, keeping a socially acceptable watch their profanity, and tending solely to their personal spiritual garden in order to connect the words we say and pray in our common worship to events in our broken common life? A common life in which, for Ryan, the catalyst is the shooting of Michael Brown. But there our epidemic of gun violence; a political culture of endless war, human trafficking, everything in our common life that profits from dehumanizing, diminishing, dismissing any and all the beloved children of God.
How can the deacon help bring about many situations and actions where the sign could be raised, “This is What Theology Looks Like?”

The questions I pose this morning comprise a tall order. It is scary and discomfiting. And, to be sure, it is not for the deacon alone, but as one charged at ordination “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world,” the deacon can be expected to lead. As you launch into your first, or second, or third, or sixth year at The School for Deacons the faculty, each in her, his own way, continue to try to give you basic tools. Not everything but at least the effective starter kit, to become a prophetic deacon who inspires thought-word-action to make real and alive some element of the Dream of God.
 Our theology may or may not be challenged. Our praxis, as God's people and the bearers of Good News, is on the line.

Rev. Kirsten gave a different sermon on the same texts:

The theme of this week’s readings seems to me to be about comparing human rules with God’s rules.  In our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses reminding the people that the laws they have been given as commandments from God are the most just laws.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds the people of the words of the prophet Isaiah, it is “hypocritical to teach human precepts as doctrines.”

But  what struck me this week  was the reading from the letter of James.  This letter is written in the style of the Hebrew Bible writings where the law is spelled out for people, but it was written in excellent Greek.  Some scholars believe that this letter was written by James the brother of Jesus who might have been preaching to Jewish Christians who were outside of Palestine.  But others suggest that it might have been written later, after the destruction of the temple, in the late 1st century.   But either way, the purpose of this Epistle is to instruct hearers on the theological issues.  James is writing about God’s law and its purpose.

I hear two important concepts in this letter:  1st, welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. And 2nd, be doers, not merely hearers of the word.

The “implanted word that has the power to save your souls” made me think more about the Bread of Life discourse that we have been working on for the past few weeks.  We’ve been talking about Jesus as the food for our souls.    Now James is talking about the Word, implanted in us with the power to save our souls.  We’ve gone from a food image—thinking about nourishment to thinking about the Word, which instructs us, like a law, but from within instead of from outside.

What difference does it make when a law comes from within us rather than from outside?    The law from within seems to dictate all of our behavior towards other people—it becomes a disposition, a way of being with other people.  This is quite different from a law outside of us, which prescribes our behavior in specific circumstances. 

Let’s talk about some practical examples.  Take the prohibition against stealing.  The criminal law made my humans prohibits stealing property that belongs to someone else.  So to enforce that law, you have to figure out who the property belonged to in order to know whether or not it’s stealing.  So it’s not stealing when some communities live with many resources—good food, housing and water; and other communities are going hungry, living in tents, struggling to get clean water.  As long as one wealthy person did not take food out of the hands of a poor person, it’s not theft.   

But God’s law is not specific to the circumstances.  The law implanted in us is that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.   So our disposition is about sharing and creating freedom, rather than about the technicalities of ownership.  If we look to the Word implanted in us, then we can see that we must share our food, housing and water with our neighbors.   We are moving towards freedom for all people rather than focusing on property.

When we think about refugees, fleeing from countries with brutal dictators, we might judge them—who are they coming across the border, driving down wages and taking our jobs.  If they have come across the border illegally under human laws, then they should be prosecuted.  But from the perspective of God’s law, what is our obligation to care for people who are afraid for their lives, or who are unable to make a living and support their families.  What does being good neighbor mean in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis.

I love James admonition,  let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.”  This is about a disposition created by the implanted Word.  I think about the times when I am quick to anger—those moments when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when someone jumps ahead of me in a line waiting to get on the airplane or buy my groceries.  What if I listened more and spoke less.  Rather than saying,  “hey, that’s not fair”, what if I considered why the person just cut ahead of me.  Maybe they are rushing to get home to relieve the babysitter, or take care of an elderly parent.  Maybe they have already worked a twelve hour shift.  Maybe they are petrified of flying.  What could make a person do something that causes my anger to flare?  If I really listen with compassion, maybe instead of complaining, I might say gently,  “You seem in a real hurry.  I have time, why don’t you take my place?”    The implanted law, helps me to see the gifts in each person, to look upon them with compassion.  The law outside of me judges unfairness without asking for the facts or even imagining what the circumstances might be.

And this then brings me to James’ second point—be doers, not just hearers of the word.  He is very specific,  “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  So it’s not just withholding my judgements, listening and talking less.  It’s also about what I undertake proactively—it’s up to me to go out and find those places of hurt in people, in communities.  It’s up to me to identify the situations in which I can make a difference, and do the work of loving my neighbor. 

We met on Monday this past week as a committee to “Imagine Senior Ministry” and we used this passage from James’ letter as our opening reflection.  What are we called to do for the seniors who are the fastest growing population in Marin.  I’ve put our flip charts on the back window.  It’s kind of a scribble, but I invite you to look at them and ask us about our discussion.  We brainstormed about the needs of seniors here. 

And then we talked about what we could with our resources here. We had with us, Jim Ward, an Episcopal Priest who runs Senior Access, a center up off Las Gallinas that supports people with memory loss.  Jim told us that he has been running a caregiver support group at Marin Community Church once a month.  We decided that we could try and run another group, at the same time on a different day, expanding a service that we know there’s a need for, using a pattern that we know works.  We agreed to host a meeting on the 1st Thursday of the month from 11 to 12:30.
Then we talked about the need for physical exercise.  Jim talked about his gym class, others talked about their experiences with exercise programs.

We agreed that in our kitchen space we could offer a gym class once a month, sharing an instructor with Senior Access.  We’ll do that at the same time—11-12:30 on the 3rd Thursday.

And then we decided to start up our Bible Study group again.  We decided we’d begin working on the Gospel of Mark.  We’ll plan on doing this the second and fourth Thursdays of the month—same time.

I am very excited about all three programs—Caregiver support group, gentle gym, and our Bible Study.  I expect that we’ll start slowly.  First we’ll begin our Bible Study on the 2nd and fourth Thursdays in September.  Then in October we’ll begin our caregiver support group and our gentle gym class. 

This is an opportunity to experiment, to try out this way of caring for seniors, extending our Nativity welcome to our neighbors.  It may be that this will lead to some inconveniences for our us a community.  We’ll have visitors coming to the church more during the week.  We will have an opportunity to practice being slow to anger, eager to listen, slow to speak. 

 I pray that we will be doers not merely hearers of the Word, and that the word implanted in us, will grow as our disposition, filling us with God's grace, helping us to see with God's eyes, hear with God's ears and act in accordance with God's will.

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