Year C, Proper 16 August 21, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…”
Jesus is on fire! Last week he went off “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, but division!” and he detailed all the strife that will follow in His wake. And this week, to the indignant leader and people of the synagogue, he says, “You hypocrites!” A lot of people have tools to help them discern what to do in any given situation, a quick field test to try to tell right from wrong. “What would Jesus do?” is one of those. One of mine is asking myself, “Would Jesus yell ‘Hypocrite!’ at me if I did it?” A lower bar then WWJD but pretty effective.
This is a great little story from St. Luke’s gospel. A woman crippled with a spirit for eighteen years appears and Jesus called her over, laid His hands on her and healed her. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” He says and she was. Seeing this, the leader comes bustling over, indignant that the visiting Rabbi healed on the Sabbath. “You’ve got all week to do this,” he says, “just not today, the Sabbath, there are Laws…”
“You hypocrites!” Jesus answered. Don’t you feed and water your livestock on the Sabbath? Yet you want this woman to suffer even one more day in her bondage? “When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
To my mind, this is one of the most important teachings that Jesus offers us in the Gospels. And He teaches it in various ways, from various angles, but it all comes back to the same core message: the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law.
What is the letter of the law that Jesus transgressed? Doing “work” on the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath Day… in it thou shalt not do any work…” Okay, that’s pretty clear. We could dicker around with what the definition of work is; like is the leader of the synagogue working when he tried to enforce the Sabbath rules? But it is pretty clear and pretty enduring, the custom of not working on the Sabbath. Oregon never had “Blue Laws,” laws regulating commerce on Sundays (a distinction shared with only one other state, California). Until the “80s, only gas stations and pharmacies were open on Sundays in Massachusetts, and you still can’t buy liquor before 10:00 a.m. on Sundays. They are much stricter other places. And Jesus did heal on Sabbath, which is work. But He also taught, and that was OK, so clarity is lacking.
But what is the spirit of the law, the spirit of the 3rd commandment? Well, part of it is there in the law itself. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.” Our tradition is that on the 7th day of creation God rested, making that day holy and we are to treat it as such, reserving it as a time where our labor, our regular routine is interrupted and our hearts, minds and bodies are oriented on God. To that end we have our Sabbath on Sundays where traditionally we go to church, pray, study scripture and don’t do our regular work or routine.
Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Was Jesus in violation of the letter of the law? The spirit of it?
Religion means “to bind.” It brings us together, people, communities together with all of it, with the true nature of being, or in Christian words, God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. Religions all, in one way or another, help us make meaning of the world. It helps us put ourselves in context and relationship with it all and then helps define how we are to conduct ourselves in that reality. Laws. We understand the world to be x, therefore we should do y. Religions always offer laws, precepts, commandments, teachings in some form that help us live in accordance with the shared understanding of reality. This is a good thing, a necessary thing. But we do get hung up on what is really important and what is not.
Because there are some things that are important. There are some things that are not particularly negotiable. Murder is wrong. Pretty hard and fast. (Is “killing” different than “murder”? There’s a good example of the actual Devil being in the details). There need to be some things we just take on faith and stick to because our world has some pretty hard and fast realities defining it; at least there are in our puny human capacity to observe and understand it all. Think of the laws of gravity (they work almost everywhere). The letter of the law is an important baseline for us.
Probably the most eloquent heretic America has given Christendom was Theodore Parker. Parker was the great Boston transcendentalist who was all mixed up in the Unitarian controversies of the 1840s. He was a contemporary of Emerson. In 1841 he preached one of the better sermons ever preached, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” in which he posits that there are immutable, eternal truths, permanent truths essential to the practice of Christianity, and there are ones that are not, that are fleeting, perishing, transient. I could not agree more. (Though the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit were two transient elements for Parker). Some things are necessary for us to hold as true or are requisite practices and there are some things that are not. Of course.
However, we don’t always agree on which is which, do we? There are some religious tenets that are absolutely essential in some communities and are anathema in others. Think of the idea that the Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God. That belief is a prerequisite in some communities; and would all but bar you from admission to others. You could believe that and be part of Resurrection, of course you could. I just don’t know if you would be satisfied with what we offer here. Or think about music. In some communities certain musical instruments, or music itself is forbidden, while in others, if there ain’t singing it ain’t church.
What is essential? What is essential to believe in order to consider yourself Christian? Don’t worry about what other people call Christian, what do you think is essential? What is essential to do in order to consider yourself Christian? (Besides tithing… that is kind of a joke). This all brings us back to the letter of the law v. the spirit of the law. That was one of Jesus’ beefs with the temple authorities and the legalistic Pharisees, like with this woman being healed on the Sabbath. Because between Scripture and our 2000 years of Christian tradition, we have customs if not religious laws laid out to govern most every aspect of our lives: if we choose to accept them. And it is essential for us to deal with this, particularly as progressive Christians, because the Law upon which our religion is based is ancient, and that’s good and bad. It is good in that it’s antiquity carries with it enduring truths about the nature of humanity, ancient wisdom. It is bad in that it also dredges up a lot of old ignorance that we know better about now than we did then. Like women not being property; like slavery not being okay; like being LGBTQ not being a capital offense.
This comes up all the time, letter of the law v. spirit of the law moments. If we think “Thou shalt not murder” includes any intentional killing, then we can’t support any war, or capital punishment, or abortion, depending on where you think life begins (not something delineated in the Scripture or our Tradition); but if we think there are instances where intentional killing is justified, like self-defense perhaps, or life of the mother, then we can’t be pure pacifists. Or adultery; the prohibition on sex outside of marriage. The law says don’t do it. We probably largely agree that promiscuity is not an appropriate sexual response to the world according to the Ten Commandments or a reasonable interpretation of its spirit; but in our time, is sex relegated only to occur only within the bonds of sacramental marriage? Does the spirit of the law make allowances for it to be permissible in common law marriage or a committed intimate relationships? Many churches’ issue with gay sex is not the sex itself being right or wrong, but that any sex outside the bounds of Christian marriage is forbidden and operating under the idea that gay marriage can’t be a Christian practice, therefore that sex is by its nature disallowed. I totally disagree, but that reading of the letter v. spirit of the law is logically coherent at least. In any case, we need some sexual ethic or morality because living without one can be physically and emotionally dangerous and can be devastating to life in community. These things do come up in our lives.
Expectations, responsibilities, obligations to neighbors and communities are essential to our nature as human beings. Laws (religious and otherwise) are one way we institute expectations and obligations, community norms. Taxes are just communally agreed upon sharing. Traditions are another way. But we have a lot of freedom in how we interpret religious law in our Anglican way. So when and how do we decide when the letter of the law is it, the line in the sand, or when interpreting the spirit of the law is more apropos?
Generally if a law, a custom, a tradition helps you grow closer to God and your neighbor, then it is pretty good chance that the letter of the law will do. Conversely, if it gets in the way of right relationship between you, God and neighbor, then it should probably delve into the spirit of the law. For many laws, the spirit behind them is sound, like some of the dietary stuff, sound ways to define a community, while the letter; maybe not so much.
We have a lot of freedom in this, thanks be to God, because law is, by its nature, rather a one-size-fits-all way of being, or to be just it should be, and human beings are not one size, never have been, never will be. We as individuals have the responsibility, and in the modern area the authority to determine what laws, what traditions, what ethical and moral code you engage the world with. It is kind of on you.
But, thanks be to God, you are not alone in this. We here in this church, as Episcopalians, we don’t issue a detailed code of moral conduct, a list of rules that says what is allowed and forbidden to be a part of this community. That might be easier then our way, might bind us together as a community more tightly. But rather what we have, is each other. Examples. Relationships. We have the mandate to use our minds, to reason, to think things through, as we have the mandate to follow our hearts, to allow our emotions and feelings and intuition to be our teacher and guides. We have our Bibles, through which the contents and the process of engaging it can make things clear. We have the Mass, the Sacraments, this gathering at God’s table. Exposing yourself to Holy doings, to thinner than average places where God’s presence is palpable, is real and is agreed upon to be real by those gathered… now that is a perfect teacher. All of our religious practices together, one way to consider them is like paint the fence in The Karate Kid. Remember that? The master Mr. Myagi had student Daniel put wax on the car, then take the wax off; then had him paint a long, long fence, up-down, up-down in a very specific way. After hours, Daniel throws the paint brush down in frustration. “I want to learn karate, not fence painting.” So Mr. Myagi stands before him, “Paint the fence” and throws a punch that Daniel deflects. “Wax on” = parry left. “Wax off” = parry right. By wrote exercise his body and mind knew what to do. Just like the Mass. We gather and practice, to visualize loving our neighbor as our self. We listen to ancient words (and some much fresher ones) and ponder them in our hearts. We put money in the plate when there is no fee for service, but because you know that the work of this place depends on it. We ask for and receive forgiveness for our sins. We gather, on our knees, before something that we don’t quite understand but know in some deep part of our self is very, very good and we do that together, regularly… That’s moral paint the fence. That’s how we learn and discern right from wrong. That’s how we navigate the sometimes vast gap between the letter and the spirit of the law. Well, its one of the ways. With that and our own relationship with God in Christ we’re at least heading towards the right path.
There are no easy answers. And it takes work. And we sometimes make big mistakes. And Jesus Christ is with us in all of it. And hopefully we won’t be hypocrites. AMEN