Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sermon for February 9, 2014

 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5: 13-20
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In the second century, a hundred years or so after the death of Jesus, lived a man named Marcion. Marcion was a Christian. Well . . . that actually depends who you ask. Marcion called himself a Christian, but he had his own perspective about what that meant, a viewpoint that was not shared by prevailing Christian orthodoxy at the time.

Marcion read the Hebrew Scriptures and concluded that the God described there  was tyrannical and judging -- not at all like the loving, gracious God described by Jesus. So far you may be thinking, “Marcion  is right. I think the same thing. The Old Testament God is cruel. The New Testament God is love.” Hold on to that thought for a few minutes while I tell you more. Marcion wanted to account for the differences between cruel OT God and Loving NT God. He decided that these were two different gods. With the coming of Jesus, the merciful redeemer god defeated the cruel creator god. Anything to do with the mean god, he got rid of. He rejected Hebrew Scripture and a good chunk of the New Testament, too. Gospel texts, like Matthew, that frequently quote the Hebrew prophets, were thrown out by Marcion. You might see how this was threatening to the accepted view of the early church.

Here’s one of the problems. If you are an early church theologian, you believe that the Hebrew Prophets predict the coming of Jesus as Messiah. Those proof texts are important. Without the Old Testament, there is no case for Jesus as the Christ who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets. Along comes Marcion, throwing away the law over here, ignoring the prophets over there. For Marcion, Jesus can’t be the fulfillment of the law and prophets because that would make Jesus the spawn of the tyrannical deity of the Old Testament. Marcion said Jesus was the son of the unnamable good god who came to refute the god of the Jews, the law and the prophets.

Marcion was excommunicated from the Catholic Church because he threatened to make divisions. Church leaders denounced him as a heretic, and the Catholic Church gave back large donation he previously made. Marcion used his personal wealth to fund his own church organization, which continued in the West for 300 years. Pretty soon, there were schisms in Marcionism, and the official movement fizzled out.

Marcion was not the first person to find themes of judgment in the Old Testament that seemed at odds with the message of grace in the New Testament. And he was not the last person, either. Take a random survey of Western Christians and ask them about what God is like and you will get all kinds of answers. One person will tell you God is a strict, punitive authority figure: a creator and enforcer of rules who has harsh punishments for those who don’t toe the line.

Ask another Christian, and you get a picture of a loving parent, occasionally firm but mostly gentle and supportive, who only wants you to be happy and to be your own best self while  giving lots of latitude to find your own path.

Others see God as a hands-off manager who mostly sits back and lets creation run itself. Still others see God as an impersonal abstraction, an intellectual ideal, the encapsulation of ideals such as love, justice and compassion. So, is one of them right? Or, do people shape their image of God to fit what seems right to them?

Christian theology has always insisted that there is one God. At times, God seems vindictive, vengeful and just plain mean. But there are plenty of times when God is kind and tender, showing forgiveness and compassion to all. Love, mercy, redemption, and judgment are all attributes of God’s character, and they always have been.

Today’s passage from Matthew makes Christianity’s case. Jesus preaches the beatitudes – this poetic and memorable list of blessings. Then he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Paraphrase: “Do not suppose that I came to loosen the law or the prophets.  I have not come to loosen, but to make full.” Matthew uses a Greek verb here for fullness: πληρόω. It means to fill up or make whole. In this case, it means to complete an incomplete thing. Jesus does not come to negate or undo the law. The law remains very much intact. Jesus comes to make it whole – to not only complete, but to exceed the law and the prophets.

The author of Matthew’s gospel wants us to know that Jesus always one-ups the law. Jesus delivers five major speeches, which parallel the five great books of Moses known as the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The first and most important of Jesus' speeches is the Sermon on the Mount (the text from which we are reading today). One of the characteristics of his sermon is the repetition of the words, "You have heard it said . . . But I say to you . . ." For instance, Jesus says “You have heard it said do not murder, but I am saying if you even think angry thoughts you are guilty.” Jesus gives a updated interpretation of the Law. It’s as if he is saying, “Moses said to you ____, but I’m saying you can do even better. When Moses said, ‘Do not murder,’ he didn't only mean, ‘Try to make it through the day without killing anyone.’  He also meant, ‘Don't devalue others by thinking yourself superior to them or harboring anger toward them.’” For Jesus, devaluing others is ultimately the source of murder. Jesus reclaims the heart of Jewish religious law as it is interpreted through the prophets and made flesh in lives of justice, mercy, and faith.

So, why go through all this legal reinterpretation? One word: Pharisees. Matthew sets Jesus up against the Pharisees. He will continue the theme throughout the entire Gospel.

By the second century before Jesus, Pharisees had become known as "the Separated Ones." They were not priests, but lay-theologians, lay-teachers. A Pharisee invested his life in an all-out effort to keep the Law of Moses down to the smallest detail. They not only followed the Law, they also had rules about how to follow the rules. Determined not to break any of God’s laws, they devised an intricate system of oral tradition to keep them straying. One would think with such a desire to obey God, they might have recognized Jesus as an ally. Yet they were His most bitter and relentless opponents. For the Pharisees, God made demands. For them, the law and prophets provided a set of guidelines that had to be kept at all costs. For Jesus, God was primarily gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Matthew writes Jesus stories for a predominately Jewish community who sees Jesus, not the Pharisees, as the rightful interpreter of the Law. We think what’s really going on is that there are two Jewish communities who are at odds over the future of Judaism. The Pharisees see Moses as the steward of God’s law. Matthew’s community of Jewish Christians sees Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s law. Matthew wants to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the Pharisees who criticize Jesus. Matthew uses Jesus to insists that the newly-forming Christian community needs to be better. He says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  There are some politics and polemics going on here.

So back to the question: How do we understand the πλήρωμα (pleroma) the fullness of God? How do we know God when even our sacred texts are filled with conflict and questions? The UCC tradition doesn’t excommunicate heretics who disagree with us, like the Catholic Church did with Marcion. We don’t want to use our sacred texts as weapons to bludgeon those who follow the law and the prophets differently. How do we understand the fullness of God when there may not be a clear set of directions?

Here is my personal challenge. What if discomfort with the God of the law and prophets is a projective – a Rorschach test?  If we believe that what makes someone good is kindness, we construct a God who takes care of people. If we believe that what makes someone good is justice, we construct a God who rewards goodness and punishes evil. If we believe that what makes someone good is mercy, we construct a God who’s forgiving. If we believe that what makes someone good is intellect, we construct a God who’s a complex theological abstraction. If we believe that what makes someone good is respect for authority, we construct a God who issues clear rules and expects them to be obeyed. Here’s the point: What if my beliefs and hang ups have nothing to do with God, but say way too much about me?

Here’s the deal; I have, at times, hidden behind the veneer of respectable, righteous religiosity. I can be vengeful. I can be envious. I can be insular. I can be tempted to descend into inactivity in order to perpetuate the status quo. I can be more in tune with the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. Sometimes I put question marks around the prospect of radical change in human beings. In other words, my behavior mirrors that troublesome tyrant of an Old Testament God whom I want to ignore or dismiss. I am more like that God than I want to admit. I want it to be different, but the journey of change needs to begin with the elimination of self-deception.

What might happen if I begin to take responsibility for my own values and not try to put it on God? If I value kindness and justice, I should own it and not try to use God as a way to justify it. If someone else values intellect or mercy, then just own it. We don’t need to invent and follow one image of God that fits our own values. We don’t need to twist our holy texts to fit a certain worldview, and then persuade ourselves that our values really come from the Divine. I’m looking for a different model. For me, it’s about πληρόω – wholeness, fullness, completeness. The journey to fullness begins with honesty; honesty with ourselves that we do not have all the answers; honesty with those whom we disagree; honesty that says you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right; honesty that admits we do not have all the answers; honesty that knows we fail and need our faith and our scriptures to hold us accountable; honesty that faces the times when we are scared and unsure with an awareness of God’s presence; honesty that remembers Christ can complete something that is loosened and unfinished in you. In me. It’s about πληρόω – fullness – complete and overflowing grace.


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