Ideally, laws exist so that people can live together and relate to each other in a civilized manner. It’s been said that “good fences make good neighbors” and laws serve as a way to set fences, or boundaries, by which we can live somewhat peaceably. But people being who they are, laws don’t always function that way. Sometimes laws, especially some of these weird ones, are created as a reactive response to a group’s “delicate sensibilities” or as a way of protecting one group’s status or privilege. I’m thinking of things like Jim Crow laws that excluded African Americans from full participation in society in order to protect white privilege. Right now, the Kansas state legislature passed a law saying anyone can refuse to serve LGBT people without explanation because of their religious objections. Really? Can you imagine saying “We don’t serve your kind” to any other group of people in 2014? It sickens me when religion is used as a cover for bigotry and then gets enshrined in law. But we have a track record of doing that, don’t we?
Today we are hearing much about the Law – the Halakah which governs the Jewish people. We are familiar with the “top 10” that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But there’s a whole body of rabbinic law which makes up the Halakah and in total, it’s about 700 specific laws. These laws cover all aspects of what it means to be Jewish: what to eat and not eat, proper business practices, who you can and cannot marry, how to maintain purity, judicial procedures including crime and punishment and restitution, temple worship, and more. Admittedly, some of these laws are archaic holdovers from a stone-age people … and they sound as weird as not taking lions to the movies. But if we throw out the Law because of a few oddball pieces, I think we do so at our own peril – even as Christians.
Christians often misunderstand adherence to the law by Jews – it sounds burdensome, and didn’t Paul say in Christ we are set free from the law? Well, not really. Last week, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The word Halakah actually means “the way in which we walk.” To an observant Jew, this means the law is a gift from God to help them be in right relationship – with God and with each other. So for us, it is not irrelevant. Fr. Richard Rohr speaks about the importance of the Law as giving us a container, or a “home base,” from which to operate in right relationship to God and with each other. In today’s reading from Sirach, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, we hear that God gives us choices – fire or water, life or death. God made us to be moral beings with the ability make choices – even if we make bad choices. It is a reminder that the law has a place in our lives, even as Christians.
Jesus’ teaching today, which is from the Sermon on the Mount, follows last week’s reading where he says that not one stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. He even commends the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Today, he is teaching on the law with a very specific kind of rhetoric. It follows a pattern: “You’ve heard it said in ancient times … but I say to you …” In a way what Jesus is doing is challenging his listeners to go deeper into the meaning of the law. In essence, he tells them, “So you’ve heard this and I’m sure you think you ‘got this’ buttoned up and handled … but I say you don’t and here’s why…”
Martin Luther once called this a “second use of the Law.” He used the metaphor that the Law is both mirror and hammer. First, the Law holds up a mirror to us and shows us our behaviors. And if we take a serious and sober look at how we behave, we have to admit we fail … epically. That’s when the second part comes in … the hammer. It falls on us like a judge’s gavel and convicts us of our bondage to the power of Sin. This is what Jesus seems to be doing as he teaches “what I say to you.” The truth is we will never have a handle on Sin and its grip on our souls. Luther said we are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves – sounds a lot like addiction, doesn’t it? It is … we are Sin sick souls and we have no power in and of ourselves to break this hold. But that’s not Gospel, is it? No, not at all … it’s a page out of the book of DUH!
At this point we tend to go into one of two paths when we are confronted by so stark a reality as how much power Sin has over us. The first is to run away and go into denial about the serious nature of our condition. This is the path of rationalization. It sounds like, “I’m really not a bad person” or “This is just a guilt trip laid on us by the Church to try and control us.” If we succumb to these rationalizations, we’ll tend to minimize the very real damage caused by Sin – damage we do to ourselves, to others, and to creation. We’ll ignore the bigger implications of Sin – the systemic Sin of society which can seem too big for us to do anything about and so we ignore it. But do take this path is to reject the truth of our condition and to let Sin puff us up with a false grandiosity blocking our ability to let God’s grace in to heal us.
The other temptation we have is to heap coals of fire on ourselves. We can mistake our bondage to the power of Sin as something which renders us worthless and beyond the saving grace of God. After all, if I’m so terrible, why would God waste time, let alone love, on me? This too is a distortion caused by Sin itself and blocks the grace of God by sending us into a cynical, nihilistic spiral of doom.
Fortunately, there is a way in which we can walk … a way forward out of the mess. First is to let the Law be both mirror and hammer but, rather than take the road of rationalization or worthlessness, let the Law be an agent of the Spirit’s gift of humility. Humility is that place where we walk the middle way with Christ in both acknowledging and naming our sin and trusting completely that the promises of baptism are true – we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Forever beloved, forever belonging to God and nothing, absolutely nothing, can erase this. Our sins are not powerful enough to cause God to reject us … to think so is sheer ego driven hubris.
Last week, I spent three days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park NY. It is an Episcopal Benedictine monastery and they hosted Fr. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who conducted a workshop for clergy on the sacrament of reconciliation which is probably the most underutilized part of the Prayer Book … second only to the Historical Documents in the back of the book! For those of you who are former Roman Catholics, you may have been more accustomed to the compulsory nature of the sacrament of reconciliation as a requirement for receiving the Eucharist. Those of you from more Protestant traditions may wonder why we have this as a sacrament. And those of you who are cradle Episcopalians likely just ignore its presence in the Prayer Book and figure the general prayer of confession before the Eucharist is sufficient. We seem to have an ambivalent feeling about this sacrament.
The Anglican ethos tells us that Baptism and Eucharist are the only sacraments “necessary for salvation” because Jesus commanded we do them; however, we would be selling ourselves short to think the other sacraments “don’t really matter.” They do matter! They are given to us for a reason. The sacrament of reconciliation is important because it gives us a means by which we can avoid the temptations of rationalization and worthlessness as we let go of what Martin called “spiritual congestion” which impedes our ability to accept God’s grace and healing. The Anglican approach to this sacrament is one of healing and proclamation of the Gospel – so that we can receive the good news of our belovedness given to us in Baptism and live in the freedom of Christ as God’s children.
And so, as we begin our journey towards Lent on this Septuigesima Sunday, I encourage you to reflect on your life in self-examination. Take some time in the silence we have before our general confession to recall those things done and left undone this week and be intentional about giving them over to God. As you uncover those things which you may find more troubling, I encourage you to consider availing yourself of sacramental reconciliation. Think of it this way … it’s a place you can dump your spiritual manure and leave it … and you don’t even need a permit!