Sermon for 7 Epiphany, Year A
February 19, 2017
We are going to start today with our psalm. I want to read a bit of it, if you want to read along, go ahead.
33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *
and I shall keep it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *
I shall keep it with all my heart.
35 Make me go in the path of your commandments, *
for that is my desire.
36 Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.
37 Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *
give me life in your ways.
Psalm 119, from which we read a small section today, is the longest psalm in the Bible, coming in at 176 verses. It is longer than some entire books in the Bible. It is an epic poem. And it is a love song. A love song, you say? 🤔 Yes, a love song. A song of love to the law. Which may seem like a strange idea to most here, perhaps a few lawyers or judges in the room might instinctively get it, but to most of us, that is an oddity.
Notice all of the synonyms for the law in this poem: statutes, commandments, decrees, ways, judgments. Now, Hebrew is not a verbose language. It does not have a lot of synonyms like English does. In fact, repetition of the same word is a defining characteristic of Hebrew writing. Most often, when you read synonyms in English translations of Biblical Hebrew, it is the translator trying to make it more interesting for, you, the English reader.
But here, the poet pulls out all of the stops, finding every word possible to describe the law, and using one of these words in almost every verse of our selection. In fact, almost every verse in the entire psalm uses the word law or a synonym. And then we have that language of love, like heart and desire. Elsewhere in the poem, it is really striking as we hear the kind of language reserved for a beloved.
"Open my eyes, that I may see the wonders of your law..."
"With my whole heart I seek you..."
"With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth..."
"My delight is in your statutes..."
"My soul is consumed at all times with longing for your judgments..."
"The earth, O LORD, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes..."
"Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind..."
"How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey in my mouth..."
And that is just a small sample of the loving way that the psalmist, the poet, writes of his beloved: the law. The connection between love and law should not surprise us too much. Jesus, after all, teaches us that all the law has to be understood as an act of love of God or love of neighbor. If we view the law in any way but through the lens of love, we misunderstand it.
Let me read you part of another poem, a bit more recent than today's psalm, this one only a couple of decades old. It is called "The Law that Marries All Things" by Wendell Berry
1. The Cloud is free only
to go with the wind.
The rain is free
only in falling.
The water is free only
in its gathering together,
in its downward courses,
in its rising into the air.
2. In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.
Another poem of love and the law.
There are two primary kinds of law: There are the laws that governments make. If you fail to pay the parking meter, you might have to pay some kind of penalty. If you do something a little more serious, you might need a lawyer. And then there are laws of nature. Like the law of gravity. You can try to defy this kind of law, but it is probably going to hurt when you hit the ground. Wendell Berry's poem is about this second kind of law. The law of the the movement of clouds in the wind, the descent of the rain, and the gathering of water. For Berry, as a farmer who is deeply concerned with issues like sustainability, soil erosion, the proper husbandry of animals, et cetera, I suspect he is referring to these sorts of issues. You can over fertilize your soil for a while, if you want to, there isn't a governmental law against that, but the laws of nature will catch up to you and you will find that your soil no longer gives life. But when you love the law - the rhythms of the seasons, the interconnectedness of all living things - when you love this law, when you become one with it, you will ultimately find life-giving rest in it and find yourself able to sing a love song to it. Wendell Berry is referring to this second type of law.
And though we tend to think of God's law as the first kind of law, it looks like it after all, with all of those should and should nots, it is really more like the second. You can break God's law for a while, but ultimately you find death, not life, in that choice. Leviticus, which is one of the books of the Law, gives us a clue to understanding why this is the case. Before getting into this list of what you should and shouldn't do, God says: "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. This is a line, a phrase, that keeps repeating itself throughout Leviticus. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Our holiness and God's holiness are intertwined. The laws of God - the laws of which the psalmist sings - are about aligning our lives with God's life. When we find ourselves following these laws, these decrees, these judgments, these statutes, these ways, we find this path life-giving, because we are congruent with the giver of life itself: The Lord our God.
So, when we hear these words, these laws, to not gather the gleanings of our fields, to not squeeze every ounce of profit out of our harvest for our own gain, but rather to leave some for the poor and for the aliens, the foreigners, among us, which there are and should be, that act is not just about helping others, which, of course, it does, but the act aligns us with the life-giving love and abundance of God. When we hear these words, these laws, about not taking vengeance and not bearing grudges against others, we have aligned ourselves with God's overwhelming and overflowing mercy and grace.
Jesus is building on this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in the Gospel. These are new teachings, which like Moses receiving the Law on a mountain, Jesus speaks out from a mountain. These new teachings do not abolish the old ones or supplant them, but properly interpret them, give fulfillment to them, so that we can be holy as we fully align our lives with the Holy.
Laws like love of enemy, which Jesus speaks in the Gospel today, which makes abundantly clear the idea we see in Leviticus that we cannot just love our own, but must love others, yes, even unto our enemies, for they, too, are created by God and made in God's image. These laws are the same as the sun rising and the rain falling. We can pretend that they are otherwise, but when we do, we are out of sync with God's truth and holiness and grace and mercy and love. Being out of step with them is something we can do for a while, but like gravity, it is going to hurt when we hit the ground. Our hearts are unsettled as long as we are out of alignment with God, when we have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify ourselves, instead of being at rest in the truth, at rest in the law, at rest in love. Being in step with the law allows us, as the psalmist says, find life in God's ways. So walk in these ways, sing a love song, find rest and life, as you become one with the giver of life. Amen.