A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
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.
Law and Grace
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Back when I was teaching, the end of the school year always brought to a head the dilemma that I in fact faced throughout the year, which can be thought of as the tension between law and grace. I always put a lot of thought into my syllabus and spelled out clearly at the beginning of the semester what the rules and grading standards were going to be, and I still do believe that students learn important things by the rules we set and the ways that we enforce those rules. But invariably circumstances would raise the possibility that I might be able to teach some really important lesson by applying those rules and standards with some flexibility, tempering justice with mercy. So I could teach by means of “the law” that I laid down, and I could teach by instances of mercy in applying it. The main thing was that I wanted students to learn, and so I had to make judgments about how best to let that happen.
The danger in doing that, of course, is that students might come to disregard the rules and standards: to think, so to speak, only in terms of grace and not of law. In parenting it’s the same dilemma. How do we convey to our children the message that they are beloved by us, and forgiven for their misbehaviors, without implying that they have license to continue misbehaving? A similar dilemma also exists between married partners and between nations and citizens. Any time there’s a covenantal relationship between people, a relation of promises and obligations and allegiance, we’ll find that it’s important to spell out what those expectations are.
It’s no surprise, then, that God the Teacher, God the parent, is both a lawgiver and a merciful judge. The reason those two can both be present in God is the same reason they can both be present in us: God as lawgiver isn’t some punitive sadist who delights to send people to hell, but a teacher who delights to bring people to heaven. God as gracious and compassionate isn’t a pushover whose people can do no wrong, but a demanding teacher who understands and sympathizes with our errors but insists that we learn.
Because there really is evil in the world, and it really does harm both us and our neighbors. Where we can see that most forcefully, perhaps, is in politics. Consider our Old Testament lesson. There’s a man named Naboth who owns a vineyard. King Ahab of Israel wants to buy the property, which is next to his own, to plant a royal vegetable garden. The setting of the story is the town of Jezreel, which at the time was in the heart of the northern wine country. Jezreel is not very big, around 14 acres (a little bigger than a couple city blocks), most of which was occupied by Ahab’s palace. Actually the palace at Jezreel wasn’t even Ahab’s main one; that lay two arduous days to the south. Jezreel is Ahab’s version of Martha’s Vineyard or Camp David, a nice spot in Israel’s most fertile region to get away from it all. Ahab asks, fairly enough, to buy Naboth’s property at market value. But Naboth turns down the offer because it was his ancestral property.
In Israel, “ancestral property” had religious connotations, because they believed that God had distributed the land to each of the families and that it was important to keep it in family hands. We could hope that the story might end there, with the king reluctantly accepting Naboth’s answer, but it doesn’t. Ahab goes back home to Samaria, where Queen Jezebel is waiting. She is the real villain of this story, and she decides to help Ahab acquire the property he covets. Now there are all kinds of overtones here that have to do with Jezebel’s foreignness and with her idolatry. There’s also the overtone of Ahab’s following in the footsteps of the other northern kings by rebelling against the Davidic kings in Jerusalem. But I want to focus on the abuse of power in the story.
How Jezebel gets Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab is by using the legal system. She hires some professional liars to bear false witness against Naboth, accusing him of blasphemy and sedition.
It isn’t unusual, in our world or in ancient Israel, for people to use the good law, twisting it to do evil deeds. When they do that, it doesn’t mean that the law itself is bad; it means that the law is a tool and what makes it good or evil is what it’s used to do. Indeed it’s worth noticing that Ahab’s covetousness and the professional liars’ bearing false witness violate two of the ten commandments. But it is Naboth who is quickly condemned and stoned to death, and his property is added to the king’s holdings. Evil has triumphed, as usual; end of story. Except that it’s not the end of the story, which goes on to tell how God sent the prophet Elijah to pronounce doom on Ahab and Jezebel and how, eventually, they were punished for their murderous acquisitiveness with death and disgrace.
As we do with so many of the stories of the Old Testament, we might tend to hear in this story a reinforcement of our notion that God is a judgmental, legalistic God who metes out reward and punishment. But when we do that we’re missing the point of telling the story, which is to be taught by it that we must learn to apply the law in ways that preserve people’s livelihood. As concerns Ahab and Jezebel, God condemned them for doing evil to their neighbor. From Naboth’s point of view, God’s judgment came too late to help his case. But from our point of view, as readers, we have this marvelous story in which a corrupt judicial system and a corrupt ruling establishment only appear to be successful, and in which God makes things right in the end. In other words, we’re invited to reflect that evil’s triumph is merely temporary, which is a very hopeful thing.
What would it have been like to be one of those bystanders at Naboth’s trial? Would we recognize that there was more at work than a simple charge of blasphemy and sedition? Would we be critical of the judgment? Or would we join our neighbors and throw stones of condemnation at the innocent man? I suspect that most of us would do as they did given the same circumstances. But we readers realize we’d be wrong to do so. We can see what the townspeople could not: the scheming of Ahab and Jezebel, the innocence of Naboth, the falseness of Naboth’s accusers, and eventually the judgment God pronounces through Elijah. So what do we learn from our readerly perspective?
Maybe we can remind ourselves that law is meant to teach more than it’s meant to punish, and that we also need mercy to really teach effectively. Did you notice in the gospel story how, when the woman who was a notorious sinner came to Jesus, he might have condemned her sinful behavior? He’d have been correct to do so. But instead he graciously accepts that marvelous gift from her hands and uses the opportunity to teach everyone around him — the woman herself, the Pharisee named Simon who was Jesus’ student and host, everyone else who were at table with him, and indeed to teach us who read the story now. We all learn from this incident not that the woman wasn’t really a sinner, but that her sins had been forgiven and she had been saved because of her faith. We learn that there is more to her than her sin, and that more part is worth loving. We learn that sometimes we should be merciful rather than stringent, in order to teach the lesson that needs to be learned.
I think we have to keep working for a just society, to be active politically and using the legal means we have, in order to instruct and be instructed by others about our obligations to one another and to God. But let’s remember that the law, and our standards of all sorts, exist to make people better, and not for their own sake. In this vitriolic political environment, this world in which it’s so easy to demean as stupid or immoral anyone who is different from us; in this judgmental society that is so ready to condemn racists and bigots, cheaters and haters, liars and smugly self-satisfied pontificators, Republicans and Democrats, true believers and those who are disenchanted; let’s remind ourselves of our own sinfulness — our own racism and bigotry, and the whole list of evils we see in everyone else. Let’s remember that all of us fall short of God’s glory, that all of us are being trained by God’s law, and all of us are in need of merciful treatment from God and from one another.