October 5, 2014

Law, Liberty, and Love

Passage: 1 Corinthians 13:1-4, Matthew 23:23-28

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Luke 11.42:‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue [leaves that are used in herbal medicine.] and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others.

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Mark 2:23-27

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;

I want to begin my sermon today, by recounting some of the aboriginal traditions around possessions. These explanations are contained in a book, Money and the Soul’s Desires by Stephen Jenkinson. When the white immigrants came in touch with native culture, they observed the potlatch. In the potlatch, people would pitch into a pot their gifts, and if someone had a need, they could freely withdraw from the pot. Local governments were scandalized by the notion of voluntary impoverishment and saw the potlatch as an impediment to civilization. They saw in it, “a lack of respect for ownership and material goods.” What the white administrators could not understand was “that respect for ownership lay at the heart of the potlatch. Giving away was the key element in ownership, the key ingredient in social status. The value of material goods was established and reiterated not by keeping them but by giving them away., and their face value grew by giving them away....”

Listen to the irony contained in the words of an American senator in the late Nineteenth Century.

“The head chief told us that there was not a family in that whole nation that had not a home of their own. There was not a pauper in the nation and the nation did not owe a dollar. Now here is the rub: The defect of their system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go because they own the land in common.....There is no enterprise to make your home any better than your neighbours. There is no selfishness which is at the bottom of civilization. p.83

This places in stark relief how we are so accustomed to our story, the story about grasping not giving, the story about scarcity, therefore fear, Accumulation rather than sharing.

Money is a fascinating thing: Money in itself is an abstract entity. We project meaning onto money. There is nothing wrong with money – in fact, it is a very useful commodity.

The Bible is often misunderstood to say that “money is the root of all evil.” This is untrue. Rather, it posits “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Stephen Jenkinson, in Money and the Soul’s Desire, says that the incorrect version – money is the root of all evil - is easier to take. It gets us off the hook because if money is the root of all evil, we can demonize money. We do not have to look further – we do not have to look at our hearts.

But life in the realm that Jesus taught about is about risk and about giving.

[Michele Hershberger, at a stewardship conference said, “Money buys you a house but not a home, food but not laughter around the table, toys but not true happiness, influence but not true friends, long life possibly but not eternal life.]

The Hebrew Scriptures taught a great deal about first fruits -

16 You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour. 19 The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 26: So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Jesus places the law of the tithe squarely in front of the Pharisees:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.

Scripture has a lot to say about the purse.

There are 2,350 verses in the Bible about money and only 500 about prayer.

Spiritual language has been overtaken by the language of commerce:

  • reconcile bank accounts
  • redeem coupons
  • forgive debts
  • offer a period of grace

But our relationship with money is also a gift.. “The soul’s struggle with money is an enduring and trustworthy companion in life. Money provides the occasion for discovering the deep ambivalence of the soul. When in the presence of one you can do something about the other.”

So it is no surprise that Jesus tells the rich young ruler that if he wants to have the full life, he needs to sell his possessions, give them to the poor and follow him. (hyperbole) The problem here lies not with the possessions but with the heart of the young ruler. He has invested so much of himself into his possessions that his heart is now where his treasure is.

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Where you invest your time, your abilities, your very life, that is, in the end, where your heart will be.

Sabbath keeping: This is a bold stewardship concept. God of abundance.

but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. 12 For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.

Jesus had to encounter fundamentalists around the Sabbath as well. ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;

Mark 3.2:

They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. But of course a much larger issue for Jesus was the human need: Luke 6.9: Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’

Is this not another way of saying where is your heart? Where is your compassion?In another context he pointed out to these same Pharisees, if they lost an animal or if one of their animals was trapped on the sabbath, would they not rescue the animal?

Jesus does not disrespect the law. Rather he reminds us that there is a spirit behind the law which demonstrates and points the way forward. But every time it becomes legalistic it kills, it damages the spirit. Yet Jesus did not come to abrogate the law. Rather he saw in it an important guide to life, what Dan Clendenin in Journey with Jesus.net calls “a moral compass that points us toward the true north of human health and wholeness.”

The commandments, says Chris Hedges, frame the most important questions we can ask, like the mystery of good and evil, the meaning of living in community, the nature of integrity, the meaning of fidelity, or the necessity of honesty. In honoring the commandments, we embrace the sanctity of life, the power of love, and their function to bind us together in life-affirming community. From Losing Moses on the Freeway. Chris Hedges

So in giving tithes and in keeping sabbath, we are to remember that the legalistic letter kills, but the spirit behind it gives life.

When we turn to the passage from 1 Corinthians. realize that while faith, hope and love are all important, the greatest is love.

Notice how Paul speaks about the possibility of great sacrifice but without love it avails nothing. Suicide bombers take note; martyrs of all kinds take note. “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

If I give away everything, but have not love.

If I keep Sabbath scrupulously, but have not love,

If I sacrifice my own life, but have not love.

It is love itself which drives us; love which makes sense of all of life. But as we worship, we realize that something greater is promised to us. Not a love which I can manufacture, but the very love of God moves within me through God’s Spirit.

As we partake of the feast of communion, we realize that Jesus as host of the meal invites us all to partake and enjoy his lively presence. We leave the table, refreshed, invigorated and realize that God’s presence goes with us.