Sunday, June 30, 2013

Drawing lines and taking big steps (J. Barry Vaughn, June 30, 2013)

There are any number of jokes about the Ten Commandments. For example, when Moses came back to the Israelites after receiving the commandments from God, he said, "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I negotiated them down to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still in there."


The Episcopal Church and the Ten Commandments seem to be uneasy companions. Episcopalians are sophisticated people. We are more comfortable with ambiguity than with absolutes. And frankly, we don't especially enjoy being told "thou shalt not" anything. Someone once said that if God had given the Ten Commandments to the Episcopal Church, they would have to be called the Ten Suggestions and there would only be eight of them -your choice.


There are many for whom the Christian life is mainly about rules; there are lots of "thou shalt" and even more "thou shalt nots." A quick glance at the Bible seems to offer a lot of support to this view. Not only do we find the Ten Commandments, but our Jewish sisters and brothers tell us that there are a total of 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah or first five books of the Bible. There are plenty of commandments in the New Testament, too. Jesus spoke of the "first and great commandment," namely, to love God and love our neighbor, but there are lots of others.


On the other hand, Jesus sets aside the Sabbath commandment and tells the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. Even more significantly, in Mark's gospel, Jesus seems to forbid remarriage after divorce altogether, but in Matthew, he appears to allow remarriage for the innocent party in the divorce.


Also, note that today's Old Testament and gospel readings appear to be in conflict with each other. In the reading from First Kings, Elisha's responsibility to his parents takes precedence over Elijah's invitation to follow him and become his disciple. But in the reading from Luke, Jesus rebukes the would-be disciple who wants to do exactly what Elisha did, that is, say good bye to his parents.


In other words, even though there are hundreds or even thousands of rules in the Bible, there is also a great deal of ambiguity, conflicts between one rule and another, situations in which it is not obvious which rule we should follow.


So is the Bible a collection of absolute laws and rule from which we stray at our peril? Or does the Bible offer us a set of general principles that guide us and shape our ability to make ethical decisions but don't establish a rule for every situation that we may face?


Many of us were raised to believe that religion is mostly about rules. We may have been brought up in churches where smoking, drinking, card playing, movie-going, TV-watching, make-up wearing, and dancing were not only suspect but thought to be the work of the devil. We were told that Christians must adhere to a higher standard. It was confusing, because the Old Testament clearly speaks of dancing; David danced before the ark of the covenant. Jesus drank wine, and Paul urged Timothy to drink a little wine to settle his stomach. I know some conservative Christians who were raised to believe told that Jesus and Paul drank only nonalcoholic wine. Oh, really?? So, of course, we couldn’t wait to get to college or out on our own so we could do exactly those things that we had been forbidden to do at home.


So, how are we to live our lives before God? What is responsible Christian behavior? What is the ethical standard for Christians? Is the Christian life a matter of absolute rules harshly applied? Or is the Christian life a matter of the freedom about which Paul writes in today's reading from Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit to a yoke of slavery."


Sometimes the set of rules which we were taught as children are inadequate; they conflict with other sets of rules. What do we do when rules conflict?


I was raised to believe in an ethic of rules, and I suspect that most of you were raised in a similar way. Then in young adulthood we began to realize that rules could not cover every situation. We began to experience the tyranny of rules. Many of us adopted a version of situation ethics, although we may not have called it that.


What I want to suggest is that neither an ethic of rules nor an ethic of situations is entirely adequate. What Christianity calls for is something in between.


The stories from I Kings and Luke clearly suggest that rules alone are inadequate. A rule that works today may not work tomorrow. As the hymn, “Once to every man and nation” says, “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth”. That makes the fundamentalists very nervous. How can a rule that held for my parents not hold for me? But the study of history shows that nothing is more certain than that standards change. Two hundred years ago, most Americans were convinced that the Bible sanctioned slavery.


A few days ago the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, a decision that will allow the federal government to recognize and extend benefits to gay and lesbian couples who marry in the District of Columbia or in any of the 13 states that permit same sex marriage.


For many, perhaps for some of you, this decision seems to fly in the face of an eternal rule set down in scripture. Others regard it as a triumph for human rights or as the latest development in our continuing interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence: "... all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."


I cannot agree with those who believe that the Supreme Court's decision runs contrary to the teaching of the Bible. First, there are only  three unambiguous references to homosexuality in the entire Bible. Two are in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, and one is in Paul's letter to the Romans.


In other words, the Bible says very little about homosexuality. It says far more about feeding hungry people, caring for widows and orphans, protecting those who are among us as strangers and exiles, but we get so much more upset about homosexuality than by our failure to care for the poor and vulnerable.


But rather than focus on a few texts, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about how the first century church re-interpreted one particular commandment and what light that might shed on the controversy about same sex marriage.


In today's reading from Galatians, Paul says, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." What is Paul talking about?


Keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, as were all the earliest Christian, including Paul. Probably all the writers of the New Testament were Jews.


When Paul traveled from town to town proclaiming the Christian message, he went first to the synagogues. He won very few converts there, but he converted many non-Jews. Before long, Paul was faced with this dilemma: Did the Jewish law apply to non-Jews? Paul concluded that only the moral precepts of the Old Testament applied to non-Jews, not the ceremonial rules. In other words, non-Jews need not be circumcised.


Many disagreed with Paul and taught otherwise. The letter to the Galatians was addressed to a church that was mostly non-Jewish. Someone had gone there and contradicted Paul and taught them that even non-Jews needed to be circumcised. Paul was outraged. His letter to the Galatians is by far his angriest letter. "O foolish Galatians," he wrote. "Who has bewitched you?"


Paul, of course, was right. His decision not to require non-Jews to submit to circumcision allowed the Christian faith to become a worldwide religion. But it raises for us this question: Where do we draw the line between the Old Testament's moral law and its ceremonial law?


It seems obvious to us today that the rule about circumcision is very different from the rules about murder or adultery or telling the truth. But in the first century setting aside the rule about circumcision caused a bitter controversy.


Throughout the centuries, Christians have drawn the line between the moral law and the ceremonial law in different places. Or to put it another way, where is the line between those rules that are products of their culture and time and place and those rules that are eternal and binding?


Another rule about which Christians have sometimes argued fiercely is the rule about usury or loaning money at interest. Leviticus 25.36-37 says, " ...if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you.  Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you.  You shall not lend him your money at interest."


That seems at least as clear as the statements in Leviticus 18 and 20 forbidding homosexual behavior but has not caused nearly as much controversy. I wonder why??


The medieval Catholic church made loaning money at interest an offense that could be punished by excommunication. It wasn't until about the time of the Reformation that the principle of loaning money at interest was accepted, but that involved setting aside the clear statement of the Bible. In other words, Christians re-drew the line between the Bible's eternal ethical principles and its culturally conditioned statements.


Think also of what the Bible says about slavery. The Old Testament orders the people of Israel to be kind to their slaves but accepts slavery as a part of life. Paul urged slaves to obey their masters.


Or think of what the Bible says about women. The Ten Commandments reflect a worldview that understood wives to be the property of their husbands.


Today many believe that it is time to re-draw that line once again and to move the small handful of statements that the Bible makes about homosexuality from the category of eternal ethical truths and put them in the box with the rules about loaning money at interest, buying and selling slaves, regarding wives as the property of their husbands, and other culturally conditioned statements.


Paul draws the line between what he calls "the works of the flesh," and  "the fruit of the Spirit", that is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," against which he says "there is no law." In other words, a relationship characterized by "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness" and so on can only be a product of the Spirit.


So, back to the question I asked earlier, How are we to live our lives before God? What is there to guide us in ethically ambiguous situations?


During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was aided by a young scholar, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon was terrified that he was going to commit a sin and go to hell. One day, in exasperation, Luther said to Melanchthon. “Philip, sin boldly! But love God more boldly still.”


Fred Craddock, professor of preaching at Emory, tells this story about his boyhood. When he was a youngster, he lived on a farm, and his family had one old cow that would get out through the fence and run off. And it invariably ran off to the town cemetery. Fred’s job was to go into the cemetery to retrieve the family cow, and he was afraid of the cemetery. “Mama,” he would say, “I don’t want to go get the cow”. “Go get the cow”. “But I have to go through the graveyard.” “That’s all right, it won’t bother you, go get the cow”. “But what if I step on a grave?” “Well,” Mrs. Craddock would say, “I’ll tell you what; when you go through

the cemetery just take big steps. That’s the best we can do”.

In the end, that may be the best thing to say about how we should live as Christians. Take big steps. In Martin Luther’s words, “Sin boldly, but love God more boldly still”. Take risks. Fall down. Pick yourself up again. That’s the best we can do.