God Restores, We Witness
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
28 September 2008
As I've watched the financial news the last two weeks, like everyone else I have been surprised by how many titans of the financial industry have collapsed. Like everyone else, I have been caught up in the speculation about the future of our economy. The national debt has doubled. And now the political leadership debates a $700 billion bailout package. We listen to the news and think about 1929 all over again.
But this week I read something which excited my imagine, filled me with courage, and renewed my hope. Oddly enough it was in Time magazine. In this week's Time Andy Serwer and Allan Sloan wrote an article about the nation's current financial crisis, entitled "The Price of Greed." They went into detail about all the problems and how we had gotten to this point. Then, they concluded the article this way:
Coping in this new world will require adjustments by millions of Americans. We all will have to start living within our means – or preferably below them. If you don't overborrow or overspend, you're far less vulnerable to whatever problems the financial system may have.
Why that conclusion excited me is because it told me something I already knew. Something I had learned from the Christian story. We Christians already knew this simple, economic wisdom. And it was this prior knowledge which renewed me hope.
John Dominic Crossan wrote that Jesus commissions his followers to take his message into the homes of peasants, proclaiming a radical new form of community as symbolized by the shared table -- the shared table which we re-enact every Sunday in our celebration of communion. The theological point of this communion practice is a community "based on an egalitarian sharing of spiritual and material power at the most grass-roots level." Sharing the table creates a community of witness. And that community of witness demonstrates to the larger society that life can be lived differently than the status quo.
We Christians live counter-culturally, spending our money differently than society tempts us to, because scripture invites us to share a portion of our property and income investing in hope and the kingdom of God. The Christian practice of tithing helps us to set priorities and make choices. As such we are less vulnerable to the winds of the economic system. We have commited part of ourselves to opting out of the economic system, because we realize that no matter how good it may be, every economic system exploits and oppresses. We aren't separatists, trying to completely escape the economic system. But with the priorities we set, the choices we make, and the commitments we observe, we witness for hope and the reign of God.
This week, then, we have a vivid reminder that the laws of God exist for our own salvation. These aren't arbitrary rules. Rather, they are invitations into a relationship which will draw us closer to each other and closer to God.
One of my best friends in high school was Rudy Will. Rudy was an artist with great intellectual curiosity. His family life was not ideal. His parents had divorced. His mother was not around and his father married another woman and moved into her home, leaving Rudy basically alone as a teenager.
There got to be something of a routine at our house. At least once a week, around 5 p.m., the doorbell would ring and it would be Rudy. We would then hang out in the den playing pool or watching tv and Mom would come in and ask Rudy if he wanted to stay for dinner. He always tried to get out of it, but Mom would always insist, and he would stay and eat with us.
Mom knew it was an act. She knew that he was coming over for dinner because he didn't have anyone to fix dinner for him. But she never let on like she knew. Each time she went through the same routine of insisting that he stay, like it was her idea. Mom even started planning ahead for an extra person to feed.
A few months after I went off to college, Mom told me one day that she had prepared herself for my leaving home, but what she had not planned for was how empty the house was because none of my friends were dropping by like they always had. And she especially missed Rudy, who had become such a fixture in our house.
Rudy was Lutheran, and despite his family situation, he had continued to be a faithful member of the local church throughout high school. So, I understood the significance of the gift that Rudy gave me. It was his personal copy of Martin Luther's Small Catechism. It has Rudy's name engraved on the front cover. It was the copy which Rudy had used during his confirmation; it even includes his handwritten notes.
I pulled out that catechism this week and thought of Rudy. He had become a part of my family, a relationship built upon the practice of hospitality, of sharing with someone else. And what surprised my mother was how much Rudy's presence had blessed her. She thought she was doing the blessing, and it was only when he was no longer around that she realized how much his presence had meant to her.
In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther realized that it was not enough to simply re-train the pastors and teachers. It was important to educate the congregations. He was particularly concerned with the education of children. So, the Lutherans were the first to develop an extensive literature of Christian education materials for children. Luther's own contribution was the Small Catechism. He wrote it not only for use in the church, but for use in the home. At least once a week, fathers were supposed to check up on their children's spiritual formation by asking them the questions contained in the catechism.
The catechism opens with the Ten Commandments. After each commandment is read, Luther asks, "What is this?" and writes the sort of answer that one should give in response. For example:
The Fifth Commandment. Do not murder. What is this? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.
There are two elements of Luther's answer which I think are significant to point out. The first is that obedience to the commandment is always rooted in the fear and love of God. This line is found in Luther's explanation of each of the ten commandments.
The second significant feature is how Luther expands the negative commandment into a positive practice. Not only are we not to murder, we are also supposed to "help and befriend [our neighbor] in every bodily need." Luther doesn't just see a list of things we aren't supposed to do, he goes behind that list to discover the things which we ought to do.
Not committing adultery becomes loving and honoring your spouse. Not stealing becomes helping your neighbor to improve and protect his property and business. Not bearing false witness is expanded to defending your neighbor, speaking well of him, putting the best construction on everything. Not coveting your neighbor's property becomes helping and being of service to him in keeping it.
For Martin Luther, then, it is not enough to simply not lie about your neighbor. That might be a literal reading of the commandment, but if a person fears and loves God they will go beyond the negative to the positive and will actively work to speak well of their neighbor. In fact, according to Luther, you should always "put the best construction on everything." That's quite a command!
Luther understood something of fundamental importance about the ten commandments. They aren't just a list of arbitrary rules; they actually exist for a purpose. What is that purpose?
Well, let's step back and ask a wider question. Why has God liberated the Israelites? Yahweh heard their cry and knew their pain. Yahweh then came down so that they might be brought up. Yahweh called Moses to be the prophet and leader of the people. Then, with a show of great power, God defeated the Egyptians and led the people out of Egypt, parting the sea so that they might cross over in safety. Why go to all that trouble?
God's purpose was to restore creation. We've been following this theme throughout Exodus. It connects us back to the book of Genesis where the characters were pursuing blessing and more life. Pharaoh was a threat to God's creation. And so we have a contest between the forces of chaos and the forces of creation. God has won, and now creation can be restored.
How is God going to restore creation? By the formation of a new people. The Israelites are to be God's agents in bringing the world back to what God intended the world to be. But how are the Israelites going to do that?
They will do it by living differently than other people, and in their living differently they will bear witness to God's will.
The 613 laws that God gives them, of which these are only ten, are intended to shape them into a new people who will change the world. The purpose of the law, then, isn't just to create some rules for everyone to follow. The purpose of the law is salvation.
That salvation will come through relationships -- the relationships that the people have with one another and the relationships that they have with God. God will be part of this community, their partner and companion.
The Ten Commandments, then, reveal what practices are necessary to create the sort of relationships that will restore the world. Martin Luther gets this. Not murdering is only a starting point. If we love God, then we will go beyond that to befriend our neighbor and help him with all his bodily needs. And, as my mother learned, her hospitality and generosity built a relationship with Rudy that blessed her.
It is a mistake when we use the ten commandments as a set of rules to beat people up and make them feel guilty. The purpose of these commandments is to challenge us to live as companions with God and one another. The commandments are an invitation to a relationship.
But a relationship with an adventurous purpose – to change the world.
Our community here at the Cathedral of Hope --Oklahoma City is different from the rest of the world out there. Our presence here is a witness that the world can be a different than it is currently is. The world truly can be a place of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.
Three years ago, the last time this text appeared in the lectionary readings, I explored the queer elements of the Exodus. I concluded with this personal reflection:
I think we in the larger gay community are on to something. I think we have an advantage in a church like the Cathedral of Hope. When I told my therapist in Dallas that I was moving and taking this job, he was quite excited. He is himself an active churchman and former minister. He said that we as a church get to start where so many other churches are working toward. We start with the assumption that everyone is welcome exactly as they are. He was right. So many churches have to spend their energy just to get to that point. We believe it to be the starting point. That's our advantage, because we get to build from there.
So, tonight, may this Exodus story, which tells God's story, also become our story. May it give us an identity. May it give us the courage to face the Pharaohs in our lives. May it set us free both from the forces of chaos which would enslave us. And may we continue to live in a radically different way both for our own liberation and for the liberation of the rest of the world.