Monday, June 14, 2010

Sunday Sermon

June 13, 2010

The Second Sunday after Trinity

Intent: God as Light

The alarm clock failed. The dog threw up. The kids couldn't find their shoes. Finally, you're out the door, armed with a cinnamon latte in the travel mug and the car phone on speaker. Meeting begins in 30 minutes? Commute takes 40 minutes? Speed limit remains 70? No problem.

Hang a left to glide casually into the "Carpool" lane set aside for cars with two or more passengers. You hope that nobody will notice that it's just you and the radio. Accelerate to about 80. Gotta love these commuter lanes! Even if the law's out in full force, the price of a ticket is worth every dime. Sixty bucks for shaving 15 minutes off the clock? A great deal, especially considering the half-dozen times nobody caught you. A cost-effective no-brainer.

In our time-crunched, multitasking world, drivers who are ordinarily law-abiding citizens are increasingly disregarding the rules of the road. Speeding tickets and Carpool violations have basically become the cost of doing business. The same people who would argue that shoplifting a roll of Life Savers is a crime will slide through red lights and roll through stop signs without the slightest pang of civic-minded guilt. Gotta keep moving. Can't spare a minute.

The consequence for a don't-have-time-to-follow-the-rules-of-the-road culture is an occasional ticket. So what? Society has come to regard ticketed drivers not as criminals but as victims of overzealous law enforcement. After all, troopers do have a quota of tickets they have to give!

Need to double-park to pick up a quick package? Scoot into a handicapped spot to drop off a colleague? Nothing personal. Just a time-saving tactic. And who can argue with saving time?

Jesus grew up in a culture with more legal codes to throw at people than a state trooper waiting for an out-of-state city slicker on a rural back road. Flip through the pages of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for a colorful sample of infractions. Often, the most serious offenses demanded the most serious penalties.

Many of the Jews of Jesus' day were serious Jews who took their lives and their law seriously. Then along comes Jesus, who plucked grain on the Sabbath and consorted with an array of unclean people from lepers to bleeding women. And he did it without remorse, to the utter infuriation of first-century law enforcement officials.

Jesus himself refrained from imposing the stiff penalties of the law upon others, choosing instead to pass out warning tickets with a grace so foreign to the culture that people staggered away from his presence with a mixture of bewildered relief and evangelical zeal. Once he even charged a law-abiding citizen to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus let the sinners go with a word of encouragement, but challenged those who followed all the rules to make a dramatic detour.

In ancient Judaism, there were many laws and holiness codes written by Moses and the prophets that are recorded in the first five books of our Bible. What you can and cannot eat and when; what can or cannot wear and when, etc. Most of us know what I am speaking of. One wonders if these laws and rules were not simply designed as a method of “world order” as opposed to things that God really demanded. The Ten Commandments, appear to have the bigger relevance as we see later from Jesus. He frequently challenged the people of that time who would quote these laws and codes to him.

All of which brings us to a few observations: The church has a history of being legalistic. We enjoy the idea that there's some sort of litmus test for Christian spirituality. A moral or political line is drawn in the sand; step over it and you've stepped out of communion with the ChristBody. We do, after all, need some rules, lest we have chaos.

Unfortunately, these notions change over the years. Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy, and, this being true, we tend to trivialize sin. For starters, we don't call it sin; we prefer, instead, to call them mistakes, shortcomings and failures. We regard ourselves as morally challenged, perhaps, but not sinners. Mistakes were made, but nothing that can't be fixed - by us.

The trivialization of sin results in a meaningless - or absence of - confession of sin. No point in confessing what we not only consider venial and unimportant, but scarcely sin anyway. Granted, we may read a printed prayer in unison as a part of the liturgy, but we're not likely to wrestle much with the spirit-crushing, soul-wrenching reality of our sin. We simply do not want to hear or discus sin. We would rather take a swig of castor oil!

Of course, the functional equivalent of the confessor today is our therapist who is likely to blame the mess we've made of things on some dysfunction or as-yet-unnamed syndrome. We prefer the jargon of psychobabble or medical language because it sounds reassuringly guilt-free. We rely on the latest pharmaceutical product because popping a pill is an easier fix than plodding through penance, or even popping a prayer.

By now we've learned that it's not sin at all: it's a hereditary predisposition, a chemical imbalance or temporary insanity.

Then the apostle Paul weighs in. He seems to lend some weight to the antinomian argument: "No one will be justified by the works of the law". If following the rules of the road will not get us to our destination, then why bother at all? Paul, of course, is writing to Gentiles who were - from a Jewish standpoint - natural-born sinners, and to Jews who prided themselves on their connections: The rules of the road would save them. Or so they thought.

Paul, however, sees us as humans in need of salvation, and in this text he talks about transcending our humanness through Christ Jesus. Life is not merely a journey simply traveled by obeying the obvious rules of the road. Life is meant to showcase the grace of Christ to a world filled with people who are terrified of detours, people abandoned on the side of the road, people who have been dented and crushed by repeated hits, people sputtering along with very little fuel left to keep them moving forward. Maybe our business is something more than getting ahead. Maybe our business involves something higher. Maybe we are called to help others along their journey too, in the great hope that we will all end up in the presence of the living God.

The cost of doing business in our 21st century world involves making daily decisions which have us choosing between the legal and the illegal, the ethical and the unethical, the graceful and the sinful. Paul's point is that from the standpoint of the law, we try to see what we can get away with. But from the standpoint of grace, we try to see what we can give away. In the first case, we function out of an ethic of duty and obligation; in the second, we work out of an ethic of love.

Where does the power for this rule less living come from? It comes from our total identification with Christ in his suffering. "I have been crucified with Christ," Paul writes, "and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me."

This life is a life of faith, he goes on to explain. Faith renders the breaking of petty laws, and pursuing petty and self-serving agendas unnecessary. In other words, the cost of doing business has changed. We need to turn on a light, if you will.

The Hawthorne Effect was named after a socioeconomic experiment done in 1927 among workers in the Hawthorne Works Factory of Western Electric Company. Up until this experiment, it was thought that only wages and working conditions had direct bearing on work performance and output. This famous experiment proved that increasing the lighting improved work performance. The business world responded with one voice, "We need better lighting!" Sometimes we need God to enlighten us or to enlighten our way. Sometimes we need something or someone to simply make old things appear new, or if not appear new, to fashion in a new light.

Today, we see Jesus dining with a Pharisee, and the story makes it clear that his host had not provided the usual gestures of hospitality. A sinful woman in the city, seemingly without permission and with no fear of recrimination, prepares well to approach Jesus, for she brings a flask of ointment. But she brings no water or soap or towel. One clear purpose of her visit, to anointed Jesus, apparently leads to an unplanned response when she actually encounters Jesus; she is moved to tears and bathes his feet with her tears and wiped his feet cry with her hair, a most humble of an act.

The Pharisee responds with indignation. But was he concerned about the woman, or simply embarrassed because she provided what he neglected to provide - cleansing water, a welcoming kiss, or a reverent anointing revealing regard for the dignity of another? Contrary to what the Pharisee was thinking, Jesus was a most profound prophet, for he was able to see into the woman’s heart and forgive her. He looks into the heart of the Pharisee, and sees there is a lack of love. The deeper issue of true hospitality this incident raises is how we see others, as we encounter them, and respond to their needs with care.

Jesus asks, do you see this woman? The Pharisee looks at her and sees only a sinner. Jesus looks at her and sees a sinner who repents. He sees her tremendous humility her great sorrow, her desire to minister to him in his need, her great love, her saving faith. The woman sees Jesus as one whom she can love and who loves her in return. This relationship brings her salvation and peace. Jesus is able to do for the sinful woman what he might have done for the Pharisee, who needed only to truly encounter Jesus for who he is.

While the woman and her actions seem to be the centerpiece of this gospel, what is really central is openness to others, accepting them for who they are, and seeing rightly into our own hearts before we judge the heart of another. Jesus is the model for seeing rightly.

So, one would wonder at this point if I am advocating having rules or not. Yes, I am. As I said earlier, rules were meant more as a protection of world order, not as a method of ordering ourselves in line with God. Yes, some were set up as a design that God wanted, (such as the Commandments) but some of it humans dreamed up as something God wanted. Jesus simply wants us to search through our conduct and determine if we harm ourselves, others or God. If so, then the law has relevance. We have heard Jesus speak that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. However, we also saw how when he was challenged on some of his acts and teachings that seemed to be in violation of some of the laws of Judaism, he also made it clear that the law was being read too literally. Picking the grains of wheat on the Sabbath as an example.

Much of these laws and codes were written to help us be better humans toward one another and as guidelines on what God desired from us toward him. We all know that we could go to the Bible today and write down every law, rule or code listed and find that we do not even remotely follow them anymore. Caucasian Americans, as example, have no problem eating pork and doing so on any day of the week, yet many Jewish people still will not.

By taking Jesus’ example, we realize that not all of these laws have relevance at all times. God is not so imperialistic that he is going to send a bolt of lightning down on anyone who is not adhering to any of these codes 100% of their lives. He is more concerned with how we lead our lives in relationship to one another. If what we do or say will harm ourselves, others or God, then we have something wrong. However, if a grown man, say, wants to wear a “Toto” in his home privately with no one else around, has he broken the dress code? Now if he did so with say a minor in the room, I’d say we had a serious problem, and I am many of you would agree. Maybe we are simply splitting hairs, and to what end?

As always, Jesus has a way of taking our notions of right and wrong and turning them upside down, forcing ourselves to look at the situation or ourselves from a whole new light. We all have weaknesses and faults. We all make errors, and when we get right down to it, we should all see how undeserving we are of God’s love. Yet, through it all, I know God does love me and all of you too. God looks at our heart and intentions behind the actions, not just the actions themselves.

Let me leave you with some words from Summa Theologiae, of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Because of the diverse conditions of humans, it happens that some acts are virtuous to some people, as appropriate and suitable to them, while the same acts are immoral for others, as inappropriate to them.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.