Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prope 25A October 23, 2011

     Shema. Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonia ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

     Every pious Jew recites this verse morning and evening. Rabbinical tradition says the Shema in the morning as soon as there is enough light to distinguish colors and before 3 hours after sunrise, and in the evening after sunset or as soon as three stars can be seen. The Shema is the core of the synagogue service where it continues from Deuteronomy 6:5-9, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he was looking for some unusual response to show that Jesus was a kook. But Jesus responded with the answer he had been reciting morning and evening all his life. 

The Shema is so central to Jewish identity that because during the Nazi holocaust many Christian individuals and institutions took in Jewish children to save them but couldn’t raise them as Jews. After the war an American rabbi went to Europe to look for these children. He would go to a group, sing the Shema, and look for a response from those whose earliest memories were of their mother singing at bedtime and in the morning.

A Jewish revolt resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and in another revolt in 132 AD the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death. One early evening they took a large iron comb and began to scrape off his flesh. As the sun set he began to sing the Shema. As his students looked on in horror, Rabbi Akiva told them, “All my life I never was able to fulfill the commandment to 'love God with all your soul’ until now." He extended the last word until he died. (Brochot 61a)”

To this central affirmation of faith Jesus adds from Leviticus 19:18 “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Hillel was the spiritual leader of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ birth. Jewish college student associations bear his name today. Hillel was famous for pithy teachings, one of which quotes this verse. The lawyer came looking for some strange teaching he could use to condemn Jesus, and Jesus responds from the core of the biblical and rabbinic tradition. “Love God; love your neighbor.” Five words, the essentials of spiritual and moral life.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

            Just before 400 AD in north Africa Augustine wrote, God, “you have made us 
for yourself and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.” In the early 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote , (Pensees 10:148), “Man’s . . . infinite abyss can be filled only . . . by God himself.”  We all seek an experiential experience of the living God, and we find God, and God finds us, as we love God and love our neighbors.

          It is simple, but not easy. The search for God is difficult. God’s search for us cost Jesus his life, in a painful death on the cross. Our search for God, and God’s search for us, requires truth and effort. As the early 20th century English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  Chesterton also wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
            The lawyer knew intellectually the truth of Jesus’ responses, but intellectual 
knowledge had not become action. We know this from the lawyer’s motives. He did not ask. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” because he wanted to know, but because he wanted to test Jesus, to try to discredit him. He was a hypocrite. So are we. We can talk the talk, but we find it difficult to want to walk the walk. When we confess our sins we confess our hypocrisy.

            And we are forgiven. We are forgiven sinners, forgiven the sins of the past so 
we may try again, guided by the Holy Spirit of truth and power to love God and neighbor. Thanks be to God!

            Jesus has been answering questions all week. Now he turns to the Pharisees, the 
religious leaders, and confounds them with a question about the Messiah, quoting from Psalm 110. Everyone, Pharisees and common people alike, looked forward to the coming of a Messiah, an anointed one, who would begin in Israel a time of political freedom and economic justice. They expected a “son of David” a successor to Israel’s great king in the past, David who had written the Psalms. Jesus tells the Pharisees that their understanding of the Messiah is too small. God is doing a new thing. The Messiah is not only Israel’s Messiah but the Anointed One for all people everywhere and in all times. He is the Son of David, yes, and also the son of the Most High, the Son of God whom they proclaimed morning and night.

          “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” The leaders of his people had shown the truth and the spiritual power of Jesus, and they had decided that he was a sufficient threat to their rule that they had to remove him by death. They began a plot to accuse him falsely of fomenting rebellion, to accuse him to the Roman government and to execute him. And they did, and God raised him on the third day, and of that we are witnesses.

    Shema, Israel, Adonai elohenu, Adonia ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Proper 24A October 16, 2011

          Today’s Gospel requires some explanation. In Jesus time Jerusalem and Judea were under direct Roman military occupation and had been so for the last 25 years after Roman emperor Augustus deposed King Archaleus (in 6 AD) as incompetent. Archaleus was a son of Herod the Great. His brothers continued to rule in Galilee, Syria and Jordan. The Romans feared a popular rebellion, and Jesus’ opponents tried to trap him into advocating such a political rebellion. The Pharisees and Herodians came with flattery. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” They thought they were lying, but in fact they told the truth. Jesus is truth. We can rely on Jesus to teach the truth and to be the truth. And when we do Jesus’ will we do Jesus’ truth.

When they ask Jesus the trick question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” his response is, “Show me the money.”  And they do. Roman coins had the face of the emperor and an inscription that he was divine. To bring the images of false gods into the Temple was an offence against the Law of God. The Temple head tax was paid in old money with no face and no inscription, money from the old days of independence bought from the money changers who had set up shop in the Temple. The man who brought the Roman coin into the Temple was violating his own interpretation of the law. He was a hypocrite. And it was the hypocrites who said, in their hypocrisy, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Jesus’ true teaching is, “Show me the money.” If we use the Roman money we obey the Roman law, and pay the Roman tax. If we enjoy the benefits of the social order we fulfill our responsibilities to the social order. That is the short answer and the easier answer.

But Jesus went on, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” In the King James version, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

That is harder, and we’ve been working on it for over 2000 years. The eternal God  made us all, and all the world. He is the final source and ruler of everything that is. In the last day we will all face his just and final judgment. In the mean time we are guided in our lives by his revealed word written in the Bible, by the life and teaching of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son Jesus our Lord, and by his Holy Spirit of truth and power.

And in the mean time we live among the present powers of the physical world. History tells us that the powers of this present world continually seek to control more and more of the world. The powers of this world exercise temporary and limited human judgment. The judgment and the power of God are eternal, just, and final.  The Christian task is to seek to discern the will of God by the grace of the spirit of truth and to do the will of God by the grace of the spirit of power.

The Christian church, as an institution in time and space, has a very mixed record in discerning and doing the will of God, particularly in its relationship with the present powers of the physical world. Some times the church has stood on the teachings of the word of God written and rightly proclaimed God’s judgment on particular actions of civil government. Some times the church has failed to live up to the biblical standards even in its own internal life and has failed to witness to truth. And some times churches have allied themselves with unjust civil government and in doing evil have taken the name of God in vain.

But by God’s grace we are forgiven sinners. When we confess our sins and hypocrisies God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and renew our minds and wills by his Holy Spirit so we can begin again to seek to know and do his will.

God is creator and eternal just judge. God is first and only. Human institutions are second and many. The early church obeyed the laws of the Roman empire but always judged human law by the law of God. Christians refused to acknowledge the Roman emperor as divine. In times of persecution they were brought into court where there was a little charcoal fire burning under a bust of the god-emperor. “Just throw a pinch of tree sap incense on the fire and we’ll let you go.” And thousands refused and died horrible deaths in the arenas, torn alive by the wild animals. We honor the sacrifice of these martyrs.

There are limits to what the state can require. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s Christians resisted the power of Nazi Germany. From the 1920’s for 70 years Christians resisted the power of Communist regimes. In our own time Christians resist the power of the state in China, India, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and other places. More Christians have suffered martyrdom in the past century than in all previous centuries combined.

We are fortunate in a Constitution that forbids government from establishing any religion ‘or prohibiting free exercise thereof.” For most of American history we have had an official or unofficial establishment of biblical religion. In our time courts and society are taking seriously the establishment clause. Some of us educated before the early 1960’s remember prayers read in school. The present rule seems to be that voluntary activities may include prayer; where attendance is compulsory public prayer may not be said.

As Christians and as citizens we recognize God as creator and eternal just judge. God is first and only. Human institutions are second and many. As we participate in them we seek to recognize how God is at work in and through them and to look for the opportunities to know and to do God’s will, following our Lord Jesus Christ. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” As with Jesus, so with us, who are members of his body, fed on his body and blood, to show forth his glory in the world he has redeemed. Amen.