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14. Sunday after Pentecost, 09/02/2012

Sermon on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8, by Frank C. Senn


Here where we live on the north shore above Chicago we kind of begin the school and cultural year with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth. The school year hardly gets underway when there are all kinds of holidays giving the kids days off because the Jewish families are all observing their High Holy Days. Our Jewish neighbors, who may not seem particularly observant the rest of the year, suddenly become quite observant, especially during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews believe God is judging us for our behavior over the past year. We are reminded that the God of Israel judges not just our outward behavior but also "the inward thoughts of the heart."

Now as it happens, today's First Lesson is the beginning of the Jewish Catechism known as the Book of Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, which enjoins on the people of Israel not just a hearing of the law given to Moses but a strict observance of it as they live in the land of promise. They are not to add anything to or take anything away from what has been commanded by the Lord. Remember, however, that we are hearing this as Christians, as followers of Jesus, who tells his disciples and us in today's Gospel that "it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come," not from violating outward ritual observances.

It happens, once in a while, that there seem to be some outright contradictions between our readings. In our Gospel reading Jesus seems to justify a cavalier attitude toward observing the Law of Moses, concerning which Deuteronomy said "You must neither add anything to it nor take away anything from it." Thus there seems to be a contradiction between the outward religion taught in Deuteronomy and the inner religion taught by Jesus. If we believe that there is a fundamental unity to Scripture because we are dealing with one God and one saving story from beginning to end, then we simply have to dig harder make sense of the relationships between these texts. So let us dig.

First of all, Jesus is not cavalier toward the Law. In fact, he accuses the Pharisees and scribes of abandoning the commandment of God. There was some disagree about observing the Law at the time of Jesus. What the Pharisees were advocating was an extension of the laws of ritual purity that applied to the tabernacle or Temple-like hand washing before meals-into everyday life. Jesus was saying that in their concern to observe all the details the Pharisees were ignoring the true tradition in favor of human traditions. When he criticized the legalism he saw as rampant in the Judaism of his day, he is carrying on the message of the classical prophets. He himself makes reference to Isaiah to highlight the contrast between the service of the heart and the service of the lips.

Psalm 15 puts this into a cultic setting: only the people who do "what is right, who speak the truth from the heart," may enter the tabernacle and come into the presence of God. It would be a mistake to present Jesus as simply opposed to the traditions of the Jews. The Gospels tell us that Jesus supported the Law of Moses. What he did not support was absolutizing human traditions so that we think that when we have observed them we have done what God wants. Just observing the rituals can be used to hide the moral lapses in our own lives.

We today don't rigorously observe "the traditions of the elders." We're usually surprised to find people (like our Jewish neighbors) who do observe these traditions as best as they are able. But we have moral codes of our own devising by which we live. We measure ourselves by these values of our own choosing and then judge ourselves sinless. I doubt that any of us see anything in ourselves that is deserves eternal estrangement from God or would cause someone to die on a cross for us. People who shoot folks in a movie theater or in a Sikh temple are the evildoers, not us. People who molest children or sell drugs to kids on the street are the real sinners, not us!

But Jesus hints at a compelling truth: no one will ever embrace the new life under God's reign while holding on to things that defile a person. He lists some of them: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. That's quite an inclusive list, and Jesus doesn't rank these vices. We are spiritually dead at the precise moment we think that we're not so bad after all.

There's one easy way to take our moral pulse. Jesus said that the commandments of God are summed up by one measuring line: do we love God with our whole heart, mind, strength and soul? (He got that straight out of Deuteronomy, which says nothing should be added to or subtracted from the Law of God.) If we do love the Lord in this all-embracing sense advocated by Deuteronomy and endorsed by Jesus, why do we have such trouble taking time to study God's Word? Only a few generations ago there were often more people attending Sunday School classes than worship services in Protestant churches. Today only a minuscule portion of church members participate in adult Christian education. Do we love our neighbor as ourself? (That's not original from Jesus either; he got it from Leviticus.) If so, how come we continue to hear mean-spirited comments about the poor or illegal aliens in what is supposed to be in actuality, if not officially, a religious nation

The Letter of James reminds us that our internal values should have outward consequences. We recall that Martin Luther once called James "an epistle of straw" in comparison with the epistles of Paul. We should lay that to rest once and for all. Luther was comparing this practical letter with the theological grandeur of Romans. But he didn't throw James out of the New Testament canon. The Epistle of James is anchored in the teachings of Israel's prophets and in the teachings of Jesus. I would like to highlight two interests expressed in the Epistle of James.

First, James is concerned about the consequences of unchecked speech. While sins of speech are prominent in the Bible-far more prominent than the sexual sins that preoccupy our Churches-they are especially a concern for James. That's because he's concerned about the enduring life together of the community of Jesus. We vainly imagine that while sticks and stones may break our bones, "words can never hurt us." James is aware of the real damage conversation can do when it systematically denigrates and excludes, belittles and drives away, our brothers and sisters.

One of the things that really demoralizes a community is constant complaining. I think our society as a whole has become super-critical. It seems that we are increasingly focused on ourselves and nothing satisfies us. This plays itself out also in family life and in social groups like congregations. Why are so many congregations in conflict that the bishop has to spend all of his time putting out brush fires? It's something we need to be careful about, because constant criticism is demoralizing. None of our congregations can afford to be demoralized in their life and mission.

Secondly, just as Jesus' words in the Gospel focus attention on what "comes out" of us as the true measure of "purity," so James is concerned that "hearing" find expression in "doing." True religion, he says, is manifested in concern for others. He mentions the care of widows and orphans, which reflects a distinctly Jewish concern. It was counter-cultural because in the Greco-Roman world, orphans could end up as fodder for the slave markets and widows suffered the stripping of any privilege and status their husbands might have enjoyed. We don't have the same concerns today, but we do have members of the congregation who are in need of care-sometimes hard-nosed care. And the needs on the streets haven't diminished either.

Having said all this, I wouldn't want us to think that there's no value in rituals or traditional practices. After all, you're here at worship today because you think there is value in rituals and traditions. We know that Jesus was not simply and clearly dismissive of them, because the Church debated them for a generation after his ascension, and if he had been unambiguously dismissive of them, there would have been nothing to debate. But washing your hands was never meant to be something that made you pure in the eyes of God. It was a traditional practice that was both good hygiene and a reminder to pray for the cleansing of your heart that you might love more purely.

Our life together before God is intended to work the same way. If we start getting legalistic about it and watching one another to see who is falling short, that will defile our hearts and extinguish the spark of love. But if we can see our life together as a set of practices which are lived in the spirit of what the Apostle James called "the law of liberty", and which are embraced with the hope that they will fuel the fire in our hearts, then we may be set free to be led deeper into the intimate communion into which God would woo us. Amen.


Pastor Frank C. Senn
Evanston, IL 60201
E-Mail: fcsenn@sbcglobal.net