Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Something Greater Than the Temple.

Matthew 12:1-14
Chapel Sermon 10.19.11

Can you cite Scripture chapter and verse?  I can’t. I know people who can – I know a Baptist preacher cum doctoral candidate, my dyed in the wool Methodist grandparents, but mostly the people I know who can quote Scripture chapter and verse are fundamentalist Christians.  And mostly they quote it to me to tell support positions that I believe are wrong.
They may say “a divorced woman should never marry again” quoting Leviticus. They may say tell me that they don’t have to make charitable donations, quoting Ecclesiastes, and they may quote Exodus when telling me that women are the weaker sex. And I will answer that I believe those sentiments to be wrong, but I cannot say they are not Scriptural. Irritating as it may be, the truth is the Scripture does say those things. I just don’t think it means them.
The interesting thing is, when my Fundamentalist friends quote chapter and verse to me-this is called “proof texting’-they are taking the verses out of context.  My friends are using the words without any frame of reference to original intent and using them to support whatever position my friends want to take. What they are not doing is looking at the context: at the conditions under which the words were spoken. 
My friend Kevin works all day on elaborate data collection programs. They run on giant massive programs and they crunch numbers in equations that would take months if they were done by hand. But sometimes an equation is too big or too elaborate or flawed in some way and he has to stop the computer from crunching away forever on it.  In this care, he decides to end all the calculations and to shut down all the programs.  He says to his assistant, and I have heard him say this, “This will never work, kill them all!”  Out of context, this sounds like a pretty frightening statement. In fact, in context it is so innocuous as to be downright boring.
As a rule, when my Fundy friends quote me chapter and verse it is because they are delimiting something.  They have built a wall around righteousness or piety. They have made a little line in the sand and said “inside here is what is right.”  It gives them comfort, it’s easy, they don’t have to think. And when I ask them why, why do they think that, you know what they say?  They say, in one form or another “because the Bible tells me so.”  But that isn’t entirely accurate. The Bible may say it, but in context, reading with your brain engaged and your heart open, that is certainly not what the Bible is trying to tell us. 
In the text we are looking at today, Jesus does not like being hemmed in by imaginary Scriptural boundaries.  The Pharisees, who are Ancient Israel’s answer to modern Fundamentalists, have an idea in their minds of how The Law works and if you are not doing that you are in violation of The Law.  Jesus, tells them to look past the letter of the Law to its intent: “If you had understood what this meant…” he says, you would not have made the mistake.  Not what it said, what it meant.
Jesus teaches us to look past literalism to ethics – ethics from the word Ethos - Greek for character, used to describe the beliefs or ideals that characterize a community. Our ethic is not a law that guides us, it isn’t a more that circumscribes our behavior – our ethic, our ethos if you will – is the nature of our community, what is in our hearts, what invigorates our actions;;; Like the Holy Spirit, our ethos is the wellspring of our motivation and our ethics are the expression of that zeitgeist. Jesus is reminding us here that the single central Christian ethic is love.
In the first story the Apostles are hungry and they forage for food.  The Pharisees say, “harvesting is prohibited on the Sabbath.”  But the Apostles were hungry- they are motivated by need not wantonness- and essential to the celebration of Sabbath is being sure that everyone is fed, that no one goes hungry.  In the second story, Jesus encounters a man with a crippled hand and the Pharisees say, “is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?”  Now it is important to note that they are not asking it if it right – I think there is no doubt that they would not think it was right to let a man suffer on the Sabbath, they would, if they could, cure him – but in doing so they would knowingly violate the Sabbath.  So their question to Jesus – in an attempt to discredit him- is “is it lawful”?  He answers with a rhetorical question I think because he has already answered this question above…
“Something greater than the temple is here…”I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  If you had known this, you might not have made the mistakes you have made.
Jesus here is reaching beyond the letter of the law.  He says elsewhere that he is not come to change the law, that not a jot or tittle will be altered… but neither will He let us continue to adhere to the law without thinking, without feeling.  Jesus asks us here – as he is wont to do – to work for it.  You know God loves you, would a loving God want you to observe Sabbath while your brothers and sisters went hungry?  Would a loving God think it was illegal to heal a brother or sister before your Sabbath celebration?
No, if Jesus of Nazareth is anything, he is a breaker down of walls. The walls of literalism that my fundamentalist friends use to hem in righteousness and delineate piety, Jesus tears down with an ethic of brotherly love. And while observing the Sabbath law maybe mutable – there may be times when you knowingly violate it – the law of Love is inviolable, never suspended, never suspect, never in error. And it is a law that does not build up a wall between men, rather it is a law the breaks down barriers and brings mankind together
And therefore it defines much more than what is righteous… it defines what is right.
Now, before I close today, I just want to point out something that I noticed for the first time when I approached this text to preach on it this week.  This text is, in its own way, very amusing.  You see the Pharisees come to Jesus with righteous indignation and a feverish concern for the preservation of the Sabbath saying: “You should not harvest on the Sabbath!” (and so now we get to kill you) and “It is illegal to heal on the Sabbath”  and yet what does the Scripture end with?  “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, to destroy him.” Feeding the hungry is not appropriate for the Sabbath, healing the disabled is not lawful on the Sabbath but go ahead an conspire to destroy a Rabbi, that’s an okay activity for the Sabbath.
So you see, it is not just our common sense that guides us in the conduct expected of us by our Lord Jesus Christ, it is also our sense of humor.