Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We are the door

Matthew 23: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 5, 2017

95 Theses door, Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany

         500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany there was an earthquake with a magnitude not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire or the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. Foundations of not only the Church but also society and culture shifted and wobbled like tectonic plates. The authority of the Church and its priests fell off their pedestal and landed with a resounding thud. And after a time power was there to pick up the pieces and consolidate once more.

         Retired Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, in his observations of church history, says that every 500 years or so, Christianity conducts an “ecclesiastical yard sale”, deciding what to keep and what to leave on the table. But of course nothing happens in a bubble, and so these rummage sales have wide-ranging effects on society, culture, economics, education, politics, and so on. Christianity is not the only religion in which this has happened; Judaism and Islam have been through their own semi-millennial upheavals. More than anything else it’s a human phenomenon, with a piercing question that must be answered every time: by what authority shall we live?


What if we called it "Emergent Humanity"?

         Tools or technology have aided these rummage sales in positive and negative ways. Martin Luther had the printing press that allowed him to spread his message more effectively. In the reading from Matthew the phylacteries—small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts bound to the forehead and left arm—and robe fringes of the Pharisees were a few of the tools they used to communicate their faithfulness to the law of Moses. But over time they became more like fashion statements, status symbols, the bling by which they could be noticed. For Jesus, they became symbolic of the burdens of obedience the Pharisees heaped on those around them and would not lift a finger to help ease those burdens.


         The Pharisees did well in teaching the law but did not practice what they taught. God demands justice but also mercy; neither is more important than the other--they are to be held side by side. Long ago the prophet Hosea reminded God’s people that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Here Jesus is reminding these Pharisees of the larger view of what it means to teach the law. God’s law is a gift that makes it possible to live in right relationship with God and in community with others. The best instructor God’s people have to learn God’s law is the Messiah—a charismatic leader who knows the law well and will inspire others to follow. Notice that Jesus does not point to himself as that person. If he did it would disqualify him as Messiah. Instead he reminds us that we are all students and servants, himself included, and that our authority, our author if you will, is God.


         In the rummage sale that Jesus led, the law of God was not to be abandoned on the table but dearly kept and carried within us. Indeed it was mercy, the heart of the law, that Jesus desired we follow. What needed to go were all the trappings and titles, the puffing and the propping up of ego, the heavy burdens placed on others, not all that different from the Reformation. Right now we are living through another of these tumultuous ecclesiastical yard sales, another age of questioning authority, what to keep, what to let go of, not knowing which end is up sometimes, and our technology is the internet. But in this time each of us and our life together are the door on which, through which this reformation, this revolution can be seen. We are a door that can also be a table and a bridge: the rummage table and the bridge from what was to what will be.


         Each time we come to this rummage table, mercy is on the table. For those who will lose some of their power and authority, it is tempting to leave mercy there and take justice into their own hands. The thing of it is, mercy is not only on the table, it is the Table, this Table. From mercy comes all the rest: forgiveness, inclusion, compassion, healing, wholeheartedness, resilience, generosity, gratitude, love, even justice. Mercy is what keeps justice from being punitive and instead makes it restorative. As we continue to consider the question by what authority, what author will we live by, what are our non-negotiables, our core values, realizing that they will be different amongst us?

         Mercy is the means by which God, the universe, life itself comes knocking on our door and affixes to it that which we still need to learn. Mercy is what keeps us from normalizing hate and vengeance and softens the self-righteousness that fuels them. Mercy is a form of resistance, a revolution in and of itself. Mercy is what allows for our welcome to be “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey”. 

          Mercy is what makes us students and humble servants. And we are its door. Alleluia. Amen.

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