August 25, 2019. Push or Pull
Isaiah 58:9-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
What comes first? The chicken or the egg? I was astounded that people are really discussing this question online. Here is one surprising answer to the question: “Evolution works in such a way that the traits leading up to “chicken -ness” can be present in both parents without them being (technically) chickens. When they mate the genes can recombine to provide the offspring (in the egg) with all the genes to be a chicken. So, the parents are not technically chickens, the embryo is a chicken and grows to be a chicken. The chicken comes first. Yes, this means the egg the first chicken comes from is not a chicken’s egg. All eggs from the first chicken are then chicken’s eggs.”
Now, I am all for philosophical and intellectual speculation and sharing theories about various topics, but this was more detailed than I expected.
Who would have thought that the order of things could result in such rich speculation?
There is another question about order of things that is theologically very important. However, it is seldom discussed and often misunderstood. I am thinking of the covenant and the laws in the Old Testament. What comes first? The covenant or the laws about holy living? God’s command to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God or God’s commitment to Israel that comes in the words “I want to be your God and I want you to be my people”? In other words, does God first instruct Israel to live and act in a specific, ethical way or does God first say, “you are mine”? Does God first give before God asks? This is actually an important question because, depending on your answer, the consequences will be different.
Let me explain: Israel did not become God’s people because they lived and acted differently from their neighbors. It was not that they had a superior morality, or a better ethical inclination than the Edomites or Philistines. They did not attract God’s attention because they impressed God by their compassion and love of others.
No, God approaches them and made a covenant with Abraham to be their God. In return God wanted Israel to be God’s people. And it was because of the covenant that God could demand of Israel to live a holy and exemplary life. The covenant came first and the ethical and moral demands follow: “I am your God- therefore be holy for I am holy.” This order is very important for the covenant was the agreement that formed the foundation of the Ten Commandments, the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus, and the sermons of the prophets.
This order is not any different from the New Testament. God in Jesus Christ calls us to be the church, the body of Christ. And then God requires of us to love one another, to have compassion, and to serve others. In our Gospel reading, Jesus sees a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. He heals her. Only one problem: “It was on the Sabbath.” The leader of the synagogue is not happy. “You have six days to do these kinds of things”. The sabbath is God’s. You see, the leader changed the order of things: he thinks that you have to focus on the law and then God will respond. Instead, Jesus on the other hand is focusing on the burden and needs of the woman and then acts to lighten her burden. He understands that God cares about people more than rules!
This ought to be a lesson to us and the church. The danger is always real that we may change the order of things: Instead of placing God’s love of us first, we may want to place burdens on others, requiring of them to be who we want them to be before God will be interested in them. This is to change the order of things. That is to push people instead of letting God pull. The church should respond to God’s grace by showing grace to others. The church of Christ ought to show that she embraces God’s love of us by loving others. Whenever we tell people they first need to change before they are welcomed, we change the order of things. The Theological truth is that God does not accept us because we better or ourselves, or because we change, or improve our lives. No God loves us, embraces us, and accepts us first, and then, as a response of gratitude, we become who God wants us to be. In other words, God’s love pulls us! We shall not push people to be different for our sakes.
This order is exactly the same in the OT. When the prophet Isaiah preaches his words, his point of departure is the covenant, the agreement that God made with Israel: “I am you God, you are my people…therefore you ought to live a holy life, you ought to show compassion, take care of the poor and help those who are in need of help!”
What does this OT passage mean? I came across a sermon on this passage by Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean of the Hadar Institute in New York. It is a fascinating sermon as it presents us with a view from someone who stands in a different tradition. And yet, his conclusions are very much the same as our interpretation of this text.
This reading is often read on the Day of Atonement, Yon Kippur. When this lesson is read, Jewish people are hungry and thirsty from fasting. Then the prophet words ring: “Do you call that a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” The answer of course is no!
“What we are doing in fact bears little relation to what a true fast would like,” Rabbi Held says. “We want to be near God, but we don’t want to do or be what we need in order for that closeness to be real. We want to fast, go through the motions of ritual, perhaps impress ourselves or our neighbors with our piety- but it turns out God has no time for this kind of insincerity and hypocrisy.
Instead, this is what God wants: “Remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. Offer your food to the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked, satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
Rabbi Held notes that the prophet is not opposed to ritual per se. He is opposed to religious fraudulence, to pious words uttered by impious hardened hearts. Held then calls for an honest assessment: “if our fasting comes coupled with a passion for justice and a heart full of kindness then our religious lives have integrity. If, on the other hand”, he continues, “our fasting convinces us that God is in our pocket, then our religious lives are a scam and God wants no part of them.”
He does not stop here: “If you want to worship God, you’re going to have to learn to care about what God cares about – and who. And the Bible never tires of telling us, God cares about the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. If those people don’t matter to us, then God does not really matter to us either.”
His conclusion is challenging: “A community worthy of God would consider the mistreatment of the poor an abomination. A society that disdains the poor is a godless society, regardless of its religious services attendance rates. A community worthy of God would ensure that no one lacks for food to nourish them, shelter to protect them, or clothing to keep them warm. A community that ignore these needs or sees them as someone else’s business is a godless community, no matter how frequently it conducts services.”
The Rabbi’s words are disturbing but true and this message needs to be heard in spite of how it makes us feel. The fact is that in our country, night after night too many children go to bed hungry in one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever seen. Never before, in the history of human kind, has there been a society that had more resources, more wealth, more know-how, more information and expertise and yet, in our society children go hungry, people are worried about the future for they are one paycheck away from bankruptcy, or one illness away from being broke. I think the Rabbi is correct that the God of Abraham, Jacob, Peter and Paul does not want this!
As people who have been called by God, touched by God’s grace, moved to accept God’s love and by the grace of God moved to respond to God’s love, we have to respond to these words. By God’s prophets. We need to be obedient otherwise the words of Jesus in Luke will apply to us: “You hypocrites!”
Rabbi Held ends his sermon with these words: “I referred to Isaiah’s words as a stick of dynamite, exploding our pretensions and the comforting stories we too often tell ourselves. But they are also an invitation to live life with God; to love those whom God loves, to seek justice as God does, and to remember that the vulnerable other is fundamentally our kin. That would be a fast God desires and a religion worthy of name.”
The order of things for people of faith is important: God loves us- therefore we love God. God loves human beings-therefore we love human beings. God cares for the poor-therefore we care for them too. God liberates the vulnerable from what crushes them -therefore we help those who are carrying burdens.
The month of August marks the 400 year Anniversary of slavery. The first slaves arrived on August 19th 1619 in Virginia. For us today it is hard to fathom how anyone could defend slavery. And yet, we have to confess today, the church did defend and justify slavery. When we look back and remember the practice of people forcefully being removed from their homeland to work as slaves, our one and only response should be to confess our collective sin. One may say: “How can I guilty of something that happened so long ago?” Sin is a power that corrupts not only the individual but also has a collective destructive power. As the body of Christ, we follow the One who took the world’s collective sin on himself. So, it seems that it is not only appropriate but also right for us as the Body of Christ to confess our collective sin for we too have benefitted from this horrible practice. But we do more than confessing our sins. We also commit to do everything possible to work towards liberate people from the slavery of sins: Racism, oppression and prejudice. Amen!