Monday, March 26, 2012

Fifth Sunday in Lent. Year B

Preaching: Id_Tap_Dat

Denominational Background: United Methodist. Currently serving two United Methodist Churches in the San Francisco Bay Area as the youth director, where I work closely with ISlapYou. We also work together as advisers to a local nonprofit.

Educational Background: Bachelor’s Degrees in Economics (BS) and Religious Studies (BA) from UC Davis, Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Duke, starting a PhD program in the fall at Duke.

Hi everyone! As we journey together through Lent towards the celebration of eternal life that is Easter, I don’t know about you, but my enthusiasm from my fast is getting pretty thin. I’m abstaining from reddit with the exception of dropping this sermon, praying a prayer rope three times a day, and giving the dollar value of the number of days in lent that have passed to each homeless person who asks for change. It’s at times like these, when our own internal strength wears thin, that we wonder what possessed us to ever undertake the journey in the first place. Change is hard. Keeping to that change is even more difficult. In order to make a change worthwhile, economists say that the benefits gained from the change must not just outpace those of the way things were done before, but they must also exceed the cost of undergoing the transformation. It’s not enough that the new way is more profitable than the old one, it must be so much more profitable than the old one that it will pay for the cost of changing from the old way to the new way. It is therefore not surprising that businesses, much like people, rarely change unless they absolutely have to do so. I am here to today to tell you that that is insufficient reason to do anything. We can all do better than following the path of least resistance.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 reads “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah.” The word covenant stands out to me this morning, because it doesn’t fit well with what I have gathered is the American idea of God as Law-Giver, Commander, and Controller of Existence. A covenant is a deal, a bargain, a treaty between two consenting parties. The Mosaic Law was a covenant, just as our current relationship with God through Christ is a covenant. Now, for many, this will be somewhat of a shock, and for others, this will be like a trip back to third grade Sunday School, but I feel like this point doesn’t get made explicit enough in modern churches. We do not follow Jesus because we have to, we follow Jesus because we want to. We begin our covenant with God through Baptism, sustain it through Communion, take personal ownership of it through Confirmation, and reconcile it to our future and our family life through Marriage (I should note that Methodists only acknowledge these four sacraments). This is a part of our bargaining with God, and the problem with the Mosaic Law was not that the Israelites’ bargaining position was too dubious to make demands of God, but rather that they were not honest enough with themselves to ask for what they really needed: forgiveness and grace.

David was one of the lucky ones. Just about any time he screwed up when he was in power, he had Nathan barking at him for hours about it. Psalm 51 recounts one such instance in which David realized his error. According to Mosaic Law, rapists (which, let’s face it, that’s exactly what was going on between him and Bathsheeba, at least at first) are to be put to death, but David asks for forgiveness. Why? He knows the deal, the covenant, between he and God is unbreakable, but he, in a moment of clarity, realizes that it was a raw deal for both sides. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.” David sinned, and had to pray for his salvation to be restored to him, even though God had wanted faithfulness from the very start. His choices, his resolve for following the Will of God, which he sings of in Psalm 119 had worn thin, and it had cost him dearly. As is often the case for those of us who are fasting in Lent, we make zealous promises, with every intention of following through on them, but our resolve wears thin, and we falter, and sometimes it costs us dearly. Imagine if we held ourselves to this kind of agreement for anything: that we will always, without fail, say, eat dinner at 7:30pm. Even a simple thing like that becomes an impossible promise to live up to, as even just forgetting once causes us to break the promise and suffer the consequences.

This is why, I believe, that the Mosaic Law was designed to be temporary, as Jeremiah, and almost each and every prophet before and after him iterated. This model of high-stakes law observance falls apart at the slightest shortcoming on our part. Because God loves the world, and the people of it, despite our flaws and short-sightedness, God arranged for a new deal, a new covenant, to bring closure to the first, and a new one, based not on law and punishment, but on motivation and love, to come forward.

This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote that Jesus was a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. Why the order of Melchizedek, the guy who appears for all of about 10 verses in the Torah, and is never heard from again? Let’s take a look at Melchizedek for a moment. It’s in Genesis 14.

Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and Abraham, for no discernible reason whatsoever gives him “a tenth of everything,” which I assume is the booty from the raid. Why did Abraham tithe to Melchizedek? Because he wanted to. It should come as no surprise that Jesus, like Melchizedek, blesses us with bread and wine, and our response is to serve Him because we want to. Salvation and communion with God are a gift, given to all of humanity without price or any work on our part, only the humility with which to accept the gift.

Jesus’ ministry was all about the power that people have through committing their lives to God. With faith the size of a mustard seed, one can order mountains to throw themselves into the sea, and they will obey him. He taught that it was easier for a man to forgive another man’s sins, and have it be true, than it is to tell a paralytic to get up and walk, and have that be true. Jesus then makes a claim that the new covenant that Jeremiah spoke about, wherein “I (God) will forgive their wickedness, and remember their sins no more,” is consecrated. John speaks of a voice from Heaven saying “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The voice, as Jesus reminds the people, if not for God’s benefit, nor for Christ’s, but for ours. It is God’s assurance that this new covenant has already been made, and will be glorified again at Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus punctuates it in saying “I will draw all people to me.” (notice the “all people” in there, Calvinists? :-P)
That’s the abstract, so what do we do about it? I suggest that today’s scripture should shed light on a few things:

1. Our walk with God, our faith journeys, are not compulsory. Salvation is a gift, given without price. If we are doing something, anything, “because I have to,” or “because God makes me,” or any variation on that tired old theme, perhaps it is time to stop doing whatever that is. We go to church because we want to, we love one another because we want to emulate God, and we want to share that love to everyone, not just those who love us.

2. Salvation is a gift. The defining feature of Christianity is that God brings all people to Him, and the problem we face is that people refuse to allow it. That’s because, as we’ve seen from today, this is a covenant process. If one party disagrees, then that’s all there is to it. When we evangelize, we are not “saving” people from the default destination of Hell to which all are condemned unless they “accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior,” a phrase that drives me crazy, but attempting to arbitrate a covenant making process that has clearly gone awry. As Jesus taught, “blessed are the peacemakers.”

3. This is the most pragmatic part of the whole thing: don’t swear, or make promises. The entire saga of the dead-end that the Mosaic Law lead the people of Israel to is probably what inspired Jesus to teach “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Don’t swear oaths, obviously, but this touches a deeper issue: we must accept that our control over the world is an illusion. Part of not swearing oaths is understanding that we cannot necessarily control what we do. I may have every intention of following through on my commitment to praying the prayer rope three times a day, but if I get sick and sleep all day, what happened to my commitment? When we accept the illusory nature of human control over the world, we get one step closer to dethroning ourselves from the centers of our worlds, and putting God there instead.

4. Our faith journeys are about intention. They are not about living up to a set of standards. Our two most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. These can be expressed in any number of ways. If we are to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, the way we will do so is through God’s power, and through our intention to love.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all, now and forever.