We’re all used to, at least in one venue or another a litany of “why’s”:
- why is the sun yellow?
- why is the sky blue?
- why does it hurt my eyes to look at the sun?
- why is the sky dark?
- where’s the moon in the daytime?
- why are there stars?
- why can’t I build a snowman?
Why’s are all around us:
- stars “move”, not because God sweeps God’s hand across the sky but because we are not the center of the universe.
- particles behave the way they do because they are responding to smaller sub atomic particles that we are only beginning to learn about.
- Why do earthquakes happen in Georgia? You’ve got me, there.
These why’s are in every discipline, even in the church. The biggest why that the church seems to be wrestling with is “why pay attention?”
Looking at Matthew, in this sermon on the mount, “why pay attention” is their salient question, as well.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, part of the question that is being answered is, “how is this not doing something different than what Torah says.”
With every “you have heard it said” Jesus cites Torah. With every “but I tell you” is not so much a reinventing or saying anything new, but reappropriating, trying to say the same thing in a new and different context.
Let’s face it, the Torah, given to a nomadic tribe, sure of their identity but still searching for a place to call home is a lot different than being subject to the Roman Empire. Jesus skimmed beneath the surface of Torah, looked at the why does this exist in the first place, and appraised in a way that is faithful to tradition while also relating to a new context.
He saw Torah as a way for God’s people to live in covenant community with God and each other. He was merely finding ways to bring this same message forward into the period of Roman Empire.
The Church has done this, too.
Many in the church thought it good that clergy do not marry. Contexts change. Reappropriation happens. Likewise, many in the church saw Paul’s words as saying that women shouldn’t be ordained. We didn’t change Scripture. But folks looked at the “why’s”, what was Paul trying to get at, and realized that it was not a universal truth that for ever and all time gender should matter when it comes to discerning who is and who isn’t eligible for ordination.
As context changes, reappropriation, contextualization is made.
Why aren’t we speaking out against usary… high interest? Have we really gotten to a place where the community of faith has said that this is not a matter of faith? And why has it taken so long for the “middle” if you will to come around to the realization that how the immigrant, the stranger in our midst is, indeed, a reflection of what we believe about Scripture and how we understand our live and our livelihoods as being gift from God.
When it comes to the question of “why do we do this thing called church or faith, why is this important”, these are deeply felt question that convey some of things that we value this deepest and hold closest. In the midst of these questions, more and more folk are making the observation that faith is irrelevant.
And we’ve got three options for how to respond. The first is to look at what has been the primary source of understanding our faith, Scripture, and say “if it’s in here I believe it and I don’t care about relevance.” It seems to me that this kind of response turns faith into something heavy-handed, and not very respectful of the horizontal nature of faith… our life together… and the journey’s of others. Another kind of response is to say, “the Bible is no longer relevant. We agree. We need new and different books.” While this sounds appealing to some, every time the topic of re-opening the Cannon has come up in serious conversation, it has been dismissed, not because people shouldn’t read other books… which we should (Wesley even published a library), but because we have said that there’s something special about this volume. The third way to respond then, is to fall within the long tradition of faithful people and ask the question how do these words, written in another context, nearly 2,000 years ago bear any impact on our lives, today in 2014.
I think what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount gives us a clue for how to do this, giving us a model. Stay well within the tradition, but find new ways to say the same things, getting at the “why’s” behind what is said, and not so much worry about how to apply the same rules across the ages.
For example, Methodism and the Temperance movement have been linked. We know the temperance movement was rooted in the economics of the working poor, where hourly wage earners would spend their salary at the bar rather than buy their kids shoes. We all know the story about how Mr. Welch read about milk pasteurization and found a way to do that to grape juice so that his friend who was a recovering alcoholic could receive Communion. The United Methodist building in Washington DC was built to be the staging ground for the righteous battle to keep alcohol illegal. Well, guess what friends. For the past 12 years, things have been different. While the prohibition of alcohol being present on United Methodist property remains, the simply worded “don’t drink” now has this added section talking about the possible positive witness of responsible drinking.
So the question changes from “is it okay to drink or not” but changes to what does the fight for children’s rights and bringing people struggling with addiction fully into the life of the church look like in 2014?
Divorce: We have come to a place where we know that not every marriage than happens in a church, before a pastor, is blessed of God. Likewise, especially with the prohibition placed upon my life and work, there are marriages that don’t happen in the church that are, indeed, blessed of God.
Dr. Tom Frank, onetime professor at Candler, wrote an open letter to the bishops. In his letter his says that while the office of bishop is important, maybe the day has come when the office of bishop as rule-keeper has passed and the day of bishop as exemplar to fellow clergy has begun. In this case, he is saying that instead of trying clergy for presiding at same-gender marriages, why not find another way to faithful live into the covenant of ordination… you know, thinking about that, they ask us to keep the discipline for conscious sake and not for wrath. I wonder how many of the charges against clergy are made for wrath’s sake?
I think the words of Charles James Cook says it best, ”Scratch a true believer & you will not find a love of doctrine as much as the love of liturgy.” Now I don’t think he meant simply printed prayers and orders of service but I do think that worship is part. What he meant was that a true believer doesn’t look for more rules to keep, but loving the work of the people (what liturgy literally means), together.
Henri Nouwen put it another way, when contemplating the “why” of his life… as he left the Ivy League and went to live with differently abled people, they didn’t care about his degrees, books, and list of published works. He said that for Christians to be fruitful, we need to be less moral (here defined as legalistic) more more mystical.
For us this means two things:
First of all, the Good News is that we don’t have to ditch the Bible to live as faithful witnesses in the world. Likewise, we do not have to twist ourselves up in knots worrying about relevance. The point is to be more, fluid, more gracious, but not in a way that is so soft that it makes our covenants between each other and God as if they do not matter.
But I also have to bad news… well maybe not bad news, but words of instruction. This is not the easier way. It means investing time in listening to God, in engaging Scripture alongside others in the difficult task of discerning ways to stand in that long line of faithful followers who reappropriate Good News for new and different contexts. And it means being patient, doing the slow, work of being a part of God’s gracious activity in the world.
So why do this, why pay attention, why listen, why? I can honestly look at each of you and tell you as honestly as I can tell anyone anything that I do not know, save for this prompting that says, this is good, this is right, this is the faithful way to respond and live.
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