Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sweeter than Honey

A Sermon on Psalm 19

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” sings the psalmist, “the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; they are sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” What a beautiful image – imagine how special honey must have been, what a delight in a time before Snickers bars and high fructose corn syrup, a time when it wasn’t possible to go to the Morton Williams and pick up a bear-shaped squeeze bottle to sweeten your cup of tea. As I was reading the Psalm for this week, that image really captured me – I loved honey when I was little, and I still do – there’s something mesmerizing about watching it swirl into your tea, something fascinating about the way it moves in slow motion and sticks to everything. I got so caught up in this wonderful image of honey dripping from a honeycomb that it took me a moment to remember what an odd statement this is. The law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. The law? Really?

The law gets a pretty bad rap in Christianity. Specifically, I mean the idea of “God’s law,” and the parts of the Bible that are sometimes referred to as the law – usually the first five books of the Bible, which are also called the Pentateuch, or in Judaism, the Torah. Those five books contain a lot of things other than what we would think of as law – they contain the creation stories, for instance, the stories of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph and his coat of many colors, and of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. But they also contain quite a lot of what we think of when we think of law, the bulk of which is Mosaic law, or the laws that are given to Moses: the ten commandments, the purity codes that decree what is acceptable to eat, and what is acceptable to wear, laws about forgiveness of debt, and many, many more. Traditionally, there are said to be six hundred and thirteen laws in the Law of Moses! When we Christians talk about this law at all, we often talk about it as something old and outdated, something burdensome and bothersome, and we talk about it in contrast with love. We talk about love as the counterpart of law, we talk about love setting us free from the law, we talk about the Old Testament talking about a wrathful God of law and the New Testament teaching about a God of love.

A lot of that kind of thinking comes from the epistles of Paul, who often wrote to communities of early Christians about the role of Jewish law in the forming church. Paul writes about being justified through faith, not through the works of the law; in one letter, he describes the law as being a “disciplinarian” until Christ came – a title given in Roman society to a slave assigned to supervise children – the law, he says, was like our babysitter. In our contemporary world, with the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism so clearly defined, it can be easy to read Paul as saying that the law has no value for us as Christians, except perhaps to demonstrate to us why we need the grace of God and the love of Jesus. It sometimes seems that Paul is simply telling us that the commandments are nothing but a set-up, a list of unrealistic expectations designed to lead us to realize why we need salvation – because we aren’t perfect, and can’t follow the commandments perfectly. And it’s true – we aren’t, and we can’t – but the people Paul is writing to are in a very different situation than ours. Paul’s letters that talk about the law come to us from the earliest days of Christianity, and are written to mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles who want to follow Jesus. All of them are trying to make sense of who Jesus is, and what Jewish law means now that he has come. Should the Gentiles start following Jewish purity law and keeping kosher? Do the Jews have some advantage because they’ve been studying and following the law their whole lives? Should the law be forgotten altogether? These are the kinds of questions that are causing tension in the communities Paul is speaking to. So when Paul seems to minimize the role of the law, he is speaking to communities that are divided over the law, urging unity within the body of Christ. It is that context that we need to remember when we’re thinking about the idea of God’s law, and the role of the Old Testament in our faith.

Of course, there are truly dark and problematic things in the Mosaic law – laws that suggest that the slavery is permissible, that women are property, and that gay people should be put to death. And I don’t mean to dismiss the harm that those passages have done over the years. There are different ways of thinking about why those ideas are in the Bible, and how to understand them today. Scholars remind us that slavery and patriarchy were the absolute unquestioned norm in the time and place of the ancient Israelites; they remind us that sexuality was understood completely differently in that culture than it is in ours; they remind us that the Israelites were a small group in desperate circumstances, struggling to survive and to keep their identity as a people, and that many of these laws seem to have that end in mind. Regardless of how we understand these passages, it would be a mistake to let them chase us away from the entire Old Testament, and from the idea of God’s law altogether. This Psalm, I think, calls us to a different understanding of what God’s law can mean in our lives.

There’s a wonderful tradition from medieval Judaism that is still practiced in some contemporary Jewish communities: when a child started to learn the Hebrew alphabet, the letters would be written on a slate, and each letter would be covered with a piece of candy. As the child learned each letter, they would eat the candy, symbolizing the sweetness of studying the Torah. This idea that God’s law is precious as gold and sweet as honey is linked to the idea that studying and living with the law is a lifelong process. God’s law isn’t seen as a set of rules that you memorize and then follow – the law is something to be studied, chewed on, contemplated, lived with. The point of the law isn’t to appease an angry God, but to keep God constantly in mind as you live your life. In Jewish tradition as I understand it, study of the Torah is filled with word play and number play, creative re-imaginings and embellishments of scripture called “midrashim,” and lively debates; studying the Torah isn’t a step on the way to a goal – studying the Torah is the goal. A law which is sweet as honey isn’t a set of cold, hard rules; it’s a way to connect with and enter into God’s vision of justice and mercy, to incorporate your faith into your daily life, and to listen for the voice of God through patient study and constant discernment.

That practice of study and meditation, prayerful attention to God’s will and immersion in scripture, is a practice that is available to Christians as well as Jews, although our relationship to Mosaic law is, and should be, very different from that of observant Jews. The traditional way of understanding Mosaic law in Christianity is that we understand that law to be specifically for the Israelite people – that’s the reason that Christians don’t participate in Jewish practices like keeping kosher. However, we cannot understand Jesus and his teachings without understanding the Jewish tradition of which Jesus and all his disciples were part. Indeed, if we immerse ourselves in the Old Testament and learn its themes, stories, characters, and ideas, we see even more how deeply the New Testament is shaped by the old. We hear Jesus preaching in the temple that “the spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and we remember that Jesus is speaking in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. We listen to the Christmas story and we hear echoes of the stories of other miraculous births, of another Joseph who received dreams from God, of another evil king who ordered the slaughter of innocents. We understand the Old Testament as the story of the relationship between God and the Israelite people, and although we are not called to follow the law given to the Israelites, we are called to seek God and to hear what God has to say to the church in that story. We are not called to keep the purity codes which set Israelites apart from the culture around them, but we are called to recognize that in elements of the law, we see God’s vision of justice for the world – a world where debts are forgiven, where everyone gets a day of rest, where foreigners receive hospitality. These were real practices that really mattered then, and that really matter now. Those things are part of God’s vision of justice, and they are part of our justice movements now – you see them in the movement to forgive third world debt, in the New Sanctuary movement, in movements for worker’s rights. When we remember that law is not just meant to judge and confine us, but to urge us toward living rightly with each other, we start to see why the psalmist might say that the law of the Lord is sweeter than honey. We are invited to be God’s people by meditating on and living into God’s will for a better world. That is the attitude that causes the Psalmist to sing about the law of the Lord reviving his soul, opening his eyes, making his heart rejoice.

However, the discussion of the law is only the second half of the Psalm, and I think the first half gives even more insight into how we should understand this vision of God’s law. The Psalm starts by announcing that all of creation praises God: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork!” The psalmist goes on to say that although God’s creation does not speak with words, its proclamation of God’s glory is heard throughout the world. Surely we can identify with this – when we see photos of the earth as seen from space, our whole world and everything in it appearing as a tiny blue gem glowing in the midst of a field of stars, creation cries out glory to God. When the air starts to warm and trees burst into bloom, creation praises God. Creation praises God without words by simply being what God created it to be.

These two things are coupled in the Psalm: creation praising God through its very existence, and the beauty of God’s law. The two seem unrelated at first, but I think there’s an intricate link here. Nature praises God by following the course that God has set out for it – by the rising and setting of the sun and moon, by the changing of seasons, by the ebb and flow of the ocean – by following the laws of nature. Our role is a little different: it is our faithfulness to God’s will and God’s ways that praises God. Creation praises God through its actions, and so can we. Of course we can praise God with words, but we can also give glory to God through our faithfulness to the will of God – we can praise God by following God’s law, by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s vision for the world. During the Civil Rights Movement, a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose faith led him to work for racial justice, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights march in Selma. “When I marched,” the Rabbi later recalled, “It was like I was praying with my feet.” What a wonderful way to think of God’s law – praying with our feet, praising and glorifying God through action. When we march in the AIDS walk, we praise God with our feet; when we gather at tables together and take the time to really connect with one another, to hear one another’s joys and concerns, we praise God with our ears; when we distribute sandwiches to hungry people, we praise God with our hands; when we meet to do the business of the church, to make plans and decisions, and bring all our attention to how this community can best do God’s will, we praise God with our minds.

Heaven and earth don’t need words to praise God, this psalm declares, and neither do we. Certainly we can praise God with the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, but we can also praise God by rejoicing in God’s law – by following a path of love and justice, peace and mercy. Saint Francis is said to have advised his followers to “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This is the kind of Christian life that this Psalm calls us to: one where our faith is lived out not just through belief, but through practice; not just through word, but through deed. A life where we respond to the good news of the Gospel by doing justice and loving kindness. A life where we live in and with the scriptures, contemplating them and walking with them and studying them and incorporating them into our lives. A life in which everything we do and everything we say is informed by our relationship with God. A life in which we live out God’s vision for this world, knowing that God’s word is sweeter than honey.

God of all creation, lead us to take delight in your will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles, so that the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the deeds of our hands may be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

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