On the Foundations of Our Faith
October 31st, 2021
Psalm 82: 1-5
God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
“The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
Genesis 28: 10-12
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending.
Mark 12: 28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Foundations of Our Faith.
Autumn in New England still offers the very best weather for building. There are no black flies, no mosquitos, and no thunderstorms. And, of course, there is the motivation of knowing that winter is coming. I often daydream about what it must have been like to build of this church and imagine what it must have looked like as it was coming together through the wisdom and experience of people who really knew what they were doing. With a wide variety of hand tools that were likely made right here in the village, and the strength and obedience of horses and oxen, men determined to raise this building moved 2-ton granite blocks with sleds, block and tackle, and rails. The absence of cracks in these walls attest to the quality of their work. Once the stones were in place, the giant beams were brought by horse and oxen. These beams are 16 inches across and hand-hewn (I have seen the marks on them), shaped square from much larger, rounder trees. They are cut and chiseled to rest, one upon the other, held in place primarily by their weight, but also drilled and pegged with trunks of smaller trees that were cut and shaped to precision by the human hand.
Under these floors there is enough wood to construct a small forest and enough stone to outweigh the rest of the building. The integrity of this building depends entirely on the integrity of the wood and stone and earth beneath it. Today I suggest that the same truth applies to the structure of our religious tradition we call Christianity. It is invisible and yet imposing. It is cracked and compromised not because of any fault in the foundation, but because of human error in the construction of its many additions…too many additions.
Today we are offered a tour of the foundations of our faith tradition, put in place by our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, but shaped and carried by the prophets and teachers that came hundreds of years before him. From the ancient Hebrew scriptures, Jesus pulls the answers to that most important question, “What is the greatest command?” The answers come from writings in the books of Leviticus (19: 17-18) and Deuteronomy (6:5), dating back to the 600s BCE. This is ancient Jewish wisdom that had been clouded and obscured by the human tendency to codify the Sacred into rules and laws and requirements.
There is a dangerous temptation here to paint Jesus as the liberator who came to replace two thousand years of tradition and observance of Jewish law with the golden rule, “Love one another.” There is a dangerous temptation here to postulate that Jesus was breaking from his tradition to lay the foundation for a new religious paradigm. That could not be further from the truth.
Jesus was part of a radical movement of his time. The movement had two main leaders, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai taught his students that adherence to the law was of paramount importance. The law placed God above all else and offered strict practices for keeping one’s priorities in order and the Hebrew culture strong intact. Hillel taught his students that unless the spirit of the law was expressed in every aspect of one’s life, even if every law and tradition was kept, it would not be enough to keep the Hebrew culture intact. In the Hillel school, the teachings of Shammai were read first, followed by the teachings of Hillel. This was a brilliant strategy, in my opinion, because it combined the inherent wisdom of both schools and negated any argument about which one was superior. It is Hillel who is credited with shaping the words from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor” into the golden rule “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Treat others how you wish to be treated.” The original recorded words of Hillel are as follows: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
In Jesus’s answer to the scribe about what is the greatest command, he mirrors the teachings of Hillel. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the essence of the law. All of the lesser laws- there are 613 of them- seek to provide rules of governing, military defense, diet, sacrificial offerings, care of the poor, and even quarantine regulations. Jesus sought to bring the focus of his people back to the very foundations of their tradition. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
This message is more than a foundation for us in our tradition. This message is also our Jacob’s ladder. This message is the means for nearing the kingdom and queendom of God even as we live here on earth. This message should inform every single choice we make, especially what we say and what we do. This message should inform how we vote, what we buy, and how we give of ourselves and our resources. This message should inform how we govern, how we modify our tax structure, and how we respond to criminal behavior. This message connects us to God and to one another inextricably. This connection is our strength and our hope.
Friends, we have a society to build; we have a socio-political-economic structure to erect based on justice, equity, and compassion. There are cracks in the walls of our system. The walls are cracking because the foundation we inherited from our Judeo-Christian tradition has been overlain with a foundation that favors some over others. Jesus saw the same thing happening in his day and he railed against it at every turn. We, as Christians, are called to do the same.
We know some of the older cracks in the walls by name. The oldest ones are sexism and racism. Most of the smaller, younger cracks branch off from these. All the cracks have this in common: a judgement of one being better than, more valuable than, or more deserving than another. Sometimes the cracks seem so deep and pervasive that we wonder if we can salvage it. Think of this, Friends. If this building was raised with hand tools and the strength and intelligence of animals and humans, then there is nothing that we can not accomplish if we put our minds and hearts into it.
And just as it took many people with many skills to construct this church, it will take many people with many skills to each address some aspect of our culture that needs repair. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
I ask myself, “What makes me most sad, or most angry, or most hopeless? Where do I see the cracks, the brokenness within myself, my family, my community? What skills do I have to repair some of the damage? I can ask questions. I can educate myself. I can reach out to someone that may be having a difficult time. Honestly Friends, it is less about what exactly we do and more about the fact we are doing something, something to build the world we long for.
In closing, I offer you the assurance that the foundation is in place; it has been for thousands of years. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. We can repair the cracks in the walls of our systems. How? In all we say and do, we can be mindful to communicate that no one is better, more valuable, or more deserving than another. Man/woman, black/white, straight/gay/ trans, Democrat/Republican, American/Mexican, Christian/Muslim…look for the Godspark in all people; it is surely there. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: Lord of all things, we find ourselves in tumultuous times. Your presence is often difficult to sense among the news headlines, and yet Your Presence is in us and among us. We pray for a heightened awareness of how we may be instruments of your goodness and your peace. Help us to see the Godspark in others, especially those whose lives and opinions may outwardly appear very different from our own. Turn our minds to the foundation of our faith, that we may love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Spark our memories, that we may be reminded of the power of prayer, as we pray for ourselves, and as we pray for our sisters and brothers around the world. In many languages, and in many foreign lands today, your children are praying this prayer that Jesus gave us so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from the book of Ephesians, chapter 3:
I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he may grant you from his glorious riches to be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit; and to have Christ dwelling through faith in your hearts, so that being rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God…Amen.