Based on the Scripture readings:
2017 October 8
Bad and Good
Just up the road in Natick, in 1977, a boy named Aaron died of old age when he was fourteen. He had a rare disease and a rare family—his father was a rabbi who had written a book about children. Then he wrote another book about adults who are hurt by life and are angry at God and yet love God, too. Harold Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and while his text is moving and inspired, it's not the topic just now. If you've never read it you should because his theological analysis is solid and Biblical, but for the moment I'm drawn to just two words in his title. The scripture today inspires us to examine the two words that are often observed without analysis, and the words are bad and good. Greek philosophers would be horrified and medieval Scholastics brokenhearted to consider how so much of our current cultural conversation has lost the meaning of bad and good, and while this is dangerous territory to tread it is also holy ground, and therefore we have to take off our everyday shoes and visit sabbath-day sacred space especially this week of bad things happening.
An enormous amount of our everyday ethics are exercised in grey areas. An extensive dimension of building a culture, a civilization, a covenant, or a community means that we operate in the space of diversity and debatable decisions, such as how we treat our money or our body or our home. Every day I make decisions in grey areas.
But our Jewish ancestors, our Christian faith, our God and hope and future also draw on clear and consistent truths, as the Greeks and Scholastics would agree. We may reject these truths, but we can't repudiate them. Not with the integrity of faith or the fundamentals of logic. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shall have no other gods before me—Yahweh, your God. There is good and bad here, and of course you and I know that not all deceptive speech is lying according to scripture, and not all taking is stealing even in the Bible, and so on and so forth. But, as in the Matthew allegory, you don't take someone's valuables and kill their child and plead that you don't know the difference between good and bad. You don't hold, for example, the second amendment, thought to protect gun owners, above the second commandment, given to build a faith and future and a fulsome life, or at least you don't hold the second amendment above the second commandment if you are a Jew or Christian. It's just that simple. If you favor a judge who posts the Ten Commandments in a courtroom then at a minimum you should know and follow them beyond its walls.
One well-known judge, Justice Potter Stewart, wrote about grey areas in our common life. He was addressing a case that had to do with obscenity and pornography. And he said that it is awfully hard to define. But, in a well-known explanation, he said (yet) “I know it when I see it.”
We know lying and false gods and killing when we see them. And we even know them before we see them, and we even know how not to see them anymore. And we've seen them a lot lately.
This has been a hard week across America. We've been brokenhearted by Houston and Miami and San Juan, and now Las Vegas has broken our spirits such that I don't even know what is happening in Burma or Turkey just now. We've been flooded with divisions and disasters and we look for guidance, yet—and this is complicated—one of our leaders asserts that it would be without consequence to shoot a person on Fifth Avenue in New York, so we turn our attention to a concert field in Nevada and seek to understand not only why bad things happen to good people but whether we are awash in a moment forgetting that there is good and bad, that there are consequences, and that as Christians we're called to work on these.
I posted a cartoon on the entry door and the one to the Parlor. It shows a group of people meeting Moses by the foot of Mt. Sinai and one asks “Are these Top Ten Commandments?” Some of you remember the comedian Mort Sahl who said they should be re-named the Ten Suggestions. Some don't even know where they are written.
Most of you know that this parish has a direct connection to Newtown, Connecticut and the Sandy Hook Elementary School there because the UCC pastor in that town trained in this parish and married one of our members. We have a direct connection to Las Vegas, too, because like millions of others across America this morning we're reading scriptures about not killing and not having any false god above the living God and about not accepting bad when we're called to good.
If this were a normal Sunday we might be talking about Francis of Assisi, the peacemaker, since his feast is this week. Instead of talking about a peacemaker we're facing a peace-breaker. If this were a normal Sunday we might be talking about the natural disasters that affect our American family, but instead we're engaging an un-natural disaster.
Someone this week said that what happened in Nevada was “An act of pure evil.” Actually it was an act of public policy choices. This sort of act does not occur in those parts of the world where public policy is different. I pondered writing an essay this week entitled Evil is my Business. I know evil. I've studied and encountered evil for decades. Really ugly evil. This was not evil, per se. It was bad policy. And policy connects us to Sandy Hook and Las Vegas and the future.
Almost anywhere you look in our scripture there is a yearning for life. There is a spirit of health and help and wholeness. Today's commandments begin with God's reminder that the reason the faithful should listen is because God has saved this people from slavery and sadness and soul-deadening pain. And then the commandments end with the folks saying, we really want to live, and we realize that if we mess this up we will die.
It's the same in the Gospel. There are a dozen lessons here but one of them is that you can't kill your way out of bad values. Killing God's message or God's people actually doesn't. And it's not even good for the killers.
Almost a hundred years ago, the author Thornton Wilder wrote about a group of people who died on a fictional hike over the Bridge of San Louis Rey. And he asked, why? Why did this group die? And he came up with roughly the same answer that came to Job and Jesus and Harold Kushner, which is that it was not God's judgment or choice or act. They were not guilty. They were not bad. They were not condemned. Although that's another sermon. What Wilder does ask is, what now? What now?
We have to know the difference between evil and bad so that we can recognize bad public policy. We have to discern whether we ever make a god out of something that is not God. For me it could be my retirement fund, or even the home I build around myself to be safe and focused and fine, yet I need to ask myself, is this what will save me and make me whole—this pension, this furniture, these walls, or do I need a regular reminder that it is God who will never abandon me and has work for me to do beyond my budget and my walls? We need to know what is our ultimate concern. And we need to challenge what the scripture literally translates as the “wrongful use” of God's word, for example ever using the term “god-given right” to some object, item, or amendment, since we know that this flouts the third commandment. And, if someone says that they can use a gun without consequence, we have listen to them and determine if that means they are risky to follow. We have to take our faith into the public sphere, which is unquestionably, absolutely, one-hundred percent what the Ten Commandments do. While they shouldn't be posted in public courtrooms, we need them in our communal conversations.
Many of you know that when Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida, our Deacons were understandably heartbroken and wondered what we could do, up here in Massachusetts. After months of deliberation our Council made our buildings weapon-free zones, and remember we have three buildings. Does this come with a clear price? Well, when folks with permits to carry weapons want to bring them here they can't. It also comes with a grey area. We had to figure out what to do with the knives in our downstairs kitchen. And so on and so forth. There are challenges and costs to building the community illuminated in our scriptures.
But now it's time to move beyond our three buildings. We are not part of a covenant that keeps our faith inside any sanctuary. Our ancestors moved from slavery to freedom, from the old world to North America, from discriminatory behavior to yet imperfect egalitarian values, all at the call of God. God knows there is evil. But God knows how to build a community, too, where people move beyond their buildings to bring good where things are bad. It is time for this to be on the agenda of our Deacons again, and of our missions committee again, and of our Council. It is time for us to move beyond the old world again. This is my business. This is your business. This is God's business moving forward. Amen.