Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for April 1, 2017
Texts: Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Luke 18:18-22
Thursday, I listened to a speech by an old lawyer to a group of lawyers. He began by reminding them of their core values–law and justice—and then told stories of times when brave lawyers had used the law to provide justice for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. I was reminded of our core values—Law and Love. The very best stories in Christian history feature brave people who have used the Bible (divine law) in support of love. The Fernando and Anna Stahl, Adventist missionaries who stood on the Bible to fight for justice for the miserably oppressed Indians in the Andes. Martin Luther King, Jr. who cited the Old Testament prophets in fighting against the oppression of his people and American brutality in Vietnam. The Quakers who listened to the inner voice of God and cited the words of the Bible in their struggle to secure better treatment for the insane and liberty for slaves. It is never enough to be only “people of the Book.” We must also be people of God—whose most noteworthy attribute is love. The highest form of obedience to the commandments is mercy.
Thursday morning I was in a room with a thousand lawyers. The annual breakfast of the King County Bar Foundation to raise money in support of pro bono work. The speaker was Morris Dees. One of the co-founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. One of his great accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK.
He began his speech by reminding his audience of their core values—law and justice. He remembered standing in the school yard as a kid in the rural south. Every day he stood there with his hand over his heart and pledged,
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
(Dees is old enough that his schools pre-date the addition of the phrase “under God.”)
Liberty and justice for all. Dees says that his teacher, even then, even in that place, the rural south where segregation was beyond question, his teacher quietly insisted that “colored folks” to use the polite language of that time and place, the “colored folks” did not enjoy liberty and justice. And that wasn’t right.
She did what she could. She could not change the system. She could not single-handedly change the culture. But she could speak the truth. She could plant the seed of truth in her students.
Dees says he went to law school just to escape working on the farm. Somewhere along the way he became deeply infected with a vision of justice. Justice for all. That vision has shaped the rest of his life. He has been a master of using the law as a weapon for fighting injustice. He is a master craftsman using the tool of law to fashion a more just world. One of his greatest accomplishments was bankrupting the KKK. In another landmark case he made it possible for Vietnamese immigrants to fish in peace off the coast of Texas.
Sitting there listening to Mr. Dees talk I was reminded of our twin commitments as Seventh-day Adventists. We have long prided ourselves on being people of the Book. We are Bible people. We teach our children to memorize Bible passages. We pride ourselves on reading through the entire Bible. Our most prominent distinctive trait—Sabbath keeping—flows directly from a fierce loyalty to the literal, concrete words of the Bible. The Bible says “the Sabbath is the seventh day,” and that Jesus rose on the first day. So, we start at Easter Sunday and count, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—Saturday. That’s the seventh day so it must be Sabbath. It is simple, straightforward application of the words of the Bible to actual life.
We are people of the Book.
But there is another pillar in our life. That is a bedrock conviction that God is love.
For 1800 years Christians took the words of Paul very literally. Paul wrote that God arbitrarily loved Jacob and hated his older brother, Esau. The theological label for this is predestination. For 1800 years most Christians believed in predestination, that is, that God picked some people to be saved and other people to be lost. This was especially prominent among the Protestants—people like Martin Luther and John Calvin who insisted that theology must be based on the Bible and the Bible only. There are a number of passages in the Bible that talk about God’s sovereignty. God does what God wants—even going so far as to arbitrarily decide, even before they are born, that some people are going to be saved and some are going to be damned.
Adventists looked at that and said, “That’s not right. That cannot be right. How could a loving God create people for the very purpose of torturing them in hell? No way.” Recognizing the profound contradiction between this doctrine and our conviction that God is love, we searched out other Bible passages that support a different interpretation. Instead of using the Bible to support the immoral doctrine of predestination, we used the Bible to support the moral doctrine of freedom and choice.
It was the same with the doctrine of eternal hell fire. For 1800 years most Christians believed that people who did not go to heaven would be tortured alive in the fires of hell for ever and ever and ever. Preachers would cite Bible verses in support of this horrible idea. They still do.
Adventists said, “No way. A loving God could not do that.” No amount of explaining could ever bring us to agree with a just and loving God who could practice eternal torture. And we found Bible verses to support our conviction.
Law is a necessary, good thing. Bible texts are necessary and good things. But none of that can overturn the dictates of love. Instead, we read the Bible through the lens of love. When we confront injustice that seems to be supported by the Bible, we look for other texts, counter principles in the Book. When we read through the lens of love, the Bible becomes a priceless tool in our effort to cooperate with God in the cause of mercy and humanity.
In Luke 10, a theologian asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“That’s easy,” Jesus answered. “What does the law say?”
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Right, Jesus said. “Do that and you will live.”
But it can’t be that simple, can it? In my mind, I can hear the theologian protesting, But what about circumcision and Sabbath-keeping and sacrifices and avoiding adultery and not stealing? What about the sabbatical and jubilee years? I could imagine a theologian in that time and place asking those kinds of questions. But he doesn’t. Instead, he asks the kind of question I would ask. “Who is my neighbor?”
I know the Bible tells me to love, to love God and to love my neighbor. And I understand loving God. But this neighbor thing. Who is my neighbor? How far are you going to push?
This is where the parallel between civic law and the Bible shows up.
If you search the Old Testament looking for an answer to this question you can easily find support for two very different answers to this question.
There are many passages that warn about the dangers of foreigners and outsiders and even Jewish people with wrong ideas. A couple of weeks ago we read here in this church, the passage in Deuteronomy 13 that says if you hear anyone suggest participation in false worship, it is your solemn obligation to out them and then to join the entire community in stoning them to death. You must do this even if the person in error is your spouse or your child or your best friend. The point of this command was to keep Israel pure, to prevent any contamination from outsiders. If we take this passage as definitive, our neighbors are only those who share with us in pure, true theology. Everyone else is an enemy.
On the other hand, we have passages like our Old Testament reading today. “You will always have poor people among you. So always be generous.”
The people of Israel were directed to set up six cities as special court cities. These courts were to provide ready access to judicial protection to any one—Jews and non-Jews, foreigners who had settled in the land and foreigners just passing through. Everyone was to have equal access to justice. (See Numbers 35).
So who is my neighbor? Whom am I obligated to love? Jewish people with pure lives and proper theology? Or all the people in the land—including poor people and foreigners? Which is it?
Jesus answered the theologian with a famous story.
A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Somewhere along the road, thieves jump the man, rob him, beat him, and leave him for dead. Two Jewish people pass, both clergy. They do not render aid. They do not stop.
Then a Samaritan stops.
For his Jewish audience, this is a surprise. Samaritans are a despised people.
The Samaritan dresses the victim’s wounds, loads him onto his donkey, and carries him to Jericho where he cares for him through the night and pays for his ongoing care at the inn.
When the theologian asked who is my neighbor, he was acknowledging the weight of the commandment. The divine law obliges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. True religion obliges us to devote ourselves to God in worship and to devote ourselves to our neighbors in service. But how far are we supposed to take that? It is a reasonable question.
On one of my desert trips, my car developed a heating problem when I was fifty miles from the nearest pavement. I could go only four or five miles before it would overheat. I had plenty of water with me. I would drive until the engine got hot, then stop and wait for it to cool off, then go again.
In the hours it took to reach the pavement, seven or eight cars passed me. Every car stopped. “You okay?” I laughed and explained. “You sure you have enough water?” they would always ask. “Yes. I’ll be okay. I just have to take it slow.”
Now let’s imagine this same problem developed on a busy highway. How many cars would stop? How many cars would pass? If we see a car stopped, we know we can’t stop for every stopped car or we would never get anywhere.
We cannot save everybody. So the theologian’s question is reasonable. Who is my neighbor? Whom am I obliged to love?
It is a reasonable question, but it is not spiritually transformative.
The transforming question is: Whom can I help? What can I do to help? Can I be a neighbor?
This applies to church. Who is worthy to be part of our church? It is a reasonable question. But it is not transformative.
A better question is how far can we go in extending the welcome of God? Whom can we serve, given our vision of love and our loyalty to the Book. Are we going to use the Book as a tool to exclude unworthy people or will we use the Book to stretch ourselves, to be more radical as partners of God.
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, the early Adventists faced the reality that sometimes law can be used to further injustice. The fugitive slave act required people in the north, both local law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens to assist in the apprehension of slaves who escaped from bondage in the South. The Bible supported slavery. The official law of the land defended slavery. But the principle of love said otherwise. What would Adventists do? I’m pleased to say Adventists publicly declared their intention to defy the law. They aided the slaves in their escapes. They refused to cooperate with the law and law enforcement officials in the practice of injustice.
May God give us courage and wisdom to continue to push forward in our twin devotions to the Book and to God, to the law and to love. Let’s pledge ourselves to cooperate with God in his radical generosity. Let’s use law and the Bible as instruments of righteousness and never as weapons against the vulnerable and disadvantaged.