Sermon: Maturity and the Law

02.23.2014       Preaching Text: “You have heard that it was said…” (Matthew 5:21)

As we were leaving Bell Choir practice Thursday evening, somebody noticed a poster on the wall that Sammie and the childcare group had put up. It is a covenant of sorts and is duly signed by all our children.

At top the heading reads: Rules. It then proceeds to list its 6 rules or, if you will, “commandments”:

  1. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  2. Inside voices.
  3. Hands to yourself.
  4. Don’t break anything.
  5. Be respectful.
  6. Talk nice.

Today’s readings from scripture convey this same sort of thing. Which is to say they present guidelines on how to live a good life. They communicate timeless truths, hardwired into the very core of Creation itself.

But if such commandments are indeed hardwired and, thus, obvious, why did Sammie feel the need to write them out? Are they not self-evident, requiring no special attention at all?

Every once in a while Linda and I will be sitting in a restaurant and notice a family with particularly well-mannered children. Rather than running around without apparent parental supervision, they sit quietly, composed, and respectful of those around them.

Often, upon our departure, Linda will go up to the parents and compliment them on their children. “I just have to tell you,” she will say, “your children are so polite and well-behaved.”

Almost invariably, the response is something like this: “Thank you. We work very hard at it.”

If we’re paying attention, the obvious conclusion is that manners and, yes, morals, must be taught, learned, and practiced. They don’t come about naturally. Without moral guidance, as we know, any childcare group, or family, will suffer ill effects.

Which is why the Israelites so cherished the Law. They did not consider it a burden, but a precious gift, one that allowed them to see God’s plan hidden within Creation, a constellation of principles guiding the human community.

That God granted them this precious insight was thought a glorious revelation, enabling them to avoid many of life’s pitfalls. It was as if they were given a map showing where all the landmines were hidden. Following the map meant relative safety and well-being.

Fast-forwarding to today, things are indeed quite different. As a whole, our postmodern world eschews rules, commandments, laws.

Recently my mother read Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, a book recommended by the chaplain where she lives. It seeks to explain the uniquely Christian understanding of pain and suffering.

After proclaiming how essential it is that a culture, or religion, have healthy ways of ascribing meaning to suffering, Keller goes on to say that our postmodern culture is particularly bad at it.

He cites a scholar of ancient northern European history who observes how “disturbing it is for modern readers to see how much more unafraid people fifteen hundred years ago were in the face of loss, violence, suffering and death.”

Why is this? From the modern secular viewpoint, the material world is all there is, therefore the meaning of life is based solely on “the freedom to choose the life that makes you most happy.” From that standpoint, “suffering can have no meaningful part.” After all, who chooses suffering?

Keller writes: “[The] meaning of life in our Western society is individual freedom. There is no higher good than the right and freedom to decide for yourself what you think is good. Cultural institutions are supposed to be neutral and ‘value free’ – not telling people what to live for, but only ensuring the freedom of every person to live as he or she finds most satisfying and fulfilling. But if the meaning of life is individual freedom, then suffering is of no possible ‘use’.”

Assuming this individual freedom to choose, what then is the role of the Law in an increasingly secularist, Postmodernist world? After all, laws presume a certain “given-ness” to life, that there are rules that apply to human life, as well as to that of nature, regardless of whether we recognize them or not. We violate them at our peril.

But even if we do reject this relativist, Postmodernist subjectivism, one that denies any set meaning, we still face the challenge of defining God’s truth and communicating it to others, especially our children.

In other words, just because I know how to read and write doesn’t mean my young untutored son or daughter does. In the same vein, just because I know that 1+1=2 doesn’t mean an unschooled 3-year-old will. To make this palpable error is to forget how I myself at one time had to learn such things.

And yet, why is it that we so blithely assume that people untutored in moral and spiritual laws will know anything about either? For in the absence of having been taught them, people will simply make them up on their own!

Last week I commented on how little value our denomination seems to give to theology. What’s odd to me is that we tend to celebrate the sincerity or authenticity of a person’s beliefs without questioning whether such beliefs are in fact true. The idea seems to be that it doesn’t matter what one believes so long as he or she believes it earnestly. Then again, strongly believing that the moon is made of cheese doesn’t make it so!

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus repeatedly say, “You have heard it was said…,” before giving a reinterpretation of Mosaic Law. In each case, the law is neither denied nor rejected. Rather, its meaning is clarified and deepened, addressing the intent of the heart rather than mere outward observance. Thus the law, rather than being up for grabs, is given a more mature reading.

Which brings me back to the covenant signed by our childcare group. Contemporary culture, increasingly adrift in terms of both elementary and mature readings of the law, would do well to heed its godly implications. Amen.