The 10 commandments are deep in our history. They are deep in our shared history, both from the Jewish origins to our current history. And for some people, they have assumed a supreme status, supreme even over everything else. In fact, you will find them in some places on courtroom walls or on signs out front, or people will attest that the 10 commandments is all we need to guide us through this life.
But are these 10 commandments sufficient to guide us in this life? I have to tell you, from a Jewish tradition, who were given the 10 commandments this proved not to be. And so, they made a lot of other laws and commandments. In fact, 613 of them. They had laws that guided every phase of life from how clothes are made, or to how they eat, and what to even cook.
Perhaps 613 laws tend to overwhelm. So, it’s understandable, that in various passages of the Gospel, people would come up to Jesus and say, which is the most important? Which one should I really pay attention? Which one is most important to follow that I might live? And they were not talking just about the 10 laws, they were talking about the 613 different rules to live by.
Jesus would respond it’s simple, you know. Love God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. And ultimately, in the Gospel of john, Jesus boils it down to just one. He says, love one another, as I have loved you.
We’ve been covering, in my “Intersections” series, cornerstones of what should form the boundaries of a faith that’s relevant to this modern life, what are the attributes that we want to sink as cornerstones that establish the boundaries of our faith going forward, or the church going forward, and I offered some ideas.
The four cornerstones I’ve established over the past month included “repentance”. And remember that repentance in the Bible simply means to change directions. So, if you find that your life is going in a direction that God does not want, then repent and change back to a path that God would want. And then the second Cornerstone that I established was “respect”. In fact, respecting God’s good creation as holy. Consequently, we don’t consume it, we don’t destroy it, we don’t stomp all over it. We treat creation with respect. The third Cornerstone that I talked about thinking that we should have was “humility”. If we regard that life is a journey, and faith informs our walk on that journey, then to fully embrace all that God would have us to become requires humility. We have to be humble enough to learn along the way, how God would have us engage new thoughts, new understandings, new wisdom. And the cornerstone that I introduced is “sacrifice”. There is no way to answer the call from God on how to live that that does not involve sacrifice, particularly in regard to how we live in the modern world.
Those are the four cornerstones: repentance, respect, humility and sacrifice. Together, they form a boundary in which we are going to construct our foundation going forward. At least it is what I will suggest you think about constructing as a foundation for your faith walk going forward in this life.
What are we going to pour into this foundation? On what will we base a walk-through life, this modern life filled with crisis is everywhere we look? My suggestion as to what is a necessary foundation for our faith life and for the Church is justice. Justice in many different forms.
As I’ve aged, I’ve become ever fonder of laws and regulations and rules, responsibilities and rights. You know when you are young you rebel against rules and restrictions. But hopefully that changes as you mature. In fact, it has been more than 50 years since I’ve had a speeding ticket. Yeah, I am the guy that everybody passes along the way and honks their horn at or waves that one finger at. I do not know what they’re trying to say to me, but you know, I still try to follow the rules. I really appreciate traffic rules. Yeah, because without traffic lights, we’re all going to get in accidents. I appreciate rules on building standards, and food quality and health standards. And I appreciate laws and rules that are promulgated to help us live a safer life, a healthier life, a better life.
But at the same time, I must confess to you that despite growing increasingly fond of laws, as I’ve aged, I’ve also gone to jail three times breaking the law.
Yeah. I have gone to jail, protesting what I consider to be unjust laws. Those laws that violate that our kids have a right to a future. Those laws that permit the very rich to produce a product, which destroys the potential for kids or grandkids to have a livable future. And so I’ve gotten arrested three times. And the first time I did it, I was just barely 60. It was in Washington, DC in front of the White House. And I was there with 100 other people. On the eighth day of a 10 day protest where everyone participating gets arrested. On my one side was a climate scientist from Ohio State University, who is a glaciologist. Right now, as I read his blog, he’s up in Greenland, charting how fast the ice is melting, which means how fast the seas are rising. He was on my left side, on my right side there was a Methodist pastor. In front of me, there were Native Americans who were protesting because this crude oil pipeline was going to endanger the very water that they drink the water that they rely on for health. So that was my first arrest.
To be honest, it embarrassed the heck out of my adult kids. They were all wondering, you know, what’s with the old man? I just don’t get it. Why would he be doing this? Why isn’t he just satisfied with what he’s got? Why does he have to be arrested in DC? And so, while this was going on, my wife was recording it on video so that we could potentially use it as an educational experience.
And so after the arrest, my adult kids are talking among themselves, what’s with dad? And the grandkids with their big ears overheard their parents talking about Grandpa, what did grandpa do? And so the next day in school, I have a six year old grandson who entertained his class while he was waiting for the school bus to pick them up. He began by shouting out loud, as loud as he could: “My grandpa got arrested while my grandma watched”. “My grandpa got arrested while my grandma watched”. The kids all got excited and cheered about that, you know, which caused his teacher to come up and say “Now, Dixon, Hush. Hush, Hush. We don’t talk about such things in public.” Which of course made Dixon more excited and yeah, shouted all the more: “My grandpa got arrested while my grandma watched”. The teacher finally got Dixon quiet and the kids on the school bus.
But later on, she had the opportunity to talk to my daughter Becky, Dixon’s mom say: “Must have been rather embarrassing for you that things have gotten so bad between your dad and your mother that she had to call the cops and to get him arrested. Becky horrified said: “ No, no, no, no, you don’t understand. It was in front of the White House. He was with a group of people. They were protesting the crude oil pipelines and the relationship of my parents have nothing to do with the arrest. If anything, she was there to support his act of protest.” So that was a bit of embarrassment.
The second time I was arrested was in front of the State department in downtown Chicago doing the same thing. And the third time was at the big Whiting refinery just over the Indiana border, once again protesting the laws that permitted corporations to destroy my grandkid’s future.
There are special times my ministry, when I have conducted ministry, that I have felt I was absolutely doing in that moment of time, what God would have me do. And I felt those times when I have pastored people who were on their deathbed, or with the families recovering the loss of a loved one. But I also felt it in those moments, in the back of those jail transport vehicles. Arrested sitting in there, in uncomfortable binding handcuffs and I’m surrounded by other men who have also been arrested (because they separated us by gender). And these men were looking for me to provide them comfort, to provide them some degree of assurance in a time of stress, time of not knowing just what the outcomes are going to be.
So I have great respect for the laws and rules and regulations that protect us, to make us a better people, that guide us along those right paths. But I have strong disagreement with those laws that do exactly the opposite. Those laws that destroy rather than preserve life.
The question really comes down to what guides the formation of these rules. What is the foundation that we base our laws on? And it cannot simply be the 10 commandments, because we know in our history that people who have firmly embraced the 10 commandments also firmly embrace slavery. Just like they also firmly embraced war and genocide.
So is it necessary to have 10 or 613 or the two or is it even just one? I think it is a both/and type of requirement. I do not think it’s either one or another. I think you need to have the ten commandments. I also think you need some form of 613 rules to guide your everyday movements. But you also need two (love God & love neighbor) and the ultimately the one great commandment to “love one another as I have loved you”.
What is necessary is that we firmly establish the bottom-line guidance to all our lawmaking. This must be now and forevermore rooted in justice. And that’s why I suggest that justice is the foundation for our path forward.
There are many forms of justice. And the reason there are many forms of justice is because, well, we need to give special focus to each one. And so yes, there is a need to embrace racial justice, because we are still living through that original sin of our civilization of slavery.
And there is a need to embrace environmental justice, because it should not matter whether a kid lives in one zip code, or another zip code when it comes to being able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. There is a critical reason for environmental justice. There is also a reason for climate justice, so that our kids going forward have a climate that you can actually live in.
There is a reason for all kinds of other justices to focus on but I want to specifically talk about one or two that you might not often encounter.
The first is really rooted, some 3000 years ago, when we got the book of Leviticus. In the book of Leviticus, there is several commands by God concerning the Sabbath. Now you already know the Sabbath, right? This is the seventh day for us Christians and we consider this the Sabbath. This is our day of rest. This is our day to hold it as Holy. Although we do a pretty lousy job of doing that lately in midst of our modern life, right? But God decrees that we should observe the Sabbath, so that we understand the need for balance in our lives. And that we also realize we’re the creatures not the Creator. So, there’s a time and a need to rest, reflect, renew.
But in the book of Leviticus, we don’t just have the Sabbath for ourselves, we have the Sabbath for the land. And so you have the Sabbath of the week, but you have the Sabbath year, which means every seventh year you allow the land that you’re farming, to rest, to recover, to renew. This is done, so the land can replenish going forward. So, it doesn’t get starved of it’s nutrients.
But the Sabbath year goes far beyond just farming. In the Sabbath year, Leviticus says all debts are canceled. In the seventh year, all debts are canceled. So, if you hold somebody’s debt, you must forgive it. Just like we say in the words of the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others”. In Leviticus, in the seventh year, all debt is canceled. But in our modern society there’s 25% interest rates piled on top of 25% interest rates piled on top 25 of interest rates. We used to call this practice illegal usury, but it’s now perfectly legal according to whoever messed up that law. So, people are forever indebted and can’t break loose. The commandment in Leviticus is to prevent this practice by on the seventh year, you let debt go free.
Okay, so we have the Sabbath day, the Sabbath year but in Leviticus we also have the Sabbath of the Sabbath years. It is called the year the Lord’s favor or the Jubilee year. It is every 50 years. So, the 50th year, God takes it up even another notch in God’s instruction to society. In this year of the Lord’s favor, everyone returns to their original status.
Wherever you started out 50 years ago, no matter whether you made great fortune or great debt, you and everyone else returns to their original status. God never planned that there would be wholesale separation of society from the very top to the very bottom. So, every 50 years, all were to be made equal. If somebody had sold themselves into slavery to cover their debt, in the 50th year, that family was set free, and Leviticus has specific instructions on how to do this.
I must be honest with you, we have no evidence that anybody ever practiced the year of the Lord’s favor. 3000 years ago, we were given this guideline for how to live. And we do not have any evidence outside of a few monastic centers that have embraced this kind of economics. The Jubilee year is being discussed now regarding the lessening the extreme debt burden of the developing world. You’ll hear about that occasionally now, but it hasn’t developed into reality. The thought is if we believed in economic justice then developing nations that are burdened by debt, would be freed from that historical debt, so that they might prosper and grow.
But we don’t have a 3000-year history of distributive justice outside of a few small clusters of people. This probably happens, because by the time 50 years comes around, some people have accumulated great wealth and great power. And these rich powerful people say, you know, those scripture rules really aren’t rules for everyday life. They are ideals, they are something to aspire to perhaps someday, but not here, and certainly not now. We are not going to do that. Those are spiritualistic guidelines, not practical laws.
And yet, Jesus embraces those rules. In the Gospels, he just says what good is it if you have two cloaks and your neighbor has none. Radical distributive economics we also have in the book of Acts. Which describes that the very first Christian community held all things in common, and everyone shared as they had need.
These practices that just I’m describing to you is called distributive justice, where everyone has an equal share of God’s good creation. Not a couple of thousand billionaires that hold all the world’s wealth, and seven and a half billion people who live in different levels of economic harm. That was never God’s plan.
Distributive justice is something that we really ought to consider. If for no other reason than our current economic system is obviously not working. We see that even in the pandemic crisis, the rich got richer, and the poor are still hanging on by their fingernails. That is not how God would have us live. Yeah, I know, it is disturbing to hear that. But you must understand that some people can never be satisfied no matter how many billions they have accrued. And so, what they do is they use their power to then distort what laws are created, which then gives them more wealth, more greed. So distributive justice is one of those justice stones that we need to set in our foundation going forward and see if we can develop an economy that has justice in it. So, people aren’t hurt by the economic system they are born into.
There is another element of justice, I want to raise up to you, which is restorative justice. We had an example of that when South Africa came away from its system of cruel apartheid. When South Africa minority people were finally able to be treated as equal, instead of seeking punishment for the people who inflicted the sins of apartheid upon them, instead of seeking retribution, they sought restoration.
What is restorative justice means is that there has been harm done, but we need to work out what it takes to restore everyone to be whole. Currently we are all focused on retribution, punishing those that have caused us harm. And in doing so we’re forgetting about the very necessarily need to heal, of becoming whole, of restoring us to the godly community, that God would have us become.
if we are honest, our current penal system is not working either. Right now, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other democracy in the world, by multiple times, and a huge chunk of our federal spending. and state level spending is on prisons. And our prisons no longer rehabilitate if they ever did. They simply make people into greater criminals.
These are the justice issues to think about, to ponder about, to ask God’s guidance going forward, restorative and distributed.
Another justice issue to think about is compassionate justice. Our justice system should demonstrate compassion. Theoretically, that’s why we have different penalties and rules for minors, than we do for adults because it’s compassionate. But compassion means more than simply the jail sentence. Compassion means that we’re going to care enough about all of God’s children, that we’re going to create opportunities where they can learn and grow and flourish no matter what their zip code is. We are going to rein in those that are too powerful, that are distorting the laws instead writing laws based in what God would have us do.
Matthew 12:38 “beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the market spaces, and have the best seats in synagogues and like the places of honor of feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense, make long prayers”.
The Old Testament prophet Micah 6;8: “what does the Lord require of you did but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who served us so long and so well and just died, had a plaque on her office wall which said, from Deuteronomy, “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God has given you”.
So, what will form our laws? What will be the ground for our justice? What will be the substance that holds us together? Luke 10:25 “behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test and said good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said to him, what is written into law? How do you read it? He answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind your neighbor as yourself. He said to him, you have answered correctly, do this, and you show live”. So, the mortar that we will use to bind our justice foundational stones together is compassionate love for our neighbor.
What is the final measure of how well we do justice? “Love one another as I have loved you”. Jesus came to show us the truth about the way we are live. May we accept God’s guidance for our lives this day and all the rest of our days. Amen.