Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Question to Myself
John 3:1-17[1]
It seems to me that most of us are not great risk-takers. We want our lives to be comfortable, and safe, and predictable. And we turn to Christian faith to provide us that comfortable, safe, and predictable life. We want our faith to be something that we can depend on, something we can rely on, something we can count on. So we take faith and make it into certainty in order to fill that need for assurance. At least that has been the traditional approach, which construes the Christian faith as the truth that was “once for all” delivered to the faithful and preserved inviolable throughout the centuries in an infallible text and an infallible church.
Before we point the finger at other Christian traditions as the offenders here, we’d better look to our own roots. The Reformed confessions from the Sixteenth Century depict faith in this very way. The Second Helvetic Confession, from the Swiss branch of the Reformed Church, says that Christian faith is “a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles’ Creed.”[2] That doesn’t leave much room for doubt. [3] And the Westminster Confession, which was the confession of faith of the Presbyterian Church for centuries, hardly even speaks the language of faith—it’s all about knowledge and absolute truth and certainty. It’s easy to understand why we look for this certainty in our faith. It’s comforting and reassuring to have something firm to hang onto in the midst of all that’s changing in our world.
But in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus speaks very differently about faith. In fact, what he had to say about new life was so confusing to one of the “teachers of Israel” named Nicodemus that he misunderstood Jesus meaning completely. Jesus said, “you must be born from above,” but the way he said it could also be understood, “you must be born again.” That’s what led Nicodemus to think Jesus was talking about some kind of bizarre ritual by which an adult physically climbs back into the womb and is born a second time. In fact Jesus was talking about a different kind of birth—a birth that brought new life from the Spirit of God.[4] And I can just picture Nicodemus sitting there, scratching his head.
It’s no wonder. Jesus said what he was talking about was like the wind blowing. He said, “You can hear the wind, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). Now, Jesus wasn’t talking meteorologically. These days all we have to do is turn on the Weather Channel and we can see the precise atmospheric conditions that are generating the wind we hear when we walk outside. But if you don’t have access to any modern technology, and a wind comes upon you suddenly, you’re just as surprised and baffled as if you were living in the First Century. The new life that Jesus points us to is just as much a mystery as the wind can still be.
Because it is so mysterious, there is something inherently uncertain about what God is doing in our world to bring new life. Like a sudden wind that takes us by surprise, the newness that God brings to us is something that overwhelms us. When God’s Spirit blows into our lives, we are out of our element and find ourselves exposed and vulnerable, placed in a situation where all we can do is “sink to our knees in faith and hope and love, praying and weeping like mad.”[5] If that is the case, it seems to me that we have to acknowledge that there must be something inherently uncertain about our faith.[6]
So what in the world makes us think that we can somehow take that mysterious spiritual reality that is beyond our ability to understand or explain, and turn it into absolute knowledge and certainty? What makes us think we can try to make faith into something safe and manageable and predictable?[7] For some, I dare say it’s a matter of keeping faith convenient, seeking to limit our response to God’s new life to “how little can I get by with.”[8] This approach to faith is a little like a teenager preparing for an exam, and trying to get by with a minimum of effort.
I think that for many, this obsession with certainty stems from “a repressed fear that faith is only faith and as such a risk with no guarantee of anything.”[9] But that is precisely what faith is: a risk with no guarantee of anything! No matter how we try to make this life safe and comfortable and predictable, there is something inherent uncertainty about life. That uncertainly applies as much to our faith as it does to any other aspect of life. I think St. Augustine was talking about this uncertainty when he reflected on all he had done and not done, despite his best efforts, and he said: “I have become a question to myself.”[10] One of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time basically admits that, for all his insight into faith, he doesn’t even understand himself!
It seems to me that the only way to take the risk of faith is to acknowledge this “question to myself,” to acknowledge that we don’t even understand ourselves, let alone the new life, or the Spirit of God. If we’re going to take the risk of faith, we have to reckon with the fact that when the wind of God’s Spirit blows new life into our lives, it is not going to be safe and predictable.[11] When God’s Spirit blows into our lives, we will find ourselves exposed and vulnerable. In that moment, we may want to try to hang on to our lives and keep all the pieces manageable and predictable and save. But if we are going to take the risk of faith, we can only respond by opening ourselves to new life God brings. We can only respond by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and therefore changeable. We can only respond by saying, “Here am I.”[12] I think that’s what the Bible calls faith.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/20/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] “Second Helvetic Confession,” The Book of Confessions 5.112.
[3] Cf. the similar statement in the “Heidelberg Catechism,” The Book of Confessions 4.026, explanation of “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” says, “I trust in him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.”
[4] Cf. Sandra M. Schneiders, “Born Anew,” Theology Today 44 (July 1987): 189-96.
[5] John Caputo, On Religion, 12; cf. also p. 31: “Something grander and larger than us comes along and bowls us over and dispossesses us.” Cf. also Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, II:255-56, 355-56.
[6] Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 185, 190, 194-95, 197-98, 204, 209-216; cf. Caputo, On Religion, 8, 7-16, 19, 23-34, 53. Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 98-99, where he says, “Faith always involves “a leap into the darkness of the unknown.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he says that faith impels us “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action,” and compels us “to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.”
[7] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 12, where he observes that we want our faith “manageable, cut to size and proportioned to our knowledge, so that we know what to do in the present situation and what to expect in the future.”
[8] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 28. He warns that those who think they “specify and determine in well-formed formulae what they love when they love their God” must be careful that it does not turn into “an easy irresponsibility and complacency” or “a convenient answer, which substitutes for responding ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24).”
[9] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 124; cf. also Caputo, 35-36, where he describes this approach in terms of “closing the circle of faith, to slam shut the doors of faith from the intrusions of other faiths or of un-faith, to keep faith behind closed doors, safe and secure, and thus to suffer the illusion that there is some way to settle the question whose very meaning is to be unsettling.”
[10] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 18, 27.
[11] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 12-14; see especially 33-34: “Faith is not safe. … Faith is always—and this is its condition—faith without faith, faith that needs to be sustained from moment to moment, from decision to decision, by the renewal, reinvention, and repetition of faith …. Faith is always inhabited by unfaith, which is why the prayer in the New Testament makes such perfect sense, ‘Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24). For my faith cannot be insulated from unbelief; it is co-constituted by unbelief, which is why faith is faith and not knowledge.”
[12] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 28.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One Sin, Infinite Mercy
Rom. 5:12-19[1]
We American Christians have an interesting way of taking sin seriously. The sins of others, that is. We can get righteously indignant about all kinds of structural injustices taking place “out there” in the world. Or we may find ourselves up in arms over the immorality we see in others’ lives. But when it comes right down to it, our way of taking sin seriously means that we take our own sin with a grain of salt. By that I mean that we let ourselves off the hook, while at the same time we insist on stringing up all those real “sinners” out there, whether we think they are the ones who are leading our society down a drain of immorality, or whether we think they are the corporations and power mongers who are stripping the people of their livelihoods and stripping the land of its resources. The bottom line is that, for us, the real sin is “out there.”[2]
I wonder if we can look at ourselves and our actions deeply enough to ponder the effects of one sin. That’s what St. Paul does in our lesson from Romans for today. He looks at one sin—the sin of Adam and Eve—and sees in that one sin the downfall of the whole human race.
I think most of us probably have some challenges with that line of thinking. Can one sin really be that powerful? Well, let’s see. It seems to me that one sin can destroy a whole family. I’m not just talking about a “nuclear family” in terms of parents and kids and dogs and cats. I’m talking about the extended family. One sin can infect a whole clan with bitterness, suspicion, and hatred. And it seems to me that one sin can destroy a congregation. One indiscretion—whether it’s sexual or financial or otherwise, can set the direction for a whole congregation. One sin can define a whole conglomeration of families—for decades, if not generations. Is it going too far to say that one sin can destroy a community? I don’t think so. One act of corporate greed can turn a thriving community into a ghost town. Think of Flint, Michigan. One act of negligence can poison the eco-system of a whole community for generations. Think of Chernobyl! Can we say that one sin can destroy a nation? Yes, I think we can. How many times have we seen rival factions turn a whole nation into a war zone battling over wealth and power? All it takes to destroy a nation is one man’s delusions of grandeur!
What about St. Paul’s assertion that one sin brought death to the whole human race? Well, I think we have to understand first of all that when Paul is talking about death coming to the whole human race as a consequence of one sin, I don’t think he’s talking about the physical limits of human mortality. I think he’s talking about death as a spiritual condition.[3] He’s talking about those actions that affect the spirit, the heart, the mind, the very the soul of who we are as human beings. Can one sin lead to the death of a person’s very soul? Ask any victim of abuse, and I think you will find that it can! I think what the Apostle Paul wants us to consider is that every sin you and I commit has the potential to spread death and destruction much farther than we can imagine. And there are some sins that have the potential to destroy the whole human race.[4]
St. Paul looks at the “original sin” of our first parents in the garden and reminds us that one sin can have consequences for the whole human race. Something about that just doesn’t seem right to our way of thinking. How can one act have such widespread effects? Part of the explanation is that one sin has a tendency to lead to another. And another. And another! St. Paul looks at the whole sweep of human experience, so full of violence and greed and hatred and abuse and corruption and exploitation and injustice and oppression, and he says in effect that it all started with one sin.
For most of us, the idea that the “original sin” of Adam and Eve could be held against us all seems to be unfair. How can God be just if God holds us all guilty for what we didn’t do? The reason why we can’t claim that it’s unfair is that we all have our own history of sin.[5] None of us can claim never to have done anything that might contribute to the spread of death to the whole human race. In fact, each and every one of us, in some way or another, at some time or another, has done our part to extend the grasp of death on the human race a little farther. In a very real sense, what Paul is trying to do is move us to the Lenten discipline of confession—to acknowledge that my sin has far-reaching consequences.
But if we stop there, we run the risk of completely missing the point! St. Paul’s point is not just to make us all keenly aware that sin has far-reaching consequences. He also wants us to be aware that one act of faithfulness has far-reaching benefits. Paul insists that while one sin brought death to the human race, God’s response to the whole flood of countless human sins is infinite mercy. Mercy for each and every sin. Grace that restores and heals and gives life in the place of death. And it is through the one faithful act of Jesus Christ, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross, that God’s infinite mercy extends to the whole human race.[6] Through that one act, God’s generous grace was poured out on all humankind, healing the destructive effects of our sins, restoring the hearts and minds and souls that have been subjected to all kinds of death, and replacing it with the gift of life.[7]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:532, where he calls this tendency on both sides—those who view sin as primarily immorality and those who view it as primarily structural evil—a “truncated view of sin.”
[3] Cf. Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “The Sting of Death,” Theology Today 45 (Jan 1989): 415-26.
[4] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans” Interpretation 58 (July 2004): 231-35 where she points out that Paul portrays sin as a kind of “cosmic terrorist” that “entered the cosmos with Adam, it enslaved, it unleashed Death itself.” From this perspective, she concludes, “Sin cannot be avoided or passed over, it can only be either served or defeated.”
[5] Cf. Paul K. Jewett, Romans, 376. Ernst Käsemann, Romans, 148, cites the Jewish apocalypse 2 Baruch 54:19, “each of us has become our own Adam.” Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 290, “Death continues to dominate humanity not solely because of one primeval act but because of humankind’s continued acts of sin.”
[6] Regarding the issue of whether Paul’s language of redemption applies universally to the whole human race, Dunn, Romans 1-8, 297, acknowledges the problem, but asks the question, “How, after all, can grace be ‘so much more’ in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death?” cf. similarly, Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God, 103-107.
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1:456, and IV.1:333-35, where he speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Cf. also Jewett, Romans, 370, 379-80; Dunn, Romans 1-8, 297; Gaventa, “Cosmic Power,” 240.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Our Future Belongs to God

Ps. 131; Mt. 6:24-34[1]

We are a people oriented toward the future. Unlike other cultures, where the past or the present defines people’s lives, it is our looking toward the future that defines us. The future is something that fascinates us. We are fascinated by the possibilities of the future—possibilities we may only be able to imagine. But the future can also be unnerving, because we can never know for sure what it will bring. That’s why faith is so closely connected to the future. Anyone who looks to the future is a person who has faith.

Now, you may find that a surprising statement, since many people in our day and time reject what we would typically call faith. They have given up on the traditional faith in a God who loves us and cares for us and provides for us. In fact, they may view it as incredibly naïve to approach the future from a confidence borne of traditional faith in God. Many in our day and time—even we who claim traditional faith—live as if the future belongs entirely to us, as if the future depends solely on us, as if the future holds nothing in store for us except what we make of it.

The argument we use to support this way of life is to claim that we are approaching life from a realistic, clear-eyed, practical point of view. The way the world works is plain to see for those who have eyes to see it—we’re essentially on our own. If you want anything from this world you have to go out and get it. You really cannot rely on anyone else to do it for you. It is the essential creed of our American individualism.[2]

But that points us to the problem with this point of view. It’s not that this is a “reasonable” outlook in contrast with those who prefer to embrace “faith.” When we insist that we are on our own and that we have to go out and get what we want from life on our own, we have simply embraced a different kind of faith. We have chosen to believe that the future is in our hands, and that if we don’t do what is necessary to make it turn out the way we want, it won’t happen. And so our motto is, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”[3] And we live a life whose essential characteristic is seeking and striving.

Then there’s Jesus, pointing us to the birds and the lilies. What are we to make of that? We tend to be very happy with our striving and seeking and not yielding to make the future what we want it to be. And Jesus stands there pointing to birds and flowers as prime witnesses to a different faith.[4] It is the faith that says, “all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care.”[5] It is the faith that believes in a God who reigns over this world with grace and mercy and love. It is the faith that entrusts our future into God’s hands, and in fact that is confident that “in life and in death we belong to God.”[6] In other words, our future—all of our future—belongs to God.

The skeptic will be quick to point out that this promise of a God who cares for us and provides for us has been around for a long time. And yet, throughout the ages there have been many people of faith who have trusted in this promise and have been left wanting. Through no lack of faith on their part, their experience of life was such that they were not rescued in their time of need. They did not have their needs provided in time to stave off famine. They did not find protection from those who would do violence to them. From this point of view, the skeptic insists that it is foolish to go on believing in a God who provides for us.

And then there’s Jesus again, perhaps gently shaking his head, asking us, “Who’s the fool?” Is it more foolish to believe that we belong to a God of grace and mercy and love, even though sometimes those who believe in God find the promise of God’s care lacking? Or is it more foolish to believe that we can somehow wrest the future into our own grasp and mold it to suit our desires? Jesus would say you might as well try to add a foot to your height (Matt. 6:27)—it makes about as much sense as trying to control the future! In many ways, Jesus points out with some irony that all our efforts to control the future are futile. All our striving and seeking and not yielding are illogical. Our faith in our own ability to secure our future is the real folly!

We have the choice: we can choose to approach life and the future based on the creed that says you’re on your own and your future depends entirely on you. It is a creed that ultimately rests on fear—on the anxiety that Jesus warns us against. And it is a creed that is defined by striving—striving to control our future.[7] Or we can choose to approach life and the future based on the faith that says that everything we are and will ever be is secure in God’s hands, regardless of the circumstances of our lives here and now.

The reality is that it is the creed of striving that is truly naïve. Faith does not spring from naiveté, but rather it comes out of the experience of loss and suffering and hardship that the skeptic believes disproves faith’s confidence in God. Faith is the way of life of the Psalmist, who can sing the song of faith only after singing the song of sadness.[8] Faith is the way of life that says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2). In contrast to the foolish striving that tries to control the future, faith reflects the wisdom of surrender—surrender to the simple human limitations that mean it is impossible for us to make our lives come out the way we think we want them to.[9] Surrender to the faith that we don’t have to keep up the futile effort to secure our future because our future belongs to God. Surrender to the comforting and restful truth that in life and in death, I belong wholly to God.[10]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/27/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] The chief prophet of this faith is Ayn Rand. Cf. Jennifer Burns. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Cf. also Amy Benfer, “And the Rand Played On,” in Mother Jones Times (July/Aug 2009); accessed at .

[3] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” line 70.

[4] Cf. Charles Carlston, “Matthew 6:24-34,” Interpretation 41 (April 1987): 180.

[5] Isaac Watts, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” from The Presbyterian Hymnal, no. 288, stanza 3.

[6] “A Brief Statement of Faith,” Book of Confessions, 10.1.

[7] Cf. Richard J. Dillon, “Ravens, Lilies, and the Kingdom of God,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53 (Oct 1991): 618-19.

[8] Cf. H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Psalm 131,” Review and Expositor 85 (1988):89-94.

[9] Cf. Dillon, “Ravens, Lilies, and the Kingdom of God,” 621-23.

[10] Cf. “The Heidelberg Catechism,” Book of Confessions 4.001.


Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Mt. 5:38-48[1]

Appearances can be deceiving. That statement applies as much to religion as it does to any other area of life. I find it amazing that sometimes the people who present themselves as most pious, holy, and upright are in reality those who can be the most cruel, the least generous, and certainly not people who are merciful and compassionate. And conversely, sometimes those who best live out God’s generous and unrestricted grace and mercy and love can seem to be the most impious people. I think that’s one of the main reasons why the Christian faith has been so discredited in our culture. So when our lesson from the Hebrew Bible presents us with the command, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2), I’m not sure what to do with it. I resonate with it, because I’m one of those strange people who grew up believing in doing the right thing. But when I look around at our world, I’m not sure that being holy is a motivation that many people share.

And when I think about it, maybe that shouldn’t be our motivation. Trying to be holy can easily harden into self-righteousness. And self-righteousness always expresses itself in a rigid adherence to “rules” that you pick and choose to suit yourself. Our religion can make matters worse because it can reinforce our self-righteousness with piety. We reassure ourselves that we really are right in God’s sight by going through the motions of rituals that are supposed to make us “holy.” But the hypocrisy of it all comes to light when our religion doesn’t translate into life.

So it’s not surprising that holiness is not a word we use much in our day and time. At least not with a positive spin. We may speak of what is “holy” as being detached from reality, something that belongs in an “ivory tower.” Or we may speak of holiness as something beyond or grasp—either literally or figuratively. Or we may only use the word when we point out that someone else is acting “holier than thou.”

But the real point of holiness gets lost in the process. From the biblical point of view, holiness is about being as well as doing. I realize that, to some extent, this may not solve anything. The desire to “be” right may be an even more potent temptation to self-righteousness, if for no other reason than we have a personal interest in being right (or at least in being perceived as right). But from the biblical perspective, holiness is really a matter of integrity. That is a concept that we care about. We look for integrity in our leaders. And we look for integrity in those we rely on. And we look for integrity in those we trust. But in a very real sense, integrity can seem like holiness—something elusive.

Our Scripture readings for today present integrity as a matter of imitating the character of God.[2] The sum of what it means to be right and do right is, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). This may sound like an outrageous demand. When we turn to our Gospel reading, it seems Jesus demands no less of us: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Who can possibly fulfill that? Who can possibly imitate the character of God?

Before we just give up and chuck it all, let’s take a closer look at this. In our lessons from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, we find that integrity is not a matter of living up to some rigid arbitrary system of rules. It’s not a matter of how well we practice our piety. Truly being right and doing right in the biblical point of view is something demonstrated in the specifics of how we relate to those around us. In our lesson from Leviticus, it’s a matter of leaving gleanings in the field so the poor will have something to eat (Lev. 19:9-10). It’s about dealing honestly and fairly with those around us (Lev. 19:11-13). It’s a matter of practicing the compassion and mercy of God in our relationships with those around us (Lev. 19:14-17). It is a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That is so familiar to us that most people know about it. But I doubt that many people know that the command to love your neighbor as yourself was originally formulated in a context of practicing justice and mercy towards others in very practical ways.[3]

The same thing is true for Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When we take seriously the very specific ways in which Jesus instructs would-be followers to relate to others in this context, we can see how specifically the command to love your neighbor relates to life.[4] Jesus says that you love your neighbor by refraining from retaliating against others for the wrongs they inflict on you. Jesus says you love your neighbor when you respond to injustices against you by “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile.”[5] In this context, Jesus says you love your neighbor by imitating the generous and unrestricted grace and love of God! And that applies not just to those who are less fortunate that we are—it applies to those who have power over us and may occasionally misuse that power![6]

I’m not sure we’ve really solved the problem here. All of this sounds good, but really living this way is another matter altogether! We still haven’t discovered where integrity is to be found. I think one of the most important clues may be in the word integrity itself. Integrity is what happens when our lives are integrated—when who we are and what we do match. Integrity is what happens when what we believe translates into how we live. Integrity is what happens when all of living flows from the very core of our being. That’s how we imitate God’s character. That’s how we live out God’s generous and unrestricted grace and mercy and love in our relationships with those around us. That’s how we translate “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” into a way of life.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/20/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” New Interpreters Bible, I: 1131.

[3] Cf. Kaiser, “Book of Leviticus,” I:1136, where he says, “To be holy is not to be narrow-minded and primly pious; it is, rather, to imitate God. To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. That is why, in this great chapter on moral holiness, the emphasis falls on social justice. Produce should be left in the fields for poor people to glean. Neighbors should be dealt with honestly. Wages should be paid promptly. Disputes should be settled with equity and fairness. In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor, show hospitality to the stranger, and be a person of justice.” See also Mary Douglas, “Justice as the Cornerstone,” Interpretation 53 (Oct 1999):341-50.

[4] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1175, where he compares what Jesus says here with Psalm 119. He says, “Jesus upheld the torah (see Matt 5:17-20), but he was not bound to specific formulations (see Matt 12:1-8; 15:1-20). Rather, he sought to extend the torah to represent God’s sovereign claim upon all of human life (see Matt 5:21-48). The psalmist was no legalist, and neither was Jesus.”

[5] Cf. Gene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible,VIII:197, where he says, “These commands of Jesus must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but any attempt to take them literally as casuistic laws leads to absurdity.”

[6] Cf. Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” VIII:198. He observes, “When it is a matter of protecting the weak and oppressed and setting aside the structures of injustice, disciples of Christ must, in fact, be ready to resist evil. But it is a different matter when disciples are called to set aside their own rights for the good of others.” Cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, ? where he sets out his interpretation of Matthew 5:38-48 in terms of a “third way” between violence and non-violence: doing something so completely unexpected that it shames the oppressor.

Finding Freedom

Deut. 30:15-20; Mt. 5:21-37[1]

It’s hard to mention the Ten Commandments these days without thinking about Judge Roy Moore. He’s the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who commissioned a 5,000-pound monument depicting the Law of Moses. And then he was removed from office for refusing to move it from the State Capitol. What you may not know is that “the Rock,” as it has been called, went on tour. That may not seem that big a deal, until you think of what it takes to lug around two-and-a-half ton sculpture. It rode on a flatbed truck and had to be lifted off and back again with a five-ton, fifty-seven-foot crane![2] What a perfect image to portray the commandments as “burdens, weights and heavy obligations,” as one commentator put it.[3]

But it doesn’t really seem consistent with the way our lesson from Deuteronomy portrays the commandments —as life-giving, liberating, restorative, and redemptive. In the Hebrew Bible, the commandments are an amazing gift that makes it possible for us to live in harmony with God’s will—with God’s justice and peace and mercy and love. Our lesson from Deuteronomy says it this way: “choosing life” means “obeying the command-ments of the LORD your God … by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (Deut. 30:16). It means “loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:20).[4]

We’re not used to talking about the commandments in this way. We’re much more familiar with talking about them as a burden, a weight, or a heavy obligation—like a 5,000-pound monument made out of Vermont granite. But that misunderstands the role of the torah in the covenant God made with the people of Israel. When God entered the covenant with the Jewish people, it was to form a relationship. Not surprisingly, what God was looking for from the covenant people was to commit themselves to this relationship wholeheartedly.[5] In that context, the purpose of the commandments was to define human life as an expression of what it means to love God.[6] They were given as the parameters within which they could live their lives—parameters that were intended to enable them to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love, both toward God and others.[7] Viewing the commandments as burdens misses the fact that they begin with “the good news of what the liberating God has done” (“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” Deut. 5:6) and then they describe “the shape of the freedom that results.”[8]

Here I’m quite sure we’ve entered terra incognita. Who ever heard the word freedom associated with the Ten Commandments—especially in church? When we think of freedom in connection with the Law of Moses, we tend to go down the path that sounds something like “Jesus sets us free from the Law.” But our Gospel lesson for today doesn’t really bear that out, does it? Jesus’ take on the Ten Commandments is not to set them aside, but to make them a central part of what it means to live in relationship with God! In a very real sense, our Gospel lesson shows Jesus spelling out in very specific terms what it looks like to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred, anger, and disrespect. For him doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven means that we not only don’t engage in promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts. For him, doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven means that we not only love our friends, we also love our enemies.[9]

So, how in the world can we speak of this kind of life in terms of freedom? I think St. Augustine was onto something when he said, “love, and do what you will.”[10] I think he was saying that if we truly love God and truly love others, then we are free to do whatever we want, because what we want will be an expression of love toward God and others![11] When we make the choice to align ourselves with the fulfillment of God’s justice and peace in this world, there’s not much in the Ten Commandments that will be limiting or restricting to us.

Events in Egypt this week have reminded us of how important freedom is for life. But they also remind us that true freedom requires certain parameters—civil rights, free and fair elections, the ability to make a livable wage, access to education, and others. Time will tell whether the Egyptian people will achieve true freedom. We hope and pray that they do. Our Scripture lessons remind us that we all constantly stand before the choice of true freedom. We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with God’s justice and peace and mercy. We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Joshua Green, “Roy and his Rock,” The Atlantic Monthly (October 2005); accessed at .

[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in The Christian Century (March 7, 2006):17.

[4] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that the Ten Commandments are the principles through which we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99.

[5] Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy, 125, 213 where he says that to live in covenant with God means “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”

[6] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans , 199: the original purpose of the torah in the context of a covenant relationship was “to show how life was to be shaped in ways appropriate for God’s people as their faithful and trusting response” to God’s gracious covenant and salvation. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles 175–176: “the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.”

[7] There is a potential for misunderstanding here. The language sounds like life and prosperity are a reward for obedience, and using rewards to motivate obedience tends to undermine the whole idea of a loving commitment. In reality the point is that life is the result of living in a way that is consistent with God’s purposes.

[8] Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” 17.

[9] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 146, reminds us that “God wills life, joy, freedom, peace, salvation, the final great happiness of [humanity]” (altered).

[10] Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John; fathers/170207.htm.; See also John Caputo, On Religion, 3-7, 24-28, 109-116, 134-36, 139; and Küng, Christian Challenge, 154: “love puts an end to casuistry.”

[11] Jacques Ellul, “Christian Responsibility for Nature and Freedom,” Cross Currents 35 (Spring 1985): 50 reminds us that true freedom is “inconceivable without … a life within the love of God and neighbor.”

Learning Generosity

Isa. 58:1-9; Ps. 112:1-9; Mt. 5:13-20[1]

I’m something of a people watcher. I find it fascinating to observe the trends and fads and the ebb and flow of the way our society functions. Of course, all that observing I do is from my perspective, and therefore it is necessarily limited and biased! Unfortunately, I’m not always as aware of that fact as I should be, and the result is that I have an unfortunate tendency to pass judgment on people about whom I really know very little! Perhaps it is my academic background that kicks in at those times—evaluating, analyzing, and judging are all very much a part of the academic process. But if I leave it there, it’s really just a convenient excuse for me to be “right”—which always happens at the expense of another! It’s not a very generous outlook.

Having said that, I would like to observe that it seems to me that our society is not one that I would call generous. We’re a people who are rushing around, trying to get ahead of everybody else, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line for fear that there will not be enough to go around. It seems like we’re a people grabbing to get what’s ours before “they run out.” Among the many problems with that outlook on life, it goes against the grain of what it means to be truly human. When I read our Scripture lessons for today, one of the thoughts that comes to mind is that what the prophets and teachers and apostles were trying to encourage in the people of their day was to recover a spirit of generosity as a way to recover their own humanity and restore their community.

One of the central features of the biblical message is that we who claim to be people of faith in the God of Exodus—the God who looks on the oppressed with ultimate compassion and who liberates the captives—are summoned to emulate that spirit in the way we relate to the people around us.[2] The Bible calls it “fearing the Lord,” but the idea is really one of trusting God and orienting ourselves to God’s purposes in this world.[3] And over and over again, the Bible defines those purposes in terms of “justice.”[4]

What I find striking in our lessons for today is the clear and concrete way in which they define living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity! In fact, in our Psalm for today, “conducting one’s affairs with justice” is specifically equated with “dealing generously and lending” as well as “distributing freely” and “giving to the poor” (Ps. 112:5, 9). The prophet says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”; “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isa. 58:6-7). Practicing generosity is the heart of what it means to live out God’s justice in our world. It is about lifting the burden, and lending to the destitute, and helping those who cannot (for whatever reason) help themselves!

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to take a different approach toward the destitute in our world—especially those who challenge our sense that the world is an ordered and predictable place where if we follow the rules we can rest assured that everything will turn out alright. When we feel threatened by the destitute, we tend to fall into the pattern of judging them—we analyze them and assume we know why they “fell through the cracks.”

When we see others as a threat to our well-being—whether it’s the destitute who challenge our false assurances about life, or simply the neighbor whom we fear might get there first and “they might run out”—it is impossible to practice generosity. Rather than opening our hands to share, when we live out of that kind of fear we tend to close our fists in order to protect what’s ours—and we have all kinds of ways of closing that fist, from gated communities to “vagrancy laws” to simply assuming we have a right to judge another human being.

So how can we find a way to unclench that fist and open our hands to give the gift of generosity to the people around us? Well, I think it starts with faith. In order to learn to practice generosity toward others, we have to overcome the fear that there will not be enough and trust that our needs will be provided. And I think generosity comes from learning to live out of a spirit of gratitude. When we overcome the resentment of insisting that I somehow got short-changed, and instead learn what it means to approach life from a sense of gratitude that we have received far more than we could expect, then we can relate to others with generosity. And I think it also takes a good dose of humility. When we recognize how many times we have failed and instead of getting what we deserve God’s grace has come to us and let us off the hook, we will be more likely to extend that grace and let others off the hook.

Generosity is not easy to learn. And it can be even more challenging to practice. It’s hard to know when someone is truly in need and when they’re just scamming you. And it’s hard to know how much you should give a person who is destitute. And it’s risky, because you can’t control what others will do with the help you give them. But I think practicing generosity is worth the risk. It holds out the hope for us to hang on to the compassion and gratitude and humility that help us preserve our humanity. And it holds out the hope that we can restore our community—perhaps only in small ways, but they are meaningful ways nevertheless.[5]

At the end of the day, we who profess faith in the God of Exodus who compassionately liberated the oppressed are called to practice that same generosity with the oppressed people in our world.[6] We who have time and again received the gift of being let off the hook are summoned to extend that grace to those we encounter who fall short. We who have experienced the open hand of God giving us all that we need and more can do no less than to open our hands and extend them to the people around us—our neighbors, all our neighbors.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/6/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 355-56.

[3] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1136.

[4] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 204, where he defines it as “compassionate justice.”

[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 206.

[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1133; cf. also Mays, Psalms, 359.