Walking the Line
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
February 16, 2020
Dolly Parton, the country singer, made a cameo appearance in one of Craig’s recent sermons. So today I’m going to pull in one of Dolly’s contemporaries: the late Johnny Cash, “the man in black.” I remember that Craig, who can sing, didn’t, so, I who cannot, will: (and you will help!)
“I Walk the Line” was written in 1956 after Johnny married the love of his life, she of country-music royalty, June Carter Cash. The song explains that Johnny – who had been arrested numerous times – was committing to a new life because his respect and love for June would be his bottom line from then on.
What are the voices of authority in your life? Where would you draw the line that you would not cross for moral or ethical reasons? Is this line where it is because of what you learned in your family – like your mother telling you not to lie, or in church – where you learned about the Good Samaritan – or from something that happened to you, or because of something you witnessed like someone being bullied, or did it have to do with race or gender? Have you put this line in place from a moral code you have absorbed because of your education? Or is it simply your conscience? Would you draw the line at murdering another human being? Killing an innocent animal? Lying to your family? Stealing from your employer? Not crossing a picket line?
I have a routine appointment at Health Partners in two weeks, right when an eight-day nurses strike is planned. Personally, I cannot cross a picket line. I have been a worker for too long and know the futility and desperation that puts people on the sidewalk in the cold, walking in circles, carrying a sign.
The greatest contemporary scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, said that “the essence of morality is drawing the line somewhere.”
Today’s lessons point to one Judeo-Christian reference point: The Ten Commandments. The reading from Deuteronomy reminds us to obey the commandments and in so doing to “choose life.” The Psalm says that the Commandments are a gift to help us live a better life. And in the Gospel, Jesus turns up the heat and intensifies the demands of four of the commandments.
Note that Jesus does not replace the commandments. He was an observant Jew who treasured his Scriptures, but like all rabbis to this day, debated and discussed what they “really” meant.
As a young Lutheran I was taught that the “Old” Testament, more respectfully called “the Jewish Scriptures,“ were the Law, while the” New” Testament or the “Christian Scriptures“ were the Gospel, the Good News that superseded the Law. This is completely inconsistent with what Jesus really says. He interprets; he doesn’t replace.
Most of us don’t like being told what to do. We think of exceptions and qualifications. I’ve always liked the phrase children used to use: “You’re not the boss of me!” The Franciscan Richard Rohr points out that “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” Acquiescing to a moral code is giving up a certain degree of control.”
For most of us, our instinct is to hear the Commandments as God laying down the law (literally – on stone tablets), with a thunderous, threatening voice, as Charleston Heston, playing Moses, hears it in the movie, The Ten Commandments: “THOU SHALT NOT!” (thunder! lightning!)
But what if we heard the Commandments in a different way, in a soft, loving voice, as a cautionary tale instead of admonitions carved in stone, as a loving parent, as Mr. Rogers might advise us:
“Do not steal.”
“Do not lie to anyone.”
“Do not treat poor people differently than you treat rich people.”
“You shouldn’t try to get back at people.”
“Do not kill…. Please.”
It is logical, as well as loving, for God to offer us the gift of these commandments. It is what a caring parent would do, and at some level we are hungry for them.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus intensifies the demands of four commandments involving murder, adultery, divorce and lying, and he puts the emphasis on how each of these affects – not only obedience to God– but human relationships. Not only an anachronistic screed about being good or the name of a bad old movie, The Ten Commandments, as Jesus elaborates on them in this Gospel, show us that relationships are where most of our moral choices are made, and the ancient, trustworthy tradition of the Commandments can help us do relationships right.
First, the commandment not to murder. Our culture – our government –sanctions selective murder – as in war, and in some states, capital punishment. But Jesus says that murder is not only taking someone’s life, it is also demeaning them by taking their dignity and their humanity, through anger, insults, name-calling. Since many of us are prone to this behavior on occasion, we are called to stop it and then reconcile with those we have hurt.
Secondly, it is not only the act of adultery that is prohibited, but also lust or unchecked sexual desire (I looked it up). Anglican C.S. Lewis once parodied this verse saying, “He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it, hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.”
Perhaps Jesus calls us to remove as many sources of “temptation” from our lives as we can, especially in our sex-saturated culture a tall order. Also, to look critically at the workplace or at our neighborhoods and social circles for the flirtations, the friendships, the innocent exchanges that eventually can threaten our primary relationship.
Young people face particular challenges. The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians reports that more than 75% of prime-time television programming contains sexual content, yet only 14% of sexual incidents mention any risks or responsibilities of sexual activity. Between 1997 and 2001 alone, the amount of sexual content on TV nearly doubled. And an analysis of the 279 most popular songs in 2005 revealed that 37% contained sexual references and that degrading sexual references were common.
Thirdly, divorce. The preacher David Lose writes this:
“The laws about divorce in the Old Testament are patriarchal – pure and simple. A man could divorce his wife simply by writing on a piece of paper: “I divorce her….”
Lose goes on, “The woman has no options. She can’t remarry. She has no more dowry. She’s consigned to a life of poverty depending on the kindness of her family who is not at all obligated to take her in again…When Jesus talks of divorce, this is the kind of divorce he knows about. And so, he defends the woman – who is powerless –And says ‘no divorce’ – except for unchastity. Over the years, others have used this passage to say that no matter what Jesus forbids divorce. But men and women in abusive relationships are not meant to be together. It is unfaithful – unchaste – for a man or woman to verbally or physical abuse one another.” Lose, himself a pastor, says, “I have rejoiced at times when a partner has had the courage to ask for a divorce.”
Fourth, lying has become situational, conditional today. We lie to save someone’s feelings, to prevent a greater wrong, or to be funny – “Gotcha! I was just kidding.” Yet Jesus says that our words are to be, not humorless, but honest, truthful, consistent, and be people of our word.
Collectively, what are the implications of these words of Jesus today? What are the consequences when our most visible celebrities and highest leaders model immorality, deception, name-calling and insult other human beings as a matter of course? These may seem like fiercely polarizing questions, yet they are important questions and it is appropriate—necessary—to raise them in place.
Diedrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and martyr at the hands of Hitler writes, “But with a ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clearly a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy…Belief means decision.”
I am puzzled by Christian Evangelicals who say that moral failings in our leadership are less important than the correct political agenda, and are willing to look the other way when every single commandment – parallel to the moral basis of all of the world’s great religions – is violated. It’s not the first time.
The mighty Roman Empire that ruled the world for over 500 years is gone, one reason being a series of increasingly corrupt leaders.
Listen to what Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, who writes: “How probable is it that a tiny people, the Children of Israel, known today as Jews, numbering less than a fifth of one percent of the population of the world, would outlive the empire that sought its destruction? Or that a small persecuted sect known as the Christians would one day become the largest movement of any kind in the world?”
He goes on, “There have been many superpowers: Spain in the fifteenth century, Venice in the sixteenth, Holland in the seventeenth; France in the eighteenth, Britain in the nineteenth, the United States in the twentieth. Yet Judaism has existed in some form for the better part of 4000 years, Christianity for two thousand, and Islam for fourteen centuries. Religions survive: superpowers have not. Spiritual systems have the capacity to defeat the law of decline that overruns the life of nations.” Sachs concludes, “Awareness of the fragility and impermanence of our world should penetrate the cocoon of denial we have woven so carefully.”
On an individual level, however, how do we construct a framework for moral decency in our particular culture? What propels us to do the right thing towards our neighbors, God and even ourselves? To live the faith to which we are called?
Jesus taught that all the commandments are based on a single idea. Frederick Buechner explains it this way: “Loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls and our neighbor as ourselves is the basis for judging all other commandments and laws. Lesser laws are to be obeyed only if they are consistent with the law of love and superseded if they aren’t.” So, Jesus said that healing on the Sabbath, even though it was ”work,” was permissible because love and compassion demanded it.
He goes on to say that loving your neighbor isn’t primarily a feeling, instead it means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them…There is only your heart to go by here and whatever by God’s grace it has picked up along the way. This kind of action often begins internally, within our very souls and the conflicting feelings we have about our lives. The writer David Brooks observes that “moral empowerment occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed.”
I endured my share of difficulties as a young person – and later. Now I have two figurines in my living room that are from my parents’ house on Curtice Street, two small Elizabethan figures, she with an apron full of flowers, he scanning the horizon (sexism anyone?) Since these were my parents’ wedding gifts, they were there before I was and have witnessed much of my life. I can still see them on the bookcase shelf where they stood near the front door. Now I see them in the context of words from Bishop Stephen Charleston who calls up this image: “We all bear the soul scars of a wrong done to us… Feel the warm hand of One who was there and loves you all the more for what you have endured.”
Sometimes it is the Creator that warms our hearts, other times it is other people. As one person put it: “You can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you.” When someone I don’t know extends a hand to me on the ice, or a mysterious stranger in the car ahead of me pays for my lunch at a drive-through, I am warmed by that the whole day.
So, with hearts warmed by love received and love bestowed — even in the smallest kindness from another, we move forward, individually and collectively.
I want to close with two things from Jon Meacham’s epic book The Soul of America.
One is about our country:
He writes, “For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
The second is more personal, a statement by Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten nearly to death at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, in a protest for voting rights. Lewis said this: “At the moment when I was hit on the bridge and started to fall, I really thought it was my last protest, my last march. I thought I saw death, and I thought, ‘It’s okay, it’s all right. I am doing what I am supposed to do.’”
And that is, the bottom line. Amen.
Chris Abani, TED Talks “On Humanity” 2008.
David Brooks, The Road to Character, 2015.
Frederick Buechener, Beyond Words, 2004, p.222.
Bishop Stephen Charleston, daily blog.
Journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, 2010.
David Lose, “In the Meantime,” Internet source.
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: A Battle for the Better Angels of Our Nature, 2018.
Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, 2001.