Saturday, February 12, 2011

February 13, Proper 1, Elders Choosing Life: On the Ordination of New Elders at Old First

Deuteronomy 30:14-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
"Choose life.” Deuteronomy 30:19. Keep choosing life. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, choice after choice, judgment after judgment. By many small choices and judgments. But how do you know what to choose?

The paradigm case is Adam and Eve. God had given them a daily choice for life and not for death. Their choice was between two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They could know the difference between good and evil by trusting in God’s commandment to eat from the first and not from the second.
Not that the fruit of the second was evil or poison; it was good and lovely, and I’m sure other creatures ate it with no problem, but for Adam, God had commanded against it. And so every day Adam had to walk past that tree and choose against his natural appetites and choose for God’s commandment. He had to exercise his judgment and his trust in God, even against his natural appetite, which no other creatures have to do, and to choose against it day after day is what made him and kept him a human being. He had to keep choosing life according to the words of God.

That story is at the beginning of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, and at the far other end, like the other foot of a rainbow, is our lesson from Deuteronomy 30, from the very last speech that Moses gave the Children of Israel, just before they entered the Promised Land. It was for these people (and their parents) that the story of Adam and Eve was first recorded, because they will need it on this occasion. The Promised Land is their own Garden of Eden, and the Laws of Moses are an expanded version of the commandment of the trees. Every day they have to keep on choosing life by choosing to trust God and obey. And their doom will be the same as Adam’s if they make the same kind of choices.

The Children of Israel move into the Promised Land in order to “set forth a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” so to speak, because all men and women are equally in the image of God. This new nation is quite literally the Kingdom of God, the only nation in the world without a human king. Its only king is God, so this new nation is, quite literally, “thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

As they enter the Promised Land, God is giving them responsibility, they’re given responsibility to develop a culture and an economy. They’ll have to make many choices. They’ll have options and possibilities, and many temptations to do it like the other nations do. How will they know what to choose? Short answer: follow the instructions. Do you want God’s blessing? Follow the instructions. Don’t pray for God’s blessing if you’re not following God’s instructions. God doesn’t play games with us, God is straightforward and rather pragmatic. The blessings come from following the instructions, which for Israel, as a political unit, take the form of laws and decrees and ordinances. They describe a way of life. They are the gift of God that calls us to maturity and responsibility. There needs to be at least a little bit of Jewishness in every Christian.

The Laws of Moses left room for judgment calls. How do you apply it here, how do you apply it there, especially as the centuries wore on and the culture developed new situations that were unknown in Moses’ day. The scribes and pharisees dealt with this by ever more detailed applications—where this law counted here for this and but did not count there for that, which Jesus touched on in our gospel lesson. As if you could keep it perfectly by being scrupulous with the precise details. As if you could escape the risk of making judgment calls. Jesus has a very different strategy: he makes it a matter of your heart. Every law always counts every where; not one of them shall ever pass away. But what they count for is your conscience, and your freedom, and your love. Every law always convicts you and every law guides you and every law inspires you. For Jesus the law is the means and not the goal. The goal is life, abundant life, and the goal is love, the love of God.

What Jesus began, the Apostles continued. It was their well-considered decision that the Law of Moses was not binding on the church. What is binding on the church is the Lordship of Jesus. The way that we choose for life is by choosing for him. We cleave to him, we bind ourselves to him, we put our trust in him. We obey him, not as a letter, but as a living Lord. That kind of choosing is harder to define than doing it by the law, but it’s also more personal, and it brings us closer to God. We go so far as to bind ourselves to strong name of the Holy Trinity.

So you, yourself, as an individual believer, are wonderfully empowered and responsible. You are responsible to make judgment calls and daily choices, week after week, year after year. You have the word of God to inspire you and guide you. Not just the law, but also the prophets. And the gospels, and the epistles. Every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And all these words are made so easily available. Not in secret codes, not in priestly mysteries, but in this book, this book that children read. So many of the words in here are sweet and wonderful and as obvious as Mother Goose. So many of the words in here are challenging and daunting and as hard to understand as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But if we are patient and humble we can help each other understand them. A congregation does this when we’re a living community of Jesus.

A congregation is like a village in the kingdom-of-heaven-come-on-earth. In this congregation we live together as a community of Jesus. As I said last week, by our life together we illuminate the kingdom of God for the neighborhoods around us. And how we live together depends upon our constant choices in behavior and how we treat each other. We do this organically all the time in many ways.

But sometimes we have to make judgment calls. Difficult choices. Risky choices. Some of them requiring sensitivity and confidentiality. And that’s why we have elders in our church. A board of elders, in whose spiritual sensitivity we have confidence. We appoint them and anoint them because we trust them and we trust their judgment. We empower them to make choices and judgment calls about our common behavior and our common expectations, with one eye on the Lordship of Jesus and the other eye on our witness to our part of the world.

Next week I’ll preach about our deacons. Our deacons here work very hard and the work they do is very obvious to you. Our elders here work just as hard, but much of what they do is harder to see, and it must be so, for much of what they do is done confidentially. They have to carry burdens in their consciences and their hearts. They deal with the kinds of jealousies and quarreling that we read about in the epistle, the kind of things that develop in a community as naturally as Adam’s appetite. These things are natural and deadly. And the elders have carefully to choose among them in order to choose life for this congregation.

The kingdom of heaven is not something separate way up there. In the Lordship of Jesus the kingdom of heaven is come on earth. Its territory covers everything. It blesses everything and judges everything. This is why our elders have to have daily jobs not in the church but in the world. Our elders make constant subtle choices and judgment calls on how our church can help our human lives receive the Kingdom of God and bear witness to it by our common life. The office of elder is the distinctive office of the Reformed church. Other versions of the church have pastors and deacons, but the office of elder is what makes us Reformed. Our elders have been meeting together for 356 years, as pastors have come and gone, meeting together and choosing life for this community of Jesus. All that we ask of them today is that they keep their watch of three more years, and leave the next 300 up to God. I believe that God will continue to be just as faithful to us as God has always been, because God has chosen life for us, because God loves us.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Robert Hagedorn said...

But what IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal.

Old First said...

The First Scandal intepretation is all speculation, of course. So often the interpretations of many poeple say as much about themselves as about what they're interpreting.