Sermon – February 23, 2014

Categories: Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyAnother Ten

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“You must love your neighbor as you love yourself: I am Yahweh.” — Leviticus 19:18b

Given my background as a professional writer who worked mostly in theater, it might not surprise you if I said I have given the work of an artist— any artist— a lot of thought. Let me start with a basic premise: there is no way to define art except to say art is in the eye of the beholder.

However, over time, I have come up with a definition of what an artist does in an effort to create art. To be an artist means you have learned the discipline of being undisciplined. That statement— the discipline of being undisciplined— might sound a little confusing, so let me start to unpack it.

I believe an artist has to ask what it might be like to think in an undisciplined way or to explore emotions in an undisciplined way or to act in an undisciplined way. To think, to explore, to act in this undisciplined way could be describe as being all over the map, being disorganized.

However, having gone to this undisciplined place, then that artist needs to bring a sense of discipline to that lack of discipline. To use a different word, the artist needs to bring a sense of order to that disorder.

Why bring a sense of order to that lack of order? We humans understand order. We even impose order when there is little to be seen.

We see animals in clouds or a face on the moon or canals on Mars when they are not actually there. That’s because order makes sense to us. We understand order. We like order.

We also we pick up on order when that order is barely noticeable. For instance, we recognize subtle body language. As I am sure you know, people give clues as to what they are thinking. There are discernable patterns to how we humans physically react.

The ability to recognize those patterns is what separates good poker players from mediocre ones. A good poker player picks up on the body language of someone who telegraphs the cards they hold by their very body language. Equally, a good poker player learns to mask their own body language (but that’s a whole other place to go). (Slight pause.)

I was reminded about order, about bringing discipline to art because a group of fairly well known improvisational comedians have written a text book on how to create improvisational comedy. This is a book of rules to follow when you improvise. Now if anything sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, that’s it: rules for improvising.

Among the rules for improvising are these: don’t talk about the past or the future. Don’t talk about people who are not there. While the book says sometimes you can break rules, the ethos of the manual clearly encourages otherwise. [1]

Or as one of my writing teachers once said: you can’t break the rules unless you know the rules. And once you know them, you should only break them judiciously.

And that’s what comes with the learning which is the discipline of being undisciplined: knowledge about order. It turns out that the discipline of being undisciplined is quite orderly. (Slight pause.)

These words are found in Leviticus: “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself: I am Yahweh.” (Slight pause.)

The reading today is one of three versions of the so called Ten Commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures. I say so called Ten Commandments because in Hebrew none of these lists would be called commandments.

There are two reasons for that. First, in Hebrew there is no such thing as the command tense. It does not exist. Second, in Hebrew these passages would be and are known as ten words or ten instructions. These are not commandments. Neither are these rules.

Further, for Israel the concept of holy is pivotal. And what does holy mean in this context? Holy is a positive concept associated with the nature of God. In this context it also expresses a desire on the part of God for human beings to be holy.

So, how can we humans be holy, since we are not God? (Slight pause.) Humans can be holy by striving to be ethical. Given these words, to be ethical is a place to which God calls to us.

For Israel, being ethical is expressed in concrete terms. Ethics are expressed in actions.

And so, it is with neighbor— with neighbor— that Israel enacts holiness. Additionally, these words are repeatedly grounded in an assertion by Yahweh, who is holy, that being in relation with neighbor is at the core of ethical behavior.

Thus, this passage links the reality of neighbor to the reality and the holiness of God. Holiness in heaven is enacted as justice on earth. In short, Israel has no viable way of being holy except in and through transformed social relations. (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to the discipline of being undisciplined and the two rules I mentioned for improvisation: don’t talk about the past or the future. Don’t talk about people who are not there.

You see, the order being brought to improvisation is one of relationship. Not addressing the past or the future and not talking about people who fail to be present means the actors need to stay in the here and the now. It means the actors need to relate to those who are present and to what is happening now— relationships. (Slight pause.)

This seems clear to me: the passage invites us to consider the nature of divine holiness and human holiness and how they are intertwined. As persons and as communities, we are called to lives of wholeness, completeness embodying through our day to day lives and actions that which God might desire for us.

Theologian Bruce Epperly says those who claim to be the people of God, the church, are challenged to live by a set of values through which we strive to reach out to one another to be community for one another. We are not thereby “better” or “set apart” as the apple of God’s eye. Rather, we are called to be mindful of the well-being of all other people, not just those in the immediate community. We are called to be mindful of the well-being of all other people especially the marginalized and dispossessed.

So, I think Leviticus challenges the people of God to be holy as God is holy. The claim herein made is that God seeks justice in every aspect of life and asks us to act justly toward all people. There is an insistence which says all are embraced by the everlasting love of God, regardless of their social position. (Slight pause.)

We do need to acknowledge this reality: the quest for equality among all people is ultimately an admission and even an affirmation that some are powerless and some have power. Some people are trapped in economic, legal and political powerlessness, systematic powerlessness. Others wield economic, legal and political power, systemic power.

Therefore, the counsel found in Leviticus claims an ethic of transformation to act in any social order in which the marginalized lack power. In that transformation power structures cease to bind and the marginalized are empowered with the full spectrum of human rights. This is in fact clear: human rights for all people are seen as a part of the order God wants. [2]

And there is that word again: order— the order God wants. The will of God, to be clear, is not simply about order or orderliness. These words from Leviticus claim will of God is about the transformation of order— a transformation of order! Transformed into what? Transformed into a vision of life, transformed into a vision of community. A vision of community is the vision God has for us.

That being said, I think the challenge for us lies not in identifying order. Identifying order, after all, comes to us naturally. We see order in clouds, on the moon, on Mars. We see order where there is nothing but chaos.

The challenge for us comes in striving to transform human order, human vision into God’s vision, God’s order. The challenge comes in striving to transform human order into the justice God sees for our race. After all, over and over again, in that passage from Leviticus what do we hear? I am Yahweh. Love your neighbor. Amen.

02/23/2014
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The first words found in Genesis are these: ‘At the beginning of God’s creating of the heaven and the earth— the earth was unformed and void, wild and waste, filled with chaos and emptiness, as night reigned over the surface of the deep, a wind from God, the rushing Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.’ These words say nothing in particular about the creation. These words are a theological statement about a creative God who brings order from chaos. I want to suggest life with God is about order, an ethical order— relationship with our neighbor— the vision God has for our lives.”

BENEDICTION: Let us recognize that the transforming power of the love God offers is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/arts/upright-citizens-brigade-writes-its-book-on-improv.html?ref=theater

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2014/02/the-adventurous-lectionary-for-february-23-2014/

 

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