Bound Together in Love: We Are Responsible For One Another: Rev. Judy’s Homily 23rd Sunday OT
Our Judeo- Christian heritage teaches us another way to be in an increasingly secular, self-centered world where day after day we wonder at the tragedies taking place on every level of life. Locally, still another young teen is accused of killing his mother. We weep for our children and our world as we recall that just a few weeks ago in the same town a thirteen year old killed a homeless man. On the world scene wars and terrorist actions from beheadings to outright slaughter and genocide fills our hearts with outrage and sadness. Our times right now often bear comparison to the violence described in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Yet the Law and the prophets and the teachings and life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, show us another way.
Our Lectionary readings for this Sunday have one common theme: we are responsible for one another. The priest and prophet Ezekiel ministered to his fellow exiles from 593 to perhaps 563 BCE. His very hard job was to keep them faithful to the Law and to loving God throughout the despair of their exile and even as they made the transition to freedom and their own homeland. He held to the Law and to the integrity of the individual and the responsibility of each one toward God and toward one another. While we focus on Ezekiel 33 today, in Ezekiel 18 the prophet enumerates the laws that must be observed and the consequences for those who do not observe them. Beyond indulging in forms of pagan idolatry, the laws are social laws that make God’s people responsible for their neighbors’ basic needs(verses 1-13)- not defiling a neighbor’s wife, not oppressing anyone, restoring the debtor his pledge, no robbery, giving bread and clothing to the poor and hungry, and so on. This responsibility also includes a father raising his sons to follow these laws, and if the sons are violent toward others, shedding blood, the father remains responsible. Following these laws brings righteousness and life, not doing so brings death-both metaphoric and actual. Yet, if the wicked, who have chosen death turn away from their sins and keep God’s statutes, “they shall surely live”. The converse is also true for the righteous who turn away from God-death follows. But, Ezekiel concludes: “….get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”(EZ 18:32).
This sets the stage for Ezekiel 33: 7-9, our first reading. Here God is telling Ezekiel that it is his job to give the people warning so that they can turn back to God and live. If he gives up on this unpleasant job of correcting others, their sins are upon his head. If they have been instructed and still break the Laws of loving God and being responsible for their neighbors, that is their own fault. In Ez 33:11, the sentiments of Ez 18:32 are again repeated. God loves God’s people and wants Ezekiel to help them turn back to God and live. In essence, not only priests and prophets have that responsibility but we are all Ezekiel-we can act lovingly and with justice and we can help one another to act lovingly toward God and toward one another. If we don’t it is on us! That is the essence of tzedakah and the intersection of tzedakah and chesed with tikun olam. EEK, you may say, now she’s speaking in a foreign language! Yes, this is Hebrew and these are the living concepts from the Hebrew Scriptures and midrash/commentary that the prophet Ezekiel and Rabbis Paul and Jesus not only knew intimately but lived, taught and wanted others to live. Tzedakah is not just charity or philanthropy but enacting righteousness and justice as well as charitable aid on behalf of the poor. Chesed is even more comprehensive and includes all acts of loving kindness extended toward every one, poor or rich, friend or enemy. These acts of justice and kindness, or ethical mitzvot, are not optional but obligatory in Orthodox Judaism. Tikun Olam is the concept that “humanity is responsible to perfect-to heal, repair and transform the world along with G-d.” It is our responsibility to take on social action for justice as well as philanthropy and genuine caring, to exercise our communal social responsibility especially in the absence of a strong welfare state.**
(**Online: Jonathan Sacks Orthodoxy’s Responsibility to Perfect G-d’s World; wikipedia Tikun Olam; Journal of Yeshiva University,-Jewish Social Work Forum, Eric Levine “The Ethical-Ritual In Judaism: A Review of Sources on Torah Study and Social Action,(pp. 44-50, Vol 26,Spring 1990). I am also indebted to my teacher of Jewish Social Philosophy at Yeshiva University, Wurzweiler School of Social Work Doctoral Program, Rabbi and Professor Irving Levitz,and to Rev. Becky Robbins-Penniman for mentioning Tikun Olam in her last Sunday’s sermon..)
Our church community enacts love and justice by seeking out and serving the homeless and poorest among us, and by reaching out to families and young people with the teachings of the Scriptures and the love of God and Christ. Both co-pastors are now in their seventh decades. There are times when this call is just too much for us. I am the grumbler and I grumble-“how can I do this now, oh God?” Sometimes we may be short tempered with one another and even with the people if the day is heavy and long with need after need. But we are continuing because we must. On Sundays there is a meal and fellowship time after the Mass and after that I teach Sunday school along with one or two others. Sometimes we are so tired by the time Sunday school time comes along that we just want to call it off for the day. But we don’t because we feel that the only way to prevent the kinds of horrors we discussed in the first paragraph where young teens are killing parents and elders and, indeed, one another in our community is to spend time with our young people, loving them, listening to them, and teaching them. And, yes, I am very plain and clear in the sermons I give as to what right relationship with God and others looks like. The people, especially the teens know what I mean when I say “don’t call yourself a Christian if you are packing heat (carrying a gun or weapon) or carrying a beef (a need for vengeance)”. What we do will not change the world or violence on a mass scale but it does make a difference with those we can reach. We are praying for more to join us in this work with the homeless and with the young because for us it is not an option but an obligation in living the Gospel. It is important to us that our church stand as a beacon of love. People say they can feel the love when they enter the door, and that is so good.
And that is what Paul means in Romans 13:8-10 where he says “Owe no debt to anyone-except the debt that binds us to love one another”. He sums up the Law and says “Love your neighbor as yourself” Love never does any wrongs to anyone-hence love is the fulfillment of the Law”. Like Jesus, he is boiling all 613 Jewish laws down into the essential two: love God, love your neighbor (everyone else)-and that is our obligation as Christians even as it is the obligation laid down in the Hebrew Scriptures. On Sunday we are going to sing the very old hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”-our hearts in Christian love…. We share each other’s woes, Our mutual burdens bear, And often for each other flows the sympathetic tear”. Yes, the tie binds, we are bound together in love. And we are bound in love to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters who share Father Abraham. Jews, Christians and Muslims have scriptural obligations to enact love and justice in common. In Fort Myers there has been a wonderful Tri-Faith Dialogue. Rev. Walter Fohs of Lamb of God Lutheran-Episcopal Church led in that Dialogue for Christians. He faced much opposition as he strongly paved the way in this for several years. Now that he has moved West I am not sure what has happened to the group. But it must continue as a vehicle of Interfaith understanding and unity in the midst of world-wide conflicts in “the name of God” who does not want that even one life should be lost.
Conflicts abound on every scale. Of course, sometimes these conflicts are within the church as well. Perhaps these are the hardest ones. In the Gospel, in Matthew 18:15-20 we are taught how to handle conflicts within the community of believers. This teaching comes right after Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep where we are to go out after the one who is lost because God is not willing that any of the little ones, which can also mean new believers, or just plain “unimportant/little folks” are lost. To God not one should perish. (Sounds like the God of Ezekiel here as well).
Now Jesus is on the theme of social responsibility. Once again here he is steeped in the Law and knows that the Law has much harder remedies for sins against one another. (See for example Deuteronomy 25:1-take the offender to the judge and give him 40 lashes-not more, but enough. And, Deut 17: 8-13- if the court can’t decide take the offender to the priest and follow his decision-if contempt is shown toward the priest death follows). Jesus asks that the problem be talked out “between the two of you”. That is a lot better than 40 lashes and a lot less hierarchical! Then he says if she or he listens you have won a loved one back. Wow-the binding together in love is not broken. But, he cautions, quoting Deuteronomy 19:15 do this in the presence of two or three witnesses. Finally if the problem remains, refer the matter to the whole church. If that doesn’t work see the offender as one who is outside of the group because we have the power to forgive one another’s debts and to hold one another accountable. But this is not a light thing, for it is forgiving the debt that makes us even worthy to pray and be granted our prayers. (In Aramaic, in the context here ,to be ‘in agreement’ means to be worthy!). So when we are able to forgive sins against one another, we can pray and God is in our midst.
(Below are some of our teens and Juniors.)
What a wonderful teaching this is in the context of Judaic law and language. It does what Jesus often does, takes the Law one step further. This is certainly one of the several cases where I think it is very high-minded of the members of the Jesus Seminar to say “definitively” that Jesus did not say these words. I challenge us to remember that there is great difference among scholars including progressive scholars about what Jesus actually said. Timothy Luke Johnson and Gary Wills, for example seriously question the presumptions and assumptions that the members of the Jesus Seminar act on in voting for what Jesus may or may not have said. Certainly there were conflicts in Jesus’ community of believers-even the disciples fought about who would sit on Jesus’ right and left hands-who was closest to Jesus. Peter was teased and called kepas, or brick-head, stupid. And the problems between Peter and Mary of Magdala or Peter and James probably did not start only after his death. Jesus, the Christ, who lived Love, was also a Palestinian Jewish Rabbi who could indeed have said the words of Matt 18:15-20. We can all use these suggestions as to how to deal with conflict among believers.
Blessed be the tie that binds us together in love. For love feels less like an obligation or responsibility and more like simply what we want to do. We want to help one another, to challenge injustice and to reach out to those who have not or those who need something from us because of love. We want to forgive one another even the most painful hurts against ourselves and against the innocents of this world, only because of love. Thank God for God’s love for us and for helping us to really love one another. May God continue to bind us together in love.
Some of our Good Shepherd Board Members
An Interfaith Group Pastor Walter Fohs with Pastors Judy L and Judy B
Rev. Dr. Judith Lee, RCWP Co-Pastor Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community, Fort Myers 9/5/14