REDEEMING OUR PAST

October 13, 2019

Deuteronomy 24:17-22

 It is the heartfelt anguish of every loving parent. We don’t want our children to go through the troubles we went through. Because we have been homeless, living on the street, or sleeping in our car, we never want our children to suffer the same indignity. So we work two or three jobs, spend our spare time shopping for an affordable apartment, and scrimp and save between paychecks to muster enough cash to cover the rent. We anguish over the possibility that our precious children will relive our painful history.

Because we know what it was like to be bullied, we never want our children to suffer the same humiliation. We rush to our child’s defense when we hear that someone at school has threatened them. We enroll our kids in boxing or judo classes so they can defend themselves. We call the teacher, the principal, even the police to protect our child. If the school cannot guarantee our child’s safety, we don’t hesitate to pull our child out of the public school and scrounge up the money to pay for a private school. We can’t bear the thought of our child being harassed as we were when we were growing up.

All loving parents want to protect their children from the pains we knew all too well. Sirens go off in our psyches when we envision that our children, like we did, will not acquire enough education to get a decent job, or will get messed up with drugs, or will hook up with an abusive partner. Because we have been there, done that, felt that pain, we pray to God that our children won’t go through the same. The haunting memory of our past shapes what we do now.

The same incentive for shaping how to behave occurs time and time again in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, in the laws and rules that God imposed on the Hebrew people after their rescue from enslavement in Egypt. Time and time again God urged the Hebrew people to remember their miserable history as an incentive not to let it happen again. Time and time again God reminded the Hebrew people that, because they had once been enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, they should not let history repeat itself. Freedom from their haunting past rested upon freeing others from experiencing the same.

For example, Exodus 23:9 says: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 says: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. For you must treat a foreigner residing among [the same] as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 says: “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there.”

Deliverance from the past lies in part by insuring that others do not experience the same. The LORD appealed to the Hebrew’s painful past history as a moral force for doing good, as a resolution that the experiences of their painful past not be passed onto others. We can readily understand that moral logic, for as I said earlier, all loving parents resolve that the memories of our painful past will not be passed onto our children. We cannot pay back our abusers, but we can protect our children.

The logic for parents’ conduct is the same as the logic for the Hebrews’ conduct, namely, prevent a repetition of the past. You know in your heart what it feels like to be humiliated, abused, bullied, and trapped, therefore do not let others suffer the same. But, if you listened carefully, you probably noticed a difference between a parents’ resolve to avoid repeating the past and the Hebrews’ resolve to avoid repeating the past.

Loving parents naturally want to protect their children. No one needs to instruct loving parents on their obligation to protect their children by not allowing a repetition of a miserable past to afflict their children. But, in the case of the Hebrews, the LORD instructed the Hebrews to go beyond what comes naturally. Their obligation to protect extended beyond protecting their children, their kin, even beyond protecting their own kind. The LORD ordered the Hebrews to protect the foreigners, strangers, resident aliens, all people outside their family circle, outside their tribe. Recall what Exodus 23:9 said: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”

The LORD commanded the Hebrews to avoid repeating history, to avoid reliving their plight in Egypt by not becoming abusers themselves. They were not to do unto others as the Egyptians had done to them. They were to do unto others as they wished the Egyptians had done unto them. That was the lesson God wanted them to learn. The lesson to love the stranger was so important that the LORD repeated it more than 36 times in the Hebrew Bible. The mandate to care for strangers is among the most frequently repeated commands in the Hebrew Bible. That was the imperative they should have learned and practiced.

They should have learned from their experiences as foreigners in horrible Egypt what it feels like not to speak the language, not to be welcomed, and not to be hired. From those miserable experiences and from God’s deliverance, the Hebrews were supposed to learn how God wanted them to behave. They were supposed to learn how to show empathy for foreigners and do for them as God had done for them. Since the Hebrews knew in their heart what it felt like to be victims of persecution, they had incentive to protect others.

Protecting our own comes naturally. All loving parents protect their own children. But protecting others who are not among our own, that does not come naturally. That is exceptional, yet that is what God expects.

On top of a plateau close to Switzerland is the tiny French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Some five hundred years ago a small number of French Protestants, called Huguenots, lived in this village. Back in those days the Catholic rulers in France persecuted Protestants, which was no surprise at the time because throughout Europe Catholics fought Protestants and Protestants battled Catholics. Within France, the Catholic rulers bitterly oppressed and persecuted the Huguenots.

However, in the remote village of Le Chambon Huguenots found shelter from the French despots and Catholic vigilantes. For centuries thereafter the Huguenots remembered the affliction they had suffered from the hands of their fellow Frenchmen and the protections they had received among their fellow villagers.

After a short six weeks in 1940, Germany conquered France and cut the country in two. German military governed the northern half, the Occupied Zone, while a French government, actually a puppet government, oversaw the so-called Free Zone, the southern half. Le Chambon was in the Free Zone.

In exchange for the facade of self-government, the French government endorsed the Nazi’s policies of deporting Jews to concentration camps. In July 1940, French police in Paris rounded up 95% of the Jewish children and deported them to death camps, the Huguenot pastors in Le Champon called upon their parishioners to harbor Jews fleeing from the Nazis. The Huguenots took seriously the command “love your neighbor as yourself,” which was inscribed over the door of the sanctuary in the village.

The five thousand villagers eventually housed five thousand refugees, more than 3,500 of them were Jews. The Huguenots remembered acutely how their forbearers had been persecuted and how they had sought refuge. They had learned empathy and courage from that collectively painful experience.

Late in the summer of 1942, the puppet government brought buses to Le Chambon with the intention of filling them with captured Jews. Armed police surrounded one of the Huguenot pastors, André, and ordered him to give names of the Jews hiding in the village. He insisted that he did not know their names and did not want to know them. The official ridiculed the villagers for harboring foreigners, for harboring Jews, people who did not follow the same religion. Andre replied, “I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock. I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.”

Pastor Trocmé secretly rounded up the Protestant youth leaders and charged them with spreading a warning. Scurrying away, the boys ran from house to house, warning the farmers and urging the Jews to hide in the forests. The next day police scoured through the village, but found no Jews. For three weeks the police searched, but found no one. Finally they drove away the buses empty. Villagers set out through the woods, chanting for those in hiding to come back home.

In November of 1942 German forces occupied the Free Zone. In spite of increased danger and surveillance, the villagers continued to shelter their refugees. Not a single refugee was turned away. From 1942 until 1944, German sympathizers in France handed over 76,000 Jews to be exterminated, but not a single villager in Le Chambon betrayed any of the 5,000 refugees hiding in their town. Never did the Huguenots try to convert or proselytize their Jewish house guests. Parishes permitted Jews to conduct High Holy Day festivities in their sanctuaries. The churches funded houses of refuge for educating, feeding, clothing, and boarding Jewish children whose parents had been deported.

The history of their once-persecuted Huguenot ancestors made the villagers empathize with the plight of their new neighbors fleeing persecution. When the villagers guided Jewish refugees over the trails to safe haven in Switzerland, they traveled the same road by which their ancestor had fled for safety centuries earlier.

When asked after the war why they risked their lives harboring Jews, some villagers replied that they were simply following the God-given command to love their neighbors as themselves. Others simply said that they believed in the dignity of every human life and the value of every person. For a variety of reasons, some explicitly religious and some not, the villagers of Le Chambon lived out what God had decreed centuries earlier to an encampment of refugees who had fled from persecution in Egypt. Having been victims of persecution, they wanted to protect others from the same experience.

All loving parents follow that logic instinctively. We desperately want to protect our children from going through the troubles we experienced. God challenged the Hebrews to extend that conviction beyond their families to the foreigners in the midst. The villagers of Le Chambon lived out that logic by protecting 5,000 refugees from deportation and the concentration camps. We, as Christians, likewise ought to look at our past, at our ancestors’ efforts to flee persecution on foreign shores in hopes of finding asylum and protection here.

Some think that because no one helped our ancestors surmount the struggles of migrating and finding work, we have no reason to help others face the same challenges today. But as every parent knows, and as the Hebrews learned and as the villagers of Le Chambon showed, sheltering others from enduring what we went through is reason enough, that is according to God. We are most rescued from our history when we rescue others from repeating it.  

THE STORY OF USURY

September 22, 2019

Deuteronomy 23:19-20

I am guessing that few of you have heard the story of usury. It is an old story, one that preachers rarely tell any more. It is going to take me a while to tell you the story. I warn you ahead of time, as you listen, you may wonder how this story applies to us. I will get to the application eventually. But let’s start at the beginning, long, long ago, some three thousand years ago.

After the LORD emancipated the ancient Hebrew refugees from their enslavement in Egypt, the LORD spelled out hundreds of laws for the newly formed “nation.” The laws covered an immense range of activities from personal matters such as hygiene and fashions, to business matters such as assigning liability and loaning money. The laws on loaning money banned Jews from charging interest on loans to fellow Jews.

Exodus 22:25 laid down the rule: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal: charge no interest.” Leviticus 25:35-37 reinforced the rule by again forbidding Jews from charging interests on loans to fellow Jews who become poor. Deuteronomy 23:19-20 broadened the rule by forbidding interests on loans to any fellow Jews, whether poor or not: “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.” At the same time that Deuteronomy granted an exception, the rule permitted Jews to charge interest on loans to outsiders.

You are familiar with how interest works. You loan me $100 at 5% interest. As soon as I start paying you back, I start paying some toward the principal and some toward the interest. I eventually pay you back the one hundred dollars plus at least five percent or five dollars more, probably more than five dollars, depending on how long it takes me to pay back the loan. The old fashioned word for the amount that I pay back beyond the original loan is usury. Any amount of money added onto the original sum loaned was usury. Under the Old Testament usury laws, if you loaned to me $100, you could only be expected to get back $100. No extra interest charges were allowed.

This policy may seem short-sighted to us, but according to the Old Testament usury was criminal. Charging interest or collecting usury on loans to fellow Jews, according to the social critic Ezekiel, was as detestable as committing robbery, adultery, or idolatry (18:5-9). The just Hebrew loaned money without expecting to make a profit, without charging any usury (Psalm 15:5).

The New Testament makes no explicit judgment on usury, but on one occasion Jesus spoke out about making loans. In Luke 6:34-35, He said: “Love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Jesus seemed to break down the distinction between not making interest-bearing loans to fellow Jews but allowing usury on loans to outsiders. Jesus challenged his followers to treat insiders and outsiders the same. Jesus went beyond expanding the Jewish practice of forbidding usury, he said that the most loving approach is to abandon the expectation of collecting the loan principal at all!

The early Christian leaders and for centuries thereafter the Church emphatically and consistently endorsed the Old Testament rule of condemning usury. The government permitted businesses to legally collect usury, but the Church forbad Christians to collect or pay interest on loans. Some exceptions were made for late payments of loans, in which case one making the loan could collect a penalty but only at the end not over the term of repaying. Apart from that exception, charging interest was uniformly condemned. Numerous church councils issued pronouncements calling for persons collecting interest to be excommunicated, expelled from the Church and forbidden to be buried in church graveyards. In the ninth century the Holy Roman Empire outlawed usury, outlawed collecting any more money than what was loaned across Europe.

For centuries thereafter the Roman Catholic Church condemned usury, first, on the basis of Scripture, which uniformly forbad usury, second, on the basis of centuries of church tradition, which consistently forbad usury, and third, on the basis of reasoning. Their reasoning was essentially similar to our proverb “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

When a farmer bought a tree, planted it, nurtured it, and later harvested it, the value of the tree grew over time.  A tree was once worth 5 pieces of silver produced apples and wood eventually amounting to 20 or more pieces of silver. Trees, livestock, land, houses, and commodities increase in value over time. But, they thought that money did not grow. If you hid one hundred pieces of silver under your mattress, after five years you would still have one hundred pieces of silver. Therefore, money did not grow under mattresses or on trees. The value of money did not change. 

This rock solid stance condemning usury among all Christians began to crumble during the 1500s and 1600s, about the same time that the Protestant reformers began chipping away at the rock solid control of the Roman Catholic Church. A few Christian leaders began to propose exceptions to or limitations on the condemnation of usury. Pope Leo X in 1467 allowed Christian charitable pawn shops to charge 6% interest as a way to help defray their operating costs in order to compete with other for-profit pawn shops. Protestant leaders likewise began to allow their parishioners to charge for commercial loans at interest rates of 5% or so, as long as the merchants did not take advantage of the poor or let money-making defile their spiritual motives.

Intense debates among Christians over usury came to the fore as Europe’s economy gradually changed. Instead of economies relying on local farms and small scale local trading of commodities, emerging economies relied on wide scale overseas and international trading. The new economy needed flexible financial means to promote trade over greater distances, including lines of credit, bank notes, bonds, insurance, and printed money.

These new ways of handling money prompted Christian leaders to rethink their view of money. In the new economy, it seemed that money could grow. One hundred dollars invested in a cargo ship today sailing to the Americans could return in a year with a cargo worth twenty or thirty percent more. On the other hand, the value of money could also decline. The amount of wheat that one could buy for one hundred dollars today might be much larger or smaller than the amount of wheat one could buy in two years. Christian leaders began to grasp that the value of money was not steady; it could fluctuate with inflation or deflation or returns on investments.

Faced with the realities of their new economy, Christian leaders, especially Protestant leaders, began to question of the appropriateness of holding fast to the Church’s fifteen hundred year old tradition of condemning usury. They began to question the appropriateness of holding fast to the Scriptural rejection of charging interest on loans. During the 1600s the dominant view in Christian Europe about usury changed. Christian leaders no longer forbad all forms of usury. Instead they gradually modified their views. Some rejected only excessive forms of usury, exorbitant interest rates. To fix interest rates, Parliament set the maximum lending rate at 5% in 1713. By 1791 all thirteen American colonies set maximum lending rates at 8% or below.

Even the often-slow-to-change Roman Catholic Church began to change its perspective on usury. In 1745 the Pope had declared that all usury was unlawful, but a century later the Church redefined usury to mean only overly oppressive interest rates charged to impoverished debtors. Eventually both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches dismissed the three thousand Scriptural condemnation of usury and the 1500 year old tradition prohibiting usury as well as the longstanding custom of defining money as unchanging in value. The change was so complete that three hundred years later in our modern era no Christian tradition defines usury, by that I mean paying any amount beyond the original principal of a loan, as a sin. Few Christians even know what usury is.

I imagine most of us have credit cards, or have taken out car loans, or have applied for college loans, or are paying back home mortgages. If so, then we have all violated the Biblical prohibition against paying interest on loans. Yet I don’t sense any of you feeling guilty about it; I don’t. We may feel regret for having to pay such high interest rates on our outstanding credit card balances, but we don’t feel guilt over having taken out a loan. We accept the practice of charging and paying interest as necessary and vital for the economy.

I warned you that the story about usury would take some time for me to tell. One reason I tell the story is because here is an instance where the church at large has changed its mind, reversed its stance. From condemning usury the church eventually came to endorse forms of usury. From upholding a consistent Scripture command the church eventually came to abandon it. From upholding a policy that was endorsed for over 1,500 years, the church eventually dropped it.

The story of usury is not the first or the only time the church at large has changed its mind on how to apply the Scriptures or reform a tradition. For example, we can look at the practice of slavery. For nearly seventeen hundred years the church at large condoned and sometimes practiced forms of slavery. Christians found support in the Bible for practicing the enslavement of prisoners of war and debtors and indigenous people, and later for enslaving captives from Africa. The tradition of the church long condoned such enslavement claiming it upheld longstanding economic and social practices. Only after decades of protests beginning in the 1700s and after the catastrophic Civil War in America, did Christians in America universally come to abandon and condemn the enslavement of fellow human beings. 

For another example, we can look at the treatment of women. For nearly 1900 years the church at large condoned, sanctified, and practiced subjecting women. Christians found support in the Bible for wives submissively subjecting themselves to their husbands and for excluding women from leadership roles in society and the church. The recurrent subjugation of women to men was in keeping with the order of creation, where God made Adam first, then created Eve to help him, supposedly giving divine sanction to male superiority  The tradition of the church long condoned such subjugation, excluding women from ordained ministries and opposing the right for women to hold property, conduct business, vote, not to mention earn equal wages. Only after decades of protests did suffragettes win for women the right to vote one hundred years ago. This issue sadly is not yet settled, for some Christians are still restricting the role of women in the church.  

On the question of enslaving people, on the treatment of women, and on the practice of usury the church has had to change how it applied clear-cut instructions in the Bible and to change how it endorsed long standing traditions. In these three instances, Christians eventually modified or dismissed what they read in the Bible. Changes in the economy, in culture, in public education for women, in political visions for equality and the outcome of a Civil War prompted the church to reconsider its practices and beliefs.

I suggest that one way for Christians to address the question of homosexuality is to review the story of usury. Usury was uniformly condemned in the Bible. You may or may not be aware that homosexuality is uniformly condemned in the Bible: Leviticus 18: 19-23; 20:10-16; Romans 1:26-2:1; I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11. Usury was consistently condemned as sinful in the church’s at-large tradition for over 1500 years. Homosexual behavior has been consistently condemned as sinful in the church’s at-large tradition, and is still so considered in some circles. Yet, and here is the point to consider, no contemporary Christian still treats paying interest on loans as a sin. Over time we have come to agree that the parts of the Bible and the parts of our tradition condemning usury are passé.     

Every Christian church must decide what parts of the Bible and what parts of tradition to keep and what parts to discard or modify. Some do it thoughtfully; some do it out of knee-jerk reactions. Some go too far in jettisoning the Bible’s guidelines; some go too far in enshrining two thousand year old traditions. But no one follows the Bible totally. If they did, then totally Bible-believing bakers would refuse to take credit cards from engaged customers for purchasing wedding cakes because doing so would condone the practice of usury, which if they literally believed the whole Bible would violate their religious beliefs. But no Christian follows the Bible that closely and that thoroughly and that literally. Every Christian and every church picks and chooses what to follow and what not to. We should consider carefully what lessons Christians have learned in the past before we decide what to fight for opposing or affirming in the present. 

THE FEAR OF GOD

September 15, 2019

Deuteronomy 12:10-17

The Old Testament speaks of two emotions that the Hebrew people were to feel toward God: love and fear.  Not one or the other, but both love and fear.  The two went together.  In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses summarized what God expected from the Hebrew people in their mutual relationship: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul.”

When it comes to loving and fearing God simultaneously, Christians have a different outlook.  We are quite comfortable with the first emotion, loving God.  We claim to believe in a loving God, one who in Jesus reached out his arms to forgive, accept, and welcome us back into God’s good graces. We are eager to love such a God. However, Christians are uncomfortable with the second emotion: fearing God. We don’t understand how we can love someone whom we fear. Maybe we agree with A. S.  Neil, the progressive educator and author of Summerhill, who once wrote that, although the Bible teaches that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, more often it is the beginning of neuroses.

The author Lillian Smith, in her novel Killers of the Dreams, explains how such neuroses begin.  She recalls from her early childhood: “Our first lesson about God made the deepest impression on us.  We were told that He loved us, and then we were told that He would burn us in everlasting flames of hell if we displeased Him.  We were told that we should love Him for He gives us everything good we have, and then we were told that we should fear Him because He has the power to do evil to us whenever He cares to.  We learned from this part of the lesson another: that ‘people,’ like God, and parents, can love you and hate you at the same time; and though they may love you, yet if you displease them they may do you great injury; hence being loved by them does not give you protection from being harmed by them.”

         The neurotic juxtaposition of fear and love may account for why Christians, who have the greatest respect for the Bible, are uncomfortable with the Bible’s frequent command that we are to fear the very God whom we love.  Whenever I have been part of a group discussing the Bible and the phrase ‘fear of God’ occurs in the text, some member of the group is invariably quick to qualify the meaning of that phrase.  Few Christians like the idea that we are supposed to be afraid of God.  So I often hear Christians explain that ‘the fear of God’ does not mean that we are to actually fear God, instead it means that we are supposed to respect or revere God.  They are quick to tone down the disturbing attitude of fearing the Lord into a more acceptable attitude of respecting the Lord.

         But I wonder if in our eagerness to make this Biblical expression more appealing and less offensive to our modern sensibilities, we shortchange ourselves and our relationship with God.  The ancient Jews and early Christians had no hesitations in urging their followers to fear God.  Over one hundred times the authors of the Old Testament affirmed that people should fear God.  Even Jesus warned his followers that they should fear God, who has the power to cast the deceased into hell (Luke 12:5).  Unlike modern believers, the ancients had no hesitation in affirming that humans should both fear God and love God. 

         Our awkwardness with the idea that we are supposed to fear God prompts me to ask: Why are we so fearful of fearing God? Do we seriously want to erase all fear? To paraphrase FDR’s famous inaugural speech, “Are we fearful of fear itself?”

         Fear is not a dirty four letter word.  Fear simply means the distressing feeling we have when we anticipate something bad happening in the future to someone we love. Most of the time I fear for myself, but I could fear for my wife, my family, my friends, or my nation. We view fear as a negative emotion, one to be avoided or subdued. But, consider for a moment the alternative.  What if people had no fears? Would our lives improve? I fear not!

         You may have seen when driving around downtown several racks containing numerous green bikes. These bicycles are for bike-sharing. Folks can jump on a bike, ride around town, park it at a conveniently located bike rack and leave it for someone else to ride. The idea has caught on in numerous cities as a way to cut down vehicular traffic, plus lower the carbon footprint. Several cities have tried the experiment in sharing bikes, but initially most failed. Back in 1993 Cambridge, England—a college city with lots of biking enthusiasts—launched a bike-sharing program. Their program offered free, unrestricted use of some 300 bikes strategically located throughout the upscale college town. By the end of the first day, all 300 bikes were stolen.

         Organizers quickly realized that the appeal of everyone loving to ride on new bikes could not compete with the allure of taking a new bike for free. Since then, city bike sharing programs, require that everyone pay ahead and register, so that the authorities can track down whoever steals a bike. The widely-shared love for riding a bike around town works best when coupled with the fear of tracking down anyone who steals one.

Fear of punishment promotes civil societies. Every homeowner wants their neighbors to have fears.  We want our neighbors to fear the police when we file a complaint against their children’s verbal harassment of our child.  We want our neighbors to fear the threat of a lawsuit if they violate the zoning code and pile up rusty cars in their back yards.  We want our neighbors to fear our unpleasant reaction if they throw their trash into our yard.  Our neighbors’ fear of what the authorities can do protects us.

         If fear is so beneficial in our dealings with one another, why do we consider fear unsuitable or even harmful in our relationship with God? Why can we not see that fear of God may be beneficial?

         Dominic Johnson, in his book God is Making You:  How The Fear of God Makes Us Human, cites two psychologists, Azim Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla, who compared crime statistics from countries around the world. They looked for factors, such as Gross National Product or social inequality, which could predict the national crime rates. They found a surprising factor. The most reliable predictor was fear of hell. The more a nation’s population believes in hell, they more the population fears divine punishment for misdeeds, the lower the crime rate. The fear of divine punishment curbs crime.

         This statistical insight confirms what the French philosopher Voltaire said centuries ago.  Voltaire, an outspoken atheist, boasted that he had no fear of God, yet he admitted that the fear of God was a protection for him.  He reportedly said, “I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in [and fear] God.  I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less.”

Which would you prefer, a car repair mechanic who has the fear of God in him or one who fears no one, not even a disgruntled customer?

         An ancient Jewish rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, on his deathbed said: “May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of men.” The rabbi was very wise.  For most humans fear what other people think of them more than they fear what God thinks.  You have surely noticed that when people are tempted to act immorally, shoplift, or cheat on a test, they look around to see if any one is watching.  They fear what observers might think if someone catches them in the act.  But rarely, when we prepare to do something wrong, are we fearful that God will see what we are doing.  The rabbi was wise enough to realize that if people feared God only as much as they do other humans, they would perform far fewer evil acts, just as the two psychologists recently confirmed.

         The fear of God is beneficial, in the first place, for it protects us.  The Bible offers two more benefits from fearing God.  The fear of God liberates people from fear of other human beings and protects the weak from the powerful. 

At first glance, the suggestion that the fear of God liberates people from fear of other human beings seems to contradict the rabbi’s proverb: “May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of men.” A story can resolve the confusion quicker than my explanation.

         According to the Bible, in Exodus chapter one, an ancient Pharaoh in Egypt decided to institute a zero population growth policy among the Jewish migrant workers in his kingdom.  He feared that rapid growth among this immigrant group would disrupt the status quo, threaten the Egyptian social order.  Thus, he ordered the Jewish midwives to drown all the Jewish male babies in the Nile.  Only female Jewish babies were permitted to live.  However, two Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, disobeyed the Pharaoh's edict.  According to the Bible, the reason for their act of civil disobedience was that “they feared God” (Exodus 1:17).  Both refused to obey the king because they feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh.  Their immense fear of displeasing God freed them from their natural fear of displeasing Pharaoh.  They answered to a higher authority.

         If you had been an expectant Hebrew mother in ancient Egypt, would you have wanted a midwife who feared God more or one who feared Pharaoh more? The fear of God in Shifra and Puah protected the lives of the helpless Hebrew babies.  There would have been no Moses without the God-fearing initiative of those two midwives.  There would have been no deliverance for the masses from Egypt's oppression without those two God fearing women.  Their act of civil disobedience—possibly the first in Western history—brought liberation to the oppressed Jews.  

         The fear of God liberates believers not to fear human authorities when human structures oppose God.  Also, the fear of God protects those who have no powerful allies to defend them.  Frequently, when Moses gave instructions for the upper echelons of Hebrew society to protect the weak, he added the incentive clause: “you should fear the Lord.”

         For example, Leviticus 19:32 says, “You should honor the aged and you should fear your God.

         Leviticus 25:36 says, “You should take no interest [on a loan] for your brother [who has become impoverished] but should fear your God

         Leviticus 25:43 says, “You should not rule over [your servant] with harshness, but you should fear your God.

         Sometimes people refrain from taking advantage of another person, because they fear retaliation, or fear a lawsuit, or fear arrest, or fear embarrassing public opinion.  Such fear restrains people from harming others.  But when it comes to taking advantage of the aged, the helpless, the lowest class, and the immigrant, no such customary fear applies.  No one is afraid of the weakest, the fewest, those with no political or no economic clout.  In those instances Scripture reminds us, that even if we have no reason to fear a human being, even if we are tempted to take advantage of the weak, we ought to fear God.  We ought to do what is right.  For God is on the side of the weak. 

         To fear God is good.  Fear protects us from danger.  Fear liberates people from the fear of other human beings.  Fear protects the weak from the powerful.  To fear God acknowledges that God takes our actions seriously and holds us accountable.  Such a realization may prompt us to behave more humanely, justly, cautiously, prudently.

         We don’t need to excuse or water down the frequent order in the Bible to fear God.  It is good for us to fear God, maybe even be afraid of God.  Warning us to fear God shows that God takes seriously what we do.  Not because God is capricious, out to get us someday when we are not watching, but because God is consistent, holding us accountable when no one else is watching.  Fearing God is not the beginning of neurosis, some haunting suspicion that God is out to get us.  Fearing God is the beginning of morality, an empowering awareness that God has standards for us.  Fearing God shapes how we live, how we ought to live. 

         I loved my parents. They were good, decent, devout people, well-intended parents who did their best.  I also had good reason to fear them, because they had expectations for their children’s behavior.  As a juvenile I misconstrued their disappointment as the absence of loving me.  Now that I have raised children, I realize that loving is not the same as tolerating.  Fearing and loving can go hand in hand.  In healthy families, both love and fear shape how children behave.  

Fearing God is good for us.  Christians should exercise more of it.  It is good for us who need courage to stand up for what is right.  It is good for the weak who need someone to stand up for them.  Our society could stand more people fearing God. 

I agree with Voltaire, “I think that if more people feared God, we shall be robbed less and cheated less.” Putting the fear of God into more people could make us all safer.  

ORDERING LOVE

September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 6:1-8

Some colleges permit a student to take a course “pass or fail.” Normally college students receive grades at the end of a course showing how well one performed in a class. Students who perform exceptionally receive an A or a grade worth four points. Students who perform moderately well receive a B worth three points. Those who perform adequately receive a C or two points, and those who perform poorly receive a D or one point. Students who fail to complete the course requirements receive an F or no points.

Some colleges allow a student to take a course for a pass or fail grade. In such a class, there is not a scale measuring four or five levels of success. There are only two: either pass or fail. There is no disadvantage in taking pass/fail classes, for as long as one passes the course, the grade does not affect the student’s cumulative grade point average. One reason for in enrolling for a pass/fail class is to allow students to take classes from a department outside their major, a class that interests them but for which they have not completed all the prerequisites.  Sometimes the student may take a pass/fail class as a way to lighten the workload in a very demanding semester. For those reasons, while I was in graduate school, I took some pass/fail classes because I wanted to take a course where I did not have to bear the burden of worrying about how well I might or might not achieve. I had a lot of leeway in how well I performed without fearing that I might lower my grade point average.

When I hear that the two greatest requirements God places upon us are first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and second to love our neighbors as ourselves, I am distressed in part because I sense no leeway. My instinct is to picture God as a stern teacher who passes out pass or fail grades on an impossibly demanding scale. I sense that on God’s scale a passing grade is 100% and anything less is failing. For the requirement states that I am expected to love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength, that is with 100% of me and I can never achieve that. A 99% may be enough for an A grade in most college courses, but according to the assessments for God’s requirements, loving God with as high as 99% is still a failing grade.

I feel like a failure for having simply one shortcoming, which results in an outlook that pushes me away from God and reduces my loving God even more, which lowers my grade and accentuates my failing again. Feeling more guilty over not passing the grade only thwarts my (and maybe your) trying to love God more.

I am trapped in this revolving door of guilt and shame. For as long as I imagine that God is a stern teacher objectively hands out failing grades, I have no way out. Even if God grades on the curve, some learners still fail the class. If one needs a perfect score to pass, most fail the course. I feel trapped whether I enroll for a grade or for a pass/fail option. The times I escape from the trap are when I recall that God is less like my high school science teacher and more like Jesus. Less intent on handing out grades and more intent on handing out grace.

On the occasions when Jesus met people who viewed themselves as failures, he was quick to welcome them, not reprimand them. He embraced them even when they had failed both commandments, because they could not imagine loving themselves after what they had experienced and they could not imagine that God loved them after they had failed on the standardized moral test. The way Jesus welcomed them gave them a different way to picture God so that they could get out of the revolving door of guilt and shame, which had left them feeling unworthy. In simple terms, they realized that some things are loved because they are worthy, and some things are worthy because they are loved.

There are lots of things and people we love because they are worthy. We love teams that win the World Series or the Super Bowl. We love horses that win the Triple Crown. We love singers that astound us on America’s Got Talent. These folks earn our love because they perform superbly. By their achievements they become worthy of our devotion.

But there are some objects that have no obvious talent whom we love regardless. Our grandson Colton has a stuffed bear doll, whom he calls Teddy. The bear’s fur is worn thin, his stuffing sags in a few places, his eyes have lost their luster, yet he is Colton’s prized possession. When he sleeps, he wants Teddy in the bed. When he travels, he packs Teddy.

Some months ago when Cameron, Anna, Colton and Apollo came to visit, Teddy naturally came in Colton’s suitcase. One afternoon our families took a trip to New Canaan on the train, and naturally Teddy came along for the ride. When we returned home and settled in for naptime, Teddy was nowhere to be found. Colton was distraught, and so were the rest of us.

Anna hailed the conductor on the next train and asked him to look for the little bear. That very night we all traveled to the Build A Bear store in White Plains to purchase a new Teddy. Lisa wrote to the Metro North Railroad, who surprisingly called us a few weeks later to inform us that Teddy was resting in the Lost-and-Found office in Grand Central. Found at last, we went to the city that day to retrieve Teddy and mail him back to Colton. The stuffed bear was worth little in itself, much less than a new stuffed bear, much less than round trip train tickets to Grand Central, much less than even postage for mailing. But in Colton’s eyes the bear was worth all that and more.

Some things are loved because they are worthy, such as great athletes and performers. Some things are worthy because they are loved, such as a child’s doll. God loves us not because we have proved to be worthy, but we sense that we have worth because God loves us.

This is the gospel truth, but it is often hard to believe. Hard to believe that when we fail the course requirements, God still gives us a passing grade. Some days the persuasion sinks in and other days it eludes us. Some days it is a battle to believe that God loves us, especially on days when we fail to live up to our own standards, not to mention that we fail to live up to God’s standard that we love God with all we have and our neighbors as much as ourselves. It is hard to love our neighbors as ourselves when on some days we don’t even like ourselves. It is hard to conjure up love for God when we feel so bad about ourselves.

Maybe on some days the test for us is who to believe. Do we believe what we think and what others say about us or do we believe what God thinks and says about us? If we start from what God says, namely that God loves us whether or not we feel worthy, then loving God may be less of a tedious command imposed on us to entrap us and more of nurturing a natural response to free us. For don’t we naturally love those who love us? Rather than giving us a command to love as a way to berate us for loving below the passing grade level, God may be coaxing, teaching, challenging us to let love take root and grow.

I realize that I sound as if I am backpedaling by implying that God is coaxing, teaching, and challenging us to love, for God did not make a suggestion that we love, rather God commanded that we love. It may strike you as odd, as it did me, that God commands anyone to love. For who can command people to love one another? As we understand it, love can sometimes be spontaneous, as when on some enchanted evening two strangers “fall in love,” or love can be entirely voluntarily, as when a bride and groom state their consent to wed one another. But love cannot be forced. We certainly cannot demand that a person love us in return, which is why many hearts are broken when a person rejects an invitation to be more than just friends. Giving and receiving love entails consent.

Which is why we are hard pressed to see situations where anyone can command you to love a stranger or a spouse, or, in the case of the Bible, to love your neighbor or God.

       Yet I can think of an exception, actually a common situation where folks coax, indeed actually command, persons to love one another. When our children were young, Lisa and I taught our daughter and son not to hurt one another because “we love one another in this family.” I suspect that all of you who have or who are raising siblings make that same assertion. As responsible parents, we order our children to love one another.

We do not order them to “like your sister,” but we repeatedly charge them to “love your brother.” We don’t wait for them to decide for themselves at a later age if they will get along with their siblings, we impress on them from day one that within this family members love one another. We cannot guarantee how they will treat one another for years to come, but that does not hinder parents from ordering children to love one another as long as they are under our roof.

Therefore, we can and we do command people to love. Surely God has the same prerogative. Surely God can and does command people to love: especially to love God, because that is the natural response to being loved and also to love our neighbors as ourselves, because God assumes the responsibility to teach siblings how to get along.

We are all enrolled as life long learners in a course that God teaches on how to get along with God and others. This is a not for a credit course, since no one earns credits with God for doing well. God is a master teacher, for how God treats the learners is the main content. How the class gets along is the homework. The objective is for all the students by the end to love the teacher as much as the teacher loved them.   

A PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

September 1, 2019

Deuteronomy 6:1-8 

I learned it in first grade. You probably did too. Thereafter I said it or heard it every day I went to public school for the next twelve years. You probably did too. Once we entered our classrooms, put away our books and lunch pails, the teacher told us to stand and face the flag in the front of the classroom for the Pledge of Allegiance. You probably did too. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We all said it the same way, standing with our right hands held over our hearts. But your grandparents probably did not, at least not in the same way. For starters, they did not put their hands over their hearts. When school children first starting reciting the pledge, they saluted the flag with their right hand outstretched toward the flag. During World War II, federal legislators became alarmed that our flag salute closely resembled the Nazi “Heil, Hitler” salute, so the legislators changed the salute for civilians to our customary hand-over-the heart gesture. 

Your grandparents did not recite the same words to the Pledge as we do. Until 1923 there were two distinct versions of the pledge. A Civil War veteran, Captain George Balch, wrote one version back in the 1880s. He wanted to encourage school children to become more patriotic. He encouraged schools to display an American flag in every classroom. Plus, he composed a pledge for school students to recite while standing and saluting the flag with hands stretched out. His pledge was simple and short: “We give our heads and hearts to God and our country: one country, one language, one flag!” The Daughters of the American Revolution and veterans of the Union Army, the Grand Army of the Republic, recited this version of the pledge until the 1920s.

Meanwhile a Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, composed a different pledge, because he thought Balch’s pledge was too childish. He published his version in 1892. Bellamy’s original pledge read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which is stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” He teamed up with educators and publishers who likewise wanted to promote patriotism among school children. They thought a daily routine of reciting the pledge in unison, while saluting the American flag would instill devotion for the nation in school children. Bellamy had originally wanted to include the words “with equality for all,” but he sensed that his co-sponsors did not want the pledge to suggest that women and African Americans deserved to be treated as equals, so he dropped the word “equality.”

Bellamy’s version caught on. In the 1920s advocates for the Bellamy pledge changed the words “my flag” to the “Flag of the United States” so that immigrants would not confuse loyalty to the flag of their birth country with the flag of the their newly adopted country, the United States. Two decades later during World War II, as a way to promote patriotism, Congress officially endorsed the Bellamy version of the pledge in 1942, at the same time they changed the salute from an outstretched hand to a hand-over-the-heart gesture as a way to distinguish American patriotism from Nazi nationalism.

The last Congressional change in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance came a decade later in the 1950s, when our nation was engaged in what was called the Cold War, a series of confrontations with Communist countries.  Spearheaded by the Knights of Columbus, many Americans wanted to distinguish the United States from Communist countries who promoted atheism. They successfully urged President Eisenhower and Congress to insert in 1954 the phrase “under God” into the Pledge as a way of installing in school children that loyalty to America and free enterprise were under divine sanction.

Although the way we recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not the same way our grandparents may have recited it, some features of the Pledge have remained consistent. The Pledge has consistently stressed exclusive loyalty to one flag symbolizing one nation. We consistently teach young children the pledge by reciting it day after day. Of all the lessons children learn in public school, instilling love for the United States of America by reciting the Pledge is one of the few lessons consistently taught at day after day, year after year, across all the grade levels.

Long before George Balch or Francis Bellamy came up with the idea of reciting a short statement for promoting allegiance to their flag and nation, the ancient Hebrews had a practice of reciting a short statement for promoting allegiance to their God. We heard it earlier from Deuteronomy 6:4. Their “pledge of allegiance” reads: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In Judaism, this sentence is known as the Shema, because the first word in the English sentence, “Hear,” comes from the Hebrew word.  Shema. How we use and view the Pledge of Allegiance can help us understand how devout Jews use and view the Shema.

Similar to the way we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day, many observant Jews recite the Shema every day, in fact they recite it four times a day: twice in the morning prayer service, once in the evening prayer service, and before going to sleep. One of our son’s wise violin teachers used to tell him: “Only practice on the days you eat.” Civics teachers could say, “Only practice patriotism on the days you eat.” Devout Jews could say, “Only practice religion on the days you eat.” Daily habits instill and reflect lasting values.

We teach children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a young age. Long before they can define the meaning of words such as allegiance or republic or liberty, children memorize the Pledge. We don’t wait for them to make up their minds about whether or not they want to be patriotic, we impress it upon them. We are wise to teach the oldest lessons to the youngest children for children can apprehend what we mean long before they comprehend what we say.

Just as we teach children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a young age, so the Jews began teaching their children about God as soon as possible. In Deuteronomy 6, shortly after stating the short Shema, Jews are commanded and told how to teach the pledge of faith to their children. Parents are to teach the words about God to their children and talk about them, “when you are at home, when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Learning can occur at any time at any age, for children learn on the run, not just when and not even chiefly when they are old enough to sit still in a classroom. One of the frightening parts of being a parent is that our children, even when very young, are picking up lessons from us all the time. They pick up our words, our gestures, our mannerisms, our values long before we realize.

Because Lisa and I wanted to be comfortable praying with our children and wanted our children to be comfortable praying with us, we started praying aloud for them so they could hear us while they were still in the womb. I had to become accustomed to praying with them long before they realized or could learn from what I was doing. We are indeed wise to teach the oldest lessons to the youngest children, lessons such as love for God and love for country.

Although the way we recite the Pledge of Allegiance is not the same way our grandparents may have recited it, the purpose of the Pledge has remained consistent. The Pledge has consistently stressed exclusive loyalty to one flag symbolizing one nation. The meaning of being one nation is suggested in that long word, indivisible. The Pledge affirms that the nation will not be torn apart as was proved by the outcome of the costly Civil War, a traumatic memory that both Balch and Bellamy recalled living in the late 1800s. But the importance of being one nation, according to the Pledge, goes beyond stating that that United States is a one-of-a-kind nation, a unique nation standing for liberty and justice for all.

The significance of affirming one nation is that one can only pledge allegiance to one nation at a time.  Pledging loyalty to America excludes giving loyalty to another nation. That singular loyalty accounts for why supporters changed the wording of the Pledge back in the 1920s. Before that time the Pledge simply affirmed loyalty to “my flag.” But since recent immigrants conceivably could affirm their loyalties to the flags of their foreign homelands, sponsors of the Pledge made explicit that the immigrant children pledged loyalty to the flag of only one country, their new homeland, the United States. Patriotism, like marriage, only permits one lover at a time.

Just as the Pledge of Allegiance evokes exclusive loyalty to only one country, so the Shema evokes exclusive loyalty to only one God. The Shemasays, “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Shemamay simply be affirming that the LORD is one of a kind or affirming that only one God exists. Jews affirm both. But, the effect of the Shema, similar to the effect of the Pledge of Allegiance, is to call for Jews to give their loyalty and love only to that one God.

About one century after Jesus lived, the Jews living in Judea staged a rebellion against the Roman armies, the same foreign armies that occupied Judea during Jesus’ lifetime. Their revolt failed and the Romans executed the leaders of the Jewish revolt. As he was being executed, Rabbi Akiva, who had inspired the revolt, recited the Shema. To show his intense love for God, he held out that final word one for as long as he had breath. Since then it has been customary for many Jews to prolong that final word one when reciting the Shema, as a pledge of their total loyalty and exclusive allegiance to the LORD.

We know how American citizens voice our exclusive loyalty to our country by reciting regularly and teaching our children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I have shared how Jews voice their exclusive loyalty to the LORD by reciting regularly and teaching their children to recite the Shema. This past week I wondered if Christians have a similar way to pledge our allegiance to Jesus. Repeating such a pledge regularly could be instructive for our children and inspiring for us in our desire to follow Jesus.

We don’t have a saying to recite, but we do something that serves the same purpose. To explain, let me give you some history.

Centuries ago, in the ancient Roman Empire, when a man became a soldier, he made a pledge. He swore not to turn his back on the enemy, not to desert his post and to obey his officers. Once the candidate made that pledge, for the next part of his life he belonged to the Empire. The Romans had a special name for that pledging or swearing-in ceremony. They called taking that pledge the sacramentum.

Some time later, when the Christian movement had spread throughout the Roman Empire, early Christian thinkers searched for a special name to describe the ceremony when candidates pledged to follow Jesus. The ceremony had a few stages. First the Christian leaders would baptize the candidates by dunking them under water or by pouring water on their heads. Then the leaders smeared some olive oil on the candidate’s forehead. Next the candidates swore or pledged to follow Jesus, to resist God’s enemies. Finally the climax of the ceremony came when the candidates shared in their first Communion, eating the bread and drinking from the cup.

The early Christians borrowed a well-known word to describe this ceremony. The called the swearing-in ceremony sacramentum, or as we know it, sacrament.

Thus, every time we observe Communion, this sacrament, we are enacting over and over our pledge of allegiance to Jesus. We are showing our loyalty to Jesus. We are teaching young children the pledge of devotion to Jesus by reenacting this sacrament with them month after month. We are instilling in them and fostering in ourselves intense love for Jesus by recalling how much he loved us and how he gave himself for us. We are demonstrating what our Lord lived for and died for and we are challenged to do the same for him.

May we be as eager and moved by showing this pledge of allegiance, by taking this bread and this drink in memory of Jesus, as we are moved and eager to pledge our allegiance when we stand to salute the flag. If truth be told, may we be even more eager.