Loving God, Loving your Neighbor – a Call to Political Activism

This sermon was preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on March 8, 2015.

It is built around the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart. The commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes…  More to be desired are they then gold more than much fine gold. Sweeter by far than honey, than honey in comb Psalm 19).

I wonder how many of us have that sort of relationship with the law. Laws are designed to keep us safe, to protect our rights, to protect our property, to govern the way that we interact with one another so that we can be secure and that life might be predictable. But in the end I think we usually think of the laws as constraints, of ways to manage our behavior and the behavior of others.

The people of Israel had a very different vision of the law.   The law gives wisdom to be innocent, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes, is more to be desired than gold, and is sweeter than honey from the comb.   How is it that they could have such a different understanding of and relationship with the law? The wonderful Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman gives us some insight into the people of Israel’s relationship with the 10 Commandments. He says “These commandments might not be taken as a series of rules but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be practices by his community of liberated slaves.” A proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be practiced by his community of liberated slaves. So how can we understand the 10 Commandments in that way?

Take a look at the Commandments as they are printed in your bulletin in the first reading. I am the Lord your God brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, no images of God to come between God and God’s people. And we are not to use God’s name in vain, either to swear by or swear with. Our relationship with God is defined in these first three commandments. And then there’s this commandment that functions sort of as hinge piece, here in not quite the middle of the list… Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Set aside one day a week to bask in this relationship, in the light, grace, and mercy of God’s love, and to remember who you are and who God is.

On the other side of that hinge piece there are six Commandments that describe how we are to practice God with the people around us. You shall not murder, shall not commit adultery, shall not steal, shall not bear false witness, shall not covet… all of these proclamations in God’s own mouth of who God is and how we are to practice God. All of them are about our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God.

Mother Dorota read the summary of the law at the beginning of the service as we knelt to confess our sins and ask for God’s absolution.   The first and greatest commandment is this; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind, and strength. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This proclamation of who God is and how we are to practice God in the world is all about our relationships and the ways that we love one another.

It was with these words ringing in our ears and in our hearts that we gathered yesterday at noon at Christ the solid rock Baptist Church. Early in the morning an email had gone out from Linda Ketcham, the director of Madison Urban Ministry, asking clergy in Madison if they would contribute to the funeral expenses for Tony Robinson who was killed on the east side of Madison Friday night. In response to that request, as several of us were promising funds to help defray those costs, Pastor Everett Mitchell of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church hit “reply all” and invited the Madison clergy to join him at noon to pray together and to be in solidarity with one another and with the Robinson Family.

When I arrived I had a member of our parish with me who had asked for a ride. We met two other members of the congregation who joined us there. Leanne Puglielli who has, as she said yesterday, one foot at St. Andrews and one foot at Christ the Solid Rock was seated there waiting for us.   We said some prayers. We heard some details about the events of Friday night and Saturday morning that we didn’t know.   And then we were offered the opportunity to brainstorm together about how we might, as the community of liberated slaves in Madison, continue to “practice God” as we move forward together.

Now I’m sure that there are some people who would say that we were doing something wrong in gathering together. That what we were doing was entering into the world of politics and that the world of politics is not the place for the church. But if you strip away the pejorative baggage that gets associated with the word “politics” and think about it at its core politics is really all about the way that we relate to one another in the public square; how we are in relationship with one another, how we treat one another, and that is what the 10 Commandments are all about. God’s own proclamation about how we should “practice God” in the community is inherently a political statement.

One of the clergy stood up at that gathering yesterday and said that he thought the clergy of Madison should gather together in fellowship on a regular basis. There was a murmur of ascent in the room and as he passed me on his way back down the center aisle to his seat I stood up, extended my hand, and I said, “I’m embarrassed to have to say that I don’t know your name.” For the next half an hour we went around the room one by one and introduced ourselves and named the faith communities where we serve and worship. At the end of that period of introductions we were all profoundly struck by the number of faith communities who were represented in that place and the power that we have as the church when we stand together in that way. We wrestled with things that we might do, ways that we might address what happened on Friday night. And we knew in our hearts that together we can make a much larger difference then we can as individuals.

I think that there is a real temptation in the wake, in the chaos left behind after Tony Robinson’s shooting of Friday night to adjudicate the events of that night, to decide who was at fault, to lay blame. We will hear more about the events, more details will surface, and invariably blame will be assigned. But I think that we need to be very careful as those details emerge. This morning in the State Journal there is an article that describes four events in the last several weeks where the Madison Police Department have had guns trained on them, had bullets fired in their direction, and they did not respond with deadly force. Some of those events involved white people, some involved black people, some were in affluent neighborhoods, and some were in less affluent neighborhoods. We need to be careful that we do not paint with too broad a brush as we color the events of last Friday night.

But we also need to recognize and honor the fact that a young man, Tony Robinson, is dead. And a mother and a family and a community are grieving. And that in the wake of these events we are grieving too. I think that our grief needs to grow out of the conversation that we have been having here at St. Andrews and in Madison for the last year. The Annie E. Casey Foundation report, The Race to Equity Report, have cast light on the disparities in Madison and in Dane County. We have spoken of them often, both here in this pulpit and in conversations in the parish hall around the tables at the Sunday forum.   We know that there is an illness there is a disease in Madison and Dane County. The anger and the frustration and the rage that have erupted over Friday night’s shooting are evidence of that illness. And we dare not leave that illness unaddressed.

Another commentator that I read this week, in speaking about the 10 Commandments, had this to say, “Those who ignore the divine teachings do so at their own peril – not because God is standing over them with a hammer, but because the teachings describe the way of life. To ignore them is to wander into the ways of death instead, where God’s faithfulness can be of little help.” When we do not love God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves we are wandering into the ways of death. And the event that we have seen in this city over the last several days are the fruits of that wandering.

So what can we do there will be a letter from the Madison clergy, all of the people who attended the meeting yesterday and many who could not, including our own bishop who has phoned me and is anxious to lend his support to what we are doing here in Madison. That letter will go to the media, to the Mayor, to the Chief Koval, to anyone to whom we can deliver it. It will say that the church in Madison: Episcopalians, Lutheran’s, UCC, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Jewish congregations, the Buddhists who were there yesterday, are all standing together and demanding that the investigation into Friday night’s events be transparent and just.

And even more importantly, demanding that we address the faults in the system that have led us to a place where the city erupts in anger, and suspicion, and frustration over an event like the one we experienced Friday night.

I saw a Facebook meme the other day, there’s this picture of Jesus in the Temple overturning the tables with a whip in his hand. The people in that picture looked pretty shocked, trying to get out of his was as the coins rolled across the floor, the tables piled in a heap. The painting didn’t portray them but I imagine that even his disciples were pretty surprised at his response to what he found in the temple. It had been going on for a long time. It was part of the status quo. When you arrived at the conclusion of your pilgrimage at the Temple you were required to offer an animal without blemish as a sacrifice. And even if the animal you left home with it the beginning of your journey was unblemished it would be very difficult to keep that animal in that pristine state on that long and difficult journey. So unblemished animals were sold in the temple grounds. When you entered the temple you paid a temple tax to help with Herod’s reconstruction program and you could not use the Roman coin because it was engraved with Caesar’s image. You traded your coin of the Empire for a coin that you could offer in the Temple one with that was not idolatrous in its very manufacture. So the need for these services seemed apparent. But something had gone wrong. The synoptic Gospels Matthew Mark and Luke tell us that there was some corruption. In their Gospels Jesus as you have turned my father’s house into a den of thieves. John doesn’t say that John has Jesus say, “stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” Whatever the reason the status quo was broken and in order to change it Jesus overturned some tables. That painting that I was telling you about of Jesus with the tables turned over and people looking shocked coins on the floor and a whip in his hand… the caption said, “the next time somebody asks you what would Jesus do… tell them that turning over some tables and chasing people with whips is within the realm of possibilities!”

We are called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is a radically political statement… political at its core! In order to love in that way, to bring about the kingdom, the vision, the dream that God has for all of us… for Madison Wisconsin, for the county, for all of creation… we may need to raise our voices. We may even need to overturn some tables as we challenge the status quo and push on the people who have power to make the changes for which the Gospel cries. If we don’t follow Jesus into the Temple this Sunday and take up that cause, then we are not “practicing God” as his community of liberated slaves in the way that the 10 Commandments God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai calls us to live.

So fasten your girdles around you. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Take courage; follow our Lord, as we demand that we become a community that practices God together.