Sermon on 9/7/20 Codes of Conduct: What does it take for us all to get along?

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Konig, Johann; Adam and Eve in Paradise; The Fitzwilliam Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/adam-and-eve-in-paradise-5603

14 Pentecost, 9/7/2020

Ps. 149; Exodus 12:1 – 14; Romans 13:8 – 14; Matt. 18:15 – 20

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Romans 13:10

I make an understatement.  Life has changed for all of us, since the appearance of COVID-19 into our individual, local, and national awareness.  What was once done without much thought, for example, going up and down step—[using what] those who research human behavior [call] muscle memory—requires us to become aware of our surroundings.  A heretofore visit to a supermarket demanded only that we had either a tangible list or one committed to memory.  Such a list remains helpful, at least for me.

However, one must now take notice of warning signs on doors, e.g. entrance only – exit only.  No longer a two-way street, as it were.  In addition to signs that state masks [are] required for entrance, some businesses have erected movable taped lines, not unlike at airports or amusements parks, monitored so as to manage the number of individuals who may enter.  And, once admitted, we notice lines and signs on floors [that] indicate the direction of traffic in aisles that are now one-way, like roads and streets.  Demarcations that tell us when we have overstepped the recommended social distancing of six feet!  Our junior warden, in anticipation of our coming together for Eucharist in person, has set out signs: entrance only, exit only, pews closed.

Codes of conduct are nothing new to anyone who lives in a community.  When a driver hears the siren of an emergency vehicle, an almost natural reflex is to pull to the right in order to make way.  To expedite the safe transition of traffic in department stores, escalators convey customers in specific directions.  Some taller buildings designate certain elevators for specific floors.  It is rare that one gives much thought to such codes of conduct.

But then the cry can be heard: “Take the government out of my/our life,” a cry most frequently heard when the proposed action goes against a specific, personal interest or convenience.  Still, there are those, perhaps the very same ones, desiring to protect their own interests who would impose government sanctions upon others, although said sanctions circumscribes another individual’s right to privacy.

Codes of Conduct are as old as the arrival of humans on the earth.  Our Book of Records, the Bible, records perhaps the first: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” (Gen. 2:16f)  The Code was amended: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over …every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Gen. 1:28)

When I sit to reflect on the lectionary [that] those more learned in theological matters than I have placed before us, I struggle often to discern what the three lessons have in common.  Those determined for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, each recording a different scenario, force us to review historically how the people of God have responded to the Code of Conduct established by God at creation, but rendered anew, due to circumstances of time.

The story of the Exodus of the Biblical Hebrews, as explained in our first lesson, is prime example of amendments to the Code of Conduct.  The men were to eat fully dressed, prepared for flight, and were ordered to share with those who, perhaps because of [family] size and financial circumstance, as well as expediency of time, were not able to prepare a lamb.  Nor were leftovers to be placed in takeout containers or stored away for later consumption.  There were no refrigeration and no microwaves.  They had to be prepared to journey according to the new code.

Indeed, a review of the history of Biblical Hebrews teaches that, the Passover and escape from Egyptian slavery were not the beginning of the journey.  Rather, this event in the life of the Hebrew was itself a continuation of a journey that had begun generations before with Abram/Abraham and Sarah.  God was calling them, as we today are being called, to discern where true North lies.  And their compass pointed again to God.

What did it take to affect harmonious relationships in an ever-increasing diverse group?  Moses_and_Aaron_10_CommandmentsThe Code of Conduct, established for a journey, was modified even further during that journey when God, to bring order out of chaos, handed to Moses the Ten Commandments.  Subsequent additions were made, as evidenced in the Book of Leviticus.  For example, a code for social responsibility was announced: Those whose fields were plentiful were instructed to leave behind in fields grain for those whose fields had not produced: Society under Mosaic Law, the Code of Conduct for their time, was by God instructed to care for the less privileged, for ultimately all things came of God.

How many times have we heard or told the joke about us Episcopalians, “How many Episcopalian does it take to change a light bulb?”  “Change?  Why my Aunt Belinda [donated] that light bulb 25 years ago at her confirmation!”  But I raise a more serious question: How many people does it take to make a church?  As a Christian community, where lies our responsibility to members of our community, as well as to those without?

My [biblically-based] answer is: Jesus said, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’.  Now, for numerous reasons we tend to think of the church stone upon stone, but in its basic manifestation, our answer must be: when two or three are gathered together in His Name.  And my third question is: how do we moderns sustain harmony in our interactions, whether in a religious or a secular setting?  What is it that guides us as people of faith in the Christian tradition, through both the good and the challenging times, when we, as a religious body, are affected by a pandemic, and such as we, as a nation, are affected by a divided rhetoric?  What is our Code of Conduct?

All jests aside, the changing of a light bulb is the least cantankerous, the least challenge to our well being.  You and I may not have anticipated in 2020 the divisions that threaten to undo our physical, emotional, and spiritual equilibrium.  Matthew’s gospel, while addressing potential disruption, offers (without benefit of a crystal ball) an understanding of human nature.  The writer of Matthew’s gospel portrays a Jesus who understood human nature and the need for Codes of Conduct, both oral and written, but codified nevertheless in the minds and daily interactions among those in community.  Jesus knew that the people of God were and would always be on a journey, even as we in the year 2020, [looking around us at our impressive cathedrals and parish buildings, find it difficult to imagine such].

Jesus knew that life, in both [a] secular community and a faith community, would include disputes.  While Jesus places before us (albeit in a simplified format) a path toward resolution and reconciliation, the basics are there; an expansion or elaboration remains operable:

  • One-on-one conversation
  • Witness/mediation [by] a third party
  • A discussion before, and a decision made by, an assembly

But the most important part of all this, far more important than the procedure itself, is the spiritual context in which it is to be pursued.  If you read the earlier part of this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, it becomes immediately clear that the only appropriate context is that of humility and unending forgiveness.  That does not mean that the one offended should be a martyr or remain gullible.  Nor does [it] preclude accountability or unpleasant consequences, but it does require a basic attitude of compassion in conflict resolution.

Over and over again, Jesus raises and gives answer to the question: And who is my neighbor?  Fundamental to all human interaction, if we are to take seriously what Jesus has laid out for us, is the belief, evidenced in our Book of Records, that everyone of us is created in the image of God. Not ethnic, racial, or religious heritage. There is no exception.

The latter day apostle Paul, latter day inasmuch as Paul himself admits that, although now a disciple of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, he was not one of the original chosen.  Yet, he, too, along with us all, is under the Code of Conduct [that] God established at creation and [that] Jesus iterated during his earthly mission.  Thus Paul writes to the group at Rome:

“… and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9c)

A phrase that may help us to understand Codes of Conduct as handed down to us, orally and in writing, is a poetic favorite of mine: ‘As has been said of old.’  Scripture was written within a particular time and particular situation, and it must be interpreted that way, in order to be understood properly.  It has often been said that history is that which occurred in the past; we live in the present; and the future is that still to come.  But, verily, verily, I, Butler, say unto you: indeed, history is of past events and decisions.  However, that history is alive in you and me.  We live that history.

We are on life’s journey and things happen during that journey that will challenge us.  Even in community, in one [that] declares itself Christian, there will be conflicts.  There will be conflict, moments of disagreement, because we are, each of us, uniquely made, as Scripture teaches and as our modern-day science reminds us.  Yet, Scripture lays out the underlying attitude with which all church conflict should be faced: humility, forgiveness, and open, direct communication.  Our greater challenge is how to apply this Code of Conduct to the world beyond our stone upon stone. My hope and prayer for us all is that we never relinquish that gift of an inquiring mind, that ability to reach intelligent decisions [that] God has given each of us.

And in these days in our national distress, I ask that you sing with me Hymn 593, attributed to Francis of Assisi, even as we worship distantly,

Lord, make us servants of your peace; where there is hate, may we sow love;
where there is hurt, may we forgive; where there is strife, may we make one.

Where all is doubt, may we sow faith; where all is gloom, may we sow hope;
where all is night, may we sow light; where all is tears, may we sow joy.

Jesus, our Lord, may we not seek to be consoled, but to console,
nor look to understanding hearts, but look for hearts to understand. 

AMEN

 

[For an example of current, New England-born Code of Conduct, visit https://www.mainepublic.org/post/why-hundreds-thousands-people-are-drawn-bangor-police-s-facebook-page]

 

Images:
Adam and Eve in Paradise, J. Konig, https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/adam-and-eve-in-paradise-5603

Ten Commandments, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moses_and_Aaron_with_the_10_Commandments_1674.jpg