Sermon for Pentecost +19 A, Oct 19, 2014 on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 1:14-17
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
A recent article in the New Yorker on the Synod on the Family, in the Vatican was interesting. It called attention to a document released in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, called the “Syllabus of Errors.” The Syllabus lists a series of ideas which people of that time were believing, that Pope Pius considered errors that must be avoided. According to the author, these errors included democracy, freedom of speech, and opposition to slavery. The most interesting one, considering where we have come, was the erroneous error that suggested that:
“80. The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
Now, we must realize that the “Syllabus of Errors” did not have the force of doctrine, according to some Catholic Theologians. And we can see that many of its supposed “errors” are embraced by most Catholics today. The church has never been monolithic. She has always included diverse views. And the church has changed her views over time.
Well, this week the Catholic church produced a document describing the state of the discussions going on now at the Synod on the Family, and perhaps you have heard something about the controversy it is stirring up. The document asks: How can the church be welcoming to divorced people, or to non-traditional couples?
The Law of Gradualness
The document from the Synod this week also reminds us of a principle called “the law of gradualness” or a “step-by-step” advance” in progress in moral life that we are all called to. Gradual progress in the moral life was developed in a former apostolic exhortation written by Pope John Paul II from 1981.
Here is the essence of the question: can the church welcome people who are living in incompletely faithful circumstances? For example, can the church acknowledge loving faithfulness and sacrificial caring as positive steps in a morally good direction, even in non-traditional relationships and families? We will have to wait and see what they conclude.
This brings up the whole question of moral and spiritual progress. The “law of gradualness” simply means that we do not start out, morally or spiritually, at the finishing line. We start at the starting line.
This truth is, for me, a great source of hope. And I need that hope, because I know how far short I fall. I am not nearly as loving as I should be. I’m not as forgiving, as patient, as kind, or as accepting as I should be. I’m not as self-controlled or as disciplined as I should be, in what I do, or even what I say.
But that is not a cause for despair, for me, but rather hope. Because I can see that in some areas, at least, I have made some progress. It has been gradual. That is what the “law of gradualness” means. Progress in a positive moral and spiritual direction should be what we all expect to make in our lives.
People who have studied the way we make gradual moral progress (like L. Kohlberg and C. Gilligan) have noticed that we all progress through stages. We begin, according to Kohlberg, in the stage of “obedience and punishment.” In that stage children learn to obey because they want to avoid being punished by the authorities (parents) whose rules cannot be questioned.
In the next stage, the moral rule is “tit for tat” – I do what is best for me. Next is the “good boy / good girl” moral level. It is good to have the approval of others, and bad to experience disapproval.
Then there is the “law and order” stage. All laws are good and all laws must be obeyed. Beyond that level is the recognition that there is a “social contract” at work behind the laws – that laws are made to protect the common good. Finally, there are universal principles like justice which transcend culture.
Kohlberg was famous for telling moral dilemma stories and asking people what the right thing would be to do. Should Mr. Heinz steal the medicine that he cannot afford to buy, in order to save his dying wife? Why or why not? People at different moral levels respond differently.
Getting Stuck, Morally
I heard someone awhile back discussing interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, like water-boarding. For him, the morally relevant question was about citizenship: non-Americans were not protected by our laws and constitution, therefore what we did to them was not morally objectionable. It made me wonder if he would defend slavery if it were still legal.
And this shows what Kohlberg also learned from all of these interviews: people can get stuck morally; in fact, he believed that only 20% ever reach the level of a morality based on universal principles. People whom we have identified as moral leaders, like Jesus or Gandhi do, but most do not.
But progress can be made, gradually, and therefore we have hope to grow, both morally and spiritually.
This is why we read the two texts we heard today. Jeremiah foresees a new day for his people. There will be, he says, a new covenant. It will surpass the old one because instead of being written on tablets of stone, it will be written on the heart. Who’s heart? On everyone’s hearts.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.”
Obeying laws because they are chiseled on stone somewhere and someone will punish you for breaking them, is a much lower moral level than obeying the dictates of conscience, the laws that have become internalized in the heart.
Jeremiah pictures God giving those laws on stone tablets to children whom he led “by the hand” out of Egypt. It was “early days.” They needed to start at the starting line. But that was never the final goal. The finish line has a new covenant and a new law, known by everyone, imprinted on their hearts.
All of us know it is wrong to cause harm, even to the powerless and defenseless who threaten no retaliation.
All of us know it is wrong to act unfairly: to tilt the scales in favor of a privileged group at the expense of others.
And all of us can gradually grow in our capacity to include more and more people in our circle of moral concern. We should expect to grow; we should expect to change. We should expect that when, as Paul said, we were children, that we thought like children do – morality was only about fear and punishment. But when we became adults, we put away childish things.
In the end, Paul endorses three universal values: faith, hope, and love. And he is even able to discern a moral ranking among these: the greatest, he says, is love. (1 Cor. 13)
Gradual development is what Jesus expects of us as well. There are many texts I thought of using as our reading. I chose the one from the beginning of Mark’s gospel because it is so clear.
Jesus, when first calling his original disciples, called them to make changes. Their very identities would have to change. They would leave their former vocational identities as fishermen to join Jesus in his ministry to people.
“Follow me,” Jesus called, “and I will make you fish for people.”
Notice what happened. No miraculous, instantaneous transformations. Instead, they simply responded to the call to follow Jesus. To follow is to set out on a journey, trusting that the one leading knows where he is going.
A journey is gradual. One step at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time. And this is the journey we are called to. The journey of following Jesus, today, this moment.
Failure and Hope
You have probably noticed how many times those original disciples got it wrong, messed up, and had to be corrected – especially Peter. Just last week we saw Jesus actually get angry at them when they tried to keep the little children from him. But I love those stories of their failures. They too give me hope, when I fail.
Jesus represents, for us, the finish line. He looks like what we are aiming for.
His compassion for people in need is what we want to have.
His love for outcasts and marginalized people is what we want to exhibit.
His generous giving of his time, of his un-divided attention, and his physical resources is the generosity of spirit we aspire to.
His willingness to forgive, and forgive and forgive – his failing disciples, his un-comprehending family, and even, in the end, his mortal enemies – that is our goal.
And so is his spiritual life the goal we gradually journey towards.
Jesus’ sense of the God of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, always and everywhere sustaining life, is what we want to experience.
Jesus’ participation in the synagogue’s public worship sets our pattern of regular gathering for worship.
And Jesus’ practices of silent withdrawal for prayer and meditation is our model for silent, contemplative or centering prayer.
And most of all, Jesus’ self-understanding as a child of God is exactly what he wants us to internalize – that our true self is not our small self – the self of roles, titles and ego-props. But our true self is beloved daughter, beloved son; child of God.
The non-dual self that does not need, any more, to divide up the world into binary categories of us vs. them, all or nothing, good or bad, but rather who is willing to embrace diversity, complexity, and even paradox and mystery.
Ultimately it is the mystery of our oneness with the God of all creation.
So, the call is to follow Jesus on the Journey.
The journey is a gradual one of moral and spiritual development, day by day. The goal is to live like Jesus lived, morally and spiritually.
Failure will be a frequent experience for us humans, but so will forgiveness. Hope is that each new day is a new opportunity for gradual growth in faith, hope and love.
Now, we see all of this, as Paul said, “as through a glass, darkly.” But one day we will “know as we are known.” We will make progress towards that goal, albeit gradually.
So take courage. Nothing good comes quickly. The Spirit of God is at work in us day by day as we make this journey of gradualness that Jesus calls us to.