The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 20 Oct 2013
Our psalmist today declares: “Oh how I love your law! How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.”
Now I can understand justice being sweet or loving mercy or thinking forgiveness tastes better than honey, but I've always had a tough time wrapping my head around what the psalmist was thinking when he talked about loving God's law. I can get on board with respecting God's law, or honoring God's law, or being obedient to God's law, but the psalmist uses love here in the sense of enjoyment and exhilaration – he finds it sweeter than honey!1
How can we come to love God's law like this psalmist?
After consulting prisons, banjoes, and Chinese philosophy I think we come to love God's law by knowing God's law and then by practicing God's law.
So let's begin with prisons. A couple of weeks ago you all sent me up to the Northeast Correctional Complex with 1200 cookies to be part of a Kairos team that spent a long weekend talking with inmates about their faith and the love of God. Think of Kairos as a kind of Cursillo that takes place in jail.
Now a prison is not the kind of place where one would expect to find much love for the law, and for the most part that's correct. Lots of inmates will tell you how they got wronged by the justice system. They'll tell you about prosecution scare tactics and plea bargain politics. They'll tell you about dirty cops, incompetent lawyers, and a system where the war on drugs looks more like a war on the poor.
And when they've finished hating on the law that exists outside of the prison walls, they'll start talking about the evils of the law that exists inside the walls. They'll talk about having to fight for their meals, or having to run errands for gangs to keep from getting beat up, or having to declare a racial identity to find friends, or even having to turn to drugs to find any kind of relief. Inmates pretty much hate any kind of law they've ever come in contact with.
Which is exactly what makes God's law so sweet to them. For these inmates the justice system is an impersonal machine that consumes their humanity. According to human law they are just a number serving time. When a kairos member calls them by name, gives them a dozen cookies, and tells them God's law is about reconciliation and healing, many of those inmates are overwhelmed by such a personal connection.
Likewise, the law of the jungle that exists on the inside, is based upon the power to control harm and manipulate death. When an inmate hears that God's law is based on love and promises life beyond death, again they are overwhelmed by the idea that a life could be built around something other than fear.
I sat with a prisoner named Jeff on this last visit, who at the beginning of the weekend talked at length about his loathing for the law. He talked about how he killed a man he found sleeping with his wife. How he had given the man an out but was forced to kill him in self-defense. How the legal system wronged him and how the penal system made him an addict to drugs.
But as the weekend went on Jeff started talking more and more about how his life was changing through the Kairos program (it's important to note here that the Kairos program also offers regular weekly worship services and small group sessions up at the prison and many of the inmates that attend the weekend retreat have also been attending these weekly meetings for some time).
So Jeff talked about how studying scriptures and talking with other Christians was showing him a whole new world. Jeff said he started to see another way forward. A way not bounded by an impersonal justice system or a fear-based penal system, but a way bounded by the law and the love of Christ. I suspect this is the same contrast the widow saw in her pleas to the unjust judge from our gospel reading today.
My prison friend, Jeff and that widow from Luke, really thought God's law was sweeter than honey because God's statutes and God's edicts and God's love offered them a justice and a way forward they never knew at the hands of earthly powers.
To love God's law, we have to know God's law, and know how it's different from all the other laws that surround us. But we can't stop at just knowing God's law, we also have to practice it.
If we look closer at the widow from Luke, I think we can also see how God's law manifests as holy action. Jesus uses the widow as an example of steadfast prayer and active perseverance. We also come to love God's law because of the habits it instills in our life. Which brings me to the banjo.
I have a rather curious relationship with my banjo instructor, in that we meet weekly to practice banjo, but we often end up in discussing philosophy, theology, or in the case of this last week, moral formation.
I'm still in the process of learning what are called “licks.” These licks are the basic building blocks for banjo music, and there are all kinds of rules that go into making up a lick; which finger to fret with, which finger or thumb to pick with, when to slide, or when to hammer on a string. Learning licks is a really frustrating and a tedious process, and sitting at home playing until my hand cramps seems to be the only way to get better. To be honest, I thought learning to play the banjo would be a lot more fun, but I've kept on in the faith that these exercises will pay off.
My banjo instructor kept telling me the day would come when I would stop thinking my way through the licks and just let the muscle memory take over. I got a glimpse of that phenomenon the other day while I played Cripple Creek for the hundreth time. Finally some of those rules became so ingrained that I no longer had to think about them, and what followed was a wonderfully enjoyable eleven seconds.
The practice parallel to moral formation was not lost on my banjo guru. Imagine, he said, if we treated God's law like licks. Imagine if we practiced for an hour a day actively loving our neighbor, and reading the scriptures, and praying honestly with our fellow Christians. In many ways my banjo instructor sounded a lot like Paul talking to Timothy in our readings today.
Instead of building up a muscle memory, we are to build up a moral memory that will allow us to enjoy serving God, not just out of duty, but out of a joy and a love for God's law. I think it is those kinds of habits that give rise to Mother Teresas, Dorothy Days, and all those people who stuck around last sunday to help clean up after the Pig Roast. Those kind of moral habits, those kinds of godly lives, and those kinds of licks are truly sweeter than honey.
To love God's law we have to know God's law and then we have to practice God's law.
But how do we cultivate these holy licks in our own lives? The short answer is to spend time in prison. Every one of Jesus' disciples was incarcerated at some point, and some of the holiest people I know today are behind bars where they turn their love of Christ into some very powerful habits. However, if prison isn't your thing, then I think we have to turn to Chinese philosophy for this answer.
I read an article this week about how Chinese philosophy is now the third most popular class on the Harvard campus.2 The general premise of the article was that Chinese philosophy gave undergraduates “concrete, counter-intuitive, and even revolutionary ideas, which taught them how to live a better life.” The professor showed his students that the smallest of daily actions can have profoundest of consequences. He challenged them at the end of every class to undertake daily little activities and notice how they felt when they did things like smile at stranger, or hold a door for someone, or let another car into traffic. (I guess this is a big deal for New Englanders). In any case, these practices were apparently life changing for many of these students.
When I was discussing this article with the lectionary ladies, I was lamenting how the church went wrong in conveying Christ's message, and how frustrated I was that so many of our young people had to turn to Chinese philosophy to find “concrete, counter-intuitive, and even revolutionary ideas, which teach them how to live a better life.” And then one of the lectionary ladies said that she didn't think the church missed the boat on sharing Christ's revolutionary, life-giving message. She was pretty sure we preached that every time two or three of us gathered together.
After thinking about it for a while I came to the conclusion that she was right. I also realized that we do a pretty good job of encouraging people in monthly and weekly activities like Bible Studies or fellowship dinners or outreach projects. Which means if there is a disconnect with the Church's message that Chinese philosophy is filling for these kids, then it is in the small daily things.
So I thought I would take a page out of the Analects of Confucius and encourage us all to try a couple of daily practices popular with the prison Christians.
The first practice is to read scripture every morning. To love God's law we need to know God's law as revealed in the scriptures. If you already have a Bible reading practice then carry on, but if you're looking for one maybe this is a good week to start. Luke Chapter 18, which we're reading from for the next two weeks, has 5 subdivisions set off by headings, the technical name for these subdivisions are pericopes, which, as the healing service folks know, is a word I love to say. So we could start our Monday by rereading the pericope about the widow and the unjust judge, and then on tuesday read the pericope about the pharisee and the tax collector and on and on until friday and the pericope of jesus and the blind beggar near jericho. These readings shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes max, and it may be a nice activity to do while the coffee brews.
The second practice is to give thanks in prayer at the end of the day. To love God's law we need to practice gratitude. And this being the stewardship week for gratitude for creation , I suggest we practice by walking every evening in search of some part of creation we are thankful for and then offer a prayer over it. This walking prayer is especially popular with inmates. You can't believe how thankful prisoners are to be out under the sky and amongst the trees.
To love God's law we must know God's law and we must practice God's law. May the Holy Spirit be with us all this week as we try to love a little more in all the small parts of our lives. Amen.
1There are significant ties to CS Lewis's commentary entitled “Sweeter than Honey” on this same psalm.