Monday, October 31, 2005

The Ripple Effect

This is pure theology here - no politics. If you need politics, head back to the index and pick a topic. Following is a homily I shared with some high school youth a couple of weeks ago:

Imagine, if you will, that you are at a quiet lake on an early summer morning. Sitting on the dock in a very calm cove, with your legs over the side, the water is just down below your toe-tips. All around you is silence. The water is still, the air is exceptionally clear, and the sun has yet to rise. The colors are muted and the only sound you hear is your own breathing.

You pick up a small stone. It fits your fingers well. You feel the weight of the stone in your hand, calculate the throw, not too far, just a toss out a bit and it goes … ker-plunk … and the perfect circles of waves spread out, rolling from the center towards you and away from you, in all directions at the same time.

Watching the ripples going away, across the lake, you know that they will arrive at the shore over there and make some small difference in that meeting. The sand there will be moved, altered, and changed in a way unique for that small wave having touched that shore.

Each of us creates many ripples every day. Every action we take or choose not to, every inter-action that we have or don’t have changes those around us, changes us, and alters the overall balance of all things: of relationships, of friends and family, and even of those that we don’t know, by way of one ripple causing another. The choice between a smile or a frown, to a total stranger on the street or in the hallways of your school, can be the difference between a good or bad day for them, and you would never know it as you pass by, choosing to interact, to touch a life, or not.

Now, how we interact with each other is also controlled by laws, man’s law. Man’s law covers things like stopping at stop signs, educating our youth, paying taxes, and that sort of thing. These are good and needed laws and the Bible even calls for us to abide by them, but there are certainly, for Christians, other laws that define our behavior to a higher level. Some of these (many of these) are man’s law as well. Things like "Thou shalt not murder" and the like.

God gave Israel 613 laws in the first five books of the Old Testament. To His truly beloved and chosen nation God gave a rulebook of how to behave in a manner pleasing to Him and what to do to make up for it when they went wrong. God’s law covered everything from repayment for stolen property to what to do when mildew is in your house, from food preparation to temple rites to personal behavior on a day-to-day basis. And God’s law used sacrifice as atonement, as an appeal for forgiveness, when they did wrong.

56 of God’s laws have to do specifically with the rituals of the sacrifice, how to select the animal, how to properly sacrifice it, and what to do with the remains of the burnt offering. Over and above those 56 ceremonial laws are a great many more behavioral laws that make use of sacrifice as the atoning measure, you know, “as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.”

A good discussion can be had around the idea that God’s plan was to have His people become familiar with their inability to follow the law, and atonement for (or reconciliation of) those transgressions being received through the sacrifice of animals; this so that they could then come to an understanding of the final sacrifice given in Jesus. In other words, mankind, or the Jews anyway, needed to develop a sense of giving a life sacrifice, in their case an animal’s life, to make up for their sins, their transgressions against God.

Guilt is an insidious process. The Jews were faced with guilt when they fell short of the plan they knew God had for them, short of God’s known desires for them. If they truly loved God in their heart, why couldn’t they do as they knew he wanted? They had been told what to do, and how to do it, in seemingly every aspect of their lives yet they couldn’t be perfect even with the rules known clearly. One shortcoming added to another, to another to another and pretty soon there was a big heaping pile of … guilt … right on their shoulders. The atonement received through sacrifice removed that guilt and let them get on with their lives cleansed.

Jesus was the final sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross fulfilled the laws, just as his life and resurrection fulfilled the prophets. With the sacrifice of Jesus, and the faithful atonement for all of our sins, the old law was replaced by an even higher calling. All those laws were both not enough, and they were too much. There isn’t a number that can be put on the ways we can go wrong before God, and by thinking about what NOT to do, in 368 of 613 different ways, we gave more power to that which we shouldn’t do, rather than that which we should. Think about it – wouldn’t it be better to consider 613 good things to do than 245 good things to do and 368 things you shouldn’t do?

By thinking about sin, by letting it roll around in our heads as we contemplate any aspect of sin, we give it more power within us. As Paul writes in Romans 7 - … “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”

In other words Paul, who in his youth was a Roman citizen, probably well to do, lawyer to be, not wanting for much, didn’t realize that he could want for much until he read the commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” Only when he took the time to think what more he could want did that desire consume him; only when he considered what he shouldn’t do, did he begin to do it.

By contrast, if we seize the opportunity for that which is good, right and proper, in the eyes of God as we sense God, if we choose to think more about what is good than what isn’t, and decide to build good with the sense of God in us, the Spirit will build in each of us a more God pleasing nature. The question isn’t, “What wouldn’t Jesus do?” it’s “What would Jesus do?” We don’t seek the neutral avoidance of bad, but the positive action of good. So … rather than think about what not to do, think about what to do. Be the positive. Be the good. As Paul goes on to say, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

And that is an active statement. Each of us can, by our own choices, overcome evil with good.

So, if the law has been replaced by a higher calling, what guides a life pleasing to God? As always, look to Jesus. As much as I enjoy the epistles of Paul (epistles means “letters”, the epistles of Paul are his letters to various churches) anyway, as much as I enjoy Paul’s letters as a source of understanding the big picture, I tend to go back to Jesus’ words, the red ones in my Bible, and find simpler statements there. In particular, as regards the law of the Old Testament, Jesus kept making it simpler:

From the book of Matthew, Chapter 5, Jesus tells us:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

So Jesus has invoked all the law of the Old Testament as in effect “until everything is accomplished.” But then in Matthew 19:16-19 Jesus tells us six commandments that remain:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

“Which ones?” the man inquired.

Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.

Three chapters later, in Matthew 22 and echoed in Mark 12, Jesus made it even simpler by taking it to two commandments. Jesus was asked:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:“Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Let me repeat that last verse, verse 40, and remember that this is Jesus speaking to us: “All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Pretty simple, huh? Two commandments. Simple, my foot! Sometimes when things seem simple, it is because they are much more complex and full of inter-related elements than they appear. Mathematicians say that when they are looking for the solution to a very complex problem, they have learned to seek the simpler and more elegant solutions, they call them beautiful solutions. When a big and complex problem is solved, the solution looks simple. Such is the case here.

Two commandments, let’s look at the first one. The first commandment is pretty plainly written but is huge when fully considered:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

I’ll say it again …

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Know that this is possible. Know that this is an admirable lifelong goal. Know that your life here will be greatly richer, more full of love and comfort through your seeking of God and your coming to have a sense of God in your life. Seek Him. Seek His Son, Jesus Christ, and humbly pray that the Holy Spirit may fill you daily.

The second commandment is the simple, elegant solution to the complex understanding of how to act, how to behave, in a God pleasing manner on a daily basis: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

One beautiful commandment with immense and encompassing implications. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How many ways can this apply? To everything? Yes. To everything.

In answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” we have an answer from Jesus himself: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

What if we truly took this to heart in all our interactions? How big of a neighborhood do we live in? Is it our house? Our high school? If we truly applied “Love your neighbor as yourself,” how much more gentle would we be with someone that caused us problems, how much more steadfast for a friend considering some bad choices?

Let’s call our neighborhood our valley. Let’s call it our state, our country, the planet.

Our neighborhood is at the same time a huge planet and a small speck in the universe. Every person casts out ripples, some better than others, some bigger than others. The cumulative effect of all these ripples is a delicate balance, swaying sometimes more towards good, sometimes less so.

Each of you (each of us) has a chance, every day, to cast out ripples of good, ripples of love, ripples of God. To choose to do so is easy, a simple decision between two paths, and yes, to say it clearly, those two are good and, well, I’ll only give it the respect of saying it’s less than good, much less. This choice is a one road or the other, pick one and start walkin’ continual daily decision about who do you want to be, what do you want to be, in a way much further reaching than whether teacher, doctor or scientist.

It’s a choice confirmed moment by moment that builds within you as a part of your nature. Once chosen and acted upon, that nature (or shall I say Spirit?) becomes more and more a part of who you are, more the natural rather than the considered response.

Each of us is a part of history: the history or our families, the history of our communities, the history of God’s creation. May we each write it well.