Sunday, March 25, 2018

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday and then we go into Holy Week. So we are nearing the end of a journey. Lent is often an intentional time of struggle, some the dark night of the soul, preparing ourselves for the resurrection that comes in the morning. 

For many, Lent is a time of examining our scriptures and commandments to consider how well we live up to God’s words. Lent is a time of reconciliation and repentance to God’s Law. That is what makes today’s scripture challenging for us. We want laws to be clear and unambiguous. God’s Law above all others should be explicit and apparent. 

This type of legalism leads some to reach into places in scripture, where legalism becomes idolatry, where isolated texts from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, picked out of specific codes by which to live and hold others accountable. I say pick out because very few of us, even the most legalistic, do or even can live by every single literal word of either Leviticus or Deuteronomy. We may like the condemnation about not eating shellfish. We can give that up that during Lent. But what’s this about wearing mixed fibers? Do I really have to stop wearing my rad polyester blends? Cotton and wool make me itchy, that part of the old Law can’t be so literal. Even for those who try, living by every single word of the Law is near impossible and if carried out in today’s world would put you into trouble with other laws: the United States isn’t wild about stoning people in the streets or selling children into slavery. But beyond the United States legal system, it seems that God wasn’t crazy about our tendency toward Biblical legalism either. This is why, through the Prophets, God came in and revealed a deeper truth in God’s Law, revolutionizing the way the Jewish community and we today interpret those Laws. That’s what we hear in the words of Jeremiah when scripture record’s God voice, “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.” 

In moments like this, God isn’t changing what God is or the nature of God’s Law but correcting how we know and relate to that Law. God has seen in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a people called to live by example become closed-off, exclusive, and sometimes more in the love with the words of the book than in the Spirit of God. God knows that when humans write things down, we have the tendency to suck the ambiguity and Spirit out of things. Have you ever read a text message and gotten very upset about what it sounded like it was saying only to have the sender get equally upset and surprised because you apparently misunderstood the tone and spirit of the text? Throughout the books of the Prophets, God is time and again tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “hey did you get my texts? Because you seem to have misinterpreted who I AM and what you should and should not be doing.” For this reason, God says today, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” God writes in our hearts because we too often misunderstand God when we try to write God’s Law on paper. Writing on our hearts is God’s way of taking our precious writings, texts, and legalism away from us and handing us back a Spirit. God is deemphasizing “thou shall” and “thou shall not,” which create exclusiveness and judgement and re-emphasizing a Spirit of love which reaches out to be more inclusive, open, and affirming; leaving judgements, if they come at all, to God, the God to whom alone goes all the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. So God takes away our exclusive law and gives us a Spirit. God also takes away our ego and pride then gives us humility and relationship instead. “I will be their God,” scripture continues, “and they shall be my people.” Let’s make this clear, God does not choose us because we are so great, awesome, and perfectly follow “Laws.” We do not earn God’s Love. God has chosen us. God calls out to all of us to come into relationship with God, to be God’s people. God also opens the door to everyone to be people of God but also for God to be all our God. This sounds like a simple inversion of the previous statement but is actually very profound. God isn’t just my God. God isn’t just Pastor Ron’s God. We don’t exclusively own God because we have been ordained. God isn’t just this church’s God. God isn’t just the UCC’s God. We don’t exclusively own God because we follow certain rules and dogma. God is everyone’s God. Everyone has access to God. People outside this Church community, they already have access to God. People outside this denomination, they already have access to God. People we don’t like and can’t possibly imagine ever agreeing with or liking, they already have access to God. God has already claimed them as God’s special people and already written God’s Law in their hearts. This means not only that we should avoid legalistic literalism and the tendency to close ourselves off or close our doors to others - this means not simply that we should open our doors and affirm the stranger because that makes us God’s people - but that we need to see that we NEED the gifts, wisdom, and guidance that God has written in the hearts of those who aren’t get here, aren’t yet included. God has written something special in their hearts, messages we desperately need to read and understand. We need all of God’s people at the table because then and only then can we begin to see a fuller Image of God written in our hearts, only then can we begin to read the fuller Law of God written in our hearts. God has taken our exclusivity and legalism and marked our hearts, giving us a desire to reach out and include the strangers we may have formerly shunned.

I had the awesome opportunity to attend the True Colors Conference this weekend. For anyone who doesn’t know what True Colors is, True Colors is a non-profit organization that works with other social service agencies, schools, organizations, and within communities to ensure that the needs of sexual and gender minority youth are both recognized and competently met. True Colors offers the largest and most comprehensive conference in the country focused on LGBTQ youth issues. Now in it’s 25th year, the conference hosted at the University of Connecticut more than 3,500 participants from the Northeast and Nationally. With more than 220 workshops to choose from. What an incredible experience to attend this conference as an adult, I can only imagine that as a young person this was a space of authenticity and liberation, of freeing themselves fully and making bonds with a new chosen family, family that doesn’t reject them, but welcomes them just as they are.

We here at the First Congregational Church of Southington know how long the journey is and how great the reward of being Open and Affirming, with all the dimensions and colors. Last Lent we held a series of workshops on race, disability, mental health, gender and sexuality, in order to consider the many facets of our Open and Affirming statement and mission as a Church. After that series, hearing from a wide range of voices on the specific needs to be accessible across divides of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia and transphobia, I was struck by how there is no one Law or set of Laws that can possibly make certain that we will always get it right. 

Being Open and Affirming is not just written as our Church Mission in legalistic terms but is written on our hearts. The mission was not merely put there by vote but rather we collectively looked into our hearts and saw that the command to LOVE is already written there from the start of all things. God did not come to just give us a list of Do’s and Don’ts, to take away, shellfish, pork or prescribe fashion statements. God came to call us into relationship. God has written LOVE on our hearts. 

And yet, as we look to the world and wonder? When will we embody LOVE without question or hesitation? When will humanity reach the point where hope and life will shine brilliantly through all people, not just a few? Jesus changed the world to show us that another way is possible. As Lent draws to its end, how will you glorify Jesus so that folks know God’s LOVE as it is written on your heart?

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