COMMUNITY CHURCH OF THE MONTEREY PENINSULA
P. O. BOX 222811
CARMEL CA 93922
Rev. Paul Wrightman, Pastor
Independent and United Church of Christ
July 26, 2020
Many of you know Heidi Quandt, who has been attending Community Church with her beautiful dog Sophia. Heidi is a professional landscape gardener. In order to reach out to her church family, Heidi has offered to prepare a special floral arrangement weekly for our virtual ‘altar’. As soon as I press the “Send” button for this worship service I’ll forward to you an email with a picture of Heidi’s arrangement for this Sunday. I’m sure you’ll agree that her artistic vision rivals that of the very best florists in our area. Thank you, Heidi! If you would like to say hello, Heidi can be reached at email@example.com.
I’ve hit a few snags learning how to host a Zoom meeting. Hopefully those snags will be worked out by this coming Wednesday, and we will be able to resume Bible Study via Zoom. Just like our “old” time, we’ll be meeting on Wednesday evenings from 6 through 7. We will be looking at the Gospel of Luke. If you would like me to include you in the group of people to be reminded of this meeting and given a password to access it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Dodie Barkley Scardina for sharing the following poem with us. Dodie is one of our resident mystics (a mystic is simply a person with a deeply intuitive and highly imaginative personal relationship with God), as well as an accomplished poet.
Jesus, Jesu Bambino
I wish we could find a beautiful, green, sunlit
Where I could throw a cream pie at You and RUN!
Run faster than the wind!
For, if You catch up with me,
You’ll overwhelm me, and I’ll become Yours,
Forever addicted to Your everlasting sweetness,
Your loving kindness,
We continue our sermon series on the most important texts in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. We just completed a sermon on each of the Ten Commandments. What we will NOT be doing is giving a sermon on each of the 603 lesser commandments contained in the Torah! While Jesus unequivocally affirms the Big Ten, he often seems to correct or contradict many of the remaining Old Testament Laws. I think it important to wrestle with the question of how Jesus can fulfill the law of the Old Testament when he seems to contradict it. This is what today’s sermon is about.
Stay safe, take care, and
Always remember that Jesus Is Emmanuel – God WITH Us. Paul
WORSHIP SERVICE FOR JULY 26, 2020
INTRODUCTORY READING St. Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380
Translated by Daniel Ladinsky
THE FOUNDATION OF GOD
My perfect Lord sang,
“Less likely is God to condemn my hand’s action
than condemn any soul.”
How could this be possible,
my heart thought?
And the Christ, knowing all minds, replied,
“Forgiveness is the foundation of God’s
SUGGESTED MUSIC All You Need Is Love The Beatles You Tube
OPENING PRAYER Angela Ashwin, Contemporary
O Christ, you lived and breathed everything that matters.
Whatever the Spirit that was in you,
let it be in me as well.
Whatever the energy
that healed those who came into contact with you,
let it flow through me as well.
Fill me with the vision, the tenderness and the passion
that filled you.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
SERMON: JESUS’ PARADOXICAL FULFILLMENT OF OLD TESTAMENT LAW
Rev. Paul Wrightman
(The underlined words simply indicate what I would emphasize if delivered orally.)
Today’s Scripture reading consists of three texts: the law from the Old Testament proclaiming adultery a capital offense, the story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus forgives an adulterous woman (by the way, one should ask “Where’s the guy?” – presumably it takes two to commit adultery!), and a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he confronts the power of his own brokenness to sabotage his best intentions.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in adultery is celebrated because it shows Jesus compassion toward broken people and powerfully demonstrates his consummate skill in making a point.
Today I would like to consider this text in the overarching context of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament law.
It is way too simplistic to say that the Old Testament was harsh and judgmental, in contrast to Jesus, who was compassionate and forgiving, and that Jesus’ compassion and forgiveness simply override the harshness and condemnation we find in the Old Testament.
If we take the teachings of Jesus seriously as a whole, and resist the temptation to discard those teachings which we happen to find unappealing, we are faced with the challenge of reconciling certain teachings of Jesus which, on face value, seem to contradict each other.
For example, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus makes the following blanket affirmation of the Hebrew Scriptures: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18, NRSV).
In light of this blanket affirmation of Old Testament law, Jesus seems to be about the business of breaking this very law in today’s reading from the Gospel of John.
To undo this seeming contradiction, I need to make a few general comments regarding biblical interpretation and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
The giving of the law was understood by the Hebrew people to be a great act of love on God’s part. The Ten Commandments, for example, were considered to be ten life-giving, life-protecting “words” from God to God’s people. They provided a fence, so to speak, beyond which it was dangerous, even fatal, to go. They remind me of the fences and signs on some of our local beaches basically warning that “beyond this point your life is at risk.”
Many of the laws recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures seem overly harsh to us today, but in the Old Testament context of trying to create a stable and just society, they can be understood as where God’s love met God’s people at that particular point in their history.
To put it bluntly, at this point in their relationship with God, the people were primitive in their understanding of God and God’s law. The only way they could see God was through the lens of their own harsh limitations.
The Bible tells us again and again that God does not change. Applied to the concept of law, we can say that God’s law, which is ultimately the law of love, does not change either.
But God is committed to meeting people where they actually are, limitations and all. And at this point in their history, God’s people are not able to think of law in terms of love, but are stuck with seeing law in terms of retribution: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…”
But God has a plan. God knows that slowly and gradually under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, human understanding of God’s law of love will develop and deepen.
We could say that under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, the human understanding of God’s law evolves.
Many would say that God’s deepest and highest expression of love was embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Back to our original question: how, then, does Jesus fulfill God’s law when he seems to be breaking it?
To approach this question we need to ask the further question: “What does fulfillment mean in the context of fulfilling the law?”
Are we limited to an equivalency definition of fulfillment, in which each of the 613 commandments recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures must be exactly obeyed?
Or can we claim a paradoxical fulfillment of all 613 commandments in the person of Jesus, specifically in the forgiveness that he freely offers?
If the ultimate purpose of God’s law was to enable people to live together in shalom by living lives of wholeness and integrity, we need to ask ourselves the question of how that shalom, how that fullness of life with God, neighbor, and self actually comes into being.
One of the great insights of both Jesus and (through Jesus) Paul is that the law, in and of itself, has no power to bring about its own fulfillment.
Paul speaks eloquently about his desire to keep God’s law and his inability to do so in the seventh chapter of his Letter to the Romans. The flat, rather lifeless translation that you read earlier doesn’t really do justice to the intense feeling expressed in this passage, so I will quote Eugene Peterson’s take on this passage from his contemporary rendering of the Bible (The Message) as a counterpoint:
“But I need something more. For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it; I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions.
Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”
Paul immediately goes on to answer his own question, and his answer to that question gives us the key we need to understand the way that Jesus is fulfilling the law in forgiving the adulterous woman. Paul writes: “The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different (Romans 7:24-25, The Message).”
Paul is talking about receiving from Jesus the power to grow beyond his life of brokenness and contradiction. And as Paul repeats many times in his various letters, the life-giving power that he received from Jesus consisted in his acceptance of Jesus’ forgiveness and love. This is the same power that Jesus gives to the woman in our reading from John’s Gospel when he says to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Returning to our question of how Jesus fulfills the 613 commandments in the Old Testament, the answer would be that he fulfills them by giving people the power to live them, and that he gives people the power to live them by giving them God’s own love and forgiveness.
We can say that God’s forgiveness is the deepest and highest fulfillment of God’s law because God’s forgiveness is the only reality capable of empowering people to live God’s law, which, ultimately, is the law of love.
The Beatles were onto something with their megahit All You Need Is Love.
Surprisingly, Augustine was saying something quite similar when he stated: “Love – and do what you will.”
But, of course, the love which both the Beatles and Augustine are talking about is a love that goes well beyond simply feeling good and embraces uncompromising, unconditional love toward God, neighbor, and self.
In his moving and challenging book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning gives us a powerful example of love and forgiveness in action. He lets us in on an AA meeting that he attended in New Orleans:
“That night, Jack was the appointed leader. ‘The theme I would like to talk about tonight is gratitude,’ he began, ‘but if anyone wants to talk about something else, let’s hear it.’
Immediately Phil’s hand shot up. “As you all know, last week I went up to Pennsylvania to visit family and missed the meeting. You also know I have been sober for seven years. Last Monday I got drunk and stayed drunk for five days.’
The only sound in the room was the drip of Mr. Coffee in the corner.
‘You all know the buzz word, H.A.L.T., in this program,’ he continued. Don’t let yourself get hungry, angry, lonely, or tired or you will be very vulnerable for the first drink. The last three got to me. I unplugged the jug and…’ Phil’s voice choked and he lowered his head.
I glanced around the table – moist eyes, tears of compassion, soft sobbing the only sound in the room.
‘The same thing happened to me, Phil, but I stayed drunk for a year.’
‘Thank God you’re back.’
‘Boy, that took a lot of guts.’
‘Let’s get together tomorrow and figure out what you need relief from and why.’
‘Hell, I never made even close to seven years.’
As the meeting ended, Phil stood up. He felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his head… ‘You old ragamuffin,’ said Denise. “Let’s go – I’m treating you to a banana split at Tastee Freeze.’”
It has been demonstrated over and over again that the threat of rejection and punishment does nothing to help a person change for the better.
It has been demonstrated over and over again that love and forgiveness are the two greatest catalysts for personal and societal transformation.
Many of us know how true this is from our own personal experience.
Jesus understands these dynamics.
He has the highest respect for God’s law, going so far as to say that he did not come to reject it but to fulfill it. But he also knows – and Paul echoes this – that the law, in and of itself, cannot bring about its own fulfillment. He knows that only God’s love and forgiveness can empower a person to live God’s law, which in itself is life-giving and good.
One could go so far as to say that the most concrete expression of God’s love for us is forgiveness, given the fact that we have all alienated ourselves from God, neighbor, and self, and stand desperately in need of forgiveness, which is just another word for restoration.
I think St. Catherine of Siena was deeply onto something when she writes at the end of her poem “And the Christ, knowing all minds, replied, ‘Forgiveness is the foundation of God’s being.’”
By not condemning the woman taken in adultery Jesus is showing us that God’s deepest will is not rejection, but love, not punishment, but restoration.
I’d like to close this sermon by quoting the words to the song Forgiveness by Matthew West. Diane Goyette introduced me to this song, and its words perfectly capture the dynamics of what we’ve been wrestling with today:
“It’s the hardest thing to give away
and the last thing on your mind today
it always goes to those that don’t deserve
it’s the opposite of how you feel
when the pain they caused is just too real
it takes everything you have just to say the word…
It flies in the face of all your pride
it moves away the mad inside
it’s always anger’s own worst enemy
even when the jury and the judge
say you gotta right to hold a grudge
it’s the whisper in your ear saying ‘set it free’
Help me now to do the impossible
It’ll clear the bitterness away
it can even set a prisoner free
there is no end to what its power can do
so, let it go and be amazed
by what you see through eyes of grace
the prisoner that it really frees is you
Show me how to love the unlovable
Show me how to reach the unreachable
Help me to do the impossible
I want to finally set it free
so show me how to see what your mercy sees
help me now to give what you gave to me
What do you think of the concept that God’s nature doesn’t change; it’s our understanding of God’s nature that changes? And the related concept that God’s law of love doesn’t change, it’s our understanding of God’s law that changes?
How have God’s love and forgiveness been empowering in your own life?
CLOSING PRAYER William Temple, 1881-1944
O God of love, we ask you to give us love;
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing,
And love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those we take our ease;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with you,
Who are eternal love.
SUGGESTED MUSIC Matthew West – Forgiveness (Lyrics) You Tube
Patiently and persistently, God loves.
Relentlessly and unconditionally, God loves.
Now and forever, God loves.