Human Precepts vs. God’s Doctrine

August 30, 2015

In Mark’s gospel this morning, we hear of the Pharisees challenge to Jesus regarding the disciples apparent disregard for the purity codes of the time; they didn’t wash their hands before eating and were, therefore, not abiding by the Judaic law.  Mind you, Purity codes weren’t about sanitation or prevention of disease, they were instead in place to set apart a people; a people covenanted to YHWH.  In the midst of Roman oppression and the ever-increasing influence of the Greeks, the purity codes of ancient Israel were a way to delineate between Israel and cultures bent on assimilating her lands and her people into systems that were alien to Israel and her God.

And the Pharisees, more than any other group of the time, were fanatics about keeping the purity codes. In this famous interchange, Jesus calls them hypocrites.  Listen to the language again:

'This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.'

This is strong language! Nor does this morning’s epistle offer much more solace.  James implores us to be ‘doers of the word and not just hearers’. And it has got me wondering what we, as a people, teach as ‘doctrine’.   What for us, has replaced God’s will?  How are we hypocrites in our time and place?  How do we translate our beliefs into action?  How do we move from simply giving lip service to the Word of God to really, truly, taking action in our world?  What do we do and where do we begin?

There are myriad issues of import in our culture.  A dizzying array of evils, of injustices, of wrongs upon which we might choose to spend our energy:  poverty, climate change, over population, education, hunger, and the environment, to name a few.  Goodness knows, I have been captivated, at one point or another, with all of these issues and they all seem too big—too huge, too globally pervasive.  Mind you, that isn’t to say they aren’t all worthy of our attention, and support.  What affects our global family will always ultimately affect us as well.

 

But lately, a much more immediate topic has bubbled up for me in a much more intimate way than ever before and I feel as if this might be the time for me to finally to do more than give lip service.

As you’ll remember, on June 17th, a gunman in South Carolina walked into a bible study and shot to death nine church members; a few weeks later, another man shot 11 in a Louisiana movie theater killing 2; Wednesday morning, as I was preparing to come to work, Channel 5 played breaking footage from Virginia of a news reporter and photographer being shot and killed in the midst of an interview.  And the very next day, my friend Laurence who is chaplain at Mississippi State University, called to tell me about a campus lockdown after someone had threatened to shoot students.  And this has just been this summer...

Laurence said that, even though there was no gun brandished on campus, the students at MSU were traumatized.  Many of them were huddled in classrooms, or hiding behind locked doors; terrified, texting their families and friends; not knowing if they were going to lose someone they knew, not knowing if they themselves might be a victim.  I remember the 1999 shootings at Columbine, do you?  I remember because it was such an anomaly.  I couldn’t imagine that within 16 years the story would be played out again and again on a nearly annual basis.  The details of each occurrence, of course, vary, but the theme remains the same.  People are being gunned down all over our nation.  The killings have taken place on military bases.  Churches, as we know all too well, are not exempt, nor are movie theaters, or clothing stores, or grocery store parking lots.  But many, many, times, it is our youth who are the victims, in their schools, in the middle of class, on the playground, in the science lab—often by their contemporaries, but not always.  I remember some of the names of the schools, Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech, Pilchuck High School in Marysville; but there are many more I don’t remember, and I am grieved that that is true.  There have been so many school shootings that we can’t even remember them all.

What’s Happened?  How did the language of our own human precepts become doctrine and when did we decide it was okay to sacrifice our children on this altar?  Statistically, in the United States, people under the age of 26 are now more likely to die as a result of a gunshot than in a car accident.  Where is God’s doctrine in all this?  What are we to do?  We are becoming more and more calloused to this horror that assaults us on a daily basis and somehow, prayers, and vigils for the victims and their families; prayers for the communities rocked by violence; for the families of the perpetrators, just don’t cut it anymore.  My friends, we have an epidemic on our hands; an epidemic that threatens our future generations, our standing as a nation, and our credibility as followers of the risen Christ.  How do we proclaim the resurrection of Christ, the peace, the reconciliation and forgiveness implicit in our faith while we do nothing to stop the slaughter of innocents?  How do we proclaim healing while we ignore the cries of the mentally unstable?  How do we justify arming the damaged souls who would do others harm?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to all of these questions, but I am, at last, asking them of myself.  I ask them as a follower of Christ and as a priest in His church.  I ask them as the person who shepherds our own youth in this community.  I ask them as a person whose extended family has felt the effects of three different instances of gun violence.  My father hunted when we lived in Alaska and a rifle lived in the front closet of our Albuquerque house as long as I remember.  It is worth noting that the gun wasn’t completely assembled, but it stayed there nonetheless.  Apparently, my father’s father could wedge a blue tip wooden match between two slats in the old garage and, light it with a bullet he fired from his old 22.  My great uncle Charlie Shiftbar showed me how to fire his pistol, and I have fired shotguns and smaller caliber rifles as well.  I am not in opposition to firearms as a general principle; however, it would be a lie to say I am really a fan.  I do, however, understand their usefulness as tools as well as their attraction.  What I don’t understand is the killing of our brothers, sisters, and children.  I don’t understand the weird, twisted celebrity that comes as a result of mass murder.  It is evil, and is symptomatic of our disordered, sinful, world.

At general convention, our bishops marched in the streets of Salt Lake against gun violence and 1500 people joined them.  However, as children of God, we can’t rest on our laurels and believe that one moment was enough.  We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and shaking our heads and shedding a few tears.  As Christians, we are called to be ‘doers’.  James charges us to care for the orphans and widows—not enable the creation of more.

Students all over the country are returning to school this week.  I wish I believed this year might be different.

Dear God, have mercy on your people; instill in our hearts a willingness to act and give us the courage to do so.  Amen.

 

 

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