How do we know we’re moving forward and not regressing into a former, mistaken idea of greatness? Human memory is an unreliable revisionist, but God’s path is always new, fresh and the only way ahead. So says the Law and the Prophets and all that is beautiful and good.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me your ordinances.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to perform your statutes
forever, to the end.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
This sermon is in three parts. After each part, we will pray. In ancient Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, to pray means “to set a trap for God.” That’s what today’s text is, a trap for God. It is also a song, a long song, Wagner long. Relatively speaking, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the whole Bible—a big, singing trap awaiting God.
Prayers take many forms. For some, pray is serving others, but for most it’s just taking the time to think about God. That said, if you don’t have a personal prayer life, you are part of the problem. Jesus prayed on the cross, aloud, about the love of his mother and what would happen to his friends and students. He prayed for his executioners—forgiveness!
I used to pray as a last resort. “Well, I’ve tried everything else, so I might as well pray.” I do not recommend this strategy. If you don’t begin with prayer — and few do — know this: it is never too late.
Part I: Building a Better Yesterday
Tuesday night, I witnessed the Holy Spirit at work at a Session meeting. A Session meeting! For those who don’t speak Presbyterian fluently, the Session is what we call our congregation’s Board of Directors, and Tuesday night, a member of Session was so moved by the Spirit that she, who has lived through many “transitional times in this congregation” said that we were not headed into another transitional time. Instead of needing to stop everything and have us all fill out surveys, she feels that we are positioned for continuity.
Why is this important? A story: Once I interviewed to work at a church in suburban Atlanta. At the end of the interview, when they asked me if I had questions, I asked the committee to describe the church’s mission and vision, or just tell me what they talk about, their focus. Blank expressions. They hemmed and hawed for awhile. The chair finally came up with a good church-speak-sounding answer: “We are going through a period of transition.” In my experience, “transition” is often shorthand for “we don’t know what’s happening.” So, Calvary, let’s call this time what it is: an opportunity to model continuity.
It is not an opportunity to go backwards. We cannot build a better yesterday since we are not the people we used to be. We have changed, the world has changed, the church has changed, theology and ethics have changed. God is eternal, but eternal does not mean frozen in time. God exceeds time, and the Holy Spirit is still speaking.
Of course, the way forward is informed by the past but moves forward, only forward. Look back to see how far we’ve come, but we must keep on keeping on, demonstrating the change we pray for. If our prayer is to go backwards, life will be miserable.
Your part in the ministry of continuity goes like this. First, if you see a need, try to meet it. If someone is grieving, sick or lonely, try saying this: “I’m bringing you some lasagna.” There’s no need to ask the pastor if they need a lasagna or whether they are gluten intolerant, just take the lasagna to them. (It’s not about lasagna. It’s about loving.) Tell them that you’ll keep on doing things like this — loving them — until they stop you. Don’t just ask, “Can I do anything?” because they won’t answer. Step one: do not hesitate to demonstrate your capacity for loving.
Secondly, remember that nostalgia is the great revisionist. Timely communication is part of Calvary’s behavioral covenant. Nobody can restore the past — or make anything “great again” if that involves measuring up to the inherently inaccurate nature of human memory. Pastors can’t shepherd congregations that way, presidents can’t lead the free world that way — because the time and space that binds us together marches in a forward direction, only forward.
So, get on board this train. Although we will never agree on everything, we are all headed for the same destination. We are all pilgrims traveling home. So, while still here, in this world God gave us to take care of, surrounded with people who, for the most part, are kinda wonderful, consider the profound question of Mary Oliver, words I wish I’d known at that weird job interview: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Part 2: The Unfolding Path
“Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” “Thy word” I learned in summer bible school. The word Psalmist speaks of is not necessarily the Bible, printed in English translation and as memorized by people who like to recite things. Terms like “Thy word” — God’s word, law, ordinances and precepts— are, instead, referring to the psalmist’s commitment to the ever-unfolding way forward called Torah in Hebrew, a term we often reduce to “the law.” To be known, God’s law must be experienced, not just read over for technicalities. God’s law does not require memorization. Yes, the ten commandments are in the Torah as are many other ordinances, but Torah is more. Torah is instruction, God’s directions for living in and loving this world. To paraphrase one modern rabbi, “If we are confused by this concept of Torah, we are on the right track.” To be clear, the seeds of Torah were planted on Mount Sinai when The Lord gave Moses the law. Then, the law was carved in stone, but the ongoing Torah is alive, set in motion. The ongoing Torah will never crumble, never give up.
If we are absolutely sure we know what God’s law is, we will be forever stuck in a fourth-grade understanding of an Infinite God. Most of us know the “thou shalt nots” but fail to move from that list of inactions to actual active discipleship.
Jesus said, “Sell it all, and help the poor.” Help somebody, says Jesus, and you will be happy. Is this still the law? Jesus was grilled on the meaning of Torah and, because he knew that churches like to conduct studies and renovate buildings and hold forums instead of actually serving the poor, he summed it up the law in one word: agape, selfless love.
Love God, love your neighbor as you love your self. The Torah, the law. is love. It’s simple to remember, but mastering the practice of love is lifelong journey.
Recently, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the church must love selflessly enough to risk its very existence. Why? Because Jesus left it all on the field, gave it all away. Is love still the law? Surely this is confusing to a anyone living in the winner-take-all United States in the year 2017. When we answer the call of Jesus, we not only confuse the current culture, we confound it.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, made it plain: Do not “worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.” If it is not loving, it is not of God. If it is not of God, it must not stand.
Part 3: Agnes of Bob
This church’s behavioral covenant ends with this verse from Romans:“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” In the words of Lenny Kravitz: “I belong to you, you belong to me.” We are our sister and brothers’ keepers.
When I began preparing for this sermon, I did not figure in the change that was coming. Now, experiencing my own version of grief — the anticipation of losing my dear friend John Weems, other griefs are triggered. Although it might seem a little like fluff, I want to share with you the following excerpt from a story by Brad Watson. It describes, in colorful Southern language, the interdependent nature of the church, every person a part of the body. This reading is also in memory of my closest relative, my Aunt Geneva, who died a few weeks ago in Plainville, Georgia at the age of 92. This story reminds me of her. “Agnes of Bob.”
Agnes Menken, missing her left eye, and Bob the bulldog, missing his right, often sat together on their porch, Agnes in her straight-backed rocking chair and Bob in her lap. Together they could see anything coming, Bob to one side and Agnes to the other. They always seemed to be staring straight ahead but really they were looking both ways.
Whereas Bob’s bad right eye was sewn up, Agnes had a false one that roved. It was obvious to her that people often had trouble telling which eye was the good one, so sometimes she would look at them awhile with the good one, and then when they’d become comfortable with this she switched and looked at them with the false one… In her good eye’s peripheral vision she could see the general distress that this caused.
Agnes and Bob found the way forward, together. It’s only by the grace of God, God’s law of love, the Torah, that we have found one another. Here today, in this moment, our lives will never intertwine just as we are right now. And just as you are right now, God loves you and wants to use you to bless the people around you. Agnes and Bob — they completed one another, and that’s how the Body of Christ works. This church, this franchise of the Jesus ministry, needs you to mean it when you pray:
 George Nancy, “Is Your God Dead?” The New York Times, June 19, 2017, accessed online at <www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/is-your-god-dead.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share> (July 13, 2017)
 Howard Thurman