The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, September 10, 2017

“Love is the Fulfilling of the Law” A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church,
New York City, September 10, 2017]

Around the time of Jesus, there were two notably different schools of legal thought within Judaism—the House of Hillel, and the House of Shammai. Hillel himself died, we believe, in about the year 10 of the Common Era, or what we in Church used to call, AD—meaning after the birth of Christ, even though that was slightly off.

Hillel and Shammai debated each other throughout their careers, and, according to W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, by the time of Jesus’s ministry, “the differing outlooks of the two great legalists Shammai and Hillel had in the course of half a century hardened into schools of interpretation, often in violent opposition to each other.”[1]

My old boss, Jerry Lefkowitz, once told a story about these two great sages. A pagan, considering converting to Judaism, asked Shammai to explain all of Judaism to him, while standing on one foot. Shammai waved him away.

The pagan continued on until he saw Hillel, and asked him the same question.

As Jerry retold the story, Hillel raised one foot, and quickly answered, “The substance of Judaism is to love thy neighbor as thyself. All the rest is procedural. Now you must go and study the procedures so as to be able to accomplish the substance.” [2]

I tell you this story because today, Jesus gets into the procedures. And because of that, it’s all too easy to lose the substance. Which I think helps explain a little matter you may have recently heard about, the Nashville Statement.

In case you missed it—and we’ve only had three hurricanes, a surprise avoidance of a possible government shutdown—oh, and potential nuclear war with North Korea--sharing the spotlight with this story, so really, I can understand if you did—let me explain.

An organization of self-professed Evangelical Christians called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has released a document it calls . It’s accompanied on their website by the Danvers Statement of 1987.

The Nashville Statement[3] is a series of affirmations and denials of conservative dogma regarding homosexuality and transgendered individuals, mostly statements we have heard before in the course of the Anglican Civil Wars.

The Danvers Statement enshrines male headship as God's will for all.[4] That is to say, it holds that all souls are equally precious in the sight of God, but that mean and women were made to “complement” one another by their very bodily design. Under this so-called “complementarian theology”, men are called to practice a “husband’s loving, humble headship,” and women are called to “intelligent, willing submission.”[5]

The Nashville Statement reaffirms the Danvers Statement along the way, stating “that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.”[6]

Then it gets to the real business in hand: its signatories DENY (in all caps, by the way) “that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation." They then AFFIRM (again, all caps,) “that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality— a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.” [7]

And now we get to the Church discipline part. The emphasis is in the original:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.[8]

In other words, to disagree with the Nashville Statement’s condemnations, and the complementarian theology based on male and female biology on which it is based, is to put oneself outside the boundaries of orthodox Christian belief. It is, they say, “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

Now, I trust you have worked out that I agree with not a single word of either of these statements. Including "and" and "the." But beyond disagreement, I want to point out to you that this so-called “speaking truth in love”[9] in the name of Biblical fidelity is itself neither pastoral nor biblical in its approach.

It’s not pastoral because it simply applies abstract principles to every case, demanding adherence based on the authority of a sacred text on the assumption that there is only one right way of being, for all of us to conform to. The Council knows what's best for you, even if your experience of your own life says different.

It's also based on a foundation of selective storytelling, assuming that there is such a thing as biblical manhood that is modeled for us by (of all people) Adam, and one of womanhood modeled by Eve (of all people). You know, the pair who, in as Evangelicals like to remind us, "in Adam's Fall, we sinned all"?

So why them? Why shouldn’t women look to Jael, or Deborah, who judged Israel with as much authority as any male judge? Or Mary of Bethany, who neglected her domestic duties to learn from our Lord, and received his approbation for it: "Mary has chosen the better part," Jesus , "which will not be taken away from her?" (Luke 10:42.)

Why shouldn’t men look to , or the young Solomon, or Jacob (who was guided by his mother, and labored to win his wife)? Or St. Joseph, who resolved to protect Mary against disgrace before he had any reason to believe in her innocence?

The wide variety of women and men you can find in the aptly titled Holy Women, Holy Men are not reflected in the writings of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

More importantly, neither is the amazing diversity of women and men living today, now. The people to whom the Council seeks to minister, but whose own experiences and stories it refuses to acknowledge. You can’t minister to a historical figure. You can only be there for a living breathing person who stands before you, and whose needs and essence matter to you. The Council’s approach forbids that, preferring abstract constructs to God’s children.

And, by the way, what about Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

So it’s not just unpastoral, it’s also unbiblical. Not just as to its tenets, but as to its method. How does Jesus tell us, in today’s Gospel reading, that we should approach theological differences?

Answer: He doesn’t. The steps outlined in the Gospel reading are not intended to be used to settle differences of opinion; they are invoked, in the NRSV translation we use, only “if another member of the church sins against you.” In another words, a brother or a sister acts unjustly toward you, specifically against you. And the translation doesn’t make much difference; the Authorized Version, the King James, limits it to if another Christian “shall trespass against thee”; Albright and Mann translate it as applying if your brother or sister “sins against you”, as does pretty much every other reputable translation I can find. And Albright and Mann go on to tell us that the purpose of this procedure is to encourage reconciliation, and only in the last resort treat the offender as a “Gentile and a tax-collector”—that is, non-member of the community and a sinful one at that.

And by the way, how are we as Christians supposed to treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Not abusively, s inferiors or enemies. Not as people without value. They remain our neighbor, as the parable of the Good Samaritan forcefully reminds us.

So by declaring that all who disagree with their position on sexuality and the proper roles of women and men as, effectively, non-Christians, the drafters and signatories of the Nashville Statement are deploying a concept of community discipline meant to reconcile those members of the Christian community who had harmed their sisters and brothers in Christ with those whom they had injured into a debate-ending superweapon. “You’re no longer a real Christian,” they declare, as if this reconciliation process imparted such authority.

It doesn’t, of course.

And even in cases when we are sinned against, it’s not meant to be invoked lightly. Today’s reading ends at verse 20. In the very next verse, the very next sentence, Peter asks Jesus “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” The emphasis on forgiveness is even stronger in the King James; Jesus answers, “I say not unto thee until seven times; but until seventy times seven.”

In other words, the very next passage makes it pretty clear that rejection of fellow Christians is not to be done lightly.

And, just in case the point hasn’t been made clear enough, the rest of the chapter consists of Jesus telling the parable of the servant whose own debts were forgiven, but would not forgive those he was owed, cautioning us to not just forgive, but to forgive your brother or sister from the heart.

We have to mean it, not just do it.

Paul, like Jesus, tells us that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He goes further, and, in an echo of Jesus’s own words says that the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

So never mind the Nashville Statement. Pay it no mind. Forgive its authors and signatories, and hope that they do better.

Because what does the Bible say to gay people? You're a loved child of God.

To transgendered people? You're a loved child of God.

To women? You're a loved child of God.

To men? You're a loved child of God.

To the authors and signatories of the Nashville Statement. You're still a loved child of God.

Anyone else who feels rejected, damaged, lost? You're a loved child of God.

The rest is all about responding to that love, and relationship with God.

Or, as Jerry Lefkowitz might say, the rest is procedure.



[1] W.F. Albright & C.S. Mann, THE ANCHOR BIBLE, vol 26 MATTHEW, p. cxiv (1971).

[2] Jerome Lefkowitz, “The Taylor Law, Discrimination and Nontenured Teachers,” Labor Law Journal, Sept. 1969, 575, 575 (Chicago, CCH 1969). The story as given by Jerry is a variant of Talmud Shabbat 31a. See 1 THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD: TRACT SABBATH (Michael L. Rodkinson. tr. (1903)).



[5] Id.

[6] Nashville Statement, Art. 4.

[7] Nashville Statement, Art. 9.

[8] Nashville Statement, Art. 10.

[9] Nashville Statement, Art. 11.

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