Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

The Corner Stone

Sermon for October 5 2008, preaching Exodus 20:1-20, and Matthew 21:33-46. Also read Isaiah 5. First pubished at a church (re)Wired.

Our hope is to live long in the land. To enjoy, to love and be loved, to be free and know happiness, to be everything we were meant to be.  

Part of our hope may be that there is more life after this physical life, but I'm not talking about that today. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that "if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." But I say that if we live this life only hoping for the next, we have fundamentally missed the great joy God has given us. 

Christianity and Judaism, and other religions, are quite clear that you cannot have a successful society that acts independent of, and contrary to God. If we ignore the will of God, we will not live long in the land. 

This could also be slightly restated by someone who was an a-theist: We will not live well as a society- that is, we will not live long in the land, if we set up structures that ignore the ultimate realities of our existence; things like ecology; things like human dignity and decency; all the things that will let all people flourish, not just a few. 

Live long in the land is a common refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures. In his last speech to Israel, Moses says: 

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 

But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Deuteronomy 30 

Moses delivered the Law or Torah to the people of Israel. It was a gift of grace. It was God saying, "I have brought you out of slavery in the Land of Egypt, here is the way to stay free."

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. Exodus 19:4-6 

The Law was a gift for living long in the land, and for having a good life, and showing that way to others. The Law is summed up in the Ten Commandments, but we should remember these are but the beginning of a much more extensive text. 

We could say the first stone tablet was the list of commandments on how to love God.
1. "You shall have no other gods before me."
2. "You shall not make for yourself an idol".
3. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh your God".
4. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy."

Then there are the commandments on how to love our neighbour.
5. "Honour your father and your mother."
6. "You shall not murder."
7. "You shall not commit adultery."
8. "You shall not steal."
9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour."
10. "You shall not covet anything or anyone who is your neighbours."

All through the history of Israel, it was a struggle for the country to understand and live out what this two faceted approach meant. In Micah it says

With what shall I come before the Lord,and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?'

These are like saying, can I do the right thing and live long in the land by just loving God and ignoring my neighbour? Do I have to live out the commands on the second stone tablet? The answer was: 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:6-8 

People wanted to love God, without loving their neighbours. They wanted to give lots of offerings in the temple, but to ignore other people. God always said, "No, you have to love your neighbour too."

Trying to love God and not love our neighbour is not being faithful to God. At its root, it is trying to appease the divine with ceremonies and prayers and words. It is trying to be religion without love for others. It really becomes a way of manipulating the divine so the divine will favour us. There is a name for that. It is called magic. The Christians who think they can do personal piety and worship God without social justice and loving their neighbour, are no different than some of the "godless" they condemn. They are simply trying to manipulate reality to their own advantage, and without love for humanity. 

Loving God means loving our neighbour, by definition. Those who say, ‘I love God', and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 1 John 4 

The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us everyone is our neighbour. Indeed the Law is summed up even more concisely than the ten commandments when Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment. 

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, ‘ "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'" Matthew 22.

In today's gospel Jesus utterly condemned the religious leadership of Israel. That condemnation was based on their indifference to social justice; their lack of love for their neighbour. The story of the vineyard was actually taken by Jesus from the prophet Isaiah. It says there that

..the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry...

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you.... 

Ah, you who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 

Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes,
and shrewd in your own sight!

Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!  (various from Isa 5)

Jesus changed the story of this poem from Isaiah 5. He specifically blamed the authorities rather than the whole nation. But the reasoning was the same. People had not loved their neighbour. There had not been justice. People had tried to keep God happy while looking only after themselves.

They have acquitted the guilty for a bribe,and deprived the innocent of their rights!

That's the biblical understanding about how to live long in the land.

What is most important in our society today? What do we think we need to live long in th land?

I reckon it's money; or at least our love of it. It's the economy, stupid. James MCArville's Clinton campaign motto is the thing we live by. Money is the heat which keeps the wars in the Middle East fired up; also known as oil. If you and I stop buying stuff, the country is in trouble. The Reserve Bank lowers interest rates! We are not so much citizens as consumers!

The advertising that comes in the junk mail and is on TV says it all. Our happiness and our identity is in our belongings. We live so much in the midst of this, it is hard to see. We are like a fruit fly eating its life out in the middle of an orange; it cannot see that it is orange.

Consider the story of John Wesley, who grew up in such poverty his father spent time in the poor house. Wesley was very much better off, but a key incident played on his mind. Just after he bought some pictures for his room, he discovered his maid had only a thin gown to wear on a freezing winter day. He went to give her money to buy a coat and found he didn't have enough. " He asked himself, "Will thy Master say, "Well done, good and faithful steward?" Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?"" 

He began to spend less so he could give more money to the poor. He recorded he had an income of 30 pounds and was able to give two pounds away that year. The next year he had sixty pounds, but still lived on 28 pounds and gave the rest away. He was doing the same when he had 120 pounds a year. He did not let his expenses rise with his income. He said ""...what should rise is not the Christian's standard of living but the standard of giving." The tax department pursued him because he didn't seem to have all the goods a man of his station should have. They thought something shonky was going on. 

He limited his spending by identifying with the poor. The Methodists had two houses for poor people in London, and that's where he lived; with them. He wrote in 1744 When I die " if I leave behind me ten pounds ... you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber." He died in 1791, and the only money in his will were the coins in his pockets and dresser drawers. He had given the rest away. (See here.) 

We don't measure up to this. We are captive to the society around us. I fail miserably. 

 The gospel today ends with these words:

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:"The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes"? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.' 

People often reject Christianity on the basis that there can be no God. They quite correctly say it's stupid to believe 6 impossible things before breakfast. I agree; and I don't. But this is not really where the problem is. An honest and mature Christian theology is profoundly agnostic about the nature of God, and faces the mystery of reality, and all that is, with the same humble ignorance as many people who do not use the name God.

Where the stumbling block for all of us exists, is in the teaching of the Christ and the prophets. The Christ and the other prophets preach that to live long in the land, to find our hopes, we cannot ignore our neighbour. That is the cornerstone of our society. Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls. Amen

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  

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