a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
July 30, 2023
129 Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. 130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. 131 With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments. 132 Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom toward those who love your name. 133 Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. 134 Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. 135 Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. 136 My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept.
Have you ever had to deal with people who have “boundary issues”? That is, they stand too close, or they ask questions that are none of their business, or they tell you stuff you don’t need to know. Maybe they literally trespass on your property in inappropriate ways. Boundary issues can be physical, psychological, even spiritual. This morning the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs points to the importance of boundaries for our lives. Let me try to explain what I mean.
The writer says that God’s “decrees are wonderful,” and that he “long’s for [God’s] commandments. He is essentially speaking about God’s boundaries for us. The commandments and decrees of God function as boundaries for our human behavior. “Thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not,” are phrases that define what is appropriate behavior and what isn’t. And while we, in our “freedom-loving” contemporary attitudes, think of “commandments” as if they were painful restrictions on our fun or our freedom, the writer of Proverbs speaks of them as blessings. It is as if the writer is saying, “Give me boundaries, please!”
Boundaries can be way more than simply social customs. Injustice and oppression are extreme, but very real, ways that people overstep God’s boundaries. A colleague of mine [ Dr. Michael Piazza, “Liberating Word,” July 24, 2023 ] wrote about a commencement address he read recently. It was delivered by Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron at Hillsdale College. In it the Bishop made reference to the argument that Socrates, the Greek philosopher made long ago. Socrates said,
While suffering injustice is terrible, what is worse is the corrosion of soul that takes place when one commits injustice. In other words, being unjust is far more damaging to the moral structure of a person’s character than enduring the slings and arrows of injustice.
Then, as is common in most commencement addresses, the ultimate question raised by this is posed to the graduates and, perhaps, to us:
So, there’s the question, young graduates. What kind of soul will you have? What kind of person will you be? Will you do whatever it takes to get what you want? Or will you accept even great suffering in order to do what is right? Everything else in your life will flow from your answer to that question.
And my colleague’s pithy response was, “So it will …”
Today it seems to me that many people have sold their souls for political expediency and power because they fear the changes that have happened and continue to happen all around us. People of good will have worked hard to erase false boundaries of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Unfortunately, a loud, and often violent minority have responded by grabbing control of political offices at every level they could, demanding that these false boundaries be reestablished and that anyone who disagrees must be “groomers,” “communists,” “anti-Christian, and other labels that they make up to smear anyone who disagrees with them. But the fact is injustice will not stand. It is a boundary that cannot sustain itself. Oh, it can rule for a long time, but sooner or later, unjust boundaries fail and fall.
As a pastor and a person of faith my heart aches that so many stand in pulpits or at the front of congregations and claim to preach the true word of God and claim to keep God’s commandments while those who disagree with them are sinners and worse. I pray for the day when the writer of Proverbs words become evident: “the unfolding of [God’s] word gives light.” And I believe that light will show that they have cast shadows and not light, injustice in the name of the God of Justice, and hatred in the name of the Lord of love and I pray for their hearts to break and the scales to fall from their eyes, Their words and actions do nothing but misrepresent the real God of Scripture, of History, and of Truth.
While we would all like to ignore these tensions, or at least come to church and just hear nice, “spiritual” sermons and not think about the pains and suffering of others, our Bible, our faith, and our God don’t invite us to worship to ignore injustice and suffering. The writer of Proverbs invites us to rejoice at God’s words, commandments and precepts. He says he “pants” because he “longs” for God’s commandments. Not something most of us can probably claim to do, huh?
It’s been so hot lately though, perhaps we have all be panting, like hot, thirsty dogs. Another colleague of mine shared a thought entitled, “It’s Getting Hot it Here,” recently [ Rev. Molly Baskette, “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” Daily Devotional, ucc.org, July 24, 2023 ]. She wrote, “A scientist in my former congregation, John, and I used to get into friendly arguments about what the most crucial moral and spiritual issue of our day was. I said it was poverty and its precursors: racism, income inequality and extractive capitalism, because they caused untold suffering. He said it was global climate change because it was certain to escalate and expand that suffering.”
Rev. Baskette goes on to say that, “The progressive Christian and climate prophet Bill McKibben recently warned that as the weather system known as El Niño returns this summer, swirling into already warming trends, we are in for new record global temperatures that ‘will spark novel forms of chaos.’ Ever the hope-stoker, McKibben went on to say, ‘I don’t say all this in the service of despair, but of preparation. Each of these surges in warming comes with new political possibilities as people see and feel more clearly our peril.’”
Rev. Baskette adds, “John, Bill, and the psalmist were right. From Portland to Houston to Boston, nothing and no one is hidden from the sun’s heat. Nor is there respite in the oceans, which are warming even faster than the scientists predicted.” She sums up by referring to the story of how to boil frogs. You know, you just put them in cold water and slowly heat it up until they are boiled, never realizing just how hot it was getting in there until it is too late. She says, “We are those proverbial frogs sitting in a pot of hot water. The fact that the pot is suddenly coming to a boil fast might, in fact, be a gift from God: the disaster God is using to help us remember our legs and jump out.”
Jesus of Nazareth broke down a lot of boundaries that men made. He got into a lot of trouble doing that. It got him crucified. But he also upheld the boundaries of the commandments. Jesus focused on the commandment to love God first and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. He said all the commandments of God hinge on these two. I believe the unspoken truth of why he did this is that he knew God gave them to us as a gift. We do need boundaries, or we humans, in our pride and our arrogance, go beyond the limits of God’s commandments in the name of things like individual rights, freedom, and profit. We do it in the name of privilege because we tend to use power over others. God uses power to love and to lift others. God uses power to be “with” others. As long as we use power for ourselves we misunderstand power, we misunderstand God, and we misunderstand the commandments. We can break all the commandments we want. But there will be consequences. It is as true in life as it is in nature. If we misuse the creation God has given us we will suffer the consequences. And so will others, and so will creation.
So this morning our hope lies in trusting God enough to do our part. If we try to do our part without God we will lose our way and lose the real goal. If we don’t do our part and wait for God our faith is useless, just words and hot air. All these problems are an invitation to live out our faith. God reaches out to us with the commandments, with the example of Jesus, and with the promise of the Christ that he is with us always until the end of the ages.
So, boundaries, please! Let God’s commandments be honored and let us echo the writer of Proverbs: “Your decrees are wonderful, therefore my soul keeps them!” God’s commandments aren’t a limit on our true freedoms, or laws God uses to find ways to punish us. They are a blessing to help us live in community with one another and with creation. What does it mean to love God and to love our neighbor as Jesus said? It means to live out the commandments in love. Our task is to answer the question that Socrates asked, and the scholar referenced in his commencement speech:
What kind of soul will you have? What kind of person will you be? Will you do whatever it takes to get what you want? Or will you accept even great suffering in order to do what is right? Everything else in your life will flow from your answer to that question.