From Useless Commandments to Useful Practices

September 27, 2020

Series: September 2020

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Teaching

Removing Roadblocks 2 - "From Useless Commandments to Useful Practices"

Part of me feels I’ve failed you. With what has transpired, or not transpired, around the Breonna Taylor case, as unsurprising as it now may be, I’m unsure of what to say. I’m left feeling as so many do that either our enforcement of the law or the law itself has to change because something sure seems to be sorely broken. All I know is we have work to do. I’ll press on with today’s sermon, but with a heavy heart, and with the conviction and hope that there is something in our faith and in our growing in faith that can help remind us of the sacredness of life, something our society clearly needs.

Last week we began our series on troubling Bible passages. I’m addressing passages held up by a article critiquing Christianity, saying, in effect, “How do you deal with this?” We are trying to do just that, not by doing all kinds of mental gymnastics to defend Scripture, but by trying to reframe what it means to take Scripture seriously by attempting to understand a little about what these passages may have meant to those who wrote them and first held them sacred in order to glean what they might mean for us. In the end, I think we find that as we get to know how our ancestors wrestled with their lives, the challenges they faced, and how they understood God, we are blessed to do the same.

Today’s passage is just two verses from the book of Leviticus. The article places these under the category: “awkwardly useless commandments.” I don’t have to tell you the article is pretty dismissive in its tone, but let’s address the critique without getting hooked by its dismissiveness.

Today's Scripture

Leviticus 19:19, 27

You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.

Perhaps these feel awkwardly useless to you. Can’t we just practice some mindfulness and be done with it? At least that’s proven relevant, helpful in managing stress and anxiety. Workplaces practice this. Even kids are given glitter jars that they shake and watch settle, calming themselves as they do. Who needs all these ancient rules about animal husbandry and planting, and why are you coming after my polyester blend workout clothes!? In the end, don’t we just want something to help us become more caring, respectful, and reverent people?

I believe that’s exactly what we want and need, and I’d argue you can find these things in our ancient texts. You’re not likely to find it, however, by simply by sitting down and reading the Bible cold. That may be as likely to be the precursor to dismissing the book altogether than it is to the deepening of your faith. If you really want to understand the books that make up what we call the Old Testament, don’t only listen to me, seek out a rabbi. If you’ve never attended a Torah Study at a synagogue, you’re really missing something. At least get some reputable biblical commentaries. Remember this, the books of the Old Testament, though in a different order, comprised the only Scripture Jesus ever had. It’s not that the Old Testament is half the Bible either; it’s more like 80%. It warrants serious attention.

Having even the most basic contextual frameworks can help. The ancient Israelites write about the process of a becoming a nation. They’re experiencing newfound freedom, yet they are a minority community which has to constantly struggle for its survival. Their survival depends on the establishment and preservation of a discernable identity. Identity isn’t something we establish only in lofty ideals, but through tangible practices: what and how we eat, what we wear, what norms we follow and do not. Every identifiable group does this. The practices here seem so different because they are not our own.

What we have preserved in these writings is the formation of a people and how they will live with respect to God and neighbor. Recently, I was reading about the death of an Old Testament Professor at Union Seminary in Virginia. “Dr. Deuteronomy” they called him. How’s that for a nickname! Much like Leviticus, Deuteronomy is another book at which Christians look askew. Well, Dr. Deuteronomy, whose real name was Dean McBride, was famous (or infamous) for passing out syllabi 40-50 pages in length. It took that much materials for him to convey to his students the vastness of the undertaking of forming a people.

The Salon article predictably picks out two verses that seem obscure to us, conveniently ignoring some of the other verses that surround it, verses such as:

9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.

14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Do these seem useless or silly? Out of date? I think we have a long way to go ourselves in living up to these. Just five verses after our second verse, Leviticus reads:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

This is a people in a far more vulnerable position than we and yet they believe it is a God-given commandment to open their doors and their fields to the alien in their midst, grounded in their memory that they were once there too. Is there nothing for us to learn in them?

There is both a practical and theological or spiritual aspect to Jewish law. In fact, those distinctions are modern. We want to separate what is healthy from what is sacred or religious practice, but that’s a categorization entirely of our own creation. For example, Jews had many bathing rituals, rules about running water. We may see that as simply a religious ritual, but it also had significant health benefits in the ancient world, so much so that it tragically backfired on them. For example, when Romans got sick disease resulting from poor sanitation and hygiene and Jews did not, they assumed Jews were poisoning their wells and spreading disease. Thus was spun a constant thread of anti-Semitism throughout history.

As a Christian, I should be careful not to assume I ever fully understand the significance of Jewish law, but surely we can at least acknowledge the potential metaphor of not mixing animals or seeds or fabrics in maintaining the bloodline of a community. This is not some ethos of racial purity for the purpose of world domination, but an attempt to preserve a small burgeoning people for generations to come. Similarly, with respect to the instructions about beard and hair, can we not understand the value of a visible marker to remind us of who we are, and therefore what we value, what our traditions and shared beliefs and practices are, even if we do not fully understand the origin or interpretations of the particular practice itself?

I wonder if you saw the Netflix series “Unorthodox” about the Satmar Jews in New York. There is a degree of voyeurism to it, but I think people are simply drawn in for the way they are given a window into the concrete practices of a community very different from ours. In one powerful scene a man who has gone after his wife who has left the community, tries to demonstrate to her the lengths to which he’ll go to gain her back. He does so by cutting one of the curled locks of hair that runs down from his temples. I may never understand the weight of that gesture, but you can’t miss the pain on the character’s face, and that’s not to diminish the choice of the woman to leave the community in part for what it prescribes for her.

Observing law, custom, ritual is anything but trivial if you “get it.” There’s a marvelous rabbi named Danya Ruttenberg. She’s a great social media follow, especially for non-Jews who are seeking, or need to be seeking, a deeper understanding of Judaism. Recently, she wrote about the function of observing Jewish law. Wouldn’t you know, among other things, she compared it to mindfulness? She talked about how the law helps facilitate awareness, attentiveness, connection, and intention, the very things we seem for which we seem to be in desperate search.

We can recognize the shadow side of regiment and rule, but part of what we suffer from is a loss of framing and structure that can hold us and support us as we encounter the winds of a chaotic world. Just look at how eager we are to establish new rituals and practices to bolster us. What did we do when we blessed our children’s backpacks at the church? We gave them a board to jump over at the beginning of the school day, as a way of ritualizing the transition from being at home to being “in school” even though school is now at home. It’s just a board. It’s a made-up ritual, but you don’t have to be a psychologist or sociologist to recognize its power. How many of you have rituals or practices you do at work or in your home? Maybe you take a deep breath every time you pass through a doorway, spend a few minutes meditating, listen to relaxation tapes, have a mantra, a workout routine. What are office birthday parties? They are an attempt to celebrate the individual and bind the community together, even though in reality they may be little more than the enabler of sheet cake addiction and agent of awkward small talk. That’s precisely the point; we’ve left ourselves to rather weak practices to fill the void of shared supportive practices in our common life, and our rather cheapened social fabric is one result.

Why do you think yoga has exploded in our culture, and I do not believe it is flimsy? Yoga is this highly ritualized, embodied practice that grounds us in the body, connects us to the breath, the source of life, and equips us to move through the day a little better. It is a perfect example of how we have taken a page from a book that came before ours. Maybe there’s more to be learned there in developing shared and individual practices that could similarly ground us, support us, and connect us. What could be more practical than that which can make us more mindful, help us be more decent with one another, build up the community, and foster reverence?

The day of my grandmother’s funeral, we piled in cars to caravan over winding West Virginia roadways to the cemetery in the neighboring hamlet. At one point, we came upon a construction crew doing road repair. Something rather extraordinary happened, though I suppose it was ordinary to them, which is the point. Recognizing it was a funeral process, the workers stopped what they were doing, moved to the side of the road, took off their hardhats and put them over their hearts as my grandmother’s body was driven by. Just a plastic hat over a blood-pumping organ. Do we want to call that hollow and useless, or is it a reminder that it is still in us to know how to practice moving through this world as if it were sacred?

Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

"This kind of Bible, the Bible we have, just doesn't work well as a point by point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith, but it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey,
an inspired model, in fact."
-Peter Enns

1. What do you make of the Old Testament laws? What is their role in Scripture?
2. What are the most confusing parts of the Bible for you?
3. If the New Testament “replaced” the Old Testament, the two wouldn’t have been included in the canon. So, why do we hold the two together?
4. What is the function of law in the relationship between the people and God?
5. What rituals do you/we engage in regularly (and with reverence) but we hardly think about? What’s their function?