This is a sermon I gave for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (31 August 2003) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY). The Scriptures were Song of Solomon 2: 8 – 13, James 1: 17 – 27, and Mark 7: 1 – 8, 14 – 15, 21 – 23.
I am a sometime listener to Garrison Keilor’s show, “Prairie Home Companion.” Since I don’t listen to it on a regular basis I don’t often get a chance to use some of what he says. It’s shame that I don’t because he has some pretty good stuff involving the pastor and parishioners of the Lutheran Church there in Lake Woebegone.
Now, I would presume that there is a United Methodist Church in Lake Woebegone (if there isn’t, then there is a great opportunity for some mission work). And knowing the makeup of the people who live there, it is very possible that it was at one time an Evangelical United Brethren Church. But it is still Minnesota and so most of the people, no matter their background or belief, attend the local Lutheran church. And it is the troubles and travails of the Lutheran pastor that Keilor speaks of when he gives the news of the past week in Lake Woebegone.
It does make for great listening and if I listened more often I know I would get some ideas that I could use, especially where the church is involved. Lake Woebegone is the town of our dreams, the place where there are only simple problems and as Keilor states every week “the women are beautiful, the men good looking, and all the children are above average.” The news is entertaining but fictitious.
Unfortunately, the news of the world isn’t. And more often than not, the news is more disturbing than entertaining (even if the news broadcasts try to make it sound entertaining). And the news out of Alabama is just that, very disturbing and not very entertaining.
I spent a year of my life as a student in Alabama and it is a year that I will never forget. I had already been exposed to the horrors of segregation and how the lives of both blacks and whites were controlled by this singularly repressive idea of inequality. But it was as a 7th grader at Bellingrath Junior High in Montgomery, Alabama that showed me that racism and segregation affected everyone, not just one race or ethnicity.
Because the law required that all schools be funded equally, no public school received much in the way of funding. Families had to buy the needed textbooks, no matter what grade they were in. If the schools gave the books to the students, the black students would be on the same plane as the white students. And that was just not acceptable policy in Alabama at that time. And if you could not afford the books, new or used, that was your problem, not the schools. That was in 1962 and it was almost the same when we went to school in Memphis in 1966 (but that is another story).
It was also in Montgomery that I began to see the hypocrisy that existed because of racism and segregation. My grandmother had come to visit us from St. Louis. As we came out of church the Sunday she was there, we lost her in the crowd. We found her and she said she had been escorted by “that nice young man over there.” Later, that nice young man stood in the schoolhouse door and denied duly qualified blacks the right to attend the University of Alabama. Fortunately for the course of history, George Corley Wallace learned that his segregationist and racists views would not serve either Alabama or himself well and he changed his ways. By the time he had died, he had come to peace with those whom he sought to suppress. But I am not sure that many still living in Alabama have done likewise. For the news from Alabama shows that the spirit of hypocrisy, the spirit that Jesus spoke out against in today’s Gospel reading are still very much a part of life there.
There are two news items coming from Alabama. Both are related to God. One concerns the tax code in Alabama; the other a 5,000-pound block of granite.
As most of you know by now, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court placed a 5,000 pound block of granite, on which the Ten Commandments had been carved, in the foyer of the state Supreme Court building. This was the culmination of a campaign he began a number of years ago when he was a local judge and he displayed prominently a plaque with the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Since then, he has had a running battle with the courts over this issue. In fact, if I understand what is happening, he wasn’t supposed to have put that block of granite in the Supreme Court building. All of his actions to this date have been in defiance of the laws that he himself has sworn to uphold.
The problem, as I see it, isn’t so much about the Ten Commandments. After all, the Ten Commandments are part of our own judicial system. But there are other Codes of Law upon which our justice system is based and they should be acknowledged as well.
The insistence that this stone be left alone moves the discussion away from the Ten Commandments and towards the issue of whether God is a part of our life or not. It also moves the discussion away from the topic of whether we will obey the Ten Commandments and more to accepting only one viewpoint about God. Does obeying God mean just displaying the Ten Commandments where everyone sees them or does it mean holding to the laws in your heart?
As was noted in a discussion between Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Jerry Falwell on MSNBC last Thursday, ours is a society where the use of God’s name has almost become passe. We are quick to call on God when it suits our purpose but we are quick to hide when God calls us. There isn’t a politician alive who does not end a speech with a rousing “God bless America!” We are still fighting over whether or not the phrase “under God” should be included in our Pledge of Allegiance, even when we forget why it was put there in the first place. The phrase “under God” was not in the original pledge, but placed there during the 1950’s as a political statement in response to the great Red Scare of that time.
We are reminded that our own United Methodist preacher, Oral Roberts, claimed that God would call him home if he did not build a brand new 650-bed hospital in Tulsa, OK. This despite the fact that a new hospital was not needed and that everyone, on earth at least, knew that it was just a part of Robert’s plan to expand his presence in Tulsa. We also are reminded that Jerry Falwell called on his followers to invoke God’s name in the hope that three United States Supreme Court justices would change their minds regarding a recent court decision. What is troubling about that isn’t that he called his followers to prayer but rather what they should be praying for God to do. Neither of these are examples of following God and keeping his name holy.
Judge Moore would tell you that he has a greater call to follow God than he does to follow the laws of his state. And that is most certainly true. We all do. His followers will tell you that their actions are in the great noble tradition of civil disobedience.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young pastor in Montgomery, he began using the techniques of civil disobedience to change the laws concerning bus passengers. The law at that time was the blacks and other minorities had to go to the back of the bus, no matter if there were seats available or not. It was Rosa Park’s decision to sit at the front of the bus on a day when she was tired and there were no seats in the back that began the Montgomery bus boycott and brought Rev. King to prominence.
But neither his actions of Justice Moore, nor the actions of those sitting on the courthouse steps, meet the requirements for civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is more than just simply refusing to obey a law. Civil disobedience as outlined by Gandhi, can be summarized as the following:
Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt.
Civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies.
To safeguard democracy the people must have a keen sense of independence, self-respect, and their oneness.
Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent.
Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation.
Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. (1)
Judge Moore’s insistence that the stone be kept and his resulting actions, as well as the actions of his supporters do not meet those requirements. And I question not only his motives but also the motives of some of his supporters.
At the same time that all of this is going on, there is a debate about the Alabama tax code. Surely, in the scheme of things, the state tax code in Alabama is one of the most oppressive and regressive tax codes in the country. Income taxes begin at $4,600 and tops out at 5% on income levels as low as $12,000. This makes the Alabama income tax a flat tax and the only ones that benefit from this are those with higher incomes. Alabama also allows its citizens to take a full deduction for federal taxes, again a benefit for only those with higher incomes.
To make up for lost revenue, local governments are allowed to add to the state’s 4% sales tax. In some of the poorer counties of Alabama, sales taxes run to almost 10% (and we hear complaints about the sales taxes up here in New York).
Property taxes in Alabama are the lowest in the nation and are generally one-third the national average. Timber acreage is taxed at less than a dollar an acre. With seventy-one percent of Alabama covered in timber, the timber industry has a powerful say in the state government.
Against this, Susan Pace Hamill, a professor of law at the University of Alabama has proposed a new solution, one found in the Old and New Testament. To complete her master’s degree in theological studies at Samford University (coincidentally, a United Methodist college (2)) she wrote her thesis on the reformation of the Alabama tax code. Entitled “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics”, it states that “Alabama’s tax structure fails to meet any reasonable definition of fairness and violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.” (3)
Many of Alabama’s 8000 churches have come out in support of this tax reform. But this is not a church-sponsored activity. Rather, it is a response much in the manner that James wrote about; a way to put into action what is in your heart. As Dr. Hamill points out, it is an appeal to individuals to act on their own moral convictions. It does not impose his or her views on others but rather is an attempt to show that the nature of Christ is alive in everyone.
But despite the overwhelming support of the churches and church leaders, there are still those who oppose it. Among the opposition is John Giles of Alabama’s Christian Coalition. Now, it should be noted that the national organization does support the reform. But working with the Alabama timber industry, the Alabama chapter is doing everything they can to prevent the tax reform from succeeding. Most recently, Mr. Giles sent out a mass e-mail questioning Hamill’s views on abortion and attempting to undermine her credibility.
These are the classic techniques of today’s politicians. When you can’t get things your way, change the subject and the focus of the debate. Disparage your opponent and bring personal issues into play, tactics that have become all too commonplace in today’s society. But there is one thing that stands out. While Mr. Giles is in opposition to this plan, a plan based upon and built upon the scriptures, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ, he is among the loudest of the supporters wishing to keep the Ten Commandments where they are. (4) How can one be for the Ten Commandments while at the same time working to keep laws in place that oppresses the poor?
I would be hard pressed to find a clearer case of what Jesus was speaking about in the Gospel reading for today. We cannot demand that others follow the law when we ourselves do not. And I will say that Mr. Giles’ actions are no better than those of Pharisees, who criticized the disciples for not following the law while not doing so themselves.
Jesus pointed out that it was not the following of the law that made one righteous but what was in one’s heart. If you try to follow the law but your heart leads you elsewhere, you are worse than one who does not follow the law. It is highly ironic that the words of the Gospel this week related to honor God with their lips but not with their hearts and abandoning the commandments of God while holding on to human traditions. (5)
Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi warned against what he called the seven social sins: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. (6) If you think carefully about this, these sins are not only an apt description of the culture of our society but also a description of many of the institutions of this country and the way we lead our lives.
What the events in Alabama show is that the expression of our love for mankind is given by the actions that we take. The reading for the Song of Solomon speaks of the love of a man for a woman but it also is representative of the love we have for each other. We cannot help anyone unless there is first love and if there is no love in our hearts, then we will never be able to help.
You may ask why I bring up Alabama. We have no direct concerns when it comes to Alabama and what goes on down there can’t really affect us here in New York. But the poor and oppressed, the weak and the helpless are not necessarily confined to one locality or one state. So we should have concerns not just for the poor and oppressed in either New York or Alabama but everywhere. It is my hope as we prepare the budget for the coming year we will make a concerted effort to use some of our offering, such as what might be collected on the fifth Sunday, for ministry efforts, either here or elsewhere in the country. This would be our mission work and our own concern but not be part of our regular apportionments.
But that means that we must have a more active stewardship and outreach program. It also means we must have a more active membership. Those who protest the removal of the Ten Commandments from the foyer of the Alabama Supreme Court while working to keep a repressive tax structure in place can be rightly be called hypocrites, for their actions belie their beliefs. And those who claim membership but do nothing for the church would also be hypocrites. These are harsh words, I know, but they have to be said. And actually, if you were to call up one of those who hasn’t been here for a while or whose membership was just a convenience in their lives and tell them what I said, I wouldn’t mind it.
For if it gets them to call me or come to church, then we will have taken the first step to revitalizing not only the church but also these inactive members. If they choose to do nothing, then they will get nothing in return and we will not grieve their loss.
We are often told that there is little that we can do; but that is not always the case. Yesterday, Randy Yerkes sent out an e-mail of his own asking for volunteers to help repair the roof over the Phillisport church. If you are interested in contacting him about volunteering, then see me after church and I will give you his phone number and e-mail address.
And here in our little part of the world, there is a lot we can do just by being an active church in this part of the country. People go by here and sooner or later will come to ask what is this place? We will be here to answer that question.
But it starts with us. It is not a case of my saying to you or you saying to someone else like the Pharisees said to the people of Israel, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It is a case of God saying to all of us, “Do as I say and as I did.” We are reminded today that God loved us enough to send his son so that we might live; we can no worse than love and care for those around us.
- Gandhi on Civil Disobedience from http://www4.ncsu.edu:8030/~dbthomps/political.html
- Actually it is a Baptist school; my thanks to Penny Weaver for noting this mistake in an e-mail sent to me on September 1st.
- Information concerning the proposal for reforming the Alabama tax code came from an article written by Bob Allen and posted to Ethics.com on 4/14/03.
- This came from e-mail sent to me on 8/28/03 by Penny Weaver of the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, AL. It was in response to a request to confirm the statement in Bob Allen’s article that the Christian Coalition was against the tax reform and to also confirm my suspicion that they were supporting keeping the Ten Commandments in place. She also noted that the uproar over the Ten Commandments was likely to adversely affect the drive to put into place the tax reform bill.
- Mark 7: 6 – 7
- From The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis