A Sermon on Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Tricia Dykers Koenig
Northwest Regional Conference
April 13, 2012
I am a proud graduate of Duke University, and a big fan of Blue Devil basketball. Does that inspire your hatred? If it makes any difference, when I was a student the men’s team usually lost, and if there was a women’s team I wasn’t aware of it – but I am loyal win or lose. My school, my team. Nowadays, though, it’s fashionable to hate Duke; not just prefer another team, but hate mine. I googled “hate Duke” and got 40 million results, led by an image of a T-shirt “Breathe if you hate Duke.” Middle-aged couch potatoes profess glee when kids younger than their own children suffer the agony of defeat, preferably while being humiliated – gotta love sports.
Now I understand rooting for the underdog – unless the favorite is my team, that’s what I do. I understand Duke-hating from fans of the University of North Carolina – passionate rivalries make sports more fun. Our fight song has “to hell with Carolina” right in there. I understand that Kentucky fans are still smarting over losing the greatest college basketball game ever played, and loathe watching that last-second game-winner swish over and over and over for the last 20-plus years. I even understand the stereotype of Duke as elite, pricy private school that must therefore be populated by snobby, over-privileged students. My defensive side chalks it up to envy, and I get that. But hatred?
It bothers me. The idea that being a loyal, enthusiastic, all-in member of one group implies antipathy toward another. The baseball announcers in my town call the team “the good guys” – implication being that the other team is somehow evil? Do we need to make our opponents out to be morally suspect in order to justify our own partisanship, or to savor the thrill of victory?
According to the Deuteronomic author, speaking on behalf of Moses – no.
Now, today’s lesson might be seen as something of a puzzler. All of heaven and earth belong to the Lord God, Moses is shown as proclaiming – and yet God loved only Israel and chose them out of all the peoples for special favor. We of course read “Israel” to refer to us, and as Christians claim that favor for ourselves, frozen chosen perhaps but elect nonetheless. Maybe that sense of chosen-ness is true for everyone who hasn’t been beaten down with the relentless message of outcast-ness; it’s hard to step outside our own vantage point to see the world through another’s eyes.
On the other hand, two verses later, God is “not partial,” or as the Common English Version puts it, “doesn’t play favorites.” Huh? Mixed message, much?
I’m thinking we need them both – the assurance that we are special to God, and the exhortation that everyone must be treated without partiality because that’s the character of God. The knowledge that we are chosen confirms us in who and whose we are: chosen by a God who cares for the marginalized, chosen to obey a God who values justice. The Lord is our praise; if we have any distinction, if others look upon us with favor, it is not our own doing but the work of God who wants all to know themselves chosen to be loved.
“What does the Lord your God require of you?” According to the more familiar verse from Micah (you know it): “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”
Moses here is consistent, if not quite so succinct: “Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and God’s decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” God alone you shall worship, to God hold fast, by God’s name swear. One authority, no other loyalties. Fear, walk, love, serve, observe God’s commandments – in the mode of synonymous parallelism, a complete orientation toward God, the total commitment of our whole being. Included in those commandments: “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There are two motivations lifted up for loving the stranger, the other, the non-insider: First, God does it; and second, you were one. It’s another way of saying ‘love your neighbor as yourself’; a heart committed to God is as open to the other as God is to us. Then love is further defined, beyond warm-fuzzy good-will – love means meeting actual needs. Love means justice.
If you need more than God’s example, Deuteronomic Moses proposes, empathy is a good place to start.
I’m from Ohio, home of the newly-prominent Republican Senator Rob Portman, recently in the news for his announcement that he supports same-gender marriage now that he knows one of his own sons is gay. He wrestled with the issue and his Christian faith, Portman wrote in an op-ed, but in the end came down on the side of the Golden Rule in his desire that his son have the same opportunity for a stable loving partnership that he and his wife enjoy. I of course wanted to support that decision, a somewhat courageous one for him politically, so made haste to write him; but I was torn over whether just to praise him, or also to point out that the Golden Rule applies in other situations that don’t necessarily affect his family. Too bad we can’t arrange for senators’ sons to be poor or lack access to health-care, as many commentators have pointed out. But I decided that, putting myself in his shoes, simple praise was appropriate at first – he’s getting plenty of criticism from those who disapprove of his evolution, mostly from the people who voted for him in the first place. Let’s pray that this is only a early step for Senator Portman on a longer journey of treating others as he and his loved ones would like to be treated, as he makes decisions that affect public policy.
“You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Maybe it’s lack of imagination, but too often the experience of having trouble hit close to home is required for empathy to kick in. The tragedy of the death of Rick Warren’s son by suicide is said to be opening conversation about mental illness among evangelicals, some of whom who have tended to equate mental illness with lack of faith, blaming those who suffer for their own afflictions and thereby magnifying their pain and thwarting their capacity to seek help. In George Lakoff’s model*, according to their “strict father” approach to the world, conservatives tend to believe that strong moral character requires self-reliance and self-discipline, developed primarily through rewards and punishment, a system of “tough love.” Though the world may be a difficult place to live, it is basically just; people usually get what they deserve. The difficulties in one’s life serve as a test to sort the deserving from the undeserving, so making things easier for people and seeking equality of outcome is not just misguided, but immoral – by failing to punish weakness, and therefore enabling it.
Progressive folks like most of us have a better empathy track record, perhaps; we think at least that we are more proficient at caring for those outside our own circle and without primary concern for our own self-interest, and certainly that’s the stereotype: “bleeding-heart” liberal; “compassionate” considered to be an unusual modifier for “conservative.” But liberals are not immune from empathy deficit. First of all, we don’t always get off our keisters to work for the justice we profess to champion, especially when that means relinquishing some of our own privilege; but also, because we tend to exhibit our own form of judgmental self-righteousness, albeit using a different definition of what constitutes virtue.
It’s easy to point out other people’s sins, and they are legion; more daunting to confront our own. Do we indeed have empathy for our sisters and brothers whose worldview is being challenged by dizzying changes, by the questioning of everything that, not all that long ago, we all took for granted – that marriage meant “a man and a woman,” to use the most pertinent example? Though it’s laughable that, as Justice Roberts has implied, LGBTQ persons have so much political power that they do not need the protection of the courts, it is true that pretty much everybody can see where the world is inevitably headed – Washington State, bless you, is ahead of the curve, but the universal marriage equality question is when and not if, how and not whether. Because the love and justice of Jesus Christ will not finally be thwarted, the uncertainty is how many years before the conventional wisdom becomes, “how incredible and shameful and embarrassing that this was ever an issue – there was a time when same-sex couples couldn’t get married?” And seen in historical perspective, though it’s always too slow when you’re the one waiting for justice, it’s happening amazingly fast.
For today’s sermonic purposes, however, the question for us is Deuteronomy’s “So now, what does the Lord your God require of you?” And: “So… now what?” Now that “our side” has “won” on ordination standards and, everyone knows, will win on marriage, but while the day-to-day struggle still rages and the justice God has promised is not fully realized, how do we help along the transitions that all can see coming, but some are grieving? How do we speed change, care for those who have suffered exclusion and indignity, and hold out a hand to those feeling run over by the train of progress, those who may be feeling more and more like strangers in a world and a church that are changing in uncomfortable ways? How do we make it easier for the eventual evolvers? A non-exhaustive list:
- First, at all times preach the Gospel; as St. Francis said, if necessary use words. The Gospel is grace in Jesus Christ, God’s love for all whether we’re right or wrong on the issues. We will continue to work to achieve justice and equality the fastest way possible, while trying to stay in relationship with those who define the concepts differently. Jesus always sought out the outcast, and he hung out with Pharisees too.
- Second, let’s grant conservatives the benefit of the doubt that they, as we, are trying to find and follow the will of God. We want them to admit that the church has been wrong – let’s acknowledge, firm as our convictions may be, that we are not the source of all Truth either. We could be mistaken, so the forgiveness we would seek for our own errors let us strive to offer. I don’t mean that we should back off from our principles or go along with what we observe to be harmful, but let us hold our convictions with humility, and trust God for judgment.
- Third, we see how hard so-called “traditional” actions and attitudes make life for the marginalized – are we able to contemplate how difficult the challenges to their settled verities must be for the “traditional”? Everyone is wounded; we do not always see how. Maybe we need to know each other better as together wounded and in need of healing, rather than as opponents.
- Fourth, and this one’s especially for me as the kind of person who loves to say “I told you so”: when someone shows some willingness to move, let’s not chide him for being slow.
When I contemplate a more conservative fellow-Presbyterian reading this online next week, I can imagine her thinking me arrogant or condescending. Perhaps; I’ll ask for the benefit of the doubt that I’m trying to be as understanding as possible within the parameters of being pretty sure I’m right on the basic issue of how God wants the world to treat LGBTQ people, that Golden Rule that Senator Portman rightly remembers. We’re told that the commandments are for our well-being, and if they’re not functioning that way then we all of us need to question our interpretation of them.
Somehow God manages to choose stubborn and rebellious people pretty consistently, maybe ‘cause those are the only ones available. It’s ok if I am convinced that my team – or town, or child, or lover, or father, or religion – is the best on earth; it’s my way of saying I value the blessings I have and wouldn’t trade them. Where I get into trouble is to go on to argue that yours are subpar and we need to fight about it, or claim that my supposed superiority somehow justifies treating you as less-than. The opposite must be true; only as I am valuing the other am I being true to my own, for the Lord my God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, and because there is no other, that God is also yours. And that God is love.
I can root for my team without hating yours. On my best days I can even admit that sometimes the sky is Carolina blue.
* George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. See http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Political/Moral_Politics.html