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The Church of Built-in Obsolescence

Sermon - 11/05/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 8:1 - 13

Our reflection this morning continues to look at the letter to the Hebrews, which is really not a letter at all, as I think I said before, but is actually more of a sermon.  But it's a book that we find in our New Testament that doesn't get a lot of attention any more, and thus it is not very familiar to us.  And it's one that is not the easiest book in the New Testament to understand because it draws heavily upon a religious institution and practice that ceased to exist 2,000 years ago, namely the Temple that was destroyed in the year 70.

And hence much of the language and the imagery that is found there is foreign to us, so be not dismayed if you find it unfamiliar and indeed, difficult to understand in hearing or reading Hebrews.

As we have seen on the previous two Sundays, Hebrews has what we call a 'high Christology'.  That is to say it places an emphasis on Christ as the exalted Lord rather than as the crucified one.  Christ as seated at the right hand of God as opposed to serving at the feet of the disciples.  Christ who is the High Priest rather than the servant of all.

And I have to confess to you, I'm more of a 'low church' guy.  Even though I do were this robe in the service, I'm more at home in the nitty-gritty, the common language, rather than this high, exalted language.  So if it were left up to me to edit scripture, I probably would have left Hebrews out.  Though it's good that it was not left up to me, because it is an important tradition within the scripture, and if we take the time and make the effort to really get into it and to understand all of this foreign imagery, I think we will be enriched by it.

So, continuing now in the 8th chapter of Hebrews:

Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. 3For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’ 6But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.

8 God finds fault with them when he says:
‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
   when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
   and with the house of Judah;
9not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
   on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
   and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.
10This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
   after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
   and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
   and they shall be my people.
11And they shall not teach one another
   or say to each other, “Know the Lord”,
for they shall all know me,
   from the least of them to the greatest.
12For I will be merciful towards their iniquities,
   and I will remember their sins no more.’

End of quote, and by the way, that is the lengthiest quotation in the entire New Testament, quoting from another scripture.  And then the author concludes:

13In speaking of ‘a new covenant’, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.

Now all of you with gray hair, if you have hair at all, does that make you feel a little uncomfortable?  All those obsolete, growing old, will soon disappear?  Reminds me of that story of the lumberjack who heard that they had this new-fangled invention called the chain saw that was supposed to speed up the process of cutting down trees.  And so he got himself one.  And he worked and he worked and he worked, and it just wasn't working.  So he took it back, told the salesman it wasn't working and he wanted his money back.  The salesman thought, well, that's odd.  Looked at the chain, appeared to be sharp.  Checked the fuel, there was plenty.  Checked the air filter, looked fine.  So, he pulled on the rope, and the chainsaw started up with it's loud rumble, rumble, rumble.  The lumberjack jumped back and said "What's that noise?!"

Well, with a steady stream of new electronic gadgets and means of communication these days, anything that's more than 24 hours old is obsolete.  If you haven't set up a page on MySpace.com, if you don't have an iChat identity, if you don't have your own blog, if you haven't published your playlist in iTunes, then you're obsolete.  And if you have no clue as to what I'm talking about, you're really obsolete! J.

Surprising as it may sound, this nearly 2,000 year old text here in our scripture has pretty sound advice on how we are to avoid obsolescence.  But before I get into that, I need to address one major stumbling block that sticks out like a Giraffe on a prairie:  that is, anti-Semitism.  You read this text, and it sure sounds like. . . .well, it makes you a little uncomfortable here the way it makes 'us' sound 'better'.

Anti-Semitism has many forms.  And it's not just about painting swastikas on Jewish headstones, or blaming Jews for the death of Jesus.  Anti-Semitism is anything that seeks to demean or to diminish that which is Jewish simply because it is Jewish.  And anti-Semitism, of course, made the Holocaust possible.  

Kenneth Stern, an international expert on anti-Semitism writes:  "History has repeatedly shown that anti-Semitism is the miner's canary for a societies health.  It always starts with the Jews, but never ends there".  Thus when a local peace group, the Pacifica Forum, on campus at the University of Oregon, began holding a series of programs for the public which were blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jews for everything from the Russian Revolution to all the problems in the Middle East, a local anti-hate task force was formed by the Community Alliance of Lane County to expose the group and to counter its anti-Semitic historical revisionism with their own educational efforts.  You may have read about some of that in the Register Guard recently.

I have chosen to be involved in this anti-hate task force because of my own experience living in Germany, and the theological training that I had under John Cobb.  That experience and that training convinced me that Christian leaders in particular have an obligation to speak out against anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it occurs.  For anti-Semitism is rooted in our story, the Christian story.  It was the official promotion of anti-Semitism by the church for 1,600 years that led to the holocaust.  And so we in the church have a moral obligation to acknowledge anti-Semitism in our tradition and even in our sacred texts.  That we might be cleansed of that collective sin that has been passed on down to us by our ancestors.

At the heart of this anti-Semitism is the belief that Christian faith is 'better' than Jewish faith.  That the new covenant that we have in Christ replaces, supercedes, the old covenant.  What's known as the doctrine of super- cession.  The idea that 'we are better', we have the truth, and they don't.  And indeed, that whole idea that our religion has the truth and other religions don't is at the heart of all religious conflict.  Any place where you see religions warring with each other, be it today in Iraq -- Sunni and Shiite -- or in Ireland with the Protestant and Catholic conflict, you name it.

Sam Harris makes the point in his best-seller "The End of Faith" that all religion is inherently defective because it teaches that there is only 1 truth -- the truth of my religion.  And so he says that religion is the ultimate source of conflict and most wars, and it is only when we resort to reason over religion and faith that we will advance as a society.

Well, I have a couple of problems with Mr. Harris' perspective.  First of all, I think he's simply wrong about religion.  All religions in fact do not teach that they have a corner on the truth, that theirs is the only truth.  If that were true, we would not have the interfaith service for prayer and reflection that meets here on the 11th of every month, that has become so popular.  It may be true for some Christians, but not all, not for us.  

Secondly, it ignores all of those conflicts and wars that have been fought over the years which have nothing to do with religion.  Stalin's oppression, Pol-Pot in Cambodia, and so forth.

Third, a world where reason, rather than faith, reigns supreme, would be a world without the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr, and that would be a much poorer world.  So I believe the solution is not reason over faith, or science over religion, but reason and faith, science and religion, working together to solve our greatest problems be it war or global warming.  Rather than working against each other, constantly in conflict.

Anti-Semitism is a case in point.  Anti-Semitism will never be solved by reason alone.  As someone once noted, reason cannot remove from someone's mind what reason did not put there in the first place.  Anti-Semitism is fundamentally a religious problem which comes from those whose image of God is too small.  Who believe that God favors us, but not them.  Even though, in our heart-of-hearts, we know that's true whenever the Ducks play the Huskies, proven once again -- now 3 years of victory in a row! -- but, you know, when we're bigger people, better people, we acknowledge (hard for us to do), that God loves the Huskies too J.

And that's the point of the story of Ruth [read earlier in the service], Ruth is a Husky -- or a Moabite, same difference.  We forget that, she's a foreigner, yet she's part of God's people, part of God's story.

For those pre-disposed to anti-Semitism, as too many Christians are, this text here in Hebrews confirms their bigotry.  We have a better covenant in Christ.  The Jewish covenant, the Torah, was faulty, therefore it has been replaced with a new covenant, the old one is obsolete.  Or so we think.

And even the language we use for our scripture -- the "Old" Testament vs the "New" Testament reflects that kind of image.  The new is better than the old.  Now, given that this has been more or less the official teaching of the church for most of our history, how is it possible for us to be Christian without being anti-Semitic?  To affirm the truth that we have in Christ without denying the truth the Jews have in the Torah?

So let me suggest some basic principles:

First of all, that covenants in the Bible are not something people make with God, but rather the reverse.  Read that story of the covenant in Genesis 17, that God makes with Abraham.  It's not a covenant that Abraham makes with God.  God is the initiator.  God is the one who makes the covenant.  So what are we saying, that we think the covenant of Abraham was faulty?  What are we saying about God?  God was wrong?  Oooops, sorry, I made a mistake, forget all that history and start over?  No.

Second, note that in making the claim for a new covenant, who does this author of Hebrews cite?  That text about the law written on their hearts -- where does that come from?  Jeremiah!  The prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah 31, you can go and read it.  So in other words, the author of Hebrews cites from the first covenant, from the tradition of the first covenant, from the Old Testament, cites that tradition.  It is quite likely, then, that his vision of the new covenant is not one that replaces the old but one that renews the old by the one who makes all things new.  This is what Jeremiah is saying.

And thirdly, Jeremiah says that the sign of this new covenant will be that the God (the one who makes the covenant) will write it upon their hearts and they will not have to teach one another about God because they will all know God.

Now I ask you, does that describe the state of Christianity today?  We don't need Sunday school.  We don't need Christian education.  We don't even need to evangelize, oh good, we're terrible at that anyway!  But no, you see, that's not the reality today.  This is more of the vision of the new covenant, of what we are striving to be, rather than what has been accomplished in Christ.

Fourth, while all of the above, I believe, is true, it is also true at the same time we do have a new covenant which is better than the old.  And, so do the Jews.  For in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, Judaism had to reinvent itself.  Thus in a very real sense, they too have a new covenant with God.  Our new covenant and their new covenant is incomplete, they have not yet been made complete -- we still look to that day when we'll be complete.

Thursday evening this last week I participated in a panel at the University of Oregon on homosexuality and spirituality.  Two other members of the panel, Greg Flint of First Congregational Church, and Maram Epstein who teaches at the University and is a board member at Temple Beth Israel, and is a lesbian.  And so we had a conversation on the issues around sexuality, and in the course of that discussion, on the role of scripture in faith development, Dr. Epstein spoke of the importance of the oral tradition within Judaism in which that tradition is continually being reviewed and renewed and refined in accordance with modern times.  Updated to the current time.  And I would suggest to you that a faith tradition which does not seek to do that in some way, that does not have a mechanism to update its language and its content is precisely what the author is referring to when we read "what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear".

Do you hear that, church?  If we don't update our message, if we don't stay current with the times, we become obsolete and will soon disappear.

Fred Craddock, the well-known Disciple preacher and scholar, in his commentary on Hebrews, says:  "A strength of vital religion is its willingness to be self-reflective.  To balance calls to remember with calls to move beyond former things.  To interpret afresh its own texts and institutions".  That is the challenge that we face.

What the prophet Jeremiah is saying, and what Hebrews echoes, is that this new covenant is not a new religion, or a new institution of Christian faith, but rather is a new way of being religious.  Of being people of faith.  Of being people of the covenant.  And this new way is based in an internal spirituality rather than external.  Where God is found within us, rather than imposed from without.

Such a way of being has a certain built-in obsolescence.  Continuing to die to the old ways and being born to the new ways.  Reinventing ourselves as the need arises and as circumstances demand.  In order to keep the good news alive and active in our world today.

And so the promise of God, expressed by Jeremiah, and reaffirmed here in Hebrews, is just as true today.  When God says:  

‘The days are surely coming,
   when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel;
not like the covenant I made of old,
This is the covenant I will make with my people:
I will put my laws in their minds,
   and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
   and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach one another
   or say to each other, “Know the Lord”,
for they shall all know me,
   from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful towards their iniquities,
   and I will remember their sins no more.’


May that be the covenant, our covenant, that we live and practice every day.


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