Eighth Day’s Theological Underpinnings

Maria Barker

August 20, 2017
     Matt 15:10-20
     Romans 12:1-21

Good morning, friends. I’m Maria Barker and I am a member of the Servant Leaders mission group, along with Marcia Harrington, Kent Beduhn, Kate Lasso, David Hilfiker, and Emily Owsley.  My teaching today will be the first in a series of four teachings that will take place between today and October 1.  The following weekend, October 7&8, our camp meeting will have a family reunion, inviting all past members of the community, to celebrate the fact that the community is 40 years old!  (Actually we have in fact turned 41 already, but we really wanted to get in a big party this year.)

The themes that we will pick up on in this series all have to do with Who is the Eighth Day Faith Community? What is our identity as a church, how does that identity form, and why are we structured the way we are?  And today I’m going to focus on Eighth Day’s theology and how that gets expressed.

And when I read today’s Gospel with an eye for the teaching I might give, I got pretty excited. What’s better than a confrontation with the Pharisees for talking about our community’s theological underpinnings? I’ll tell you what’s better – a parable with scatological references!

Gospel story – let’s dig in.

In the verses right before the scripture passages we read this morning, the Pharisees are giving Jesus a hard time because he and his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. This isn’t just a little bit gross – this is a violation of rules of the temple (found in Exodus 30), which the Pharisees were trying to impose upon everyday life and to use to judge people.  Jesus responds right back at them, accusing the Pharisees of violating the commandment to honor ones father and mother. (One interpretation basically says that the Pharisees were telling people that they didn’t really owe their parents any support, that they owed it to God, through the temple.  When the followers gave to the temple, the Pharisees may have enriched themselves at the expense of elderly parents  (in shady, televangelist style.)

In our passage, Jesus turns to his disciples after the episode with the Pharisees and explains, “It is not what you eat that defiles you but what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.” 

Peter then says to Jesus, “You know. The Pharisees were pretty pissed off back there.’ And Jesus responds, “Don’t dwell on them. Every plant that my father has not planted will be uprooted.” Peter goes on to ask Jesus to clarify what he means in challenging the hand washing rule, and he tells the disciples, “Everything you put into your mouth ends up in the sewer, but what comes out of your mouth comes from your heart.  Evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander – these are what defile a person.”  Jesus emphasizes the importance of internal commitment and external action, that moral cleanliness is more important than physical.  We are reminded that Jesus has come to challenge the religious belief systems of his day, to provide moral guidance for relating to the world. He is bringing us into a living relationship with the Creator, one that is dynamic enough to apply beyond a set of rules that might be used to divide us.  

In preparing this teaching, I couldn’t help but be reminded over and over again about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Rabbi Heschel was a mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social-change agent. He was a contemporary and friend of Martin Luther King. In fact had Martin Luther King not been assassinated one afternoon, he would have spent that very evening at Rabbi Heschel’s Passover Seder dinner. Heschel marched in support of the civil rights movement and in protest of the Vietnam War. He wrote a book called God In Search of Man, in which he states,

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. 

Whoa. This is obviously a radical thing for a religious leader to say. And would it surprise you to learn that the book was published in 1955?  But when a young student in the early 1970s challenges Heschel on this radical statement, Heschel responds by saying, “My tradition not only gives me the right to speak in its name, but the duty.”[1] Heschel is a learned scholar of his tradition, and as such it becomes his obligation to bring its words to the contemporary world. He is offering this challenge, not holding anything back. I think Jesus is providing the same kind of challenge to his contemporaries.

Eighth Day – what’s in a name

I want to turn now to Eighth Day’s theology. Theology is defined as the study of the nature of God and religious belief. It is distinct from a creed, which would be an authoritative formula of beliefs. Eighth Day does not have a creed, but instead we have a commitment, our membership commitment, which we are invited to renew every year.  

Our commitment reads:

“I come today to join the Eighth Day Faith Community. I commit myself to following Jesus whose life was fully centered in the grace and truth of God. I believe that God’s transcendent love is revealed in Jesus. I will endeavor to follow Jesus in paths of peace, forgiveness, healing, justice, and mercy.

I accept God’s call on my life as my highest priority. I will seek to be open to God’s transforming power and love. I acknowledge that God’s truth is revealed in many ways and through other people and other faiths.

I commit as a member to engage in the spiritual disciplines and practices that are expected of my membership. In making this commitment, I affirm that the practice of spiritual discipline is necessary to deepen both my spiritual growth and my engagement with the world. I recognize that I need the support, challenge, and discernment of my Christian community in order to grow spiritually, walk humbly, and act in faithfulness.

I acknowledge that we are united in God’s love and grace. I offer my gifts, my strengths, and my weaknesses to this community and pledge to open my heart to what others bring. I accept the responsibility to build, sustain, celebrate, and challenge our comm0unity to do God’s will in the world.

I will respond to Christ’s call to stand with “the least of these” by committing my resources of time, money, and energy to help build a world of inclusiveness, love, and equity. I joyfully affirm that I am called to a life of love that includes all God’s creation.”

Like the other churches in the Church of the Savior tradition, integrity of membership is an important value. Membership is not taken lightly around here, and entails the disciplines of

  • a journey inward of spiritual disciplines and growth;
  • a journey outward of service to and with others, especially those at the margins of society; and
  • a journey together in community which supports our spiritual growth and holds us accountable for becoming mature, informed Christians and for using our gifts. [2]

Alongside this intense approach to membership, we embrace the concept of a priesthood of all believers. We are a lay-led community, and we share responsibility for things like leading worship and interpreting scriptures, as I am doing right now. Having been here for eight years now myself, I sometimes lose sight of what a radical notion this is, that not only can we each have a personal relationship with the Holy One (that’s a pretty mainstream idea these days, which is great) but also that each of us has the ability to interpret scriptures to one another and that we have insights to share from our experience of God.  And, in recognizing one another’s insights and ability to interpret scripture for one another, we are also inviting each other to challenge the community. If we are all priests, then we can be responsible for bringing a challenge, like the challenge Heschel brings, to bring our tradition into the contemporary world. In becoming a community of people who have integrity of membership and the commitment to the priesthood of all believers, we develop the authority to represent and to challenge the contemporary practice of Christian faith.

The way I see it, this lay leadership is an important expression of the very name of our community.

Eighth Day takes its name from the belief that God has continued to create beyond the biblical seven days. The ‘eighth day of creation’ is the life we now lead, one in which we are co-creators with God of a reign of justice and compassion as witnesses of Divine Love expressed in Jesus Christ.”[3]

That is what the name of our community means, which is something I delight in explaining to people when I tell them about my church.

Let’s go back to Heschel for a moment, our radical Rabbi. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. As he worked and worked with these books of the Bible, something kept surprising him. God, the creator of everything, seems to care about lowly, regular people. And it didn’t seem to make sense to him. What he realized to be the message of the prophets was that God needs us. What Heschel learns is

that God wants something from us. That God needs us to help God make this world better….For Heschel, the God of the Bible is really the parent of humanity and can’t stand to see the suffering of God’s children. God needs God’s other children to take care of the suffering.”[4]

If this is what being co-creators with God, God’s hands in the world, if this is what is means to be the Eighth Day Faith community, how does this sense of our theology manifest itself, personally and publicly?

Well, this is reflected in the Eighth Day community call, which reads as follows:

  • Christ calls us, the Eighth Day Faith Community, to be his body in the world and to respond to his overwhelming love for us by:
  • making a radical commitment to building a caring and just society and joining concretely with the oppressed in their struggles;
  • speaking the truth in love and listening to our brothers and sisters as we support one another in following Christ; contemplating our relationship to God, our lifestyle, and the community of faith;
  • providing a community that welcomes children and families and seeks to nurture children in our city; and
  • joyfully participating in life as it is given and celebrating our belonging to the whole of creation and to God. [5]

And you know, this sounds a lot to me like the passage from Romans that we read, passages that were entitled “the new life in Christ” and “marks of the true Christian.” Paul is spelling out Christian ethics, ethics that are grounded not in the law, but in the mercies of God. He is calling for the community he’s addressing: “Do not be conformed by this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…”

I thought this passage from Romans so fitting for a discussion of what defines the belief system of the Eighth Day Faith community, because we are a community devoted to putting faith into action. In preparing for this teaching, I read the witness statements that many of the covenant members prepared in 2005 at the time when, I believe, the community was reworking the membership commitment. These witness statements bore little resemblance to a creed. The covenant members have a very broad spectrum of ways that they articulate their theology.

But one common thread is that the life and teachings of Jesus reveal to us the love of God, and that Jesus is a guide for our lives – communally and individually - and we are called to follow his teachings.  

With that in mind, and contemplating the meaning of the name Eighth Day, what does it mean to be called to be the hands and feet of God today?

I cannot possibly conclude here without emphatically stating to you all that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes a more important time to take seriously this call. I cannot begin a teaching referencing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who wrestled with faith in the face of the Jewish Holocaust, and referencing Martin Luther King without acknowledging the horrific events of the last week. We have heard the voices of white supremacists, including literal Nazis, defended and even echoed by the President of the United States. I’m deeply troubled and mortified. And I’ve spent time with friends who are Jewish and African-American who are afraid for their own safety. We may never see a more important time for us to make a radical commitment to building a caring and just society and joining concretely with the oppressed in their struggles. To present our bodies as living sacrifices, to overcome evil with good. To commit our resources of time, money, and energy to help build a world of inclusiveness, love, and equity.  Our community with one another is here to make us stronger, to challenge and support one another in bearing witness to the love that the Holy One has for each of us.  I challenge all of us to consider how we will be putting our faith into action at this pivotal time for our country. Our community was made for this.