Right on Red

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           Nearly forty years ago a traffic law was changed in order to make our hurried lives a little more hurried.  It was a change that many had hoped would finally be passed in order to ease the congestion in many of our major cities.  It was the change in the traffic law that made it possible to permit all of us to be able to turn right on a red light.  If you are new to driving, you may not know this, but at one time a red light actually meant “stop”, no turns, no anything.

            The day this alteration in the rules of traffic was passed – was a day long hoped for by the driving public.  It gave us all a freedom to go about our business without wasting time sitting at red lights.  Everyone began exercising their new right all at once, well. . . almost everyone, because some people took a little longer to catch on to it than others.  I can remember waiting behind a row of cars, all wanting to turn right on red, but unable to because of someone up at the light sitting and waiting for the light to turn green.  The more considerate drivers just sat and fumed while the majority sat and leaned on their horns, screamed and yelled out the window to ‘get out of the way’.  Of course the driver of the car up front, probably to this day, didn’t know why everyone was making such a commotion

            The best thing about this new law was that everyone liked it.  In fact if you were to ask today whether we should return to the ‘good old days’ when red meant stop, I doubt you would find even one person who would rather sit and wait at a red light.  But unfortunately, not everyone was happy about the new law at the time it came into being.

            You see, the new law came with some fine print, some exceptions, that had to be followed, though it seems few, if any, ever knew it.  One is that school buses are ineligible to turn right on red, as are many of the larger ten and eighteen wheeled vehicles and tanker trucks.  Second is that cross traffic has the right of way – this means that the old law is still in effect until cross traffic clears and you have to stop completely before turning.  Thirdly, and most importantly, pedestrians are considered cross traffic and also have the right of way, especially if there is a crosswalk.

            While driving around Niagara Falls this week, you would never have guessed that there was any limitation to the Right on Red law at all.  I have witnessed first hand being cut off by someone turning in my lane as if I weren’t even there.  I saw pedestrians nearly run down as cars zoomed around corners honking their horns.  I saw whole lines of cars with there right turn signals on honking at a bus at the head of the line.  They must not have seen the little sign that read ‘this vehicle doesn’t turn on red”

            How many of you have been honked at (or perhaps worse) to turn right even though you had no intention of turning right at all?  How many of you as pedestrians, have been nearly run down by careless drivers turning right on a red light?  I know I have, and my guess is that you have too.

            So how did this good law turn so ugly?  Didn’t the driving public ever read the fine print?  Or was this a case of the old adage, ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’?  Did a law that was changed to give us more freedom in our lives, to make our lives run smoother, create a whole army of drivers bent on exercising the leniency of this law at the expense of all else?  Did something change that made drivers who were originally subject to the law – all of a sudden – above the law?

            Some years ago I was invited to dinner at the house of six Iraqi soldiers who were sent here to Buffalo by our government as a result of an armistice agreement to all of Saddam Hussein’s’ forces.  During the first war in Iraq, we told Saddam’s army, ‘if you desert your post, the United States will take care of you’, and so we did.  After two years in a Saudi POW camp, these six were sent to the United States.  I guess you could say that they were sentenced to life in Buffalo, NY.

            As it turns out, these Iraqi soldiers lived under special dietary laws.  They were all Shiite Moslems, who follow the dietary laws of Abraham in the Old Testament.  Like the orthodox Jews, they are unable to eat meat that isn’t blessed before it is killed.  They can’t eat pork and certain bottom scavenger fish or any prepared canned food made with milk, cheese, or animal fat.  On their first day, they asked if we could provide them with a small lamb or goat so that they could kill it and prepare it for their dinner.  Needless to say, they were a tough crowd to please.

            It all eventually worked out though.  We found that they could eat whole fish as long as they cleaned it and they could eat canned goods and prepared foods as long as they were marked as kosher.  Also they could eat any fruit or vegetable or pasta.  Now you may think that they should have been thankful for any help they received, but they were trying as best they could to live out their religion.  To tell you the truth, I found it somewhat refreshing to see people so fervent in their beliefs that they would rather starve then break the law under which they were subject.

            If some of the fathers in the early church had had their way, we as Christians, would be subject to these same Old Testament dietary laws.  If it were not for the proliferation of Christianity to the gentiles by Paul and the relaxation of some of the laws that applied to the Jews; we too, would find ourselves subject to these very same dietary laws.  But we are not.  We have sort of taken a spiritual ‘Right on Red’ that has given us a freedom that neither the Orthodox Jews nor the Moslems are able to enjoy to this day.  But with this freedom from the Old Testament laws has come a greater responsibility to know and understand the ‘fine print’.

            Because we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God and walking in his ways…. then, as Paul explains throughout his letters in the New Testament…. we as followers of Christ, who once were gentiles, are not subject to the Jewish dietary laws, nor are we subject to the circumcision requirements of the Old Testament.  The laws concerning these acts of subjection have been relaxed and we can eat anything we want, we do not need to kill and butcher our own meat, nor do we need to show ourselves to the priest for a healing, nor do we need to sacrifice animals for the atonement of our sins.

            In fact, since Jesus has come and has died and has risen again – we have been granted a great freedom from all these things through faith in his blood and sacrifice.  This freedom has released us from many of the rules and regulations that our orthodox brothers and sisters find themselves subject, but at the same time it has caused division between our faiths.

            But, just like the Right on Red law, there are limits to this freedom that we have been given.  Though the law was relaxed for our sakes. . . it was not removed.  There are still Red Lights that we are bound to obey.  As it is written in the epistles, women are still subject to their husbands and husbands are still required by the law to love and support their wives and the Lord continues to discipline those whom he loves.  Some might be offended by these passages.  In fact many in the Church are offended by the sayings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.

As I have read the scriptures throughout my life, I have found that the places where I, personally, have the most trouble with the words of Jesus are the places where he demands my attention.  One of those attention getters is in the Gospel today where Jesus says “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

            We as Christians, and especially those Christians who are called Liberal, do not like to be told to do anything.  The freedom that we enjoy as followers of Christ, both for the conservative and liberal, is sometimes misconstrued.  We often get the mistaken idea that the Kingdom of God is a democracy like our own United States of America.  We often get the mistaken idea that we can decide for ourselves what is best for us by majority rule.  But this is simply not the case.

            We seem to have the impression that, because we elect our representatives, our senators, our bishops, our judges and our presidents that the Kingdom of God is some kind of grand democracy.  Our Lord and Savior takes on a role as some kind of elected Prime Minister whom we have chosen to do our will.  But God is not our Prime Minister . . . He is our King!  We did not choose Him – He chose us – and that is where our biggest hang-up is.  This is where the division between the liberal and the orthodox starts.  Some of us want a democracy where we have some say in the rule of the universe.  Some of us want to be able to change laws that upset us and language that offends us in the name of an ‘all inclusive’ god who we may create in our own image.

            But such is not the case at all.  Because when we call our Lord “Lord of lords” and “King of kings” we are no longer talking about a democracy where we all have some small say, but a Monarchy where we are subject to him who is Lord of all.

And though we might like to spiritually turn ‘right on red’ whenever we please, we are bound by the spirit of the law to be subjects of our King; to be obedient to his commands and teachings.  Because, if we abandon his commandments and disregard his teachings, are we not in effect creating for ourselves a god of our own choosing or perhaps even a god in our own image?

         And so the divisions and the arguments go on . . . between the Catholics and the Protestants . . . between the liberals and the conservatives . . . between Orthodox Anglicans and Liberal Episcopalians and all for the question of who God is and how He is made known to us.

            So you might ask, how do we know that what we believe is right? . . . how do we know it is true?  Or at least . . . what to orthodox conservatives believe so that we might compare what we believe to what they believe to be true?

            The orthodox position is that we believe that no one can know the love of God on our own.  But even if we are alone with no one near us with whom to share it, we are surrounded by a host of heavenly witnesses eager to speak to our heart . . .  and the voice that speaks to our heart is one and the same voice who spoke to the prophets and the messengers of old.  The orthodox believe that we are not free to add to that voice or detract from that voice, because the love of God demands that we submit to Him and obey his word and commands.  We know there are other voices out there, but, if we wish to remain faithful to God’s love, we must learn to avoid them.  We believe that not every revelation we might experience is from the divine nor is every spiritual experience from God.  Distinguishing the true from the false and clinging to that which is good is vital to the health and wellbeing of our relationship with God.  And it is the specialized task for our clergy, our bishops, priests and deacons, to keep everyone’s eyes fixed on what is right.

            First off you need to know that God’s love for you is ever constant and unchanging, but our love for him has many ups and downs.  We know that we are easily distracted and are seldom able to concentrate exclusively on this relationship.  Without correction from time to time through the written word of the bible and through the liturgy and through other people who care for us, we would soon go astray and lose the joy of our relationship with God, even if we do not lose the relationship itself.  We believe that in the depth of his love, God really does want what is best for us.  It is to help us toward that end that he has given us enough understanding of Himself to enable us to attain the final goal that all believers must seek.

            Orthodox Christianity believes that every human being, regardless of his estate or condition, is created in God’s image and likeness, and is therefore uniquely privileged to have a relationship with God, but the quality of that relationship varies enormously from one individual to another.  For the majority of people in the world it is broken and dysfunctional because we have rebelled against God and are no longer willing or able to enter into the kind of love relationship God wants for us.  But we know that for some people, the brokenness of the past has often become the instrument that God uses to put things right in the future . . . so that in the context of the entire human race, these people may not be very large in number but those who have been restored to God’s grace are an enormous company of saints drawn from every race, every nation and every language and every place and every time.  They are the cloud of witnesses Paul refers to today and they bound together by nothing more than their shared experience of the love of God at work within their lives . . . but that love is everything to them and is no less than a new birth or new creation in which the old self has been transformed and made new without the old self being denied or discarded.  We believe that we are destined for eternity with God even as we struggle in our daily lives to obey him as our Lord.  And that is the reason we are bound to the written word for direction in our lives.  Scripture for us is central to our understanding of the way God works and that is why we are so insistent about adhering to the faith as once delivered to us from the saints, in word and in deed through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

            Christians may have taken a ‘right on red’ at the coming of Jesus into our world but the law has not changed . . . it has only been fulfilled.          Orthodox Christianity, that is, the three branches of the Catholic faith, has no choice but to continue to uphold the law, even as others ignore and abuse it.

            Pray for the church universal, and pray for it often and diligently because it needs it more today than at any time in its history.   Pray that it does not abandon the teachings of Jesus in its pursuit of radical hospitality.  Pray that it will realize division is a part of the Christian Walk.  Pray that when it sees a Red Light it will at least stop to see Who it is about to run over before it makes another right turn.

Amen.

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