March 8, 2015: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Well, here we are again, now in part 3 of this lectionary trilogy on covenant. Two weeks ago, it was God’s unconditional covenant with all creation. Last week, it was God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and later Hagar. And today, we get another covenant. One that God makes with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Now I know you all knew this was coming, because I didn’t issue a “spoiler alert” last week, and you might be thinking…this is about law, not about covenant. After all – preacher – YOU said that covenant is about relationship. This is about the 10 commandments. It’s a bunch of laws.
True. And yet it IS about relationship, and about freedom, and about identity – ours and God’s.
Now, the commandments, the Decalogue, is so well known…really – how many think of Charlton Heston, right? And if you Google 10 commandments, you can find them for just about anything – golf, marriage, men…. I even found one from a Cat, which included:
- Thou shalt have no other pets before me.
- Thou shalt be grateful that I even give thou the time of day.
- Remember my food dish and keep it full.
Anyone who has ever lived with a cat can understand.
I remember when I was a kid, being a good church going Baptist, I knew these commandments cold. But one day, I was in the playground at recess. I was in 4th grade, and was over where a bunch of us were trying to double dutch jump rope. And out of nowhere (and for reasons I can’t remember) Debbie Bass (yes, I even remember her name) said the unthinkable…”Oh my God!” My eyes just about popped out of my head, and I stepped back, because I just KNEW God was going to smite her right then and there at North Lake Elementary School, because she had taken the Lord’s name in vain. I was about to see the work of the Almighty…yup, any second now…nuthin’! Nothing happened to her. Get outta here, I thought! It was all downhill from there. A life gone bad at the tender age of 9. All because I found out something about these 10 commandments – you don’t get punished if you break ‘em. I mean, I didn’t hear God shouting down from the clouds “Debbie whatever-her-middle-name-was Bass…you get over here right now!” If only my parents did the same thing about their rules.
See, for me at the age of 9 (and for a few years after that too), and for many of us, rules or laws are about restrictions, even if we know some of them to be good for us and for our communities. And human beings are by nature not really happy with people telling us what we can and cannot do. But, the truth is, if we lived by these 10 little rules of the road, we might not need anything more. And, none of these 10 are about restricting us, quite the opposite. The 10 commandments are to set us free.
What we hear today is that God frees Israel, God establishes relationship, then gives the big 10, which is a picture of what a free life looks like…if we experience the 10 commandments as confining it is probably because we have not seen that they are part of a relationship in which we have already been freed – they are what a free life looks like. It is what we do with our lives that determine if we continue to live in freedom.
A free life is one in which we… do not hurt neighbor, respect one another and God, give ourselves Sabbath rest, respect our elders, are content enough in who we are that we have no jealousy of anyone or anything. For those searching for the purpose driven life – Look no further. Because jealousy, hatred, disrespect, constantly working rather than constantly loving, all of it is a prison. A self-made prison into which we have walked and closed the door.
The commandments are, as Christ boiled it down for us: loving God, and loving neighbor as ourselves. Well, and speaking of Jesus, he was not a happy guy today in the gospel, right? Our Lord and Savior went into the temple, found it filled with the folks who were using it to make a profit, often at the expense of the poor. Now, haven’t you ever wanted to do that? I mean, go into some place that was abusing people and knock a few of their proverbial tables over? I know I do…and in fact…it is what we are called to do as people of the covenant. It is what the commandments are all about.
I know – no where in there does it say “Thou shalt overturn the pews and altars of thy temples.” But it is what they are all about. And 50 years ago yesterday, March 7th, 1965, a group of people in Selma knew that. And boy did they ever knock over a few tables.
Two years after King’s historic “I have a dream” speech in Washington, a group of marchers sought to walk from Selma Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery to seek an end to discrimination against black voters and all victims of segregation. As they crossed from Selma over the Edmund Pettus bridge, they were met by scores of troopers and those who had been deputized that morning, who beat them down using tear gas and billy clubs. The scenes on the bridge shocked the nation, emboldening leaders in Washington to pass the Voting Rights Act five months later.
On what has become America’s “Bloody Sunday,” tables were overturned to be sure. These were people who understood what being a people of the covenant was all about. They understood that being a person of faith was about far more than going to church on Sunday. They knew that being a child of God means living as God calls us to live – loving God, loving neighbor, loving self. It wasn’t something doctrinal – it was an identity!
Being a child of God is an identity given freely to all of us the moment we are created in the womb. The role of faith, the role of the church, the whole purpose of all of God’s interactions with us through the course of history, is to remind us of that – to remind us of who we are. Because, if we can remember who we are, we will live into that identity, and living into that identity is all about relationship – relationship with one another, ourselves and with God.
Jesus is ticked off in the temple because the people there had defiled the place where others seek God by using it as a place to make a buck. The very place where one should be given restoration and renewal on the Sabbath had become a place where one was fleeced in order to follow some doctrine of conduct around sacrifice. If there was one thing Jesus was, it was a rule breaker – not because he didn’t value the temple, quite the opposite. His rule breaking was to remind us that we should never value doctrine over relationship with God and all of God’s creation, because in many respects that is worshiping idols – valuing human actions, rather than divine ones, as we heard Jesus say to Peter last week.
The church – the body of Christ alive in the world today – needs to remember who we are, and what God asks of us. God does not give the law, the commandments, as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law, so that we may know how to live into it. See – that’s it really. Following the law doesn’t give us gold stars, and not following it, like my elementary school friend, doesn’t give us bad grades in the Almighty record book. Because it isn’t about rules that make us something we are not – it is about behaviors that allow us to live into who we are already!
It is about identity. It is about relationship. And in many ways – that is what Lent is all about too.
The purpose of Lent is all about God’s actions on our behalf – about relationship! Lenten discipline is marking that identity, marking that relationship. It is about returning to it if we have forgotten who we are. It is about allowing Christ to overturn the tables in our lives that bind us to actions that bring us out of good relationship with our neighbors. And it is not easy work, to be sure. Because sometimes, we find it really hard to love our neighbor…and often even harder to love ourselves. I am reminded of a story…
An old man was walking down the road. A horseman appeared out of nowhere and charged straight for the old man, so that he had to throw himself into a ditch just to save his life. As he clambered out of the ditch, he shook his fist at the horseman. He waved his fist and cried out, “May you be blessed. May your deepest desire be fulfilled!”
A passerby was in shock. He said to the old man, “Why would you wish such a good thing for someone who nearly killed you?”
The old man answered, “If his deepest desires were fulfilled, he would have no need to run an old man off the road.”
What if we all thought about if we were the old man. Someone has tried to run you off the road. Or, your friend is the old man. Someone or some system has tried to run your friend off the road. Or, the one you care about is the old man. Someone or some system has tried to oppress the one you care about. How would we respond?
As I said, sometimes this whole loving your neighbor stuff isn’t easy. But maybe we can learn something from C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to understand this, and was often criticized by others seeking a more violent approach to gaining civil rights as being too peaceful. In their minds, that was weak – playing into the hands of the oppressor, and delaying justice. He answered their critique in this way, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Let me be clear though that doesn’t mean we sit comfortably back in the face of injustice – quite the opposite. Love is an action verb – It’s the L Word! It’s like we should all have a big L on our chest – no not for Biggest Loser, or Super Lesbian (although, how cool would THAT be!)…but for love. And super love at that.
I was at a funeral yesterday for someone from my home parish. He was a force to be reckoned with to be sure – a force on the side of justice. Justice for women. Justice for gay people. Justice for people of all races, creeds, cultures. His name was Joe Leidy. And Joe once wrote, “I believe that God’s purpose for me is that I love and create. Life has meaning and hope in these actions. The revelation of this will, in all history, material and human, be bound up through [God’s] perfection in these two actions.”
“God’s purpose for me is that I love and create.”
When one thinks about the opposite of those two words: hate and destroy, it is easy to see that Joe is right. Because hatred, fear, all of it is a great burden to bear – and it will destroy you, and work to destroy others in the process. And it doesn’t have to be that way…it was never meant to be that way for us.
We are called, from the moment we are born, to be in relationship with God and one another. We are essentially baptized in those birth waters into a creation of love for love. And God calls us again and again to return home to who we are – to be the beloved child of God we are called to be, and to live into that promise for ourselves and our neighbors. That is what Lent is all about – it is about returning home to who we are. It is about remembering our identities as those who claim to be Christian. That is what it is all about.
Being a Christian isn’t about rules, doctrine, or dogma – that is just there to guide us. It isn’t about committees, vestries, dioceses, conventions – those are just there to give us a way to live in community.
It IS about what we do in the world, and what we do here. It IS about loving neighbor in the world, fighting for the oppressed, working to bring people out of the dark corners of marginalization, speaking out against anyone or any system that seeks to breed hatred and destroy any part of God’s creation. It IS about taking that first nail of the cross for justice for all of God’s people, and working to ensure that creation – the animals, the earth, the sea, and the sky is treated with respect and cared for as the great gift all of it is.
And – it is also about loving God and loving ourselves. It is about remembering to honor the Sabbath by taking time to come here to give thanks for all that we are given, to be nourished with the body and blood of Christ, to be strengthened by the love of brothers and sisters, and to remember that we are loved – unconditionally and for all time – just for being who we are.
The commandments really are all about relationship, and about freedom, and about identity – ours and God’s. Not following them doesn’t bring down lightening bolts of condemnation from heaven, but it does bring down our very soul, and the soul of the world. Because the commandments are about the freedom to be who we are – people of the light, living a life unburdened by hatred and fear – and that is what it is all about – the commandments, the gospel, Jesus, you, me, Dr. King, Selma, marriage equality, economic opportunity for all, caring for the environment and the creatures who live in it – all of it. Because all of it is about one thing – Love.
That we are loved, and we are created to love. Unconditionally and for all time.
Amen.[Sermons as written are not necessarily as delivered on any given Sunday]
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
March 8, 2015
Third Sunday of Lent
1st Reading – Exodus 20:1-17
2nd Reading -1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Gospel – John 2:13-22