Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22

Again, I want to commend those of you who have written reflections for this year’s Lenten journey.  Thank you for the ways in which you have offered yourself to us.  I know how challenging that can be, how daunting it is to put yourself “out there”.  These writings, though they may seem small to the reader, are a way of offering one’s self to one another; a way of saying, “Here I am.  Here is a piece of me; a piece of my faith, my thoughts, my fears, my anxieties, my struggles and challenges, and my humor”.  It is being offered as a good gift, to be received or not, but most likely trusting that it will be accepted as a generous act of love.

Every gesture of communal life is a witness to our faith, whether large or small.  Whether it’s working together on a board or committee; filling in when someone is out; sitting down for coffee or tea; agreeing or disagreeing; checking in and feeling a sense of shared responsibility; being at home or work or on the subway; marching for a cause; or taking a stand for the betterment of others, it’s all part of living out our faith amid the human race.

This is fundamentally at the core of what it means to be Christian.  In our Old Testament passage, we find these ancient passages known as the Ten Commandments; the laws handed down to the children of Israel so soon out of slavery to help guide their way with one another.

They were a people accustomed to living in bondage in Egypt for more than 400 years.  Generations had been born into a hard and oppressive life.  When Moses led them out, there were more than 600,000 of them.  Can you imagine?  They had never been free to worship their own God or to choose the life they wanted.  They had grown accustomed to assimilating all their lives, and had to learn how to move forward in freedom and covenant relationship with one another and the God who had brought them out.

Now perched at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses offers these words of God written on clay tablets:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me…Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain…Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy…Thou shalt not kill…Thou shalt not steal…[1]

They were given to a people, not just to a person.   These commandments or “rules” were not given to put them back into slavery, but to set them free – free to choose, free to be – covenant reminders of their relationship with God and one another.

If we study them carefully, we can understand how that can be.  “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not steal”.  That’s easy enough for most of us to not dare think about doing such things; or we might think about it, but not really seriously or to the point of taking action.  Except of course, our words can sometimes be murderous to the point that they kill the spirit of others.  Our actions suck the life right out of them.   Or we sometimes take more than our fair share and feel justified in it.  Good people.  Conscientious people.  Benevolent people.  But sometimes…

Thou shalt not covet… has to do with the heart’s desire and the mind as it relates to the possessions of another, which often leads to outer manifestations.  And where would the marketing industry be if we were not enticed into coveting the good things that others have, or the way they look, or how they get on in life.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me:  All of those gods that we worship and adore; those gods that we give ourselves to and our time and allegiance; those gods by which we are consumed and possessed; gods of success, power, fame, notoriety, and money.  We can even be guilty of worshiping our scars and wounds, our fears and anxiety – to be enslaved by them, never really free.   And they can have great impact on the lives of others.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.   When I was a child, of course that meant you don’t cook.  You don’t shop.  You certainly don’t catch up on last week’s work or get a head start on the week to come.  Can you imagine a whole day of Sabbath rest, centering or re-centering one’s body, mind, and spirit; taking things slow and easy, intentionally focused on the spiritual person inside yearning to be fed?

Honor your father and mother with no word whatsoever about how negligent the father or mother might have been toward the children.  No word at all about how they might have fallen short.  No mention of the mistakes they made along the way.  Honor them, respect them, care for them in their old age – and this is the commandment with promise – your days shall be long upon the land which God gives.

Thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not lie.  How many of us think that a little lie for the right cause or the right person is more than acceptable every now and then?

These laws just don’t seem grounded in reality anymore – if they ever were.  At best they feel tiring and onerous and, quite frankly, impossible.  Even way back, we know the laws were not grounded in the reality of their time.  Husbands could have many wives, but a wife who stepped outside of marital bounds could be stoned.  We know that people killed all the time, and they stole and robbed one another.

Who among us has not broken a law or two in our life time?  Gone just a little too far?  Truth be told, most people I know are more than willing to fudge the rules when convenient or if it works in their favor, while sometimes holding others to task (often mercilessly) when it doesn’t.

Most rules are given for our common good to provide order and safety in our society.  At best, they are designed for the well-being of all peoples, not just a few.

Can you imagine if there were no rules to govern our shared life?  No traffic lights or speed limits?  No laws concerning killing, stealing, abuse or social protocol?  No boundaries around showing up to work on time, or leaving early, or how many days are appropriate to take off?  Even the United Methodist Church is governed by a set of rules outlined in the Book of Discipline which constitutes the laws and doctrine that legislate the policies of our church.

However, it does occur to me that rules work best when tempered with grace and common sense.  During the season of Lent, we confess that we are lawbreakers.  Guilty.  We break the rules all the time, and the more power, privilege, and access we have, the easier it becomes to break as many rules as possible.   We are law-breakers and we don’t always get what we deserve.  Justice does not always suit our case; we need mercy to be our friend.

As Christians, we give thanks and celebrate the law of God’s unmerited favor being poured out for us without measure; the law of grace that we did not earn, nor do we deserve.  It’s just given to us as God’s good gift, and we suffer with and for others because we know that that grace is given for all.  It’s given for all, as amazing and foolish as that might seem.

There is new law of grace, of which we all need.  It defies common sense and logic; it’s laughable, like Sarah laughing her head off last week when told that in her old age she would bear a son and heir to thousands upon thousands of people.

The Apostle Paul says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’” [2]

Jesus did not come to eradicate the Law of Moses.  Instead, He came that the law might be fulfilled in His very being; in His life and death; and in His resurrection.  We might want to consider spending some time during these days looking at our lives more closely and considering how we are living into covenant with God and one another.  We might want to look into these “rules” to see if they still have any relevance for us at all.  Most assuredly, we should be asking ourselves how we are doing with the law of grace and our own good common sense.

[1] Exodus 20:7-17
[2] 1 Corinthians 1:18-29; 25