The Sunday Sermon: God’s Law, Our Freedom

March 7, 2021 The third Sunday in Lent
Penelope Bridges
God’s Law, Our Freedom

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)

“God spoke all these words.” Moses, in communion with God on the holy mountain, receives the extraordinary gift of the Law, the user’s manual for the people of God, and it starts with these ten instructions, the basic template for living in harmony with God and neighbor. This is just the beginning: as the story continues, over 600 more laws are revealed to the people of God, laws that set them apart from the people around them, that guide their steps and shape their lives and ensure that they will never forget that they are special, set apart and chosen.

For the Jews the law was not a burden, as we might think, but a blessing, a gift from God that showed them how to please God by living righteously. Today’s Psalm 19 is in part a love song to the Law; and the longest Psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 119, is an extended meditation in praise of the Law.

Some of the commandments are more straightforward than others. It’s easy to understand “do not murder”, but “do not make for yourself an idol” is a bit more challenging. The prohibition of images of God isn’t just about trying to picture God, but also about limiting our idea of God to an object that can be moved around or destroyed. It’s especially about not making God in our own image, which is what we do all the time.

At a conference I attended this week (virtually of course), the Rev. Azariah France-Williams witnessed to growing up Black and Christian in England, experiencing only white people in positions of power, seeing only blond, Aryan images of Jesus and the saints, hearing that black was the color of sin and death. As a child he could not imagine that a Black boy could ever be worthy of the Kingdom of God. I found myself wanting to shout out to that boy, “THERE ARE NO WHITE PEOPLE IN THE BIBLE”, a fact that is as obvious and as radical for some people as the fact that Jesus was a Jew.

Humanity continues to build and worship idols, not only cramping our concept of God, but also living lives in which other things take the place of God, things like financial security, or power, or a flag, or a building, or even the Bible.

The prohibition against making wrongful use of the name of the Lord isn’t just about using God’s name as a curse: it’s also about the ways in which we use God’s name and God’s word, to justify our own narrow point of view or unloving behavior. In the new PBS documentary, The Black Church, the story is told of how enslaved people were required to attend church, where white preachers misused Scripture to tell them that slavery was legitimate and that rebellious behavior was sinful. In our own day, those who take isolated verses of Scripture and use them as blunt weapons against LGBT people or against women in leadership are also guilty of breaking this commandment.

And then there’s the final commandment, about not coveting someone else’s property. We have to move past our outrage at the outdated notion that your neighbor’s wife is somehow his property, but if you can let that go, we come up against this instruction that our consumer culture wants us to break over and over again: our culture that continuously seeks to feed our covetousness with images of what we don’t have; drawing our attention away from the needs of our neighbors and directing it to our own spiritual emptiness, which, we imagine, we can fill with the right stuff: the right car, the right clothing, even the right body shape.

Do you see how each of these commandments is about our relationship with our neighbors? How God’s law can protect us from being sucked into a way of life that disregards the greater good, dehumanizes others, and imprisons each of us in a lonely place of perpetual competition and imagined scarcity?

St Benedict writes in his Rule, “As we progress in [God’s] way of life and faith, we shall run on the paths of God’s commandments, our heart overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” That’s a pretty attractive vision, and so is the Psalm’s declaration that the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart. Who wouldn’t want to pursue a way of life that revives the soul and rejoices the heart?

After the Psalm’s rhapsodic reflections, we hear St Paul inviting his readers to yield to the foolishness of following Jesus, to embrace the paradox of the Cross. Paul punctures the self-importance of the Corinthian Christians, reminding them – and us – of how our cleverness leads us away from God’s will for us. Worldly wisdom tells us to take care of number one, to survive and win.  But the Cross, in its foolishness, tells us that we are made to live for others, that death is not the worst that can happen, that winning isn’t everything.

One of the texts we read for session 8 of Sacred Ground consists of excerpts from a book by Van Jones called Beyond the Messy Truth. In it Jones addresses liberals and conservatives separately, acknowledging the deep divide in our country; and then he offers a way forward, encouraging us to see the flaws in our own position as well as the strengths in the other’s. As an example, he writes about voting against your own economic self-interest, and how it manifests in each political camp. His conclusion is that each side can be accused of this apparently foolish act, but that each has its own valid reasons for doing so. The world’s values teach us that self-preservation is the first priority, but when we embrace the self-giving love that God offers us in Jesus, we find a deep wisdom that defies and defeats worldly logic.

Just as we find the consumer culture leading us astray from God, so did the people of Jerusalem in the first century CE. The turning over of the tables in the Temple is an upsetting, outrageous, deeply prophetic act that John places at the beginning of his Gospel as the public announcement of the transformation that Jesus initiates.  When we read the Hebrew prophets we hear them say, “This is the word of the Lord”. Now, here is Jesus, the Word of the Lord incarnate, very publicly doing the work of a prophet in the heart of the Jewish faith community.

What was so wrong about the activities at the Temple? It’s unlikely that anyone set out to be offensive to God. It was probably a gradual evolution: originally, people would bring their offerings, animals or grain from their own smallholdings, to sacrifice in obedience to the Law.

Then the city grew and there were people living in the city who didn’t grow their own crops; so they needed to be able to buy something to offer.

Then, under imperial occupation, the Romans insisted on people using their currency for everyday commerce, and that was offensive to Jews because of the image of Caesar, called the Son of God, on the coins; so the people selling the offerings started also changing the currency, to obey the Law.

And the thing took on a life of its own, until there was this big, noisy, messy marketplace right there in the sacred precincts, with merchants laundering money, and people  forgetting that they were standing in the dwelling place of God.

What Jesus does seems to be an act of destruction, but it’s also an effective way of drawing attention to the dubious practices that are going on, that are quietly eating away at the integrity of the Temple as God’s house and the center for the Jewish people and their law.

If we imagine a similar act taking place in the Cathedral, we can feel the outrage and pain. But we can also concede that the church might be in need of reformation, just as the Temple was. In fact, we can be sure that the church is always in need of reformation, because it is a human institution.

As we navigate ways to make our church buildings more useful and available to the community, we are trying, with our bishop’s guidance, to gauge what is appropriate. The conference I mentioned earlier included sessions about leveraging our assets, making our buildings work for the community. We heard about English cathedrals being temporarily coopted as vaccination clinics, overflow hospital beds, and even law courts during the pandemic. What are acceptable activities in church? Can we reasonably ban alcohol or fundraising by outside organizations, given the reality that we offer alcohol and ask for money at our own events?

As people of faith we live in a constant tension between the expectations of popular culture and the traditional expectations of the church. We Episcopalians don’t try to draw sharp distinctions between our way of life and that of the wider culture. If we are to serve the community, we need to make ourselves and our resources as available as possible. But the church is sacred space, the place where in non-pandemic times we share the Eucharist, the body and blood of the Word of God, the place where many of us feel closest to the holy.

As so often in John’s Gospel there is a double meaning going on in these verses: Jesus speaks of “this temple” meaning his own body, a temple of the Word of God, but the Jewish leaders think he’s talking about the physical Temple, which will in fact be destroyed a few years later. And the mystical body of Jesus, the Church, will replace the Temple as the dwelling place of God. So that leaves us with some questions to ponder.

If each one of us is part of the body of Christ, that makes us living stones of the new Temple, the new dwelling place of God. What are the tables that Jesus needs to overturn in us? Which of those ten commandments are we overlooking or disregarding in our own lives? And what, in this Lenten season of self-examination, are we doing about it? God grant us the grace to acknowledge our need of repentance and the courage to change our ways.

Amen.

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