Sunday, March 11, 2012

(Lent 3) The Ten Chain-breakers

"Where do we sign?" -- Lent 3: God's covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-16

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Every three years, during Lent,
the scriptures we heard today show up in our cycle of readings.
The Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.
Psalm 19, singing of the beauty and sweetness of God’s law.
1 Corinthians 1, 
contrasting God’s wisdom and human foolishness.
And John 2, telling of the day Jesus cleansed the temple
of its crooks and profiteers.

I look forward to preaching from these texts every three years,
because they are so rich with possibilities.
One possibility I won’t pursue is what I saw in a cartoon yesterday.
Moses was standing at a kitchen counter fixing a hotdog,
surrounded by lots of bottles of ketchup, mustard, relish, mayo . . .
Caption said, “Moses and the Ten Condiments.”

God’s covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai—
summed up in the Ten Commandments—
gives us a great foundation to build on
as we think about the way law functions
in the life of the people of God.
The Ten Commandments, and these other supporting texts,
reveal a biblical, ethical framework that—
far from being oppressive—
is rich, and life-giving, and liberating for us.

I have always believed—and preached—
that the Ten Commandments were much more than 
a restrictive list of dos and don’ts, 
intended to hold us back from our natural bent in life.
I have preached about how these commandments
are not a just a sterile list—
a database of God’s rules and demands,
but rather, they come as part of a story,
a story of God liberating his people from slavery.
I have preached about how we don’t fully understand 
the Ten Commandments,
until we see them as God’s way of helping us live 
the full and free life that God intended for us.

I still believe that and would preach that.

But when Walter Brueggemann was here a couple months ago,
another light came on for me . . . 
a way to think of God’s covenant with the people.
I don’t remember anything specific 
he said about the Ten Commandments themselves.
It was the way he talked about these larger narratives that shape us.

Just to review briefly, since I talked about Brueggemann
in a sermon last month . . . 

One of his core ideas is that we as a human race,
and especially modern Western culture,
are stuck . . . hard . . . in a narrative of scarcity.
We believe in a false story:
That there is never enough of what we need—
be that wealth, property, food, relationships—
to be happy and fulfilled and safe and unafraid.
We believe that there is a scarce supply of what we need 
for a full and secure life.
So we get anxious.
And to combat our anxiety, we accumulate all we can for ourselves.
And this leads us to secure our position by establishing a monopoly.
Which leads to violence, even pre-emptive violence,
to protect our monopoly of goods.
Brueggemann says this progression . . . 
from scarcity, to anxiety, to accumulation, to monopoly, to violence
. . . is inevitable, 
when we believe that the narrative of scarcity is true.
The Israelites were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt by Pharaoh,
who saw the whole world through this narrative of scarcity.

The biblical narrative is the exact opposite.
God is revealed as a Creator of abundance.
And those who put their trust in this Creator God,
look at the world through a narrative of abundance,
which leads to gratitude, and generosity.
And the narrative of scarcity that controls the world
is unmasked as a lie, a fraud, a false narrative. 

But we are all inextricably caught up in this false narrative
and the dominating systems that grow out of that narrative.
We, and the lives we have shaped for ourselves,
have become dependent on that false narrative of scarcity.
There really is no complete escape from it.
We can’t even contemplate leaving it,
unless we leave literally everything behind,
and create a new world from scratch 
in some remote wilderness.
Even idyllic, separatist societies, like the Amish,
are enmeshed in systems created by a narrative of scarcity.

Brueggemann made the statement—
and this is where the lights came on for me—
that we have all “signed on” to these systems
built on a false narrative.
We have committed ourselves.
It was his use of that phrase, “signed on,” that got my attention,
since our Lent worship theme—“Where do we sign?”—
was on my mind already.

During Lent, we’re talking about the covenant with God
that we as God’s people sign on to.
We have, in fact, signed on to a covenant with Creator God,
who invites us into a truthful narrative—
based on Creation’s abundance, and God’s generosity.
We’re signed on to a narrative that exists in stark contrast,
to another narrative, we have also signed onto.
We are simultaneously committed
to two different competing covenants.
We are embedded in two narratives, that simultaneously,
are seeking to form us in two different directions.

That is the situation we are in.
Trying our best to figure out how to live
in a constant state of tension.
We are being formed by our covenant with Creator God
to be grateful and at peace and to share freely with others,
because we trust in a God who is generous,
and in the abundance and beauty of God’s creation.
And, we are being formed by our culture 
to be anxious, to accumulate, to protect, to monopolize, 
and to defend with violence if necessary.

Sometimes this formation is so blatant, we can easily resist it.
And sometimes it’s so subtle, and attractive,
that I don’t even recognize it for what it is, much less resist it.

See, I can resist a call to join an army 
that uses massive deadly force to defend our right to access
oil fields in the Middle East,
or to protect other economic interests of our country.
That I can say “no” to, without hesitation.
But I can’t always—or don’t always—say “no” to buying 
a certain pair of jeans, or laptop, or furniture, or meat,
that’s priced lower than its competition,
only because the systems that produce those goods
are oppressive and destructive—
to the poor, to the weak, to the environment.

We live as people who have signed on—heart, mind, and soul—
to competing and incompatible covenants.

Now, I could just fall into despair about that.
Realize I am hopelessly compromised.
Choose to be either depressed, cynical, or detached about it.

Or . . . I could realize I can’t live in moral perfection,
but be willing to at least open myself to the hopeful possibility
that paying attention to this dilemma,
is better than not paying attention to it.
I could begin to evaluate some choices I make
based on which narrative that choice is reinforcing.
I could be honest about the false narrative
that so much of our economic and political and social 
systems are built upon.
I could recognize, as the apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians today,
that sometimes God’s wisdom, like the wisdom in the cross,
looks like foolishness from our human point of view.
I could see the contradiction . . . even, sometimes, in the church,
when a house of prayer 
becomes a house of anxious accumulation,
like the Gospel story today in John.
I could start living with more hope, more joy, more freedom,
by seeing the truth and goodness 
of a narrative of abundance and sharing 
and generosity and gratitude.

I could then look at these Ten Commandments 
in a very different light.

The commandments of God don’t stifle my freedom.
They give my freedom back to me.
They permit me to return to the full and free life I was created for.

The ten commandments don’t hold me back, 
like some ball and chain.
They break the chains that are holding me back now.
These Ten Commandments are Ten Chain-breakers.

These commandments start with the words,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
God did not bring his people out of the house of slavery,
only to put them in bondage again.
This so-called Decalogue, or “Ten Words” 
are the words of a liberating God.

Every one of these Ten Words is intended
to break the chain that would otherwise bind us,
were it not for this gracious and life-giving Word.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“You shall have no other gods before me,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of endless and hopelessly divided loyalty.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
God breaks the chain that binds us 
to the trivial and profane,
and robs us of the beauty of the sacred.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of compulsive busyness,
of constant, anxious, and life-draining pursuit.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“Honor your father and your mother,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a shallow, root-less life of individualism,
and a loss of heritage.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“You shall not kill,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of reciprocal, and escalating violence.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“You shall not commit adultery,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of insecurity and lack of commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.

When we hear and believe the liberating Word,
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of empty self-interest,
to a false and perverse notion
that life is all about me and my needs.

You see, these Ten Words are not sterile commands given from on high
by an angry, fearsome God trying to whip people back into shape.
They are the gracious gift of a loving, liberating God—
a God who not only wanted to break the physical chains
that bound them in Egypt, as slaves,
but who also wanted to break the chains that bound them within,
and kept them from freely entering into a community of
love and freedom and justice,
into a free and right relationship with God and each other.
The Ten Commandments are a gracious gift of love.
We have often lost sight of this fact.

The Psalm writer did not lose sight of it.
In Psalm 19, our call to worship,
the psalmist is practically giddy with delight in the law of God,
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul . . . 
the precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart . . . 
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.”

Hebrew worship never lost sight of the law as sweet and precious.
The practice continues, even here in the synagogue in Harrisonburg,
that the Torah—the scroll of the law—
is carried through the congregation,
and all the congregants reach to touch it, to kiss it,
with a deep affection.

God’s law is good stuff!
It’s sweet!
Sweet enough to eat!

The law of God gives us a home, a place of belonging,
a place of security, of knowing who we are and whose we are.
The law of God gives a safe and secure home to freed slaves.
The God who brings us out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery,
welcomes us into the house of love and security and freedom.

Thanks be to God.

You know, we get to choose to whom we are bound.
We can be bound to a way of life shaped by a false story,
that chain us to all kinds of bondage.
Or we can be bound to the One who speaks truth and beauty
and abundance—
which leads us into a life-giving, chain-breaking freedom.

Hymn of response: "I bind my heart this tide"

I bind my heart this tide
to the Galilean's side,
to the wounds of Calvary,
to the Christ who died for me.

I bind my soul this day
to the neighbor far away,
and the stranger near at hand,
in this town, and in this land.

I bind my heart in thrall
to the God, the Lord of all,
to the God, the poor one's friend,
and the Christ whom he did send.

I bind myself to peace,
to make strife and envy cease.  
God, knit thou sure the cord
of my thralldom to my Lord!  Amen

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