The Third Sunday in Lent
Watch the Sermon Here
How are you doing? I mean really. How are you doing?
You can’t answer, so let’s pretend you asked me that question. Well, I’m doing ok. You know, this has been a long year, but the kids are so lucky to be in person at school, Jim got to get away for a short break, my mom got the vaccine, and I’m amazed at how resilient this congregation has been. So overall, I’m doing ok. Well, that’s great, you respond. But you just told me about a bunch of other people. How are you doing? Oh, I say. Well, let me think. Today I’m pretty good, I guess. I had my favorite muesli this morning, I went for a great run this week, I’m reading some interesting books, and we’re really enjoying ‘Ted Lasso.’ Oh, and I’m getting the vaccine too! But my knee’s a little sore, and I have this itchy spot, and Thursday night I was feeling pretty blue, and I’m really behind on my to-do list, and…wait, are you still listening? Hello?
In the dominant culture around us, we more often think of that question, ‘How am I?’ as being all about me. ‘Wellness’ – which has become something like a $52 billion industry in this country – is understood to be about how an individual person is, physically, psychologically, spiritual. But that’s not quite the same in other cultures. How ‘I’ am is tied up with how ‘we’ are. Our health and well-being depends upon our community’s health and well-being. I’m ok if you’re ok, and I’m less ok if you’re not. We might live in that kind of cultures ourselves, even though the other is all around us – church can be one of those cultures, and certain families, and certain ethnic groups, all can be places where ‘I’ am more closely tied up with ‘we.’ Which can sometimes hit up against the dominant individualism in a complicated way. Am I solely responsible for me? Or am I also responsible for you, and you for me? It’s one of our dividing-line questions in this country, politically speaking – but it’s also often divided within each one of us. Especially when we bring God into the equation.
Today’s lesson from Hebrew scripture, the Ten Commandments shows us one of the tension points. Although this covenant is between God and God’s people as a community, the commandments (in the original Hebrew) are addressed to the singular individual. Each one of us is supposed to be living this way in order for all of us as a community to be in relationship with God. How I live affects you – how you are affects me. But we’ve more often turned those commandments into personal rules to follow – or not – and God into a scorekeeper that marks it down, whichever we choose. We’re missing the boat here, obviously
Throughout this Lent our Hebrew scripture readings all deal with covenant, from Noah to Abraham, Moses and on from there. ‘Covenant’ is the biblical word for relationship, the relationship of mutual support and accountability that exists between people, and between us and God. The first two Sundays gave us God’s side of the relationship. With the promise made to Noah after the flood, God pledged to love us no matter what, to be faithful to us even despite our unfaithfulness back – an awesome gift of truly unconditional love, love that sees us clearly and truthfully and yet embraces us all the same. Last week the reading was about God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, that they would be the ancestors of a great nation and that God would be the God of all those people, the people Israel – again, an unconditional covenant, not requiring anything in return from the people. You could think of the covenants with Noah and with Abraham as the covenants of a loving parent with a small child – no matter what you do, I will still love you.
The Ten Commandments, however, take our relationship into deeper waters. Now the covenant is being made with Israel through Moses, and our response is required. These commandments give the essence of the Law, the Torah, setting forth the terms of the relationship between God and God’s people. Now there are expectations for us to follow.
You could in a very broad way read the Ten Commandments as rules, mostly in reference to what not to do. Thou shalt…thou shalt not. But when you look at them more closely, that interpretation breaks down – they’re more statements of expectation than rules. Let’s pause for an interesting bit of trivia: How many of you could recite the Ten Commandments? [you can type them in the chat box]
It might be a little tricky – and not just because your memory is failing. The Ten Commandments fill 20 verses of Exodus – but pinpointing exactly how those 20 verses break down into 10 commandments is a little vague. Jews see it one way, Catholics & Lutherans see it another way, the rest of us see it still a third way. The first commandment might be, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ Or it might be that plus ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ The second commandment might be, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol.’ Or that might be part of the first commandment. The last commandment might be, ‘You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.’ Or that might be two commandments, the first, ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house’; and the second, ‘or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.’ So this set of commandments that Jews & Christians see as common to all of us, well, they’re not quite as universally agreed upon as we thought.
At any rate, you could, if you like, break the commandments into two sets – those that deal with how we relate to God, and those that deal with how we relate to one another. If the first commandment is simply, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, well, that’s not a commandment at all: it’s a statement from God of his identity and history with his people. Like the earlier covenants, there’s nothing for us to do – it’s simply about who God is. God is the one who has saved and cared for us: God is the one who brought Israel out of slavery, freeing people from bondage. God is the one who created everything that is.
And having established that, our response in this relationship should be obvious: why on earth would we worship any other god, or use God’s name for our own deceitful purposes, or fail to honor God with our rest and attention on the Sabbath day? How we live shows whether we really believe who God is. Do we acknowledge what God has done in this relationship? Or…do we not?
And as for how we treat each other: God is making this covenant with the whole community of Israel, all of God’s people, not with a single individual. So it matters that the community stays healthy and intact – which is why the remainder of the commandments have to do with the basics of maintaining a stable and safe society, where people are not killing or cheating or stealing from one another, not threatening one another with their desire for what others have. Again, it should be obvious: If we live in community with one another, why would we want to mistreat each other? How you are affects me. Right?
If you want a story that illustrates all this, think for a moment of the gospel scene we heard today, of Jesus cleansing the Temple. He wasn’t just having a meaningless temper tantrum; he wasn’t trying to tear down the whole system of Temple worship. Moneychangers and vendors of animals for sacrifice were always in the Temple; that work was part of preparing for the ritual of the Passover. But something was askew in their practice – they were extorting money from the poor, and setting up barriers for people in their worship of God, and that was what made Jesus angry. He wanted to realign people’s relationship with God toward actual relationship as it had been from the beginning, back to the covenants God had made with Israel and all of humanity. He was leading us away from things that destroy relationship, things that allow the oppression and exploitation of other people, things that prevent us from knowing God’s love. That was, in truth, the whole sum and purpose of his life: to restore relationship for us all. Which is not the same as evening a score, in case you’re still wondering.
So. It’s not just an idle question, in Lent. How are you doing?
How would you answer, if we could sit and talk about it? How’s your relationship with God? Are you being faithful, sustaining a truly monogamous relationship? Or are there other gods getting more attention these days? Your investments, maybe, or your social activism, or your sourdough starter or your hunt for a vaccine appointment? Does your time and prayer life reflect your love for God? Or is your spirit and your calendar dominated by other things? What’s the balance these days?
And, how’s your relationship with other people? does your relationship with others uphold and strengthen the good of all in the community? And that means the community of your family and friends, the community of the essential workers and store employees and coworkers you depend on, the community of the people in this city, the community of all humanity. Are you in right relationship with all, in your consumer habits, your care for others, your way of talking to and about others? Or is there something there that needs mending?
In other words, the Ten Commandments are not a lowest common denominator set of rules for each of us to follow – I haven’t murdered anyone today, so I’m doing ok. They’re a holistic picture of what right relationship looks like, with God and our neighbor. Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself – that really does sum it up. A pretty complete set of expectations for us – with implications for every bit of our lives, every day.
Lent offers an opportunity for a new start. Spring is a good time for a little evaluation, something like running a virus scan on the computer. To put ourselves before God, spread out all the pieces of our life on the table, and sift through it there with Jesus. To see what looks shabby and in need of mending, what’s gotten twisted and needs smoothing out, what’s jumbled up and needs to be put in its proper order. Imagine God asking that question: How are you doing? How would you answer, honestly? How might we all answer? May God give us courage to be truthful, and to remember how deeply we are loved, always. Amen.