A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY
Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015
You shall not bow down to them or worship them…
We are moving forward through Lent on our way to our baptism. Most of us have already been baptized, but we can reflect and learn to understand it more, and to live our baptism more truly. We join again with the catechumens, those people who have since the very earliest church prepared by study and prayer before their baptism. It is not just our children who should learn the stories of scripture and the traditions of the church, but all of us.
The catechumenate was at one time so long and arduous that people with great depth of faith and commitment were still preparing for baptism when called upon to make their ultimate witness to Christ. Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua was a woman from northern Africa, who is the earliest Christian woman whose own writings have come down to us. She was a catechumen and she describes her own baptism while she was in prison, just before she was sent into the arena to be killed by wild beasts. (I talked about Perpetua in sermons twice last year)
Our lesson today from the book of Exodus is the Ten Commandments. As catechumens, we do well to have those memorized, or to re-memorize them if we have forgotten. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 & 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer.
The Ten Commandments are the beginning of the Law that God told to Moses on the Holy Mountain. The people of Israel had gone through a lot already before getting to the base of the mountain: hundreds of years of slavery, the conflict with Pharaoh, the hurried retreat across the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, grumbling, manna and quail to eat, more grumbling. And they reach the place where God will give them the law, shape them, and give them direction as a people in the midst of their difficulty – and their grumbling.
As I was looking at the lesson for this morning I noticed something. I actually copied the text of the lesson into my word processor so I could check the word count. There are 10 commandments, but over two-thirds of the text is dedicated to two sections. I’m sorry, to those of you who are also parents, the one that says “Honor thy father and mother” is not one of them, that gets only 7 percent— important as that is. The two sections that take a lot more space start with:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything…”
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy …”
The rest are just commands, but these two get a lot of extra attention. Why?
The first says to focus only on God, the God who liberated Israel from slavery, not to find other things to worship or to bow down to, only to the one, true, living God. The second is to remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy, to not work or make anyone else work. These commandments focus on reverence to God. Not just on acknowledging that God is there, but in living a life in God’s presence, dedicated to God, and letting that reverence for God shape your life. The Holy and Living God deserves more than passing attention, but a life shaped around his love. But this is not to let pious conduct excuse us from responsibility in the world, the focus on reverence for God holds us to those other commandments: honor your parents, do not murder, commit adultery or steal. Don’t bear false witness against others or covet the things that are theirs. In other words, live like a responsible neighbor and be attentive to the way God loves them.
The Gospel today is also about reverence for God. Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, disrupted the money changers’ business and told the dove vendors to take them out of the Temple. In the Gospel of John, this is set early in Jesus’ ministry. It parallels many of Jesus teachings and actions, like healing on the Sabbath. Mostly, Jesus made the observant religious people uncomfortable.
We religious people believe in reverence to God, but we want it to be convenient and under control. The vendors there in the temple made the worship of God a more or less convenient transaction, and they did okay by it too. They got to be good people, being associated with the temple worship, and they made a nice living, God was easier to approach and under control.
But Jesus was not under control, he was free. He was free to listen to God and to follow God. He makes his disciples free to listen, to be reverent, to be his followers. So often, the religious response is to react—that breaks the rules! It’s safer if we just stay in the same channels we’ve worked out! God is dangerous and our procedures are what you need to be protected from God!
On the other hand, Jesus indicates that God is indeed dangerous, and we need to stop working out ways to avoid being responsible to the living God.
This weekend we remember that 50 years ago, some people stepped out of the track of adhering to the safe procedures that had been established, and stood up for the right to vote. In Selma, Alabama, bloody Sunday began by their being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They witnessed to the truth, and they suffered for it. In fact that suffering was the truth. And the truth continues—some things have changed substantially, yet so much has not changed. Some laws and political structures have changed, but there has been no automatic change in human hearts, good will has not flowed and made people, either in Alabama or New York, comfortable and trusting with one another. Witness for the truth is a long-term proposition and it does not end with things being easy.
The reverence for God, in the desert with the children of Israel, or on the way of the cross with Jesus, or worshipping here in the Bronx is likewise a long-term proposition. We have no easy answers or one-time fixes. What we have is the fierce love of the living God, who is here with us, supporting us each day.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen