Lent 3 B

Pastor Barbara Thrall

In the name of God, whose deepest love is for you and me. Amen.

There they are, the Ten Commandments, the foundation of western morality, a part of our liturgies for centuries, especially in Lent.  Yes, those ten laws Moses brought back down from his mountain-top experience with God have stood the test of time.

Though the wording may have changed.  Some years ago my husband, Ed, found himself teaching a Sunday School lesson on the Ten Commandments to a group of kids ranging in age from about 6 to 12. Mindful of their difference in maturity and development he had decided to re-word some of the commandments to make them more “relevant” or at least understandable to the younger children.  The lesson was going along fine and everybody got the parts about loving and honoring God more than your toys, for instance, and they could grasp the parts about being respectful toward your parents.  They even understood that not killing things maliciously was worth considering, even if it involved your siblings, but when it came to the commandment about adultery, Ed had to get creative.  He explained to the children than this commandment had to do with married people, and that, as he said, “Not committing adultery – that means keeping your promises.”  One boy took exception.  “That’s not what my Dad says adultery means.”  So much for delicate distinctions.

Yes, the Ten Commandments, however they are interpreted, boil down to the basis of our Christian ethics, and have at their heart the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves. They are laws, rules for both how we are to get along and also thrive, living into another day with one another as brothers and sisters, all of us under God’s care.  God was pretty smart about all this, knowing that if he called a people into covenant, they would need a road map for how to continue to be his, and to share the gifts they have been given

The trick, of course, was that over time the laws got solidified, and expanded, and pretty soon everyone was thinking about the laws and right behavior and catching one another out, and the spirit of the law fell away.  The law became the intimidating guide by which righteousness and justice were measured, and woe to the one who violated those laws.

It was into this mix that Jesus came, and he was pretty clear in his ministry and in his preaching.  The laws were made for Man, for Humanity, not the other way around. You saw it when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and he spied a woman who had been bent over, unable to stand, for 18 years.  He healed her on the spot and the synagogue leaders had a fit.  “Jesus, What are you doing?  It’s the Sabbath,” they cried.  “You know we don’t do any work today, and that was work. You could have waited until tomorrow.  After all, she’s been suffering for 18 years.  What’s another day?”   But Jesus was adamant – “It’s done.  This woman has suffered enough. Not another day, not another minute.  The Sabbath is made for our good, and this is a good thing to do. This is what God wants.  Liberation, and it doesn’t matter what day it is.”

So that idea, that people and their liberation are his mission, is the reason Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and was so disturbed by what he saw happening in the Temple.  Animals everywhere, with their sounds and smells and products, to put it delicately.  Tables with men working, changing currencies for the visiting pilgrims, exacting extra fees in the process.  Throngs of customers, rather than worshippers, trying to fulfill the law and completely missing the point.  They had come to the Temple, to worship Almighty God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and they were being tied up in minutea.  What Jesus encountered was such a distortion, such a violation of all that was holy, that he went a little crazy and took action, even violent action.  The disciples saw all this and remembered, a line from scripture –  “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

But was it really that simple?  Was it really that Jesus was offended on God’s behalf for what was happening in and to the building, or was it something more than that?  Shakespeare was not the only one who thought of a House as not just a building but rather as a family, a dynasty, a body of people whose bonds were strong and enduring.  The houses of two families run into trouble in “Romeo and Juliet”, for instance. Today we speak of the House of Windsor, the House of Representatives, groups of people who are related.

I think the zeal, the outrage Jesus was displaying had to do with the betrayal of and by humanity, the people, us, in that situation long ago. Getting everything just right before you went into church, if you will, left out the worship of the heart, the tremendous worth of the person God had made who stood there at that moment, the ones for whom Jesus was prepared to endure the cross.  People there in the portico of the Temple taking advantage of one another, not good.   In God’s relationship with us, through his covenant to be our Lord, and by way of the laws he provided, God wants to know and be known.  And God wants us to maintain a righteous relationship with one another. It’s all part of God’s plan, as Bishop Michael Curry so often says, to turn the nightmare life is for some, into the dream God has for us. The 10 Commandments can help do that, but it’s really about the people and their value in the life of God.

You know that a week ago a group of us gathered at the MLK Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield to present the congregation with a gift for their restoration fund.  I mentioned this last week, that their pastor had slipped me a thank-you note when we were assembled, and she was most gracious in expressing her gratitude.  I heard again from her this past Tuesday in an email and I thought what she wrote would make you smile.

When she and her congregation were together this past Sunday at their Zoom worship, they talked about what had happened the day before, for them.  The pastor writes, “I want you to know how touching it was that you all made the trek to Springfield on Saturday.  Of course, we feel extremely blessed by your financial contribution, but your presence meant so much to us.  On Sunday during fellowship time, one of our members expressed how deeply supportive it felt to have churches connecting with us in person.  It was a sentiment felt by the rest of us.  We are so excited about the opportunity to fellowship and worship with you all in the summer.  I know that God will bring about something new and very much needed within our collective church ministries as a result of MLK’s temporary setback.  Thank you for embodying Jesus Christ to us.”

The members of MLK Community Church were moved by our willingness to go and be with them.  It was not lost on them that it would have been much easier to put that check in the mail and be done with it, but we actually went to Springfield in a cold rain and stood side by side, and as you heard, that meant a great deal.  Those folks believe us now when we say we would like to get together some way this summer, because we visited their House, their home, and they welcomed us.

People making connections with other people.  People becoming one in Jesus Christ.  This is why we visit and pray for each other, God’s people connected one to another.  This is why we do outreach in the community, trying to meet various needs and lessen the suffering for some of our companions on this journey.  This is why we gather to worship God in a church, or on a screen, or on the lawn, as the people God has created us to be in this time and place.  This is the justice and the love Jesus was seeking, to put people first and to use the commandments to help us live together faithfully in God’s name.

This Lenten season, we are being called to ask ourselves what is important to us, for what we long, for what we want. We are finding that laughter is one of those things and that’s good.  For Jesus, it was always about the people.  In him, we are bound, one to another, in our common humanity, and to God in our covenant with God in Jesus Christ.  May we walk in the light of God’s truth, and share in the joys of what it means to be the people of God.  Amen.

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