Readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22
The Ten Commandments are not a lawn ornament or wall hanging to display our piety. The Ten Commandments are not a bludgeon for the “haves” to use in their privilege on the “have nots”. The Ten Commandments are not a list of dos and don’ts that will guarantee things go well for us, that we’ll have a good job and 2.5 kids. If this is where we put our energy—in seeking certainty, or worse, in self-justification, in earning our way, in proving ourselves better than another, we are surely lost.
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified[i]
Our attempts to differentiate ourselves from others, even if by our goodness will not last. It is, after all idolatry at its core—a violation of the first commandment, and I would venture to claim, the central cause of the decline of the church’s authority and vitality today.
I suspect, in fact, that this is precisely what Jesus drives from the temple in John’s gospel.
You see, the other gospels have this story of the cleansing of the temple too, and they put their own spin on it. But John is the only one that puts it right up at the beginning of his book. And you may have noticed some other peculiarities too. The violent energy of the story that seems present in the other gospels is missing here. Jesus seems to sit and prepare that whip almost as if it is an object for his meditation, but it doesn’t seem that he uses it like a weapon. It seems to be more of a tool for restoring order, a shepherd’s crook, for guiding things back to their proper place, for setting things right and supporting this story of a new and seemingly “foolish” way forward being set into motion.
There’s this great little phrase in the story that almost slips right by. Maybe you noticed it too. Listen again: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.”
So, let me ask you, who did Jesus drive out with that whip?
No people were apparently harmed in this story. I suspect that no animals were either. I get the sense instead, that they are given the day off and they are given their life back, along with those who are hungry for something deeper than a transactional relationship to a vending machine God.
I think the link that this story in John has with the Exodus telling of the Ten Commandments is found in the middle commandment, the one that gets the most real-estate. Now this is a tougher one: Did anyone notice which of the commandments that is?
In the English, the last six commandments—honor father and mother, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet—those six altogether get a total of 82 words. The commandment about keeping the Sabbath—that gets 11 more all by itself, 93 words in total. In the original Hebrew the difference is even starker: the last six commandments—41 Hebrew words, the Sabbath commandment—55 by itself.
We might almost get the idea that being attentive to rest matters, that attending to a balance of good work and good rest may just have something important to do with remembering, with re-balancing our lives, a shepherd’s crook of sorts, guiding us back to wholeness and sustainability, and ultimately, to God.
It is no surprise to us, of course, that these commandments have functioned throughout our history in all sorts of ways—some more beneficial than others. But I would suggest to you that what they are simply is an invitation to have your life changed. Giving attention to them invites us into practices of reflection that offer us a way from death to new life, these commandments like this font and this meal and this word live among us as signs to be followed, engaged, practiced, thereby inviting us to ways of living after the way of Christ that take us from death to new life.
Our practice matters. Saying “no” to some things allow us to say “yes” to others.
So when we hear the commandment against idolatry—I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, have no other gods before me—what if we understood this as a “no” to our modern American claim that we can have life without limit, as if all the resources of the earth are just there to be consumed by us—what if we understood that as idolatry and found our way back into this exquisite creation simply as one of its mutually dependent creatures? And what if, instead, we imagined that a life filled with thanksgiving, lived within our limits is our way to the fullness and peace we crave?
And “you shall not kill.” This is surely a hard one. You can’t take a step without killing something. It is not an easy question to divine what this means in the complicated world of politics and religion and progress. It takes time to reflect and consider, and parse out the effect of our lives as we live them. And isn’t this a good practice, after all?
And adultery—what if it meant to remind us to take joy in the goodness of sex and the awareness of limits and the joy in faithfulness in our relationships? What if it led us to uncover the holiness of life in relationships that honor all in community?
And you shall not covet—what if joy and life within limits, joy in simplicity and generosity were taken as our baptismal way from dying to our excesses and living in a way that sustains us over the long haul on this particular earth?
And you shall not steal—to whom do we understand the earth and all within it belongs anyway?
And all these held beside Sabbath, which takes up so much real estate in this list. When we hear the commandment to remember the Sabbath, for example, we might imagine an invitation not to closing all the stores on Sunday, but to a willingness to have our lives changed. It invites us to consider—especially on this day that we’ve lost an hour of sleep—that there just may be a problem with a life without rest. All work and no play may actually fill us with destructive tendencies for our own humanity and for the earth. And much of the instruction here, of course, has to do with those who are affected by our way of life—sons and daughters, livestock, the immigrants who live in our land and work our fields. In what ways do we deprive others of the Sabbath rest they need?
I hope you will respond to our invitation to a day of rest this coming Saturday. We have a stunningly beautiful space reserved for us alongside the shore of Lake Washington. It is waiting for you to come and relax a while, to devote some time to nothing other than your well-being and to the grace that awaits you. I wonder what better you would do with your life for this one day.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple has been keeping us company this season of Lent. In a defining scene of the book, one of the protagonists who has suffered much at the hands of others, lays down a Sabbath challenge—that taking time to give thanks, to notice beauty may just be essential to our well-being, to being human—even and perhaps especially in the midst of our deepest disappointments. The scene becomes the basis for the title of her book--The Color Purple. That God gets ticked off if we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it: “People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see [God] always trying to please us back.”
What if Sabbath and its invitation to rest meant blessing for us, and also for our neighbor, and what if it even meant rest for the creatures of the earth from our endless assault on it? What if it were simply the way in which we grow and bloom? Wouldn’t that be good news? The wisdom of God? How will you give yourself to this today and in this season of Lent?
[i] 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, excerpts.
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