A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian, Boise, Idaho
March 11, 2012
We are a people who like lists.
Here are the titles of some books I found in a bookstore:
“10 Simple Steps to Lower your Cholesterol!”
“10 Spiritual Steps to a Magical Life”
“10 Steps to Beat Depression Now!”
“Simple Steps: 10 weeks to Getting Control of your Life”
“Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness”
I suspect that we know that depression can’t be tackled in 10 easy steps. I suspect we know that a magical life is not 10 steps away. What does that even mean?
But we love our lists. We love to be able to say, “if you follow these rules, then you are a good Christian, a good American, a good employee, whatever.”
This week in the news, a county chapter of one of the political parties tried to institute a list for candidates to adhere to before they could run for office. It was quickly shot down by the higher ups, but the best intentions of the people who came up with the idea was that if the candidates agreed to their 28 items on the list, then they would know they agreed with them enough to vote for them.
Even within our own denomination, we struggle with lists. There are churches leaving the denomination right now, partly because they feel we don’t give their list of what it takes to be a faithful Presbyterian as seriously as we should.
But here’s one of the problem with lists. They are never complete. We could come up with a list of what it means to be a Christian, but where would we end it? Because doesn’t our faith bring life to all different aspects of our lives?
I was running a before and after school program at an elementary school when Justin and I were first married. I had to make a list of rules and expectations to hang in the cafeteria. The list I inherited said things like, “no running in the cafeteria”, “no screaming”, “put your games away before you get out another game”, etc. So I was trying to work with that list and it just kept getting longer and longer and longer. And that is no fun for adult or child. So my supervisor helpfully advised me to approach the task differently. Listing specific behaviors like “no running with scissors in the cafeteria” then gives kids license to run with scissors in the school hallways, or run without scissors in the cafeteria.
And so she suggested I make a different kind of list. And it went something like this. “Respect yourself. Respect each other. Be a good neighbor.” And then, whenever Nathaniel, beloved child of God, was about to use his blunt scissors to give Susie a haircut, I could say, “Nathaniel, how does that behavior fit with our rules?” And he would reluctantly put down the scissors and go find something else to do.
People try to use the 10 Commandments as a top ten litmus test.
10 magical steps to being a Christian!
And while the 10 Commandments should be instructive in how we live, they are much more than that.
They are a reminder of the Covenant that God established with the people. And when we remember the Covenant, the crazy idea that God has chosen to be for us, that God has chosen to partner with us as God’s people, it should evoke in us a sense of gratitude. Because God has chosen to be our God not because of our worthiness, but because of the mysterious grace of God. And that should evoke our gratitude. That should call us to ask, “how can we respond to such a gift?”
And the 10 Commandments give us an idea of our response. God spoke all those words to help us live together in Covenant before God and with each other.
And we have the image of those words, written on stone.
But we know that stone is not the most convenient medium for communication. When I send Alden to the store to buy groceries, I write the list on a piece of paper. Stone tablets would not be helpful. When I write directions down for a stranger who is lost and trying to find their way, I don’t use stone tablets. Even Moses had other options back in the day.
And yet, they wrote them in stone.
And not so he could throw them at people and hurt them if they weren’t following them correctly. God gives us the law to convict us, to instruct us, to help us live life together. But not so we can use the Law to wound each other.
And yet he wrote them in stone.
Because that is how people would mark treaties and covenants. Stone is how you write something that is permanent and that you want people to remember. The shopping list I send with Alden does not need to be remembered once he is past the check out line.
All of the words that God spoke to Moses when the 10 Commandments were written down, however, should be remembered. And not so we can tell others how to live. I mean, you can post them on the lawn of the courthouse, or on your own personal lawn, but only if you intend them to be there to change and guide your own behavior.
One of my professors tells the story of seeing someone mowing their lawn around their 10 Commandments yard art. The great irony, of course, is that the person was mowing the lawn on a Sunday. “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work”.
And the other day I was returning a Bible at Barnes and Noble for exchange when the salesman stopped to remove the anti-theft sticker in the Bible.
“We have to add anti-theft devices to Bibles. They are our most stolen merchandise,” he told me.
“Really? Bibles are stolen more than any other book? That is not a good statement about the state of American Christianity”, I said.
“No, no it is not,” he replied.
“Thou shalt not steal“.
We seem to enjoy using our lists to help other people live, and seem to be less interested in having them help us know how to live.
It is better for God to be the one writing in stone. We tend to need to edit. We like to make qualifications.
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy*–(*unless you have a really busy week ahead, and then it is okay to work on the Sabbath).
“You shall not steal*–(unless you really need it and they have enough and wouldn’t miss it anyway.)
“You shall honor your mother and father*–(unless they embarrass you in front of your friends or expect you to unload the dishwasher).
Some of you may have heard about the controversy at the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial in Washington DC. Rather than put an entire quote of Dr King on the side of one of the carvings, they put a truncated version of a quote from one of his sermons.
The memorial’s chief architect told NPR that the quote was “a paraphrase of the original statement based on design constraints.”
Could you imagine God explaining the 10 Commandments are so short because they were a “paraphrase based on design constraints”?
Anyhow, in order to correct the quote, they either have to shave down the entire face of the stone and start again. Or else they have to go back to the quarry and get another piece of stone to attach to the carving.
It leaves me thankful that stone carving is not my job.
In our New Testament reading, Jesus and his opponents have a small conversation about stone carving. Jesus, in a moment of zeal, has just kicked the money changers, and turtle dove salesmen out of his Father’s house, the Temple.
And when his opponents ask for a sign, he tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.
But his opponents know that working with stone is hard work. Making something permanent takes time. And so they react with some incredulity.
“What? Are you kidding? We’ve been building this for 46 years and it isn’t finished yet! And do you know how much harder it is to get permits now? And the committee to select the carpet for the fellowship hall just, finally, agreed on the color for the carpet. They’ve been meeting for 45 of the 46 years! And you think you can rebuild it in 3 days?!”
But we, of course, know that Jesus isn’t talking about the building. He’s talking about his Body. And the resurrection. And in one of those rare moments where the gospel writer forgets where he is in the story, he makes reference to the resurrection. “After Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” We’re still in chapter 2, for goodness sake, and he’s already giving away the ending!
And this is another reason I love John’s gospel. Jesus turns over tables, causes a ruckus, and then makes these outlandish claims that make no sense to his opponents. This Jesus will not be contained. He will not be easily explained.
But he challenges us to reconsider what is permanent.
We can carve things in stone, but it will erode. We can build large temples, but they will crumble. But only God, through the work of Jesus, can build something that is permanent. The Covenant that was evoked in the carving of the commandments is still in place today. The person of Jesus of Nazareth did not erase the Law, or replace the Law. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. (Matt 5:17)
I invite you to consider that this weird text from John might be one way we see how Jesus fulfilled the law. He embodied the Law, and the Covenant, writing it not just in stone, but with his very body on a cross.
We are about halfway through Lent, our time of preparation for Holy Week. I invite you to be like the disciples, about whom the text says this:
“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
What does it mean to us that Jesus died as he did? What does it mean to us that the tomb was empty on Easter morning? What does it mean to us that he referred to himself as the Temple?
If you don’t come up with easy answers to those questions, that is good. Because this is the mystery of our faith.
But if the 10 Commandments are one way for us to know how to live in community and with God, how does the crucified and risen Jesus show us an additional way how to live in community and with God?
It is much harder to look at Jesus and come up with a “10 Easy Steps to Be the Perfect Christian” list. Because Jesus defies our categories. He eats with the people we would pass by on the street. He turns over the tables of the money changers and turtle dove sellers, even if they are there to sell things that were found on lists in Scripture. He destroys our very understanding of Messiah by charting a course that would take him straight to the cross. He defies our very understanding of death by rising from the tomb on Easter morning.
So we look to the 10 Commandments to remember that God is FOR us and to see how to live in community. We look to Jesus and see the same thing—a reminder that God loved us so much that the very son of God came to live among us, showing us how to live. So, fight the tendency to limit your faith to lists. Instead, use the lists to transform your participation in the communal life we lead, and look to the list defying life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to see what God’s love really looks like.