Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
The end of Mark’s story seems to suggests that Jesus went to Jerusalem alone. While there was a parade of people following him, they only did for so far. They stopped at the city gates. Jesus goes by himself to the temple, not to occupy it, or to cleanse it, but just to look at it, to observe it. And then alone he leaves the temple and Jerusalem to retire with the Twelve who seem to be in Bethany.
How did Jesus end up alone? Where did all those people go who came out to cheer him on? One minute they’re waving leafy branches shouting Hosanna, then the next minute they’re gone.
And what about the Twelve? They left their families and businesses behind to follow Jesus. For the last couple of years, they’ve been by his side; clinging to every word and witnessing every miracle. Now, as Jesus’ days are coming to an end, they are missing in action. Or course they weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus. The sick and the demon possessed looked for him in order to be healed.
And then there’s the Pharisees and Sadducees. They followed Jesus hoping to entrap him. He was becoming a bit of a thorn in their side – questioning their motives and understanding of God’s will. They followed him to get ammunition to bring him down. And eventually they will succeed.
Of course, the Roman’s were always close by, guarding their empire. It was rumored that Jesus was a revolutionary leader, the one sent by God to overthrow Caesar and restore Israel back to its former glory. Though he had no armed militia, he was still seen as a threat to their way of life.
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the last time, all eyes were on him. People stopped whatever it was they were doing to follow him. And to cheer him on. They shouted “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
But for no reason given, they were gone as quickly as they showed up. And I can’t help but wonder why.
Is it because the stakes are higher now? Jesus is no longer in the villages and open country of his home province. This is the capital and the seat of religious and civil authority, where chief priests and elders have real power. Maybe the people are afraid of what might happen to them if they are seen with him. To what extent the crowds supported his ideals is not fully clear. But they did...up to a point. This makes me wonder why you’re following Jesus and how far are you willing to go to do so?
Is it to have your sins forgiven? If so, you might remember from last week God made a covenant that said, “I will be your God and you will be my people. I will remember you sins no more.”
Maybe you follow Jesus so you can get into heaven when you die? But Jesus made it abundantly clear that the Kingdom of Heaven has already come to us. This is why he said, “Repent.” Let go of your old ways. Be present and participate in the kingdom now. We do that by following the way of God like Jesus did.
When I asked Kathleen this question, she said, “I follow Jesus because he’s the source of the things that I believe are true and good in the world. Sources I can draw from to be who God has made me to be.”
Jesus is not just inviting us to participate in God’s kingdom, but to grow and thrive in it as well. Jesus is our savior in that saves us from ourselves. His is a new way that will require losing your life in order to save it. To be a follower of Jesus means you choose to be his student; applying his teachings to your life. It means imitating his way of love and self-giving for the sake of the other.
And this can be dangerous. People love to take advantage of our goodness. But that’s on them. We have our call. As Jesus put it, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It will only be a matter of days that the 12 will understand the full extent of what this means.
They’ve spent much time with Jesus listening and observing. But it was always on the other side of the cross. Only after the resurrection will they fully understand what it means to follow Jesus. And follow they did – faithfully continuing his work of spreading the good news of God’s redemptive love and grace everywhere they went.
Imagine what that entails, especially today. There will be rejection and humiliation. The emotional toll of tireless giving over to the needs of others without a guarantee of receiving anything back. This was never supposed to be easy. Saints like Mother Teressa struggled to live up to the call. I barely touch the surface...but I try.
The Romans were right. The way of Jesus is revolutionary. It’s a threat to a way of life that builds empires on the backs of the weak and poor. It’s an assault on the systems that takes whatever it wants, often by force. It confronts those who twist the laws and bends the truth in their favor so they can keep their power.
To follow Jesus means the will of God will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It means allegiance to God supersedes one’s allegiance to Caesar or country. It means standing up to injustice, opposing violence, and practicing equality. This is tough to do now, just as it was back then. The disciples faced opposition as strong as any Jesus himself had to endure. Still, they risked it all to follow him. But will we?
Eventually the people singing their sweet hosannas would slowly retreat; returning to their daily lives. One by one, they will drop away. Who could blame them? When Jesus rode through their neighborhoods without an army behind him, they gave up hope. They feared they didn’t have what it takes to stand up to a powerful empire. Like seeds planted on rocky or shallow soil, their faith never really took root.
By midweek, the numbers of followers will dwindle back down to 12. Then to 11. By the time the cock crowed three times the next morning, only Peter will be left – watching from afar as Jesus’ fate is sealed. By sunset of that day, Jesus will be alone, once again, only this time on a slab in a tomb.
We are blessed to know what comes next in the story. This tomb is only temporary. It’s nothing more than a gateway to show the world what God can do, and what God is willing to do, to be in relationship with us. We are blessed that God loves us so much that God is willing to take on death and defeat it for us.
But this blessing is also a burden. A burden of knowing what following Jesus entails. Just as he gave instructions to his disciples to continue this mission of love and redemption so too are we called to walk as he walked and to talk as he talked.
It means to show patience when people annoy us, to be kind when they reject us.
It means to help those who reach out to you, without judgment or shame.
It means to demand justice when the law is being twisted and abused.
It means to welcome people who are not of your tribe, or political party or religious affiliation to celebrate the fullness and diversity of life with them.
It means to love like it’s the only thing that makes your heart beat and come alive. So why would you risk your life to follow Jesus? I can’t really give you an answer, only my opinion based on what I’ve learned by struggling over the years.
In this final pilgrimage, Jesus began his walk to the cross. In doing so, Jesus will face for me our greatest fear – death. Through Jesus, God has freed me from death so that I can live – truly live - without fear. To live without fear is to live with God’s shalom – God’s perfect peace. Possessing this peace I can proclaim the good news by simply living into it for others to see.
I haven’t perfect this yet. But instead of getting down and giving up, I simply show up every morning and try. With God’s peace on my heart, I have hope. I have a purpose. I have a reason to get up in the morning do what Jesus did every day. Because day after day Jesus continues to live through me.
To follower Jesus is no small choice. But one we are called to make. It’s hard because you’re not just choosing him, you are also choosing to stake your life on living in imitation of him. To follow Jesus is to choose the steadfast, unyielding, courageous commitment to living eternal Will of God — no matter the cost. That means, to make God’s love the center and the standard of everything you do.
This is dangerous. This is revolutionary. This is life giving. But this is the way of God, who through Jesus Christ calls out to you, “Come, follow me.” The choice is up to you. To follow or to walk away.
But if you say you follow Jesus, you must ask yourself how far are you willing to go?
Let us pray:
Loving Lord of all life, you were willing to bear it all by becoming one of us, to lead us back to your heart. Through your Son, you have shown us the Way. And by our willingness you have opened our eyes to see it clearly. We are grateful to be given this chance to live into your light and love, and to partake in the mission of Christ - to bring new life and hope and peace into the world. By the power of your Holy Spirit fill us with all that we need to truly follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus, so that your will be done...not for our glory but yours and yours alone.
Fifth Week of Lent A New Heart
March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34
I want to begin today by asking you a serious question. If you could get a do over on one part of your body, what would you chose? Straighter teeth? A smaller nose? Maybe longer legs to be a few inches taller. I’m torn between having hair or having better eyesight.
I ask this because I think if given the chance, most of us would go under the knife to change how we look before we’d do the hard work of changing something that actually matters. Because let’s be honest, it’s easier to change one’s outer appearance than it is to change what’s on the inside.
As we continue our look in the Old Testament at the covenants God made with Israel, we see again and again how God works to renew our hearts. Today’s words are from the prophet Jeremiah, who has spent most of his life warning God’s people that their idolatrous ways would only lead to judgment being heaped upon them. And when it came, it came with a vengeance.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and dragged their king and religious leaders off in chains. Everything they believed was important now laid in waste and God’s people are faced with a serious crisis. Not only had the lost their power and prestige, but they felt as if they had also lost their God. Or at least the assurance of God's faithfulness and security. Instead of shaking his head and saying, “I told you so,” Jeremiah offers his community these words of hope.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
Despite the infidelity and idolatry, despite the corrupt kings and priest who twisted God’s laws to exploit and promote their own agenda, despite all the ways that people have broken faith with God, God does not break faith with them. This is the reoccurring theme we’ve been looking at throughout Lent. God remains faithful even when we aren’t. God is always there, even in our deepest despair, creating life out of death.
Although we are getting closer to our Easter celebration the good news seems still so far away. Thus, Jeremiah’s words offer us a sense of comfort and encouragement. He reminds us that God does not give up on us.
Whether we are worthy or not, God takes the initiative to pour out unmerited favor upon us. Because of God’s covenants of grace there is always hope when we have faith.
But even though we have the assurance of God’s grace, there is also the reality of what happens when we don’t live into what God is calling us to do. For example, when we choose to live in love we are more likely to receive love back. But the same is true when we choose to withhold justice or be inhospitable.
It’s safe to say the people of Judah faced the consequences of their actions. Now their hearts and faith are shattered like their beloved Temple. Again, Jeremiah could have stuck his nose in the air and said, “It sucks to be you.” Instead, he encourages God’s people by telling them hope is on the way. A new covenant is coming. One that is not engraved in stone for all can see but none to follow.
God is changing the game – engraving God’s law inside them. From the least to the greatest, everyone gets a new heart. And to celebrate this divine promise, God does the unthinkable. God wipes the slate clean and forgets their sins forever.
In his book Tattoo’s on the Heart, Greg Boyle shares stories about the many lives that have been transformed by God through his organization Homeboy Industries, which he created to give criminals and gang members a second chance at life. One such story is about a homeboy struggling to quit his life of violence. Boyle tells the young man that in trying to leave his gang, he was acting with far more courage than he’d ever shown shooting at enemies in his hood.
But what catches this young man off guard isn’t his courageousness but God’s willingness to wipe his slate clean and remake his heart. When Boyle told him that God loved him no matter what this homie blurts out, “Damn, G…I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.”
Why does God do such crazy things like forgiving the unforgivable? Or loving the unlovable? Perhaps God knows that the only way we can truly live into God’s will is to have our hearts free of the anger, guilt and shame that traps us in the cycles of sin. The best way God can do this is by giving us a new heart one that is tagged with a tattoo gun filled with grace.
This is why I love these words from Jeremiah because I love the idea of a God tattooed heart. It’s like God wants to be a part of my life forever. And takes the initiative to make sure that our relationship happens. God has set up shop in everyone’s heart…no matter who you are or what you’ve done.
Why does this important for us? Because no longer are we defined by what society deems worthy, or by a particular religious affiliation or a set of rituals we practice. We are defined solely on the merits how we let God’s law of love shine from our hearts.
This is exactly what Jesus did. He made love his priority - touching the untouchables, eating with sinners, and raising the dead. When questioned about purity laws, Jesus’ response was, “It’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them but what comes out.”
You see our words, our actions, our faith, all come from the same place – from a God-etched-tattooed heart. Not only is this the place where God’s grace flows into us. It’s also the place where it flows out.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that God comes to be with us in the center of life. What is surprising is God is willing to risk it all hoping our actions will reflect the best of what God requires of us – to act justly and kindly, promote love and peace, and to walk in sync for the building up of God’s kingdom.
As much as we say we love God, we still struggle with the notion of doing the will of God. Don’t let that get you down. The world has never made this easy. Just ask Jesus. As the world threw the worst at him, his heart remained true to the law of love placed in him. Jesus kept his heart free of revenge, hatred or anger despite having good reason to feel that way.
But I imagine if we made the effort to live out God’s love in the world like Jesus did, then maybe it might get easier. Maybe we wouldn’t need to steal, cheat, or lie. Or make our opinions more important than someone else’s needs. Maybe we’d take better care of creation and the health and wellbeing of all the people in our communities.
Imagine the impact on the world, or this pandemic, if we lived like Jesus did. There would be no reason to withhold resources out of fear of not having enough.
For the love that God has etched in Jesus is etched in you, and everyone else. In harming or denying someone else’s heart, you are also harming and denying God.
Pascal reminded us that, “God wants to motivate the will more than the mind.” That motivation is initiated by God’s grace given to us through Christ Jesus. In him, we are drawn into this new covenant that was signed with his blood.
But Jesus does more than save us. He shows us how to do the same for one another. He gives us real world examples on how to live – fully and faithfully – so our heart beats in perfect sync with God’s.
While our world is more concerned with outward appearances, Jesus directs our attention inward – to seek and find the divine heartbeat in every person you meet. Jesus said the way to do this is to love them as if you are loving him.
Whenever you feed the hungry, welcome a stranger, care for the sick and the poor, or help someone trapped in whatever prison they are in Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it also to me.”
God doesn’t care what you look like or how you are put together any more than God is concerned about what you’ve done in your past. You may not like the way your nose bends, the curls in your hair, or the way you have treated people in your life. But God loves you, nonetheless. You are perfect with your imperfections as my wife likes to say.
It doesn’t matter how much money you make, or how popular or famous you are. God is only interested in your heart. And what you do with your money and popularity. For its in our actions that people will come to know God and believe.
We know that God knows our heart because God is tattooed in it. God has done this so you can share God’s grace and love with a world that hungers and thirsts for it.
This can be a scary endeavor for some of you to do. But as you leave here today, remember that Jesus not only revealed his divine heart to us, but in doing so was able to reconcile us back to God.
He is our common example, the model from which we learn to live truly and rightly. Following in his footsteps, we can endure, we can triumph, and we can change the world. Reshaping and remaking it in God’s image. And not in our own.
Let us pray:
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Fourth Week of Lent New Cure
March 14, 2021 Numbers 21:4-9
We are in our fourth week of Lent, and I hope by now you’ve figured out that this season is more than a time for self-reflection. It’s also a time where our faith can feel vulnerable or like it’s being put to the test.
And what a test it’s been. Yesterday was the one-year mark since COVID pretty much shut down the entire world. With nearly 530,000 American lives lost, it’s hard to think we’ve done well on this exam.
What I do know is God has been present through it all - delivering on the covenant promises not to destroy the entire earth again - be it a flood of water or disease.
We’ve spent the last three weeks in the Old Testament, looking at the covenants God has made. Today we’re going to examine at how the covenant plays out as we look at a passage from the Torah that Jesus quotes when he reveals something important about the covenant God made through him out of God’s love for the world.
It comes from the Numbers 21:4-9.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
As our Lenten journey moves closer to the High Holy week, this odd and down-right icky story reminds us to always watch our step. You never know where snakes will pop up.
This story reminds me of my least favorite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is led to a dark tomb that holds a clue to the treasure he’s seeking. When he drops a torch down in the cavernous hole, Indi discovers thousands of slithering, slimy snakes!
I can’t tell you what happens after that because my eyes are always tightly closed. But over the hissing sounds, I hear him complain, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
I imagine the Israelites were saying the same thing during their great exodus from Egypt. I’m not sure exactly how long they had been searching for the land that God had promised them. But the longer they wander, the crankier they become. By this point in the story, they began to get restless and whinny. They’re tired walking and sick of camping. They k’vetched about the lack of food and water. And many wanted to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.
For a while, God remains steadfast, putting up with their incessant complaints; sending them food and water, and a fiery light to guide them. But when they griped about these gifts too, God just seems to snap. And sends them something to really complain about…deadly snakes!
You might be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God.” But I get it. I’ve taken many road trips with a minivan full of restless kids kicking the back of my seat screaming for snacks and asking over and over again, “Are we there yet?” If I didn’t hate snakes so much, I too might be tempted to let a few loose in the car.
But I too can be a bit whiny...so I too can sympathize with the Israelites. Their complaints seem legit. They’re stuck in the wilderness – with no clear direction or end in sight.
The only choices they have are to follow this God who pushes their faith by challenging everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked. Or return to the brutality of slavery in Egypt which offered some semblance of consistency and predictability even if it was sure to kill them.
If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the only thing certain is how uncertain life can be. It’s a truth that makes us all uncomfortable. And only puts us on edge.
This uncertainty is too much for God’s people and they begin to crack. They want the way life used to be. They’d rather face the devil they know than to do the hard work of faith that God is requiring of them.
Who could blame them? How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait to go back to the way life used to be.” We want our churches open, our restaurants teeming with people, and our streets gridlocked with commuters. We want the old normal, the devil we know how to navigate.
While COVID has made us feel a bit lost in the wilderness, I believe God has given us this time not to test our faith but to show us a way to rely on it so that we might begin to see the world differently. Through God’s loving eyes.
This pandemic has also shown us how little control we have in life. We like to pretend we do. The problem with this is that when things don’t go as we want them to, we make sure God gets an earful. And in return, we get a bunch of snakes.
I’ll admit, it seems like an odd way to show love, but so too are the covenants God has made. But again and again, God is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with us. God continues to come into our mess in the most unusual ways to rescue and redeem us.
There was something about being bitten repeatedly by venomous snakes that helped the Israelites see the error of their way. They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf. If there is one thing they’ve learned about their God – and we can take this to heart too – is when you cry out, God listens. And God reacts, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. “Everyone who looks upon it shall live.” Because of his faithfulness, Moses does what God asks. And immediately all the Israelites who died are given new life, and all who were bitten are instantly healed.
It makes me wonder if the American Medical Association adopted this image as their logo to reminds us that sometimes our flesh and bones have to be ripped open or broken before we can be made right again.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” He knew all too well, how hard life can be. Sometimes it feels like the snakes are getting the best of us. But this Jewish story reminds us that no matter how bleak life might seem there is always hope. Because out of great love for us God never gives up on us.
Which takes us to Jesus, who in the Gospel of John says: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up.” You see, Jesus is God’s covenant promise, incarnate, meaning in the flesh.
By setting our eyes on him, we are healed and given new life. Like Moses, Jesus is one who intercedes for us...even when it feels like we don’t deserve it. And the reason for this is stated in the next verse when Jesus famously declared God so loved the world, that God was willing to give his only begotten Son to die for us, just so we can live. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
Think about it, from death comes life. From the cross of Christ we set our gaze on comes our healing and salvation. And boy do we need it now! It’s been a hard year of suffering around the world. From businesses to homes to schools, COVID has affected everyone. Compounded with the toxic and venomous attacks we’ve endure socially, politically, and even spiritually…it seems like the snakes have won.
But here’s the good news. God gave us the antidote in Christ Jesus. His cross is our assurance that the snakes don’t win. God does. For God so loved you and me that God was willing to risk it all on a cross to save us from the deadly venom of violence, self-doubt, jealousy, greed, addiction, and the deadliest of all venom – fear.
Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death – nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear’s venom. It corrodes faith; cuts off our pathways for loving God and one another; and when left untreated, it hardens the heart and soul. Fear tempts us away from God’s promise and tries to return us to the devil we know.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, now is time to take inventory of all the ways fear afflicts how we live God’s love in the world. Ask yourself how fear is stopping you from loving others. Or standing up for justice and equality. How is it keeping you from forgiving a friend, or caring for someone who is unable to care for themselves?
In Christ, God casts out all fear and puts love on full display. Jesus taught us how to live God’s love faithfully and fearlessly; in a way that pushes us to see the world differently.
From death comes life. As we fix our eyes upon the cross of Jesus, may we never forget that the cure for the snake was a snake. And the cure for all of human life is the sacrifice of one man’s life. Again and again, God upholds this covenant, even if it seems a bit outrageous and weird.
As you go out into the world, facing the uncertainty of life, remember this wherever God’s love is displayed, the snakes can’t win.
For God so loved the world...
Bartlett, David L., and eds. Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Helmer, Ben. Snakes. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2018/02/11/snakes-lent-4-b-february-18-2018/ (accessed 03.09.2018).
Jolly, Marshall A. https://modernmetanoia.org/2021/03/01/4th-sunday-in-lentb-god-so-loves-the-world/ (accessed on 03.11. 2018).
Third Sunday of Lent New Rules
March 7, 2021 Exodus 20:1-17
This week the Texas governor bucked the federal government’s guidelines to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus by lifting the mask mandate and has allowing businesses to run at 100% capacity.
He did acknowledge that wearing a mask in public is a good thing. But he’s left it up to individuals to police themselves, and not the government. This has made some people in his state very happy. And others very upset. Whether you like it or not, the mask mandate isn’t a federal law. So he’s not doing anything illegal. But his moral obligation might suggest otherwise.
As you know, laws are put in place to ensure order and to protect public safety. When followed they help the community thrive and move in the right direction.
We have federal laws that tell us what side of the street to drive on, or how fast we can go down them. But driving is more than simply obeying the speed limit. You must also be mindful of those around you. Being a considerate driver is an act of kindness. It’s a sacrifice that’s easy to make. Just because the law doesn’t force you to allow someone into your lane, you know that when the car next to you has its blinker on, you have to make a moral decision to let them in or not.
Many of us follow the law because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t. We might get fined or go to jail. But there are those out there who find ways to skirt around the law – especially if it benefits them.
I mention all this because we are continuing our look at God’s covenants. Agreements made by God that benefit us. As we learned in the stories of Noah and Abraham, we have God’s assurance that if we fail to perfectly obey the terms of the covenant, God is still bound to them. God’s word is good, even when we are not. But that doesn’t let us off the hook or free us to run amuck.
Like the lines on a basketball, we need things like laws and rules that will help guide us in this game of life. Today reading gives us a look at the terms of God’s covenant. And it’s up to us to determine how it applies to our relationship with God and with one another.
Read: Exodus 20:1-17
I have told the story many times before about when I decided to fast from the 10 commandments for Lent. It was a joke I made while I wasn’t very sober. Hey, it was Mardi Gras after all. But the next day, on Ash Wednesday, I decided to proceed as planned. But with a slight modification. Instead of giving up all ten, I would choose one to focus one. So I fasted from killing.
It seemed like an easy goal since I don’t have the stomach for murder. But it didn’t take me long to realize how guilty I was - killing people’s ideas, dreams, hopes, and desires. This exercise was truly eye-opening and rewarding for me, despite my failures I had along the way. By the time Lent was over, I noticed something had changed in me. I was more inclined to listen to other’s opinions and welcomed their ideas.
As silly as it sounds, not killing showed me how to live. It opened my heart and transformed my behavior for the better. By looking at this commandment not as law but as a way to live faithfully, I began to deepen my relationship with God and others. And isn’t that what these ten lessons are designed to do?
When they were given to Moses, the Israelites were newly liberated slaves wandering the wilderness without much direction. They needed more than Google maps to find the promised land. They needed a moral compass to guide them there.
Remember, they had spent the last 400+ years in Egypt. The only laws they knew were Pharaoh’s laws. The only gods they knew where his as well. So to help them understand who their God was and how they were to live accordingly as God’s chosen people, they were handed these 10 Teachings, as rabbinic traditions call them.
For some reason Christians like to call these words “commandments.” But I think this makes it harder for us to see them for what they really are: teachings; lessons for a good life. They have been passed down through the generations to guide into a real relationship with the One who hears our cries and comes to our rescue.
However, “these practices are not kindly suggestions,” as Barbara Brown Taylor warns. “They express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. [And] those who ignore them do so at their own peril – not because God is standing over them with a hammer, but because these teachings describe a way of life.”
This is not to say we won’t sneak in some work on the Sabbath or disobey our parents from time to time. Let’s face it we’ve all broken one, if not all, of these teachings at least once in our life. But just as God remains faithful to the covenant, the bible tells us that we too must be faithful to the Lord. If we are wise, we’ll use these Ten Teachings as a road map to move us in this direction.
That’s why it’s important to practice them daily, and not just during Lent. We will not always get it right, and that’s alright. These teachings aren’t meant to shame us or to be some kind of litmus test to find perfect Christians. They’re a gift from God – forged by a covenant and fashioned by grace. They are designed to help us understand who we are and were God wants us to be. That’s why we often make Lent to be a spiritual journey of sorts.
It’s why we are encouraged to practice certain spiritual “disciplines” that give us a better understanding of where God wants us to be - in God’s heart. Despite their stern-sounding name, spiritual disciplines are more about deepening our spiritual growth than performing some religious mandate. For example, when I was discerning my call to start to start this new church, I practiced the spiritual discipline of self-examination. This required sitting quietly with God and mediating on the places God had revealed my calling to me.
You might be searching your soul for answers to some big question, maybe you’re feeling lost or directionless, or you just want to get to know God better. I’d encourage you to try practicing a discipline like prayer, or meditation, or intentional reading God’s Word to see how the Holy Spirit moves you to act.
As you might already know, I like to encourage people to use Lent as a time to fast from something that is keeping them from feasting on the goodness of life. By fasting and feasting on these Ten Words, I now have a clearer picture of who I am. And who I’m called to be -the visible presence of God’s love in the world.
It’s no surprise that Jesus would use these teachings as the moral compass of his ministry. Everything he did was based on these words which he boiled down for us: “love God and love each other.” Jesus knew the two cannot be separated. He risked his life, and broke a few laws, to show us how to make love a part of our everyday worship of God.
It’s like this: If you say you love God, then you can’t help but love everyone made in God’s image.
If you make God’s love your priority, then you won’t be tempted to worship an idol like a politician or a bank account. You won’t covet what others have. Or take that which isn’t yours.
If you refuse to use God’s love in vain, then you won’t cheat on your spouse or business partners, you won’t lie or bear false witness to cover up your wrongdoings. You’ll care for your mother and father.
If you remember to take a day of sabbath rest, you might discover the whole purpose of what a life in God’s love is all about – to enjoy the splendor of God’s glory sharing food and fun with family and friends.
These ten teachings are, as Joslyn Schaefer describes it, “like an umbilical cord, tethering us to what nourishes us, energizing us so that we can discern and accomplish God’s good purposes for our lives.”
While laws are important and need to be obeyed, they will always be, second to love. Jesus confirmed this when he touched the leper and healed the bleeding Syrophoenician woman. Again and again, Jesus broke purity laws to teach others of their moral responsibility to the wellbeing of God’s children.
If Jesus were among us today, I know he’d wear a mask. No doubt about it. He’d do it not out of fear of getting sick, but as a way to remind us that God's love puts other people’s needs before his own.
Jesus showed us how loving God and one another is the way to live a faithful life in the fullness of God’s righteousness and grace. When we use them as blueprints to shape our lives in the image of Christ, things change. The blind see, the hungry are fed, justice is restored. People and communities are redeemed and returned to the God who loves us enough to risk it all for us.
Lent is a time to shape and mold your heart in the image of Christ, so that you can bear witness to God’s unconditional love and grace as living witnesses of Christ’s church.
There’s an old joke about a Lutheran minister who, when bidding farewell to his rabbi counterpart says, “Keep the faith my friend.” And the rabbi reply back, “Thank you, now go and keep the commandments.” As you might imagine, the two go hand in hand.
Faith means we must trust God. When we trust God enough to follow God’s direction, practicing love becomes second nature. So we are called to keep these teachings close to our heart where God’s covenant with us was first made. As our love for God grows stronger, we overcome the fear that stops us from loving our neighbor.
When we love one another, we no longer judge people unfairly, or exclude others who are not like us. When we love one another, we no longer desire to kill or to cheat or horde our resources from those less fortunate. When we love one another as God first loved us, then we put the health and wellbeing of others above all else.
As Jesus showed us, when we come together in love, the hope and promise of God’s covenant comes alive. God is love. And love is life. So as you leave here today, I encourage you all to go and live that life abundantly.
Let us pray: God of covenant love and grace, we are thankful that you are ours and we are yours. We are grateful for the life and the direction you have given to us in these words, and more grateful for Jesus who showed us how to live them out with each other. It’s in his name we pray for his peace to be among us, and your Holy Spirit to be within us - shining through us in all that we do so that others may come to see your love and give you glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Schaefer, Joslyn Ogden. The Law. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/the-law-lent-3-b- march-7-2021
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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