Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA.

Exodus 20:1-171 Corinthians 1:18-25
Psalm 19John 2:13-22

Purified and set free

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.”

A preacher who tackles today’s readings will probably take one of two roads.  One road is to consider how these readings relate to current debates in the public sphere.  For instance, if the Ten Commandments provide the ethical and moral foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, should copies of the Ten Commandments be placed inside public schools and inside American court houses?  How do Americans honor the Ten Commandments while also respecting the Constitutional separation of church and state?  How should particular Commandments be applied to issues of public policy?  How, for instance, do we interpret the injunction “You shall not murder” when we consider the moral complexities of abortion or assisted suicide, of capital punishment or war? 

Today’s Gospel can be applied just as vigorously to contemporary social and political issues.  Here comes Jesus, charging through the temple with his whip of cords, maybe not hurting anybody but certainly making a good deal of commotion as he drives out the sheep and cattle from the temple’s outer area, pours out the coins of the money changers, and overturns their tables.  “Take these things out of here!” he cries.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16)  Jesus’ zeal to restore the purity of the temple and to put an end to the fraud and greed that corrupted its transactions surely resonates with an analagous moral outrage in our public life today, as American citizens — especially those in the Occupy movement — rise up to protest the corrupting power of money in our democracy, where Superpacs can unduly influence elections, lobbyists can pay bribes for votes, big banks can willynilly foreclose on homes, and corporate executives can award themselves lavish salaries and bonues while cutting out employees’ jobs.  Just as Jesus cleansed the temple and the religious practices of his day, so we followers of Jesus want to cleanse our economic and political institutions so that they more faithfully serve the common good.

So that’s one road to take in preaching on these texts — to focus on our yearning for political and social justice.  And I have to say: that’s one thing that has delighted me about this parish ever since I arrived here seven-plus years ago — you understand and feel the connections between your faith and the world beyond the church’s doors.  You and I know that Christianity has an outer dimension: we want to take part in the healing of the world; we want to turn toward the suffering around us and to do what we can to bring good news to the poor and to set the captive free (Luke 4:18).  We want to build a fair and just and sustainable society in which all people and all creation can thrive.

But the other road that a preacher might take is the road that I feel led to walk this morning.  What interests me most this morning is not how these texts speak to contemporary social issues outside us, but how they speak to our interior selves, how they speak to our hearts.  Today we’ve reached the midpoint of Lent, the very center of this season of self-examination and repentance, and I wonder how these texts can help us become more conscious and self-aware, how they can help us grow in wholeness and holiness, so that God’s love can flow more freely through our lives.  

Let’s hear the ancient and familiar words again: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  Please notice that our God is a liberating God, a God who wants to set us free.  God sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, and God sent Jesus to free us from sin and death.  The Ten Commandments, or, as they are often called, the Decalogue — literally, the “ten words” of God – are given to us by a “jealous” God — that is, by an impassioned God — who longs for our liberation.  What does that liberation look like?  “You shall have no other gods before me… You shall not make for yourself an idol… You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God… Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy… Honor your father and mother…You shall not murder… You shall not commit adultery… You shall not steal… You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor… You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:1-17).

If we meditate on these Commandments, they can attune us to the liberating presence of God.  Take, for instance, the First and Second Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol…”  When these commandments were first articulated, more than 3,000 years ago, they referred to the idols of ancient Palestine, the statues of animal and human figures that were worshipped as gods.  These idols no longer tempt us today, but surely other idols have rushed in to take their place.  What are your idols?  What sorts of things get in the way of your putting your ultimate trust in God, and God alone?  Maybe you find yourself scrambling for money or material possessions as your ultimate source of security.  Maybe you cling to work as your deepest source of meaning — and it’s no wonder, if you do: we live in an aggressive, fast-paced, and competitive society that tells us that our value as human beings depends on what we do and how much we achieve.  Maybe you are driven by the longing for prestige or popularity, to be well-known or liked.  Maybe you cling to a particular relationship to solve your deepest needs.  Maybe, in times of anxiety or stress, you turn to food or alcohol to give you the apparent comfort of escape.  Many of these things may be good or neutral in themselves — having money or possessions, having good work to do, being liked, and so on — but when they become our source of ultimate security, they become demonic.  They trap us; they make us small.  So it’s worth asking ourselves, in the words of the Twelve Step program, to what “people, places, and things” do we cling?  If we dare to look closely within ourselves, we will discover that we, too, are often idolators, we, too, can cling for dear life to one thing or another, and look to it, rather than to God, to keep us safe.  If God, the lover of your soul, were to approach you now and look at what you’re clutching so tightly in your hands, what would God invite you to let go?

Or take the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder.”  That seems simple enough: most of us haven’t killed anyone, so we think we’ve got this one handled.  But if we take a while to pray with this commandment, we begin to realize that God is speaking to our inner selves.  For there is much that we do kill every day.  We can kill time.  We can kill hope.  We can kill a dream.  We can kill someone’s spirit with a glare or by rolling our eyes, by keeping an icy silence or by uttering a word of contempt.  We can kill off parts of ourselves by stifling our longings or choking off our feelings with the ruthlessness of a hired gun.  What do you kill?  Where do you shut off the stream of God’s love, which longs to bring life and to enlarge our connections with ourselves and one another?

Or, as a last example, let’s consider the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  In its narrowest interpretation, this commandment means only that we do not lie on the witness stand; we do not lie in any legal proceeding against our neighbor.  But if we look into it more deeply, we begin to sense something much larger: God’s plea that we take care with our words, that we pay attention to what we say.  Whether we know it or not, our words have power.  A single word can harm or heal.  Words can alienate us from each other or can open us to each other.  But how easy it is to forget the power of words!  We live in a society in which we have learned to cast a sceptical eye at the promises made by political leaders, and to tune out the incessant half-truths of advertising that bombard us every day.  We live in a world in which words are often cheap.

But the Ninth Commandment reminds us of the true power of speech, the true power of what we do and do not say.  When my son was in preschool, he was taught not to use his fists to resolve an argument, but instead to “use his words.”  How are we using our words?  Do we use them wisely?  Are we caught up in one lie or a web of lies?  Do we use harsh speech?  Are we tempted to gossip?  Where do we slip into idle chatter, into trivial and vacant talk that has no purpose and that wearies our listeners and ourselves?  How clearly do we intend, as it says in the New Testament, to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), so that what comes out of our mouth is both loving and honest?  Have we discovered the joy of not speaking, and instead of listening, really listening, to someone else?

The Ten Commandments give us a tool for examining and amending our lives, and they can help us to grow in moral integrity.  If you want some company in the journey of self-exploration, you might want to join us on Wednesday nights during Lent, when some of us are meeting to talk about forgiveness and the places in our life where we carry burdens of guilt or feel trapped by resentment, bitterness, or the wish for revenge.  We want to set aside those burdens and to be released from those traps.  We want to open ourselves to the liberating and merciful power of God.  We want to be set free.  On Wednesday nights the topic of forgiveness is our doorway into an experience of freedom.

If I’m looking for an image that gives me energy to clean out my inner life this Lent, I’m going to try out the image of Jesus cleansing the temple.  Here he is, as fierce as a warrior, bursting into the temple of our selves to overthrow whatever is corrupt and deceitful and to chase away whatever is doing us harm.  Are we willing to welcome him in?  Jesus came among us to bring us life, and life to the full (John 10:10), and this Lent we have an opportunity to open our interior lives very honestly to the Holy One whose deepest longing is to set us free. 

It turns out that the two roads that a preacher can take in considering these texts eventually connect, for the more we open our interior lives to God – the more we allow God to love us, heal us, and set us inwardly free — the more wisely and effectively we will share in God’s great work of loving, healing, and setting free the world outside.

For this I want to say: thanks be to God.

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