Sunday, March 08, 2015

"The Ten Challenges"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 8, 2015

Year B: The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

“The Ten Challenges”
            First, congratulations on remembering to set your clocks ahead one hour, though in the age of cell phones this is becoming less of a big deal.
            But, you come to church an hour earlier only to get two doses of the Ten Commandments – first as part of the Penitential Order at the start of the service and second in our Old Testament lesson from Exodus.
            You don’t hear much about the Ten Commandments these days except when politicians want to hang them in public places.
            One time I saw an interview that Colbert did with a congressman from Georgia who was advocating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in public schools and courtrooms.
            Near the start of the interview, the interviewer asked the congressman, “What are the Ten Commandments?”
            With a deer in the headlights look, the congressman replied, “You mean all of them? Um… Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Um…I can’t name them all.”
            Absolutely classic.
            Now, I’m hoping and guessing we could do a little better than that congressman from Georgia – especially maybe during Lent when we’ve been hearing the Ten Commandments at the start of our services and, hopefully, reflecting on the ways we’ve fallen short and trying, with God’s help, to change our ways.
            But, I’m guessing that most of the time we don’t think about the Ten Commandments very much at all.
            And, I think I know why.
            The Ten Commandments are very, very, very hard.
            It’s hard to keep God at the center of our lives.
            It’s hard to avoid making idols since we live in a world that pretty much insists that we should idolize celebrities and fame – a society that drives us to idolize money, professional success, and even family, health, and personal security – all good things, for sure – but not meant to be worshiped.
            It’s hard not to lash out in anger, misusing the name of God.
            With so many distractions and demands in our fast-paced world, it’s hard to carve out time for prayer, reflection and rest. Instead, many of us just keep working or keep watching TV, or surfing the web or texting or whatever.
            It’s hard to offer the right amount of devotion and care for our elders.
            I’m hoping it’s easy for us not to murder, but it’s hard to avoid killing someone’s spirit with an unkind remark or a nasty piece of gossip.
            It’s hard, sometimes, to remain faithful to those we say we love.
            It’s hard, sometimes, to be truthful - and it is definitely hard not to covet what others have.
            The Ten Commandments are very, very, very hard.
            And, since we call them “commandments” they’re also scary, leaving us to wonder and fear what happens to us when we break one or more of these commands, as we all have.
            So, it’s easier just to push them out of our minds.
            It’s easier to talk about putting them up in schools without actually dealing with what they contain.
            A few years ago a friend of mine gave me a very interesting book called, The Ten Challenges.
            It’s a re-thinking of – and reflection on – the Ten Commandments written by Leonard Felder, who has written quite a few books on various psychological issues.
            Right at the start, Felder points out, correctly, that the Bible does not call the Ten Commandments “commandments.”
            Instead, the Bible calls them “The Ten Words.”
            He suggests that rather than calling them “commandments” we would do better to call them – and to think of them – as challenges.
            They are Ten Challenges given to us by God who loves us and wants to be known and loved by us.
            They are Ten Challenges given to us by God who loves us and wants us to live full and rich lives – to live lives of love and joy and faithfulness and service.
            They are Ten Challenges given to us by God who loves us and, fortunately, is quick to forgive when we fall short.
            But, none of this changes the fact that the Ten Commandments – the Ten Challenges - are still very, very, very hard.
            And, we can’t face the challenges of life – can’t face God’s challenges - on our own.
            Which is why the Church is so important.
            Unfortunately, like the people at the Jerusalem Temple long ago, we can get wrapped up on the things that are important  - but are not most important.
            Happens to me all the time!
            For the Jewish people the Temple was the center of the universe – the place where, in a sense, God lived.
            It was the place where Jews came to make ritual sacrifices of animals – sacrifices that were made by the priests who operated what was essentially a huge barbecue pit.
            In this system, the people selling unblemished animals for sacrifice were providing a necessary service.
            And the moneychangers were also providing a necessary service, since Roman coins bearing the image of the emperor couldn’t be brought into the Temple.
            So, the Temple was a holy place but also a busy, noisy, bloody, and smelly place.
            And then along comes a Jesus, overturning the whole place, angrily reminding everyone that this is God’s house, that this is a house of prayer.
            Like at the Temple long ago, here in church we can easily lose focus on what’s most important, getting too caught up in things that aren’t necessarily bad, but are not essential.
            Fortunately, every once in a while we get an opportunity to be reminded of what’s most important for the church.
            One of those opportunities will be the visit of our bishop who will be here at St. Paul’s two weeks from today.
            In preparation of his visit, Bishop Beckwith has asked us here at St. Paul’s to reflect on our own unique Christian mission in the church, in our families, or in the world.
            I hope we will all take time to do just that – to reflect on our mission, on why St. Paul’s is here, why we are here, why we come here week after week.
            I’ll tell you what I think. For me, a big part of our mission is to support one another as we face the very, very hard challenges of life.
            And a big part of church’s mission is to support and encourage each other as we respond to God’s commandments – God’s challenges – and to lift each other up when we fall short – to remind each other of God’s quick forgiveness and full mercy.
            So, I guess, unlike that congressman from Georgia, we can probably name more than three of God’s commandments.
            But, more than just naming God’s commandments, our task is to take up God’s challenges for us in our everyday lives – and to come here to pray, to support each other, and to receive the love and forgiveness of God.