Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Question and an Invitation

Sheepscott Community Church March 15, 2009

Exodus 20: 1-17
1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
John 2: 13-22

A Question and an Invitation

When Ted Smith read the first verse of Genesis 17 last week, I was electrified by it: “I am God almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” I had read the verse several times in preparing for last week’s service, and had rolled right over it as though I were cutting grass, in a hurry to get to the other side of the yard and get the job done. What was the difference on Sunday? I attribute it at least partly to hearing someone read the word aloud. It’s like poetry in that sense. Poetry on the page, the text of poetry, gives its own satisfaction. But poetry––and much of scripture is poetry–– is an oral art and something happens in the air when it is spoken. It happens between and among people and between the Spirit and a person. That’s the first explanation I gave myself about my visceral reaction to that line: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” I wanted to do that. I wanted to walk before God and be blameless.

Another piece of the explanation is that the word itself, declared by God to Moses, is true. When we hear the truth spoken, our spirits respond, whether or not we fully understand what we are hearing. I remember falling in love with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins when I was a young undergraduate. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but the rhythms and the sheer beauty of the arranged words captured my imagination and engendered exultation when I would read the poems out loud or hear them read.

Bear with me as I cite another example of hearing truth in poetry. I taught units of poetry to grades K-8 at Whitefield School for probably 10 years. In one of the third-grade classes, the kids were assigned to write a poem. I took their poems home and was blown away by two written by a child who was labeled as “trouble.” He was set off by himself on one side of the room because he didn’t pay attention well and would distract the other students. He spent a lot of time looking out the window and was labeled a dreamer. I suspect if he were in school now, he would be labeled ADD, attention deficit disorder. He had written his poems as blocks of text, rather than in the arranged lines of poetic form. I marked the poems to show him where the natural breaks were and looked forward to talking to him about them the next week.

With undisguised excitement, I spoke to the teacher at the beginning of class about the boy’s work. “Yes, yes,” she said somewhat impatiently, “you see? He can’t even spell.” I was taken aback and handed out the poems, telling that child how good the poems he had written were and explaining briefly about lineation. I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to read his or her poem, and his hand immediately shot up in the air. He came forward and read one of the poems, which I’ll read to you now.

The snow covers an area so great
It’s like God making the bed of reality
And the dust of an old chair falling upon us.

In the only instance of this happening in all the years I taught poetry, those third graders broke into spontaneous applause for this poem by one of their own. I have always thought that was a response to the truth that they recognized in the poem, a truth that is at the heart of any artistic expression.

Just so you won’t be be left wondering about the second poem, I’ll read that as well.

A Sleigh Ride

The snow glistens in the sunlight
As the steel-runnered sleigh
Glides through the blanket
of silky white powder of winter
Leaving a trail of beauty.

Needless to say, that student shone in the weeks of poetry class and it was a joy to see him get recognition from his peers for good work. Why do I mention this example? I think there is a correspondence to my response to the first verse of that reading from Genesis––and perhaps yours as well––and the Whitefield third graders’ response to one of their fellow student’s poems. We all knew we were hearing the truth and were thrilled. That’s why they applauded.

That word of invitation from God to Moses in last week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, “Walk before me and be blameless,” is a perfect reading for Lent. And speaking of perfect, that’s actually the earlier translation of the word that became blameless. I think sensitivity to the idea of perfection in a human being, and the inevitable striving and failing that that gives rise to rendered the second translation more livable, shall we say.

But the challenge of the invitation was laid before all of us last week, and now we come to the giving of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Old Testament reading from Exodus. In trying to follow the Ten Commandments, we can begin to practice walking before God and being blameless. Actions follow thoughts and words, the words like the cement poured into the forms that will harden into the foundation of our actions into habitual behavior. I would argue for memorization of the Ten Commandments, of prayers. These form the foundation stones for our lives.

But before we delve into the matter of the commandments, let’s go forward to the New Testament reading from John, where we might get some help to hear those commandments. Jesus’s turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, calling them to task for making his Father’s house a den of thieves, running after them with a scourge, the high drama of the scene, his burning anger––not an easily forgotten picture of the so-called gentle Savior, the one who is foreseen in the servant sayings of Isaiah, including vs. 2 and 3 of chapter 42: “He will not shout or cry out,/ he will not raise his voice in the streets./ A bruised reed he will not break,/ a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Ha. I’d say we were dealing with another side of the Savior here, and it is a side we need to pay attention to, to learn a lesson from. Jesus was after all a whole human being. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” In relation to this incident, his disciples remembered after his death and resurrection the scripture, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” When those who witnessed what he did asked him on what authority he did that, he said that if they destroyed that temple, he would rebuild it again in three days. They mocked the assertion, not understanding that he was speaking about the temple of his own body and not about the center of worship in Jerusalem.

We’ve heard this figure used before––the body as a temple. As with Christ our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, God, and as such, taking responsibility for full understanding of the idea, we have to indeed treat them as temples of God. It can be easier to take better care of our dogs’ and our cats’ diets and bodies than our own. Easier to make good choices for them. Commendable even, but if we tell the truth of it to ourselves, it’s easier perhaps because we don’t have to deny ourselves what we like, what we want to have or do. Our virtue can be projected out there, on our animals, on our children, not in here, where the real work of caring for the temple of our God-given bodies is done.

I am suggesting that we need to hear this word that Jesus spoke about raising up our own bodies, not in quite so dramatic a fashion as the resurrection, but after that fashion nevertheless. What am I talking about? It’s Lent. Say no to something that you know is bad for you and yes to something that you know is good for you, for the glory of God and for your own health’s benefit, whether that’s a food or drink, whether that’s an action or behavior. Try to hear God saying, “Walk before me and be blameless.” The thrill that word was for me, as the week unfolded after hearing it, was that I wanted to be blameless. It wasn’t as though it were a breast-beating, woe-is-me kind of thing to do. I wanted to walk before God and be blameless.

I note, especially for the hedonists among us, one of whom I spoke with when preparing this sermon, the emphasis is usually placed on fasting and abstinence during Lent. While that discipline can be good for the body and the soul, and the idea of self-denial is attractive to some people, just the mention of it can cause others’ levels of anxiety to rise precipitously. Therefore, I must note as well that perhaps more important than these seasonal physical disciplines are the spiritual disciplines of forgiveness, that includes not seeking revenge, not wishing ill on the other, not being jealous, and so on. Surely unforgiveness, vengefulness, spitefulness, and jealousy, along with blaming, slandering, adultery––the list really is endless, isn’t it?––surely these are like the money changers in the temple, only here they are desecrating the Body of Christ, who we are.

I am suggesting that if we internalize the picture of Jesus driving out the moneychangers from the temple, if we translate that word into driving before us those habits and actions that prevent our approaching the altar of God in anything like a complete fashion, if we drive them before us with a cord formed of will and desire, we can make ourselves more amenable to the voice of God. And what does the voice say?

I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God;
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God;
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy;
Honor your father and your mother;
You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor;
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Of the sins catalogued in the Ten Commandments, the first three have to do with our relationship to God, and the other seven with our relationship with the community. They are social sins, viz., they constitute sins against the community. When Jesus was asked by a teacher of the law what was the most important commandment, his answer was, “’Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” That compresses everything in the Ten Commandments into two: Be right with God, and you’ll be right with your neighbor.

What happens when we fall down on the job, when we fail at carrying out our best intentions, when we sin against God and the community, the temple which is the Body of Christ, which is all of us together as one in Christ? Well, it’s a good idea to tell somebody about it. That happens most often informally with a trusted friend who can hear what a jerk we’ve been and not give up on us, which is the way Jesus is. The listening friend is in the place of Christ, of Jesus. We are Christ to and for one another.

I offer all this to you as a kind of question and invitation. The question? At this time of Lent, in terms of the first commandment, what does your strange or false god look like? If you ask, you will be shown. The invitation? To allow the Spirit of God to drive out, break down, free you from whatever that false god is to make way for the revelation that is your particular wider understanding-into- appreciation and adoration of what and /or who God is.

Your gaze and your listening, of eye and ear, might fall on fullness, emptiness, darkness, light, forest, water sounds, cats’ eyes, centers of blossoms, a child’s spontaneity, the beauty of a well-made book. God is everywhere in everything: that’s the point. And Jesus wants us to keep our temples and our acts clean, our hands clean, so that our lives can enjoy and reflect that infinitely faceted omnipresence of God and take the further step of embodying that understanding and acting out of it in the world. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment