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LENT 3, 03/15/2009

Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17, by James V. Stockton

 

Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 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-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 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; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

I'm a ‘do it yourselfer' sometimes. Sometimes, if I can figure it out, or find out how to do it, I'd rather do it myself. The ‘do-it-yourselfer' is the one who goes to the library and borrows a book, a ‘how-to' book, about, e.g. installing a new water heater; or learning Spanish, or refinishing furniture. ‘Do it yourselfers' are those enviable models of independence and self-reliance. Nevertheless, for all its laudable qualities, there appear to be deficiencies attached to the do-it-yourself ethic. Who would choose to turn themselves over to a dentist who was self-educated; to a surgeon who learned the skills of the trade quite on his own, or hers, because he or she is a ‘do-it-yourselfer'? Someone has suggested that the man or woman who claims to be a self-made individual usually serves to illustrate well the limits of unskilled labor.

Some things lend themselves easily to the ‘do it yourself-er.' Some things do not. These Scriptures from which we're hearing today, offer us insight into something that has every appearance of being a matter for the ‘do it yourselfer.' ‘God spoke these words...' we hear in the Old Testament reading. ‘I am the Lord your God...and you shall...[do this], and you shall not...[do that].' Many of us will recognize these as the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, with which we began our worship of God today. What's more, far beyond the Ten Commandments, in the passages that follow this one, God continues at length. Chapter after chapter in the book of Exodus describe the scores and hundreds or statutes and ordinances that make up the code of Law God first gives to the ancient Hebrews.

The people are being led to a new land. Moses has risen up in the land of Egypt, the land where the Israelites have been made slaves and suffer hopelessly under Egypt's king, the Pharaoh. Moses has risen up to challenge the Pharaoh, as ambassador for God, to demand that Pharaoh set God's people free. And Moses himself is leading the people, leading them on their journey to a new land, a journey to become a new people, a journey to freedom. It all sounds wonderful, until the people find themselves in the wilderness alone, wandering to...they know not where! Formerly slaves, suddenly they are trying to live as a free society, but they have little or no experience at it. How will they know what to do? How will they know how to do this? They are God's people, yes, but how will they know what this means for how they live out their new lives?

And here is God's answer, Here is God's ‘How to' book on being God's people. It's introduction is our Old Testament reading today, the Ten Commandments is its outline and its prologue. One way to look at it is, there are two things the people ought to do, and eight they ought not to do. ‘Remember the sabbath day,' the seventh day, and set it apart as the day of rest. That's good advice! A day for the people to remember that there are other aspects of life than constantly laboring to make it all happen the way they want it all to happen. And then, ‘Honor your parents.' Pay some respect to the ones who brought you into this world, since even if doesn't seem like it at the moment, they've probably learned a lot from the time they've been around, and they may actually know something you don't know; they may actually know better than you. ‘Honor your fathers and your mothers.'

And then there are some fairly common sense restrictions, that all seem basically to be about either not disrespecting God, or not harming one another. And there we have the basic outline, the step-by-step core instructions for the ‘do it yourselfer' on ‘how-to be God's people. And do you know that the people, in the beginning, are grateful for God's Law? They don't fuss over being told by God what they can do and cannot do. No, instead they regard God's Law as a special gift to them. God's Law! Nobody else has this! To be God's people, to keep God's favor, all they have to do is follow some simple and basic guidelines.

Simply following the instructions ought to do it, until they set out to do just that, and then discover they need another ‘how-to' book to tell them how follow the first one. ‘Just exactly how do we make sure we're not worshiping other gods? Just exactly how do we keep the Sabbath Day holy? Just exactly what is stealing, what is coveting, what is bearing false witness, so we can avoid all these?' ‘We want to be obedient and righteous, so, how do we get there from here?'

Writing in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey reminds us that as the experts on God's Law in Jesus' day, the Pharisees were able to define over 600 rules in God's Law, 600 ‘do's and don't's by God's command. But this did not suffice. They then added over 1500 stipulations and clarifications in order to answer the question of ‘how to do the how to' of God's Law. And as far as they were concerned, they were doing humanity a favor. To clearly define God's Law was to provide clarity and certainty to humanity's path with God, so we could seek and sustain righteousness. Do we want to be right with God? Down to the finest of fine points, here's how to do it. And following the instructions, then, we became self-made, self-saved, children of God. With the instruction book under the collective arm of humanity, are we not then equipped to live as God's very own, and so to make of ourselves better people, and of our world, a better place for ourselves and our children?

But then, we look at the world since God first passed along the Ten Commandments. And for all these 3000 years, humanity has struggled to know what it truly is that God calls us to do and how God wants us to be. And humanity finds itself doing the very things it claims to hate. The Apostle Paul's words give classic voice to the universal human experience of desiring to follow God, of, as he says, "delighting in the Law of God in [the] inmost self," but then finding something else at work within, that contradicts God's Law, and refuses to be tamed by it.

It's as though one follows all the instructions, all the instructions to fix the washing machine, all the instructions to program the VCR, all the instructions to build that bookcase, and somehow, it still doesn't work! We can try and try and try to figure out and to obey God's Law, and yet the better we come to know God, and to know the subtleties of God's Law, the more we realize how far, how very wretchedly far, we are from God's holiness.

And this is irretrievably the case with all humanity. And this is no small point. The ones who would claim to sell righteousness and religious correctness are the thieves whom Jesus throws out of God's house. They're stealing the people's faith, because the people are investing in something that doesn't exist. A sacrificed animal doesn't buy God's mercy. A sacrificial contribution to the coffers of the Church doesn't purchase a seat in heaven. Anyone who makes the claim is stealing the people's faith, stealing their desire for God, for rightness with God. They're stealing the people's hope for a better self and a better world. They would do better to tell the people, ‘There is no formula, no code, no purchase price of good deeds, or sacrifice, or devotion that gains for humanity any ownership of God's favor. There is no ‘how to' book for the ‘do it yourselfer' for building that fabled stairway to heaven, for laying out the road to salvation, for repairing the broken relationship with God. And in this time when you or I may seem to be very sure of the purity of our own position and of the hypocrisy of those who dare to disagree, lest you or I think here that we are called as ‘do it yourselfers' to go as Jesus did and with righteous indignation to clear the hypocrites out of the Church, let us move cautiously in presuming to imitate Jesus. For unless we also are able, as ‘do it yourselfers' to raise ourselves up from the dead after three days, in imitation of Him, perhaps you and I do better to adopt a much more humble approach to making our own accusations than Jesus did in making his. One, and only one, has understood God's Law. One, and only one, has known it well enough to keep it without error or deliberate sin. One only is God's very self, born as one of us into our world, to do as one of us what we could not do for ourselves. Thanks be to God through this One; thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.                                                                                           Amen.



Rev. James V. Stockton
Third Sunday of Lent - March 15, 2009
A Sermon based on Exodus 20:1-17 (RCL) by James V. Stockton

Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 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-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 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; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

I?m a ?do it yourselfer? sometimes. Sometimes, if I can figure it out, or find out how to do it, I?d rather do it myself. The ?do-it-yourselfer? is the one who goes to the library and borrows a book, a ?how-to? book, about, e.g. installing a new water heater; or learning Spanish, or refinishing furniture. ?Do it yourselfers? are those enviable models of independence and self-reliance. Nevertheless, for all its laudable qualities, there appear to be deficiencies attached to the do-it-yourself ethic. Who would choose to turn themselves over to a dentist who was self-educated; to a surgeon who learned the skills of the trade quite on his own, or hers, because he or she is a ?do-it-yourselfer?? Someone has suggested that the man or woman who claims to be a self-made individual usually serves to illustrate well the limits of unskilled labor.

Some things lend themselves easily to the ?do it yourself-er.? Some things do not. These Scriptures from which we?re hearing today, offer us insight into something that has every appearance of being a matter for the ?do it yourselfer.? ?God spoke these words...? we hear in the Old Testament reading. ?I am the Lord your God...and you shall...[do this], and you shall not...[do that].? Many of us will recognize these as the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, with which we began our worship of God today. What?s more, far beyond the Ten Commandments, in the passages that follow this one, God continues at length. Chapter after chapter in the book of Exodus describe the scores and hundreds or statutes and ordinances that make up the code of Law God first gives to the ancient Hebrews.

The people are being led to a new land. Moses has risen up in the land of Egypt, the land where the Israelites have been made slaves and suffer hopelessly under Egypt?s king, the Pharaoh. Moses has risen up to challenge the Pharaoh, as ambassador for God, to demand that Pharaoh set God?s people free. And Moses himself is leading the people, leading them on their journey to a new land, a journey to become a new people, a journey to freedom. It all sounds wonderful, until the people find themselves in the wilderness alone, wandering to...they know not where! Formerly slaves, suddenly they are trying to live as a free society, but they have little or no experience at it. How will they know what to do? How will they know how to do this? They are God?s people, yes, but how will they know what this means for how they live out their new lives?

And here is God?s answer, Here is God?s ?How to? book on being God?s people. It?s introduction is our Old Testament reading today, the Ten Commandments is its outline and its prologue. One way to look at it is, there are two things the people ought to do, and eight they ought not to do. ?Remember the sabbath day,? the seventh day, and set it apart as the day of rest. That?s good advice! A day for the people to remember that there are other aspects of life than constantly laboring to make it all happen the way they want it all to happen. And then, ?Honor your parents.? Pay some respect to the ones who brought you into this world, since even if doesn?t seem like it at the moment, they?ve probably learned a lot from the time they?ve been around, and they may actually know something you don?t know; they may actually know better than you. ?Honor your fathers and your mothers.?

And then there are some fairly common sense restrictions, that all seem basically to be about either not disrespecting God, or not harming one another. And there we have the basic outline, the step-by-step core instructions for the ?do it yourselfer? on ?how-to be God?s people. And do you know that the people, in the beginning, are grateful for God?s Law? They don?t fuss over being told by God what they can do and cannot do. No, instead they regard God?s Law as a special gift to them. God?s Law! Nobody else has this! To be God?s people, to keep God?s favor, all they have to do is follow some simple and basic guidelines.

Simply following the instructions ought to do it, until they set out to do just that, and then discover they need another ?how-to? book to tell them how follow the first one. ?Just exactly how do we make sure we?re not worshiping other gods? Just exactly how do we keep the Sabbath Day holy? Just exactly what is stealing, what is coveting, what is bearing false witness, so we can avoid all these?? ?We want to be obedient and righteous, so, how do we get there from here??

Writing in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey reminds us that as the experts on God?s Law in Jesus? day, the Pharisees were able to define over 600 rules in God?s Law, 600 ?do?s and don?t?s by God?s command. But this did not suffice. They then added over 1500 stipulations and clarifications in order to answer the question of ?how to do the how to? of God?s Law. And as far as they were concerned, they were doing humanity a favor. To clearly define God?s Law was to provide clarity and certainty to humanity?s path with God, so we could seek and sustain righteousness. Do we want to be right with God? Down to the finest of fine points, here?s how to do it. And following the instructions, then, we became self-made, self-saved, children of God. With the instruction book under the collective arm of humanity, are we not then equipped to live as God?s very own, and so to make of ourselves better people, and of our world, a better place for ourselves and our children?

But then, we look at the world since God first passed along the Ten Commandments. And for all these 3000 years, humanity has struggled to know what it truly is that God calls us to do and how God wants us to be. And humanity finds itself doing the very things it claims to hate. The Apostle Paul?s words give classic voice to the universal human experience of desiring to follow God, of, as he says, ?delighting in the Law of God in [the] inmost self,? but then finding something else at work within, that contradicts God?s Law, and refuses to be tamed by it.

It?s as though one follows all the instructions, all the instructions to fix the washing machine, all the instructions to program the VCR, all the instructions to build that bookcase, and somehow, it still doesn?t work! We can try and try and try to figure out and to obey God?s Law, and yet the better we come to know God, and to know the subtleties of God?s Law, the more we realize how far, how very wretchedly far, we are from God?s holiness.

And this is irretrievably the case with all humanity. And this is no small point. The ones who would claim to sell righteousness and religious correctness are the thieves whom Jesus throws out of God?s house. They?re stealing the people?s faith, because the people are investing in something that doesn?t exist. A sacrificed animal doesn?t buy God?s mercy. A sacrificial contribution to the coffers of the Church doesn?t purchase a seat in heaven. Anyone who makes the claim is stealing the people?s faith, stealing their desire for God, for rightness with God. They?re stealing the people?s hope for a better self and a better world. They would do better to tell the people, ?There is no formula, no code, no purchase price of good deeds, or sacrifice, or devotion that gains for humanity any ownership of God?s favor. There is no ?how to? book for the ?do it yourselfer? for building that fabled stairway to heaven, for laying out the road to salvation, for repairing the broken relationship with God. And in this time when you or I may seem to be very sure of the purity of our own position and of the hypocrisy of those who dare to disagree, lest you or I think here that we are called as ?do it yourselfers? to go as Jesus did and with righteous indignation to clear the hypocrites out of the Church, let us move cautiously in presuming to imitate Jesus. For unless we also are able, as ?do it yourselfers? to raise ourselves up from the dead after three days, in imitation of Him, perhaps you and I do better to adopt a much more humble approach to making our own accusations than Jesus did in making his. One, and only one, has understood God?s Law. One, and only one, has known it well enough to keep it without error or deliberate sin. One only is God?s very self, born as one of us into our world, to do as one of us what we could not do for ourselves. Thanks be to God through this One; thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Rev. James V. Stockton
Episcopal Church of the Resurrection
Austin, Texas
jstockton@sbcglobal.net
E-Mail: jstockton@sbcglobal.net

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