I am at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 20: 1 – 17, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25, and John 2: 13 – 22.
One of the things that you learn when you study the Scriptures is that the Psalms are often built upon one word with each letter of that particular word starting the first word of a verse in the poem. If you will allow me that thought, you will understand why the title of this sermon is “Ten Words.” The Ten Commandments may be seen as ten words. But the discussion of those ten words goes beyond Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Sinai holding two slabs of stone.
In one episode of the television series “The West Wing” President Bartlett is preparing to debate his opponent in their campaign for the Presidential election. He and his campaign staff are struggling with a ten-word phrase to use as a response to an anticipated question.
These ten-word answers are designed to show how much each candidate knows about the topic while offering a feasible and possible answer to the particular question in a short period of time. It is, if you will, a fancy term for “sound-bite”, that little nugget of information that candidates and elected officials use to satisfy the curiosity of the public without taxing the imagination or intelligence of the public and maintaining a certain degree of credibility. Yet in the sound-bite there is little truth to be had. The sound-bite is used to fool the electorate by making the candidate seem as he knows what he his talking about.
Now, if someone thinks that ten words constitute an appropriate and simple response to an extremely complicated question, then there is something wrong with the question and our understanding of the situation. It also says a lot about how we, the public, have allowed our leaders to denigrate our abilities to think and how we have allowed the world around us to be judged and determined by short, snappy answers. It makes me long for the sane prose of MAD magazine.
Now, it should be pointed out that President Bartlett, upon hearing the ten-word response of his opponent, quite rightly asks “what are the next ten words? What do we say next? What do we do next?” And that’s how you know that “The West Wing” is fictional; because in real life, our politicians don’t go beyond the obvious and the public doesn’t demand to know what happens next.
Of course, we know what happened after Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai to the people. In fear that the people would break the Ten Commandments, the Pharisees made 613 additional laws, 365 which were negative (“thou shall not”) and 248 which were positive (“thou shall). (1)
It is a fear that we still have in today’s society. We seek rules and laws that will control our lives instead of working to improve our lives. As Kary Oberbrunner pointed out, if we were to look at our own personal spiritual condition, we are apt to find ourselves looking like religious separatists.
A religious separatist is one who separates their religious life from their secular life. They wear their faith as if it was pure and they will not allow anyone or anything to disturb that purity. But they turn off people to the true faith because they, the separatists, cannot relate their faith to the world around them.
And when you ask them to integrate their faith into the culture around them, they panic. Laws make separatists feel secure and allow them to have a control on and over their lives. To be asked to integrate their faith with the culture they have to give up such control. But this security prevents them from seeing beyond the walls of the church and reaching out to the people for whom the Gospel message was intended. The Gospel message was meant to free us, to bring hope and liberate us, not to enslave and entrap us.
They are like those who could not understand what Jesus was saying that day in the courtyard of the Temple. They saw the Temple as the embodiment of God; they could not see beyond its walls. As John noted, the disciples remembered this day and understood its significance in light of Christ’s resurrection.
And for those who try to separate their religious life from their sectarian life, there are those who just as easily mix their religious life with their daily lives. In fact, they look quite comfortable living lives as Christians. Yet, it is life which is more appearance than substance which lasts about two hours or so on Sunday mornings. Come Monday morning, they carefully take off their Christianity and put it away, safe from the world, until they next need it the next time.
Such individuals are conformists, conforming to the demands of society. They use their religion when it is convenient and put it away when it is uncomfortable. They see the message of Christ as foolishness.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the world doesn’t have a clue what God had in mind. To the world, the message of Christ was simple foolishness. They will tell you that Christianity is fine for Sunday but doesn’t work in the real world on Monday morning.
I cannot help but think of a 1939 Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”. In the closing verses of this song, Guthrie wrote,
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home. (http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)
To many in the establishment 2000 years ago, Jesus was an outlaw going against the status quo of the conformists and the legal structure of the separatists. It does not matter whether we see Jesus as an outlaw or, as Paul suggested, a fool. What does matter is that the message that Christ brought to this world is the message that the world needs to hear today! But it cannot be heard if society sees Christ’s representative on earth (and that would be us), as representatives of a legal monolith that seeks to keep people out of the church through imposition of legal structures and repressive laws. Society will not listen if they see the church as hypocritical, preaching love, forgiveness, and redemption on Sunday but practicing inequality, retribution, and hatred on Monday.
We know that John Wesley started off with a very legalistic interpretation of the Gospel and how to achieve salvation. He saw the path to the cross in a very legalistic and structured life; but it turned into a life that lead to despair and frustration. It was only when he accepted the Holy Spirit, when his heart became strangely warmed, that he was able to ignite the Methodist Revival that changed England.
The world around us demands the presence of the people of Christ. It is time that the Gospel is heard as it was meant to be heard, not as it is being heard. But it will not be heard unless we remember the words that Christ began His mission with. He began with a call for repentance, a call for the people to change their lives and their thoughts. Lent is a season of preparation. It is time to repent of our old ways and begin anew.
It is not about ten words; it is about what we do after we hear the words. No ten words can resolve the problems of the world; no ten words can ever magically get us into heaven. But we have heard the words that will; they are the words of Christ and now we must act on those words.
(1) This and material about conformists and separatists adapted from “the Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner.