Sermon for March 4th, 2018
We began our service today with the Decalogue, or the recitation of the Ten Commandments. In olden times that was done a lot more often. In the old prayer book the priest was instructed that the ten commandments had to be recited at least once a month, now that is optional. We do it once a year here, which is still more than many churches, but most masses begin with Our Lord’s summary of the Law:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Critically important words. And of course, if you look at the commandments you will see the truth in that statement: God’s Ten Commandments are focused on either our love for him or our love for each other, that’s true. But maybe sometimes it is better for us to see what that looks like in action. Maybe we need it spelled out for us. I do wonder if we hear these laws enough for them to be truly written on our hearts.
I like that phrase from the end of the Decalogue: “write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.” Make adherence to these laws a vital part of who we are. Have them reside in our hearts where we hold everything that is most dear to us.
I have to admit that I am not crazy about the response “incline our hearts to keep this law.” It’s traditional, but it doesn’t seem strong enough to me. “Incline” is just too weak a word here. Maybe it is just a language issue; perhaps it is meant to have a stronger connotation, but when I hear incline or inclined I think preference. I am inclined to have a cup of coffee in the morning. I am inclined to have fries with my hamburger. I don’t want to be inclined to keep God’s commandments, as if they were about my pleasure or convenience; I want them to be something that I am compelled to do even when they are difficult or inconvenient, because my love for God won’t allow me to conceive of anything else. I want them to be such a part of who I am, that even when I break them because of my own weakness that my heart cries out for me to repent and turn back to God. I want to be appalled at the idea of breaking God’s Commandments, not resigned to it.
Let’s be honest, I think most people, if they care about the commandments at all, are only really appalled or horrified when one of them is broken. Lying, adultery, theft, we may disapprove of those things but they are common enough that they don’t really trouble us or disturb us. It is murder that we find truly appalling, so much so that we judge other sins in comparison to it: “I’m not perfect but I’m no murderer.” Or “He may have done a few bad things but he’s no murderer.” It seems like that is where we are setting the bar for being a decent human being…not being a murderer. I may have ignored most of the other commandments but at least I haven’t done that, so I must be ok…I wonder if that is what we tell ourselves sometimes.
I am all the time listening to great preachers and just recently I heard a sermon by Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the last 40 years. He was preaching on the Epistle of James and he quoted an English essayist and satirist that I had not read before: Thomas De Quincy. Thomas de Quincy wrote a satirical essay in 1827 called “On Murder Considered as one of the fine arts.” Well you know some people never appreciate satire and he must have received some accusation of actually approving of or condoning murder, so he wrote a follow up essay in which he said he was completely against murder because…in his words:
“For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time. Principiis obsta …that’s my rule.”
In other words: “Nip it in the bud” before it becomes serious.
Thomas de Quincy was joking of course, but when you hear it put like that you realize how inclined we are to make light of some sins or commandments and focus intensely upon others. We weigh sins according to what we think is more serious and we judge others by whether we think their sins are more serious than ours. We can focus so much on one commandment that we lose sight of all the other ones we might be breaking and we don’t take them as seriously. This is a shame, but it’s nothing new.
When Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he saw the money changers there in the outer court, exchanging Roman money for the temple currency. They didn’t want to have any graven image in the temple, which of course the Roman currency had, so they exchanged it. Trying to keep that second commandment sacred, which is admirable enough, but I have to think that their focus on one commandment must have blinded them to others. Were they charging a bit too much interest? Were the scales a little off? Did they maybe take a little more from the faithful pilgrims than they should have? In their attempt to preserve the sanctity of God’s temple, were they in fact defiling it with behavior and attitudes that were not fit for this holy place? Jesus seemed to think so. He famously drove the money changers out, but that wasn’t the first time that something like that happened.
More than 600 years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God into the Temple with a message for those gathered there:
“Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
The temple periodically needed to be cleansed. People regularly needed to be called to a renewed awareness of all of God’s commandments, not just their favorite ones. The temple was very sacred for Jesus, but protecting that sanctity meant more than just avoiding having a graven image in your pocket; it meant having God’s laws and the love of God engraved upon your heart.
Saint Paul would later say to the Church in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” I for one believe that the temple in Jerusalem is still sacred and holy, but I also believe that we Christians are called to be travelling temples of the Holy Spirit. If people could look into our hearts they should see a place where God is worshipped and adored. A place where God’s commandments are written, not as pious ideas or suggestions, but as truths at the core of our being. But like any temple, our hearts need periodic cleansing as well. Our eyes need to be opened, not just to the sins of others or to our own favorite sins, but to the other commandments that we violate by not taking them seriously or by forgetting them altogether. Maybe there are a few commandments I haven’t broken, but there are others I have. Maybe there aren’t any murderers here (maybe), but we all know that’s not the only commandment. It is fitting that in our Decalogue we ask for mercy after each commandment. We need God’s mercy and we need to be merciful with one another, but we also need to take God’s commands seriously. If Jesus were to look into our own temples, I wonder what he would find?