Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Sixth Commandment - Do not Commit Adultery

2 Samuel 11:2-17

Adultery. For today’s commandment, I need to lean on the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American equivalent of the ELCIC. Bishop Eaton gives the best explanation of this commandment that I have ever heard, and so we’re going to hear what she has to say.

Bishop Eaton says that adultery in a relationship, any relationship, is “about using someone for our owns ends or needs.” Isn’t that perfect? It’s clearly what’s happening in the story of David and Bathsheba. David used Bathsheba for his own needs, not considering her well-being at all, thereby committing adultery. But, as Bishop Eaton makes clear, adultery is not just about sex. It’s about polluting relationships, which can happen in lots of different ways. And so we see that David also adulterated his relationship with Uriah, his soldier, using him to try to cover his own sin, and he adulterated his relationship with his commander, Joab, by commanding him to deceitfully kill Uriah. When we use someone for our own purposes, according to Bishop Eaton, we are polluting the relationship, and as we see from the story of David, once we begin adulterating our relationships with others, it’s hard to stop.

We adulterate our relationships “when we are not giving our full selves to another.” On the flip side, the Bishop said, “if we are true to those whom we relate ... that would be an unadulterated relationship.” Pure relationships, which this Commandment is trying to get us to have, are those that are based in truth. Relationships where we present ourselves authentically, with both our strengths and our weaknesses, where we are honest about our hurts and our vulnerabilities, where we know who we are and what we value and we are open about that––these are the kinds of relationships God encourages us to pursue. But relationships where we try to be who we are not––whether that’s in romantic relationships or family relationships, or friendships or even work or church relationships, where we betray our principles because we want others to accept us, where we exaggerate our accomplishments or where we hide our failures because we want others to admire us, these relationships are adulterous ones. They are betrayals, not just of the trust of the other person with whom we are in relationship, but of ourselves.

The key here is that to be true to others, we need to be true to ourselves. “To thine own self be true,” as Shakespeare said. To be in unadulterated relationships with others, we need to start with ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and from there to be honest with others. If we cannot be honest even with ourselves, if there are things we hide even from our own hearts, we have no hope of being honest with others. But when we are able to do that, when we are able to acknowledge who we are, and more importantly when we are able to accept who we are, to forgive our failures, to have compassion for our flaws, to be authentic in our whole person, when we can do that, then we can be honest and pure and true in our relationships with others. 

No problem, right? If only. The reality of our lives is that we live in a fallen world, which means that we live in a world where our relationships with one another are constantly disrupted, and we risk constant hurt. We are trapped in a nasty cycle in which the hurts we have received from others cause us to close ourselves off in order to prevent further hurt, thereby hurting others in the process. When we are in a relationship with someone, and we offer our true and fullest selves, and then we are betrayed, we learn to hide our true selves in order not to be hurt. And then we put up a front and wear a mask in subsequent relationships, which then leads to further pollutions, and more hurt, and more masks, until we can’t be who we are with anyone at all. Until all of our relationships are adulterous.

With one important exception. And that is our relationship with God. It is simply impossible to have an adulterous relationship with God because we can never deceive God about who we are. God knows who we are. God sees us in our totality, even more clearly than we see ourselves. We may be able to hide from others, or from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God.

But this is grace for us. Because God knows us and God loves us. Psalm 139 tells us that even in our mother’s womb, God knew us, and that we are never beyond God’s care for us. When you come forward to this rail, your hearts are utterly exposed before your Creator, and yet God claims you as God’s own and Christ shares his very own body and blood with you. Christ gives himself and becomes one with you, in the purest, most unadulterated, most true relationship there is.

When we are true to ourselves, then we are true to others, and when we are false to ourselves, then we are false to others. To follow this Commandment then, to gather up the courage we need to risk being vulnerable to others, we begin by remembering who we are, which is, first and foremost, children of God, reconciled to God through the cross. We are, as our reading from Ephesians says, “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God ... a holy temple in the Lord.” We are people who have been redeemed by Christ, made whole in Christ, and in whom the Holy Spirit has chosen to live. We are people who, by the grace of God, are blessed to live lives of integrity and love. We are people who have been strengthened by the Spirit to know that we are acceptable in the eyes of God no matter what, and to reach out in love to accept others. Whatever the world might tell you, whatever your family or your friends or your acquaintances might tell you about who you are or who you should be, know that first and foremost, God tells you that you are someone who is deeply loved by God, so loved that the Spirit of God has chosen to live in you. Do not commit adultery. Fear and love God, which is to say, remember that God loves you, so that we might live pure and decent lives in word and deed, loving and honouring one another with unadulterated relationships, as God does with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Fifth Commandment - July 15, 2018

Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

It certainly seems appropriate with our Gospel reading for this morning that the Commandment we are on today is the Fifth Commandment, You shall not murder. What Herod did, what Cain in our Genesis reading did, was bad. Don’t kill other people. And, since we’re not kings and therefore not tempted by unlimited power with no consequences, this is a pretty easy commandment for us to follow. Probably the easiest of the Ten.

Except that, in the Small Catechism, Luther explains that this Commandment means, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbours, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Well, that’s quite a leap, don’t you think? From not killing to not endangering or harming the lives of our neighbours? Just in the first half of that sentence, Luther goes from something pretty straightforward and easy, “You shall not murder your neighbour,” which is something I can safely say I have never done, to “you shall not endanger or harm the lives of your neighbours.” And I want to protest, like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In fact, this past week, my kids and I have had a running debate about our inflatable swimming pool, and whether or not it should be set up in the garage, where it’s cold, but where we can close the door at night, or whether it should be on the lawn, where it warms up in the sun, but where there is no fence and a neighbourhood child might be tempted to swim in it and accidentally drown. On the one hand, we have Cain’s question of to what extent are we our brother’s, or sister’s, keeper. On the other hand, we have Luther and “We shall not endanger the lives of our neighbours.” I thought I was having an easy week with not killing people, but it turns out I have more to think about than I thought.

And then there’s the second half of Luther’s explanation, the “but instead” that is starting to trip us up. “But instead [we are to] help and support them in all life’s needs.” Well, now, come on, that’s going a bit far, don’t you think? In other words, if I don’t help and support my neighbour in all of life’s need––if I fail to ensure that they have food and water and shelter and medical care––whether I do this deliberately or out of simple ignorance, then I am breaking the Fifth Commandment? Isn’t that a bit much? Especially when you consider that our community of neighbours has expanded from a couple of thousand to a global community of almost eight billion. Essentially, Luther is saying that if we don’t, for whatever reason, help and support these eight billion other humans in all their life’s needs, then we are breaking the Fifth Commandment. It’s quite a stretch, wouldn’t you say?
Except that I think Luther is trying to stretch us. Luther is trying to get us to see our neighbours as God does, he’s trying to get us to love God, the foundation of all the Commandments, by seeing our neighbours as one with us in Creation. He’s trying to get us to see, through the “but instead” of each of his explanations to the Ten Commandments, that God has placed us all in relationship with one another. That we are a community––of individuals, to be sure, but a community nevertheless––that lives and thrives together.

And so this Commandment not to murder is actually a commandment not to kill what God has already put into place. Not to kill the community that God has established to give us life, not to kill the relationships that God has given us with our brothers and sisters for the well-being of the world. And so when Cain, or we, ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is a resounding Yes! We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And they are ours. We are to hold their lives as precious as our own. We are to hold their well-being as precious as our own.

Which, let’s be honest, we don’t. The heart of the world’s problems is that we don’t see and hold the lives and well-being of others in the world as precious as we do our own. From something as small as tailgating the person in front of us to get them to get out of our lane so we can go faster, to letting hateful things be said about others (or thinking them ourselves), to defending stand-your-ground laws or somebody taking another person’s life in order to protect their own property––all of these, like it or not, do them or not, kill our relationships with others in the world. They are violations of the Commandment, You shall not murder. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty convicted right now, to borrow a word from our evangelical sisters and brothers. I’m feeling convicted and crushed, that as much as I try to be a good person, I am breaking this Commandment. We don’t orient our lives around the well-being of those billions of people in the world whose lives are worse than ours. We just don’t. Our day-to-day lives, even for the poorest among us, are still far better than the living conditions of billions of our sisters and brothers. The richness of our own lives lulls us into a complacency that, to be honest, we enjoy. We don’t really want to give up the comfort of our own lives. Like King Herod, with his lavish feasts for his guests, we rather prefer things the way they are. We don’t want to risk losing them by standing up for the lives of others. And so, either literally like Herod or figuratively as Luther points out, we murder. We kill the lives and well-being of others in order to protect our own.

Except that it doesn’t work. Because we’re all in this together. God created us to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. When my neighbour––my brother or sister––is doing well, I am doing well. When their well-being is in jeopardy, mine is in jeopardy. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are all connected through webs of life, whether that’s the web of the global economy, the web of our shared environment, or even the web of our shared commitment to life. What affects one person in the world affects all of us. What affects us, affects those around the world. And what brings death to one, brings death to all. And this is the heart of this Commandment––that when we murder another, whether directly or through neglect, we murder ourselves. The death of Abel meant the death of Cain. The death of John the Baptist meant, eventually, the death of Herod. We are our brothers’ and sister’s keepers, and they are ours. When they suffer, we suffer. When they die, we die.
And so here we are, dead, one way or another, because our brothers and sisters are dead.

Right after our Gospel reading for today, in the reading for next week, we have the story of Jesus feeding the thousands. In contrast to today’s Gospel, with King Herod holding a lavish birthday banquet at his very fancy palace and inviting all of the political elite, we have this nobody from Nazareth, in a deserted place, with thousands of unimportant village folk and nobody has anything to eat. And following the king’s feast that descends into chaos and ends with the death of John the Baptist, we have the King of king’s feast where everyone sits down in an orderly manner and “all ate and were filled,” and new life is bestowed on everyone there. Jesus follows chaos with peace. Jesus follows death with new life.

*This* is our hope in the midst of death. That God follows our acts of murder with acts of new life. In Genesis, the death of Abel and the figurative death of Cain, as the farmer is banned from the land, is followed by life for Cain and the establishment of God’s people. In the Gospel of Mark, the death of John the Baptist is followed by the life of thousands. And at the heart of our Christian story, the death of Jesus is followed by new life for him and for all of humankind. God is the “but instead” of the Commandment, “helping and supporting us in all life’s needs.” God follows death with new life. God restores what we kill, and brings healing to those we injure. 

Most importantly, most graciously, new life is for those who die and for those who cause death and end up contributing to their own. If murder is the killing of our relationships with one another and ourselves, God’s new life in Christ is the restoration of those relationships. God’s new life is the restoration of the entire community to well-being, a work this Commandment calls us to participate in. We are called to join God in the work of helping and supporting new life, for our neighbours and for us. Resurrection is not for one, it is for all. Resurrection of the individual means resurrection of the community––this is what we see in Jesus. New life after death is for me and for you. For all of us together.

The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder. You shall not murder the lives and well-being of your brothers and sisters and by extension of yourself. You shall not murder the relationships that constitute the lives of the communities to which you belong.

And the Fifth grace, as it were: God follows our breaking of this Commandment with new life through Christ. Through Christ, God bestows new life on those of us who are killed, and new life on those of us who kill, because it’s impossible to have new life for one without new life for all. The resurrection of Christ is for all, for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The Fourth Commandment - July 8, 2018

Our Fourth Commandment this morning: Honour your father and mother. 
What does this mean? We are to fear and love God so that we neither despise nor anger our parents and others in authority, but instead, honour, serve, obey, love, and respect them.

Now, if I were to ask who amongst us has broken this commandment, I would expect every single person to raise their hand. I would bet with 100% certainty that every single one of us here has, at some point in our life, angered our parents. Even Luther angered his parents, particularly his father, when his family spent considerable expense to send him to law school and Luther partied too hard and then decided to drop out and become a priest, which in no way was going to support his parents when they got old. Luther was a deep disappointment to his parents, he failed to honour, serve, obey, love, or respect them.

And Luther knew it, and came to deeply regret his behaviour towards his father, which is the context behind his explanation to this Commandment. You see, Luther is very harsh about what this commandment means. He believed, as many in his time did, that parents and masters (or employers) and civil authorities––including mayors and princes, and religious authorities––including pastors and bishops, were all part of a God-given hierarchy. In that world-view, God set up a hierarchy of power that allowed the world to be stable. Each person had a boss or master over them, who had one over them, all the way up to the princes and kings, whose boss was God. Upsetting that hierarchy would lead to an upset of God’s order, and chaos and cosmic disruption would take place and evil would reign. So, high stakes for Luther.

Now, to be fair to Luther, he actually believed that the top of the pyramid was not the Pope, or the princes, but parents. He believed that God gave divine authority to parents, much as Christ gave authority to his disciples, and that all other authority developed out of the authority of parents. Parents then subsequently gave authority to others on their behalf ––to teachers, to teach their children what parents couldn’t, to government––to rule their children when they couldn’t, and to pastors––to preach the Gospel to their children when parents couldn’t. And it’s important to remember that putting the authority of God with the parents, rather than with the princes, or with the pope, was a huge deal. In this respect, Luther was pretty radical.

In other respects, though, Luther was not. I know that we all have this image of Luther rebelling against authority, and defying the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but he could actually be quite conformist. He was clear that obeying parents, and teachers, and pastors, and government, was a Commandment. He said that we are obligated to obey these authorities, “even if they go too far,” because God had put them there. He said that even terrible parents are still given to us by God, and that we need to honour and obey and even love them. He said that pastors, our “spiritual parents” should be given double honour. He wrote that servants should obey their masters at all times, that the peasants should stop resisting unfair working conditions, and that the princes had divine authority to suppress any uprising.

And this is a struggle for me. Because there have been too many times in the history of the world, in the history of the church, and in the history of families when this commandment, Honour your father and mother, has been weaponized, and used to justify abuse and violence. In WWII, Hitler used Luther’s explanation to this Commandment to argue that the churches must obey the F├╝hrer, and to merge faith and patriotism in order to wipe out certain peoples, much as Jeff Sessions did recently. In congregations, pastors have used this Commandment to argue that their decisions are ultimate and their actions never to be questioned, and that those who do so are to be cast out of the church. And, of course, there are families where parents have used these words to abuse their children, who subsequently go on to abuse their own children when they get older. Of all the Commandments, this one is the most dangerous, because it can lead those of us with any authority at all, whether as bosses or teachers or parents or leaders of any kind, to believe that we are entitled to power, entitled to obedience, and entitled to the fear and love that belongs to God alone.

So what are we to do with this? While there are certain laws from the Hebrew Scriptures that we feel comfortable ignoring, like not eating pork or not wearing clothes made from mixed fibres, we hold a special place for the Ten Commandments. We do follow these laws––they make up the fabric of our western legal code, they undergird our social morality. Can we reconcile the constant and still ongoing abuse of this Commandment with the Commandment itself?

Well, standing next to Luther’s belief that God gives God’s own authority to rulers on earth, we have Psalm 146, that we read today: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” The Psalm tells us that God is the only one who truly cares for the needy, who “executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” God is the only one who truly cares for those in need and punishes those who do ill. God is the only one we should fear, love, and trust––in essence, the only one we should turn to and honour, serve, obey, love, and respect.

Which, it turns out, is not so far from Luther as we might expect. Have you noticed yet that Luther begins every explanation to the Commandments with, “We are to fear and love God?” He does this on purpose. Luther believed that the Commandments were actually given to us in order of importance. The First Commandment is the most important––You are to have no other gods, which means we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. And this is the foundation for all the rest. When we fear, love, or trust something or someone else above God, then the remaining Commandments will trip us up. When we fear, love, and trust God above all things––or all people––we will automatically obey the rest of the Commandments. 

And the same is true for the Fourth Commandment. And this is where Luther offers some comfort in our struggle. Luther commands obedience to those in authority over us, “provided that [their will and word] are subordinated to God and not set in opposition to the preceding commandments.” In other words, if those given power over us, whether parents or teachers or pastors or governments, are themselves clearly breaking the First Commandment, or even the Second Commandment, or if they direct us to do something that breaks those Commandments, then we need not obey them. We may even disobey them, or actively work against them, so long as we are doing so from a place of fear, love, and trust of God above all things.

Now isn’t that interesting... embedded within the Commandment to Honour your father and mother, and by extension all authority, is the commandment to disobey them if their actions or words are leading us away from loving and trusting God.

We are in dangerous territory now, I think. God commands us to obey those God has placed in power, and God commands us to disobey those who use that power wrongly. But how are we to know?
Well, our Scripture readings for this morning offer us guidance for what God’s power looks like, and how we can tell if someone is wielding their own power, or God’s, and whether we should willingly obey or dissent. 

You see, God’s power is the power to create, to give life, to change the world for the better. God’s power, as Paul says in our reading from 2 Corinthians, is the power to be humble, to not think of ourselves more highly than others. It’s the power to see that the success of those we lead, or parents, or teach, or employ, is more important than our own. God’s power is the power to be weak. It’s the power to give away one’s strength to others, in order to build them up, and not ourselves. Imagine a world in which parents and teachers and governments and police and all those with authority were so strong in their power that they were humble and weak. Okay, I know it’s hard to imagine––Make America Humble Again is not a slogan that wins votes. But just imagine what that would look like! It’s the same in our Gospel reading for today. The disciples are given the authority of Christ, but not to rule. They are given the authority to serve, and to heal. To put themselves in service to others for the well-being of their people, not to demand praise and accolades wherever they went. This is what God’s power looks like. This is the kind of power God gives us. 

God gives power and authority to parents and others so that the world might experience God’s power first-hand as it comes to us in humbleness and weakness and service and healing. And, because we might otherwise think that those who are weak and humble and put others first are not the ones we should be following or imitating, God commands us to obey them. And so in this Commandment, too, is grace and love for us: that God desires that we be cared for, and care for others, by those who use their power to grant grace, to be merciful, to forgive, to give life, just as God in Christ does for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.