Sunday, August 19, 2018

7th, 9th, and 10th Commandments

So, if you turn to page 1161 in the back of the red hymnal, you’ll see the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments. The Seventh: You shall not steal. We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbour’s money nor property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise nor crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income. And the Ninth: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbours out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs. And the Tenth: You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. We are to fear and love God, so that we do not entice, force, or steal away from our neighbours their spouses, household workers, or livestock, but instead urge them to stay and fulfill their responsibilities to our neighbours.

So, in other words, these last few Commandments we are looking at are all about don’t take what’s not yours. But instead, as Luther always says, go out of your way to help the people around you keep what’s theirs.

Of all of the Commandments, these are the ones that we’re actually the worst at keeping.  Our entire economy is structured around “getting the best deal,” while simultaneously obscuring the fact that our best deal comes at the cost of someone else’s worst deal. Our cheap goods come at the cost of underpaid labour somewhere else. You just need to watch documentaries like “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price,” to see that those cheap shirts are made overseas by people who aren’t paid enough to live and are sold to you by people who aren’t making a living wage. Or google “bottled water documentaries” to see how water companies are bottling water at the source, paying only pennies to the municipalities in which they are, in order to sell that water back to us and to those who live right next to what was previously a free source of water. Our profits are someone else’s loss. A largely unregulated market means that people can set whatever price for goods, resources, and services that they want. If you can afford it, great; if you can’t, too bad, and along with all of that, it’s “buyer beware.” We have grown up in this economy, along with the idea that we need to look out for ourselves first, and so we think it’s normal, and therefore acceptable, but Luther certainly didn’t. He criticized those who “sell their goods as high as they please.” He was angered by those who sold products for more than they were worth, he had no tolerance for people who saw their neighbour being cheated and did nothing about it. When homeowners raise the selling price on their houses just because they can, or because the market can handle it, thereby pricing regular people out of the market, that’s breaking the spirit of these commandments. Luther would not have been impressed.

I could go on and on with examples of how we fail to follow these Commandments. We just simply, as individuals and as a country, do not go out of our way to “be of help and service in helping our neighbours keep what is theirs.” For goodness’ sake, we are sitting on treaty land that was gained through legal trickery and relied on the First Nations’ peoples not understanding the implications of what they were getting into, and we still are not fulfilling our part of the treaties. We are so deep into breaking these commandments across the board, that there is no getting out, whether it is buying a house on treaty land, drinking bottled water, or benefitting from a pension that invests in the stock market. We are deeply imbedded in a devastating economic system that relies on these Commandments being broken at every step.

But I know that we don’t want to be. Look, I am not here to make you feel bad. I know that you already do. We are here because we want to do better. We want to be better. The Ten Commandments as a whole are fundamentally about right relationships with God and with our neighbours - they are about living in the world so that the words and deeds of our lives bring life to those around us. And we know that there are so many times when we fail to do that. With the best of intentions, we go out into the world, we leave church and go back to our families, or our work, and we try our best, and we fall into old habits. We do things or say things that disrupt our relationships. We sin. We fail to bring life, and instead we bring death.

But we don’t want to. As Jesus said to the disciples, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41b) And as the apostle Paul said, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind.” “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:22-23, 19) None of you come here on Sunday morning to say, yeah, I totally got one over on somebody this week! None of you rejoice when you have hurt another, none of you is here to brag about the way you’ve broken one of the Commandments. You are here because you want to “be of help and service to our neighbours” both locally and globally. You are looking for ways to make your life better, and to make the lives of others betters. 

So, on the one hand, I have to say, Sorry, that will never happen. You can’t. We are too enmeshed in the systems of sin, we are slaves to sin, and we will always do things that disrupt our relationships, we will always bring death, we will always break all of the Commandments, one way or another. But, on the other hand, I say to you that life never came from you to begin with. The source of life, of our lives, of all lives, is not us. The source of life comes from outside of us, from Christ. This is grace and this is why we call Christ our salvation. Because it is Christ who brings life to the world, and to us. Christ in you, and through you, brings new life to the world.

And here’s the thing - Christ coming to be in you, Christ bringing you new life, Christ using you to bring new life, has absolutely nothing to do with you. To be sure, it’s somewhat humbling, humiliating even, to think that what we do or don’t do has absolutely nothing to do with Christ choosing to live in us. On our good days, when we’re feeling pretty successful at these Ten Commandments, we like to think, Yeah, I’m awesome, of course Christ lives in me, of course Christ is using me to bring life to the world. But, sorry to say, your success has nothing to do with it. At the same time, what a relief that is! Since we have more bad days than good days when it comes to following the Commandments, it is such a relief to know that Christ is living in us and using us to bring new life even when we ourselves are doing awfully at it.

All of this is to say that Christ makes happen what you really want to happen, which is to bring life to the world, to follow the Ten Commandments, to fear and love God and build up those around us and bring life and restore relationships. Christ does this. Christ abides in us to make this happen. Week after week, Christ freely offers himself to us in the bread and wine, and lives in us, so that we might bring life to others. The Ten Commandments tell us how to bring life, Luther’s “But instead” tells us how to nurture the lives of others, but it is Christ in us who enables us to actually do it. Week after week, the Gospel is freely proclaimed in this place, through hymns, through Scripture, through the sermon (hopefully), so that you might receive the Word of life. Week after week, the body and blood of Christ is freely given, no matter what you have done in the week, so that you might take into your very bodies that same life, and in receiving new life be transformed to offer that life, the life of Christ, to others.

The Ten Commandments are a gift to us, meant to tell us what true life looks like and how we might contribute to that life in others. Christ is the one who brings that life to us so that we might not just see, but also experience, what that life is, and gives us the power to share it with others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Eighth Commandment - Bear Witness

Here we are, at the Eighth Commandment. (And if you’re wondering if you missed a Sunday because the last sermon from me that you remember was the Sixth Commandment, on not committing adultery, no, you didn’t miss anything. I skipped over the Seventh, do not steal, in order to talk about it next week with the Ninth and Tenth Commandments on do not covet. You’re remembering right.) Okay, the Eight Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. And Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism as to what this means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

So, at first glance, this Commandment seems pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Don’t tell lies about people or spread rumours or say anything that makes them look bad. And the But Instead part that Luther adds has always been something I strive to do, “interpret everything people do in the best possible light.” In other words, talk about people with compassion and understanding, know that even when people do something mean or awful, they are struggling with demons that we know nothing about. Assume that everyone is doing the best they possible can, given their own personal circumstances. Someone cuts me off on Crowchild, my first reaction is, “Ugh, what a ____.” My second reaction is, “Maybe they really need to get to a bathroom.” Or “maybe they need to get to the hospital.” One day, I hope that my second reaction will really truly be my first reaction. The world needs more compassion and understanding.

It always has, actually. You see, Luther understood what it meant to be falsely accused of something. The whole Reformation started because he was trying to do his best to get the Catholic church back on track and instead he was accused of heresy, excommunicated from the church, and was a fugitive who would be executed if he was caught. He knew what it was to be falsely accused of something and have his reputation destroyed, to be betrayed by those he trusted, and slandered by those who called themselves men of God. He knew how untrue the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is. Words do hurt. Words can kill us.

Because words are powerful. And words spoken by those appointed by God are even more so. “Now I have put my words in your mouth,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah, from our first reading, “over nations and over kingdoms ... to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Words have power. Our reading from Ephesians says that only words useful for building should be spoken, and in our Gospel, Jesus rebukes the Judeans for complaining “among themselves.” We call Jesus the Word of God, and we also call him the Bread of life. Words feed us. The words we read, the words we hear, the words we speak––they all feed us and shape us and create the world around us. In the end, they are meant to give us life. That’s what’s meant by “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” Do not speak words that bring death to your neighbour.
And so, in the church especially, we keep quiet. We don’t repeat rumours, we don’t talk about people behind their backs, we quash accusations for which there is no evidence, or we play down the things we do see. We stay silent. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We don’t want our words to bring death.

But silence also brings death. Keeping secrets can make us physically ill. As much as I agree with Luther’s explanation to this Commandment, there is a dark side to it. And we plunge into that darkness when we use this Commandment to silence the truth.

You might know about the mega-church, Willow Creek, in Chicago. It rose to fame in the 80s under its superstar pastor, Bill Hybels, because it has over 75,000 people attending its three church services every weekend, and has expanded to seven other sites. Pastor Hybels has given seminars and speeches on church growth and evangelism, and leaders from other congregations have visited Willow Creek to see what makes it work and to see if they can replicate its success at home. I don’t know about Advent, but I do know that other council members at other Lutheran churches here in Calgary have taken trips to Willow Creek to see how they do it.

This past week, both of Willow Creek’s current pastors along with the entire church elder board resigned. It turns out that Pastor Bill Hybels is a sexual predator. Several years ago, a number of women who worked for him came forward and accused of him of unwanted sexual advances and sexual contact that had been occurring since the 80s. But guess what? They were told to be silent. They had no proof, and so they were told that it would be bad for the church if they spoke up, so they should be quiet. In other words, Do not destroy the reputation of the church or the pastor. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. The then-pastors and elders of the church came to Bill Hybel’s defense, spoke well of him, and interpreted his actions in the best possible light. And so these women, who were the victims of egregious sexual and spiritual violations, stayed silent because their pastors and their elders told them to. They did their best to follow the Eighth Commandment.

Until last Sunday, when the New York Times told the story of one of the women, in a #metoo article about the evangelical church. The journalist who wrote the article did what the pastors and the elders should have done. She spoke the truth, and the silence was broken, and light shone on the darkness. And there was public repentance and acknowledgement of wrong-doing by the current pastors and the board of elders, and they announced their resignation.

The Commandment is “Do not bear false witness.” The key word here is false. It does not say, “Do not bear witness.” In fact, Luther himself, after condemning lies about people, goes on to say in his Large Catechism that we are required to speak the truth. Christians are required to report wrong-doing and abuse to the authorities in order to “reprove evil.” And those in authority–-by which he means judges, and pastors, and parents (remember our Fourth Commandment on honour your parents?)––are “commanded” to publicly judge. He actually uses the word “commanded.” And, he goes on to say that when pastors and judges and those in authority and positions of leadership do not publicly speak out on what they see, when they stay silent, when they can’t say anything nice and so they don’t say anything at all, then they are breaking the Eighth Commandment.

Wow. On the one hand, Luther is passionate that no one be falsely accused. On the other hand, he is equally passionate that evil does not run amok under the cover of silence. The flip side of “do not bear false witness” is not stay silent. The flip side of “do not bear false witness” is “bear witness.” “Speak the truth,” Ephesians says. (It also says, “Be angry.”) God tells Jeremiah, “You shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them.” Jeremiah was sent to criticize the religious leadership of his time. His words, given to him by God, spoke to the destruction of that leadership. And then God gave him words of rebuilding.

If you have ever tried to tell the truth about something or someone, and someone in the church has told you to be silent, I am sorry. On behalf of all of us who call ourselves pastors and leaders in the church, I confess that we often use this Commandment to protect ourselves and our reputations, at the cost of the truth and at the cost of the truth-sayers’ well-being. From pulpits around the world, including in this congregation, this Commandment has been weaponized and used to silence those who have tried to speak the truth. This abuse of this Commandment was not, and never will be, what God wants. 

The Eighth Commandment is about speaking words that nourish and build up God’s children who are hurting most. What God wants is for you to be fed and nourished by the Word. God wants the truth to be freedom for you, God wants words to give you life. God wants words to be spoken that will give life to all. And God wants you to feed and nourish others with the Word, with words of truth that give freedom and life. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’” or “only a girl” or “only a congregation member.” God has chosen you and given you God’s words to speak. Do not fear others and what they might say or do, fear and love only God. Do not bear false witness, but do bear witness when you see or experience injustice and abuse of power. Because it is Christ within you who bears witness, Christ within you who gives you the words to speak out the truth, Christ within you who feeds you so that you are built up to share that food with others. Christ did not come to silence us, but to be our Word, our truth, and our life. Thanks be to God. Amen.