Monday, November 27, 2017

11-19-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of No Way: Consecrating”

11-19-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of No Way: Consecrating”
(Sorry, no audio recording available here this week, but you can find it on our Facebook page)

   How many of you, when you sleep, dream on a regular basis?
Do you usually remember your dreams, or do they quickly go away when you wake? I’ve been fighting that cold I told you about last Sunday all week, and I’ve been taking NyQuil at night to help me sleep. 
And I’ve noticed that when I take cold medicine I dream more frequently, and also, that my dreams get really strange, you know, even kind of bizarre sometimes. 
   It is said by some researchers that our dreams are, in part, our subconscious mind working out issues we encountered during the day. Others suggest that they might include as well our mind dealing with our fears, our anxieties, and our desires. 
In our technology saturated world, it was no surprise when I encountered an article years ago comparing the dream-creating work that our brains do at night to a computer hard drive organizing and reorganizing bits of data, scanning and categorizing files, and repairing bits of damaged or corrupted memory. 
I don’t know, I just know that NyQuil makes my dreams all just a bit more vivid, just a bit stranger.
   There have been times when I’ve secretly wished that I would dream when I went to sleep. 
I’ve hoped to dream of my parents at times, especially on those important dates, their birthdays or the dates on which they died. While I can still remember their faces, their voices have faded from my memory after all these years - I can no longer hear them in my heads; 
I can’t remember the timbre or pitches of their voices when they talked, when they laughed. 
So, there have been times that I’ve wished that I would dream of them so that I could remember those things. 
I know some of you, when I’ve visited and talked with you after the loss of a loved one, have shared with me that you just wish you would dream of them, so that you could see them again. Dreams can be a very powerful part of our lives.
   Sometimes, though, when we speak of dreams we don’t mean what goes on in our minds during REM sleep. Rather, we mean things we aspire to or hope for. 
We might dream of our wedding day, or of a big promotion, or of hitting the lottery. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously shared a dream in a sermon in which he said he dreamed of a day when people would be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 
I don’t know whether he actually dreamed that while sleeping, or if he was simply stating a desire, an aspiration. Either way, it’s an image, a desire that I would think we could all cling to, hope for.

   Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a dreamer. 
We heard his story a couple of weeks ago. 
He both dreamed and interpreted dreams, which sometimes got him into trouble but at other times saved his life and the lives of others. Before Joseph, though, I have to believe that Abram and Sarai, prior to the angel coming to them the first time, dreamed of having a family of their own, only to see their hope fade as they grew older and remained childless. Later, their dreams changed after that divine visitor appeared, rekindling the spark of that desire. 
We hear and read about dreams all through scripture, in both testaments, that shape or are integral to the story that we’re being told. Sometimes those dreams seem to come straight from God, other times they seem just like so much Nyquil-induced hodge-podge. 

   After four hundred years in slavery, but likely earlier than that, the Israelite people dreamed of freedom from Egypt. But when God heard their cries and sent Moses and they were confronted with the reality of what freedom entailed, the dream suddenly seemed more like a nightmare. In our reading this week, though, having been delivered through the sea to freedom, and while wandering in the desert, they have yet another experience with God. Following a column of smoke and fire in which God is present, guiding them through the wilderness, God leads them to a mountain. 
And God calls Moses to come up the mountain to stand before God on behalf of the people. And God tells Moses: 
“Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’

   And we recognize some dream-like qualities here, right? God didn’t literally bring them out on eagle’s wings - God is speaking metaphorically here, and creates a vision. But God says that they are “a special treasure to God, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests.” A kingdom of priests? 
On a scale ranging from nightmare to sweet dreams that would have to be nightmare, right? 
In all of my dreams of what I wanted to be growing up, from policeman to astronaut to gangster and everything in between, I assure you priest (or pastor) never came up! Yet, here I am. 

   In this passage, God consecrates the people of Israel, to be a nation of priests, but what does that mean? 
To consecrate something means to set it apart, to bless it, to make it sacred. Note I said, “set apart,” not set above. Israel wasn’t elevated above the other nations that God had also delivered that we heard about before, they were set apart for a very specific role - to be a nation of priests. When a clergy person is ordained, it’s a form of consecration by the bishop. And contrary to how some think about the role of ordained clergy are not set above the laity within the church. 
All Christians are called into ministry in our baptism, you, me, everyone sitting in this sanctuary and all other sanctuaries like this; we are all called, baptized into ministry, what is called the priesthood of all believers. Clergy, rather than being set above are simply set apart for very defined roles that require specific training and a different type of commitment. In much the same way Israel is set apart for God, to be consecrated, to be made sacred, to be different from other nations.

   How were they to be different? 
Well God had some ideas about that. 
Ten of them to be exact. 
Ten ideas or commandments about how to be a set apart community, consecrated to God. 

And these ten fit neatly into two that Jesus would later call the Great Commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. 
   And we can see how the ten fit neatly into those two. 
The first four are about our relationship with God. 
The fifth is kind of a transition piece, and then the final five are about our relationship with one another. 
Love of God, love of neighbor. So let’s look at these ten and consider how in our context, we might understand them. 
   First, no other gods. It seems easy enough, but the 16th century reformer Martin Luther rightly points out that our real gods are whatever motivates us, drives us, inspires us, even owns us. So what are our other gods? Consumerism? Nationalism? Political philosophy? Militarism? Racism? Some other ism?
   No images of God? Well, scripture says we are made in the image of God, and we know that Jesus is the perfect image and revelation of God - so other creature-like images, whether of the Egyptian hieroglyphic variety or the Wall Street golden bull, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, the American Eagle, or you name it, mislead when we put them above, or even on par with the one true God.
   Do not take the Lord’s name in vain? 
You know, I think God is less concerned about someone using God’s name as part of a swear word than with politicians and others, including church folk, who try to attach God’s name to things, ideas, beliefs, policies, political parties, that are not of God. 
Or with those who claim to be persons of great faith, when all evidence of their words and actions point to the contrary.
   Remember the Sabbath? We don’t know how to rest in God anymore. We’re attached to these stupid gadgets with a digital umbilical cord, that if we’re asked or expected to put them down - or heaven forbid turn them off - you’d think we were going to die. 
Sabbath on a Sunday doesn’t always work for people, but the day of the week is less important than the taking of sabbath time. We take Sabbath because God took Sabbath. As creatures made in the image of God these first four commandments model for us what living in God’s image is to look like, and we honor the Sabbath because it is the day God set aside for rest, for reflection, for thanksgiving. Our actions are to correspond with God’s actions, our character with God’s character.
   Then we move to the fifth commandment, which is 
a link or a bridge to the final five. 
The commands that govern the divine-human relationship in the first four are linked to those that govern our human communal relationship - Love of God, love of neighbor. So “honor your father and your mother” reflects not only the literal understanding of these words, but also the parental relationship that often serves as a metaphor for our relationship with God as parent. 
And like the first four, it is stated in a positive formulation, “do this,” rather than in the prohibitory language of the final five. So it’s important to recognize that the laws that govern the divine-human interactions are linked to those that govern human relationships. 
Our morality, our ethics of how we are with one another are grounded in our experience of how we are with God. 
   Don’t kill? Jesus spent a lot of time dealing with this one, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder. And if there is anything in our culture as commonplace 
as Sabbath-stealing technology, it’s anger. 
In Bexley a few months ago, a Jewish family came home from synagogue to find swastikas painted on their garage door. Last year the family of a gay high school student in Columbus woke one morning to find hate language chalked at the end of their driveway. 
A Muslim high school student was shot and killed while walking home from school on the east side earlier this year. Neo-nazi and white supremacists feel empowered to parade through the streets waving nazi flags, confederate flags, and to shout hate from the highest peaks. 
And many do this while claiming to be Christian! 
Were we to revise/update the ten commandments for today, an easy one would be Thou shalt not kill
If Jesus was right (if?), then a revision would make it Thou shalt not hate! And as followers of Jesus Christ, we do not, we can not, defend hate. Ever. 
   At the same time, we are a society that accepts killing as normal and acceptable. We’re the only country in the world plagued by this overwhelming onslaught of mass shootings, one every day this year. 
But we’re also the only country in the world that allows such easy access to guns. As theologian and pastor Rev. James Howell wrote so eloquently, 
"Thou shalt not kill" wasn't [merely] an individualistic commandment, but God's way of creating a kind of community, a kind of nation where killing wasn't a thing; so what do we as the church, which is part of the nation, need to labor toward so killing [which is so rampant in America] is reduced?”

   And Howell continued,  
   “I blogged last year… on the futility of, after a shooting, good people saying "our thoughts and prayers are with"... whomever. My blog said it's time to stop the prayers and do something. The commandment, "no other gods," may also figure in this. Political ideology is modernity's idolatry, and the ideology of absolute gun rights has to be the [prime] example of this. [This is] 
perilous territory, but somehow, gently but strongly, this has to be named and exposed. [Paul’s letter to the] Philippians speaks of losing anything, even everything, for the sake of knowing Jesus — so what do we need to lose, to set aside, to be close to the Jesus who is grieved by [Sandy Hook, Charleston, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Orlando, Texas and so many others] but also who is pleading with us to be a very different kind of people?”

   No adultery (in a culture where sex is used as a marketing tool, and where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment, not to mention abuse, assault, and harrasment is all over the media)? 
Jesus said if you lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. There’s no condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters what John calls “a woman caught in adultery” and tells her accusers, all of whom are men, that the one without sin can cast the first stone. Note, there was no condemnation from the religious folks for the man caught in adultery, only for the woman. Echoes of which we hear today as women, and some men, find the strength to stand up and name those who have assaulted, molested, and harassed sexually - and they are attacked by those who would defend patriarchy. Adultery can be sexual in nature, but throughout scripture it is also used in parallel with idolatry, which ties this one back to the first two commandments as well. Maybe pleasure is our god, or patriarchy.
   No stealing? John Wesley said when we fail to provide overabundant charity to the poor that it’s theft. 
And we’ve also been told that since all that we have is from God, then the excess we store away, the food in our pantries, the clothes in our closets, belong to the hungry and the naked. Theft doesn’t have to be blatant or obvious. Greed is a form of theft as well. Policies that take from the poor in order to give to the rich are as much stealing as is armed robbery.
   No coveting? Coveting is the engine of capitalism! 
If it weren’t for wanting the newest, the latest, the glitziest, our economy would crash and burn. 
Have we made capitalism into a god as well? 
What did the President tell us to do in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Go spend money, go buy something, go out to dinner, go to a movie. To covet is to worship at the altar of another god.

   So, this passage of scripture has become one of the most contested, politicized, misunderstood and often trivialized texts in scripture. Many Christians, misunderstanding Paul’s writings, take a negative view 
of the law; while other Christians loudly proclaim the commandments wanting them to be posted in public, in court houses, in school houses, but always in judgment of others, and rarely if ever for critical self-reflection. As Christians, why don’t we ever see people clamoring to have the Beatitudes displayed in public?
   But self-reflection is what is called for here, both with this passage and in our society. Because I believe that often, as we do with many passages of scripture, we weaponize these words when they were meant to bring freedom and liberation. When Jesus says ‘those without sin can cast the first stone,’ who among us can rise up?
 When our anger and our hate is murder, when our lust is adultery, when our consumerism, our racism, or our political ideology have become our god, who are we to judge another? And when the loudest and most public proponents of holding others to these standards are the ones who most clearly and publicly have violated them, what are we to say? 

   The path to freedom and liberation offered in this passage was well-understood by Martin Luther, who noticed the immense grace of God in each commandment. Certainly they stand before us as a mirror, revealing our sin — which then is the beginning of grace. There is mercy hidden in each command. 
God, in consecrating Israel, and through Christ us as well, in mercy liberates us from our burdens by declaring “You don’t have to have other gods. You can rest. 
You don’t have to covet. I’ve provided all you need. 
There is enough - even more than enough. 
You don’t have to live this life of hate, and fear, and violence - live instead, in me, as I live in you!”
   Brevard Childs says, “The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.” 
And it has been suggested elsewhere that in providing these commandments, God was casting a vision, sharing God’s dream, of what a community, a world centered in God’s love might look like. A world without competing ideologies, a world without damaging relationships, where all that we do and all that we are about was loving God and loving one another, reflecting the image of the God who created us. 

   James Howell shared in a blogpost that a song that he and his daughter danced to at her wedding helped him to rethink the Ten Commandments. “Somewhere over the rainbow…there’s a land that I dreamed of…Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” 
I don’t know what you dream of, I’m not always certain about what I dream of, but I think today’s scripture gives us an idea of what it is that fills God’s dreams. 
What would it be like to dream a life of holiness or sacredness or to dream a life of intimacy with God? Maybe in this season of giving thanks for all that God has given us, we can reimagine the Ten Commandments as God’s dream of such a life for us. 
And then as songwriter Richard O’Brien put it, 
“don’t dream it - be it.”


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