Do Something Different with the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17)

If you want to do/use this, you’ll need a lunch box with a sandwich, a bag of chips, and Little Debbie cake (or variation).  You might try putting the notes in the lunch box on a brown paper bag.  

Laws similar to the Ten Commandments pop up all over what we now call the Middle East, in some recognizable form, 2000 to 1600 years before the birth of Jesus.  The cultures of the Fertile Crescent came to a collective understanding at about the same time and place that family matters, murder was wrong, theft a crime, and adultery destroys the moral fabric of communities.  After four thousand years, those ideas are still true.

When the version of those rules we’re most familiar with arrives in the English speaking world, it transcends its original audience and becomes something more akin to a founding document of the western Enlightenment.  For this we can thank King James I of England and the proliferation of his translation.

The words, like Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, became ours.  They were engraved, sometimes in stone but more often in the collective psyche of the American unconscious.  Each “thou shalt” beckon us to come forward.  The corresponding “thou shalt nots” slow down our bent to self-destruction.

In our quest to make Moses’ laws stick and become part of the fabric our nation and the English speaking world, we made them something they were never intended to be:  commandments.  The Bible calls them the “ten sayings” or “ten statements”.  You might even translate as the “ten words”.  The phrase “Ten Commandments” appears nowhere in Hebrew.  We made that up.  We took a harsh word and applied it to something in the Bible that God never said. Imagine, if people did that to the 10 commandments what if they’ve tried to do with things Jesus said?  That’s a discussion for another day.

They made something up, it stuck, and that’s determined for years how Christians have looked at this most important piece of scripture.  It’s possible, no, it’s not just possible, it’s a certainty this one editorial decision has warped more relationships with God any other thing in human history.  They are not commandments.  They’re sayings, words, parts of a conversation God is having with humanity.  If you start there it changes everything.

I want the 10 commandments to speak to us, like a note, placed in a lunchbox packed by a parent.  Yes, this is what they’re like: a note in a lunchbox written by a loving parent.  You’ll never forget that note.  You’ll remember that note long after you forgotten any stone monument outside a courthouse.

The first thing that jumps out at me is this:  We make God more formal and distant than God wants to be. God’s not as cold and stone like as we make God out to be.  God’s talking and eager for dialogue.  God is speaking, saying, and talking. God is speaking living words not standing still in dead stone.

What are those living words?  What is God saying?  What has God written?  I think we’ll find it is inspiration marked by brevity.

Let’s open our lunchbox.  Let’s see what God packed:

1) Don’t forget who made your lunch with love and care. No one else will do this for you.  God does this.  I do this, says God.  I’m God and I love you.  This is basis for everything.

2) Don’t trade your sandwich for something better. We will come back to this one over and over again.  You’ve got all you need for lunch (and life) right here and front you.  We have love and trust.  It’s our thing.  In fact, we’ve got love and trust in ALL things.  Why substitute anything else for what God does?  Who or what can make a sandwich like God does?

3) Do you know how hard it is to get up early in the morning and make a tasty sandwich? All of the work, effort, and time?  Please don’t take my love or the work I do for granted.  Your lunch, this sandwich, the bag of chips, the cake, and the soda is the embodiment of my love given in love.

4) Don’t forget to take a moment to side and eat your lunch/sandwich in peace. Don’t rush, eat in the go, or forget to eat.  You need a moment.  It is important to you and your health (spiritually, physically, and mentally).  The pause (let’s call it sacred time), what we’re doing right now, helps you remember the first three things we talked about.  So pause and take a deep breath.  Enjoy your sandwich.  Look around and notice life going on around you.  This time is about renewing our relationship with each other.

5) Relationships are important. I know you probably get tired of me writing and talking about that but it’s true.  I this is why a priority on our relationship with who made this particular sandwich comes after a reminder about remembering the Sabbath.  (The rabbis were always debating with each other, after the 10 commandments were written, why they were in this particular order.  What was the meaning of the order?  They’ve been talking about these questions for 2000 years?  Welcome to the club!)  Sabbath, weekends, Saturdays, Sundays, vacations, holidays; that’s when we get to know our Moms and Dads.  When spend more time with our parents on Sabbath time than at any other time.  Sabbath is important to honoring our relationship with who makes the sandwich and packs the lunch.  Sabbath creates the framework to really enjoy and appreciate how you dad uses mayonnaise and your mom’s selection of ham. Honor is a deep word with many ways in can be expressed, even with something as simple as a ham sandwich.

The second big thing that jumps out at me is this:  Life is about engaging with the present, honoring the past, and loving what’s in front of you while not taking anything for granted. 

Now, the sayings seem to get a little sterner.  These are the ones people know if you ask them to name one or more of the 10 commandments.  For some reasons, these are the ones that come to mind.

6) Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we need to be reminded that no sandwich is worth dying over. Life is too precious to die over trivial things like sandwiches.  Give away your sandwich before you take someone else’s.  Other’s sandwiches aren’t yours to take.  Whether you translate this as “do not kill” or “do not murder”, there’s too much death in our world.

7) We’re back to the placement issue? Why is adultery right after murder?  We always think somebody has better sandwich that’s tastier and going to fill us in ways God’s well packed lunch never will.  I don’t know.  Sandwich sharing, like this, divides communities, families, in ways that take the life right out otherwise vibrant people and situations.

8) You’ve got a sandwich, chips, and a little Debbie Cake. Why would you consider taking someone else’s?

The last thing which  jumps out at me is this:  The last four commandments are about looking at someone else’s relationship with God and seemingly forgetting that yours exists at all.

9) Focus on the goodness of your lunch, not the irrationality of the world around you. Speak words of truth and gratitude.

10) There’s stealing, adultery, and finally jealousy. Your sandwich is yours.  Don’t envy someone else’s Hot Pocket.  If you want something else, get up earlier, go to the store, cook it, and pack your own lunch.

 

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She Is Not a Whore or Harlot: Talking with the Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42)

Can you feel it?  I can hear it in the wind; blowing just beneath the blizzards, sleet, and rain.  What am I listening to?  Hint:  it’s not Mahler.  No, it is the growing chorus of preachers who are preparing sermons about the whore, prostitute, harlot, adulteress, and divorcee known as the Samaritan woman at the well.  The time-tested trope, the original Pretty Woman plot line and the mythology of the fallen female will be preached from pulpits all across the fruited plain.  Twisted new tales will be invented and older ones rehashed about why this woman is alone at high noon gathering water.  I hear Foghorn Leghorn’s voice in the back of my head, “I say, I say, boy, there’s something wrong with a single Samaritan woman getting water at mid day.  It’s not right, I tell you.”  They will all be wrong.  When it comes to this passage, no one seems to remember Occam’s razor:  the simplest explanation is always the best.

Could this be a chance encounter?  Might she be thirsty?  Yes and yes.  However, preachers love salacious gossip, especially when given the ability to cloak that gossip in the garments of preaching and worship.  We also like to condemn people in two thousand year old stories who can’t speak for themselves.   Is she who we’ve been led to believe?  No, she’s not.  It’s time to back up.  If we’ve been so wrong about this story from the first verse, maybe we’re wrong about the whole passage.  One step, in the wrong direction, at the very beginning may take us miles of course.

Jesus is travelling through the Samaritan countryside.  The Samaritans were theological renegades.  The mainstream Jewish community considered them unclean heretics.  They were outsiders in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine.  Most people hated the Samaritans.  It wasn’t a, “my religious practice is better than your religious practice” hatred.  It was what we would call racism.  Some People thought the Samaritans were less than human, inferior, and wrong.

Samaria was between Galilee and Judea.  The quickest way to go from Capernaum to Jerusalem was to go through Samaria.  Going along the coast roads was time consuming.  Jesus had no problem with Samaritan roads or people.  Our churches and Christians have stopped taking the Samaritan path altogether.  Not only do we judge this woman for no reason, our churches wouldn’t be caught dead spending time or traveling to modern day Samarias.    The long way is full of people who look, talk, and sound like us.  There is little risk in going via the Galilean road.  That is, until, we realize we are talking to ourselves.

Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon”, the Samaritan woman appears at high noon.  Who is she?  She is a Samaritan woman.  It is revealed she’s had five husbands.  John makes no assumptions, assertions, or statements about her character, lifestyle, or personal history. We do that.  If she is alone, it must be for a reason.  We invent rules which did not exist:  divorced adulteresses and prostitutes were required to go the well at noon.  Anybody with five husbands must be cheap, right?  No, not right.

We create an image of a woman who has failed at marriage and life because we need Jesus to show up and save our immoral lives.  Doesn’t Christianity really come to down personal morality?  Don’t I preach this passage because it’s my job to tell people who they love, who they can have sex with, and who they can marry? No and no.

People died young in the 1st century.  It wouldn’t have been uncommon or out of the ordinary for a woman to outlive her husband, even five times.  Between the death of one husband, a brother marrying this woman, another death or divorce; this woman’s story isn’t “Fifty Shades of Grey”.   It’s called living.  Churches and preachers screw up when we make moral judgments about good people simply trying to survive.

Why should we give the hard realities of 1st century living credit when preachers can infer that a woman is a whore?  It’s much easier to play the “she’s a tramp” card.   Talking about grief, loneliness, and the death of five husbands; that’s hard.

What’s missing from this story is “sin”.  Jesus never talks about sin or repentance.  Neither the author nor Jesus identifies the woman as a sinner.  Why?  Sin isn’t the issue.  The woman’s no more a sinner than any other person.  Unlike most people Jesus meets, the Samaritan woman gets “it”.

This woman recognizes Jesus, not from a lineup, a newspaper article, or because a friend invited her to church.  She “sees” Jesus.  In John, sight means belief.  The people who see are those who understand what’s going on with Jesus and his message.  Listen to her, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.”  Right there, she’s sees Jesus.  He performed no miracles or pronounced judgment on her past.   They talked about water.  A conversation brought Jesus’ identity to light.  Churches and Christians have lost the ability to have conversations with and about Jesus that are not tinged to moralizing, judgments, or personal attacks.

Jesus sees the Samaritan woman.  He tells her that God (the Father) is looking for women and men who worship in spirit and truth.  God is looking for people like her.  She acknowledges the limits.  “But you and your people say it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”  We know all about limits.  Can’t you hear her now?  You and your people say it’s necessary to go to a church with vibrant contemporary worship, a divorced singles groups, and who believe I’m an adulterer.   There is no place for me in the religious world you’ve created.

Jesus, says, “Not me”.  Jesus is about erasing limits and boundaries; such as the ones we created to shape our understanding of this passage. Within this brief encounter, we see a glimpse of the coming Kingdom of God.  This new belief which John’s readers have accepted is to be built upon the fundamental importance of people in community.  Jesus brings her into a new communion, a new community.  A relationship with one person should reflect our relationships with each other and ultimately God.  Jesus’ conversation this woman reveals these simple ideas:  our morality is shaped in a community, inequality based on exclusion disconnects people from God, and those who claim to know what’s right for everyone else’s life are usually wrong.

Jesus sees her for who she is because she’s not afraid to name the problem.  He sees an honest woman who is willing to reflect on the realities of faithful living.  Living water is more than a cute spiritual metaphor.  It’s stuff of life.  The water is at hand.  Jesus uses what is available, what makes sense, and what connects to our lives.  Jesus uses the water to create a framework.   The well is a lens.  Now she can see what she already knows to be true; Christ is coming and he will teach us new things.

It’s hard to learn new things when we keep preaching the same party line.  We’ll be less likely to see Jesus if we start down the path of misogyny and condemnation.  Sure, we can talk about repentance and leaving it all at the altar all we want.  The Samaritan woman can be the stand-in seductress she’s always been for centuries.  Or, we can take a cue from Jesus, who didn’t care about her marital status, relationship history, or call her a Samaritan sinner.  He brought her to faith without having to break her down.

Jesus sees people, we see issues.  Jesus sees life, we see gossip.  Jesus sees a future, we see today.  Jesus knows our lives; we pretend to know each other.   Jesus sees reality, we create myths.  And when we see Orthodoxy, are Methodists seeing Jesus?  No.

Food for Thought-On Certainty (Luke 13:1-9)

Certainty vs_ Uncertainty

We crave certainty.  If you don’t believe me, watch a presidential debate and see what lines from which candidates draw the most applause.  When someone speaks with certainty, they will be rewarded.  It is the definitive certainty of statements which matters to voters. At this point in our history, the need for certainty is driving our political process.  Certainty is also at the heart of our religious beliefs.  To put it simply, we want to know our beliefs are right and that at the end of the day, what we believe will keep us out of Hell.

There is little certainty in Jesus’ words and parables.  Despite our fixation with certainty and our reliance on Biblical passages that appear to promote certainty, Jesus speaks in ambiguous terms.  Jesus is intentionally vague, open-ended, and uncertain.  When we hear what Jesus says, it’s possible to walk away feeling uncertain about his meaning. It could be this or another thing or does he mean something only people living in the first century would understand?  To religiously minded people craving certainty, Jesus isn’t making it any easier to be a 21st century American Christian.

Jesus inherited one singular idea from his religious ancestors.  Faith is a mysterious and uncertain affair.  Moses and Abraham were the first two people in Jesus’ spiritual family tree to come to terms with this idea.  If we are in a relationship with God, it means we are in a perpetual deficit of knowledge.  Isaiah echoes this idea when he says, “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are you ways my ways, says the Lord.”  It’s not that our plans aren’t aligned with God’s; we don’t know God’s plans in order to make an initial alignment.  So often we repeat this verse with the underlying assumption that God’s ways are knowable, definable, and manageable.  We forget we’re talking about God.  Uncertainty is the defining principle of our relationship with God.  We take faith out of the equation.  We demand concrete, knowable evidence of God’s will.  When we don’t get or see the proof we demand, someone must be wrong.  Did we sin or is God unfaithful? It can’t be that God is unknowable.  This is what we’ve been conditioned to believe.

At the beginning of the 13th chapter of Luke, Jesus is approached by a group of people who have had their certainty and their faith challenged.  Their spiritual and physical world is in chaos.  Pontius Pilate has massacred a group of Jewish worshippers.  Far from the tepid Roman bureaucrat who simply wanted to do the right thing, history shows Pilate to be a genocidal villain and violent enforcer of Roman laws.   Innocent religious people were murdered by the soldiers of a dictatorial colonial power.  Politically, the Romans used violence to retain control.

Those incensed by the massacre wondered “why?”  Where was God when they were doing their required temple duties?  Why didn’t God save them?  They were certain of their relationship with God?  Had they sinned at some point for this punishment to be brought upon them?  These were the questions they brought to Jesus.

The implication of last question caught Jesus’ attention.  Were they really saying the Galileans were dead because of some sin they committed?  There is, perhaps, no more a disgusting thought in the history of Jude-Christian theology than that people deserve to die because of some sin they committed or their family committed some generations ago.  Is this what these people believed?  Did Jesus hear them right? Using that logic, Pilate was an instrument of God’s will.  Clearly, that idea was abhorrent to Jesus.  Jesus says, “No, that’s not the case.”  However, “unless you change your outlook on faith, your ability to believe in God will be destroyed.  You’ll destroy yourself.” You cannot continue to look at faith this way.  If this is what you believe, it will kill you and destroy your ability to encounter the uncertain mystery at the heart of any relationship with God.  This is what Jesus means when he says, “Unless you change your hearts you will die as they did.”  He’s not saying Pilate is going to kill them.  Jesus tells them, you will be buying into the skillfully crafted arrogance that says everything must be explained as coming from God or sometimes not.  That kind of arrogance is deadly.  It is wrong.

Jesus takes his answer one step further.  In order to make the larger point, he reminds his listeners about another tragedy, well-known throughout ancient Israel.  A giant tower fell, collapsed, and killed eighteen people.  Everyone knew about the great tower of Siloam.  Think of it like the Kennedy Assassination or September 11th, the people there knew exactly where they were when they heard the news.

Jesus poses the same question.  “Do you think they were guiltier of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?”  Everyone, Jesus asked.  Were they greater or lesser sinners than everyone who lives in Jerusalem?  Was it somehow part of God’s master plan for 18 innocent people to die and all of the others (both good and many notoriously bad) to survive unscathed?  Surely God would have preferred to wipe out the corrupt temple rulers or the evil Romans before killing 18 innocent people?  These are the questions Jesus wanted his listeners to ask themselves; questions allowing them to define the inherent uncertainties of their relationship to God.

As with Jesus’ earliest followers, our quest for certainty leads us to focus on issues far removed from God.  We look for blame, we must know who has sinned and who is at fault.  If we can identify the sin in another person, we feel better.  We’re off the religious hook.  Our certainty with God is assured.  These activities keep churches and preachers occupied while the victims of Pilate’s atrocities and those lying under the rubble of the Siloam tower scream out for “Help”!  We see the bloody images, circle the corpses, walk around the rubble, and like Jesus’ questioners, say to ourselves, “They must have sinned and done something really wrong to deserve this kind of treatment. God wouldn’t have let this happen unless it was for some really important reason.  It must be part of the plan.”  Jesus says it’s not part of the plan for innocent people to suffer and die.  Please get age old lie out of your heads this morning.

Look at this parable, he tells this bewildered group of certain blame gamers.  There is a farmer and a gardener, or as some translations say, a “landowner” and a “gardener”.  The landowner has a fruit tree which has been on the low yield side over the past few years.  The gardener, the person in daily care of the fruit tree tells the landowner not to take drastic action.  He says, “Don’t cut it down!”  The landowner is concerned he’s wasting fertilizer, space, and money on something that’s not producing.  I’m sure by this point in the crowd heads were nodding.  They were all saying, “I’d cut that tree down too!”  “You can’t be expected to maintain a fruitless tree forever! A man can’t throw good money after bad!  I’m going put me a tree in that spot  that’s going to make me some money!”

To many listeners, the tree did something wrong. Whether the tree was born unable to grow or was nurtured into sinful unproductivity, I can’t say.  The reality is this:  the tree was flawed, sinful, and needed to die.  The landowner had lost logic, patience, and all uncertainty.  The gardener, who sounds a great deal like Jesus says, “No, it needs at least one more year.” Despite the overwhelming negative evidence,  wasn’t as certain about the future.  He was hopeful.

It’s not a part of the plan for innocent people to die.  How willing are we to become like Pontius Pilate in our quest for divine certainty?  How willing are we to second guess God?  How willing are you able to embrace another year of uncertainty with God for no reason other than Jesus says, “Give me more time!”

But Jesus, we say, “What will you do in that additional year?”  What if the landowner comes back in a year and we have no fruit or it’s misshapen and ugly?  We need to be certain.  Or do we?

 

Food for Thought-Isaiah 55 Sounds Like A Bernie Sanders Stump Speech

Isaiah

55 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The Old Testament reading for the third Sunday of Lent is from the prophet Isaiah.  The first nine verses of the 55th chapter are among of the most well-known words in the Old Testament.  I remember this passage clearly from high school.  The pastor of my home church brought a fad Christian diet program, aptly named the “Isaiah 55” diet to our congregation.  It was founded on the scriptural weight loss premise that, “we spent money for what wasn’t food and ate things which didn’t satisfy.”  This was true. I liked cheap hamburgers and soft drinks.  It was nice to have a prophetic injunction which urged me to eat healthy.

Between dreaming of burgers I couldn’t eat and memories of a Methodist youth, I thought about Isaiah’s words.  For some reason, at this time, right now, and I mean at this instant, they sounded familiar to me.  It’s as if I’ve been hearing them on a regular basis over the past few months.  Where is the Isaiah coming from? I’ve not read any new books on Isaiah.  Is Isaiah simply resonating with my Lenten journey?  It is almost as if he’s in the ether.  Here’s what occurred to me.

If I didn’t tell you who wrote these words, were I not to say from which book they came or quoted from a certain person, who would you guess said them?  Given what’s happening in America, the issues being raised by the election contests and candidates, which candidate would you guess said these statements?

“All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, at no cost buy food and eat!  Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!  Why spend money for what isn’t food and your earning for what doesn’t satisfy?  Listen.”

Who does this sound like?  Does it reflect any of the Republican candidates to encourage people without money to eat for free?  If it does, you’re not listening close enough.  Does it sound like Hillary Clinton?  Even Hillary’s not giving away free food.  She wants people to work for some of their food.  Hillary says it’s too extravagant to expect anyone to expect food for free.  That leaves only one choice.  Isaiah sound like Bernie Sanders.  Has someone told Isaiah?  Has anyone called Senator Sanders?   The God of Isaiah wants of feed and comfort people at no cost.  God doesn’t want them to live lives of empty self-satisfaction.  Is Bernie reading Isaiah?  Have we discovered his secret campaign handbook? 1-sensanders_sncc_bernie-sanders-uofc_1963_1160

It’s amazing what God is willing to give away for free without concern for market economics, any knowledge of capitalism, or an appreciation for the American way of life.  Does God not care about wealth, the American dream, freedom, or sounding like a socialist?  No, no, yes, and no.  God, if this gets out, that you’re so anti money and into giving food away, the people on the Fox News Channel will savage your chances at being anyone’s first choice as a major world divinity.

God is huge on freedom.  There’s no doubt about it.  To paraphrase Donald J. Trump, “God is a big freedom God.  He is biggest, most beautiful freedom God you’ve ever met.”  But here’s the thing; freedom, as American Christians have come to define it, bears little resemblance to the reality God offers in the Bible.  God, the one Isaiah speaks for, doesn’t seem to care about the things most American Christians believe to be so politically and socially important.  In fact, Isaiah’s words would be belittled, ridiculed, and demeaned by many Christians as un-American, un-Christian, and contributing to the downfall of American Christianity and Judeo-Christian civilization.  When Senator Sanders (or others) say the same things Isaiah says, that’s what happens.  We’re told religion has no place in politics.  It’s wrong to talk about feeding the poor and satisfying the basic needs of humanity.  The pundits claim meeting people’s needs with abundant grace and love erodes individual liberty.  So what do we do?  File a resolution with General Conference? Do a caustic PowerPoint? We could write God a strongly worded letter.

Dear God:  

Your compassion for the poor is misplaced and reeks of Socialism.

Yours,

Angry Christian Voter   

But wait, how can the God of Israel be wrong and contributing to God’s own downfall?  Isn’t God always right?  Does anyone want to go on record contradicting Isaiah or God?  Where are my literalist brothers and sisters?  Do we only take God at God’s word if it’s condemning sexual relationships out of historical context?

Is it possible a substantial portion of American Christians are misreading the Bible and living their faith in ways incongruent with the reality it portrays?  I think it’s a real possibility.  It’s a question worth exploring.

Is Bernie a democratic socialist?  Yes. Does God sound like a socialist?  Yes.  If that makes you uncomfortable, try prayer.  It works wonders.