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Lent 3 – 3/7/2021 – St. Paul’s

Among the many changes that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into our lives is a change in how we define and “do” church. How we live and move and have our being.  What is church, these days?  Is it the livestream service we watch on YouTube?  Is it the gathering of the faithful over Zoom?  Is it the private devotional time we spend with God in our living rooms?  Whatever it is, it is not business as usual.  For better or for worse, our global circumstances have forced us to change.  To question.  To deepen our comprehension of what church means and how to live our life.

I know that for many of us, this has been an occasion for sorrow.  We wish we could go back to how things were.  But even in our grief and longing, I wonder if God is issuing a hidden invitation.  A hidden invitation to reimagine, develop, evolve, and grow–personally and as a church.  A hidden invitation to ask the most basic, ground-level questions about what we’re doing, and why.

The first lectionary reading given us for this third Sunday in Lent is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. These Big Ten were given to Israel by Moses at Mt. Sinai just after they had left Egyptian slavery. The Ten Commandments are rules by which to maintain their recent emancipation from Egypt.

As you know, the Ten Commandments begin with the identification of the God who liberated Israel from Egypt: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…

The word Egypt refers to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh is the abusive, brutalizing king of Egypt who practiced and exploited a concentration of power and wealth. You will notice that we do not know Pharaoh’s name and that is because Pharaoh keeps turning up in our history time after time. So, Pharaoh is the right name for every brutalizing concentration of wealth and power that acts in violence against vulnerable people. The Exodus is the powerful acknowledgement of that brutalizing domain of human history from which we have been emancipated.

At the outset, the Ten Commandments named this emancipatory God:

         I am the Lord your God.

            I am the Lord of the Exodus.

            I am the God who emancipated you.

            I am the Lord of new promises.

It is an announcement that the world is under new governance. That new governance is detailed in the Ten Commandments. They are rules for freedom and justice that contrast with the bondage and injustice of Pharaoh. The covenant at Sinai is a warning that if you do not keep these commandments, you will be back in the grip of Pharaoh and his insatiable demands.

Back to having to produce on demand,

            Back in the rat-race of production and consumption,

            Back in fear and anxiety and alienation,

            Back in hostility toward the neighbor.

Thus, the Ten Commandments are strategies for staying emancipated once you get away from Pharaoh. This new strategy, first of all, says you have to honor God – that’s the first three commandments – to the exclusion of every idol, every “ism” such as racism, or sexism, or nationalism, or the worship of stuff that is rare or precious or attractive or beautiful or empowering.

The new strategy means in the Ten Commandments to take the neighbor with utmost seriousness. So, the last five commandments are all about the neighbor and treating neighbors with legitimacy and dignity and viability and especially disadvantaged neighbors – not to violate the neighbor for the sake of greed.

And between these two commandments of honoring God and taking the neighbor seriously, at the center of the Ten Commandments, is Sabbath day. Keep Sabbath: take a break from the rat-race of busyness and exhaustion and do not let Pharaoh define your life.

If we think about these three strategies in the Ten Commandments, each of them contrasts with the way of Pharaoh. Pharaoh believes that there are many loyalties all of which enslave. Pharaoh believes that there are no real neighbors and Pharaoh never stops for Sabbath. It’s 24-7. Moses at Mt. Sinai declares that there are new possibilities for life beyond the pressures of anxiety and fearfulness and greed.

So, it occurred to me that this is just about the right text for Lent. Because Lent is a process of moving our life into new zones of reality. So, there are three tasks to do in Lent. The first task is to recognize the ways in which we have accepted Pharaoh’s domain as normal. We have normalized anxiety and fear. We have normalized scarcity and we have normalized exhaustion. We have normalized a way of living that is in violation of the Ten Commandments.

The second work of Lent is to recognize the deep alternative to which Moses and then Jesus invites us. So, when Jesus called his first disciples and said, Follow me, he invited them to an alternative life that wasn’t preoccupied with fear, that wasn’t preoccupied with scarcity but practiced abundance and that wasn’t preoccupied with exhaustion.

So, the first task of Lent is to see Pharaoh clearly and the second task of Lent is to ponder these strategies for emancipation that are offered by Moses and then by Jesus. And the third work of Lent involves intentionality and discipline, the kind that every addict must practice in order to break additive habits. Lenten discipline is not about giving up chocolate, even if that’s a good idea, it is about giving up the expectations of Pharaoh for greed and ideology and anti-neighborliness and exhaustion. And it is the work, this discipline is the work that all of us may practice in Lent.

Finally, our epistle reading for today from 1 Corinthians 1 shows us that in the life of Jesus and the cross of Jesus that Jesus has doubled down on the Ten Commandments. So, it is said in 1 Corinthians 1 that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Paul might have said God’s foolishness is wiser than Pharaoh’s wisdom. So, Lent is a time for foolishness:

   Foolish enough to welcome a wayward son home;

            Foolish to forgive seventy times seven;

            Foolish to pay workers who show up late for work;

            Foolish to feed a crowd with only two fish;

            Foolish to stop for a mugged stranger and pay for his health care;

            Foolish to defy the rulers of the world.

Then Paul says the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. He might have said the weakness of God is stronger than Pharaoh’s strength. Imagine that! People like us have learned how to be strong: don’t show any weakness! Have economic strength: keep your job. Have military strength to fend off every threat. Have psychic strength so as not to be exploited. And then Jesus interrupts us with his dangerous weakness:

The weakness of generosity toward those who may exploit;

            Weakness to touch lepers and to heal the undeserving;

            Weakness to enter into conflict with the empire, and come out as Easter life;

            Weakness of mercy and justice, and fidelity in a world that easily dismisses such              practices.

Questions to consider pondering: Where, I’m asking myself during this Lenten season, has my power to act, to deepen relationship, or to love fiercely, atrophied?  

Where has my faith become so rote, so abstract, so disembodied, that I no longer find it natural or easy to rejoice with those who rejoice, or mourn with those who mourn?  

Where am I refusing to ask the hard questions — the questions that will pull me into uncharted and risky territory for the sake of the church, Christ’s body?

Whenever the pandemic winds down, our communities open up, and we find ourselves free to return to business as usual on Sunday mornings, I hope we won’t.  I hope we’ll remember Jesus, who upended the temple when it forgot how to be the Father’s house.  I hope we’ll burn with the passion that animated the whip-wielding, coin-scattering Christ.  I hope we’ll settle for nothing less than churches that are, truly, houses for prayer, welcome, freedom, and hope for all nations online and in person.

So, we know the work of Lent. We know the work of Lent from Moses. We know the work of Lent from Jesus. We know the work of Lent from Paul. And it is work that is to be done if we are not to kill each other and our planet. It is the work of staying emancipated from Pharaoh. And without such Lenten work, we find ourselves back in a system that cannot make us safe and cannot make us happy. The good news is that God intends otherwise for us and has shown us how to get there.

Let us pray:

Lord God,

help us to live out your gospel in the world.

We pray for those who do not know your love,

that they would be wooed by your goodness

and seduced by your beauty.

Form us in a family that runs deeper than

biology or nationality or ethnicity,

a family that is born again in you.

May we be creators of holy mischief 

and agitators of comfort…

people who do not accept the world as it is

but insist on its becoming what you want it to be.

Let us groan as in the pains of childbirth

for your kingdom to come on earth

as it is in heaven.

Help us to be midwives of that kingdom. AMEN+