Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lent 3B - Exodus 20: 1-17 (The Ten Commandments)

Turn, Turn, Turn
I am not sure if it is the Neo-Platonism that crept into the early church, or the cult of individualism that accompanied the Reformation, but the Church and Christians seem to misconstrue a number of things about what I will call Biblical Religion. Thus we find ourselves conspiring with temptation, the Devil, evil, “the other side,” or whatever else we call it – aided of course by our free will or free choice. All of which may lead to some misunderstandings about Lent – which I will claim is a time of Shabbat/Sabbath and Repentance.

Shabbat, we may have noticed, is the longest of the original 10 Commandments, and together with the command against idolatry they make up approximately two-thirds of the entire passage in Exodus. I think that is meant to get our attention – idolatry is the one sin YHWH the God of Israel and Jesus is most concerned with, and Sabbath time, time off, is of utmost importance in being the people of God – or one might say, living into our being created imago Dei, in the image of God, a God who takes time out.

We might also notice that only one commandment is repeated twice: the tenth – “Thou shalt not covet…and [perhaps you did not hear me the first time] thou shalt not covet.” Such repetition in Biblical Hebrew and ancient rhetoric is another form of emphasis: pay attention, underlined, bolded and in italics!!! Desire, observed the Buddha some six hundred years before Jesus, is the root of all human suffering – call it what you will: desire, greed, consumption, envy – you can take your pick of the seven deadly sins. We want what we ain’t got = covetousness. Or, we refuse to dare to think we may in fact have enough of what we really need.  Covetousness leads to love of self over others, self-reliance, say the Hebrew Prophets also some six hundred years earlier than Jesus, and is why we end up in exile, even when we are at home under the military occupation of Rome. No wonder Jesus is so upset in John 2:13-22!

These three commands combine to keep us focused on the primary lessons gleaned from the 40 years in the wilderness, which were years of spiritual formation, and from Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which are cast as a return to where the important lessons are to be learned. We are mistaken if we see the wilderness as a bad place – whether the metaphor is about being literally in the Sinai wilderness, or enslaved in Egypt, or captive in Babylon, or enslaved to sins like idolatry and covetousness does not matter. The lessons learned in the wilderness are summarized in Deuteronomy as a choice: choose life, or choose death.  If we choose life it is to be a life in which we love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our strength (Deut 6), and to love our neighbor as our self (Lev 19).

So covetousness leads to idolatry of gods, things, people, even money and what not. We place some thing or things as more important than God. Note the fact that idols in the Bible are gods cast in silver and gold – that is, religion cast as money, or money cast as religion. (Psalm 115) We are so upfront about this in our culture that we actually name and tune-in weekly to a show called American Idol! God knows we need time, then, to turn away from our many idolatries.

Enter Shabbat – Shabbat is not a religious observance, but rather a political and economic declaration that we are no longer slaves working 24/7, 365 days of the year and 366 days in Leap Year. What Sabbath represents is a gift of God from God of a day – a day to turn away from all that distracts our attention the other six days of the week and to turn our attention, or literally re-turn, to God, family and neighbor. Biblical religion is community oriented – that is, it is not to be construed as just another self-help program to be worked on individually. The religion of the Bible, and therefore the religion of Jesus, is about the overall health of the whole community. And it is YHWH’s contention that once a week (at least!) we need to unplug, un-attach as the Buddha would say, and do something like the Tao Te Ching commands, wei wu wei  - doing -not -doing, which as I emphasize with my students who think that sounds just great, does not mean doing nothing. The phrase begins with “doing.” Lao T’zu, the author of the world’s second most published book next to the Bible, sees value in doing whatever it is one needs to do to re-connect with the Tao – which is as inscrutable as YHWH on top of Mount Sinai. “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” proclaims the Tao Te Ching.

What I am suggesting then is that Lent is a kind of 40-day Sabbath time to Repent – which in the Biblical Hebrew is represented by a word pronounced shuve – shuve means to turn, or to re-turn. It is as the Shaker Hymn popularized by Aaron Copeland puts it: we are to turn, turn ‘til we come down right.

We would do well to note that the Gospel of Mark begins with John the baptizer down at the River Jordan calling people to repent – to turn away from Rome, to turn away from covetousness and idolatry of all kinds, and to re-turn to God. We do even better to note that Jesus arrives at this communal act of repentance and joins in. This is how the story begins. It is a time to turn back to love of God and love of neighbor. Love of neighbor does not mean that you even have to like your neighbor. As the Bible defines it love of neighbor means to do something helpful or beneficial for others – all others, even the strangers sojourning in your land, or as the Bible likes to call them, “resident aliens.”

So Lent is a time to shake off all covetousness, all idolatries and all the temptations of the Devil that separate us from the love of God and love of neighbor. Which requires us to shuve – to turn, turn and return, which as the Shakers proclaim will be to our ultimate delight!

We are so addicted to so many temptations – coal, oil, motor cars, agro-business, markets, you name it – that we need to go back to Ash Wednesday’s liturgy and read and pray and re-pray the litany of all our multitude of sins that make life in the greater community so terribly compromised. We also need time out – Sabbath, wei wu wei, time for doing-not-doing, whatever shape that needs to take to un-attach our selves from our desires. For the Tao Te Ching that means things like endless wandering, creative quietude, or simply sitting in silence like the Quakers. The other side of wei wu wei, Sabbath time, is altruism, and altruism is also the other side of egoism, and egoism is the road-block to community and leads us into all those things we confessed on Ash Wednesday (BCP 267).

To begin this work I un-attach from talk-radio in car – 105.7 The Fan, and yes, NPR – and listen to nothing but classical music, beginning with the eleven symphonies of Mahler as I ride to and from work, on errands, etc. And this year I have been reading the poetry and essays of Wendell Berry who has a lot to say about our myriad addictions which damage not only our souls and our communities, but the very earth itself.

And finally, I like to begin with this adaptation of a song by the outstanding gospel singer, Dorothy Norwood, Shake the Devil Off.

Shake, shake, shake, shake the devil off (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off

When he says forget about God, shake the devil off (3X)
In the Name of Jesus, shake the devil off
When you idolize, covet and desire, shake the devil off (3X)

Shuve, shuve, shuve, turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about

Love the Lord with all your heart and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about
Love your neighbor as yourself and turn yourself about (3x)
In the Name of Jesus, turn yourself about

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