Be Not Afraid – Palm Sunday 2021

The following was preached on the Sunday my churches resumed meeting (under CDC guidelines,) after a hiatus.

John 12:12-16

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—  the King of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Sermon Text

            Welcome home! We enter these four walls, we sit under the steeple that has nurtured us. Welcome home to the Assembly that we call our own, and the people who we call our family. Enter in and find that not much has changed here from the Winter. The months away have not diminished the importance we have invested into our home, into this Church.

            Yet, we are not the same – not even from the last time we sat in these pews. The relentless pace of the world continues and we along with it are transformed into new iterations of our self. We are closing out Lent and entering into Easter. Thirty-four days, excluding Sundays, have passed by with what was hopefully some intentionality on our part. Did we commit more to study scripture? To go beyond our usual boundaries and to actively seek ways to do good? Perhaps, even without an attempt, we have grown over the past few months.

            The newness of Spring, and with it, of Easter, reminds us that our life is a procession of Seasons. One of trouble leads into one of peace and one of deconstruction into one of reconstruction. We as a people and as individuals are caught up in some part of this cycle as we gather together today. As a whole we see the light of renewed ways of being – the gloom of the Pandemic not yet gone, but receding. As individuals, perhaps things are not so simple – perhaps the world is opening up just as we want nothing more than to recede into ourselves.

            No matter where we stand, we find our Scripture beckoning us. We see Christ coming our way, and we are invited like that crowd was long ago to join in greeting him. The rumored arrival of our Savior drives our hearts wild. We have a chance to cheer his coming, but that chance in itself is a choice. We are at the gates of Jerusalem; we see Christ at a distance riding on a Colt. We must now determine if we can muster the strength to shout, “Hosanna!” or if we will hide ourselves away.

            The scripture we have read today tells us very little about the crowd that gathered to see Jesus. We know that the crowd was large and that they were excited, and other than that John leaves us to imagine any other details. While Matthew’s account of the triumphal entry separates out the people in the city from the crowd, John makes no such attempt. The emphasis is placed instead upon the universal work of God and is not as interested in details of “who,” and “what,” in quite the same way that Matthew is. God’s love for all creation means that we are to see in this crowd of people, not just the historic crowd that was there on that particular day, but all the faithful who have ever come to worship Jesus.

            The salvation which Christ offers is for all time, for all people. There has never been a perfect time to be a Christian because all time and all people are valuable to God. No matter when we first came to worship God, we are blessed, no matter what era of the Church we inhabit, the Divine Love is unchanging. While we often idealize the past – whether it be the early church, the Great Awakenings, the rise of radio and video televangelists, or even our modern epoch – God is loving to all people and offers no advantage to any time that is not known to another. Every generation has unique problems, unique opportunities, but the same God.

            We today are at a special junction in history. The waning of a pandemic, the recalibration of our lives to a more mindful way of living, our renewed sense of the blessing of technology and the necessity of proximity. All these and more are moments we face and that will define those coming of age now as well as those who are just becoming cognizant of life as a whole. Beyond these clear revelations, there are a million, million more we will only notice upon reflection, by casting our gaze backward in time. We stand at a threshold of something new, just as a thousand generations have done before us. God approaches us still. God is coming to save just as Christ entered Jerusalem long ago.

            The people gathered outside Jerusalem that day were similarly at a threshold of history. The Roman Empire had fully established its terrible reign over Judea. Yet, their tyranny brought roads that opened up untold possibilities of travel and trade. Several failed revolutions had led to a sectarian Judaism and a splintered political landscape. The Herodian dynasty, short-lived as it was, was in a lurch. The present tetrarchy has still not settled after the death of its founding member, Herod the Great. Nothing was fixed, all things were in flux – the people gathered to find the one source of security they possibly had, God and God’s Messiah.

            These two worlds – ours and Christ’s – scattered by two millennia, are united by the Palm fronds we hold in our hands today. The worship that we bring is echoed in the voices of all who have ever gathered to remember this moment. From the apostles who wrote of it by lamplight to the attendants of the Mass for centuries to follow. It is sung of by Reformers and the Reformed. The praise is led by revivalists in the eighteenth century and by believers the whole world round throughout history. It spans the gulf of all time and space. Wherever people have taken up branches and sung of Christ’s arrival into Jerusalem, there has been a unified presence before the Spiritual Jerusalem – God’s dwelling place.

            Among us here today are people from various generation – perhaps some are like me, a millennial, a bit younger and we might call them Gen Z. We have boomers and Gen Xers, all gathered together to worship. We bring our memories, we bring our troubles and our praise and we lie them all at the feet of Jesus. Like the crowd long ago, we make a way for Jesus to enter in and be among us. We all have something to offer, to teach and to learn. We are all a microcosm of what today means throughout all of time.

            Our age is full of trouble, just like any other would be. There are things we all have faced this year that our past selves would have never dreamed of. More than this, I would wager we have individually faced things we wish we would have never had to. Loved ones gone, relationships splintered, faith shattered, maybe even unspeakably more than even these. What we must not fail to do, especially in our present season, is give space for us to grapple with all our struggles in light of Christ’s presence with us. We must work together to overcome it.

            This week, our services will follow Christ to the cross. Online Thursday we will see our feet be washed by our Servant King. Friday we will rend our hearts as the great mystery play out before us and the cross and death seem to overtake life. This week I would invite us all to reflect on the goodness of God toward us, and the darkness of the troubles we face which we are saved from. Salvation is coming, but while we await resurrection, we must look upon the fullness of despair.

            Yet, whether we gather with today’s troubles heavy on our hearts or the troubles of the past, we hold our palm fronds high. We do this, not in denial of what life holds for us, but in acclaim of what God does for us. We celebrate, along with all the faithful people across space and time, the goodness of our Lord. Aware of our fear, unsure of what is to come, we hear the prophet cry, “Be not afraid! Behold! Your King is coming.” So, take time today and give God praise, push aside fear and doubt even for just a moment and behold our salvation.

            Christ the King has come to save us. The young and the old, the rich and the poor. Christ the King enters our temple today. Be not afraid, God is surely with us. – Amen.

The New Covenant – Lectionary 03/21/2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34

          The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Sermon Text

             Our scripture for today proclaims a message of hope that is largely unparalleled among the prophets. This text is often put alongside its neighboring chapters and lifted up as a kernel of consolation in the midst of Jeremiah’s otherwise quite grim prophesies. God speaks of the love that God holds for the people and of a commitment to bring them out of exile and to restore the relationship between God and God’s people. A relationship broken by generations of personal and corporate sin – a covenant broken by our inability to do justly.

            This promise comes during one of the darkest moments of the Babylonian rule of Judah. The city of Jerusalem and the kingdom as a whole, had managed to avoid complete destruction by Babylon up to this point. This was because the current King, Zedekiah, was initially willing to submit to the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar. However, against Jeremiah’s instructions, Zedekiah tried to reject Nebuchadnezzar shortly into his reign. The result of this decision was the destruction of Jerusalem in a terrible final siege.

            Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s salvation comes during the siege or else immediately before it. Despite its hopeful message, anyone with eyes to see knew the danger of the siege could not be denied. Death was coming to Judah and there was little that could minimize the destruction that was to come. Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, never pretended that the future was going to be easy to bear in any way. Instead of giving the people over to their grief totally or cutting the tension through false platitudes, Jeremiah holds up a hope separate to this impending disaster, a hope for generations of people to come.

            This week we conclude Lent proper, that is to say that next week is the start of Holy Week. With this transition we see our focus shift away from the self-reflection which defined Lent to the adoration of Christ and his work on the cross. On the horizon, more clearly than ever before, we begin to see the shape of our salvation. Now, just two weeks away from Easter, we anticipate the joy of our salvation fervently. The shame of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection fill our view – something new is at work in the world, if only we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.

            The ability to see ahead of us – to fear and also to hope – is a uniquely human trait. Only we are capable of thinking ahead and of putting our perceptions into concrete terms. Sometimes our heart rejoices at the thought of future bliss and other times we seize up, locking ourselves up in dread of all the wretchedness that may come to be. Both inclinations can be harmful or good, largely dependent on how we make use of them in the here and now and what we have based upon them otherwise. Concern that leads us to prepare and hope that gives us strength are a boon. Dread that leads us to be paralyzed or reactive and sanguinity that makes us forget reality are a curse.

            For this reason, scripture balances two realities – our need to remain in the present and to trust God for the future. We cannot save ourselves through fretting over what is to come but can tackle the troubles of life as they come. We cannot be sure exactly what God will bring about in the days ahead, but we can trust that God’s goodness will see us through no matter what we face. The balance of now and then, that is one of the hardest and yet most essential elements of our faith.

            There will come a time, Jeremiah says, when there will be no more fear of doubt, nor a need for uncertain hope. The Hebrew of verse 31 opens powerfully – “Look! The coming days when I will cut a new covenant with you.” The days are treated as an approaching reality – not as objects to look at, but as an active and moving reality. The days are coming. Look at them come! And in those days, all will do what is right, all will know me, all will contain my instruction and read it from their hearts.

            God was bringing the people a perfect existence. Once more they would be called God’s people, and God would be called their God. This offer was not for kings, nobles, or the wealthy alone – but for all people – the strong and the weak, the needy and the powerful. This Utopia which God promised was not meant to replace the hardships ahead, but to transcend them. Beyond the distant horizon sat their dream. Not the idle dreams of humanity, but the concrete promise of God.

            Now we sit, twenty-five hundred years beyond Jeremiah and find that dream is still set before us. We are not yet in a God run Utopia. We still teach one another the way we ought to live and the knowledge of God. Though the Spirit dwells within us, God’s teachings are still being etched onto our heart. We do not contain all of God’s righteousness. Does time dull Jeremiah’s dream? Certainly not. The presence of God is sure. The restoration of God’s people, that final Utopic Covenant, began the day Jeremiah promised it and will be fully fulfilled when the Lord brings final victory over sin and death. It is this future hope which we depend upon.

            While we face nothing as dire as a Babylonian siege or the exile of the Judahites into Babylon, we are well aware of the troubles we face. Sickness, broken heartedness, the tedium of our off-kilter world. We are people of twisted hearts and shortsighted aspirations. In our concern for our fallen world we find ourselves clinging to fear or false hope – both of which we find pleasing. Perhaps we formulate complex conspiracies in our heart to explain our fear and give it form, or else use it to justify our vices. Or, in false hope perhaps we trust that our problems will go away through brute force of will or else through the intervention of powerful people.  

            Biblical hope and Biblical caution are rooted in a realism about the world. Trouble is coming, so we should be prepared, but it cannot consume our life. To quote the popular aphorism, “If the world should end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” We are to build resilience, not amass comforts or concerns. In the same way, we do not anticipate immediate deliverance from the majority of troubles we face. Instead of hoping trouble away, we should find hope in a God who gives us strength to face the troubles ahead of us. We can weather the storm, for the God of Heaven is greater than it is, and is Lord over it.

            More than this, as we prepare to gather once more in our sanctuaries and to celebrate Holy Week, we should see Christ’s acts two thousand years ago as an example of what our hope is. The suffering of Good Friday cannot be erased, but Easter is sure to follow it. As adopted inheritors of God’s goodness through Christ, we await Jeremiah’s dream to be fulfilled. We see in Christ a sign of what that dream looks like lived out, perfection on earth. Hope wrapped up in sorrows. Prepare yourself this week for our celebration of Holy Week. Hope lies on the horizon, but trouble does too. Praise God who will guide us through one toward the other. – Amen.

The Burning Serpent – Lectionary 03/14/2021

Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Sermon Text

            We have seen today’s scripture before during our Sunday services. I confess as a preacher that it is one of my favorite passages to preach on. It contains multitudes and in Jesus’s use of it in John 3 it takes on still greater depth. This strange story of snakes in the wilderness, and the bronze serpent which was made to save the people from them, carries a gravitas all its own. Here in the fourth Sunday of Lent, so close now to Easter, we return to the mysterious occurrence which took place on the edge of Edom.

The story opens with the people leaving Mount Hor. There they had buried their head priest, Aaron brother of Moses. The community, fresh off of their period of mourning for one of their core leaders, is naturally upset. They have been wandering for some time now, but they could take courage in the fact that, just over the horizon, was the land of Canaan. Their very own, Promised Land.

Yet, when they are lead forward, they suddenly find their path trending toward the Red Sea. In their previous wandering, they had gone directly from the shore of the Red Sea, north through the Wilderness of Zin, and came near to Canaan. They had then turned south once more to arrive at Mount Hor, something that to them would have likely seemed like a brief detour. The plan, however, was to enter Canaan across the Jordan, and to do so by traveling around the land of Edom first.

This detour would eventually result in the people traveling to the point on the Red Sea that they had previously departed from. The people had been traveling for years at this point, and while we cannot be sure of the exact timeframe that this detour had resulted in, we know the distance it set them back. The people who were once within spitting distance of Canaan, now had to backtrack what was essentially the last two hundred miles of their exodus.

The people, in their frustration, now begin to turn against Moses and against God. While we read their complaints as though they were simply that, complaints voiced to one another, we should see them in their full context. To say that a sentiment like this was spoken of by, “the people,” is to suggest it was shared by the thousands upon thousands of Israelites who were following Moses in this journey. Previously such a large group of dissidents had encouraged acts of rebellion. This unified stance against Moses and God as heads of this journey were more than simple complaints, they were a threat of insurrection.

The people no longer saw God or Moses as beneficent. In fact, they again tried to accuse them of outright malice. “Why have you brought us out here to die!?” They had claimed something similar to this before. This accusative question brings to mind the other that was once paired with it, “Were there no graves in Egypt!?” The people saw God as a trickster, promising freedom but only giving them a slow death in the wilderness. Even the Manna which had rained from Heaven, God’s daily provision to them, was given as evidence. “We detest this miserable food.” Miserable here meaning deficient. They were not content with their fill of Manna, they wanted more.

God looks upon the people, and their rejection. God looks upon the prospective rebellion they are forming and resolves to punish the people. The people are sent, “הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים”, (ha nechashim ha seraphim,) “the serpents of fiery being.” What this means exactly is unclear, although many translate it to mean the snakes were merely poisonous. Strangely, the word used to describe these snakes, “seraphim,” is also used to describe God’s angel attendants. No mater what they were, or how we describe them, what is clear is that the people could not face these serpents alone. The people came to Moses and begged him for relief.

Sin and repentance, two polar aspects within our life, often spring up from similar causes. They often spring up as a result of us responding to pain. When we feel that we have no control over our life or that our needs are not met, we begin to seek comfort anyway that we can. Sometimes we seek out to fix the problems that we face and sometimes we seek to chase after a momentary sense of relief. Acknowledging our pain, acting against evil we see or experience, even complaints are not sinful responses to trouble. However, when our intent moves away from a restorative purpose to a destructive or selfish one, then we begin to err.

Within our scripture, the people did not sin in voicing their concerns about food or water. They were wrong in that they did not bring these complaints before God or Moses, nor did they seek to understand the situation they found themselves in vis a vis their detour around Edom. Communication had broken down between the people and God, and with that communication breakdown came a breaking in trust. Trust, once eroded, is a very difficult thing to rebuild. The hardship of the Wilderness had worn the people down, down to the roots of their being. Now, they found that the journey had not built in them anything new. Sinai had not instilled them the skills they needed to be holy, they had not internalized the teachings God had given.

It was only when the serpents came that they people saw their mistakes. As dull as Manna was, it was nourishing rather than fatal. As long as the road to Canaan had been, it led to life, whereas the serpents only brought death. In the shadowy light of suffering, the stark contrast between a life with God’s provisions and a life without God’s provision became clear. The people saw that they needed to repent, to turn away from their present course toward destruction. They looked to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned!” and Moses in return interceded to God on their behalf.

I’ll be the first to say that I do not know much about God’s wrath. In my experience, good and bad happen to the wicked and righteous with the same regularity. There is seldom an apparent rhyme or reason to it. I do not think that most of our suffering is initiated by God, and quite honestly, we here on earth cause more than enough for ourselves and one another without outside help. We are seldom visited in this life by seraphim, but we often find ourselves visited by bad luck.

What hardships shows us, regardless of its source, is what hides beneath the image of ourselves we project outward. When we are in distress, whether that be sorrow or anger or fear, we will do things we would not do if we had all our decorum about us. Yet, beyond the impulsive act of someone caught off guard, is the habitual action of someone once the shock of trouble has left them. If I, because of any number of circumstances, am short with someone, there is hope for me if I realize my sin and make amends. However, if I continue to do harm to others in the midst of troubles, then it is not the trouble that made me err, it was something deep within myself that must be either worked out and healed, or rooted out and done away with.

In the latter case, we may not see the way trouble has exposed our habitual tendencies until something else bad comes of them. When our grief has exposed a hardness of heart we were previously covering, and that hardheartedness alienates us from those around us. Only when we first begin to see people leaving our sides do we understand that we have let one evil birth many more. This second bout of pain, born from the first, is what can inspire us to repentance. For the Israelites, tedium and desire led them to distrust God and Moses – pain eroded relationship rather than strengthened it. It then took the introduction of another source of pain, the serpents, to wake them up to just what they had let take over their lives.

We are blessed by the example of the Israelites before us, not because we are so much wiser or better than them, but because we can learn from this incident. When we are caught off guard by suffering, we can choose whether we will let it consume us or if we will find our way through it together. We have the gift of one another and of God to help us in this difficult calling. We can see the ways that our difficult life tempts us to all manner of evil, and then by leaning upon one another escape the snares which we might prepare for ourselves. Heartbreak need not destroy us, not if we have each other.

More than this, whereas the Israelites had Moses to lead them and a bronze serpent to heal them, we find our leader and our cure in a single person. Jesus, through his life of suffering and suffering death on the cross, knows the pain we face. Taking on the image of sinful humanity, Christ broke sin’s hold on us, and opened the door for us to truly know what it is to be Godly – to be pure in heart and in Spirit. We look to Christ, and we are healed. We follow after Christ and we are made whole. God’s grace at Mount Hor continues on even till today.

Let us then not compound our suffering. When we sin, let us repent of our evil quickly. When we are in pain, let us look to God and one another rather than lashing out or covering up our wounded heart. Whatever comes our way, we must love one another, support one another, trust one another. This is a high calling, not only for those of us who share our pain, but those who help one another through it. A helper cannot be a judge at the same time, nor can they seek gain through the help they offer. We must be selfless in our love for one another, in all things.

Life is hard, let us not pretend otherwise. Still more, God is good, let us not forget. Now let us take the love of God as our example. Where pain is found, may love abound even more, and may the merciful God of Israel rain blessings upon us. Let us find that same blessing, most abundantly, in our service to one another, that none may fall to sin because of the pain of this world. – Amen.

Count them on your Hands – Lectionary 03/07/2021

Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Sermon Text

            We continue through Lent by coming to the ultimate expression of God’s teachings. We look back in time to behold Sinai, the mountain of God, in its glorified splendor. Our nose smells the smoke that surrounded the mountain as God rests upon it. Our eyes are full of the radiance of God’s light. Now we close our mouths and listen carefully to the words which God speaks to us, the instructions that are given for us.

            Sinai is not the first time that God appeared to people, nor was it the last, but on Sinai God literally set in stone the Covenant that was to stand between humanity and God. The expectations which the Covenant places upon the people of God and upon the Godhead itself are numerous. While we as Gentile members of God’s covenant family are not held to all commandments found in the Torah, they still provide a window into God’s plan for humanity. More than this, there is much of the Torah which does still apply to us, those matters beyond ritual purity which guide our conduct toward one another.

            The Ten Commandments, properly called, “The Ten Words,” are not the sum of God’s instruction, but they serve as the general guidelines by which we understand God’s desires for the world. We can guide so much of our life against whether or not it aligns with the ten core teachings of God that were given at Sinai. Traditionally, the review of our conduct based upon God’s teachings is called an, “Examination of Conscience.” Today, using the Ten Commandments as a guide, we will model what this kind of examination looks like and think about how we can be more aware of the ways that we develop into the kind of Christians we are called to be. We must be willing to look at the standards which God lays before us and evaluate how well we are living up to them.

            The first word of God which is given at Sinai is one that we usually leave out of the list of commandments. Yet, in the Hebrew tradition the first word that God gives us at Sinai is God’s self-identification as a deliverer. God begins the decalogue with the memory of the people’s exodus from Egypt. When we begin to reflect on our lives, we must do so by rooting ourselves in the goodness of God. We examine the choices we make and the things we do because God has been good to us, and that goodness sets the stage for how to make our way back to God in repentance.

            The second word of God is that we should not put any other God in place of the God who saved us, nor make an idol of any kind. While this is a command we may easily write off as irrelevant to our lives, deciding that we are not tempted to worship things other than God, we cannot be casual or brush off this command. We as humans are constantly seeking to replace God with something or someone else. The idols we build are seldom made of stone or wood, but of ideals and desires. While there are many criterion, we may use to examine our life against this teaching, I propose a simple one. The idols we build for ourselves are those things that we are willing to disobey God for. If something moves us to violate a commandment over, then it has become an idol to us. When we examine our life, we must root out all idols within it.

            If we define idols as those things for which we are willing to sin, then we can also understand God’s fourth teaching. We usually understand, “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” to mean using “God,” or, “Christ,” as a swear word. While it is admirable for us to respect God enough to not invoke any holy name in anger, taking the Lord’s name in vain is a deeper issue than this. A person’s name in the ancient world was tied to their reputation. Taking God’s name in vain includes blaming God for our bad behavior. Are we ever difficult, cruel, vindictive, or in any way wretched for reasons we decide are in service to God? We must be willing to accept our service to God as a reality we aspire to and not an excuse for our own feelings or desires.

            Our next commandment is one we are all guilty of abandoning. We all push the Sabbath aside. The complete cessation of rest is something required not only of all people, but of creation. We excuse our unwillingness to rest in a million different ways, but ultimately it betrays some important aspects of our life. We set up productivity as an idol. Sometimes even work in a church can take on an idolatrous place in our heart when we are so obsessed with “doing” that we lose track of God’s part in our work and God’s command for us to rest from that work. We must rest, and we must not make excuses.

            The fifth commandment is to honor our father and mother, and perhaps has the most complexity of any of these ten teachings. We are not all of us blessed with parents who have acted in a way that motivates us to honor them, nor are some of us able to enjoy the presence of our parents who have gone before us into glory. Our honoring of our parents should not be taken lightly, but the obstacles to it should not be neglected either. This, more than any other teaching of the decalogue, is often personal in its scope and requires careful reflection on our part.

            We all feel good when we come to the command not to kill, but it is part of three commands we commit consistently whether we mean to or not. Murder takes place in the heart before it takes place in our life. Hate, the progenitor of murder, rests in our heart. Do not write off the rage or aggression you feel when someone drops a person’s name, there is the root of murder in this. Adultery likewise is committed long before someone stands ready to open a motel door but begins in our hearts and minds first. To live out these commandments we must not only look to our actions, maybe not even our intentions, but examine even our inclinations.

            Theft, while not a matter of cognition, is a deceptive sin. We steal not only by taking but withholding. Who have we failed to give their due? What pleasures do we cling to while our neighbors freeze and starve? At what point does withholding help become theft? At what point does theft become murder?

            False witness, our penultimate teaching, is more valuable a teaching than ever before. To bear false witness is to speak against someone falsely to their detriment. This happens in gossip and court rooms, on social media and in newsletters. In an era defined by commercialized truth, where you can find any number of people who will support you and villainize your, “opponents,” we must seek what is true in life. Look beyond the headline and beyond that first text or sentence a person sends or says. Seek truth and seek life.

            Finally, we must ask where we have turned from our own blessings to look upon the blessings of others. Where do we scorn people for having things that we would like to have for ourselves? Avarice can motivate all manner of evils in our life, but it in itself is a sufficient evil to reject.

            What we have done here is a surface level examination of conscience. We are given the teaching of God to keep before us at all times. We went through all ten teachings of the decalogue today, but each has a depth to them that can never be fully plumbed. We must be willing to hold onto them, one by one, and ask ourselves whether we live up to the standard they establish for us.

            We cannot fail to examine our own motivations and actions, especially during this season of repentance we currently observe. The teachings of God are not far from us, and they hold a freedom we have not yet known within themselves. Hold out your hands at the end of a long day, count the commands of God on your hands and ask how you have succeeded and failed to keep each one. Start with the goodness of God and end with a prayer asking God’s continued instruction in your life. Repent and trust God to lead you onward to perfection. – Amen.