Monday, March 9, 2015

Sermon Lent 3 - March 8, 2015: 'The Freedom of the Commandments'

3 Lent Year B – March 8, 2015
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice Frontz, STS

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

During the Paris student riots of May 1968,
a phrase entered the French lexicon,
spray-painted on doors and crudely lettered on placards.
The phrase was Il est interdit d’interdire,
which I cannot pronounce.
‘It is forbidden to forbid.’
The phrase was perfect for that generation
which had been radicalized
and was ready to raze the foundations
of French society, a society that had failed to live up to its promise.
Socially, politically, and morally,
the young French had had enough of strictures,
and they wanted to tear down everything that stood in the path to freedom:
la liberte.

The phrase is a logical absurdity,
and yet our world of today lives by it,
although it probably looks a lot different
than the rioters of May ’68 thought it would.
For those who would forbid
are not easily tolerated in our culture,
and I don’t think that’s because there is a real interest in justice.
Rather, breaking taboos fascinate people,
and when people are fascinated, there is money to be made.
Lots and lots of money.

A few weeks ago, a film opened nationwide
which discussed and depicted a topic
that simply would not have been discussed sixty years ago
in mixed company or heaven forbid from the pulpit.
This film was made for mass consumption.
And there was lots of money to be made from it.
A teddy-bear company came out with a very special bear
based on the main male character, complete with accessories:
a mask and a pair of handcuffs.
The Target chain of discount stores
produced a six-item line of products related to the film
under the categories of ‘health’ and ‘beauty,’
products which not too many years ago
simply would have been unobtainable
except from catalogs arriving in plain brown envelopes
and specialty shops in the most interesting parts of town.
The movie itself was produced for $40 million dollars.
At present, it has grossed over $500 million in the United States alone.

One could go on,
but it is no good to talk about how things once used to be better.
The only good that can be done
by railing against the proclivities of our present time
is to understand the situation we’re all in.
It’s a free country, after all,
and no one is interested
in what Christians or any other moralists have to say
about what should or shouldn’t be.
If there is money to be made, sex to be had,
any taboos to be broken,
it will be done.
It is forbidden to forbid.
And there’s no use arguing about it.

The only thing that a Christian can possibly do
is embrace an alternative vision of freedom.
This is the freedom offered by the commandments.
Perhaps this statement seems as nonsensical as the phrase
‘It is forbidden to forbid.’
The first thing that God did once he freed the ancient Israelites
from their slavery in Egypt
was to saddle them with a bunch of rules.
You shall, you shall not.
While some of the rules make sense from our twenty-first century perspective,
‘You shall not kill,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ and so forth,
others do not.
‘Remember the Sabbath Day,’ but what if there is something to do?
‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but what if your current relationship is loveless
and you have found the right person to be faithful to after all?
‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,’
but what is wrong with wanting something you don’t have,
especially something you deserve?
And so our society trumpets those rules which make sense for it
and minimizes the ones that do not.
Perhaps we ourselves do this from time to time.

We should not expect society to live by the Ten Commandments.
But we as Christians are called to do so.
Why? Doesn’t God love us?
Doesn’t he want what is best for us?
He does indeed.
He set the Israelites free from the Egyptians,
so that they could be truly free,
free to live in relationship with him.

We see the commandments as impediments to our freedom.
But the commandments call us into freedom.
The call to have no other gods
would free us from those other gods who would enslave us;
who would be even harsher taskmasters than the Egyptians.
The command against misusing God’s name
would free us from the abuse of power that comes from that misuse.
The command to remember the Sabbath day
would liberate us from the tyranny of work, of always having to be useful,
of forgetting that there is a God who wishes to feed us in spirit,
which we could never do on our own.
And so on and so forth,
until we would be free from fear, envy, anger, possessiveness,
and everything that plagues this earth and our souls.
No more wanting to be better and more recognized than another.
No more refusing to be happy until we have the something
that the other has.
No more gossip, backbiting, taking, using the other;
no more mockery, violence, the death of the isms.
The freedom of the commandments.

Ancient Israel didn’t want to keep the commandments
any more than our society does today.
And in fact, the Church does not wish to keep the commandments either.
The Church wants to be just as comfortable as the rest of the world.
It refuses to be shaken from its restful slumber.
It has used the promise of forgiveness
as an excuse to remain in quiet rebellion,
exchanging the freedom of the commandments
for the self-satisfaction of socially acceptable morality.
And this is why non-Christians rightly castigate Christians
for being little different from everyone else.

But Martin Luther knew
that the ‘you shall nots’ of the Ten Commandments
always implied a ‘you shall’ for God’s people.
This is why his explanations of the commandments
tell us not simply what God wants to avoid but what God wants us to embrace.
For example,
in his explanation of ‘You shall not steal,’
Luther says,
‘We are to fear and love God,
so that we neither take our neighbor’s money or property,
nor use shoddy wares or crooked deals to obtain it for ourselves,
but instead help them to improve their property and income.’
Far from being a passive affair,
the keeping of the commandments becomes a living, active thing,
full of good works which are oriented to the well-being of our neighbors.
Their application can be as richly imaginative and varied
as the imagination which comes up with various fantasies to distract and tantalize us.

There is one thing that saves us.
It is not our keeping of the commandments
nor our keeping of most of the commandments.
It is in this one word, the word in which God binds us to himself
in covenant promise:
‘I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.’
God brings us out of slavery
through the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah,
so that we may know the freedom of living the commandments.
And when we fail, we may fall back into the arms of the God
who sets us on our feet again,
who in Christ kept the commandments for us
so that they might become not a curse for us,
but a blessing.

A few days before the movie ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was released,
a young American human rights activist
and humanitarian aid worker was killed, reportedly by airstrikes against ISIS.
Kayla Mueller was taken hostage in October 2013
while leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital.
Her last communication with her family
was in a letter written in spring 2014,
which was smuggled to them by fellow prisoners who had been released.
In the letter, she revealed no hatred for her captors,
and stated that the only suffering that she had really had
was in knowing how much suffering she had put her family and friends through.
She wrote:

‘I have come to a place in experience where,
in every sense of the word,
I have surrendered myself to our creator
[because] there was literally no one else.
By God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
I have been shown in darkness, light,
and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.
I am grateful.
I have come to see that there is good in every situation;
sometimes we just have to look for it.
I pray each day that if nothing else,
you have felt a certain closeness and surrender to God as well
and have formed a bond of love and support amongst one another.’

The world thinks it knows what freedom is.
But the true freedom is the freedom of the commandments:
the freedom of the commandments,
the freedom to love,
the freedom to forgive,
the freedom to serve.
It is found in the freedom of him
who gave up his freedom for us,
the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.