Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm and Passion Sunday: A Meditation from Littlefield Presbyterian Church

March for Our Lives in Detroit. Photo: Julie Gruber Delezenne

"Introductory Meditation on Palm and Passion Sunday"

Mark 14 and 15

The streets around our nation were filled yesterday with young people and parents and other supporters, for March for Our Lives rallies. Hundreds of thousands gathered in our nation’s capital. They came from Florida, where their high school peers were gunned down on Ash Wednesday and from around the country.  There were student-led marches around the country and in other nations, protesting gun violence and demanding reforms that will make the world safer.
            We’ve witnessed-- and some of us have participated in--women’s marches… and protests against travel bans.  There have been vigils to grieve mass shootings.  Every week there are rallies to support immigrants who are being deported.  There are protests of various kinds of injustice.
            Beginning the day after Mother’s Day, there were will be a series of peaceful actions in Washington and in state capitals around the country as part of the new Poor People’s Campaign.  

            A few minutes ago, we heard the story of another peaceful demonstration, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey on that first Palm Sunday, in a dramatic act of political theater. Jesus enters into Jerusalem like a king, challenging the authority of every earthly kind and even of Caesar himself.[1]
            The political implications of Palm Sunday have been lost in many of our churches. With the people in the crowds that welcomed Jesus that first Palm Sunday, we wave our palms and shout “Hosanna!” and sing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”  But we may not realize that what we’re doing is challenging the Empire.  If Jesus has all glory and honor, there is none left for Caesar.[2]

             On the other side of the city there was another parade.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the region, was entering the city with his cavalry and foot soldiers, as he did every Passover.   There was often trouble in Jerusalem around the time of the Passover—a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire, when Moses led them out of Egypt.   So, the governor brought in extra troops to reinforce the troops that were permanently stationed near the Temple, as a show of power and force. 
            The story of Palm Sunday, as Mark tells it, draws on Old Testament prophecies to show Jesus as a messianic king. Six centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed a messianic vision of a king like David returning to the throne in Jerusalem, and Mark uses this imagery in describing Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem.  Zechariah says,
            “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[3]  
            The people would have recognized this imagery. So, when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, it must have felt to the peasants in the crowd as though they were on the threshold of an exciting new era.   By entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus claims to be the legitimate “king”.  This is a counter-demonstration that challenges the authority of imperial rule over Jerusalem.
            In Zechariah’s prophecy, the new king would banish war from the land— no more chariots, war-horses, or military weapons.  Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city.
            Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world, the Roman Empire that exercised power through military domination, using the cutting-edge military technologies of the day.
            Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision-- the kingdom of God.  His victory will be won through humility and nonviolence and love. Jesus’ humble claim to a peaceful kingship was radically counter-cultural. It was politically subversive.
            This contrast— between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar— is central to the gospel story--   to the story of Jesus and the early church.
            Jesus enters the city and proceeds to the Temple. Now, in that time, the Temple wasn’t just a religious center, but also the place where Judean society interfaced with the Roman Empire. As Robert Williamson points out, it was the job of the chief priests to collect taxes as tribute for Rome and to keep Judea functioning smoothly as a loyal Roman province.  “Through the Temple, religious elites kept the Empire operating smoothly. They provided a theological rationale for the political and economic domination of the Roman Empire, which enriched the upper classes at the expense of the poor.”[4]
            According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus returned to the Temple on the following day to overturn the tables and cast out the money changers, protesting the Temple’s collaboration with an Empire that enriched the few and oppressed the many.

            In a few moments, we are going to hear the story of Christ's Passion, as told by Mark.  Today and this Holy Week, may we be startled and challenged into seeing God’s Reign afresh, as the subversive, empire-challenging reality that it is.
            Following Jesus on the way of the cross, we need to choose. Will we collaborate with the Empire?  Or will we choose to participate fully in God’s revolution of love, which promises abundant life for all?  If we see injustice and evil in the world around us, will we walk the way of humility and non-violence and love to resist the that injustice, trusting in God’s abundance and faithfulness?
            The good news we hear in the Holy Week story is that God emptied God's self for the sake of every beloved creature, including you and me-- because it's God's very nature to love us that radically.  We know what God's love is like by seeing it in the self-emptying servanthood and humility and self-giving on the cross! 
            So, let us go there and be with our Lord in his suffering and in his triumph.  See his great love for you...   and renew your great love for Him.
            Listen for the good news:

At this point, we heard the story of Christ’s Passion, as told by Mark the Evangelist, in chapters 14 and 15.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 25, 2018                      

[2] Robert Williamson Jr, “Palm Sunday in the Time of Trump (Mark 11:1-11), at

[3] Zechariah 9:9
[4] Williamson.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"No One In Need Among You." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on March 18, 2018 (5th Sunday in Lent)

"No One In Need Among You"

Matthew 26:1-13; Deuteronomy 15:1-11

            “The poor you will always have with you.”  These words of Jesus have often been interpreted to mean that Jesus believed poverty is inevitable.  Some people see poverty as an individual issue. Some believe that poverty is a matter of individual sin or moral failure-- that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough… or have made bad choices. 
            “The poor you will always have with you.” This is one of the most influential passages on poverty in the Bible. So, we need to figure out what Jesus meant.  
            A group of us have been reading the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’ book, Always With Us? as our Lenten study on Tuesday evenings. Liz, who is a Presbyterian minister, has devoted her career to studying poverty and what the Bible teaches about it. She is currently co-director, with Rev. William Barber, of the Poor People’s Campaign.
            In her book, Liz seeks to show that--far from giving Christian reason to ignore calls for economic justice, the gospel lesson we heard today actually makes “one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”[1] She says the passage has been twisted out of context to justify the belief that poverty as inevitable. 
            The story we heard today comes just a few paragraphs after the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, where Jesus states that when it comes to feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison, “just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” So, I think Liz is right when she suggests that this makes it unlikely that Jesus’ words in Matthew 26 should be interpreted as a lack of concern for the poor.

            “The poor you will always have with you.”  Jesus’ response to the disciples alludes to Deuteronomy 15:1-11, which is one of the most liberating passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. It recalls the Hebrew Shabbat, meaning “rest” or “day of rest,” and especially shemittah, meaning year of remission-- remission of commercial debts and remission of slaves.[2]
            At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts…. There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today….
            “If there is among you anyone in need…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your needy neighbor.  Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…do not show ill will toward the needy… and give them nothing….”
            “Since there will always be some in need…I therefore command you to open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land…to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”[3]
            In other words, if God’s will were being fully obeyed, there would be no poverty. But until that time comes, there will continue to be poor people, and the law must remain in place.
            The sabbatical year, or shemittah, is mentioned several other times in the Bible. For example, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, “Every seventh year each of you must set free any Hebrews who have been sold to you and have served you six years; you must set them free from your service.” But our ancestors did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. You yourselves recently repented and did what was right in my sight by proclaiming liberty to one another, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name; but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back your slaves, whom you had set free….”  And the LORD gave Jeremiah a word of judgment and punishment to those who committed these injustices.[4]
            The Sabbath-- the rest required by God in order to worship God and to protect life and ensure material well-being is one of the earliest laws in the Bible, and it is a consistent theme.
            In that time, people could be sold into slavery or the might be forced to sell themselves into slavery to settle debts. God commanded the people of Israel to build into their social structures ways for people to have a fresh start. Under God’s rule, the society and economy get a re-set, because God is good and just and promises abundance. When God’s will is being done, it is not acceptable for people to be trapped in generational poverty or slavery.
            The Torah teaches us that it is important that everyone have a rest--everyone, including slaves, animals. Even the land must have a period of lying fallow. It teaches that piety and economic practice are all part of how we worship God. The way to worship God is to structure society around everyone’s needs. God’s intention with the laws and commandments is to eliminate poverty and inequality on earth.[5] This is about a way of living with shalom justice at the center, a model for right relationship with humanity and God.

            This is in direct contrast to the values of the Empire.  Roman lords were not interested in the well-being, prosperity, and rest of their subjects except to compel more work from them.
            Liz Theoharis suggests that when Jesus is understood to be “Lord of the Sabbath” in Matthew 12, the title emphasizes that he is on the side of the poor. He is a leader who represents the popular struggles of the poor. He values the lives and livelihoods of the other poor subjects of the Roman Empire and believes they deserve rest and justice.
            Jesus is also focused on renewing Israel’s covenant with God. In his teaching, he shows that the way to honor God is to structure society around the needs of everyone. Rest and economic justice are consistent themes in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus and his followers were looking for systemic solutions to poverty and dispossession and found them in the prophetic tradition of their faith.  
            Will the poor always be with us? Is it possible that poverty could be eliminated? Or is it an inevitable social problem that we need to manage through charitable action? These are important questions for our faith, and they’re moral questions for our society.
            As long as we fall short as a society of living in full obedience to the God of love and abundance and justice, we will have the poor with us. And so, we will continue to need soup kitchens and food pantries and homeless shelters and other ways of alleviating the suffering and need of the poor.
            But, as people of faith and hope, we pray the prayer our Savior taught us, saying, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t think any of us believes that there are people going hungry or sleeping in boxes on a sidewalk in heaven.  So, we need to keep asking ourselves, “What is the world like, if God’s will is being done?” And we need to live into that vision.
            Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his famous speech “A Time to Break Silence” that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
            When we look around, when we hear the facts of poverty, it can feel overwhelming.
            The federal poverty threshold is $12,140 for individuals and $25,100 for a family of four. One in seven people in the United States live below the federal poverty threshold. That’s 13.9% of the population, or 44.7 million. According to this federal threshold, a single adult making $12,141 is not poor, though they are considered “low income.”
            Over half of all children in our nation are poor or low income. Half of all children will qualify for food stamps before they turn 20, including 9 out of 10 African-American children.
            In Michigan, one in five children and one in six women live in poverty, and 38,725 veterans live below the poverty line. One in Seven households struggle to put food on the table.[6]
            The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country’s wealth, which is more than at any time in the past fifty years. [7]
            Like the people following Jesus, the people who were gathered at Simon the Leper’s house in Bethany a few days before Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire, we may wonder if there’s reason for hope.
            Jesus came proclaiming the “good news” that everyone is created in the image of God and has worth and dignity. He and his disciples had been demonstrating this good news through sharing meals and conversations with people who were poor and marginalized.  Jesus was a teacher…leader…prophet…and ruler of a growing revolutionary social movement of the poor that practiced and proclaimed God’s coming reign of abundance, dignity, and justice for all.[8]
            This movement was understood by the ruling elite to be in opposition to the Roman Empire and to the parts of the religious establishment that cooperated with the occupying forces. They understood Jesus’ condemnation of the practices and people that exploit and exclude the common people as a threat to the status quo, and they were plotting to get rid of him.
            This is the background for what was happening in Bethany when the unnamed woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive ointment.  The anointing is a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. The Hebrew word for “Messiah” means “anointed one.  As kings were anointed by prophets, so this anointing is a sign that Jesus is ruler of God’s Kingdom.  The anointing also anticipates Jesus’ death and burial.
            Jesus was betrayed, unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, and crucified. But the story doesn’t end with death.  On the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead, showing that God’s powerful love is stronger than sin and death.  
            Jesus promised his disciples that he wouldn’t leave them alone, that the Holy Spirit would be with them to guide and empower them to carry on his mission.

            In Luke’s account of the early church, we hear that those who welcomed the gospel and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.  All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.[9]

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s death and of the Poor People’s Campaign, through which Dr. King was working to unite diverse groups impacted by poverty and injustice. The campaign was carried out that spring and summer after Dr. King’s death.[10]
            Fifty years later, the work is not done. 
Can we say we believe in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world, if we don’t commit ourselves to bringing it to people who lack basics like safe water to drink, adequate shelter, good education, health care, and a chance to have a place at the table in our society?
As the people of God, we are called to share the good news of God’s love with all the people God loves. We’re called to help the world recognize the miracle of grace and abundance that is offered to all people in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
We don’t have to do it alone. The good news is that in this broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
            In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to Christ in our daily lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”[11]
            May it be so!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 18, 2018

[1] Liz Theoharis, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.
[2] Theoharis, Kindle edition, Location 1501 / 31%
[3] Deuteronomy 15
[4] Jeremiah 34:13-22.  See also Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7; Nehemiah 10:32; 2 Chronicles 36:20-21.
[5] Theoharis, Kindle Edition, Loc 1510 / 31%.
[8] Theoharis, Kindle edition, Loc 3045 / 64%.
[9] Acts 2:42-47; See also Acts 4:32
[10] For more information, please see:

[11]A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1990.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

"God So Loves." A sermon on John 3:16 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

Sculpture depicting Numbers 21, on Mt Nebo in Jordan. Photo: Fran Hayes

"God So Loves"

Numbers 21; John 3:11-21

John 3:16 is one of the most quoted and most memorized verses in the Bible.  We may see it displayed for the cameras at sporting events, on banners or signs. In some parts of the country you might see it painted on big rocks by the roadside. It reads simply: “John 3:16.” 
            Depending on where you’re coming from, it’s a verse that can be used both to assure-- or to threaten.  Some invoke it to emphasize the extravagance and universality of God’s love.  Others invoke it to drive a wedge between believers and unbelievers… the “saved” from the “unsaved.” 

            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” This is one of the most iconic verses of the Christian faith. It expresses the wondrous love of God, who reaches out to the world in self-emptying reconciliation. And all we have to do is “believe.”
            Some of us memorized this verse, if we when we grew up in the church. It’s a beautiful and simple expression of our Christian faith, of a God who loves and a people who respond in belief.
            And yet, it’s only when we read the verse in its context in the Gospel of John that we can understand it more fully and be transformed by it.
            James Kay, who was my preaching professor at Princeton Seminary, says that when the Christian message is reduced to a sentence, instead of heard as a story, it’s a problem.  When the sentence becomes a magic formula or a mantra or a slogan instead of a story, when the verse is so engraved in our memory and so familiar—the temptation is that we may think we already know what it means.  The gospel of God’s love has become so familiar that we are no longer amazed by its majesty or its mercy.[1]
            And so, Professor Kay says, we need startling images, obscure, bizarre metaphors—like snakes—to wake us up.  We need “strange stories” instead of “safe slogans,” to help us comprehend what’s happening in these verses.
            John 3:16 isn’t meant to stand alone. It opens with a word we translate as “for.”  In the original Greek, it has a sense of “in this manner” or “in this way,” which means that God’s loving gift of the Christ for the salvation of the world needs to be understood in light of what comes before.
            “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
            The allusion is to one of the strangest stories in all of Scripture, from the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers. 
The Israelites on the move from Egypt to the land of promise were their own worst enemies-- but then, who of us is not?  Of all of the harm inflicted upon us in life, some of it self-inflicted. Of all the judgment we encounter in life, a lot of it is self-imposed.  The people were complaining again. This is the sixth “murmuring” incident.  The people are grumbling: why had Moses brought them out into the wilderness to die?
Isn’t it also just like us humans –-- then, as now?  God brings us out of trouble… gets us safely through a time of danger.  Yet we grumble because the place God led us to isn’t as nice as we’d hoped.  What good is it to be God’s own people, if all it gets us is wandering on and on through the wilderness with nothing to eat except manna?
Then what happens next in the story?  Poisonous serpents-- lots of them, biting the people, so that many of them were dying. 
Now, I know the text says that the Lord sent the serpents.  But I have to confess that I have a hard time with that.  I don’t want to believe that the God of steadfast loving-kindness would kill people for whining.
Yes.  God gets frustrated with us.  But given the situation described, I wonder if at least some of the “serpents” could have arisen from within.  I think we poison ourselves sometimes if we get locked into complaining… selective remembering…or useless longing for good old days that weren’t really all that great.
Without even trying very hard, we can poison ourselves or one another-- with anger… bitterness…blaming…  or despair.  So, I think there may be more than one way to understand the serpents.
Now, whether the serpents are literal or metaphorical doesn’t end up mattering very much, because the people come to their senses and come to see that they themselves are responsible for the serpents coming into their midst.  They see that it was their own sinfulness that brought the serpents into their midst and caused their pain.  They repent and pray to be rescued: “Lord, the serpents are biting us!  We’re dying!  Save us!”
God hears them and makes it possible for them to survive.  Rather than making the serpents disappear, God provides an antidote to their venom.  Rebellion and sin have their consequences. God told Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”  God saved them by requiring them to gaze upon a symbolic representation of the very serpents that endangered them.

            "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...   For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world-- but that the world might be saved through him."
            God loved the world...   loved so much that God gave.  Not to condemn...  but to save, John says.
            But what does this mean?  What does it mean to be saved?  There are different ideas about what words like “savior,” “save,” and “salvation” are supposed to mean.  
            The Greek word that we often translate as “save” can mean to save, to keep safe, to rescue from danger or destruction, or it can be saving someone who is suffering from disease… to heal… to restore to health and wholeness.
            “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son be lifted up.” The image of the Son of Man lifted up like the serpent on a pole points to the crucifixion.
            In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of state-sanctioned violence that was used to execute those who destabilized the imperial order.  As Robert Williamson suggests, Christ lifted up on the cross serves as a symbolic representation of the very real violence of the Empire, threatening death for any who refused to submit to its authority.[2]
            In John, “lifting up” has a double meaning.  In a literal sense, it’s about the physical lifting up of Jesus on the cross. But in a metaphorical sense, it’s about how Jesus is glorified on the cross, so that the whole world can see God’s great act of redemption and healing.
            Did you notice? There’s no mention of punishment or payment for sin here. The cross is the sign that reveals God’s love for the world.
            God loves this world.  God chooses not to condemn this world. God desires salvation and life eternal and abundance for this world. And if we love the light more than the darkness, we are called to desire those very things for this world, too.
            That's the call for all who have received the gift of God's Son:  to love the world God so loves, to reflect the light of Christ, and be the light that both exposes evil and reveals truth.
            The Israelites in the wilderness were told to gaze upon the serpent in order to be saved.  I think Robert Williamson is right when he says the way to salvation for us is to gaze upon the crucified Christ--to recognize the violence that has undergirded the prosperity of our own Empire. It is to remember the genocide of native peoples that accompanied the founding of our nation and to face the facts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the inhumane exploitation of life and labor that built the wealth of our nation.
            To gaze upon the Christ is to see the Christ Child among those gunned down in Columbine and Newtown and Parkland. To gaze upon the Christ is to acknowledge how much pain has been inflicted on innocents like Jesus in the name of enriching the few and securing our own privilege.
            If we believe that salvation comes through believing in the Christ who is lifted up on the cross to save us from a life that is complicit with the violence of the Empire of our time, the claim in John 3:16 takes on a much more radical meaning. 
            Gazing upon the crucified Christ means repenting of ways in which we are complicit in systemic injustice and violence and turning away from the politics of fear.
            Believing in Christ means choosing to turn away from the violence of the Empire and to commit ourselves to the reconciling power of God’s love.  
            God loves the world so much, that God comes not to condemn or judge us, but to love and save us.  God labors constantly to give us new birth-- to push us into abundant life-- if we are willing to trust God enough to know God in a new live in a new way that reflects God’s love and justice.
            And that, my friends, is good news!
            Thanks be to God!  Amen!    

[1] James F. Kay, Seasons of Grace: Reflections from the Christian Year (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 50.
[2] Robert Williamson Jr, “Justice for Lent: Overcoming Violence (John 3:14-21), at

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Commandments of Freedom." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.

"Commandments of Freedom"

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-20

In 2001, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore had a Ten Commandments monument installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building, without the knowledge of the other justices. This resulted in a legal battle over establishment of a particular religion in a government building and eventually to his being removed from office over his refusal to comply to the federal court injunction. Eventually, the monument was placed in a storage room, and later it was taken on a flatbed trailer on tour by a group called “America for Jesus.”. There was controversy between a those who thought that was a good idea and those who saw it as worshiping a graven image, a form of idolatry.
            What I hadn’t thought a lot about at the time is how much this monument weighed:   5,280 pounds. That’s just over 500 pounds per commandment.[1]

            As Tom Long suggests, in the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have come to represent, for some, weights and heavy obligations.  Most people in our society would have a hard time naming all ten commandments, but they may still think that the Ten Commandments are about finger-wagging “thou shalt not’s.” For some others, the commandments are heavy yokes placed on the necks of a rebellious society. As Tom suggests, a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck is a perfect symbol of this.[2]
            The gods of ancient Babylon were heavy idols that had to be carted around. The prophet Isaiah was referring to them when he said, “These things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals.”
            Those who see the Ten Commandments as a series of burdensome rules overlook something essential.  The Ten Commandments begin not by an order to obey a set of rules, but by an announcement of freedom.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.[3]

            This was God’s direct address to the people of Israel: “God spoke all these words.”  “Words” -- not commandments.  So, it is really more accurate to speak of them as “the Decalogue -- the ten words.
            “Because the Lord is your God,” the Decalogue affirms, “you are free not to need any other gods.  You are free:  free to rest on the seventh day…free from the tyranny of lifeless idols… free from stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself.  
            The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the life of freedom that God desires for people.
            “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Although this introductory sentence of freedom and redemption is often left out of printed versions of the Ten Commandments, in Judaism it is recognized as the first word. 
            “You shall have no other gods before me” is the second word.[4] Idolatry is the focus in this second word. Idolatry commonly refers to worshipping graven images, such as the golden calf.[5]  Idolatry, the worship of “other gods” could include any person place, or thing that we hold to be more important than God. These other gods could also be money, property, fame, power-- anything in which we place our ultimate loyalty and trust or worship. So, this second word is a call to love and trust in God above all things. This is the grounding for all other commandments or “words.”
            The Ten Words we heard in today’s lesson were not new for Israel, but they were a good listing for their time and situation, when the newly liberated people of Israel were wandering around in the wilderness, learning how to be free people.   The Ten Words were adapted at different times and places. That’s why when we compare the Ten Commandments in Exodus and the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, we see some differences that reflect some changes, such as a changing role for women in the culture.

            “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Words had been given to the people to celebrate and maintain their emancipation from Egypt and the Pharaoh.
            In the Pharaoh, the ruler of ancient Egypt, was a brutal concentration of power and wealth.  Walter Brueggemann has often pointed out how every time a “Pharaoh” turns up in history, it turns out that this empire is propelled by a sense of not having enough, a system designed to accumulate more and more--more money, more power, more land, more food, more cheap labor for the ruler.[6].  
            When Pharaohs--or tyrannical emperors or kings or dictators-- rise up in history, they act in violence against vulnerable, disadvantaged people. The Exodus from Egypt and the celebration of Passover is a powerful demonstration of how God broke in to liberate the people from their oppression, and to give them a life of freedom. 
            But it becomes clear that we don’t always know what to do with freedom.  There were times in the wilderness when the people of Israel when they grumbled and wished they could go back to slavery in Egypt.
            So, Brueggemann says the Ten Commandments “are nothing less than strategies for staying emancipated in the new life that the God of Sinai governs.” These strategies are urgent, he says, because Pharaoh, in a variety of forms, always wants to coerce us back into Pharaoh’s domain of exploitation.
            This new strategy for living as free people is to honor God to the exclusion of every other idol…to honor God’s name and God’s purpose for our lives.  I love and am challenged by the way Brueggemann points to the scripture’s truth, as he says this strategy for freedom means to “refuse every other ultimate loyalty, every idolatry in our lives among all the ‘isms’ including racism, sexism, and nationalism. It means not to worship stuff, not stuff that is rare, precious, attractive, beautiful or empowering. It means not to recruit God’s name for our pet projects of religion, morality, economics or politics, because the only God is no party to our proximate causes.”

            The season of Lent calls us to a reality check.  Moses, through the Ten Commandments, or Ten Words, at Sinai, declared new possibilities for a life of freedom, outside the oppression, anxiety, fearfulness, and scarcity under Pharaoh-- a new life that honors God’s holiness, that loves the neighbor in concrete ways, and that honors the Sabbath and makes time to be holy.
            Lent invites us to look honestly at the ways in which we have failed at living freely. We’ve heard Pharaoh say, “Be very afraid,” and lived anxious lives. We’ve believed what those in power tell us about scarcity, so we’re afraid we won’t have enough and accept that the poor can’t have what they need for lives of dignity. We hurry to try to keep even, and are over-extended and exhausted.
            The season of Lent is a time for us to ponder the gospel life to which Jesus calls us: an alternative life that is unafraid…a life of abundance Jesus showed us when he multiplied loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes. Jesus calls us to a life of healing and forgiveness and generosity to neighbors.
             The season of Lent reminds re-presents the outrage Jesus demonstrated at what he saw in the Temple and how he challenged the status quo. It reminds us how determined the empire and the keepers of the status quo were to maintain their power and privilege and control, to the point of executing Jesus on the cross where his followers and other would see him being tortured.

            “You destroy this temple… in three days I will raise it up.” Even the disciples couldn’t understand Jesus’ words until after the resurrection.  The story of Jesus doesn’t end at the cross.  Only after the resurrection can we reflect on what the cross of Jesus means for a life of faith.
            In these last weeks of Lent, we are invited to ponder what the apostle Paul wrote: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[7]  
            The powers of this world will tell us that it is foolish to think we have enough to feed a crowd… and that it is a sign of weakness to practice mercy, justice, and faithfulness. But we can trust that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
            Thanks be to God!

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in “Living by the Word,” in The Christian Century.
[2] Tom Long, in “Dancing with the Decalogue.”
[3] Exodus 20:2
[4] Rolf Jacobson, Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6 and Exodus 20:1-17.

[5] Bull worship was common in some cultures in the ancient world, including Egypt. The golden calf is first mentioned in Exodus 32:4
[6] Walter Brueggemann, “Strategies for Staying Emancipated.”

[7] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25