“Keeping God’s Law” Sermon by Rev. Canon Dr. Patrick P Augustine on Third Sunday in Lent at Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse, Wisconsin


The Law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; bThe testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.(Ps.19:7

The Decalogue: Then God spoke all these words: Exodus 20:1-17 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. For 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. Jesus Cleanses the Temple: John 2: 13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. TRUE WORSHIP Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Ps. 19:14) Dr. Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal Rector, tells about a church member who planned to climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments at the top. Thinking this would please his Rector, the church member was surprised to hear Brooks say, "You know, I can think of something even better than that." You can, Father? And what might that be?" Brooks said: “Instead of traveling thousands of miles to read the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, why not stay right here at home and keep them?" People often call the Ten Commandments the "Decalogue." Perhaps no piece of literature or law has had greater influence on civilization. Imagine 3,200 years ago. What good news these laws must have been for Israelites wandering in a polytheistic culture where all sorts of gods controlled fate. If you made one angry, even by accident, you were in big trouble. But Yahweh made it clear and simple: “With a mighty hand I brought you out of Egypt and out of slavery. You shall have no other gods besides me." The commandments are traditionally divided into two “tablets.” The first describes duties to God that concern the worship of His majesty. The second teaches that families are the foundation of society and human life and peace are highly valued. Adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting another’s possessions threaten family stability and are considered sins against God. The first four commandments are religious and uniquely related to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The last six commandments relate to moral behavior. Some fellow Americans feel everyone should follow all ten, but for those outside the Abrahamic faith tradition this causes conflict. Not long ago the Decalogue was a venerable public standard of morality. Our society today is lot more argumentative about the role religion has in public life in the United States. In recent decades, the relentless levelers, groups like Freedom from Religion have mounted an aggressive campaign with passion to scrape clean from American life anything that bears a depiction of the Ten Commandments as the arbitrary preferences of Jews and Christians.[i] They argue to confine the Decalogue to the private world of religious communities. Many people don’t want to hear of a God who lays down the law. I believe that Christians need to hold to the view that the Decalogue inscribes a universal law laid down by God for those he created to order their lives within God’s kingdom. In October 2002, during my first visit to La Crosse, I saw yard signs and heard about the Ten Commandments controversy. Later, in an interview with the La Crosse Tribune, I offered the front yard of Christ Church as an alternate site for the tablets in an effort to end the conflict in our city. Although the issue seems to have been resolved in La Crosse, you may recall TV coverage of a crew hauling Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's huge Ten Commandments monument out of the court building while an angry protester screamed, "Get your hands off our God!" That man probably thought he was a sincere Christian, but his outburst contradicted the summary of the law that Jesus taught and exemplified. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40). In the appointed Epistle reading St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth; “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.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) In 1996 during my first visit to Sudan I experienced that power of God in the lives of the members of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. This was a displaced, hungry and oppressed community who had lost over two million people by the genocidal policies of government of Sudan. I found an electrifying faith of the persecuted church for who amidst suffering the Cross of Jesus was the power of God to continue to praise and believe that Jesus is Lord. Today’s Gospel is about the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus teaches that emphasis on external compliance can turn into sheer mockery of the honor of God. The temple was vital to the religious life of the Jews. At Passover, as many as two million came from everywhere to celebrate the liberation of the people of Israel from the slavery of the Pharaoh of Egypt through the mighty hand of God. At this time of the year, every Jewish male had to pay a temple tax of half-shekel with a special coin with no inscription or human image on it. Secular currency had to be exchanged by agents of the religious authority. They charged steep fees and paid back only half of the original price to pilgrims, many of whom were the poorest of the poor. Sacrificial animals approved by the priests were sold at very high prices. This barefaced extortion aroused the flaming anger of our Lord. As Jesus tipped over cages and tables, scattering coins and moneychangers, imagine how his disciples felt. Some might have been embarrassed. If I were there I would have surely said, “That’s my man.” These fishermen and commoners knew the tremendous power of the religious leadership and probably feared for their own safety while Jesus took on the establishment. Perhaps a verse flashed into their minds from Psalm 69. The Zeal of Thy house has consumed me” This Psalm describes the suffering and the agony of the One who was to be Messiah. They may have begun to understand that God does not compromise with evil and hypocrisy. As Israel’s King David cried out in repentance: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51: 16-17). Throughout religious history, violence has been committed in God’s name by Christian Crusaders, Jewish Zionists and Islamic fundamentalists, but violence for conquest or political change does not serve God. Jesus showed the true nature of the commandments: to love God and equally respect the dignity of every human being. We see that in the life of Agnes Bojaxhiu from Albania. This young Roman Catholic nun had surrendered her life to Christ and dedicated it to the love of fellow human beings. She believed the only way to love and honor God was to love and honor God’s children on earth. She left her country to teach in Calcutta. Outside the convent’s walls, she saw a sea of humanity, suffering with poverty and disease. In each face she saw the face of Christ. Because she believed even the very poor have the right to die well, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. We know her better as Mother Theresa. God in Jesus Christ has created a new human community where we are no longer divided into Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. Here the weak are protected, the stranger welcomed. People are healed, the poor and dispossessed are cared for and find justice. Joy abounds and ordinary lives are filled with praise. We do not need to impose our religion. We need to practice it. In the words of Father Brooks, instead of reading the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, we can stay right here and keep them.

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