October 5, 2008

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 11-20
Matthew 21:33-46

A few weeks ago, I caught an episode of The Simpsons on TV. Some of you likely watch The Simpsons (an animated program for adults), and others of you may find the show annoying or even rude. But those of you who do enjoy The Simpsons probably appreciate it as a humorous social commentary. If you want to have a good discussion about politics, education, the environment, family life, or religion, an episode of The Simpsons can often be a good discussion starter.

Anyway, the episode that I watched a few weeks ago began with a scene about the Hebrews camping out in the wilderness. While Moses is up on the mountain talking to God, we meet some of the Hebrew men down below.

First, there is an artist — a sculptor. He’s working on his latest creation (a beautiful golden calf) and he’s already praising it as if it were a god. Then there’s his friend who’s obviously a player. He just isn’t a “one woman man,” you might say. And then there’s the character represented by Homer Simpson. His pockets are full of other people’s stuff. He’s a pick pocket and a thief, and he’s pretty good at what he does.

But all of a sudden Moses shows up. He’s just down from his latest conversation with God, and God has given him some rules for the people to follow. Moses says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol… you shall not bow down to idols or worship them.” And the artist says, “Oh man! I’m out of a job! What am I going to do now?”

The men start talking amongst themselves and miss the next few commandments. But then they hear Moses say, “You shall not commit adultery.” The adulterer among them starts to get annoyed, and Homer starts to laugh… until he hears the next one on the list, “You shall not steal.” And Homer the pick-pocket says, “Doh!”

The scene then changes from the ancient wilderness to the modern-day Simpson family at home. It just so happens that Homer meets a fellow who offers to hook up cable to his house for fifty bucks. Everyone knows that it’s an illegal hook-up, but Homer is tempted by all the channels they could get for free, and the man encourages him by saying that it won’t hurt anyone except nameless, faceless, big business. They get the cable hooked up, and the family immediately starts enjoying all the great shows they can now watch for free.

Sunday morning comes, and Marge drags Homer away from the TV so that the family can attend church. The text for the day in Bart and Lisa’s church school class is (you guessed it!) the ten commandments. Unlike in our classes, the teacher makes it her mission to scare the children into obedience to the commandments. She warns them that if they don’t follow God’s rules they’ll go to hell. She even includes a scary description of the place.

And though Bart is relatively unaffected by the lesson, Lisa gets very concerned about the fact that her family has stolen cable. The rest of the episode revolves around Lisa’s efforts to put an end to the stealing. She stops watching TV, she argues with her father about it, and finally she convinces everyone to do the right thing.

What comes across loud and clear on The Simpsons is that God’s commandments are experienced as a hardship: “I’ve got to stop doing this?” “I can’t do that?” “I have to change my habits?”

Maybe it’s because so many of the commandments are stated in the negative… “Thou shalt not murder,” rather than “You shall respect and value all life.” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” rather than “You shall enjoy a loving, committed, and faithful relationship with your spouse.”

I think that for many people, the ten commandments (and perhaps religion, in general) seem like a hardship and a hassle. They feel like a bunch of random rules that religious people have to follow. It’s “no fun” following all those rules. There are so many things you’re not allowed to do. And to make it even worse, churches have often added to the list of “thou shalt nots” with things like… “Thou shalt not dance,” “Thou shalt not drink any alcohol,” “Thou shalt not listen to certain kinds of music” “Thou shalt not make too much noise in church,” … and many, many more written or unwritten rules.

But at the end of The Simpsons episode, when Homer finally agrees to disconnect the cable, it’s obvious that his decision is not just about following random rules or avoiding punishment. Instead, the factor that seems to be the most convincing for him is the matter of relationship. It’s not that Homer was at all aware of how his stealing cable affected others in society, whether actors, TV station employees, or even others who actually pay for their cable use. But Homer did notice how his stealing affected his family. Lisa was losing all respect for her own father, and Homer was willing to change (to give up his shows) in order to mend their broken relationship.

Whether we’re talking about the ten commandments, other guidelines from the bible, or Jesus’ all-encompassing rule of life (that we love one another as Jesus loved us), I don’t believe that God’s purpose in setting out some rules was to make our lives difficult. In fact, I believe that the main purpose of the commandments is to build and maintain loving relationships. They exist for the sake of community.

You may have noticed that the first four commandments have to do with our relationship with God. God tells us that he is the one God who loves and cares for us (God brought the people out of Egypt) and we should worship God only. We shouldn’t let other things become more important to us than God, whether objects or money or other people. We need to use God’s name with love and respect. That’s the way God uses our names, and this is to be a relationship of care and trust. God tells us to keep a Sabbath day — to join in God’s rhythm of work and rest, and to set aside time for worship, for talking with God, and for building that relationship.

By seeking to follow the first four commandments, we have the opportunity to grow in relationship with God. It’s not a matter of doing these things to avoid getting smited by God. We do them in response to God’s love, and because they bring joy, peace, and meaning into our lives.

The other six commandments are the ones that impact our relationships with other people — our families, our friends, and our neighbours. If we summarized the first four as “Love God above all,” then we might sum up the other six by saying, “And love your neighbour as yourself.”

At our first meeting of the Friday night Kids’ Club in September, Judy Chow and I decided to talk about the ten commandments with the kids. When they opened their bibles and noticed what we were going to read, some of the older ones complained, “Not again! We’ve done the ten commandments so many times before!”

But we talked about how the commandments were a gift from God. God gave the Hebrews some rules so that they could get along really well with God and really well with each other. And then we came up with some rules for our own Friday night group too. Judy and I didn’t need to set down the commandments from on high. The kids knew what rules they needed so that we could get along together and with God.

1. We will pay attention when we’re reading God’s Word.
2. We will say thank you to God before we share a snack.
3. We will listen when someone else has a turn to speak.
4. We will play fair so that everyone has fun in our games.

And in the weeks following, the rules that we agreed on have been helping us to live in loving community with God and each other, ensuring that we spend time with God, and that no one is left out, or taken advantage of, or hurt.

If you were a fly on the wall at Kids’ Club, you’d probably notice that we’re not a perfect community yet. We don’t follow ALL the rules ALL the time. Sometimes we do forget, and sometimes we make wrong choices too. But that’s not just a problem with kids. That’s the same struggle that all people have to choose God, to choose community, to choose love, rather than whatever is quick or easy or seemingly self-serving.

The parable that we heard in today’s Gospel reading may remind us that people can be directed by greed and fear and selfishness. Any one of us has the power to break community with our neighbours and to reject the one God who loves us.

Perhaps we are reminded of our sins and our failures all too often. Perhaps even the ten commandments can feel like another accusation that says we’re no good. We’re not good enough. But God didn’t only give us a set of rules to help us choose the way of love. God came to us. And God lived with us. And God showed us the way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

God didn’t just tell us that we should love one another. God came and loved us perfectly. God didn’t just say, “Follow these rules, and build a community of love.” God came and loved us into relationship with him. Jesus loved even those who argued with him. Jesus loved even those who got him arrested and killed. Jesus loved even those who got scared and ran away, abandoning him when he was in trouble. Jesus loved them. And Jesus loves us — no matter how imperfectly we have followed God’s loving rules.

As we come to the table where Jesus is the host, God gathers us together in communion and community with God and with all who share this feast. We do have the power to break community. But God has the power to build community where it is broken. And we are invited to participate. Amen.