Readings: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4-14
This isn’t the sermon I had planned to share today. Over the couple of days I spent on Iona recently, I had a look at the readings that were coming up and began to sketch out a general direction for this week’s message but that all changed on Monday. For last Monday was not a good day.
It started fine enough, as the alarm coaxed me awake at 7 and I thought to myself, ‘today is going to be a good day’. So I grabbed some Branflakes and put the tv on…only for it to stare blankly back at me, broken. Never mind, I thought – it’s going to be a good day. I’ll just catch up on some washing and drying from my time away and risked sticking my walking boots in the washer and dryer…only for them to break in two. It is going to be a good day.
I get on with emails until I realize that I’ll have to pop into town because I’ve just started attending a exercise class on a Monday – a vain attempt to be healthy – and they only accept cash which I don’t have. So I walk down the hill and decide to drop some things at the church which I won’t need for the gym – my lunch, my diary, laptop and clothes for the afternoon. I should have gone to my locked office, of course, but the English classes were on and I didn’t want to disturb them so I come in here and put my laptop over by the side there and, just to be extra sure no one would take it, I hide it under my hoodie, trousers and underwear . No one is going to touch that! I knew the builders were coming in and out of the sanctuary but no one was going to spot the door was open, get past the builders without them knowing, take a look around the church, find a bundle of clothes, discover a hidden laptop and take it, sneaking back out of the church without the builders’ attention in a 90 minute window, now would they?!
So on I go, popping in to see the Monday walkers in the café and grabbing some cash before heading on to Hopkinstown. Well, the exercise class doesn’t happen as the instructor doesn’t turn up which is pretty frustrating, especially as I went into town just to get the money…but never mind, I have a nice walk by the river and it is still, please God, going to be a good day. I get back to the church, have a chat with Beverley and Pete, who have just finished the morning’s lesson, and I come in here to get my laptop when I discover that under my clothes…is nothing. No laptop. Huh!
No…it can’t have been stolen, I say to Beverley and Pete as I begin to doubt my own memory…I must have put it somewhere else not thinking about it. But after searching the church…including the toilet and shower, where I don’t generally take my computer but you never know…and even searching the manse just in case I’m experiencing some kind of acute amnesia…I slowly begin to accept the fact that my laptop was stolen from the church.
It was here that I gave up! Monday was a rubbish day and I was a rubbish minister. For I knew the workmen sometimes kept the doors open and I left the laptop there anyhow. Weeks of planning and documents, hours of my time and hundreds of pounds of the church’s resources had been lost all because of my naivety. I could add laptop to the list of things I’d misplaced or broken over the past few weeks which included coat, iPod, waterproof trousers, boots and mobile charger and with that, I called ‘house’ for idiot bingo! This general descent of guilt-induced self-flagellation continued over the next few hours and by the time I returned home later that evening I’d talked myself into being a poor excuse for an adult who clearly couldn’t take care of himself, let alone a church. I pour myself a glass of wine – large – and caught up with the news headlines…on the radio of course…and I heard about Las Vegas and scores of people being shot dead at a country music concert…and my wallowing in guilt over a stolen laptop is revealed to be melodramatic and self-absorbed. I crawled back under my duvet and closed my eyes. Monday was not a good day.
As the news of the stolen laptop slowly got round the elders and others, the theft stirred up different responses. Whilst for me, guilt was my tune of choice, some despaired that you couldn’t trust anyone these days – fancy stealing from a church! Others were angry – at the thief, at the builders, at the mere fact that this would happen in Wales…that was genuinely one response. Others still became suspicious…could it have been the builders…I mean, they did have access to the sanctuary? And then there was Vaughan who helpfully suggested that the way to find out who stole the laptop was to go round the other churches in the coming weeks and see who was preaching my old sermons! But Vaughan’s response aside, the theft provoked guilt, anger, despair and mistrust of others and of self as I still thought I might have remembered things inaccurately. One small, desperate act sent ripples of negativity through this community.
“Thou shalt not steal,” the eighth commandment, in our translation, tell us, “For it will lead to guilt, anger, mistrust, despair and division within the community,” we might want to add. It would seem that this command said to come from God, was given as a means of protecting the new community of Israel, only recently liberated from slavery in Egypt and still working out who they are and how to be. We can look at the other commandments and extrapolate similar guidance too…don’t have any other gods before me means guarding against money, sex or power becoming our idols which always leads to the exploitation or ill treatment of others. Keeping the Sabbath is a reminder that creation is a gift and we must be wise stewards of it. Not bearing false witness means building up the community by speaking truthfully about our neighbours, not spreading lies and rumours…Every one of these ten teachings encourage a healthy love of God and neighbour, opening a path to the flourishing of life both individual and communal.
Just imagine how different the nightly news would be if we followed them! Of course, it’s not just in our time that these teachings have proven difficult to keep. In fact, no sooner is Moses back up the mountain, chatting with God once again, that his brother and the rest of the community allow fear and idolatry to rule their actions, building a shiny golden calf to set their lives upon. Moses returns, God despairs and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments are broken.
Now I bet when Paul read of these actions in his holy scriptures, he judged the disobedient Israelites with smug superiority for Paul would never have been so unruly. If my tendency this week was to think of myself as the worst minister, Paul’s was to think of himself as the best –
“If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh,” Paul writes in his letter to the church in Philippi, “I have more.” And then Paul, the old shrinking violet, goes on to list his religious achievements. Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; a zealous persecutor of heretics, righteous under the law, blameless, fluent in many languages, Head Prefect at Pharisee school, cycling proficiency certificate owner, Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award winner and named ‘most likely to be High Priest of Amazingness’ at high school…for which he nominated himself. Okay, I might have got a bit carried away there but Paul was definitely a perfectionist. He tried to be the best Jew and, since conversion…the most spectacular conversion, of course…he was striving to be the best Christian…
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
And yet, for all Paul’s narcissism, he knew, he experienced, he declared that God’s faithfulness, God’s love is not contingent upon our obedience. The good news is that whether we can tick off the ten commandments or not; whether like Paul, we feel like the best, or, like me this week, we feel like the worst, our relation to God is not defined by our successes and failures but by the boundless, magnificent, unfathomable and amazing grace of God. This is what Paul is saying in his letter; this is what Jesus lived in his life; this is what we might discover afresh today for God’s grace is at the core of the gospel.
It was grace that saw God give the Israelites another chance as a second set of stone tablets were made to replace the broken originals. It was grace that saw God forgive Israel time and time again and help them learn the error of their ways as they kept forgetting God’s teaching and neglecting the call for justice and peace. It was grace that saw God take on human form and come to us; that saw Jesus teach us the way to live and summarise the commandments as love; that saw him utter words of forgiveness from a cross and words of hope in a garden three days later. It’s grace which sees God forgiving us for when we stray from God’s teachings – when we judge others, lie about our neighbours, steal computers or wallow in guilt…and it’s grace that means that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more; there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less!
Who knows, maybe it was even grace that led to my laptop being returned. Yes, on Wednesday afternoon, I received a call at the office from someone I’m set to marry next year, telling me that someone else tried to sell him a second hand laptop which, when he powered it up, bore my name on the log in screen…so he bought the laptop, phoned me and there it is now.
Back on Iona, where I first thought about this morning’s sermon, there was a line that struck me in the liturgy used at the Abbey. It says, “We affirm God’s goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.” In spite of a church theft and my own foolishness; in spite of the golden calf and Paul’s golden ego; in spite of shootings in America and persecution in Myanmar, I dare to hang on to this belief and ask for God’s help in living this out in acts of grace. So I’ll try to keep looking for the best in others, instead of focusing on the worst. I’ll try to be a little gentler on myself when I next muck things up. And I’ll do my best to be a bit more forgiving to those who don’t always overflow with grace…whilst knowing that God will forgive me when I don’t…for God is gracious; we are loved and today is going to be a good day. Amen.