Search form

You are here

The Third Sunday of Lent

Posted By : Guest Preacher Sunday 8th March 2015

A Sermon by the Very Reverend Gary R Hall, Dean of Washington National Cathedral

Exodus 20: 1-17; John 2: 13-22

I cannot overstate the pleasure and honor of being with you this morning.  I have long admired the ministry of your dean, June Osborne, and Salisbury Cathedral is for me the home of everything best in Anglican worship.  I am a lifelong adherent of the Sarum liturgical style, — an English tradition and color scheme developed here in Salisbury and still the standard in Anglican churches around the world.  In the 1980s I served as the Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, California - it was a rough placement, somebody had to go there! - and it may please you to learn that St. Aidan’s Malibu is one of a handful of Sarum parishes in America.  So I bring greetings from a wide range of Anglicans in the US: from snowy Washington all the way to sunny California, and I hope, on this late winter morning, that your souls will be warmed by the knowledge that even today, in far off Malibu, movie stars and surfers are waking up to worship using Salisbury’s Lenten array.

The pulpit at Washington National Cathedral where I serve is called the “Canterbury pulpit”, and it is so named because it is made of stone given to us in 1904 by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He gave the pulpit in memory of his predecessor Stephen Langton, who led the barons when they demanded Magna Carta from King John.  Right in the center of the pulpit as you face it is a large carving of King John and Archbishop Langton, and so aside from the many missional connections our two cathedrals share, we are united in our joint heritage of common prayer and common law.  (You, however, have the real Magna Carta here in Salisbury.  We only have an artist’s rendering.)  So it means a lot to me and to my cathedral that I am with you here representing Washington National Cathedral as you begin your observance of Magna Carta’s role in the English-speaking world. Neither the United Kingdom, the United States, nor Anglicanism itself would be what they are were it not for the human rights and civil traditions set forth in Magna Carta.  The document may be 800 years old, but it remains a living force in our civic and church lives.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, an apt scriptural context for us to think about Magna Carta from a Christian perspective.  You live in a country with an established church.  I live in a country that separates church and state.  The anniversary of this great charter poses for us a central question: what is the proper role of religion in society?  Or to put it slightly differently, what it does it mean to be a faithful citizen?

First, to today’s scripture: every time we read the Decalogue together in church, I can’t help thinking about the way the Ten Commandments have unwittingly become a flash point for the culture wars in American politics.  When he came down the mountain with the tablets, could Moses possibly have thought that he was starting a process that would lead to endless American litigation?  It seems as if every time you turn around in the U.S. there is a controversy somewhere about the display of the Ten Commandments in a public space—usually a city hall, a courthouse, or a state capitol building.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In the Constitution’s 18th century context, that means two things: the United States, unlike the United Kingdom, will not have an established “official” church.  And all Americans will be free to pray or not to as their consciences dictate.

You’d think the intent of this amendment was pretty clear on its face, but we Americans have been arguing about what it really means almost since our country’s inception.  In recent years, the dispute has become much more divisive.  Civil libertarians have claimed that any public display of religious teaching violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state.  Others have countered that America’s founders meant our country to be what they call a “Christian nation”.

As an American and as a Christian I have to admit that I am a bit conflicted about this issue.  On the one hand, my inner civil libertarian agrees that in America no one religion should be given preference over another.  On the other hand, though, as a Christian I’m deeply troubled by the knee-jerk secularism unintentionally ushered in by the First Amendment.  We seem, in Western Culture, to stand at the intersection of two contradictory trends: increasing secularism on the one hand, deepening spirituality on the other.  People distrust the institutions that have historically mediated religious experience, but they don’t distrust the experience itself.  Fewer people go to church, but more people use religious language to understand the world and their lives.

Here is where the Ten Commandments and Magna Carta become relevant.  The Ten Commandments are the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Magna Carta reintroduced the biblical idea of covenant and its role in government into Western society.  Kings may rule by divine right, but they can exercise that right only in covenant with the people they govern.  The relation of a ruler and the people is modeled on this biblical ideal.  The Bible employs the idea of covenant to express the relationship of God with God’s people.  Israel’s God is not a tyrant. He is a companion. His power exists not abstractly but in relationship.  When Moses ascends Mount Sinai he is given the Ten Commandments as the terms of God’s covenant with Israel.  They are the conditions on which Israel is called to live if it wants to be God’s people.  Israel is free to accept or reject them.  They are not imposed.  For these commandments to be binding, both God and Israel have to consent.

So if society and its laws are formed in a covenant — a covenant we people of faith believe to be not only between ourselves but with God - what then does it mean to be a faithful citizen?  How, in an increasingly secular society, can a person of faith participate? When, in an increasingly pluralistic society, should a Christian raise a voice?

I have two quick thoughts about these questions. Briefly, here they are.

Thought one: though we no longer live in the world of shared cultural assumptions that built cathedrals like this one, we people of faith are nevertheless called to bring our voices and values into the public arena.  All our faith traditions have a stake in our public life.  Our churches, synagogues, and mosques are more than simple aggregations of like-minded citizens.  Our faith communities are part of the fabric of civil society and therefore essential to the common good.  We no longer have the right — if we ever did — to impose our values on society.  But we do have the right — and the obligation — to express those values in the civic debate.  Who but we will stand for the values expressed in the scriptures — justice, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love?  If our shared public life is to remain humane and decent, then an increasingly secular society will need even more to hear what we have to say about a host of public issues: war and peace, climate change, violence, income inequality and poverty, human trafficking, gender, sexuality, and race relations.  Let's not forget that yesterday, in Selma, Alabama, Americans observed the 50th anniversary of the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge - a signal event in the struggle for American Civil Rights.  Our Bible and our traditions give us a point of view on these matters, and we are obligated to bring our convictions to bear on public policy debates.  The Bible knows no distinction between religion and politics, and neither should we.

That’s thought one.  Here’s thought two: We are called specifically to be Christians in a religiously pluralistic society.  The terms of the deal are extended to those who have agreed to the covenant.  The Ten Commandments are never presented as universal laws.  They are presented as Israel’s laws.  Like Israel, the church is a covenanted community.  You are in it or out of it because you choose to be.  Our truth does not pretend to be a general, universal truth.  Our truth claims to be a particular, personal truth.

The Ten Commandments are the rules that you and I have agreed to live by. They are absolutely binding on us.  They are our truth because the One who speaks them is our God.  But nowhere in the Bible do we read that God gives us the right to impose our truth on someone else.  God didn’t say, “Here are the Ten Commandments.  Make sure the Egyptians obey them.”  God said, “Here are the Ten Commandments.  You obey them.  You live them out, and, by your example, draw others into your life and witness.”

We’re gathered on this Third Sunday in Lent to reaffirm both the right we have to be faithful citizens and the precious gift we have Christianity as one great faith tradition among many.  All we can do is proclaim and live by our truth.  We cannot impose it on others.  The Ten Commandments are the sign of our covenant with the One who has called us to be a particular set of God’s people in the world.   And in its way, Magna Carta stands as the other sign of the public covenant under which we live with our rulers.  Whether you believe that kings rule by divine right or the consent of the governed, Magna Carta proclaims that the bond between a ruler and a people will always stand as a covenant of mutual obligation modeled on Israel’s relationship with God.  Yahweh rules not by power but by consent.  Earthly kings and presidents can do no less.

I am thankful for the Ten Commandments as the sign of our covenant with God.  The Ten Commandments are our commandments because they are given to us by the One whom Jesus called his Father.  They are no less true for being ours.  I am thankful for Magna Carta as the sign of our covenant with those who govern.  These two living documents are our shared warrant for a civic life together even when our ultimate affirmations differ.  May we so live out the truths enshrined in both Decalogue and charter that we and our society will be transformed by God’s love and blessed by our shared participation in our work for the common good. We cannot dictate, but we must not abdicate.  The One we call our God loves not only us, us and all the others with whom we share this blessed world.  Magna Carta serves as a civic witness to that divine love and compassion.  In its next 800 years, may Magna Carta continue to serve as the terms on which we together in civil society value our own traditions, respect others, and thereby witness to God’s transforming love.  Amen.