Third Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 4, 2018


Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Psalm 19

One of my theological heroes, the Franciscan priest and author and activist, Richard Rohr, has said that in all of his years of attending church he has never ever heard a sermon on the Tenth Commandment:[1]

You shall not covet.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey or sports car or lawn mower or flat screen TV. You shall not wish you were dating your neighbour’s spouse (let’s broaden the lens a little here from scripture, and not assume a heterosexual male perspective). You shall not covet someone else’s stuff or someone else’s life.

If Rohr is right about never encountering Commandment Ten as a sermon topic (and anecdotally, his experience is consistent with my own: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this subject myself) then: how come? How come those of us who have the privilege to preach are ignoring or dodging God’s prohibition on covetousness?

Well, maybe preachers recognise that covetousness is an almost universal phenomenon and we are nervous about a subject that is likely to touch a nerve in, well, everyone. Covetousness certainly has been and remains a part of my own life. During those times in the theatre business when I was underemployed, I coveted the career opportunities that some of my peers had. During high school, when I was telling a story about how everyone but me had a girlfriend, I coveted the romance that some of my classmates had found. And to this day, I kind of covet the effortlessness with which some folks appear to navigate social situations; I don’t share the common fear of public speaking – standing here is pretty natural for me –but I find cocktail parties mildly terrifying.

Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting any of the things that I just named: it is good and fine to want to gainfully and steadily employed, to want romance in your life, to want to navigate social encounters with a degree of ease. What distinguishes covetousness from a dream or an aspiration is that covetousness assumes a perspective on the world based around scarcity and resentment. It assumes that, if I am to have the things that I want then you need to not have them. I need to take them from you. If I am going to win, you have to lose.

Richard Rohr’s guess – and maybe this is a variation on what I just said – is that preachers don’t touch covetousness because we recognise that so much of our society is built around it. To look at the ads at the Oscars or on the bus or on a billboard is to see one monument to coveting after another. Here in the ad is a bunch of young, athletic, beautiful people. And they are having the best time on a beach or at a party while surrounded by their equally young, beautiful, and athletic friends. The message is clear: if you want to be young, beautiful, and athletic, if you want to be happy, if you want to be lovable and loved, you need the goods or the services that the people in this ad have.

Occasionally, Madison Avenue will wink just a tiny bit in one of these ads. I remember a Home Depot spot that kind of mocked the competition between two neighbours, both of whom wanted to have the most beautiful lawn. But the ad didn’t wink too much. It said: even though a lawn war is silly, even though coveting your neighbours grass is demonstrably ridiculous, you should probably still buy our lawn care products.

Better to be safe than sorry.

I have wondered, sometimes, why I find it so demoralising, so draining to walk through Lloyd Center. Maybe what wears me down so much is the unexamined and unnamed religiosity of the place. In that building there are a thousand and one messages that say: this is the place where you will find your freedom. We have the keys to the kingdom here. If you are to find healing, you need this stuff; if you are to find belonging, you need this stuff; if you are to find meaning, you need this stuff.

Most of us have tried entering into the contract that Lloyd Center and places like it offer: we have bought the new necktie or phone or whatever. And for a while it worked: we had a rush of satisfaction and happiness for a few hours or maybe even a few days. But then it wore off and we realised that we needed something else, something more if we were to be happy if we were to fill the hole in our lives. This built-in dissatisfaction is, of course, by design. The consumer model would fall apart pretty fast if you could buy one and only one iPhone and then be happy forever.

I think that I have told you before about my friend Barbara. Barbara is in her nineties, she is one of the people whom I see when I preside at the Eucharist over at Holladay Park Plaza. I look forward to seeing her every month. Much like the recently deceased Charlotte Creswell, Barbara has a palpable joy and palpable faith – a joy and a faith that she has chosen despite some significant suffering in her life. Barbara said to me once:

We have to be careful about what we worship. Because we will worship something.

You and I will worship something.

I spend a good part of my time talking with folks about faith. And pretty often, someone will say to me about one of the things that we say in church:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

And you know what? Good. God invites us to question. God expects us to question. I just wish that we would expand that questioning, so that when we stand in the middle of Lloyd Center and see its promises that our credit cards will allow us to buy love and freedom, we might say to ourselves:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

Scholars who study rabbinical interpretation, who examine the long Jewish history of interpreting scripture, tell us that the Jewish tradition tends to give special attention to the first and last items in a list or a sequence, that these items are set apart or emphasised versus the rest of the list, that they are tied together.[2] Thus, in the Ten Commandments, this final commandment – you shall not covet – is tied to the first commandment – I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.

This linking makes a lot of sense to me. Because it seems to me that coveting is all about directing our love and our energy towards something that isn’t God, about having other gods before God. What we find at Lloyd Center – call it capitalism, call it consumerism – in a very real sense, is a religion: it is a promise that you and I will find healing in stuff, that we will find belonging in stuff, that we will find meaning in stuff.

At the far entrance, there is actually a statue within a fountain made out of coins. Could we call that an idol to money? It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus outside of Lloyd Center. It isn’t too hard to imagine him seeing that idol, picking up his whip of cords, and going berserk.

To let go of covetousness is hard. It is an act of vulnerability and hope. It is a choice to go through the world saying that there is enough, and that I have enough, and that who I am is enough. I need to be something more, I don’t need to get something more in order to be loved by others or by God.

Keeping the commandment to not covet, in other words, isn’t just good for our neighbour, it isn’t just good for creation, it is good for our very souls. Setting aside covetousness allows us to be genuinely happy for other folks’ successes. Keeping the Tenth Commandment, hard though it may be, allows us to follow Jesus’ commandment: to love God, to love our neighbour, and – amazingly, amazingly enough – to love ourselves.

[1] Richard Rohr’s Meditation: Community as Alternative Consciousness. Accessed March 03, 2018.

[2] “Lent 3B.” Girardian Lectionary. Accessed March 03, 2018.