Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
March 7, 2021 Worship Sermon - "The House of Bonding"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
You have probably heard of studies in which a rat is placed in a box with two water bottles: one bottle contains pure water; the other contains water mixed with cocaine. As you might expect, the rat almost always chooses to drink exclusively from the water bottle containing cocaine and very quickly becomes addicted. After days and days of drinking only cocaine water, the rat eventually dies. These studies have led scientists to come up with a model for understanding addiction: drugs have these chemical hooks that affect the functioning of our brain; once our brains are hooked on these drugs, we’re pretty much powerless to get unhooked.
That model is helpful to a degree, but in the 1970s a scientist named Bruce Alexander looked at the experiment with the rat and thought, “Of course the rat became addicted: it was isolated in a box with nothing to do but drink the cocaine water.” So, he tried the same experiment, but instead of putting one rat all by itself in a box with the two water bottles, he did the experiment with a whole community of rats. And he created a kind of rat park for them to live in. They had access to all the food and water they wanted; they could socialize with each other; and there were all kinds of activities to keep them interested and occupied. What Alexander found was that these rats tended not to become addicted. Most of them didn’t use the cocaine water at all, and those that did drink the cocaine water didn’t drink it compulsively. None of the rats ODed on the cocaine water. This study has led many people who study addiction to change their understanding of how addiction works. Some suggest that we shouldn’t call it addiction at all; we should call it bonding. Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond. When we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if we can't do that, because we're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that will give us some sense of relief. That might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but we will bond and connect with something because that's our nature. That's what we want as human beings.
This is really what has made the pandemic so difficult for all of us: that sense of isolation where we can’t gather with other people. I can hear music on Youtube just as easily as I can hear it in a concert hall, but I miss being with other people in a concert hall. Or much more painful than that, think about the kind of bonding we do with friends and family when someone we love dies. How do we comfort each other if we can’t hug or even crowd together in the same room? The toll from our inability to bond with each other during this pandemic has been almost as significant as the death toll of the disease itself.
Our Old Testament readings during the season of Lent have all been about bonding. If you’ve been here for that past few weeks, you know that we have been focusing on the covenants that God has made with humanity. A covenant is the promise we make to another person or group of people in order to bind ourselves to them. Two weeks ago, we read about God’s covenant with Noah, that the world would never again be destroyed by a flood. Last week we read about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, that they would be the ancestors of a multitude. This week, in our reading form Exodus, we’re hearing about God’s covenant with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
So, one thing that’s worth noting is this: God really seems to want to bond with us human beings. God wants to bond with us and God cares about how we bond with each other. That’s the whole point of the Ten Commandments that we just read: the Ten Commandments are the rules for bonding with God and with each other.
I like how the King James Version of the Ten Commandments begins: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The people of Israel were in bondage. Now judging from what these addiction studies are saying, bondage is the human condition. We want to be bonded to others; we don’t want to live in isolation. But what happened in Egypt was a case of extremely unhealthy bonding: there was no freedom at all. The people were slaves. They were abused and traumatized. So God freed them from this life-destroying bondage and promised to bring them into their own land where they could bond with each other in ways that we healthy and life-giving.
Now at first glance, the Ten Commandments seem like a lot of “don’t do this” and “don’t do that”. Like God is trying to put us in a box and take away our freedom. On the contrary, the Ten Commandments are all about freedom. God gives us the freedom to interact with others in a multiplicity of ways; but the Ten Commandments lay out the boundaries for our freedom at the place where my freedom begins to interfere with your well-being. There are a thousand ways I can enter into economic relationships with other people; as long as I don’t steal from them. There are a thousand ways I can enter into a romantic relationship with another person; just don’t cheat on them. There are a thousand things I can say about my neighbor; but don’t tell lies about them. By giving us the law, God is showing us how to bond with each other in ways that are healthy and life-giving.
Bonding with other people is hard. As much as we crave close relationships with others, we’re not always very good at it. People are very complicated, so bonding with them is going to be very complicated. That’s why so many relationships are fraught with trauma and suffering.
If bonding with other people seems hard, bonding with God seems even harder. After all, God is beyond our understanding. How do we bond with something that we can’t see or touch? Here again, though, there’s a lot of freedom. There are really only two rules governing our relationship with God: 1) don’t worship as God that which is not God; 2) don’t treat God disdainfully. God understands how we long to bind ourselves to others and how easily that longing can become a form of slavery. Since we can’t hold God in the grip of our hands, we find something that we can grip – an idol – and we try to bond ourselves to that, hoping that it will give us the kind of satisfaction we long for, a relationship with something ultimate and eternal. Binding ourselves to an idol is death, though, because the idol cannot deliver the satisfaction that it promises.
Do the Ten Commandments and what we’re saying about healthy bonds relate to the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple? Ideally, the temple could be a house of bonding. It could facilitate creating healthy bonds with other people and with God. The temple could be a gathering place for the whole nation of Israel… a place where people could come to pray and worship the one true God. But the temple could also be fraught with problems. The walls of the temple can become a means of keeping some people out. The walls could also lead people to believe that God can somehow be contained in a box. Neither of these make for healthy relationships with God and others. Instead of being a house of bonding, the temple becomes a house of bondage. That seems to be what was happening in Jesus’ day. The tables of the vendors and the money-changers created an obstacle that stood in the way of people gathering freely for prayer. Instead of focusing on God, people were focusing on commerce, buying and selling and making a profit.
Because the temple was so problematic, Jesus replaced it with something else: his own body. Instead of housing God within the walls of a temple, God comes to us housed in human flesh, the body of Christ. And the resurrected body of Christ is the body that surrounds you right now, your brothers and sisters in Christ. Feeling connected with this body may be harder to perceive during a pandemic, when can’t just look across the sanctuary and see the people with whom we share the body of Christ. Perhaps because of this it is more important than ever that we pray for each other, in order to keep that connection alive.
We don’t have to travel to some building in Jerusalem in order to bond with God. God comes to us here in Upper Darby, or wherever people gather in the name of Christ. In Christ, God enters fully into our lives, even suffering and dying along with us, so that nothing can prevent us from experiencing the life-giving relationships God intends for us.