Year B, Lent III March 4, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; * the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.”
That is some high praise for rules!
But first, what is our story? As Christians, what is our story? Follow the rules, don’t sin? That’s part of it. That Jesus saves? Well, yes He does. But it is not much of a story, that is just the conclusion; there is a lot, lot more going on than that, a lot, lot more than that, it has to be or we wouldn’t be here. We have a big story, so big that it still brings us together at the Lord’s table here in Eugene on a cold winter morning more than 2000 yeas on. We have a big story.
In our catechism class, we talked about the big story of Christianity, the meta-narrative of our religion. This is one version: It starts with God creating, everything, including us, and us in God’s own image, meaning we are free, we have choices to consciously make. Well, we chose wrong right off the bat, but we still have a memory of what it ought to be like, how God intended it to be. Time progressed, and through Abraham and then reaffirmed with Moses, God chose a specific people, Israel, to bear witness to god, the God, in the world. For generations, centuries, God again and again, in so many ways, tried to teach Israel about what sort of God they were supposed to worship. 1. They were to worship One God, and Only One God, YHWH; and 2. YHWH, their God, cared about how they behaved. Actions on earth matter. The whole record of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is a record of that process of Israel learning and missing the boat and trying again to follow the God they were in covenant with.
Then the story takes a turn, not wholly unexpected, but still wholly shocking. In about 4 CE, from Israel, came a man named Jesus, who talked like the One the prophets of old talked about. He said that He had always existed. He said that He could forgive people their sins on behalf of God, whom He called His Father. He even said that He was God. That part was unexpected. Scandalous. And He was rejected, and killed, and in that rejection and death and following Resurrection, we were saved, all of us, reconciled to that One God forever and ever. Fifty days later, the Holy Spirit came down and blessed those gathered around the Gospel, the Holy Spirit continues, through some great mystery, to inhabit and empower and bless the Church, and through the Church, us, and through us, Christians baptized into the Priesthood of All believers, God’s blessing flows to the whole world. And eventually, in the fullness of time, evil will cease, and everything will be as it is supposed to be. Great is the mystery of faith!
That’s our basic story. That’s our salvation history. Well, it is one way to tell it. There are lots of ways. We find different things important. Come to the Easter Vigil to hear it told another way in stories and psalms, song and chant, it is spectacular. Sundown. 8:07 PM. March 31. Be there! We’ll be baptizing!
But until then, we are right here, right now, half-way through our Lenten trudge! I hope it is going well. I hope that you are suitably unsettled, off balance enough to gain some perspective, enough to shake some of the dust off your spiritual selves. It is good to check in at the half way point.
This morning, the lectionary has served up for us a tasty morsel that is central to one of the key points in our story; the nature of our God and what our God expects from us. That teaching comes to us in all sorts of ways, but never as directly and clearly as it comes to us in one of the most familiar, maybe not most beloved, but most familiar passages in scripture: the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments or Decalogue is a set of rules. It tells us how to live. But that is just the beginning. Walter Brueggeman, a top-shelf Hebrew Bible scholar, writes, “These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.”
We must never forget that that is who got these rules originally. God led Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the Red Sea with Moses in the lead, and set them free. Israel was free! That’s the American ideal, right, Freedom? “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?” It is. And God bless us for it. Freedom from tyranny has been a scarce occurrence in history. We’re not completely free of it, but we’re better off than most in the world, especially white folks of some means. But freedom can be a mixed bag. I knew that my days as a Unitarian were numbered when I preached a sermon called “Too much of a good thing,” that thing we can have too much of being freedom, theological freedom. It was not well received in Unitarian circles. However, if we as a species should have learned anything by now it is that we don’t do very well, we don’t make very good choices when given too much freedom to choose to do whatever we want to do. (Although the only thing more dangerous than having to choose for ourselves is to have someone else choose for us. What a pickle! Related is the adage “democracy is the worst form of government besides all of the others”).
Thankfully God knew this. First, God knew that freedom, having free will is what makes us human. We are creatures made in the image of our creator, free. However, God knew that in giving us the freedom to choose our own way, we could and often would make wrong choices, choices that would lead us not to life, but to death. Original sin, that bad choice we made right off the bat, that something that got between us and God, Our Creator accounted for that, and knew that we would need help on the way. We would need direction, a way laid out before us to guide us in the best way to live. To guide us towards life and light. We couldn’t be forced to follow it, that is not the exercise of free will, but we still needed it, need it, a path laid out before us. That path began with the Law of Moses, with its cornerstone and starting point, The Ten Commandments.
I really want to go through each one, there is so much going on in each commandment, a lot more than you might think. Like we all know “Thou shalt not kill,” right. But it is actually “Thou shalt not murder,” which really means “Thou shall not kill anyone for socially unacceptable reasons.” Which is a very different thing. There’s a lot more contextual wiggle room with that than a simple prohibition on killing. I’d love to go through them point by point but we don’t have the time, and it’s the Bible, so of course there are two versions that don’t exactly match. But let’s look at them as a whole, and then ways they may be helpful, because I don’t know about you, but when I think “law” the first thing that pops into mind is not prayer or God or anything particularly spiritual let alone useful but rather what is the most (or least) I can get away with. Humans! We’re slippery fish.
So there were two Tablets, or Tables. It is not just five on each, they were divided by purpose. The first four (no other gods, no idols, no wrongful use of God’s name and remember the Sabbath), those have to do with how we are to live in relation to God. The second table had the six that have to so with____? How to live with each other. Honoring mothers and fathers, not murdering, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, or coveting are all about getting along with others. Think about Jesus’ summation of the law that we started the Penitential Order with: love god with everything you have and love you neighbor as yourself. Worship One God and what we do matters. Ethical monotheism… it all starts to comes together, the story, the scripture, your experience of God in Christ. This is good stuff.
But it is not just a list of do’s and don’ts, though if that were all they were they’d be worth holding on to. But there are also deep spiritual gifts that come through the Decalogue. Last week I referenced Martin Luther. This week I’m turning to John Calvin, because he is spot on here on the spiritual nature of the Commandments, or as he put it, “three uses” for them.
First, they are rules, do these things, don’t do those, hard to argue with, but the spiritual use is bigger. The spiritual benefit is seeing that you need the rules to begin with. It is Calvin, utter depravity, right? Our sins, our sinfulness is exposed, we can’t fool ourselves that we are good people nearly so easily when we see the reminders that we all need about how to be in this world. We might not be out there murdering, but our government is on our behalf. Our taxes pay for it. And we elect the people who decide to do it. And who doesn’t covet sometimes? Or commit adultery in our minds? Even Jimmy Carter did that! The commandments are a reflection back on who you are, and that can help us be honest with ourselves about who you are. I need that reminder. There is no righteousness like self-righteousness and looking at a list of things that I and my kind (human kind) need to be reminded of is an appropriately humbling experience.
The second use Calvin identifies is that they help us behave better, restrain us from sinning, but not as an individual being, but as a member of a community, as a person in relation with others. Nothing proscribed or prohibited in the Decalogue occurs in isolation. Everything we do is in relation to another. Having baseline rules agreed upon by everyone (or at least known by everyone) makes everyone accountable. Social accountability, or in the old fashioned way of saying it, shame, is a powerful tool in society. It can be harmful, but it can be helpful, too. In our day and age we suffer more from guilt, which is internally generated. Shame is externally generated, communal, and it can help us tow lines that otherwise we wouldn’t if we knew we could get away with it.
Finally, and for Calvin the most important function, the Ten Commandments can serve as “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” as the psalmist writes in Psalm 119. This echoes Psalm 19 from today’s Propers. “The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.” The Ten Commandments are guides for us, they show us the way of life in God, not the way of death out on our own in the cold wastes. These are not enforceable edicts, but are examples of how we live in the light of God’s grace freely given to us. Not a list of rules, but a foundation, a constitution framing a more perfect union between God and us. That’s sounds pretty good. Calvin’s is on it more often than most of us Anglican like to admit.
Christianity is not an abstraction. It is not just an idea. It isn’t just about Truth, Goodness and Beauty. It isn’t even just about Love. Those are all things that we associate with the Word, you know the “In the Beginning was the Word.” The Word, the Logos in Greek, is the reason, the underlying idea behind and beyond existence. Christianity is about the Word, but the Word made Flesh. It is about all of this. Things. Real things. Bodies or like we heard last week, sarx, flesh. Like Tertullian, a 3rd century Father of the church, said, “The Flesh is the hinge of salvation.” Christianity is very much about all of this and how all of this relates to everything that is and was and is to come, seen and unseen, begotten and made. All of it. The Ten Commandments are one of the checkpoints along the way, a point where the great “I am” is, or at least is accessible to scatty creatures like us. May they be a light unto your path as your Lent progresses. AMEN.