Sunday, March 15, 2009

(Lent 3) Starting with the story

Lent 3
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; John 2:13-22

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I’m a list-maker.
I know a lot of you are too.
Lists keep our lives in order.
At least if we bother to look at them, and follow them.
I also think there’s something in our spiritual DNA,
and maybe cultural DNA, as Mennonites,
that make us likely to love lists.
Our theology emphasizes the “doing” side of faith.
Not to the total neglect of “being,”
but we do like our “doing.”
Ours is an active faith, and rightly so.
We are concerned about ethics.
We want to do right by God.

So a list like the Ten Commandments suits our spirituality very well.
This is a good list for people prone to measure their righteousness,
by what they do, or don’t do.

But let me make a case
for not reading these as just a spiritual “to-do list.”
Open your bulletins and look at how we printed them.
You may have noticed these things already,
but look at the title—the Decalogue.
That’s what Bible scholars call this text.
“Decalogue” just means, “Ten Words.”
“Ten Commandments” is the more popular title.
Both titles work. But I prefer “Ten Words.”
For a particular reason.
Which relates to another thing you might have noticed,
See anything strange about how these are numbered?

I imagine, if you did like me,
and memorized the Ten Commandments in Sunday School
or Bible School,
commandment #1 was the first half of what the bulletin says is #2:
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
And commandment #2 was the second half:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
or in King James, “graven image.”
From there on they’re same.
So what’s with this number 1?
It’s not even a commandment.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
The traditional Hebrew and Jewish numbering of these ten words
begins with one that is not a commandment.

See, these are not just a sterile list of isolated rules and prohibitions.
These are divine words, “words” in the sense of
solemn utterance of the one God Yahweh.
And since Day One of Creation,
we know the power of an utterance of God.
Words of God have the power to create, and to define.
“And God said, let there be . . . and there was . . .”

We cannot underestimate the importance of these ten words,
that God uttered to God’s people at a particular time.
A people who, by the way, were very new
to this relationship with God.
Who barely knew who this God was.
Who very recently in their history,
were first introduced to this God,
by a man who came into Egypt from a far country,
and claimed to be one of them,
sent by God to bring them out of slavery.
That was Moses.
And the only thing Moses could really say about who God was,
was that his name was, “I am.”
As a people, they knew nothing
about the nature and character of this so-called God,
whether God’s intention was to rescue them,
or exterminate them.
And they honestly wondered sometimes,
when they ran out of food and water in the wilderness.

So there they were,
a massive movement of people wandering in the desert,
led by a man who claimed to represent an unknown God.
These Ten Words could not have been more important,
or more timely.
It cannot be overstated.
These words meant everything to the people.
By these solemn utterances, this loving, Creator God
was speaking something into existence,
speaking life and breath into a people.
Just like in the six days of Creation,
God was speaking into existence.
Was creating a people of covenant.

The ten words begin the way they need to begin.
Word #1: “I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
That word . . . was the foundation for everything that followed.
The so-called ten commandments,
start by becoming grounded in the story.
These ten words cannot, ultimately,
be separated from that story
of a God who has endless compassion and love
for the people God called into being.
These are words that come from a God
who is seeking a mutual loving relationship with a people.
These are words that start with the story
of God intervening in history,
and delivering people from oppression.

Most Christians today see this as a list of commands
that can be isolated, abbreviated,
neatly numbered, in two parallel columns,
inscribed onto stone or bronze or wood,
and hung on a wall or made into a monument.
We can look at them, and admire the wisdom contained in them,
as well we should.
There’s nothing wrong with putting them on display
for a reminder to ourselves and others.
But there is a risk in doing that, if we’re not careful.
We are tempted to separate them from the story,
to let them lose their grounding in a particular history.
These ten words started with a story.
They are directly tied to the most important story
in the Jewish faith tradition,
and it’s right up near the top in our own tradition,
the story of God delivering the people from slavery in Egypt.

So, the Jewish numbering of the Decalogue, the Ten Words,
makes this necessary link between law and story.
They begin by declaring who God is in relation to this story.
“I am the Lord your God.”
I am the God who loves you.
Who saw your suffering in Egypt,
and had compassion on you.
I delivered you.
I am The One.”

Word #1 is not the first thing to check off on their holy to-do list.
It’s not the first thing they have to do.
It’s the first word they have to know.
God is a saving, redeeming, freedom-giving God,
who brought them out of slavery.
That is the one fundamental truth,
that gives meaning to all the other commandments.
The other nine words
rise directly out of God’s loving and saving action toward us.

So these commandments don’t come across as,
“Do this, or else!”
They come across as, “I love you my children, I want you to be free.
Free from slavery. Free from bondage.
Free to be whole people.
Free to be in right and joyful relationship with me.
Free to be in right and joyful relationship with each other.

These commandments, contrary to what we think sometimes,
do not constrict us, they free us.
They show us what true freedom looks like.

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”
is not a tedious burden to bear.
We are not hindered . . . we are freed to worship one God.
We don’t have to worry about dividing our allegiance
between multiple gods,
worshiping one while trying not to offend another.
We need not deal with conflicting loyalties.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”
does not constrict our full expression.
It means we are free to give honor to God by our words.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”
means that after a week of labor
we are free to rest in God’s love and care,

“Honor thy father and thy mother”
means we are free to be in right relationship
to those God has given us to guide us through life.

“Thou shalt not kill”
means we are free to enjoy mutual acts of kindness and justice
in our relationships with others.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery”
means we are free to experience the joy and security
that fidelity to a marriage covenant can bring.

“Thou shalt not steal”
means we are free from the anxiety of grasping for more,
free to be grateful, and generous with others.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness”
means we can discover the freedom that comes
from simply speaking truthfully.

“Thou shalt not covet”
means we are free to enjoy what we have,
to be content in our own abundance.

If the Lord our God who uttered these words
is the very same one who brought the people out
from under oppression,
we can be sure that these commandments are God’s way
of continuing to set us free,
of defining for us a new, and free, and joyful, and full life.

When we look at them this way,
the commandments do not lose their authority.
The laws still stand.
We ignore them to our detriment.
But they come from a God who built a reputation
on setting people free.
God’s law is a fence we can welcome.
It gives us parameters that provide security and safety,
and within which we have the room we need
to move around and enjoy a full and rich life.

These ten words were welcomed by the wandering people of Israel.
They were celebrated then.
They continue to be celebrated.

Case in point? Psalm 19.
The law, according to the psalmist,
is a sweet and precious gift of God,
a gift to write lofty poetry about.

Psalm 19 doesn’t sound at all like the typical sober Christian
who talks about God’s law.
We like to get all serious and studious,
and determined and disciplined,
when we talk about God’s commandments in scripture.
We like to talk about the great ethical demands they place on us,
and upon others.
We like to measure ourselves,
and we really like to measure others,
against the high ethical standards of the law.
That’s not quite the tone we get from Psalm 19.

The writer, in his sheer delight over God’s law,
has gotten downright giddy and romantic about it.
He’s writing about laws, and rules, and statutes, and commandments. But he sounds like he’s writing a restaurant review
after having had the most exquisite meal of his life.
It practically oozes with poetic praise
and syrupy sweetness.
“Ah, God’s law. (mppwah!!)
Revives the soul.
It’s clear.
It’s pure.
It warms the heart.
Sweeter than the drippings of a honeycomb.”
Those are all words the psalmist uses,
to describe the law.

I’m pretty sure the psalmist wasn’t Mennonite.

But it wasn’t just one romantic poet who felt that way about the law.
It’s part of the Jewish mindset.
There is a love and warm, emotional devotion to the Torah.
If you visit a synagogue, you will see them carry the scroll around,
and everyone reaches out to touch it, to kiss it.
And some Christian traditions are similar.
In many high churches, the reading of the Gospel
is done with the utmost of devotion
and with a sense of awe.
A few years back we asked a visiting Indonesian pastor
to read the Gospel at one of our Taizé services.
At the conclusion of his reading,
he lifted the Bible to his lips and kissed it.
There is something of that nature . . .
sweetness, beauty, priceless treasure . . .
that we miss out on completely,
if we only see these Ten Commandments as a list,
and divorce them from their story.

These commandments are so important,
and so valuable to our lives and faith,
because they started with a story,
involving God and God’s people.
They came as a timely gift
from a God who loves and redeems.
A God who delivers those in bondage.
A God who has compassion on the suffering.

It is a constant, and perennial temptation for us humans.
To take a precious and sublime gift of a gracious God,
and turn it into something mundane,
to rob it of its pulsing life,
to make it into a commodity,
a list,
a transactional arrangement.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus got so angry at the money changers.
They were taking a precious gift of God,
the joy of giving worship and sacrifice to God in the temple.
A gift that should have inspired an outbreak of generosity,
a demonstration of God’s wild economy of giving away,
of sharing,
of making sure everyone had what they needed to worship.
Instead, the whole thing became a transaction.
God needs animal sacrifice. You don’t have animals.
So you pay me cash,
I give you the lamb or dove,
you pay God by sacrificing the animal,
God pays you by forgiving your sin.
Everybody pays, and gets what they want.
God gets some worship.
You get forgiveness.
I get a little richer.

We take a precious gift of God,
something perfect and pure,
something sweeter than the drippings of the honeycomb,
and make it a common object to be purchased,
or compiled into a list of things to do to buy our righteousness.

I invite us to be resisters.
Go from this place determined to resist this temptation
to turn the precious into the common,
to turn the gift into a transaction.
Let us go with a renewed commitment to soak ourselves in the story,
to revel in the God who loves us,
who hears our deepest longings, our cries for freedom,
who wants to redeem us,
to save us from whatever holds us hostage.
Let us place ourselves right into the story
of a loving, saving, redeeming God.
Because . . . "this is a story full of love,
and a song to set us free." (Hymnal Worship Book #315)

—Philip L. Kniss, March 15, 2009

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