Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 with
Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15
Worship resources for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22) are at Worship Ways
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Additional reflection questions on Philippians 3:4b-14
A Rule of Love
by Kathryn Matthews
Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments provoke a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That really would be an excellent controversy. No, our national argument tends to be about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a "nation under God," specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who "we" are, whenever "they" walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that was intended to protect all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another. And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for "in recent polls of the American public," Gene Tucker observes, "although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments" (Preaching through the Christian Year A).
If we don't even know what they are, how can we obey them, and let our lives, personal and public, be shaped by them?
Domesticating "the living words of God"
Indeed, the deep significance of the gift of the Ten Commandments has been obscured if not lost in our domesticating them or, as Gary Anderson writes, in making them "into a cultural icon." As a consequence, we lose the sense of "religious awe" that we find in this story from Exodus, and we lessen our understanding and receiving of the commandments as God's own revelation: "These are not ten good maxims for the good life," Anderson writes, but "the living words of God" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
Of course, it's quite a different thing to receive the commandments, as most of us did, in a church school class or by reading a print Bible, than it must have been for Moses, high on that mountaintop, practically thrown about by the awesome, focused presence of God.
God's "peculiar treasures"
Barbara Brown Taylor has written a sermon on the text in chapter 19 of Exodus that sets the scene for today's passage, when Moses went up high on the mountain at Sinai, and an extraordinary (and very long) conversation began. She entitles her sermon, "Peculiar Treasures," because that's what the people were to the God who had brought them out of bondage, out into the wilderness on their way to a new life: they were peculiar treasures.
One is reminded of treasures in the way she describes the story of this people: "God's covenant with their grandfather Abraham had three shining jewels in it: descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky, a special relationship to God, and a land of milk and honey all their own." But "something was still missing," she writes, "something Moses went up the mountain to get" (Gospel Medicine).
The law and the promise
Taylor reflects beautifully on the relationship between the law and the promise, and about how much we might think that we like the promise better than the law, and how much we appreciate just being loved, unconditionally. She then uses the metaphor of a tent (a good metaphor for people in the wilderness!) to explain how it all works together, because "promise without law is like a tent without tent poles."
The scholars seem to agree that the law would shape the life and identity of the people of God, and be a force that would preserve it against every threat. Again, Taylor as she imagines God giving the gift of the law: "Sink these ten posts in the center of your camp, hang a tent on them, and together you may survive the wilderness….Guard your life together. Guard your life with me" (Gospel Medicine). Rather than leading to the conclusion that we somehow earn God's love and care, this understanding affirms God's love first in giving the law, and casts obedience as a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do.
Relationships aren't easy
This is a relationship, after all, not a one-time thing at one moment in the history of Israel. And every self-help book and marriage therapist will tell us that relationships aren't easy, that they require work and commitment and tender care. Gary Anderson describes love as "a precious and fragile seedling. Only with constant care and attention to its details will it grow to a mature and healthy tree" (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts).
An entire series of sermons might be preached on this text, thoughtfully and reverently unpacking each commandment. Or perhaps we could focus on the first one only, which makes a lot of sense since many people see all the others springing from it. It seems to me that Israel's number one commandment reminds them of who they are only in light of who God is. When Walter Brueggemann says that it's "likely that Torah is peculiarly aimed at the young, in order to invite them into this distinct identity of wonder, gratitude, and obedience," we notice that those words--wonder, gratitude and obedience--are all responses to "Another."
No Other like this One
And this "Another" is not like anyone else, no human, no god, nothing and no one else. Our domestication of God and the Ten Commandments may make us feel safer, down here at the base of the mountain, away from that fearsome, awe-filled nearness of God. It may keep things on an even keel for us down here, waiting for a word from heaven. Meanwhile, we go about our business of building our own little (manageable, and not too scary) idols to worship, knowing somewhere deep inside that these are not God at all. No wonder we are so spiritually hungry.
If the Torah provides "the lovingly drawn boundaries of a Creator bent on reminding creatures of their size," as Taylor says, then the first of those commandments makes it very clear that, as my seminary professor often reminded us, "God is God, and we're not." (Actually, she usually said, "God is God, and you're not," a much-needed reminder to seminary students!) As much as the other commandments are conveniently and erratically invoked as a way to judge and even condemn others, this is the commandment we rarely hear sermons on.
Surrounded by many other gods
Our culture, with those engraved stones we value more highly than the mysterious, less tangible treasures of our faith, also offers us many other "gods," and many ways to "worship" them, to organize our lives in a kind of subjugation to them, putting them above all others, whether we would like to admit it or not. We just don't recognize them as gods.
The first commandment was given at a time when the Israelites were perfectly aware of the other gods of the cultures around them. We assume that we've progressed past such "primitive" ways, ignoring the many idols that draw us toward them and away from being the people God has called us to be. Brueggemann writes powerfully of these temptations; "In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant" (Exodus, The New Interpreter's Bible). Bacchus, Mars, Eros: what good are they, indeed?
Faithfulness to the heart of the law
Marcus Borg helpfully reflects on faith as "fidelity," and faithfulness to the heart of the law. We remember that Jesus, when asked, summed up all of these commandments into two great commandments, and Borg translates those as "The Two Great Relationships" (see his beautiful work, The Heart of Christianity, for more on faithfulness): To love God with one's whole being, and to love one's neighbor as oneself.
The first relationship, with God, leads to the second; Brueggemann says that "the second true desire of our life, derivative from the first, is to have 'good neighbors,' that is, to live in a neighborhood." And if both of our great relationships were healthy and strong as they should be, "our energy might be redirected toward neighborly matters like housing, education, health care..." (The Covenanted Self).
What is the lesson for us?
This is an especially powerful message for us, in today's highly polarized and rancorous political and social climate, when we're trying to figure out how to live one with one another--even with other Christians!--and how to witness to our core values, believing them to be a wise and good foundation for our lives. But we also have to admit that our values can be either gift or burden to those affected by our actions and our decisions (assuming those are actually based on our core values), including the way we shape our institutions and provide for our most vulnerable "neighbors."
As people of communities of faith who share these two Great Commandments, and the Ten Commandments of this story, as well as the time in the wilderness and the many lessons learned there, why is it so difficult to find that strong foundation on which to offer a compelling message, an attractive way of life, that draws more people to its light rather than leading them to dismiss us as judgmental, harsh and narrow-minded? At the same time, why does the image of laws carved in stone provide justification for a number of us to simplify God's message not into "A Rule of Love," of seeing each one of us as a beloved child of God (and as our neighbor), but as either "us" or "them"--and it is definitely not good to be "them"?
We are not hemmed in
If we truly want to be faithful and obedient to God's law, if we truly want to be challenged to think and live creatively and generously and generatively, why do we see these laws, on stone or on our lips, as hemming us in rather than expanding and energizing the way we organize our lives, personally and communally? Let us consider what Brueggemann means when he connects these laws to "neighborly matters." Certainly the word "neighbor" appears enough times in this passage from Exodus (and in the teachings of Jesus) to warrant our attention and careful reflection. It's understandable that many of us cringe when we hear the word "political," so what if our communal decision-making, especially how we will share resources, were thought of in "neighborly" terms, instead of "political" ones?
Sometimes I think we (in the United States) romanticize the idea and memory of a time in our history when neighbors looked after neighbors, when neighborhoods and communities were strong and blessed, aglow with the light of prosperity and friendliness. Have we lost that dream because we have forgotten who our neighbors are--perhaps the most unexpected and surprising persons of all, just as Jesus told the story, and taught us the lesson?
I suspect, though, that we have always struggled with living that dream; our history is a long story that includes not only the highest ideals and aspirations but also prejudice, suspicion and worst of all, slavery itself, all of which dehumanize and "de-neighbor" those we consider "other" and therefore not deserving of respect, not wholly entitled to their fair share of God's abundant gifts. We do not love them as we love ourselves.
Making a different choice
We know, however, that we have the freedom to make a different choice, to shape and live in communities that embody God's love for all of God's children and for God's beautiful creation. Will we choose love and justice, healing and compassion when the world around us may do just the opposite in pursuit of "goods" that are really false idols? For us, in the church, Brueggemann connects all of this with our baptism, "the dramatic form of making a God choice, in which receiving a new name and making promises is choosing this liberating-covenantal faith against any other life....living by a single loyalty among a mass of options" (Exodus, New Interpreter's Bible).
Perhaps we're overwhelmed by the options and possibilities before us, and "distraction" is a mild term for what we suffer. Remembering our baptism, and who we are, and most importantly, who God is, up on that mountain, or down by the river, in the inner recesses of our hearts and in the life we share together, makes us grateful that God has given us such beautiful tent posts, these Ten Commandments, that we might find strength and shelter in a wilderness of our own. Even in the wilderness, we are never alone. Amen.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Walter Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self, 20th century
"Imagine what would happen if the church talked honestly about deabsolutizing all our quarrelsome addictions of mind and heart that tend to make all sorts of things absolutes that draw our life into knotted stomachs, clenched fists, and stern speech!" (Note from KM: I would add "angry social media posts" as well.)
Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
"God dreams for us today. Today, at this moment, God has an image and hope for what we are becoming. We should not let God dream alone."
Immanuel Kant, 18th century
"Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law."
Calvin Coolidge, 20th century
"I sometimes wish that people would put a little more emphasis upon the observance of the law than they do upon its enforcement."
Isadora Duncan, 20th century
"We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity."
John Adams, 18th century
"The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion."
Additional reflection questions on Philippians 3:4b-14:
On what do you base your confidence? We live in a culture that tells us our "net worth" in terms of dollars and asks us for our resume so that we can line up our degrees, our accomplishments, our credits in order to be evaluated as worthy or qualified. We're told that we must earn our rewards and that we somehow deserve recognition, security, and money based on things we do.
Sometimes we even think that certain practices will bring us inner peace, a variation on the doing/reward system. Of course, in our culture, "who we are" also matters. There's no question that being born into the "right" family or having the "right" connections--through no doing of our own--can bring even more rewards.
Our "ducks in a row"
Of what do you "boast"? What does it mean in our culture, or in your own life, to "have all your ducks in a row"? Did you ever try to do that in your spiritual life, or in any of the areas of your life? When have you felt like you had finally "made" it? In what ways can you relate to Paul's description of his past accomplishments? How does your experience of faith relate to that kind of confidence?
What would it feel like to consider all those degrees and accomplishments, our resumes and our permanent records from school, as "rubbish"? What about the folks in your church: would they be able to relate to their achievements as "loss" and "rubbish"?
Faith as a gift
Many of us have been "raised in the faith," and perhaps haven't stopped to think about it as a gift that transforms our lives, or even to think of our lives as needing transformation. Do the members of your church think of faith as something we have or hold or live with, or do they think of themselves as being held by God, as being grasped by Christ, as being Christ's "own"?
How might the folks in your church relate to the feeling of striving toward a goal that is "not yet"? What are the "not yet" experiences of your life, and in the lives of the people of your church? How is God still speaking today, encouraging you and your church onward toward "the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus"?
Paul wrote this letter from prison. What are the prisons in which we live today? In what ways do we find joy and vision even through "bars" and "walls" that enclose us? What are the twists and turns that our lives take, in the midst of this journey or race that Paul (and all people of faith) run? In what ways does a life of relative comfort affect our perception and understanding of the life of faith? Paul has gone from comfort and security and, in many ways, righteousness rooted in himself to the righteousness of God. How can we relate to that today?
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."
The heavens are telling
the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims
Day to day pours forth
and night to night declares
There is no speech,
nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out
through all the earth,
and their words to the end
of the world.
In the heavens God has set
a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved
from a wedding canopy,
and like an athlete runs its course
Its rising is from the end
of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end
and nothing is hid
from its heat.
The law of God is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
the ordinances of God are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them
is your servant warned;
in keeping them
there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also
from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O God, my rock and my redeemer.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
O God of hosts;
let your face shine,
that we may be saved.
You brought a vine
out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations
and planted it.
You cleared the ground
it took deep root
and filled the land.
The mountains were covered
with its shade,
the mighty cedars
with its branches;
it sent out its branches
to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down
so that all who pass along the way
pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest
and all that move in the field
feed upon it.
O God of hosts;
look down from heaven,
for this vine,
the stock that your strong hand
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
[And Jesus said:] "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."
Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures:
'The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes'?
"Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!