Weekly Seeds: Covenant: Faithfully Living Together

What Shall We Do?

Sunday, March 7, 2021
Third Sunday in Lent Year B

Focus Theme:
Covenant: Faithfully Living Together

Focus Prayer:
Holy One, creator of the stars and seas, your steadfast love is shown to every living thing: your word calls forth countless worlds and souls: your law revives and refreshes. Forgive our misuse of your gifts, that we may be transformed by your wisdom to manifest for others the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Exodus 20:1–17
Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 
4 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
7 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. 
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery. 
15 You shall not steal. 
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 
17 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. 
All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 20:1–17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18–25
John 2:13–22

Focus Questions:
1. What is your immediate reaction when you hear the words “The Ten Commandments”?
2. Which of the ten resonates with you?
3. How, if at all, do you experience the Ten Commandments in relationship to your faith journey?
4. What is missing from the list?
5. How can we consider the Ten Commandments as a means of understanding God’s compassion and grace?

By Cheryl Lindsay
What Shall We Do

What if the focus shifted to what we shall do? What if instead of a list of prohibitions, we centered on a list of affirmations? What if our notion of a faithful life wasn’t built on restrictions…but on a divinely-inspired freedom to live in right relationship with God, one another, and creation? What shall we do?

Perhaps as a consequence of an overly punitive society, the ten commandments (and to some extent all of scripture) has come to summarize a legalized idea of religious practice. “The Bible as a rulebook” captures this popular characterization. This perspective ignores that the giving of the Decalogue (“Ten Words”) presents itself within a complex narrative. Rather than an isolated decree, these commands enter into and flow out of a story of God’s relationship with a particular community. As Terence Fretheim states, “The law does not stand in independence from that story. It is not even presented as a single chapter within that story but is woven into the narrative throughout.”

The introduction to this act in the story is the divine statement: “I am the LORD your God.” The God who first identifies to Moses as “I Am” prefaces the law with a declaration of identity and relationship. God not only claims sovereignty but also identifies in relationship with the people who will receive this divine utterance. The law should not be used as an enclosure that restricts movement; rather, it is a means of defining how that relationship manifests:
[block quote] Although the words “I am the Lord your God” do demonstrate that this law is backed by the divine power and authority of the God who is true to his law, their real purpose is to show that the giver of this law is the covenant God of Israel, their Redeemer. This law is not an arbitrary set of rules, imposed by a harsh God. The giving of these commandments, both positive and negative, was a display of God’s love. His commandments do not really restrict liberty. Following them is true liberty. (John F. Brug)
Divinely-inspired law does not form contracts; it fosters relationship through maintenance of the covenant. At the heart of the covenant, God promises abiding presence, grace, and love to a people and a creation that God will not abandon. It is a generous promise to live faithfully together. The unilateral conditions God imposes upon Godself invite a human response, even if that response is not a requirement for fulfillment. All of the Biblical covenants exists in a continuum that build upon one another. They may be renewed but none have been cancelled. This explains Jesus’ insistence that his ministry does not negate the law but fulfills it. We may remember that the covenant that God makes with Noah was a public extension of a promise that God made to Godself without any humanly input involved. In this, the covenant functions as a pure gift.

So, what shall we do…in response to God’s abundance, generosity, and compassion?

Perhaps, our first task compels us to reframe our understanding of these “Ten Words.” Rather than consider them rules to follow, we may view them as God’s revelation of faithful living.

The authors of the book of Exodus envisioned law as representing the essence of their religion. God promises the Israelites at the outset of the wilderness journey that the revelation of law will be their source of health….The result according to Z. W. Falk is that law and spirituality become merged into one in the formation of the Hebrew Bible. (Thomas B. Dozeman)

Fretheim describes it in this way:

Law is more clearly seen as a gift of God’s graciousness when tied to story. Law becomes another part of the larger story of God’s goodness and mercy. From the story it is clear that the law is grounded in a personal and gracious divine will. Narrative reinforces the divine intention in the law: never to leave the people without an indication of what it means to be a community of faith, without a direction in which a person of faith could walk, without some instruction regarding the life of faith.

The Sovereign One holds Godself accountable to unilateral promises also provides an imperfect people a way of response, a path for communal living, and guidelines for faithful life. These Ten Words do not hold the believer hostage on a journey of captivity and oppression. Instead, they provide a map for a long walk with God along life’s journey.

Note that the commandments consistently focus on behavior and actions toward God and others, not identity. To the extent that there is any limiting by the listing of the “shall nots,” it does not extend to who people are. The identifying marker is addressed in the preface by God naming Godself and claiming God’s people. Our right relationship with God is not based on who we are because the covenant with Noah established that God will never again search for the one who is already righteous. These “Ten Words” reflect the expansiveness of God’s grace. They are rooted in the identity of God not dependent upon the identity of God’s people.

Still, actions are important and reflect how aligned our lives are with our identity in God. These words give aid to a people who struggled with a faithful response to a professed belief in God that has to be lived out in a world that challenges that allegiance.

We should note that at the heart of this revelation is a God who gives access to God’s priorities. God shares expectations for faithful living. In premarital counseling, I use a resource that asks each member of the couple to look at critical areas of a mutual life and share both information and expectation. The couples complete their homework independently and then turn it into me for review before we have a session to discuss the findings. For the most part, I don’t care about the information. (I’m not being nosy!) My review looks for differences in expectation, which I find to be one of the greatest sources of relational conflict.

In the covenantal relationship we enjoy with God, these “Ten Words” delineate God’s expectation of us. At the same time, they do not negate God’s grace toward us…even if most of them are written in the negative. Fretheim is helpful here:

That eight commandments are negatively formulated is pertinent at this point. As such, they open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors (though chaps. 21–23 draw out such specific implications). At the same time, the negative formulation indicates that the primary concern is not to create the human community but to protect it from behaviors that have the potential of destroying it. Yet the commands implicitly commend their positive side (cf. 20:3 and Deut. 6:5). The two positive commands suggest the appropriateness of this for all ten words.

It is also interesting to note which commandments are written in the affirmative. The call to keep the Sabbath and to honor one’s parents. Sabbath-keeping, the primacy of rest in the kin-dom of God, countered cultural norms then as it does now. Rest in God over the relentless pursuit of productivity blesses both the Creator and the creature designed for full participation in it. This commandment reminds us that this mutual benefitting occurs implicitly in the other nine. The admonishment to honor both parents also functions in a countercultural manner. First, it equates gendered relationships. There is no distinction between father or mother in terms of honor or value. As the bridge commandment, it shifts focus from divine-human relations to human-human dynamics. God is not the only being who should receive honor. Our relationship with God should reflect in and inform our relationships with one another. The other commandments in this part of the Decalogue explicitly determine what we should not do to one another. This commandment tells us why. Human relationships should honor one another in a way that demonstrates our understanding of relationships derives from our first relationship, which is with God.

Do our relationships with others illustrate that we have learned how to honor, respect, and love from our relationship with God?

I am reminded that the author of the Amazing Grace, John Newton, at one time participated in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Later, Newton would turn from that life and eventually become a preacher of the gospel and abolitionist. The catalyst for that shift in his life was a near death experience on the very waters that he used to condemn countless human beings into enslaved lives. Newton’s testimony in Britain (along with the work of William Wilberforce and others) is credited with helping to end the slave trade in Britain. The words of the song reflect the journey of a person who eventually learned how to walk with God…and the new life of a person who learned how that walk changes our treatment of our human kin.

Still, eight of the “Ten Words” center what we “shall not” do. Perhaps, that’s not intended as a limiting statement that confines right relationship to staying away from the specific things that made the cut of that list. Instead, the “shall not” might be an invitation to the question, “then, what shall we do?”

What if the Ten Commandments aren’t a checklist to determine if we are a good person but a framework to facilitate a larger conversation? We know that there were more than ten laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The book of Leviticus fills in those blanks. But, what is there is a much more affirmative set of blanks lines waiting for us to write our own ways of doing a faithful life with God?

What if we have an opportunity, not an obligation, to consider what theft means in living a faithful life? There’s stealing that seizes another person’s possession without permission. But what shall we do when given the option of hoarding resources for ourselves that were given for the benefit and blessing of all creation? We should not commit adultery, but what does the freedom of fidelity look like in a covenantal relationship between human beings?

This is the freedom of the law designed not to enchain but to give room for an abundance of love, compassion, grace, and generosity. The law that blesses and does not curse. The law that says don’t do that because you can do this.

If we go back to the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we remember that the snake taunted the human beings with the suggestion that God was keeping something from them. They latched onto that framing and ignored a more expansive perspective that would affirm that God had made so much more than that available to them, including the choice to follow God’s directive. The law occupies a similar function. Both are boundaries, but our vantage point defines our perspective. We can look inward and see a small space in which we can maneuver or we can look beyond it and consider that the horizon of what we can do–to live faithfully together–is vast and limitless.

What shall we do?

For further reflection:
“All the knowledge seekers must pray like this: ‘Oh The Creator! Open our eyes to see the truth. Our ears to hear Your Commands and obey with a steadfast heart. Amen!” — Mwanandeke Kindembo
“Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” — Mother Theresa
“Those that are most slow in making a promise are the most faithful in the performance of it.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gather ed communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.