A Rule of Love

Sunday, October 8, 2017
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22)

Focus Theme
God’s Loving Wisdom

Focus Prayer
God, our beloved, you set before us the goal of new life in Christ. May we live in the power of his resurrection and bring forth the fruit of your gentle and loving rule.  Amen.

Focus Reading
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.”

All Readings For This Sunday
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; with Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15 and
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Focus Questions

1. How do the Ten Commandments shape your understanding of who God is?

2. Why, in what ways, is God’s law far more than “ten good ideas for living”?

3. Is there an image or metaphor (other than a tent and its poles) that describes the relationship of the law and the promise?

4. Do you think most of us obey the commandments in the hope of earning God’s love, out of fear, or for another reason?

5. If we really had no other gods before God, how would that affect the shape of our life together?

Reflection by Kate 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.” 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.”

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.

In fact, 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” (her sermon is in the collection, Gospel Medicine, an excellent resource for personal reflection on the Bible).

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 and telling the people: “Sink these ten posts in the center of your camp, hang a tent on them, and together you may survive the wildernessÖ.Guard your life together. Guard your life with me.” 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–A Rule of Love–and casts obedience as a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do.

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.”

No Other like this One

We might focus on the first commandment, 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.”

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, no matter how much they’re needed.

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. Walter 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.” 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….”

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 in 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, as our present controversies illustrate.

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.”

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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection

Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

Horace Greeley, 19th century
“It is impossible to enslave, mentally or socially, a bible-reading people. The principles of the bible are the groundwork of human freedom.”   

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.”

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