March 15, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Third Sunday of Lent
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Thomas Long tells a great story about the Ten Commandments. There is a monument of the Commandments that used to be in the Alabama Supreme Courthouse. It weighs 5,280 pounds. And, as Long points out, that works out to about 500 pounds per Commandment. Pretty weighty. And this hefty boulder gets lugged around from one public appearance to another on a flatbed truck. It is moved on and off the truck with a crane - a 57 foot, yellow, I-beam crane. What caught me in the story was this: the monster crane visibly buckles under the weight of moving this immense piece of engraved rock back and forth, on and off the truck.
Now all of that kind of spoke to me about how the Ten Commandments can feel in our lives - like a rock - a boulder so immense, inert, that we stoop under its weight. The Ten Commandments lie there like an immovable force and make their demands.
It is clear that Moses and God thought that the giving of the Ten Commandments was a momentous, liberating, identity forming, relationship-building event in the life of this new community of newly liberated captives. How were the Ten Commandments seen as life giving, liberating, invigorating?
One way of getting at this is to understand that the Ten Commandments are not actually "commandments" - even though they have come down to us as that. They are words. The title, Decalogue, literally means ten words. In Exodus they are the words that God and Moses spoke together - the material of a conversation. They were never meant to be seen as a finger wagging, "Thou shalt not."
The clue to their intent is in the opening statement. They begin with a stunning announcement of liberation: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The words that follow are descriptions of life in this covenant, in this zone of God’s liberation.
Thomas Long describes them this way: "Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day, free from the tyranny of lifeless idols, free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land."
These ten words begin with good news of freedom, the news of liberation, peace, harmony and the abundance of God's reign and invites us to sign on. We are invited to sign on not just for our own well-being, but in order to ensure the well being of all around us. Seen this way the words "are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar."
Marilynne Robinson in her wonderful novel, Gilead, makes a distinction between the words in the first half of the decalogue and those of the last half. The first four words she says all have to do with the proper worship of God. The last half have to do with right conduct toward other people.
Honour then has an important location in the middle of the ten words. Honour forms the bridge between being in proper relationship with God and in proper relationship with other human beings. Without honour we cannot relate properly to God, ourselves or other human beings.
Honour, then, is a one of our spiritual disciplines.
Covet is quite another matter. For while one can think one’s way into honouring others, and get better at it with practice, covet seems most closely tied to our unconscious and its unknown desires. Covet begins in childhood, perhaps even infancy. Coveting is wanting what someone else has for yourself, that is the sin of coveting. Robinson describes it as "the pang of resentment you feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have." I know what she means. It is the feeling of resentment, resentment born of coveting, and it is torture.
It is here that we have the great advantage of the example and teaching of Jesus. Coveting is born in an attitude of scarcity. Jesus again and again tells us we are citizens of the kingdom of God which is the commonwealth, not of scarcity, but of abundance. The ten words were created in an atmosphere of liberation and possibility. The ten words of liberation are given again to us in the teaching of Jesus. Just as Jesus drove the miserly, rule bound, rigid, life-denying money changers out of the temple to make room for the spirit of God and God’s reign of justice, Jesus reminds us that the basis of our life together is generosity and compassion.
This Lent the idea of Sabbath gives us the discipline to learn abundance. For Sabbath brings freedom. In the time of the Decalogue slaves had no time off and it says they should, as well as animals and the land. Rest is for all, for we live in abundance.
E-mail, cell phones, pagers, blackberries - we are always available and always on call. Its even hard to justify taking a sick day. We live in the midst of a curious contradiction. On the one hand we are told we deserve time off because we have earned it, and on the other nothing we do is ever enough: we are never truly worthy. Now in saying this I appreciate the value technological brings - but we need to ask in whose interest are we tied to it?
The Sabbath is clearly an integral part of creation. God finishes God’s work and then God rests. Why? because God was exhausted? No, I don’t think so. I think so God could look it over, contemplate it and enjoy it.
One reason for taking a Sabbath is to reflect on the work of the preceding week and to enjoy it. Another is to have time to be with others, to strengthen our relationships, to connect with family and friends. In our modern world I think all of us would be better off if we could do that. But for us who are religious Sabbath has another important dimension. It is a time for joyful worship. A time to remember and thank and reconnect with the Creator of this good and beautiful world. Sabbath is a time not only to refresh our bodies and minds, but to refocus our spiritual energies in worship and prayer.
It is an honoured guest. Like a guest Sabbath comes to visit. And like any guest we prepare for the arrival. The guest room must be ready, the towels and soaps laid out and the dinner cooked. The table is set with the best linens and dishes and when all is ready we light the candles and join hands ready to give thanks for our feast - a feast of food and wine and conversation.
This is the meaning of Sabbath. Sabbath, our welcome guest changes and deepens the conversation, changes our routine from the ordinary to the celebratory, changes us from who we were last week to who we can be in the week to come. Sabbath is full of possibilities. Sabbath reflects upon life, celebrates life’s goodness and takes time out to say thank you.
Rabbi Peli teaches that even mourning and sadness are suspended during Sabbath. And I think we can add anxiety as well. It doesn’t mean they are over, it just means that we remind ourselves that community, beauty, love and joy and peace still exist in God’s creation. It is a spiritual discipline when worry and sadness threaten to overwhelm us, to set them aside and deliberately focus on the goodness of existence.
Try making time for Sabbath, welcoming it on whatever day of the week works for you. Sabbath is a way of deepening our experience of our faith, and our experience of ourselves as spiritual, spirit filled people. The Christian faith has its rhythms and cycles. Practicing a Sabbath spirituality leads us to find other Sabbath times in our lives. Every night as part of their bedtime ritual, friends of mine ask their little girls, "What is the best thing that happened for you today?" A moment of reflection and thanksgiving - and a tiny, daily, Sabbath ritual. Lent is the Sabbath season of the church year. A season of reflection, of spiritual housecleaning, of discerning the essential from the important from the habitual from the trivial.
The Blessing of Sabbath be with you.