Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 5, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17
“You have seen … how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore…keep my covenant….”
When I work with couples on pre-marital counseling, I take them back into their families of origin. I ask what values they had about work, play, education, religion, intimacy, money, and what traditions they had. I point out that sometimes values are expressed, but more often they are “caught, not taught.” One of our family’s values growing up was that we’d always eat dinner together, every night. In fact, I can remember my dad being angry when this didn’t happen. That’s a value that I brought with me into my marriage and one we tried to live out, though it has become harder. Growing up, eating together as a family said something about who we were and how we lived together.
I imagine that you all have similar stories from your families about values and how you expressed or acted on them. I think it’s a good way to approach the Ten Commandments, the subject of our focus scripture today. We don’t have time to parse each and every Commandment; that would take a series of sermons or several series. Rather, I’d like to put the Ten Commandments in what I think is a helpful framework for you to unpack them. The first thing to notice is that God speaks directly to the Israelites, the only time God does so in the entire Bible. That’s important because the law contains some pretty basic stuff found in other civilizations, at least the “second table,” those commandments having to do with our relationships with each other. Yet, uttered by this God, who claims to be the only God, they take on a whole different character.
The second thing to notice may even be more important: before God even gets to the nitty-gritty of the covenant, God says something about his character and his relationship to the Israelites. This God isn’t just any God; this is the delivering God who gathers this people to himself. God has set them apart to live with him, themselves, and others in a unique and loving relationship. Furthermore, they aren’t holy because of what they have done or do; they’re holy because God has set them apart and made them so.
Third, having freed them, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift to the Jews so that they might live into that freedom. As we know all too well from our own congregation’s history, community life is hard. The Ten Commandments are God’s gift to us to help us live together, to serve God and neighbor. I still remember a story from my psychology days in college. Some researchers thought that a playground fence inhibited freedom, so they removed it. What they found was the opposite: the fence provided security for the children whereby they were able to use the whole playground. Without the fence, the children huddled more toward the middle.
Martin Luther gets at this from a different angle in the Small Catechism as he explores the positive aspects of the Ten Commandments. For example, it is not enough to not bear false witness against your neighbor, but you must also speak well of them. In other words, it’s not just “thou shall not,” but also “thou shall…". Still another helpful image: Thomas Long likens God’s act of gathering us to himself as the music and the Ten Commandments are the dance steps of our response.
Finally, we need to look at the Ten Commandments in context of scripture: thought they are the first word, they’re not the last word. It’s a shame God wrote them on stone tablets because as a result we’ve thought they were immutable. The fact is, they are more like springs on a trampoline than bricks in a wall, continually unfolding, giving us room to jump and play. The Ten Commandments are a living gift, and each generation discovers anew how God is speaking to us through them in our generation. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Freed from the power of sin over our broken community, the Ten Commandments show us what a freed life looks like.
The Israelites became a people when God gave them the Ten Commandments, ones who love God and practice justice. Yes, the Ten Commandments show us where we fall short of being ideal community, but they do far more. For us today, they also remind us whose we are and who we are, living in community. As a congregation, we have values that we call guiding principles, our understanding of community and life together. We also have a mission statement and tag line we place everywhere, to remind us how to be God’s people. We repeat them every week in one form or another to remind us how live in and into the freedom of Christ. May you be blessed through God’s abundant love to be a blessing in your family and community. Amen.