Gift of Law, Gift of Grace
June 10, 2012
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. 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.”
(Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20)
I used to sing regularly with three other friends in a group called Missing Rachel. Back in August 2008, the last of the Rachels, Rebekah, got married to a nice young man by the name of Scott. Their wedding was unlike any other I have ever attended.
For one thing, they were married in the cathedral of our sister denomination, the General Church, down in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, which would have been an experience in and of itself simply because that space is so incredibly beautiful. But most of all, it was one of the few weddings I have been to where I felt that all the abundant time, energy, and talent expended had been poured into the parts of a wedding that really matter. The music wasn’t filler but an act of worship. The food at the potluck reception was a gift from all the people who knew and loved Rebekah and Scott. And the ceremony wasn’t an ode to romantic love but a call to commitment grounded in the same reading from Exodus you heard today.
That’s right. Rather than hear those familiar words about love being patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, we listened as the pastor spoke about the Ten Commandments, about this young couple’s hopes and dreams of living out a life together that would honor their promises to one another, and about how those promises rested upon the strength and support of their community.
Scott and Rebekah wanted all of us to know that they had no illusions about marriage being easy. They wanted us to know that they had no hope of holding their union together on their own. They stood before us all, pledged their troth to each other, and asked us as they did so for our love and support. They asked all of the people assembled to bolster them up, to hold them accountable, and to help keep them together. They chose these words from Exodus because the Ten Commandments are much more than just a list of Don’ts with a few Dos thrown in for good measure: they are a blueprint, a set of guidelines, a map to help us live well, in community, together, and they wanted a healthy community around them as they began their new life as husband and wife.
Well, I’ve done a lot of weddings in my day, and I’ve heard a lot of poetry and words of wisdom, but never have I heard the Ten Commandments read at a wedding before. I suppose this is because people think of them as kind of a downer. People want to hear about love and happy endings at weddings. Honor, obedience, the possibility of coveting your neighbor’s donkey—well, not so much.
But what we too often fail to realize is that these commandments were given as an act of love in order to help us sustain love in a world where love needs all the help it can get. The Ten Commandments are actually one of the most loving passages ever written. Love is the common thread that weaves all these laws together—love for God and love for our neighbor.
So allow me to speak to you for a few minutes about these commandments. I think it is very easy to take the Big Ten for granted—to, on the one hand, assume that we know them and ought to obey them; but on the other hand kind of give up on them, ignore them, even resent them, because deep down we know that we don’t obey them very well at all.
The truth is, most people don’t even know what the Ten Commandments are. Everyone agrees that they’re important, but in a recent poll very few Americans could remember more than four of them. Has anyone here ever seen The Colbert Report episode where Congressman Lynn Westmoreland appears in support of the movement to have the Ten Commandments displayed on the walls of our public schools and courtrooms? It’s a very telling interview. When Stephen Colbert asked him to list them, the congressman couldn’t come up with more than three.
It’s kind of hard to obey the Ten Commandments if you don’t even know what they are. But in fairness to Westmoreland and my fellow Americans, I kind of understand why people don’t. You see, I think we actually resist getting too close to the Ten Commandments for much the same reason the Israelites resisted getting too close to God in our reading for today: because they scare us. They overwhelm us. We know we ought to follow them, but we also know we’re not really up to the task.
We are intelligent enough to realize that these laws are good and useful and that if we lived up to them our society would actually run fairly smoothly, but man, truth be told, it’s hard not to covet sometimes. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others, hard not to want what they have.
I don’t have such a hard time restraining myself from murdering people, thank goodness, but then again, nobody’s ever really given me just cause. I have had trouble honoring my parents. Very lovely people, my parents. But brothers and sisters, I have buttons, they know where to find them, and those two lovely people are not afraid to push!
Moving back up the list to number four, I will readily admit that I’m a total failure at the whole remembering the Sabbath, resting, and keeping it holy thing. This is pretty much a work day for me, and making your own Sabbath on your own time apart from your faith community is tough. I’d be the better for it, I know I would, but I don’t do it so very well.
So the law, for all the good I know it would do me, is not something I uphold particularly well, nor is it something that gives me a lot of pride in myself. Truth be told, it tends to make me feel kind of bad, inadequate—one might even say “sinful”—when I really think about it. But as a Christian, I’ve also come to realize that this is part of the point.
The great reformed theologians, men like Luther and Calvin (who were really just riffing on Paul in this regard, but we’ll give them the credit today) used to say that not living up to the law was actually part of God’s plan. It helps us realize our need for God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s forgiveness.
We realize that we cannot do this alone, that we need God if we are to find the strength to do what is right, that we need God when we have lacked that same strength and done what is wrong. The key here, the good news I hope you will all walk away with this morning, is that the God you need is with you. God is with you when you succeed, and God is with you when you fail. God was with the Israelites before he gave them these rules, and he was with them afterward, just as God was with you before you ever heard of these commandments and has remained with you even as you have broken them.
These commandments were not given to us in the hopes that we would live up to them for God’s sake and thereby earn God’s love or a place at God’s table. They were given to us for our own sake, that we might learn to live by them for our own good. But whether we succeed or fail, God is with us. Such was his promise to Abraham and his children; and we are heirs to that same promise even today.
So do not shy away from these words in Exodus, but embrace them as your rules for living. Treasure them, for they are God’s gift. Learning to obey them with God’s help and return to them with God’s grace—well, may this be your gift to God.
Teach us, O Lord,
to serve you with patience,
to follow you with simplicity,
to reverence you with fear,
and to love you with our whole heart;
that serving, following, reverencing, and loving
we may behold you in the beauty of holiness
and rest in the presence of your glory,
now and forever.
- Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)
O Lord, our strength, our salvation, and our song: let us never be shaken in our constancy towards you, or our love towards others; for Christ’s sake. Amen.
- Daily Prayer, 1941
Rev. Sarah Buteux