"The Living Word" – Lent 3B Exodus 20
In the First Presbyterian Church in Pardeeville, there is a lovely room on the main floor, furnished with a small kitchenette area, a library, and a round table where, pre-covid, people could gather for a Sunday morning adult forum. On the table is a small batik cloth. On the cloth, placed there years ago, is a Bible, a chalice, a basin for water and a candle. The Word, communion, baptism and light, all symbolized in these simple objects. Once the basin is filled and the candle lit, the forum is called to order.
I had been gone for several years before returning to that room, and tears came to my eyes as I saw that little altar still there, the practice of pouring the water and lighting the candle, still remembered. That altar, the table, the chairs placed just so, provided a container, a sacred space for people to gather. Similar things are found in our sanctuaries. As Presbyterians, we don’t have the eternal flame of a candle burning 24/7 as found in some Lutheran and Catholic parishes. We lack the furnishings and paintings gilded in gold as found in Greek Orthodox churches. Nor do we have the basins of holy water that we touch as we enter, or make the sign of the cross on our bodies (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost).
Barbara Brown Taylor has written of the excursions she took with the students in her Religions of the World class. They left the shelter of the classroom and went to five different places of worship in the Atlanta region. One Friday alone, she writes, they started our with a “morning communion service at the seminary, proceeded to jumma prayers at the Atlanta Masjik of al-Islam and ended up at Congregation Or Hadash for the celebration of Simchat Torah” (An Altar in the World, p 100). In each of those places they found altars of a different kind, rituals that were remarkably different, yet a sacredness that surpassed boundaries and united them with the people who called those gathering places home.
That class that she taught was one of the most popular on campus. Students were eager to engage in these experiences, although they often felt confused and frightened by the differences. More than one wondered if these other religions were wrong because they seemed to be breaking the ten commandments, at least the first ones about honoring God and not worshiping other gods or idols. The Buddhists had statues of the Buddha, the Muslims talked about Allah, the Jews didn’t believe in Jesus.
And yet, and yet… visiting those religious centers, seeing those other altars, removing their shoes in some, celebrating Shabbat, or sabbath, around the table in someone’s home, standing shoulder to shoulder with devout people who said prayers in another language, or listened to dharma talks instead of sermons, or prostrated themselves in prayer on their rugs on the floor, or made gestures with their hands, well, it was so moving. And also kind of weird, but not in a bad or silly way. The people were serious. Thoughtful. Hospitable. Kind.They offered explanations, instructions, help to their guests from another tradition. Their neighborliness was absolutely remarkable.
Here, in the low church zoom gatherings of the Presbyterians, Lent is about as ritualized as we get. And on Sundays like these, as we scramble to get some bread and juice before we sit down, we maybe kinda miss those worship committee members who used to get everything ready ahead of time. And then, we look in the bulletin and see that the texts for the day are, well, the Ten Commandments? Seriously? And Jesus flipping over the tables in the temple? Low church, boring Old Testament, confusing gospel.
Some commentators on the lectionary warned this week that pastors should NOT try and preach on all ten commandments. Choose one that you feel strongly about and go with that. Others noted the challenge of trying to preach on them to people who have heard those words so many times no one really even listens. And yet, these teachings are part of the container of our faith. They are sometimes literally placed on wall plaques in churches, and figuratively lay out the guidelines for our life together.
Some of you know that I have a lot of friends who are Buddhists. I have come to see over the years that they are very serious about studying and practicing and befriending others. They offer four retreats each year. They follow guidelines for living. Instead of Ten Commandments, they have 8 paramitas, or guides for ethical and compassionate living. I asked my friend Chris, who teaches these to others, if she had some information she could share. They sound a lot like ours! No killing. No stealing. No misusing sexuality. No lying. No coveting. They also add no misuse of substances and no rage, resentment or revenge.
We miss the point, however, if we think that living by the laws of do’s and don’ts is going to be inspiring. But if we try to project an idea of the good for your life that is so bland and ordinary, so “top down” and authoritarian, “thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that,” we miss the power and possibility of living a faithful life. No wonder people tune out when they hear the ten commandments.
Walter Brueggemann says in his sermon for this Sunday (Strategies for Staying Emancipated, 2018), that “These Big Ten were given to Israel by Moses at Mt. Sinai just after they had left Egyptian slavery. The Ten Commandments are rules by which to maintain their recent emancipation from Egypt.” And they are spoken by Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt...
The God of the Exodus, the God who emancipated us, the God of new promises. When we read this text, we are called to remember first of all, that God wants us to be free from Pharaoh and out of Egypt, indeed, God has already brought us out into emancipation. Yet Egypt is still in our mindset and habits. Life in Egypt is a life where anxiety is normal, scarcity is an expected way of life, exhaustion defines us. Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a place where we are expected to work 24/7 without a break, grab at all the resources we can because we never know where the next meal will come from, and don’t trust anyone. So the first Word is to recognize that we are still accepting that domain.
And the second is this: we need to recognize the deep alternative that Moses, then Jesus, invite us to: a life where we are not preoccupied by fear, not preoccupied with scarcity, not preoccupied with exhaustion. The Big Ten lay this out: our God, who has already freed us, has new promises for us. The revelation, the signposts, the maps of God pull us together and point to the right road and show us the way to joy. God’s precepts value practices that support life; there is no need to steal because there is no scarcity. There is no need to misuse sexuality because there is love. Truth, clarity of who we are and whose we are, a life of kindness and openness, a life of humility and acceptance stand in stark contrast to the way things were back in Egypt.
This morning, gathered at this altar of sorts, we are invited to stand at the base of that mountain and, hearing the words, see Pharaoh clearly, ponder strategies for emancipation, and join together with intention and discipline to break the habits of life under Pharaoh: break our habits of greed, of anti-neighborliness, or exhaustion. We are called to defy the rules of the world and embrace the foolishness of the gospel. A foolishness, Brueggemann says, that leads to welcoming the wayward son back home, forgiving one another 70 x’s 7, paying workers who show up late, feeding a crowd with just two fish, stopping for a mugged stranger, then paying for their healthcare. It is embracing generosity, even to those who exploit, healing the undeserving, entering into conflict with the empire and coming out with Easter life, and living a life of mercy, justice and fidelity.
I think that Barbara Brown Taylor’s class on Religions of the World was aiming at doing this very thing. Invite her sheltered, naïve, inexperienced, young students to venture out into places where God was at work, albeit in a different disguise. She guided them into places that were strange, with strangers, and they discovered friends. They left the communion tables of their childhood faith and met God at other altars in the world. It turns out that the path she led them down of kindness and openness, humility and acceptance, truly was a path of emancipation. Amen.
Naomi Shihab Nye - 1952-
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of the author.