Thursday, October 05, 2017
October 8, Proper 22, Space, Practice, Vision #6: God Commands Worship and Service
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46.
The photo above is of the reredos in our sanctuary, with the text of the Ten Commandments written out in full, unnumbered, undivided, across three panels, the only such depiction of the Ten Commandments I have ever seen.
My meditation on the gospel this past week was disturbed by the killings in Las Vegas. I found the violent metaphors of the parable a stumbling block. Lord Jesus, how can you toss off violence like that? And Jesus, why do you evoke such judgment and condemnation on your own people? Are they so much worse than anybody else?
There is judgment and condemnation in the Ten Commandments too. Or there would be if the editors of the lectionary had not removed verses 5 and 6 from our Reading. These verses say that if you take God’s name in vain, the Lord will not hold you guiltless and will punish your children to the fourth generation. Such language offends our modern sensibilities. All this guilt and punishment.
You might remember that some years ago, in Alabama, the infamous Judge Roy Moore installed a monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse, which he then was ordered to remove. This same Roy Moore is now a candidate for the Senate. He poses as a defender of the freedom of religion and also the right to bear arms, and at recent a campaign rally he pulled out a handgun and raised it triumphantly. Which suggests that his monument to the Ten Commandments was actually a weaponizing of the Commandments; he was using them as symbolic ammunition in the culture war. Ironically in doing so he was taking the name of the Lord God in vain, but you can see why so many people feel the Ten Commandments as negative and even violent.
In the Reformed tradition as practiced by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, we honored the Ten Commandments but precisely because we honored them we never imposed them on the state, but kept them for the church. We used them liturgically, not politically. Until the 1960’s, in the Reformed church, you heard them read out every Sunday morning in the liturgy. It’s because I heard my dad read the Law from the pulpit every week that I absorbed it and know it all by heart.
In the Reformed tradition, the Law of God has three purposes. First, to convict us of our sin, to let us know that we are guilty, yes, and inspire us to penitence. Second, to drive us to the bosom Christ, who kept the Commandments, so that we find our righteousness in him and not within ourselves. Third, to give us guidance for a good and wholesome life. It took the apostles to work out that we are free from the Law, and the Commandments are not binding on us, but yet we are free to be guided by them. So we repeat the words of Psalm 19 as our positive feeling for the Law of God.
The Ten Commandments were a good and gracious gift to the Children of Israel. The last three Sundays we’ve seen the gifts of manna, and water, and now the Law. God gave them manna to feed them and water to revive them, and now God feeds their minds and freshens their morality. And yet they were afraid. They feared the fire and the smoke and the sound of God’s voice. But I think the words themselves were fearsome too.
The Ten Commandments describe a revolutionary way of life and a society that was heretofore unthinkable. No gods and goddesses, no hierarchy in heaven and none on earth, no upper class, no lower class, no king, no princes, no generals, no army, no police, no principalities, no powers, no structure of obligations up or down, none of the standard codes of law from any other civilization at the time. Just the God who created you and your neighbor. And that is the sum total of the social structure, that everyone is to you your neighbor. Everyone’s life is equal in value and obligation. Only your parents get extra honor because it was through them that God created you.
This is radical equality before the law. This is the original puritan common-wealth. You have no obligations to anyone above you and you have no control over anyone beneath you, but yet you have a total obligation to your neighbor beside you, who does not control you. This blend of total freedom and total obligation must have been a fearful thing, it is too radical not to be afraid of it.
Another fearful feature was the second commandment’s prohibition of graven images and any ritual of worship, which was the abnegation of religion as they knew it. The graven images served to keep divinity available and manageable, to keep God close but in his place. When they heard this second commandment, they must have been terrified of a god who was so totally transcendent and so free. How shall we deal with such a God? We don’t know how. There was no precedent for this.
If there is no organized religion, then is nothing sacred? Well, yes, in the third commandment the name of God, and in the fourth commandment the Sabbath day, but what about something more tangible, as tangible as a graven image? Okay, if you want an image of God to serve, how about your neighbor. God put God’s image in your neighbor. God identifies with your neighbor, and God takes it personally how you serve your neighbor’s good. Your neighbor’s life, your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s property, your neighbor’s reputation, and even your neighbor’s good fortune if he’s got a nicer house or spouse or flock than you have—all that is sacred to you. So the practice of worship and service are just about the same. To worship God is to serve your neighbor. At last we touch upon our draft new mission statement! To offer a practice of worship and service is our mission, just like Israel’s.
Many of you have seen the inscription of the Ten Commandments in our sanctuary, on the reredos above the pulpit, on the other side of that wall. In 1891, when this building was new, the Consistory chose to put the Ten Commandments there. Why? Why did they give them pride of place? What were they saying to themselves and to their public and eventually to us? Why this gift?
The typical iconography is of twin tablets with the commandments enumerated in two columns, like up in the sanctuary of Beth Elohim or on the monument in Alabama. But our inscription is of a single, seamless recitation, without numbers, not divided up, just as it was first spoken to the people by God’s own voice, in the only public speech God ever made in the Bible. Is that what our Consistory wanted to convey in 1891, or was it simply because they were read out weekly in the liturgy? We don’t know, but of the rare things in our sanctuary, it is the rarest—the Ten Commandments in the original spoken version, not as a list of rules, but as a message, a recitation, a chant, a song, a speech that calls into being a new reality, a spell that gives shape to the sovereignty of God.
The words go out into the world to shape a new creation, and we are ever trying to catch up to listen and respond to them. “Thou shalt not kill.” Full stop, but it goes out ahead of us. Don’t lessen it, don’t cheapen it, don’t make it more acceptable by translating “kill” as “murder.” It is total and unconditional, “You shall not kill.” It is never right to kill. You do not have the right to kill.
But how can that be, when elsewhere in the Torah God allows killing and even commands it? Submit to the tension, because the word goes out into time, and we keep moving to catch up to it. Until we get past this evil world some killing is going to happen, but it must be done by public officers, in uniforms, not private persons, certainly not by neighbors of each other. The kingdom of God gives no private person the license to kill or the right to bear arms.
I said to Melody this week that Americans can hardly tell the difference between freedom and chaos. These things feel about the same to Americans. We take freedom as an absolute, the abolition of limits and the absence of control. My rights and my freedom are absolute. This is the same as chaos, disorder, and violence. Politics can’t solve it because it is an inner spiritual compulsion, a bondage disguising itself as freedom because it’s a bondage that we keep choosing. True freedom comes in the word of God to which we submit in freedom from the chaos and the violent dark.
Last week Melody suggested to me that the last part of our new mission statement might better be something like, “a vision of the true and alternate reality.” And the way we give form and shape to this new and alternate reality is by means of our practice of worship and service. The form and shape, according to the Lord Jesus, is love. He said this when he summarized the Ten Commandments. He said that the new and alternate reality will take form and shape when you love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you love your neighbor as yourself. From these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.