Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Pentecost 18, October 4, 2020
St. Martin North Vancouver
“Rules for Life”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen - (Psalm 19:14)
Perhaps you had to memorize the ten commandments when you were young. How many can you remember? I’ve learned a great new way from a kindergartener named Olivia, using my fingers to count them. You can practice too, if you like:
1. Hold up 1 finger. This means that God comes first. So the 1st commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me.”
2. Hold up 2 fingers. Two gods is too many gods! If you have two gods, one of them must be an idol. So the 2nd commandment is “Do not worship idols.”
3. Hold up 3 fingers. It looks like a “W.” W is for “Watch your words.” God’s name is holy, and we should only use it when we are talking to God, or about God. Never in a bad way. So the 3rd commandment is “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
4. Hold up 4 fingers. What is the thumb doing? It’s resting! So the 4th commandment is to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
5. Hold up 5 fingers. It looks like I’m making a promise. So the 5th commandment is “Honor your parents.”
6. Hold up 6 fingers. It looks like the finger is shooting the hand. So the 6th commandment is, “Do not murder.”
7. Hold 7 fingers. The fingers look like people getting married. When people get married, they make promises to be faithful. So the 7th commandment is, “Do not commit adultery.”
8. Hold up 8 fingers. It looks like bars to a jail cell. So the 8th commandment is, “Do not steal.”
9. Hold up 9 fingers. It looks like the thumb is being left out while the other fingers talk about it. So the 9th commandment is, “Do not bear false witness.”
10. Hold up 10 fingers and wiggle them. It looks like I’m saying, “Give me that! Give me this!” So the 10th commandment is, “Do not covet.”
Our Bible books of Exodus and Deuteronomy tell the story of how the ten commandments were given by God to a small group of people in the wilderness. That was over 3500 years ago, but they are still very much part of our Christian faith today. When Jesus came teaching about what was important, he affirmed them as rules for life.
At one point in his ministry, a rich young man approached Jesus and asked what good deed he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus responded by reciting some of the 10 commandments. “I have kept all these”, the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Then Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give his money to the poor, and follow him. This is a way of living out faith that goes beyond commandments as personal instructions. The young man learns that they don’t just apply in his private sphere, but in how he engages in the world. Right from the beginning when two tablets of stone landed in the midst of the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, the ten commandments were the basis of a social contract between God and people. The way we live them out on a large scale is important.
How do the ten commandments change how we serve the common good? I believe that they can inform our outlook as we look to love our neighbour in God’s name. I struggle with how to go about it sometimes. I’ve been privileged in growing up in a loving Christian home, always having the basics of life, getting a wonderful job, and raising a family. I haven’t had to risk getting in trouble with the law in order to defend my rights. I haven’t had to steal or defend myself or be forced to explain why I am as good as anyone else. Like the rich young man in the Bible, I got to a point where I knew there was something more that I was missing. It wasn’t how I was living the ten commandments out in my personal life- although there’s lots of room for improvement there. The growing edge was how I could leverage what I had so that others could share in the abundance.
One of the people who had fascinated me with his fervent strangeness is St. Francis of Assisi. The more I learned about his rejection of wealth and commitment to following God through poverty, obedience, and simple joy, the more I wondered about how those principles might change how I served. Like a little bit of gritty sand inside an oyster, the idea irritated me for years. Francis kept coming back into my life at odd times. There was the preacher at St. Paul’s, a stay at a Franciscan friary, the arrival of a Third Order Franciscan at a parish of mine, the invitation to be the chaplain priest for the local fellowship.
I came into contact with people I would not have met in the normal circles of my church or social life. And they, like Francis himself, were imperfect, quirky, challenging. They have also been catalysts for change in my life to help me risk and seek humility. God’s grace is that I cannot ever measure up to the fullness of the 10 commandments or the great commandment of Jesus: that I should love God and love my neighbour as myself. But in the trying, I can be of some good to this creation. My hands could be put to more work. Last year, near this October 4 Feast of St. Francis, I formally became a Companion of the Third Order, part of a world-wide fellowship of Christians committed to being guided by the path of St. Francis in the love of Christ.
Does this make it any easier to keep God’s commandments? No. But it does help frame a perspective that is larger than my personal piety.
It is good and right to believe in one God and to put God’s will first. But we seem to spend a lot of time fighting about who has the right idea while other things creep in to take God’s place in our hearts. Idols are the substitutes that we think will satisfy us when we are craving love and value. As people of faith we believe in a God of compassion, generosity, and forgiveness who is more powerful than anything in creation. So how can we show others that the pain, despair, anger, and insecurity inside can’t be answered with substances or money or loyalty to a cause or individual? When our interactions with others reflect the holy love we bear, God’s name is proclaimed by our actions as well as our words. The first three commandments are not just personal, but about connecting our neighbours with what we have experienced of God’s love.
The fourth commandment about Sabbath rest is also social. After all, it’s not just about each of us having regular opportunities to relax and refresh from our responsibilities in life, but about ensuring that those around us can do the same. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Sabbath laws in England required cab drivers to give the horses that pulled the carriages one day off a week. Yet there are still people in our society who are forced to labour without rest, sometimes at 3 or more jobs, just to make enough for rent and food. There are caregivers that never get a respite from their duties. There are fields that must be pumped full of fertilizer to keep producing crops year after year. There are long-hauler truckers that drive far into the night to make deadlines. The decisions we make as a society about who pays taxes, what constitutes a living wage, how we produce, process, distribute, and sell food, all can be considered in light of what it means to keep the sabbath.
The fifth commandment sounds quite specific: honour your father and mother. But it depends on larger principles of respecting elders and being grateful for the wisdom and knowledge that others embody in the community. It seems to me that a healthy culture both nurtures and acknowledges all who are like mothers and fathers to us, whether they are tied by blood or heritage or by our common humanity. Only then can we live long in the land that we have been given to share.
And what of the commandments that seem quite straightforward: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet? These are not only injuries that we can inflict one-on-one, but as a society. Holding life as a sacred gift means that the taking of life always has consequences. We have social dialogue on the complexity of suicide, abortion, medically assisted dying, capital punishment. But there are also areas where our passive acceptance or neglect have an impact that can lead to the ending of life. Where being unfaithful in one relationship has repercussions for many others. When taking more than our share, rather than outright stealing, means less for others who need it more. There are times when misleading or a lack of proper information leads us as a society to systemic evils like racism. It’s easy to get cynical about how society can ever hope to be healthy even if laws are put in place to uphold the 10 commandments. After all, people do keep finding ways around them for their own benefit.
The good news is that there are many who are willing to engage rules for life in a public way. Not just leaders, but all the people who are actively ready to listen and respond to God. We are part of a larger covenant. When our actions are grounded in respect, dignity, compassion, and justice for all, and not just personal piety, they have spiritual power to bring about a commonwealth of love. God uses our hands to reach out. Amen.