for I the Lord your God am a jealous God...showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Many of us follow the law because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t. We might get fined or go to jail. But there are those out there who find ways to skirt around the law – especially if it benefits them.
I mention all this because we are continuing our look at God’s covenants. Agreements made by God that benefit us. As we learned in the stories of Noah and Abraham, we have God’s assurance that if we fail to perfectly obey the terms of the covenant, God is still bound to them. God’s word is good, even when we are not. But that doesn’t let us off the hook or free us to run amuck.
Like the lines on a basketball, we need things like laws and rules that will help guide us in this game of life. Today reading gives us a look at the terms of God’s covenant. And it’s up to us to determine how it applies to our relationship with God and with one another. (Read: Exodus 20:1-17)
I have told the story many times before about when I decided to fast from the 10 commandments for Lent. It was a joke I made while I wasn’t very sober. Hey, it was Mardi Gras after all. But the next day, on Ash Wednesday, I decided to proceed as planned. But with a slight modification. Instead of giving up all ten, I would choose one to focus one. So I fasted from killing.
It seemed like an easy goal since I don’t have the stomach for murder. But it didn’t take me long to realize how guilty I was - killing people’s ideas, dreams, hopes, and desires. This exercise was truly eye-opening and rewarding for me, despite my failures I had along the way. By the time Lent was over, I noticed something had changed in me. I was more inclined to listen to other’s opinions and welcomed their ideas.
As silly as it sounds, not killing showed me how to live. It opened my heart and transformed my behavior for the better. By looking at this commandment not as law but as a way to live faithfully, I began to deepen my relationship with God and others. And isn’t that what these ten lessons are designed to do?
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When these words were given to Moses, the Israelites were newly liberated slaves wandering the wilderness without much direction. They needed more then Google maps to find the promised land. They needed a moral compass to guide them there.
Remember, they had spent the last 400+ years in Egypt. The only laws they knew were Pharaoh’s laws. The only gods they knew where his as well. So to help them understand who their God was and how they were to live accordingly as God’s chosen people, they were handed these 10 Teachings, as rabbinic traditions call them.
For some reason Christians like to call these words “commandments.” But I think this makes it harder for us to see them for what they really are: teachings; lessons for a good life. They have been passed down through the generations to guide into a real relationship with the One who hears our cries and comes to our rescue.
However, “these practices are not kindly suggestions,” as Barbara Brown Taylor warns. “They express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. Those who ignore them do so at their own peril – not because God is standing over them with a hammer, but because these teachings describe a way of life.”
This is not to say we won’t sneak in some work on the Sabbath or disobey our parents from time to time. Let’s face it we’ve all broken one, if not all, of these teachings at least once in our life. But just as God remains faithful to the covenant, the bible tells us that we too must be faithful to the Lord. If we are wise, we’ll use these Ten Teachings as a road map to move us in this direction.
That’s why it’s important to practice them daily, and not just during Lent. We will not always get it right, and that’s alright. These teachings aren’t meant to shame us or to be some kind of litmus test to find perfect Christians. They are a gift from God – forged by a covenant and fashioned by grace.
They are designed to help us understand who we are and where God wants us to be. That’s why we often make Lent to be a spiritual journey of sorts.
It’s why we are encouraged to practice certain spiritual “disciplines” that give us a better understanding of where God wants us to be - in God’s heart. Despite their stern-sounding name, spiritual disciplines are more about deepening our spiritual growth than performing some religious mandate.
For example, when I was discerning my call to start to start this new church, I practiced the spiritual discipline of self-examination. This required sitting quietly with God and mediating on the places God had revealed my calling to me.
You might be searching your soul for answers to some big question, maybe you’re feeling lost or directionless, or you just want to get to know God better. I’d encourage you to try practicing a discipline like prayer, or meditation, or intentional reading God’s Word to see how the Holy Spirit moves you to act.
As you might already know, I like to encourage people to use Lent as a time to fast from something that is keeping them from feasting on the goodness of life. By fasting and feasting on these Ten Words, I now have a clearer picture of who I am. And who I’m called to be -the visible presence of God’s love in the world.
It’s no surprise that Jesus would use these teachings as the moral compass of his ministry. Everything he did was based on these words which he boiled down for us: “love God and love each other.” Jesus knew the two cannot be separated. He risked his life, and broke a few laws, to show us how to make love a part of our everyday worship of God.
It’s like this: If you say you love God, then you can’t help but love everyone made in God’s image.
If you make God’s love your priority, then you won’t be tempted to worship an idol like a politician or a bank account. You won’t covet what others have. Or take that which isn’t yours.
If you refuse to use God’s love in vain, then you won’t cheat on your spouse or business partners, you won’t lie or bear false witness to cover up your wrongdoings. You’ll care for your mother and father.
If you remember to take a day of sabbath rest, you might discover the whole purpose of what a life in God’s love is all about – to enjoy the splendor of God’s glory sharing food and fun with family and friends.
These ten teachings are, as Joslyn Schaefer describes it, “like an umbilical cord, tethering us to what nourishes us, energizing us so that we can discern and accomplish God’s good purposes for our lives.”
While laws are important and need to be obeyed, they will always be, second to love. Jesus confirmed this when he touched the leper and healed the bleeding Syrophoenician woman. Again and again, Jesus broke purity laws to teach others of their moral responsibility to the wellbeing of God’s children.
If Jesus were among us today, I know he’d wear a mask. No doubt about it. He’d do it not out of fear of getting sick, but as a way to remind us that God's love puts other people’s needs before his own.
Jesus showed us how loving God and one another is the way to live a faithful life in the fullness of God’s righteousness and grace. When we use them as blueprints to shape our lives in the image of Christ, things change. The blind see, the hungry are fed, justice is restored. People and communities are redeemed and returned to the God who loves us enough to risk it all for us.
Lent is a time to shape and mold your heart in the image of Christ, so that you can bear witness to God’s unconditional love and grace as living witnesses of Christ’s church.
There’s an old joke about a Lutheran minister who, when bidding farewell to his rabbi counterpart says, “Keep the faith my friend.” And the rabbi reply back, “Thank you, now go and keep the commandments.” As you might imagine, the two go hand in hand.
Faith means we must trust God. When we trust God enough to follow God’s direction, practicing love becomes second nature. So we are called to keep these teachings close to our heart where God’s covenant with us was first made.
As our love for God grows stronger, we overcome the fear that stops us from loving our neighbor.
When we love one another, we no longer judge people unfairly, or exclude others who are not like us.
When we love one another, we no longer desire to kill or to cheat or horde our resources from those less fortunate.
When we love one another as God first loved us, then we put the health and wellbeing of others above all else.
As Jesus showed us, when we come together in love, the hope and promise of God’s covenant comes alive.
God is love. And love is life. So as you leave here today, I encourage you all to go and live that life abundantly.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Schaefer, Joslyn Ogden. The Law. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/the-law-lent-3-b- march-7-2021
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”