Sunday, October 05, 2008

New Rules: A Sermon on Exodus 20:1-21, Matthew 22:36-40

“New Rules”
Exodus 20:1-20, Matthew 22:36-40
October 5, 2008
World Communion Sunday

It seems that sometimes we live in an era that calls for new rules. I believe we might be in one, right now. All sorts of signs and omens would seem to be jockeying for our attention, telling us that the ways in which we have lived are not working for us any more, and another approach is in order.

Of course, these last weeks we have all been witness to a breakdown in our financial system so dramatic that it threatens to grind not only the US economy, but global economies, to a halt. Much smarter people than I are very busy analyzing this collapse, and a number of theories are emerging as to why it has happened, and how it might be both fixed, and what can be done to prevent it from recurring. But the situation remains: the rules we have been working with, have not worked. We are in an era that calls for new rules.

Political comedian Bill Maher has made this concept a staple of his television show, and each week he recommends New Rules based on his acerbic take on the week’s news. His most recent New Rule is a gentle jab at Secretary Paulson, combined with a shout out at those of us who grew up watching television in the sixties: “Next time we get in an enormous financial crisis, the guy we're depending on to get us out of it can't look like Colonel Klink.”

This morning we have as our reading some of the oldest codified rules in existence, though to call them rules runs the risk of vastly oversimplifying them. In Hebrew, their original language, they are called, simply, “words.” Ten words, conveyed to God’s people as being the basis for how they will live together.

These words are simple, fairly easy to remember. I’ve heard them described as follows:

1. THOU shalt have no more gods but me.
2. Before no idol bend thy knee.
3. Take not the name of God in vain.
4. Dare not the Sabbath day profane,
5. Give both thy parents honor due.
6. Take heed that thou no murder do.
7. Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
8. Steal not, though thou be poor and mean.
9. Make not a willful lie, nor love it.
10. What is thy neighbor's dare not covet.

Two things stand out to me about these ten words, which are still so relevant that as recently three years ago, the constitutionality of their display in public places was still being argued before the Supreme Court.

The first thing that stands out to me is this: each commandment is expressed in the negative. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. With just one exception, every commandment is expressed as what we shall not do. (The exception, of course, is “Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Fascinating to theorize about why that particular word is given a positive spin!).

In this way, the Ten Words, are really not at all the highest expression of what we should aspire to as human beings, or as Christians. They are the lowest common denominator… the very least we can do, literally, is to avoid spilling the blood of the people who annoy us. The very least we can do is to tell the truth. The very least we can do is to not steal from one another. You catch my meaning. A society that lives by the Ten Words, and only by the Ten Words, would seem to be one focused on all the things we can’t do, have, be or want. I think there is something higher to which we are called than these commandments, revere them though we do.

The other thing that stands out to me in these words is their 40/ 60 breakdown. Two fifths of the commandments… fully the first four…forty percent of these commandments from God concern our relationship with God. If we really look at the number of words spent, though, the proportion is even more dramatic. The commandments, by my count, take up 315 words in English. 233 of these are spent on those first four… more than two thirds. The lion’s share of these words concern how we are to live in relationship with God. These first four commandments are both the heart of our words from God, and the basis upon which the other commandments rest.

This is where the new rules come in… well, not exactly new rules. But rather, Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of the old ones. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus does not actually quote from the Decalogue, or the ten words. Rather, he quotes from another passage in the Hebrew Bible, from Deuteronomy, just slightly amending it: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” reads the original (Deut. 6:5). Jesus changes the word “might” to “mind.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he says. And, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love God. Love others. No “thou shalt nots.” Gone are the lowest common denominators for behavior. In their place is a whole lot of blank space for our interpretation of what it means to love.

I have some experience with 12-Step programs. These are programs designed to help people to learn to live without addictive substances or behaviors… alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating. The thing about being an addict is, no one wants to give up that substance. We pick it up for a reason. It feels good. It helps us get through the day, we think… until we realize it’s killing us, or it’s destroying our health or shattering our relationships. When an addict walks into a 12-Step meeting for the first time, the thing most on her mind is what she is giving up by taking this action. She’s giving up that first glass of wine (that leads to countless others). He’s giving up the prescription pills he initially needed for his back injury, but which are threatening to drag him to economic ruin or even jail. The addict gives up something, and in the initial phase of recovery (often referred to as the white-knuckle period), our whole experience is about trying to cope with what we can’t do, have, be, or want.

But something amazing happens. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” we are taught. It is strongly suggested to us that we put God and what we believe God wants for us first (just about exactly like the emphasis the ten commandments place on trying to get us to put God first). And soon, as the compulsion to use the substance is removed, something remarkable is left in its place: pure, unadulterated gratitude. Thank you God, recovering addicts say over and over. Thank you God… for giving me this day. Thank you God… that I don’t have to drink/ smoke/ overeat/ gamble today. Thank you God… that I can feel my health returning. Thank you God… that I don’t have to disappoint and hurt the people who love me today. Thank you God… for every tiny miracle that a day free from addiction enables me to experience, from waking up without a hangover to being able to pay my bills this month to being able to remember the beautiful intimacy of an encounter with another one of your children.

What if our national conversation… about the economy, about the environment, about race, about the war in Iraq… you choose your favorite issue… what if we stopped focusing on the least common denominators of morality and citizenship, and began to focus instead on that vast blank space of interpretation of what it means to love God and others. Call me naively optimistic… I can take it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might and with all your mind,” Jesus tells us. And love your neighbors as yourself. On a World Communion Sunday… I am willing to be naïve enough to believe that these new rules for living together just might work. Thank you God. Amen.


Choralgirl said...

You just gave me something really great to chew on for a while...thanks! :-)

Jane R said...

Dear Mags, OT but I wrote an answer to the note on blog. Thanks for this sermon, which I have not read yet but will do for my spiritual reading this evening! I'm sure it will nourish me more than the debate... Sigh...