Sermon of the Week:
Laying Down the Law
Week nine of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Decalogue, Order and Ardor, Torah, Improvisation, Jazz. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Though it is tempting jump right into an analysis of these ten commandments, individually,
we’re not going to do that this morning.
There’s a lot to go over here, if we were going to do that,
and if I’m honest,
we’re trying to be more focused with these meditations,
and that kind of sermon could go a while….
[I know, I know. I hear some of you saying to your computer screens:
Hey Chad, the Chiefs game is on Monday Night this week. We have time!]
Then again, on the other hand,
I don’t want to just spend two or three minutes covering each of ten commandments,
which is all we’d be able to do for our regular 20-minute sermon.
That doesn’t seem quite right, either.
If we wanted to, we could do a 10-week sermon series just on these verses, at least,
looking carefully at all of it: have no other Gods, or idols, or speak God’s name in vein,
keep the sabbath holy, honor your parents,
don’t murder or break the vows of marriage or steal or lie or covet your neighbor’s stuff.
It would be worth it do that kind of study, though, someday.
Maybe we’ll do that for an upcoming sermon series.
Looking at those topics, one at a time
would tell us a lot, say,
about the religious environment that the Hebrews were living in at that time,
in the 10th century BCE, and what it meant to ask them to just choose Yahweh,
even though that might be a no brainer
given what they’ve been through.
That might help us think about why people some people struggle to believe in God these days,
why we might struggle with God some days,
and how there are other stories in the Bible, like the one we read about Jacob two months ago,
that might put that sort of struggle in a more favorable light…
Or we could look at what it might mean to put our ultimate faith and trust
in something other than God,
that’s what we call an idol,
and how we are tempted to do that, all the time,
and how ultimately unsatisfying it is
to put our trust in something that is going to let us down,
something like the pursuit of success, or economic and political power,
or nationalism, or the latest gadget in our pocket,
or the diet and health fad of the moment,
or, in the church world, in denominationalism, and so on,
rather than trusting in God, and God alone, as our ultimate concern,
the ultimate source of strength and hope and love and community…
We could talk about oaths, and what it means to put the name of God in the middle of them.
The importance of integrity, trustworthiness, and honor.
Or how about a focus on Sabbath, and how good rest is,
for body and spirit,
and how we seem to be getting worse at taking breaks,
at unplugging, at taking time to renew…
Yes, we could even talk about our parents,
which would be a pleasant conversation for many of us
and not so pleasant for others…
And that would only be half of them.
Consider that a preview into a sermon series on the ten commandments
whenever we get around to it in the future.
But if you’ve been following this current sermon series for the last few weeks
you might get a sense that our focus is a bit different today, anyway,
in that we’re looking at this moment in this story,
telling us something about the Hebrew people
and the journey they’re on, together,
wondering out in the wilderness
struggling to keep it together after 400 years in Egypt,
it’s all any of them know,
but now they’re newly free from servitude,
literally moving into the unknown
having no structure, no order, no clear plan,
other than “hey follow that pillar of cloud in front of us”
“don’t stray from the caravan if you know what’s good for you”
“hey there’s manna to eat and, when our canteens get low,
Moses can get some water from the rock for us…”
What ARE they doing, anyway, Moses?
So, one way to read this passage
is to step back from the individual commandments
and ask ourselves more basic questions,
Why, do you think, it happened,
that literally in the middle of nowhere,
as the people were disorganized, unfocused, like a ship without an anchor,
that God called the Hebrews to this mountain and spoke these words to Moses?
Maybe one way to think about that question
is to talk a bit about boundaries, about structure.
Last night many of us gathered at The Kirk for Jazz on the Lawn,
with thanks to our Deacons who put together this socially-distanced event.
For about 90 minutes last night,
Earlie and Danny and Gerald
offered music that was a balm to my spirit
as cooped up as we have been these past several months.
I don’t know a lot about Jazz,
so take all of what I’m about to say with a serious grain of salt,
but I’m amazed when I watch talented people create Jazz music.
They might start out with a song they plan to offer
a rhythm, a melody, a plan,
but in the middle of that there is always spontaneity, and improvisation.
How do they do that?
How do they do it so effortlessly and beautifully?
Well, it takes a lot of work, and practice,
and, honestly, it takes some structure.
The band leader might start off and play around a bit with the melody,
given the particular instrument they’re using,
and then will hand things over to someone else,
who will do things differently, their own way,
for however long they feel moved by the song at the moment,
and then they make eye contact with one of the others
and then that musician will run with it,
before it all goes back to the leader to continue the song…
and somehow jazz happens,
the end result being something fresh and new and authentic.
It was really a gift to spend that time last night with many of you
enjoying such wonderful music,
and it had me thinking about the art of good jazz …
it is perhaps the most free-flowing music you can imagine
the artist goes where she goes…
for as long as she goes…
but note well: even with Jazz, the music is never completely free of structure, of order.
You’ve got to know your instrument, for one.
How to play the guitar or bass or trombone,
how to do chord progressions, harmony, rhythm.
And you have to have agreement with
the other people who are playing,
the ones not improvising at the moment,
because their job is to keep rhythm,
to provide the background sounds that creates the musical canvas, so to speak,
upon which the improvisation happens.
Even in Jazz, you know if something isn’t quite right
if someone is out of sync,
if the pieces don’t work together.
Without some structure, Jazz isn’t Jazz.
And the same goes for any other kind of music,
Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Lullabies or Zydeco.
What makes music music, rather than just noise,
is that it follows some intelligible patterns and rules,
that there is an underlying order,
even if it can be shaped in almost endless patterns of possibility.
Now, not every kind of music is improvisational,
but that’s why Jazz in particular helps us think about this in helpful ways.
The structure of Jazz creates the conditions within which a jazz imagination is possible.
A friend of mine said something similar recently about painting, about art on a canvas,
arguing for what he calls “liberating boundaries.”[i]
Without borders or boundaries, there is no art. He suggests.
The edges of the canvas, the boundaries imposed by the frame
actually add to the product.
Because there are boundaries, art sets us free.
Actually invites us to think beyond.
The limit moves beyond the frame into imagination and spirit.
Structure is something that helps us make art, that empowers creativity and communication.
But it’s not just art. Not just music.
We need some order, some structure, to help us make sense of things,
to make sense of our experience
to relate to one another.
Without grammar, for example, there is no human language.
It is just sound, which other people can’t make sense of.
Without an alphabet and something to write on
whether it’s a piece of paper or some parchment or a stone tablet
there’s no written language.
Now, there can be all sorts of ways a language may use grammar,
and there is certainly innovation in a language over time.
Even letters of the alphabet may come and go.
One of my favorites is the letter ‘thorn’
which was written like a p with a long stem on top, or sometimes like a curly y
and which is the reason we describe old-timey stores as ‘ye olde sandwich shop’
or ‘ye olde blacksmith.’
That word ‘ye’ is really just the word ‘the’, but written with a thorn,
but we’ve forgotten about that letter,
and imagine that our ancestors liked to call the place they went to go buy donuts ‘ye family bakery.’
So we have a lot of flexibility and freedom within our language,
even when we have rules we follow to communicate.
But the rules are essential if we’re going to communicate at all.
And this actually extends to a lot of what we humans do:
we need a structure upon which to think,
and that structure allows us to thrive.
So what’s it like when the things that orient you are suddenly taken away?
How are you supposed to go about your day?
Chaos can be scary, in all honesty.
There are no shortage of apocalyptic movies you can cue up on Netflix to think a bit about that.
You can grab The Lord of the Flies at the library
and consider one particularly disastrous experiment
where a group of boys find themselves stranded on an uninhabited island
and try to govern themselves.
And one way we can develop some empathy for the Hebrews, wandering in the wilderness
is to recognize just how much has been disrupted in their lives.
We all can appreciate how disruptive it has been with six whole months of living under quarantine,
and here the Hebrews are looking ahead at a generation of wilderness living.
And in the middle of all of that,
God invites the people to the mountain,
calls Moses up into the cloud
and gives them the ten commandments…
Well, there’s more than that.
As I mentioned last week, these ten commandments are more like the highlights
the top level things to think about
and over the next several chapters
Moses is given rules and rules and even more rules.
Ways to think about God, and how we relate to God.
Ways to think about other people,
and how we can do that with integrity and with care and compassion.
According to tradition, there are 603 commandments,
spread over Exodus and Deuteronomy,
all of which make up the ‘Torah’ that God gave to the people through Moses.
We often translate that word as ‘law,’
but Natasha Junior, Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University,
suggests that maybe it is better to understand them as ‘instructions,’
ways to structure your life if you are going to follow Yahweh,
if Yahweh is going to be your God, and you are going to be Yahweh’s people.[ii]
Or, to offer just one more voice,
here’s how David Bender puts it:[iii]
After their escape from Egypt,
the Israelites face another new beginning at Sinai.
Gone are the days of slavery and exploitation in Egypt.
Now the laws provide the Israelites an opportunity
to root their new society in the true God,
to base it upon something other than exploitation.
No more shall the key to success be found in cheating, stealing, and killing.
Now it shall lie in relationship with the true God.”
One of the most important things God is doing,
out there, in the wilderness,
is giving the people time and space to heal from their past
and to be well situated to enter into their new future.
The gift of the ten commandments is a key part of that,
because it created the structure, the framework,
for how the people would build their society,
how they’d understand the way they’d relate to God
and how they’d relate to one another.
And while there are things for us to wonder about,
if we were to look at it with a contemporary eye,
like the question about whether fear is a good and faithful motivator, or not…
and while we would pick apart the patriarchal presumptions many scholars find here
presumptions were part of that ancient culture but have no place in ours,
and while we note that these laws,
like any other laws, would need to be interpreted and updated and negotiated
(which is why judges would be appointed among the Hebrew people,
along with all the other institutions that makes a society work…)
and noting how sometimes the people misinterpreted and poorly applied the law,
or used the laws contrary to their original purpose
or started to care more about the letter of the law than the spirit behind them…
even with all of that…
we should appreciate the fundamental importance
that these commandments would have for the Hebrew people,
and through them, for Jesus himself,
who would help us see that the summation of all the Law
is to love God, and to love our neighbor.
This walk through Genesis and Exodus has lifted up some important themes for us,
some perspective into who God is, and who we are.
In Jacob, we learn that God wrestles with God’s people,
and so we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions, to push and to prod,
to challenge and to debate with God.
God can handle it.
In the story of Joseph,
we learn about a God who walks alongside us even when we are abandoned
by those who should love us
and how God can take even stories of personal pain and heartache
and weave from them opportunities for grace and reconciliation.
And in the story of Moses,
we see a God who is determined to hear the voice of those crying for freedom
and who acts to liberate them,
providing for their needs and helping them do the difficult work
of shaping a society through the Torah, through instruction,
for their good, individually, and for the common, collective good.
But I want to come back to something I was thinking about
while listening to Jazz last night.
How are we supposed to view the ten commandments, these days?
Are they authoritative? Exactly as they were written, or as reinterpreted in some way?
Are they just old rules, no longer important for us?
For those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus Christ,
the one who, himself, said that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it,
we look upon these commandments with gratitude and with reverence
noting that God used them way back when to build a society
as we seek to understand them through the witness about God we see in Jesus the Christ
and as we experience in the creative movement of the Holy Spirit.
That Holy Spirit…it often breaks open new possibilities for our future
encourages us to challenge the ways in which our structures,
the principalities and powers of our age,
either support God’s values of love and compassion and welcome and justice,
or how they don’t.
As God’s people, there’s no one answer to this question.
Sometimes it means realizing the hard truth
that we often don’t take God’s law very seriously,
that we seem to be content with too many killings in our community,
that there’s too much coveting of what my neighbor has,
that we live through too many broken relationships
that we don’t get enough rest,
that we fall short, all of us,
and we should do better at following after God and what God intends for society.
When we see this, in our lives,
we should take the opportunity to be grateful
that God helps us grow, in grace and in holiness,
to do better, to be better, to strive to love better,
and to do our part to help build more just, more loving, more caring societies for all.
And, on the other hand, sometimes following the spirit
means understanding how we need to
expand our understanding of how these laws might be applied
such as when we critique harmful parenting
and help those with abusive parents
find more life-giving relationships,
and to note that ‘honor’ doesn’t mean submit, to use one example,
or when we mistake these religious commandments, these laws,
to apply directly to a 21st century democracy,
particularly one that invites people of all religious traditions, and those with none,
to participate in a shared public life together.
In short, our faith asks us to find the right balance between order and ardor
ardor, A-R-D-O-R, which is another way to talk about the movement of the spirit within us,
the passion of our life.
This balance helps us both appreciate the need for rules, for law, for structure,
and the adoption of a love-centered approach to understanding them,
or, to put that another way, that we continue to ground our approach to the law
by understanding the grace and the creativity of the God who gave them to us in the first place.
Focusing just on order, without an opening for improvisation, for interpretation, for innovation,
can lead to a rigid, joyless life,
and sometimes laws that are misused, misapplied, or harmful.
We know that law is not good just for its own sake, but for the good of the people,
for the way that it helps us promote a just society where all can find shalom, the peace of God.
And focusing just on ardor, without attention to also honoring rules we must share,
laws that shape common society,
can lead to anarchy and chaos, where no one can thrive,
or where people resort to raw power to get their own way.
There are other sermons in there, somewhere,
sermons that will have to wait for another day.
For today, may we simply give God thanks
for the incredible ways in which God moves
to help us form societies and communities,
and lets do our part to balance order and ardor
law and grace
structure and freedom
rhythm and improvisation,
rooted in all times in the values God teaches us
values that implore us to help all people
live better, healthier, happier lives.
May it be so.
[i] From a sermon by John Lentz called “Liberating Boundaries” preached at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
[ii] See Nyasha Junior, “Third Sunday in Lent, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
[iii] Feasting on the Word Supplemental, Year A, Proper 22 (semi-continuous). “Pastoral Perspective” for Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Image: The Ten Commandments (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yitro_(parsha)#/media/File:The_Ten_Commandments_(Bible_Card).jpg (accessed September 26, 2020).