2 October 2011
The 16th Sunday After Pentecost
When I offered to bring us a word this morning I thought I’d try to take a fresh look at the Ten Commandments, our Hebrew Scripture lesson for the week. I wondered what would happen if I approached God’s Commandments to the Hebrew people, these core guidelines for right behavior, from a fresh perspective.
The idea came from our worship reflection for the season:
I choose to believe in One who says it’s never too late to be on this path . . . because it’s really the only path. Not to constantly relive the past and cast blame on those who have hurt us and didn’t teach us well how to open our hearts, but to live now as beginners, each moment like children just starting out.
In this season of our annual recommitment I thought this exercise might help me find language for some of the growing understanding I have of what it means to be on the Way with Jesus, trying to see the basic guideline he offered more clearly: to Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s been an unexpected journey. By yesterday afternoon I’d had half a dozen interruptions that had knocked me off my chosen path and into something much more interesting. I’ll see if I can give you a glimpse.
As I worked on the sermon I knew we’d be sharing Communion this morning so I couldn’t take on the full set. I settled on three:
- The first Commandment: “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other gods before me.”
- The Fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother… and
- The Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
What are commandments? Earlier this week Elizabeth Gelfeld told me that, in her experience with Godly Play they introduce the 10 Commandments to children as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” That makes good sense to me. If I want some guidelines for living like a child just starting out, The Ten Best Ways to Live is a good place to start.
Here’s what I was approaching on Thursday, before I had some surprising lessons on living as a beginner.
The first Commandment: “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other gods before me.”
What does it mean to “have a god?” I think “god” in that sense means some individual or list of values that tells me what to think and do, An authority that I obey. To the extent that I am loyal to the dictates of my family, or my community, or my political party, or the manufacturer of my favorite brand of slacks or snack food, I can make them into a god. This seems challenging to me as I think about loyalty and commitment.
Maybe the idea here is that we ought to keep God at the top of our list. Each of us is committed to making the world a better place, for ourselves and others. We do a lot to help support the common good. For me, there are times when “keeping the peace,” or “solving the problem” climbs over “bearing the pain” or “loving the other.’” Those are times when I need to remember that I’m committed to keeping God at the top of the list. This is a particular challenge for me, when “bearing the pain” or “loving the other” puts me in the loser’s seat I want to hold fast to what is good, to be successful, to make my time and effort pay off – in ways I can see clearly. Living like a beginner is a challenge. It means making lots of mistakes, lots of change. Maybe that’s why I was so moved by the recent Inward/Outward quote from Wendell Berry:
We can start from where we are, with what we have, and imagine and work for the healings that are necessary. But we must begin by giving up any idea that we can bring about these healings without fundamental changes in the way we think and live. We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse.
Wendell Berry, Sex, Freedom and the Economy, from Inward/Outward
When I try to take a fresh perspective on the Frist Commandment, I’m inclined to say it this way:
I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before me. No matter how things change, keep Me at the top of your Values List.
The next Commandment I looked at was the fifth: “Honor your father and your mother …”
My biological father died 31 years ago, in 1980, and my birth mother died 12 years ago. I really don’t believe their death released me from God’s commandment. So what difference does this Commandment make for me? Who are my mother and father now?
When Jesus was challenged to go home because his mother was calling for him, he replied “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” then he pointed to his disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
As I thought about this it wasn’t hard to see that there are lots of folks who care for me, and protect me, and help hold me accountable for the commitments I’ve made. People who teach me and correct me and help me be authentic. If I’m going to live each moment as a child, all of these are my parents. In a very real sense “honor thy father and thy mother” means honoring all of you, and those out there who care for and about me the way my parents did while they lived.
So the update I’m considering for this commandment is this: “Honor all thy fathers and all thy mothers.” That is, take a fresh look at who are your mothers and fathers these days, and honor them.
Finally there was the 10th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
I learned a bit about this early on. By about the fourth grade it was clear that life was better if I didn’t yearn after the toys (or the skills) that my friends had.
You see, I was so nearsighted as a boy that I couldn’t play ball. If I was at bat I didn’t see the ball until it was actually over the plate. And if I was in the field I couldn’t see a fly ball headed in my direction until it was on the ground beside me. So I learned to expect to not be chosen rather than hope for a place on the team, even that miserable spot in right field. I read books and studied, and found a place in community. But I didn’t really learn to compete. Long before I had any awareness of the possibility of coveting my neighbor’s ox or donkey or wife, I’d learned not to covet my classmate’s eyesight. It was an effective guideline for good living for a myopic teen, a practice that helped minimize the trauma for this emerging geek. In effect, I learned not to ask for what I wanted. That’s a place where I’m trying to live as a beginner, and I appreciate the help I get from those among us whom I count as my mothers and fathers today.
A week ago, at Kate’s memorial service, Marjory shared something that might serve as an update on this Commandment about greed. It was a quote that Kate had written on a spiritual report. It was from a book by Forrest Church called Love and Death — the life story of a pastor who had only months to live. Kate quoted Church saying: “Want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are. Do these things with reverence, humbled by awe, and your cup will overflow.”
“Want what you have” might be a good alternative to the 10th Commandment, a fresh way to look at how to stand back from coveting what others have. Whether its health or housing, strength or stuff, friends or family, if we can give thanks for what God has given us, we’ll be in a good place to receive what’s coming our way.
Yesterday afternoon on the way home from here I saw this quote in action. While I was stopped at a red light I gave a Care Pack to a tall, lean man who was asking for cash. He was wearing an Army field jacket, so I asked him if he was a vet. “Yes,” he said, “I was in Okinawa during Viet Nam. I got in trouble after my wife died, but I’m coming back. When I mentioned that there was a new pair of sox and some toilet articles in the pack he broke out in a wide, nearly toothless grin. “Thank you sir. Life is good. God bless you.” The light turned green, we saluted each other and I headed home, blessed by God.
Want what you have.
So that’s what I’d come to by Thursday morning, three examples of seeing things differently. I thought I was ready to start polishing. But the Holy One had something else in mind. In addition to the vet at the stoplight there were five surprises waiting to change my perspective.
It started Thursday afternoon, when I met with Elizabeth to talk about The Wisdom Jesus, a wonderful book by Cynthia Bourgeault that describes Jesus as a wisdom teacher, more interested in helping us recognize and respond to God than in telling us exactly how to behave. After a while, our conversation turned to the power of art to open us up to fresh perspectives, helping us see with the wide eyes of a beginner rather than the narrow eyes of an expert. I was reminded of the commitments of Mary Cosby and Deborah and Brenda to make sure that we help bring both bread AND roses into our world. Often all it takes for me to see things differently is noticing a single blossom.
The next surprise started at the men’s breakfast yesterday morning. As we broke bread together, Glen, Jake, David Novello and I had a lively, wide-ranging conversation. After roaming through green electric energy for Seekers and the compassionate human energy for the Care Pack program, talk turned to all the stuff that’s crowding the back end of the basement downstairs. As we were pondering the competition for storage space I mentioned that one of the items taking up space was the canopy from an old reserve parachute I had saved from my Army days. It was something I’d brought from Peter’s basement at home thinking there might be a time when we needed to pitch our tent here. There was a sharp but good-natured suggestion that “if it’s been here for seven years and we haven’t used it, it’s time to pitch it out.” We laughed, but I felt my defenses getting organized. Then Jake said “Let’s see how it works!” and the defenses sat back down. I could at least give it a try. I thought it might give us a fresh perspective on our space, and might help us think about some things in new ways, to take a beginner’s perspective. It was worth a try.
The next surprise came right after that. I spent my hour in the sanctuary, reflecting on God’s call on me to recommit myself to Christ through this community. The room felt different, rather like the temporary home of a people who were on the Way. I wrote furiously in my journal for most of the hour. One of the things that came out of my pen was this:
I have no questions about whether to re-commit to Seekers Church. The answer is “Yes.” I do wonder what I need from Seekers. Maybe I need space (and time) to be unknowing, time to see things differently. Space for compassionate questions.”
It was another encouragement for living as a beginner.
Then I had a spiritual direction meeting with a man who is a member of another faith community. He’d recently compiled a list of things he’d tried at work that hadn’t finished well. He was seeing it as a list of failures. And from one perspective, they were. But I thought they might also hold some signs of progress. We talked about how it might be to write his list on sticky notes and put them on the wall, much the way we posted our dreams for this space as we started planning for the renovation almost a decade ago. That way he could move them around and look for the subtle connections, the less obvious lessons. It might help him find a new perspective. I could hear some energy in the conversation as we talked about a very tactile way to take a fresh look at his failure list.
After that, finally, there was the blessing of my brief Care Pack encounter on the road to the Capitol. Then, it was time to get to work rewriting this sermon. Clearly, I needed to begin again. And the lesson I drew from all those surprises may not be much of a surprise: God is always doing something new, and its easier to keep God at the top of my list if I can live now as a beginner, each moment, like a child just starting out.
God is always doing something new. Things are always changing. Part of what we focus on in this season of Recommitment is that commitment of our Creator to keep on creating.
As I reflected on what happened when I tried to look at three of God’s commandments like a beginner I was amused. What I saw wasn’t really new:
- “I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before me. No matter how things change, keep Me at the top of your Values List.”
- “Honor all thy mothers and all thy fathers.” and
- “Want what you have.”
It looks a lot like Jesus version: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Maybe one of the lessons here is that a fresh perspective will still reveal the truth.
But perhaps the bigger lesson for me, and one that I offer for each of us emerges from our reflection: God loves us, and has promised to be with us “on this path … because it’s really the only path. … to live now as beginners, each moment like children just starting out.
It takes courage and commitment to let ourselves be changed in unexpected ways. Recommitment is a time to say “Yes” to God’s invitation to help bring the Realm of God into sharper focus here and now. And as we share our lives, and our bread and our roses, with the world I’m convinced that if we can keep God at the top of the list it will never be too late to be on this path. We can help each other learn to live with the joy of children who know that they have their honored mothers and fathers walking with them and standing up for them.
It may take seeing from some fresh perspectives, but the Holy One still stands ready to help us practice the Ten Best Ways to Live.
Thank God we’re in this together!