Sunday, October 8, 2017

Phil Kniss: Learning to kiss the scroll

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-17, Psalm 19:7-11, Matthew 5:17-20

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There is a ritual in Jewish worship that has always intrigued me.
It involves the Torah—what we call the five books of the Law—
or Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Those books are written on a large scroll
and wrapped in an elaborate covering,
and stored in the front of their worship space,
in a beautiful cabinet called the ark.
And when it is taken out, before they read from it,
they walk it all around the congregation,
for the worshipers to kiss the scroll.
They generally do it by touching it with the tips of their fingers,
then touching their fingers to their lips.
So in a way, it’s the scroll kissing them.

I’ve witnessed this multiple times.
In synagogues from Israel to Harrisonburg.
As a ritual, it’s tangible,
And it’s foreign to us—this emotional, relational connection
between the worshiper and the scroll.

We don’t have anything quite like that.
At least most Protestants don’t.
Mennonites don’t.

Catholics sort of do.
When a Catholic priest reads from the Gospel,
he makes the sign of the cross on the book,
then on his forehead, lips, and heart,
symbolizing a prayer that the scriptures be
in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart.

But even that doesn’t quite carry the emotional impact . . .
of a kiss.

What is behind this affection,
that Jewish worshipers have, for the law?
For Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy?

We Christians understand commitment to the Bible.
We understand earnest defense of the Bible.
We understand that large segments of the Christian community,
are fiercely loyal to the text.
Many of us can identify with that kind of rock-solid commitment
to the integrity of the written word of scripture,
contained between the leather covers of our Bible.
But do we ever think of kissing it?

And those of us who read the Bible on our phone,
more than in a book,
well, kissing it is kind of out of the question.

But what I’m reaching for here,
is a deeper understanding of why the affection?
Why this mystical, emotional attachment to a document?
Is there something in our understanding of God, of Yahweh,
and God’s relationship to us,
that our Jewish cousins have retained,
and that we have lost?

Now . . . Jews are just as good as Christians
when it comes to arguing over scripture.
In fact, they probably argue more than we do.
They argue like family.
But their emotional attachment to the scroll is never in question.
Their love and longing for the law is a constant.
Rabbis can argue vehemently
over what a certain verse in the Torah means.
But I suspect they rarely, if ever, accuse a fellow rabbi,
of not loving the law.

But in contrast, I have often heard one group of Christians
accusing another group of Christians,
of not caring about, or being committed to scripture.

I wonder—it’s just a thought, but I think it’s worth pondering—
if we could possibly kindle, across the Christian family,
a deep love and emotional affection for scripture,
a love so deep that kissing it wouldn’t strike us as odd . . .
if we could do that, would our disagreements
over the meaning of certain difficult texts
take on a different flavor?
Maybe we would fight more like family.
(Or at least like Jewish . . . or Greek and Italian families . . .
who argue loud and long,
and then sit down at the dinner table
and laugh at the same jokes,
because their love was never in doubt.)
Maybe we could fight like that in the church,
where our emotional attachment would be unshakeable,
and our shared love for scripture would be assumed.
We’d just realize that some of us take different meanings from it.
Important meanings—
worth arguing over, but not
worth staying away from the dinner table.

So why do Jews kiss the scroll?
It’s all about their story with Yahweh.
I think at the root of this ritual—
even if sometimes it’s just a habit, done without thinking—
at the root of it
is remembering the freedom and identity
that comes from the law.
They do not know who they are without Torah.
And the heart of Torah is just as much the narrative,
as the commandments.
The commandments only make sense
because they are embedded in the story
of a God who set them free from slavery.

That’s truly what is different
from our Christian reading of the Ten Commandments,
and a Jewish reading of Exodus 20.
Our reading is a list of dos and don’ts.
Their reading starts with story.

Let me show you what I mean very specifically, in the text.
If you have your Bible (paper or phone edition),
you might find it helpful to follow along in the text in Exo. 20.
There are a couple versions of the commandments,
in Exodus, and Deuteronomy,
but the Exodus version is what we generally go by.
And even with the Exodus list,
there are several different ways of numbering the ten.
I suppose you know that the stone tablets
did not come down the mountain already numbered,
as illustrated in most pictures you have seen,
with 1 through 5 on one stone tablet with an arched top,
and 6-10 on the other,
in Roman numerals, no less.
The way of numbering the 10 commandments
actually depends on your religious tradition.
I personally favor the Jewish numbering system.
We Christians jump right to “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.”
In Jewish tradition, they start with story.

Look now at Exodus chapter 20.
Number 1 in the Jewish list, is verse 2.
It’s not even a commandment.
It’s a summary of a story—the Jews’ most important story.
“I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
Before we can dive into a list of dos and don’ts,
we have to understand who we are,
and who the person is giving us the list,
and what sort of relationship we have with this person.

Exodus 20, verse 2 is a defining word about this person,
and about the relationship.
The person speaking these words of commands is our God,
the God who brought us out of bondage.
These commandments come from a liberating God,
a God who gave us freedom . . . think of it! . . . freedom!

These commands are not meant to bind us,
they are meant to set us free.
God did not bring God’s people out of the house of slavery,
only to put them in bondage again.

So then, of these ten commandments,
or, as they are more accurately called,
the Decalogue, or Ten Words,
if we start with Word #1,
that the giver of these words is our God,
who brings people out of bondage,
then the rest of the Words, have a different accent.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall have no other gods before me,”
we hear not a burdensome new rule.
We hear . . . “Ah! God frees us from bondage
to a life of endless and hopelessly divided loyalty.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to the trivial and profane,
that would rob us of the beauty of the sacred.

When we hear the Word,
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of compulsive busyness,
of constant, anxious, and life-draining pursuit.”

When we hear the Word,
“Honor your father and your mother,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a shallow, root-less life of individualism,
and a loss of heritage.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not kill,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of reciprocal, and escalating violence.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not commit adultery,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of insecurity and lack of commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.”

When we hear the Words,
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of empty self-interest,
to a false and perverse notion
that life is all about me and my needs.”

These Ten Words are not sterile commands given from on high
by an angry, fearsome God trying to whip people back into shape.
When our spirituality is shaped more by a to-do list,
than by a story of a liberating God,
we start to distort things.
These commandments are the gracious gift of a loving, liberating God—
a God who not only wants to free us from the physical bondage
of suffering as slaves, and
of social oppression of every kind . . .
but who also wants to free us from inward bondage,
wants us to freely enter into a community of
love and freedom and justice,
into a free and right relationship with God and each other.
The Ten Commandments are a gracious gift of love.
They are sweet.
They actually can be the objects of our affection.
We have often lost sight of this fact.

The Psalm writer didn’t.
Take Psalm 19, which we read.
The psalmist is giddy with delight in the law of God,
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul . . .
the precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart . . .
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.”

The law of God gives us a home, a place of belonging,
a place of security, of knowing who we are and whose we are.
The law of God gives a safe and secure home to freed slaves.
The God who brings us out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery,
welcomes us into the house of love and security and freedom.

These commandments do not constrict us,
they free us to be whole people,
they free us to be the people God intended us to be.

Let me repeat. The people God intended us to be.
That phrase points to a core truth for people of faith.
We believe that God has an intention for us,
and for all creation.
Maybe you take for granted that everyone believes that.
That’s not the case.
Not even all Christians seem to grasp this.

It’s one of the legacies of Western late modernism.
We’ve been shaped by a secular view of life
that asserts we are autonomous beings.
We have been led to believe that human freedom means
we are free to be a law unto ourselves,
so long as we don’t infringe on somebody else’s right
to be law unto themselves.
Freedom is not only about being able to choose our own
way of living in this world, to choose our means.
Freedom is being able to choose our own ends,
to choose our own life purpose.

Well, that runs straight up against one of our core theological claims:
we believe our purpose has already been determined by our Creator.
We were created in love, created by love, created for love.
It was God’s gift to us to make us with purpose.
Which is to say, God has a will for us,
and God makes that will known to us.
We are called to obedience,
not as a way to restrict our freedom,
but as a gracious pathway to find the life we were made for.

That may seem radical and counter-cultural to some,
to be given a purpose, rather than to choose our own.
We equate freedom with a pure freedom of choice—
we construct our own ends
and manufacture our own vision of a flourishing life.
The fact that I assert there is a moral law outside ourselves
is a scandal to the modern mind.

Oh, we do have plenty of choice in life.
We can choose any number of paths
toward our God-given purpose.
We can even choose to reject that purpose,
and live in complete rebellion to our Creator.
But what we cannot do, is choose a different purpose.
We can’t choose our purpose,
any more than we choose our species.
Our purpose, our end, our telos, if you will,
is given to us by the only one who has the authority to do so.

These commandments—the Big Ten, and the rest of them—
were intended to help us find our way
toward the life we were meant to live.
They are a gift of God’s grace,
to not leave us floundering alone in the dark.
They lead us home.
That is a truth that might very well
make us want to embrace these commandments,
to kiss the scroll.

At the very least we can proclaim our love for them.
And proclaim the love God expressed for us, in them.

Let us do that now, in song.
HWB 315.

This is a story full of love, a song to set us free,
of God, the Wisdom and the Word, the Keystone and the Key.

—Phil Kniss, October 8, 2017

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