Sunday, October 9, 2022

Phil Kniss: Ten words sweeter than honey

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
A Plan for Human Flourishing
Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-10; Matthew 5:17

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Again I’m lucky to preach from a text that is, at the same time
    widely known and widely misunderstood.
I say I’m lucky
    because I’m always up for knocking down stereotypes,
    and messing with people’s assumptions.
Because I think we are wiser people,
    if we are willing to question assumed meanings,
    and look more deeply and thoughtfully.

That’s true for a lot of the Hebrew Bible—or Old Testament—
    which is most of our Bible.
    In fact, more than 3/4 of the pages in your Bible,
        if you use a Bible made of paper,
        are what we often call the Old Testament.
    They are routinely ignored by many Christian readers
        (except for the Psalms)
        because they are either hard to read and understand,
        or we assume they were made obsolete by Jesus.

Just to make sure we didn’t make that mistake today,
    we read Matthew 5:17, where Jesus said,
    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
        I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

I like referring to the first 75% of our Bible as the Hebrew Bible.
    For one thing, it names its original language and culture.
    Plus, there’s nothing in the name to imply it’s outdated,
        and not our Bible anymore.
        Yes, the first part of our Bible is “old” chronologically.
        But it’s not old like milk gets old.
            It’s not expired or sour.
            It is still fresh and life-giving.
            It still speaks to us and our times.
        These writings are sacred to us,
            because they were sacred to Jesus.
        For that matter, they are still the sacred writings
            for Jewish people,
            who still hold them as precious,
            and read them with reverence.

But like all of our Bible, from Genesis to Revelation,
    what is written needs to be understood in its own context,
        on its own terms,
    and only then, brought into our context,
        interpreted wisely,
        and applied in a way that fits our situation.

We misunderstand the Ten Commandments today,
    because we don’t adequately deal with their original context.
    We lift them out of the story,
        and make them a list to be memorized and recited,
        or etched into plaques and monuments.
    We hang them on walls,
        or place them, controversially,
        in public places like courtrooms or school rooms.
    They can often survive there,
        as long as they are viewed merely as
            an important relic of some universal legal code,
            alongside other historic legal codes.

So, as long as they exist only as “list” and not “story,”
    we easily make them into either
        a legalistic and restrictive code of ethics imposed on us,
        or a tame, historical artifact, with very little impact.

So when I preach to people socialized to read Exodus 20 as a list,
    and I signal that our topic is commandments and the law,
        I expect some people will just “check out”—
            “I thought we had gotten over rules-based Christianity.”
        And I expect others will eagerly dig in, for the wrong reasons,
            “About time we talk about specific sins,
                and the ‘dos-and-don’ts’ of Christianity!”

So, now . . . let’s help this list find its story again.
    This is, after all, a narrative lectionary.
    Scripture is more likely to change us
        when we read it as story,
        and find ourselves in the story.

This story continues the story of last Sunday,
    when the Hebrew people were liberated
    from hundreds of years of slavery and dehumanization in Egypt.

Last week we saw God as passionate for the liberation
    of all people who are oppressed.
Today, not long after the crossing of the Red Sea,
    God is making a new covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.

It may not be your experience,
    but can you imagine the multi-generational injuries
        and collective trauma of the Hebrew people,
        after what they and their ancestors endured in Egypt?
    It’s not entirely unlike the multi-generational impact
        that slavery has had on American society and well-being.
        We are all still dealing with the painful results
            of that collective trauma, 150 years later.
    For the Israelites, it was maybe months.

According to the biblical story,
    this is a group of many thousands of traumatized people,
    wandering and trying to find their way in a wilderness—
        a geographical one,
        and a psychological, social, and spiritual wilderness.
    They endured generations in Egypt
        where the constant message was,
            you are not worthy,
            you are not even human.

    And they have only been out of that environment a short time.

That, friends, is the story behind these so-called Ten Commandments.
    We must read them with that story in mind.
    These are not commandments aimed at
        reining in an unruly mob of wicked and condemned sinners,
        who need to straighten up and get their act together
            to avoid damnation.
    These words are road maps for a flourishing life
        for a traumatized community.
    They were given by the God who created them
        and loves them dearly,
        and wants them to thrive.
    These words were a healing gift.

    These words are meant to counteract and repair the harm
        brought by the oppressive messages
        that have defined their lives up to this point.

So how does that realization
    change how we read these so-called Ten Commandments?

More often than not, it’s Christians who make this into a list of
    negative commands to constrain our wickedness.
And it’s the Jewish readers of this text who, to this day,
    celebrate the law as a precious gift they were given.
    It is Jews who still carry the Torah scroll around the congregation,
        dancing with it, and kissing it before it is read.

And ponder this:
The Jewish way of numbering the Ten Commandments,
    or “Ten Words,”
    is different than the Christian way.
    Same text, different numbering.
For Christians, #1 is “You shall have no other gods before me”
    and #2 is “You shall not make any idols.”
But Jews combine both those and make it their #2.
In the Jewish list, #1 is not even a commandment.
    It is these precious words:
    “I am the Lord your God,
        who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
        out of the house of bondage.”

It’s no coincidence that Christians call that a preamble,
    and make the ten commandments after it the important stuff.
And Jews start with a Word from Yahweh
    that connects them to their story, where they came from.
    It establishes the reason why the words that follow
        are such a beautiful and precious gift.

So what if we started with the story, instead of the list?
What if we made it a point to remind ourselves every time
    that the giver of these words is our loving God,
    who brings people out of bondage?
When we start with that story,
    the rest of the Words hold a richer meaning,
    and we hear them differently.

When we hear a Word coming from the Great Liberator,
    “You shall have no other gods before me,”
        we do not hear a heavy new rule laid on our shoulders.
    We hear . . . “God liberates us from a life
        of being pulled in opposite directions.”

When we hear a Word from our Liberator, saying,
    “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from the trivial and profane,
        and from being robbed of the beauty of the sacred.”

When we hear a Word from our Liberator, saying,
    “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a life of compulsive busyness,
        of constant work,
        of anxious and life-draining accumulation.”

When our Liberator says,
    “Honor your father and your mother,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a shallow life without roots,
        of not knowing from whence we came,
        or if we are unconditionally loved.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not kill,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from the death-trap
        of escalating violence.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not commit adultery,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a lack of commitment
        in our most intimate human relationships.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not steal,
    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
    You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a lonely and bankrupt life,
        where feeding our personal desires takes precedence over
        having a rich relational life of mutuality in community.”

These Ten are not a sterile list of commands from on high
    delivered by an angry God trying to whip people into shape.
    They are a gift of love, given by the Great Liberator—
        a God who wants to free us from bondage and slavery
            and oppression of every kind . . .
        a God who wants to free us to 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 actually can be the objects of our affection.
    They can taste sweeter than honey.

At least, so says Psalm 19 . . .
    The law of the Lord is perfect . . .
        It revives the soul . . .
        It rejoices the heart. . . .
    The commandments of the Lord are true . . .
    More to be desired are they than gold,
        even much fine gold;
        sweeter also than honey
        and drippings of the honeycomb.”

If God’s moral imperative on our lives
    is not experienced as invitational and compelling
        and life-giving and satisfying,
        then that’s our fault, not God’s.
    God’s approach toward us is that of a wooing lover—
        inviting us into freedom and flourishing.

Let’s say yes to that kind of God.
And let’s offer a communal confession to that God.

one    God who loves us and freed us,
        we confess we often take for granted
        your love for us, and your passion for our freedom.
all   You brought us out of bondage, and want us to flourish
one  We mistake your commandments for rules that constrict and confine
        rather than gifts that liberate us from all that diminishes our humanity
all    You brought us out of bondage, and want us to flourish
one    We worship you, O Lord our God,
        who brought us out of the land of all that binds us.
one    God still loves us and frees us,
all    Let us walk in the way of freedom and flourishing.

—Phil Kniss, October 9, 2022

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