Sermon for Sunday, March 8, 2015 || Lent 3B || Exodus 20:1-17
A few people have asked me recently why we are using Rite I during Lent. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the red Book of Common Prayer, it contains two versions of our normal Sunday worship. We usually use Rite II, which includes more modern language and more overall choices than Rite I. But during Lent this year, I chose to use the older rite, which is why we’ve been saying words like “thee,” “thou,” and “beseech” over the last few weeks. Some churches choose Rite I during Lent because they think it has a more penitential tone than Rite II, but that’s not why we’re using it. Honestly, I don’t agree with that reasoning. Rather, we are using Rite I because of a single beautifully written sentence that we repeat nine times at the beginning of each service. In our normal service, Rite II, that sentence is rendered: “Amen. Lord, have mercy.” But in Rite I, we have the opportunity to pray this beautiful sentence after all but the last of the Ten Commandments: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”
Incline our hearts to keep this law. This is the prayer we pray upon hearing the commandments, which Moses brought down from his meeting with God on Mount Sinai. When we pray these words, we ask God to tilt us in God’s direction, to orient us toward God’s life-giving path. Incline our hearts to keep this law. This is not a Sunday-morning-worship-only type of prayer. This is an all-the-time type of prayer. This prayer takes our recitation of the Ten Commandments out of Sunday morning worship and puts them on our daily radar. When we incline our hearts to keep this law we intentionally lean towards God every single day, thus signaling our desire to participate in this most important relationship of our lives.
The trouble with the Ten Commandments, however, is that most of them are simple prohibitions. With two notable exceptions, they tell us what not to do. It’s hard for us, or at least it’s hard for me, to incline my heart towards keeping God’s commands when those commands mostly call for inaction. For example, there’s nothing I can do to accomplish the commandment: “You shall not steal.” Accomplishing this commandment is all about not doing something. On the other hand, one of the notable exceptions says, “Honor your father and your mother.” Now here’s a commandment that invites positive action.
By my count two of the commandments invite such positive action, while the other eight say, “You shall not [fill in the blank].” So if we desire to incline our hearts to keep these laws, we need to reframe all the commandments so they actively engage our imaginations, affect our priorities, and lead us to closer companionship with Jesus Christ. We’re not the first to do this positive spinning, by the way. Jesus himself did it when he gave his summary of the law, as influenced by Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” So let’s join Jesus in imagining how to live out these commandments with positive action, as opposed to negative prohibition.
The first two commandments begin the list for a reason: they are the most important. “I am the LORD your God…you shall you no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Inclining our hearts to keep these laws means ordering our priorities again and again to place God first. Because so many other things clamor for our attention, it’s easy for us to let God slip down the list. But when we keep God at the top, the other things have a way of shaking out into the right places. The more we focus on God, the more we allow God to shape our focus on the rest of life. By looking for God always, we end up discovering what God would have us see.
The third commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.” I can’t tell you how many people have apologized to me for saying “Oh my God!” or “For Christ’s sake!” in my presence. They tend to be people who aren’t very comfortable around clergy. The way I look at this commandment is this: if ever “Oh my God!” escapes my lips, I better mean it. We can transform the oft-said “Oh my God!” from a thoughtless interjection into an authentic prayer. Whenever you say the Lord’s name, in any context, make it a prayer. Take that moment in time to pause and remember whom your life belongs to.
The fourth and fifth commandments are already formulated as positive actions. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” In other words, take time to rest in God’s presence in order to renew your devotion. Make a commitment to lie fallow so that, like uncultivated farmland, nourishment can seep back into your souls. “Honor your father and your mother.” In other words, commit to relationships that will last. Let the wisdom of age and experience speak. Allow tradition and memory to help shape the future. (And more mundanely, for our younger members, “Do what your parents say.”)
The last five commandments all prohibit certain egregious acts. So how do we incline our hearts to keep these laws with positive action?
Number Six: “You shall not murder” becomes “Make choices that promote the wellbeing of all life.” So many of our choices feed unconsciously into the broken systems of this world that deny this wellbeing to a substantial number of people. Therefore, this commandment compels us to make all our choices consciously, so we know how they affect other people as well as the planet we live on.
Number Seven: “You shall not commit adultery” becomes “Practice fidelity in all your relationships.” Be committed to your friends and loved ones through thick and thin. Be the person in whom others confide their hopes and fears. Be reliable. Be devoted. Be loyal. And in so doing, discover how much deeper your relationships can go.
Number Eight: “You shall not steal” becomes “Strive for justice in all circumstances.” Be a force for raising up those who have had their livelihoods stolen by the greed of others. Be an outspoken proponent of fairness and equal treatment. Live with integrity.
Number Nine: “You shall not bear false witness” becomes “Always tell the truth.” Be like the child at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, speaking the truth even when it’s unpopular. Be honest, no matter how hard it is or how disadvantaged you end up being in a world full of lies. In the end, the truth is easier to remember anyway.
And Number Ten: “You shall not covet” becomes “Cultivate a spirit of generosity.” Be welcoming. Be hospitable. Carry what you own lightly, neither grasping nor hoarding, but remembering that nothing really belongs to us in the long run.
With this exercise in turning the prohibitions around, my intent is not to discard the Ten Commandments as we have received them. Rather, I’m working to orient us toward living each day the positive actions which the commandments lead us to. So incline your hearts to keep these laws:
Love God. Focus on God. Make God’s name your prayer. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your parents. Promote the wellbeing of all life. Practice fidelity in all relationships. Strive for justice in all circumstances. Always tell the truth. And cultivate a spirit of generosity. I don’t know a better way to live. I don’t know a better path to follow. And so I pray in the words we said this morning after the final commandment: “Lord, write all these thy laws on our hearts, we beseech thee.”