Saturday, March 3, 2018

Promise, Risk and Commitment: Reflections on Exodus 20.1-17 (RCL Lent 3B, 4 March 2018)

Promise, Risk and Commitment
Reflections on Exodus 20.1-17

RCL Lent 3B
4 March 2018

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            20.1 Then God spoke all these words:

            2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

            4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

            7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

            8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work.  10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

            12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

            13 You shall not murder.

            14 You shall not commit adultery.

            15 You shall not steal.

            16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

            17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

A reminder of what we are about
         At the beginning of the Ash Wednesday liturgy in The Book of Alternative Services the presider invites the congregation to ‘observe a holy Lent’. [1]  Among the ways to observe such a Lent are ‘by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving’, but this Lent I’ve chosen in my sermons to focus on the last way:  ‘by reading and meditating on the word of God’. [2]  I’ve done so because, in my opinion, the first readings for the Sundays in Lent have focussed on what it means to be in relationship with the living God, the Holy One of Israel, who is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

         So what have we learned about being in relationship with this living God now that we have almost reached the midpoint of Lent?

God has promised that ‘all God’s critters got a place in the choir’.
         When the waters of the flood subsided and life returned to the surface of the earth, God set the rainbow in the sky as a reminder both to humanity and to God that never again would the Creator of the universe destroy to punish human sin.  Humanity might itself damage the creation by our greed, our short-sightedness, our fear, but God’s covenant, God’s enduring relationship with life, was unbreakable.

         Having received such a promise from God, humanity is faced with the choice of living in relationship with this God, a God who has a place for each and every creature, each and every people who have inhabited and who inhabit this planet.  Over the millennia we know our struggles to live in such a relationship.  But despite our failures, God has remained faithful.  The rains come and go, floods may come as well, but when all is done, we remain to rebuild and to renew.

God’s promises come with a risk.
         After many years of trekking through the ancient Middle East in response to God’s promise to make of them a great nation, Abraham and Sarah remain childless.  But then God speaks again and soon the promised child, Isaac, is born and the future promised begins to appear on the horizon.

         But as their story continues, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, whether those from the womb of Sarah or those from the womb of Hagar, must choose to live as if the promise had already been fulfilled in its completeness.  To live as one of the descendants of the promise is to choose to take a risk each day to act as if the future has already come.  To live in such a way brings the risk of disappointment, fatigue and even despair, but we continue to walk in hope and in faith, confident that the day will come when ‘ . . . we and all [God’s] children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise [God’s] name’. [3]

Living in relationship with God brings commitments.
         Today Moses comes down from the mountain bearing the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  On this day the descendants of Noah and his children, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, gain more insight into what it means to be ‘chosen’ to be witnesses to the justice, mercy and steadfast love of the Holy One of Israel.

We shall have no gods but the God who brings us out of slavery into freedom.
         Let’s be honest.  We all have little gods that we worship, little gods who distract us from our primary loyalty.  We worship success and conformity.  We worship comfort and security.  We worship heritage and family.  This list goes on.

         Now I call these ‘gods’ when they become the only lens through which we look at the world in which we live.  I’ve mentioned before the comment of my former colleague, Sallie McFague, who warns us to be careful of the way we look at the world, because the way we ‘look at the world’ can become the way ‘the world is’.

         The God through whose perspective we are called to look at the world sees only one world, one intricate and inter-connected web of life, where no one is expendable, no creature redundant.  This God invites us to take the risk of looking at the world in the same way and to discover that success, conformity, comfort, security, heritage and family can obstruct our vision of this fragile world.

Be careful about how we talk about God.
         Some years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. [4]  The impetus for the book was Kushner’s experiences of how people talk about God in times of hardship, tragedy and uncertainty.  Kushner heard these familiar sayings as ways in which we ‘ . . . make wrongful use of the name of the Lord [our] God’. [5]  Kushner wrote what many Jewish and Christian theologians have written over the centuries:  Sometimes we have to admit that we do not understand why evil seems to triumph despite the best efforts of good.

         What we can say is how we have experienced God in our own lives and how our faith has enabled us to act as good people when bad things happen.  When a friend asks us how we have responded to an unhappy workplace or family crises or severe illness or death, our task is not to try to explain God as much as it is to share how we have found God present and active even in the shadows of our lives.  We are called to practice what I call ‘holy and faithful ambiguity’, an ambiguity that acknowledges what we know about God in our lives but that leaves a lot of room for unanswered questions to roam.

We are to live with Sabbath joy.
         On the sixth day of creation God looks at all that has been created and sees that it is ‘very good’. [6]  And then comes what I think is one of the most amazing texts in the Bible:  ‘And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.’ [7]

         I have learned from my Jewish friends and colleagues how precious the Sabbath is to Jewish spirituality.  I have seen how Jews who may not be ‘religious’ will go to great lengths to keep the Sabbath holy.  The foundation of this commitment to the Sabbath is gratitude for all that God has done, is doing and will do in creation.  It is an antidote to the madness and the ‘busy-ness’ that plagues our culture.

         Growing numbers of people, regardless of their religious or non-religious convictions, are joining Jews in finding a place for Sabbath joy in their lives.  Some people choose a day when all electronic devices are shifted to ‘airplane’ mode.  Others choose a day when they refrain from anything other than the most necessary tasks.  The key is carving out a time and a space simply to enjoy and to give thanks for the life that God has given us.

Promise, Risk and Commitment
         So here we are, my friends, as we read and meditate on the word of God this Lent.  We have heard God’s promise to be faithful to us and all of creation at all times and in all places.  We have heard that God’s promise involves some risk.  And we have heard that God’s promise brings commitments.  This is how we live in relationship with the God who caused the heavens and the earth to take form, who sends rain upon the just and the unjust, who calls ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

         There is still more to learn.  But there are still a few more weeks to go. 

[1] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 282.

[2] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 282.

[3] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 215.

[4] Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York:  Random House, 1981).

[5] Exodus 20.7.

[6] Genesis 1.31.

[7] Genesis 2.2-3.

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