Encountering the Ten Commandments for the First Time, Again.

This Sunday’s lectionary text is a very familiar one – even for marginal church attenders and those have no desire for church.   It is the first account of the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).  We hear a lot about the Ten Commandments these days.  Especially where they should be or shouldn’t be displayed.  Everyone has an opinion.  Everyone is looking to control them.  But what does God have to say about the commandments that God gave?   These, after all, are created and given by God to humankind for our good.  In assuming this is an old and familiar story, are we missing how the commandments are life-giving?  In the fight for where they fit into our cultural life, are we missing the commandments purpose?

In my study this week, I’ve been challenged to see the commandments anew – as a life-giving gift that helps us lead a life that reflects the character and image of God.  If God is trustworthy, faithful, peaceful and desiring of relationship with creation, then we must live our lives in ways that resemble this.  Often, we read these commandments as negatives.  And they are written as such … “thou shall not…”  But the commands are parameters that are given for our benefit.  What if the class was challenged to write the commandments in the affirmative:  “Thou shall…”  or “You get to…”  or “Blessed are those who…”

In lieu of my own exegesis this week, (theological talk for critical explanation or interpretation of a text) I offer you all the following resources that shaped my study this week.  They are worth your consideration.  Two commentaries found online:

http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-3b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel  Be sure to scroll down to the Exodus commentary found after the commentary on the gospel lesson.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2368  This commentary is more dense but worth wading into.  Among other things, it address our proclivity to control God rather than to allow God to guide us.

Finally, a reflection from Barbara Brown Taylor, found in the Feasting on the Word preaching commentary:

“Since the giving of the Torah on Sinai is celebrated during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a wealth of story and tradition surrounds the first hearing of the commandments.  One midrash says that the people had little choice but to accept Torah from God, since God plucked up Sinai and held it over their heads, threatening to drop the mountain on them if they did not received the commandments.  In happy counterpoint to this legend, more and more religious Jews observe the first night of Shavuot by staying up all night to study Torah, Talmud and other sacred writings together.  They offer this annual all-night gathering, known as tikkun, for the mending of the world.”

If nothing else, stories and traditions like these remind Christian interpreters of the Ten Teachings that these teachings have been around a long time.  They are never our possession, any more than the God who uttered them is.  Instead, we stand among a people counted as God’s peculiar possession, set apart by holy speech and practice for the mending of God’s holy world.”  -Barbara Brown Taylor

How can the world be mended by our living in response to the Ten Commandments?

Taking Up Our Cross

The challenge to those we teach today is to understand the cross and apply it to our circumstances.

What is a cross?  Its symbolism and meaning are ubiquitous today.  It’s certainly more than an intersection of two lines.  It’s a fashion accessory for many.  We see it in appear in all types of art.  For sure, its a symbol of our faith.  We see placed prominently in Christian churches of all stripes.  We see it used as a memorial and in cemeteries.  Its presence can bring peace and assurance to our life and faith.  But unfortunately, it has also been misused over time as a symbol of intolerance, threat and fear.  Certain “Christian” bodies have used it to signify that their perspective is right and all others best move out of the way. While this is as far from the message of Christ as one can get, it actually is in keeping with the original Roman intent for the cross.

A Roman cross wasn’t a thing of beauty.  It was something to be feared.  It was an instrument the Roman authorities used to establish their rule far beyond Rome as they subdued people and civilizations that stretched as far north as modern day England, as far south as Morocco, and as far east as Iraq.  In doing so, they achieved a span of about 200 years, between 27 BC and 180 AD, which is known as “Pax Romana,” or Roman Peace.  During this time, their empire thrived, intricate roads were built connecting this vast empire and aqueducts carried fresh water into cities and dirty water away.  But the cross may have been one of its most useful instruments.

The cross was a popular method of dispatching threats to the empire. “Romans practiced both random and intentional violence against populations they had conquered, killing tens of thousands by crucifixion,” says New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, who is with the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Crosses were then used as a way to repress any possible insurrection.  They were usually set up in public places, like at a crossroad, and became a signpost to all who traveled that Caesar and Rome was a power to take seriously.  This cross did not offer people traveling directions but rather, with a corpse left hanging on it offered directions of another kind:  Know your place in this Roman order and everything will remain peaceful for you.  Make even the slightest waves in opposition and you can expect to join this man on your own cross.  These “signposts” were found all over the Roman world.

This is what the disciples had in their minds when Jesus, after being identified as the Messiah, announced “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Can you imagine both the horror and confusion that must have surrounded them?  This gifted rabbi that people had been flocking to hear speak and be healed by is telling us that he is the long awaited savior of our people.  He’s the Messiah!  But instead of saving us from the oppressive Romans, he is asking us to embrace their form of submission!

No wonder Peter, who first identifies Jesus as the Messiah, reacts so forcefully at Jesus’ teaching of his rejection.  Peter, like many of us, wants to take control of the situation and preserve his leader and movement.  Given the context of the Roman world, perhaps Jesus is simply stating a fact.  If I am what you say I am, the local authorities and ultimately Rome’s response will be to kill me.  But Peter’s desire to fight fire with fire was not the agenda God had planned for his son.  And, after forty days of training in the wilderness to resist satan’s temptations, Jesus’ work pays off as he resists any plan of self-preservation, even when it comes from his star pupil.

Would-be messiahs were nothing new in first century Palestine.  More than a few had risen to prominence, with their own band of disciples and the cause of God and nationalism as their banner.  Violence and death were always their end as they resisted the empire’s strength.  After each demise, there was nothing left to show for their efforts.  Jesus’ call was to embrace, on behalf of his followers, the path of savior through martyrdom.  Looking back at the witness of Christ in the gospels, it appears that part of God’s beautiful plan was that only through the embrace of self-sacrifice can the movement of God’s reign ever come in any significance.

What does this scripture have to say to followers of Christ today?  What kind of self denial and cross is Jesus asking us to carry?   And how abrupt and difficult is such a message to our ears?  To answer, we must first start with the question, “who do we say Jesus is?”

Who do we say Jesus is?  This question makes all the difference.  If we are going to take up our cross, we first have to believe the cause is worthy of suffering.

This is the question that gets this whole scene started.  Jesus and his disciples have been traveling from town to town preaching God’s kingdom, casting out demons and healing the sick.  He’s developed quite a fan club.  And Jesus wants to gauge his disciples by asking them about the folks they are encountering.  What are they saying about me?  Do they recognize me?  But ultimately, he wants to know if they, who have been with him the most, recognize him for who he really is.

When Peter makes his confession, the wheels start to turn. A messiah by any other name than Caesar is someone with a mark squarely on his shoulders.  The disciples have given up everything to follow him.  With this news, they may have to give up their life.  Peter and the others were probably ready to die for Jesus’ cause, to go down swinging in a fight against the evils of the empire.  What Peter did not like, what he didn’t fully understand, was Jesus’ acceptance of what seemed like defeat.  His teaching that he would die seemed like a certainty, not a possibility.  How could the Messiah be victorious when he was ready to accept death at the hands of the enemy?

Yet, as the story plays out, Jesus’ death is not the end but rather the beginning.  Jesus’ death changes everything.  Jesus’ willingness to trust fully in God’s authority over everything rather than the Ceasar’s violent version of reality, put Jesus on a cross but brought those who follow him life.  Today the Pax Romana is but an ancient history lesson.  But the gospel of Christ is embodied in every person who believes and follows.  Jesus’ death and resurrection was the ultimate signal that humans, no matter how powerful or threatening they appear, can’t really have any lasting power over God’s creation.

So, how we understand who Jesus is will make a difference in how we understand the cross that Jesus asks us to carry, and our willingness to pick it up and follow him.  What is our cross today?  Is it worth our sacrifice in order to bear it?

The challenge to those we teach today is to understand the cross and apply it to our circumstances.  The cross may not mean a literal death or martyrdom.  Rather, it may mean that we have to daily say no to things that stand in the way of our ability to fully trust in God alone.  What systems and technologies do we trust more than God?  Are we able to fully claim the way of Jesus above the way of capitalism, a particular political point of view, the threat of violence, a work ethic that drives us to continuous work or lifestyles that compromise our ability to see God at work and join God there?

These lifestyles, as an example, are not necessarily scandalous.  But, it very well may be in our comfort, in our overwhelming options of how to use our time and wealth, that we choose being served rather than serving. What does this look like?  If it is a continual guilt trip, then we don’t want it.  But, I think the Jesus way is a simple truth that our life is more than the conveniences we have become enslaved to.  As we follow Christ, we start to recognize this but too often we give into our own Peter rebuking us, trying to keep us safe, in a predictable place we can control.

Following Jesus is a greatest adventure.  Walking in his footsteps brings us purpose beyond anything else society can offer.  The tension is that society doesn’t want this adventure and doesn’t trust it or celebrate it.  Society wants to stay in a system that is predictable and controllable.  The adventure of faithfully following Jesus will either go under the radar of popular culture or it will be rejected.  This is just one of the crosses we as Christians are called to bear.  Being unpopular, crazy or both.

So, what does it mean to bear our cross?  We have collective crosses we must bear faithfully for God such as coming to terms with gun violence in America.  And we all have our own crosses that require sacrifice and faith to bear.  What will it look like for a community of Christ followers to bear our burdens (our crosses) together?  Is it possible?  I pray and hope that it is.

For a radical example of taking up the cross, Greg and Helms Jerrell have followed Jesus’ call to minister among a marginalized neighborhood in Charlotte, NC (http://qcfamilytree.org/).  Instead of pastoring in a church setting, which would have perhaps brought them more comforts and middle class lifestyle, they were called to Enderly Park.  Their choice has made them who they are and they wouldn’t change a thing!  A mission team will go to serve with them and learn with them June 27-30.  Sign up at http://www.hrbcrichmond.org/my-hrbc

Brilliant Dust

On Wednesday, we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  In comparison to other Christian observances, this one may strike us as the strangest. On our way to resurrection and God’s plan of making all things new, what do we need to know about frailty, dust, death and repentance?  Lent, oddly, reminds us of our place in God’s larger story.  Still not a fan?  Hear me out.

The common refrain we hear during the imposition of ashes are the words: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Pleasant, I know, but this is on purpose.  In Genesis 2:7, we read of how God formed man from the dust of the ground.  We are created from dust.  And if we pay attention to the places we live and work, we notice we are good at creating dust.  Our bodies are constantly shedding and creating new skin. We are literally dust.

But the story doesn’t end with dust.  Genesis 2:7 continues to say “the Lord God breathed into the nostrils of this man and he became a living being.”  We are who we are because we carry God’s breath.  The word for human or man in these verses is adam, which means dirt in Hebrew and adamah means ground or land.  So God formed us from the dirt of God’s creation and gave us our uniqueness among all creation when God breathed divine breath into us.

Equipped with God’s life-giving breath, God empowers humans to have dominion over the dirt of the world.  With our God-given breath, we are able to cultivate life from the dirt which sustains us and all other living creatures.  But if we are honest, we are also capable these days of much more than sustaining lives.  We are also capable of destroying life, too.

As we quickly see in the next two chapters of Genesis, these special creatures called humans are also capable of turning their backs on their creator and capable of destroying God’s very good creation.  So, from Genesis 4 through today,  we continue to deal with this tension of creativity and destruction.  We see such beauty in our world.  People are capable of such kindness and self-sacrifice, one to another.  But people are also capable of destruction, cruelty and selfishness, too.

And before we, who were given the responsibility of divine creativity, alters God’s good work to an unrecognizable wasteland of greed and hubris that leads to destruction, we need a reminder of who we are and our place in God’s world (not our world).  The jarring words “remember – you are dust” are there to save us.  God created you with divine breath.  You bear the resemblance of God.  But you must also remember that none of us are God.

Acknowledging that we are not God is getting harder these days.  No one really goes around calling themselves god.  But check our behavior.  How often do we as individuals or as a society consult with our creator before moving ahead with our latest project that may impact the earth, the oceans or fellow human beings?  Our behavior reflects our unwillingness to accept that we are dust, that our bodies wear out and that our planet is also finite.  What it does show that we are deeply interested in ourselves.  We would make poor gods, at least when compared to the true God in whose likeness we are created.

And since we are created in God’s image and with God’s breath, the good news in all of these ashes is that there is deep meaning and purpose in our lives.  When we acknowledge that God created us with the responsibility to take this very good creation and do something beautiful with it, well, that should both scare us and excite us!

To quote one theologian’s musings on our spectacular dustiness:

“To regard ourselves responsible for our future, responsible for the very human race itself and the very planet itself, is not arrogance but recognition of the truth.  But all such human responsibility depends on one immense condition, that we never forget that we too are creatures, children of the same Majesty who formed the planet and the suns and galaxies which surround us.  In that sense, created and formed, given the gift of life, we are dust.  Brilliant dust? Yes.  Creative, thinking dust?  Yes, but still dust.  For all the brilliance and creativity and thought and imagination within that dust are the shimmering traces of that divine breath within us.”  -Herbert O’Driscoll, A Year of the Lord

Put a different way, we’ve been given this one brilliant and beautiful gift of a life from our creator.  How will we use it?  Will it reflect the intention and desires of our Lord?  Will it lift up and and bless both the creator and creation as worthy investments of our time, our creativity and praise?  Or will our abilities be forgotten and lost in self-adulation and even destruction?

Such questions remind me of a Switchfoot song, Live it Well, which asks the same kind of questions.