I’m of two minds when it comes to rules.
There is a part of me that is hard-wired for rules: I am a Myers-Briggs J; an eldest child; a lawyer; a Virgo; and a Presbyterian. In a world of disorder, I crave order. Rules are one of the ways that I make sense of a chaotic world. I need to know that you are going to stop at your red light, so that I can drive on through my green light. From birth, I’ve been a rule-follower. I am the kid who took names when the teacher left the room.
And. I’ve also lived long enough to know how rules can harm people – particularly when they are invoked without thought to relationships of power-over and without thought to the human realities of embodied living – when rules push people down, and hold people back.
When I first arrived at First Presbyterian San Anselmo, as a seminary student, in August 2005, the Presbyterian Church USA had a rule against me and against people like me. Our denomination had a rule that said that I – and people like me – couldn’t and shouldn’t preach – a rule that prohibited us from proclaiming the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. That rule also said I couldn’t and shouldn’t lead communion. And, there was a related rule against my family and my marriage. As we worked together over the years to change those rules, I have seen the devastating harm that rules can do to faithful folks who are told that they are somehow less than. And as those rules have changed, I’ve seen how new rules can open up new life-giving possibility.
There’s more to rules than a mere “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” It can be useful to think of the Ten Commandments as rules, particularly where they check and balance our power-over and our privilege, but that perspective, alone, is not sufficient. And so as we think of helps for Long Haul Living, I want to suggest three additional lenses for looking at and living into the Ten Commandments.
And the first lens comes from biblical scholar Patrick Miller, who says that the Ten Commandments are God’s expression of how free people live.
The people are new to freedom. They’ve been living life under Pharaoh – a life of slavery, of forced labor, of genocide, of suffering and death. They know what it is like to live un-free – to live within systems of oppression. And God has heard their cry, brought them up out of Egypt, and through the waters, as the waters then closed in on the army that pursued them. God has brought them up and out into freedom – and they have found, that freedom, at first, looks a lot like a wilderness. And so God brings them manna in the morning, and then water from the rock, and then the Ten Commandments. They have known the blunt edge of power-over; they know what it is to live un-free; and God says to the people,
You are free now:
· God says to the people: Pharaoh no longer has power over you. I am your God, and you are my people. My name is I Am; call on my name, but don’t misuse it. You won’t have any other Gods. I will be sufficient. I will provide.
· God says to the people: Remember how Pharaoh worked you – how Pharaoh used and abused your bodies – treated you as commodities to create more commodities. In your freedom, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Rest from your work. And not just you – everyone in relationship to you – male, female, servants, people of every gender and status, the stranger living in your midst. Everyone. Celebrate your freedom with Sabbath rest.
· God says to the people: Remember Pharaoh’s death-dealing ways – all the ways that Pharaoh worked your parents and your grandparents to exhaustion and to death. Remember how Pharaoh set out to kill your first-born sons. Remember how he had no regard for your families. In your freedom, honor mothers and fathers, all parents, be faithful to your spouse, honor families, help them thrive.
· God says to the people: Remember how Pharaoh had no regard for your humanity or your dignity. In your freedom, work for the well-being of each other. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet or begrudge each other anything.
With God’s gift of these Ten Commandments, God reminds them of the slavery they have left behind, and says to them: “This is how free people live.” That’s the first lens.
The second lens comes from something I’ve learned from Martha Olsen Joyce, as we’ve worked together as a community over these months to figure out how we will live together and protect each other in these days of COVID. As you know, back in March, the Session suspended our in-person gatherings, and we created new ways of connection, and worship, and serving. As we begin to re-open possibilities for gathering in-person – gradually, faithfully, and safely – we’re required to develop something called a Site-Specific Protection Plan (an SPP) – a plan for the specific protocols and steps that we will take to protect each other. We will wear masks, assure appropriate distance, limit the number of folks who gather in person, limit the time we are together, we will disinfect before and after. We will follow the science.
We are starting with small, careful steps. [Remember our central worship will stay here on Zoom through the end of this year, and probably some time beyond that.] Just a week ago, the Session approved protocols for some small groups to meet – distanced and masked – outdoors – the centering prayer group, Qi Gong, a small group of musicians with specially designed masks to record music for worship. It has involved a lot of careful research and work. There’s a lot of detail in this commitment, and the SPP can start to feel like yet another set of rules.
But Martha has invited us – steadily – to think of the SPP as a “trust document” – not just a set of rules and regulations posted to satisfy public health orders. She’s invited us to think of this holistically as a trust document – a document that describes how we live our lives in community – how we will care for each other during this time of pandemic – how we can trust each other – me masking up for you, you masking up for me.
That’s the second lens – to consider these Ten Commandments as a trust document. We talked about that a bit when we talked of the manna that God provides every morning – we spoke of manna as God’s invitation to trust God day by day by day. God saying, “In the wilderness, it’s you and me – no Pharaoh – we have just each other, and it will be enough, for this day, and for the next, and for the next. Here is the way we will learn to live in trust:”
I will honor you, and ask that you honor me. Honor your relationships, your families, your marriages, your parents, your children. Tell each other the truth. Don’t bear false witness. Respect each person’s right to live, and survive, and thrive. Don’t kill, or covet, or steal. Honor the integrity of each other’s bodies – don’t treat each other as commodities – honor yourselves and each other with Sabbath rest. Live a life of trust.
Spelling it out like that – how we will live in trust – it not only gives us a framework for our living – but it gives us a measure of accountability. In this relationship of trust, how are we doing? How am I doing by you? How are you doing by me?
I’ve thought of that this week – how we live in trust – not only in our life of community during COVID, but also in our national and local life as we continue in the anti-racism work that is ours to do. What would that work look like if we held it up to this trust document, and asked how are we doing? How could we do better?
Breonna Taylor. As we know, Breonna Taylor was a vibrant, young Black woman, living in Louisville, Kentucky, working as an emergency room technician, helping to save lives, day by day, night shift by night shift. She was killed in a police raid, based on a warrant that had nothing to do with her. Police used a battering ram to knock down her door, woke her from her sleep. There’s disagreement as to whether they announced themselves. After she was killed, and a police officer wounded – one of the police officers inexplicably went outside and began randomly shooting back into the house. After months of waiting the Attorney General announced that there would be no charges related to Breonna’s death, only charges related to the indiscriminate shooting of the building.
Did you know that Breonna Taylor had just worked four consecutive night shifts in the ER? That night, she and her boyfriend had treated themselves to a steak dinner, and she fell asleep, exhausted, while they watched a movie. Her last sleepy words were, “Turn the TV off.” Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Every one of you deserves some rest. Women and men. Every working person. How did we do by Breonna Taylor and her family?
We’ve heard her mother’s rightful rage and insistence on justice and truth, as her family has kept Breonna’s life before us and described her vitality. Did you know that Breonna was a Post-It person? She had Post-Its all over her apartment with her goals written on them. Lately, she and her boyfriend had talked about having a family; she hoped to become a mother. Honor mothers and fathers, so you shall live long in the land. How have we done by Breonna Taylor and her mother and their family?
In announcing the decision not to bring charges in Breonna Taylor’s death, the Kentucky Attorney General said that he wasn’t permitted by law to charge the officers, and that the grand jurors agreed. Well, this past week, one of those grand jurors spoke up, and said that the Attorney General’s description wasn’t true, and that the grand jury hadn’t been asked to bring those charges, and so the grand juror asked the judge to release the grand jury testimony.
The testimony was released Friday, and as they begin to sift through those recordings, what’s emerging is contested evidence, grand juror questions and skepticism, with no record of what the prosecutors said or asked, in a grand jury process that by design is secret and controlled by prosecutors, working closely with law enforcement. A process that is hard to trust. Thou shalt not bear false witness. How are we doing by Breonna Taylor?
And of course, Thou shalt not kill. For over 400 years now, we have constructed systems that advantage white people at the expense of people of color – systemic American racism – and those systems converged to take the life of Breonna Taylor.
When we think of the Ten Commandments – God’s gift to free people in the wilderness – as a trust document – it holds us accountable. It tells us that systems like this have got to go.
And, remember, it also points us to a better way. This is how we can live in relationships of trust. This is how free people live. How can we create new systems? – a new world in this wilderness –
· that values human life and dignity – here, specifically Black lives –
· that honors mothers, fathers, and families – here, Black families –
· that respects the integrity of work and at the end of long days gives holy, well-deserved rest to Black bodies?
In the wilderness, God gives the people this trust document, and says here is how we make a new world – disrupting and dismantling and leaving behind the ways of Pharaoh. Here’s how we will hold each other accountable. Here’s how we live in trust. Here is how free people live.
Those are the first two lenses.
The third lens is love. These Ten Commandments are rules that check the powerful; they show us the ways that free people live; and they offer a path for living lives of trust. And over and around and above and below and through it all, they ultimately embody love.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s that word hesed that Patrick taught us this summer – God’s steadfast, persistent love for God’s people that endures over time – through experiences of slavery, and wilderness, and exile -- as my friend and mentor Eugenia Gamble would say – God’s “unshakeoffable love.” I am your God, the God who brought you up out of Egypt, and you are my people – here is the gift of life, and family, and work with dignity, and Sabbath rest – here is love.
In New Testament Greek, we think of it in terms of agape, that self-giving love in community that we see embodied in Jesus, and then in the early church. In all four gospels, Jesus says that all the commands (including these ten) are summed up in two: Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and Love each other as yourself. And then, we see that lived out in the early church, as the people become one body, praying together, living life together, sharing all their resources, and giving to each other as anyone has need. All the commands, summed up in love.
This is what love looks like – embodied and lived out in community – honor mothers, and fathers, your spouse, your family – honor all people. Live lives grounded in honesty – tell the truth, don’t lie. Honor human life and human dignity – don’t kill, covet, or steal – make sure everyone has enough – and – after a long day’s work – make sure there is rest for weary bodies.
Live lives of love and trust. This IS how free people live.
On a long-haul journey, wandering in the wilderness,
God gives the people
manna in the morning,
water from the rock,
and a law called love.
As we gather at this World Communion table, Jesus does the same:
Jesus says, here is bread – my body – bread from heaven – bread to sustain you on the journey.
Jesus offers a cup, and invites everyone to drink, and says, with this cup, I give you life.
Jesus says, this, is love, the real presence of Christ, embodied now in you.
There is no rule against what we do at this table. This is love. This is how we live in trust and accountability to God and to each other. This. This is how free people live.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 I first heard this referenced in a Working Preacher podcast, and it’s reflected in Patrick Miller, “Preaching the Ten Commandments,” Journal for Preachers, vol.25, no. 2, Lent 2002, p 3-10. See also, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3671; https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1068  See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/30/us/breonna-taylor-police-killing.html  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/us/breonna-taylor-grand-jury.html  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/02/us/breonna-taylor-grand-jury-audio-recording.html?auth=login-email&login=email
Photo by Juli Kosolapova via Unsplash, used with permission, and with gratitude.