Sunday, November 9, 2014
The Ten Commandments. They have become an iconic litany, carved into stone and placed in prominent places of judicial decision as well as houses of worship all around the world. I wonder how many of us can recite all ten. Perhaps this morning’s “Litany of Deliverance” jogged your memory. The Decalogue has taken a central role in this country’s culture wars as people have fought to keep their sacred monuments in public places. “A 2004 Barna poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, even though another survey indicated that fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the commandments” (Dan Clendenin, “Ancient Words for Modern Life: The Ten Commandments,” September 29, 2014, journeywithjesus. net).
I suspect a significant number of that 79% were Baptist. In spite of our historical advocacy for the separation of church and state, there are Baptists who would lie down in front of the wrecking ball come to remove one of those granite monuments from in front of their court house or state house. It’s strange to find folks entrapped in defense of the very kind of idol that is prohibited by those same commandments.
Last week we looked at the liberation of a people as we sketched the journey of Moses and the children of Israel from slavery to freedom. We saw God as one who desires that God’s people not dwell in slavery, as a God who hears the peoples’ cry for liberation and acts to set them free. The God of the Exodus is one who gets people out of slavery and sets them on the path to a land of promise where they may live an abundant life of in blessed liberty. And this God goes with them on every step of that long and difficult journey. We also saw connections to people of every age and from every corner of the earth who have claimed the promise of the Exodus that God is a God of freedom, a God who lifts oppression, a God who gets people out of slavery.
But this week, Brian McLaren raises a different concern, how does this God of freedom get the slavery out of the people? We did touch on this last week when we talked about freedom and license and our capacity to use our freedom to selfish and destructive ends. It is again ironic to consider how we might use our freedom to enslave ourselves simply because we can.
I told the Bible study group on Tuesday, that one of the images that has stuck with me in this journey we’re currently on was in the Cain and Abel story. It is that moment when God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Such a critical moment for Cain. One of the things God is saying to him is that he is free, free to choose but also responsible for his choice. He is free to choose liberating love for his brother or to be enslaved by his anger and his lust to be avenged for his presumed slight.
As I said when we considered this text, what struck this time around is Cain’s freedom. He has this moment when he is completely free to choose. The choice he makes will shape his life from the inside out as well as the outside in. Is it a hard choice? Of course it is. If it wasn’t a real challenge to turn from slavery to freedom, do you think we’d still be reading about it thousands of years later?
It’s a long road to freedom. McLaren writes, “We…must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress, and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 42). Think of the freedom, the richness Cain might have known if he’d chosen to love his brother. Not the least of the blessings would have been to have his brother walking with him on life’s journey, not crying out with haunting voice from the blood-soaked ground in which he was buried.
I’ve been singing that song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” for a lot of years now. I think I first heard it as a cover by Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame back in the early 1970s. There is also a powerfully moving rendition by the great Nina Simone. It became something of an anthem in the Civil Rights Movement. For me, it initially expressed some of my deep feelings about being marginalized by the church for being gay. The first time I sang it was at a Baptist meeting for which I was supposed to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I know I upset some people with my unannounced change of song, but it felt important on that day to share my pain and frustration. At that point, I did not see any bridge over the troubled water between me and the church, so I couldn’t sing about it with any integrity. I don’t know how effective my protest was for others but it satisfied me on that day. I felt the power of being able to express what was on my heart and mind.
“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” I still feel that way at times. Not for the same reasons that motivated my protest forty years ago. There are other ways I wander in the wilderness after all these years. I don’t feel so much oppressed as a gay man. The church – at least in some places – has made great progress in inclusiveness over those years. The things that enslave still come from without but also from within. It’s complicated. We live in this eternal tension between freedom and expectation, liberty and law, love and judgment.
I’m not asking for public confession, but a more generic expression of those things that tend to enslave us today. When McLaren speaks of “Getting Slavery Out of the People” what comes up for you? McLaren, again, argues that “The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery.” He says, “On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation, and desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more” (op. cit., p. 41). Does this sound right? Do you recognize yourself or someone for whom you care in this description?
“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains bindin’ me.” As little as we like the idea of commandments or being commanded, there is liberation in this ancient law that God has laid down for us. The purpose of the commandments is to set us free from the slavery that is within us. Look for a minute at how the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments intertwine. The first five of the Decalogue teach us about love for God and the second five love for neighbor. Jesus is spot on when he says the Great Commandments summarize “all the law and the prophets.”
In an article entitled, “It’s about Freedom,” Hebrew scripture scholar, John Holbert writes, “The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim. The God we worship is a God who first and foremost is a God who majors in freedom, all sorts of freedom. In whatever ways God’s people seem intent on falling back into multiple kinds of slavery, this YHWH is always in the business of searching for ways to grant these would-be slaves a perfect freedom” (John C. Holbert, “It’s about Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments,” March 7, 2012, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com). To love such a God with one’s whole being is to embrace the freedom that God desires for us. It liberates us from dependence on any other god, the worship of any idol, loyalty to all that enslaves. In God we can be free at last but we must find time and space to ground ourselves in God.
In the second half of the Decalogue, when we are enjoined not to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony or covet, we are given a set of guidelines, which, while not exhaustive, point us toward what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. These commandments go a long way toward describing the challenges and rewards of neighbor love. Frederick Buechner writes that one challenge of the Great Commandments is that “The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling. Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God, and loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them” (Frederick Buechner, “Law of Love,” Whistling in the Dark, frederickbuechner.com).
It’s a long road to freedom and the desire to be free is not easily or cheaply satisfied. The work of love liberates but it is so much more than simple sentiment. As Great Commandment Christians, I wonder if we don’t too glibly utter the words as our mantra. Yes, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor. We know these words and we proclaim them with easy assurance. But what do they mean for us, for you and me? As we long to be free, we find in the ancient law guidelines, no commandments, that, when embraced and practiced, not just carved into some stone monument or committed to long-lost memory, but actually written on our hearts, will lead us to that freedom in Christ and the way to God for which we long. Amen.