The Graceful Law of God

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Philippians 3:4b-14

For many people, religion is all about rules: the “do’s” and “don’ts” of life, especially the “killjoy” do’s and don’ts that come into play whenever we want to have a little fun.   At first glance, today’s readings might leave that impression as well. The Ten Commandments tell us what we can’t do, give us a few positive admonitions, and suggest that those who fail to live up to the law will be punished by God and perhaps our local police.   While these commandments can certainly be used to put the fear of God into us and put the kibosh on any fun or creative activities, I believe that this is a misunderstanding of God’s law; God’s law is intended to bring joy, support healthy relationships, and create just and orderly communities in which everyone can flourish and sometimes color outside the lines.

The Ten Commandments begin with relationships not rules, God’s grace and not human achievement. The first words describe God’s love for a ragtag community, God’s liberation of the Hebrews from captivity, and God’s guidance of an emerging people through an uncharted wilderness. In fact, from beginning to end, these commandments are about relationships. They tell us that when we love God, putting God first in everything we do, we will seek the well-being of our friends and family. They also tell us that when we love the world, both human and non-human, and when we do good things for friends and relations, we are also loving God.

Beyond the obvious “do’s” and “don’ts” we can see the Commandments through the following ten affirmations – my paraphrase of the Ten Commandments :

  • When you love God, everything falls into place, and you have a healthy perspective on life. You see your life as part of a bigger story, don’t sweat the small stuff, and believe that you are loved and you matter.
  • When you see God as more important than anything else – including the things you want and your possessions, you will find true happiness.
  • When you speak lovingly of God, and follow God’s way and not just your own, you can rejoice in God’s wondrous creation. Using God’s name in vain is not so much about swearing, but being trivial in talking about God or using God to justify our own personal or your nation’s personal desires or policies.
  • When you take time off for rest and study, for a Sabbath of prayer and reflection, you will have greater energy and creativity. You can experience beauty and love when you take a break from Facebook, the internet, texting, or other media.
  • Caring for those who’ve nurtured you completes the cycle of giving and receiving, and helps us live without regret.
  • Peaceful responses to conflict create the possibility that those who are enemies might become friends.
  • When you tell the truth, you will be trusted and can trust others.
  • When you’re faithful in your marriage, friendships, and significant relationships, you’ll experience the joy and freedom of commitment.
  • Honesty in business and personal life creates healthy communities and economic justice and opportunity for everyone. It helps us put people in front of possessions and care for the world around us by living more simply.
  • When you believe you have enough and don’t envy your neighbor, you can be truly happy.

The North African mystic Dorotheos of Gaza explained our relationship with God in terms of a circle in which all of us begin at the radius with God at the center. When we come closer to God at the center, we come closer to others – the other lines; when we come closer to the other lines – those around us, we come closer to God. Or, as I noted earlier, when we love the Creator, we will rightly love the creatures; when we rightly love and care for our fellow creatures, we love the Creator. In Jesus’ words, “as you have done unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me.”

This divine law of relationship wells up from the heart of our being. It is not external, imposed from outside ourselves, or purely the result of our own desires; it comes from being in tune with our relationship with God. Even if life is tough, we will experience a sense of peace and wholeness.

God’s law in our lives is dynamic; it never stands still but invites us to move ahead. God’s law invites us to be in tune with what brings the greatest joy to us and to the world in which we live, at this particular moment in time. That’s the point of Paul’s autobiographical sketch in Philippians. He affirms that he fulfilled the written law in its entirety – he was zealous for God and dotted every “I” and crossed every “T.” He treasured tradition in all its beauty and necessity. But he discovered something more, the freedom of Christ, of God’s Holy Spirit, that enabled him to experience abundant life and new possibilities. He has not abandoned tradition, but is now guided and inspired by divine creativity.

In Paul’s words, we can experience God’s presence and future for us in our own challenges as a community and individuals. As individuals, we have been hurt, our life stories have been painful; yet, there a horizon of hope that beckons us. We can be more joyful, more creative, and more loving.   The past is not predictive of the future: we can be born anew.

As a church, we have had a glorious past, we have great traditions and we need to honor these, but God is giving us fresh visions for this time in our congregation’s life that the embraces the best of our past – God doesn’t want us to forget the most joyful experiences of our community’s life – in light of a future that will require new and creative responses to our changing spiritual landscape.

On this world communion Sunday, we can rejoice that we have great gifts here at South Congregational, and that we can also learn from the giftedness of others – different languages, music, ways of worship, processes of decision-making, spiritual practices, and understandings of the bible. God’s lively movements – God’s dynamic and transforming wisdom – refreshes the Spirit, energizes hope, and gives us a vision of futures that are more than we can ask or imagine.