Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-22
I must say that I have been waiting for months to preach a sermon that wasn’t so overburdened with the current events of the day or the week. Today is no different. It’s almost like every day is trying to outdo the one before with worse news. Fires are still burning in much of California. Air quality is awful. We’ve had an outbreak of Covid at the Salish Lodge, which for those of you who don’t live near here, is a signature destination resort at the top of Snoqualmie Falls. There is an outbreak on Greek Row on the UW campus with over 150 students now quarantined in their houses, and of course you would have to be living under a rock to not know about the super-spreader disaster going on in the White House!
How does one preach Good News about that? I’d ask if I could go home now, but I already am home. I have to be! We are all at home.
I do want to say that I know that many of you, like me, are struggling this morning with a lot of frustration, a lot of conflict, and a lot of anger. Most of us have been locked down for months, unable to do the things we used to do. We look to our leaders for guidance and don’t always believe what we are hearing or seeing. And we don’t hear about the people behind the scenes who have been exposed – people in the crowd or at the party, the hidden staff people, care givers, secret service, reporters, families, who are now isolating themselves and anxiously waiting to hear test results. Their fear must be dreadful. Who among them will get sick? We also know too well, what a terrible disease this is. Too many of our own have had it. Some are still dealing with it. So many have died.
Many of us believe that massive outbreaks of the disease could have been prevented or minimized if people would have worn masks and kept their distance. The seemingly cavalier attitude of those who don’t believe this disease is real or debilitating is appalling to many, if not most of you.
It is hard to pray for somebody who we think should suffer the consequences of their actions. There are those who feel that being asked to pray for someone who they liken to an abuser is the ultimate gaslighting. Perhaps it is. There is a desire in each of us to think that maybe, “what goes around, comes around” is having its day because so many others have been sick and died and those in positions of trust must be held accountable to do all they can for those in their care.
I want to say, it’s OK to be frustrated and angry. And it’s OK that you may not be able to pray for those for whom you are so angry. As followers of Christ we are called to pray for those we love and those who are our enemies. But we must always do that with honesty because to not do so with God, who knows our every thought anyway, would really be pretty foolish. So I would suggest to you that you be honest. If you cannot utter the words, don’t. Those who can pray are not better or more beloved than those who cannot. There are plenty of other people you can pray for. There are others who can, and that is why we are the body of Christ and not just individuals on a “Jesus & me” joyride to heaven.
I wanted to talk about the Ten Commandments this morning. Perhaps there is a thread here that still might work because these really are about rules for living. In Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments were called the Ten Words or the Ten Things. For the Hebrew people who found themselves in a whole new world after being freed from years of slavery and oppression, these Words or Things were to be a set of instructions for how to live as free people. Think about it…None of them knew what it was like not to be a slave. None of them knew what it was like to get to make choices about how to live and be in community.
We are in a similar situation with not knowing how to live in the midst of a pandemic.
In Jewish tradition the first commandment is not “You shall have no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, the first word of life with God is to “Remember what God has done for you!” All the other commandments flow out of a response to God’s grace.
We forget the slavery part and combine the two which misses the point. And then we make the rest into a list of “shall nots” instead of a moral compass to guide our lives because we are God’s people living freely because we have been released from bondage – to slavery or to sin.
Imagine that perhaps these people were somewhat frightened of being free. Moses tells them not to be afraid because these Words or Things are how they will learn live in relation with God and with each other.
Most of us will make it all the way to our dying breath and never lust after our neighbor’s donkey. But, we will want what does not belong to us, and doing so will make us hateful and spiteful and perhaps even violent. And most of us will also do everything we can to bend the rules and say they don’t always apply to us because we are somehow better, wiser, or stronger than the fools that should be following them. The arrogance there is real and sadly lives in each of us.
Years ago I read that the greatest sin was theft – stealing. It’s number 8 on the list of the 10 commandments and so you’d think it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as some other things listed, but when you really think about it, it is the source of all the evils in the world.
Taking something from someone else – their bike, their money, their food, their livelihood, their civil rights, their integrity, their life. All the other commandments reflect the theft of some aspect of life – even our own health and rest.
If you murder someone, you have stolen their life. If you abuse a child, you rob them of their innocence and trust. There are countless things we could name. It’s not just individual things, but societal ones as well. Native American rights, border issues, racial inequality, the thoughtless actions that demean and destroy others, the power of one person over another that denies them their dignity or their health.
I guess you could say we have been given a set of rules now in this time of pandemic. They are given to keep us safe and to keep our neighbor safe. They are the new Words or Things we need to stay well and keep the transmission level down so we can manage the disease. To do so will allow us a bit of freedom from the isolation we’ve been enduring.
Wash your hands.
Stay six or more feet away from each other,
Limit your social and physical gatherings,
Fast from Communion, The peace, singing,
Wear your mask – properly.
These are hard things to do. They’re painful at times. But they keep us from stealing. To not follow these Words is to be arrogant and believe you are above it all. To not follow these Things is to disregard the health and well-being of others. It is to rob people of their health, their companionships, their livelihood, their lives.
At the end of the Words, Moses spoke to the people and said: “Don’t be afraid. God has come to test you and instill a deep and reverent awe within you so that you won’t sin.”
Let us not sin, let us live! There are always rules and rules are important and helpful and they guide us in life. Whether it’s the little things or the giant things. But to not do so certainly generates a lot of frustration, mistrust, and anger and all the things that are roiling around inside us right now.
Let us follow the rules and live into them so that at some point those rules will give us a foundation and give us guidance how to live into the next place. I promise you we will get there, but we will get there sooner if we follow the rules, the Words, the Things, the commandments. Because they are a gift by the God who loves us. That is how we will know they are true and right and helpful. Maybe that is what we pray for. Maybe that is how we will move to the next place. So when your words fail in one place, try your words for another because they are all there and God hears them and knows them and holds them close to God’s heart.
The Reverend Patty Baker, Vicar
St. Clare Episcopal Church