From Many Paths, Embracing our Differences, Finding Our Story Together
An Open and Affirming Congregation
"After Sunday worship I feel refreshed and ready to start a new week. Worship calms me and makes me want to be a more giving and forgiving person."
"I am here to share my soul, body, and mind with our bigger family who shares our worship to God and the entire universe. This is my worship experience at church."
Worship at FCC Essex follows a traditional liturgy, but God still speaks to the world today from these ancient words and rituals as if they were new. Music and spirit and art and words and silence center us and inform us. Our style of worship brings comfort, soothes the spirit, challenges the mind, strengthens our love of each other, and empowers us for doing good in the world.
Other special services of worship are celebrated throughout the year during Advent (Christmas) and Lent, as well as ecumenical events with other churches in Essex and within the UCC.
March 7, 2021, Third Sunday in Lent
Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17
by Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsay
What Shall We Do
What if the focus shifted to what we shall do? What if instead of a list of prohibitions, we centered on a list of affirmations? What if our notion of a faithful life wasn’t built on restrictions…but on a divinely-inspired freedom to live in right relationship with God, one another, and creation? What shall we do?
Perhaps as a consequence of an overly punitive society, the ten commandments (and to some extent all of scripture) has come to summarize a legalized idea of religious practice. “The Bible as a rulebook” captures this popular characterization. This perspective ignores that the giving of the Decalogue (“Ten Words”) presents itself within a complex narrative. Rather than an isolated decree, these commands enter into and flow out of a story of God’s relationship with a particular community. As Terence Fretheim states, “The law does not stand in independence from that story. It is not even presented as a single chapter within that story but is woven into the narrative throughout.”
The introduction to this act in the story is the divine statement: “I am the LORD your God.” The God who first identifies to Moses as “I Am” prefaces the law with a declaration of identity and relationship. God not only claims sovereignty but also identifies in relationship with the people who will receive this divine utterance. The law should not be used as an enclosure that restricts movement; rather, it is a means of defining how that relationship manifests:
Although the words “I am the Lord your God” do demonstrate that this law is backed by the divine power and authority of the God who is true to his law, their real purpose is to show that the giver of this law is the covenant God of Israel, their Redeemer. This law is not an arbitrary set of rules, imposed by a harsh God. The giving of these commandments, both positive and negative, was a display of God’s love. His commandments do not really restrict liberty. Following them is true liberty. (John F. Brug)
Divinely-inspired law does not form contracts; it fosters relationship through maintenance of the covenant. At the heart of the covenant, God promises abiding presence, grace, and love to a people and a creation that God will not abandon. It is a generous promise to live faithfully together. The unilateral conditions God imposes upon Godself invite a human response, even if that response is not a requirement for fulfillment. All of the Biblical covenants exists in a continuum that build upon one another. They may be renewed but none have been cancelled. This explains Jesus’ insistence that his ministry does not negate the law but fulfills it. We may remember that the covenant that God makes with Noah was a public extension of a promise that God made to Godself without any humanly input involved. In this, the covenant functions as a pure gift.
So, what shall we do…in response to God’s abundance, generosity, and compassion?
Perhaps, our first task compels us to reframe our understanding of these “Ten Words.” Rather than consider them rules to follow, we may view them as God’s revelation of faithful living.
The authors of the book of Exodus envisioned law as representing the essence of their religion. God promises the Israelites at the outset of the wilderness journey that the revelation of law will be their source of health….The result according to Z. W. Falk is that law and spirituality become merged into one in the formation of the Hebrew Bible. (Thomas B. Dozeman)
Fretheim describes it in this way:
Law is more clearly seen as a gift of God’s graciousness when tied to story. Law becomes another part of the larger story of God’s goodness and mercy. From the story it is clear that the law is grounded in a personal and gracious divine will. Narrative reinforces the divine intention in the law: never to leave the people without an indication of what it means to be a community of faith, without a direction in which a person of faith could walk, without some instruction regarding the life of faith.
The Sovereign One holds Godself accountable to unilateral promises also provides an imperfect people a way of response, a path for communal living, and guidelines for faithful life. These Ten Words do not hold the believer hostage on a journey of captivity and oppression. Instead, they provide a map for a long walk with God along life’s journey.
Note that the commandments consistently focus on behavior and actions toward God and others, not identity. To the extent that there is any limiting by the listing of the “shall nots,” it does not extend to who people are. The identifying marker is addressed in the preface by God naming Godself and claiming God’s people. Our right relationship with God is not based on who we are because the covenant with Noah established that God will never again search for the one who is already righteous. These “Ten Words” reflect the expansiveness of God’s grace. They are rooted in the identity of God not dependent upon the identity of God’s people.
Still, actions are important and reflect how aligned our lives are with our identity in God. These words give aid to a people who struggled with a faithful response to a professed belief in God that has to be lived out in a world that challenges that allegiance.
We should note that at the heart of this revelation is a God who gives access to God’s priorities. God shares expectations for faithful living. In premarital counseling, I use a resource that asks each member of the couple to look at critical areas of a mutual life and share both information and expectation. The couples complete their homework independently and then turn it into me for review before we have a session to discuss the findings. For the most part, I don’t care about the information. (I’m not being nosy!) My review looks for differences in expectation, which I find to be one of the greatest sources of relational conflict.
In the covenantal relationship we enjoy with God, these “Ten Words” delineate God’s expectation of us. At the same time, they do not negate God’s grace toward us…even if most of them are written in the negative. Fretheim is helpful here:
That eight commandments are negatively formulated is pertinent at this point. As such, they open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors (though chaps. 21–23 draw out such specific implications). At the same time, the negative formulation indicates that the primary concern is not to create the human community but to protect it from behaviors that have the potential of destroying it. Yet the commands implicitly commend their positive side (cf. 20:3 and Deut. 6:5). The two positive commands suggest the appropriateness of this for all ten words.
It is also interesting to note which commandments are written in the affirmative. The call to keep the Sabbath and to honor one’s parents. Sabbath-keeping, the primacy of rest in the kin-dom of God, countered cultural norms then as it does now. Rest in God over the relentless pursuit of productivity blesses both the Creator and the creature designed for full participation in it. This commandment reminds us that this mutual benefitting occurs implicitly in the other nine. The admonishment to honor both parents also functions in a countercultural manner. First, it equates gendered relationships. There is no distinction between father or mother in terms of honor or value. As the bridge commandment, it shifts focus from divine-human relations to human-human dynamics. God is not the only being who should receive honor. Our relationship with God should reflect in and inform our relationships with one another. The other commandments in this part of the Decalogue explicitly determine what we should not do to one another. This commandment tells us why. Human relationships should honor one another in a way that demonstrates our understanding of relationships derives from our first relationship, which is with God.
Do our relationships with others illustrate that we have learned how to honor, respect, and love from our relationship with God?
I am reminded that the author of the Amazing Grace, John Newton, at one time participated in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Later, Newton would turn from that life and eventually become a preacher of the gospel and abolitionist. The catalyst for that shift in his life was a near death experience on the very waters that he used to condemn countless human beings into enslaved lives. Newton’s testimony in Britain (along with the work of William Wilberforce and others) is credited with helping to end the slave trade in Britain. The words of the song reflect the journey of a person who eventually learned how to walk with God…and the new life of a person who learned how that walk changes our treatment of our human kin.
Still, eight of the “Ten Words” center what we “shall not” do. Perhaps, that’s not intended as a limiting statement that confines right relationship to staying away from the specific things that made the cut of that list. Instead, the “shall not” might be an invitation to the question, “then, what shall we do?”
What if the Ten Commandments aren’t a checklist to determine if we are a good person but a framework to facilitate a larger conversation? We know that there were more than ten laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The book of Leviticus fills in those blanks. But, what is there is a much more affirmative set of blanks lines waiting for us to write our own ways of doing a faithful life with God?
What if we have an opportunity, not an obligation, to consider what theft means in living a faithful life? There’s stealing that seizes another person’s possession without permission. But what shall we do when given the option of hoarding resources for ourselves that were given for the benefit and blessing of all creation? We should not commit adultery, but what does the freedom of fidelity look like in a covenantal relationship between human beings?
This is the freedom of the law designed not to enchain but to give room for an abundance of love, compassion, grace, and generosity. The law that blesses and does not curse. The law that says don’t do that because you can do this.
If we go back to the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we remember that the snake taunted the human beings with the suggestion that God was keeping something from them. They latched onto that framing and ignored a more expansive perspective that would affirm that God had made so much more than that available to them, including the choice to follow God’s directive. The law occupies a similar function. Both are boundaries, but our vantage point defines our perspective. We can look inward and see a small space in which we can maneuver or we can look beyond it and consider that the horizon of what we can do–to live faithfully together–is vast and limitless.
What shall we do?
First Congregational Church in Essex
United Church of Christ
6 Methodist Hill
Essex, Connecticut 06426