Exodus 20: 1-17
For Anglicans the 10 Commandments have always had a special prominence. Even folks who don’t do much Bible reading would know about them in some detail. Thanks to Charlton Heston in part, perhaps. In England and certainly in Colonial America and all the way into the 19th century it would have been rare to have a cross or crucifix above the Holy Table. Most commonly in earlier times what you would see in church as you sat in your pew on a Sunday would be the two Mosaic Tablets, sometimes just marked with the ten Roman Numerals, other times with the title of each commandment. You still see this. On our annual little after-Christmas vacation Susy and I go to church at St. Michael’s in Ligonier and there even in a fairly modern mid-20th century church building that’s what they have above the Communion Table.
The Catechism of our new 1979 Book of Common Prayer—popular reading, I know-- on page 849 follows the pattern begun in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and reviews each of the Commandments as we have heard them this morning in Exodus 20. A reminder that what that catechism was for generations and centuries was something to be presented to young people after Evensong on Sunday afternoons, in preparation for Confirmation. Something to be committed to memory. So the Ten Commandments were a part of the essential core of what we would now call a Christian Education “curriculum.”
And just to note that one of the innovations of the first American Prayer Book in 1789 in the Holy Communion service was what we now call the “Summary of the Law”—as we hear at the beginning of the service most Sundays, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” This opening for the service was composed as an alternative for use at simple service—now become the default setting in Rite I services. What is now in the Episcopal Church the rarely used alternative, beginning on page 317, but in the English Prayer Book tradition it still is the norm, again, and around most of the Anglican world, is to begin every communion service with the full recitation of the 10 Commandments in litany form. Every Sunday each commandment to be read by the presiding minister, beginning with the phrase, “God spake these words, and said.” And the congregation responding to each Commandment, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this Law.” Some congregations still use this litany at least in Lent. Still in our Prayer Book, pp. 317-318. But my guess is that most people think our Communion Sunday services run a little too long anyway, so I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for using the full form on a regular basis . . . .
Our Inquirer Class this year is looking at the Sam Wells book, “What Episcopalians Believe.” We appreciated the humor of the comment on the back cover by Ian Markham, Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, who said that this book helps to dispel “the myth that Episcopalians don’t believe anything.” In that context to say, my main point this morning, that until about fifteen minutes ago as these things are calculated in ecclesiastical time it would have been absolutely clear to visitors and inquirers and anybody who just happened to peek in at us Anglicans and Episcopalians in worship and in Church School and in Confirmation Classes and even in the architecture and design of nearly all of our churches even to the most accidental tourist or visitor that “what we believe” as Anglicans and Episcopalians, is that these “Ten Commandments” are of critical importance at the foundation of what our faith and identity are all about. Not just a colorful story for the Sunday School or the Charlton Heston movie. God’s Word for God’s people, highlighted, underlined twice, worthy to be memorized and inscribed not only on our memories but in our hearts--present day by day with authority and treasured as a precious gift.
I’m not going to walk through them in detail this morning, which perhaps will be a relief to you. But it occurs to me that it might be an interesting series of Coffee and Conversation hours. Ten weeks. Christians have been trying to figure out just how to apply things like “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy” and “thou shalt not kill“ for centuries and generations, and it might be really something to take a slow walk through some of those conversations. Not that we all come up with precisely the same understanding of what the commandments actually mean, but to begin with the understanding that they do have specific meaning, and that they are given to us, that they are for us.
“God spake these words.” Think what it would be like to hear that at the beginning of every service. That they are in some sense, these 10 Commandments, particularly and intentionally for us, as we hear and receive them, and as week by week we would pray that our hearts would be inclined to receive them, and not simply conceptually and emotionally, but specifically and effectively. To “keep” them. A significant word. It certainly means “obey,” but I think the resonance is a bit broader. To hold on to. To embrace and hold fast. “Incline our hearts to keep this law.” That when we would pray on our knees week by week and day by day for forgiveness for “things done and left undone” in the actual shape and behavior of our lives, as we live day by day in our own thoughts and feelings and in our behavior, these Commandments would be not exclusively but with priority the template we would use to evaluate our lives in relationship with God and with one another. That these Commandments expressed in clear ways the map God desires us and even directs us to be following. A resource that is precious to us-- to shape not only our talk but also our walk. Not only with our lips, but in our lives.
Not to say that being a Christian is about following a bunch of rules, but that these words themselves are derived from what emerges in lives changed by Christ. They are prescriptive and proscriptive, about what to do and what not to do, but even more deeply they are descriptive. That our response to the call to follow Christ will bring about and reveal in us lives shaped in this pattern, a Christ-like pattern. This is what our encounter with God’s love does to us, what it makes of us. Transformed lives growing organically from lives transformed though faith in Christ Jesus. Not that you become a Christian by submitting to this obedience, but that as we are rooted deeper and deeper into Christ, this is the life that begins to take shape.
The first four commandments describing our relationship of loyalty to and love for the God of the Bible, the God who created the heavens and the earth, who lifted Israel out of bondage in Egypt and who in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus defeated once and for all the power of the Evil One and opened the Way of Life Eternal. Then Commandments 5-10 project the character of life aligned to God in Christ. Each one of them we would note in this Lent is about restraint, about letting God be God, about not falling for the kind of temptations Satan offered Jesus in the Wilderness. The temptation that stands at the source of all our temptations, to play God. To imagine that we are the center of the universe. To imagine that life and death are ours to determine, to imagine that our plan for our lives and our relationships and our world have priority over God’s plan, to imagine that our wants and hungers and desires are the point of our lives.
Altogether, what is shaped here in this passage from Exodus is a life grounded in the Gospel, where God is acknowledged to be God. Where we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Marked, again, by respect, restraint, humility, and care. Walking in the footsteps of our Savior. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.
Third Sunday in Lent. And simply to say that from the days of the Apostles Christians have been a challenge to the world not simply because of what we try to say about what we believe to be true, but because of how in our desire to be faithful to that truth we then seek to live our lives. Countercultural, in every culture and across 2,000 years. Putting the love of God into action. Walking the talk. Calling us back to the map. That as we walk in his footsteps in this Lent and in all of our lives we would see before us a sign of God’s own character, and to begin to live here and now the lives he will bring about in his kingdom.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.