Etched in love
The Ten Commandments, sometimes called “the Decalogue,” are probably the most recognized collection of laws in Western culture. They have been memorized, summarized, generalized, abbreviated, quoted, misquoted. They’ve been paraphrased, parodied, caricatured, inverted, added to, subtracted from, and quite often just plain forgotten. Everyone knows the Ten Commandments. And yet how many of us really know all ten of the ten commandments? Do you? You’ve got about twelve minutes to think of them all. And thou shalt not use assistive devices to find them!
What we do share when we think of the ten commandments—at least many of us do—is a visual of ten rules on two tablets of stone. That gives them a sort of granite-like gravitas, those rules etched into those tablets. Weighty in the sense of absolute. Permanent. Punitive. “Thou shalt not . . .” appears seven times or eight, depending on how you parse it, and that phrase, “thou shalt not”, has an aspect of moralistic scorn before we even know what finishes the sentence.
But what do they really say, these ten commandments etched in stone? These teachings, these ten best ways to live? In Hebrew, they’re not called commandments, or even teachings. They’re called—are you ready for this?—they’re called “things.” Things. The first verse: And God spoke all these things, sometimes translated words. And God spoke all these things saying—and then comes the list. Has the word “things” ever risen to such ultimate importance as here? It’s usually—you know how we use that word. It’s usually, “I’m getting a few things at the store.” Or “I’ve got to finish up a few things, then I’ll head home.” “It’s a good report; I like it. I just touched up a few things.”
Never will you hear this: Can we talk about a few things? Sure. Okay. Well, will you marry me? Hey, just wanted to mention a couple of things real quick. I’m having open heart surgery next week. Never will you hear this. Or, there’s a thing I wanted to mention: I’ve just been chosen for the next space flight.
The Bible has a way with understatement, which is itself an understatement. Incredibly, these are called “things” and this has to be the most enormous use of the word “things” in history.
What do these “things” say? What do they teach us about God and about our own choices in life, our own way through life?
What they say first is that the best way to live is to live loving God, setting aside any and all other “things” that might vie for our deepest heart’s devotion. It may be a while since you’ve thought about why you’re here, virtually or in person; why we do this together, besides habit, or wanting to hear a sermon, or some beautiful music, a poignant message with children; or because you want to be part of the team and this is what we’re doing right now on Sunday mornings.
But this is why, most basically, we gather in this way. It is to love God above all else. It’s one, two, three, really the first four of the ten “things” in the Decalogue that we’re fulfilling as we gather on the Sabbath to rest and to pray. All having to do with seeing God as our all in all.
First, love God. Second, love others. In very specific ways we are to love others as we’ve just heard in Anne’s reading of that text. Honor your parents. Do not murder, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet.
Essentially it’s an elaboration of the kindergarten rule: keep your hands to yourself. By high school that concept is filled out a bit. We teach that we are to treat one another with respect and self-respect.
With their direct, no-nonsense specificity, these six “things” that are the second part of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, that remind us that in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, love, as Hugh Bishop once put it, is not an emotion, but a policy. We don’t treat others well because we’re in a good mood, feeling generous, because we like them; we treat others well—co-workers, spouses, children, strangers, difficult people—we treat others well because it is required of us. And because that is who we have chosen by God’s help to be.
Love God. Love others.
One thing more these ten “things” teach us; it might be the main thing. Etched even more deeply into those two stone tablets than the ten teachings themselves. You could say it’s an eleventh teaching; or you could say it’s the first teaching, from which all the other ten derive their meaning. It forms the base of Laura’s rock, the one we saw just earlier, and that is: God loves us.
Have you ever noticed that the very first words of the Ten Commandments are not rules at all, or laws, or requirements? The very first words of the Ten Commandments are a formal introduction: God introducing God’s own self to the rest of us: “I am Yahweh your God.” But there’s more. It’s like we’re in a circle going around: Okay, tell us your name, and something about you.
“Okay. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, I am the God who sets you free.
Have you ever known the experience of being set free? I once was lost but now am found. I was sinking. I was trapped. I was bound. I was suffocating. I was really really sick, or paralyzed by anxiety or depression. I was in deep grief. I was a prisoner of my own addiction. I was confused. I was scared. I was haunted by some earlier trauma in my life. I was hurting those who love me. Or those who love me were hurting me and we live together in the same house. A house of bondage it became. Maybe the house of bondage in which I lived was a set of beliefs that was becoming too small, too narrow, too confined and it was that that I felt imprisoned by. God sought me out, whatever my bondage was, and found me there, and brought me out into the light of day. Love lifted me, and I was alive again.
Before we ever get to these ten “things,” these teachings, these best ways to live, we are reminded that the teacher has one thing of first and foremost importance: our freedom: I am Yahweh your God, who set you free. Or as the previous chapter puts it, in poetry that absolutely soars: I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.
It’s a love song, really, maybe the only one ever in which the words and notes have been etched in stone.
Have you been set free, delivered, rescued from a house of bondage? If you have, then you know the experience of glimpsing dawn after an impossibly long, dark, seemingly never-ending night; of being gently borne on eagle’s wings, and brought to the heart of God, to live again.
Life beyond such an experience takes on a whole different sort of holy purpose, grateful purpose, heartfelt purpose, with God at the very center. And when that happens, these ten “things” begin to look a lot less like two big tablets of stone with rules chiseled into them and a lot more like a sonnet that has been etched in love.
I’m still waiting—I’m sure the day will come, when, asking you what your favorite Bible verse is, one of you will say, not John 3:16, or Psalm 23, or 1 Corinthians 13, or John 10 verse 10. One of you will say, My favorite verse is in the Ten Commandments. Oh really? Yeah. My favorite verse is Exodus 20, verse two: I brought you out of bondage into freedom. . . or maybe 19:4, just before. Referring to that rescue operation that handed life back to us, and us back to life, maybe you’ll say your favorite verse is: I bore you on eagle’s wings, and brought you to myself.
Albert Outler once said, I spent the first half of my ministry preaching and teaching, “We’ve got to love, we’ve got to love, we’ve got to love.” I spent the second half of ministry preaching and teaching, “We get to love, we get to love.”
I’ve often wondered, and I’m sure you are too just now, what changed that message for him? Do you think that somewhere there in the middle he had an experience, some sort of experience like we’ve just been talking about—of somehow being set free? Because to be set free in that profound and personal and life-giving way is to be set free not just to love, but in a whole new way to love the work of love.
Tom Long has observed that when we come to such a place in our lives, in our faith journey, “These two tablets are no longer weights, but wings, enabling our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and soar.”
I hope for you, each of you, whatever your story, that what happened to Albert Outler—it’s happened to me as well, and again and again and again, it happens all the time—that what happened to Albert Outler will happen to you, or has. That somewhere in the middle—maybe this day, this moment, this Sabbath, is the middle for you—something happens, some awareness, some gift of grace, some healing, some epiphany, some surrender, some deliverance—that leads you from the one place to the other, from we’ve got to love, we’ve got to love to we get to love; love that is no longer a pair of weights, but a pair of wings.