Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 5, 2014
First Christian Church
I get my hometown newspaper, the Flint Journal via email daily. Like a lot of newspapers, the Journal prints a physical copy only four days a week, so a lot of what they do is online. Everything Thursday they have a feature called Throwback Thursday, something that has been done on social media for quite some time. Since the Journal has a vast selection of old photos, they spend each Thursday looking back at something in Flint’s past. One week about a month ago, the featured a place called Safetyville. Safteyville was located east of downtown and it was a place where kids went to learn about living with cars safely. This place existed from the mid-1960s until the early-80s. Safetyville was a miniature town with kid-sized buildings and roads. Kids could get into small cars and learn how to drive safely. For nearly twenty years, kids from the Flint area learned how to be safe drivers and pedestrians from the time spent at Safetyville.
A lot of people have great memories of the place which if you think about it is rather odd. This was a place where you learned the dos and don’ts of driving and walking around cars. Learning the rules of driving is not always the most exciting thing, but the people behind Safetyville made it exciting. They knew how to make something that could seem burdensome into a thing of wonder and mystery. A place where you were to learn the rules was a place that brings fond memories to adults who are now in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
This is a very different experience than what I learned a few years later when I was taking my driving classes. You had to learn all of these rule taught by teachers that aren’t always the nicest people. I remember one time driving down a street with an instructor. The car was suited for driver’s ed in that there was another set of brakes that the instructor would use. I remember coming to a stop at an intersection. It seems that I didn’t make a full stop and the instructor mashed on his breaks and started yellng at me. We weren’t at Safetyville anymore.
Today’s text is a well known one and that is the giving of the Law or the Ten Commandments. Hear words like “law” or “commandments” and we can tell that we are about to talk about something very weighty. We see the ten commandments as what we can’t do. Don’t have idols. Don’t kill. Don’t committ adultery. Don’t steal and so on.
The Ten Commandments are viewed by many as an important body of law in world jurisprudence. If you go to the Supreme Court building, Moses is included among the world’s lawgivers. The image of two tablets of stone represent the commandments.
As Christians, especially as Protestants, we tend to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun. Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law. We are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin were preaching. I think it is wonderful to hear the words of grace, that faith isn’t about following the rules.
But I wonder if we are looking at things the wrong way. Since these passages were originally written by and for Jews, it’s important to see how Jews responded to these Commandments. First, the Ten Commandments have been called the Ten Words among Jews. Jews tend to see the Ten Words as a response to grace. The Ten Commandments are a response to grace. The law is the vehicle for grace.
It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God. Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from. The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done. If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods. If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly. If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.
If we look at the Ten Commandments this way, we see this kind of how I learned about driving 40 years ago at Safetyville. Following the rules becomes more about a joyous response to what God has done in our lives.
Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance. He writes:
Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order – “Here are ten rules. Obey them!” — but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). We will probably always refer to the declarations that follow as the “Ten Commandments,” but we can also think of them as descriptions of the life that prevails in the zone of God’s liberation. “Because the Lord is your God,” the Decalogue affirms, “you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.”
The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.
Today is World Communion Sunday and in a few moments we will have communion. Like the Ten Commandments, Communion reminds us of God’s wonderous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ. How will we respond? If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response. We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.
Following God doesn’t have to be a burden. It can be a time when we break our dancing shoes. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photo: The photo comes from the Flint Journal photo collection of Safetyville in the 1960s and 70s. You can view the entire collection of Safetyville photos by going here.