Monday, March 9, 2015

A Covenant with a Chosen People

Sylvia was in church every Sunday, but her husband was another story.  On good years Stan made it to a service on Christmas Eve or Easter.  You can imagine the rector’s response when Stan was sitting in the pew next to Sylvia on the Third Sunday in Lent.  After the service the rector said to Stan that is was nice to see him, and more than just a tad surprising.  Stan said to priest, “I may not be in church often but you need to know that my wife and I are committed to living our lives based on the 10 Commandments.”  The priest was pleased, but somewhat shocked, and said, “Well, I can see it in Sylvia, but, to be quite frank, I am more than a little skeptical about you.” “Pastor, it is true,” said Stan, “Sylvia keeps eight of them and I keep the other two.”

Through today’s Old Testament reading we encounter the third covenant in the bible: the covenant between God and Moses.  By way of review, on the First Sunday in Lent we learned about God’s covenant with Noah – a covenant with all of creation – and we pondered our Noah-like call to care for every living thing on the planet.  Last week we learned about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah – a covenant with the entire human family – and we pondered our responsibility to create relationships with all people that mirrors God’s desire for all of us who come from a common ancestor.

Central to the covenant with Moses are the 10 Commandments.  You may be interested to know that the Hebrew translation for the 10 Commandments is Asereth ha-Dibroth, which means “the ten words”, “the ten sayings”, or “the ten matters.”  The English name “Decalogue” follows the Greek and means “ten words”.  It wasn’t until the publishing of the Geneva Bible in 1560 that we find the first reference to the “tenne commandments”.   Far from most popular depictions of large slabs of stone, scholars believe the tablets themselves would have been about the size of a sheet of legal paper and weighed no more than a few pounds each.

A long time ago a rabbi counted all the commandments in the Law of Moses – both the positive things we are to do and the negative things we are to avoid – and came up with 613 distinctive commandments.  While many of them strike us as irrelevant today, the 10 Commandments still seem to be foundational to life itself.  Four of the commandments define our relationship to God and six describe our relationship with one another.  When Jesus was asked to name the most important commandment of all – the one to keep in all of the 613 – he famously replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the others.” 

Like the other two covenants before it, God’s covenant with Moses is actually a covenant with more than just one individual.  It is a covenant with a specific group of people who are called to live life in a certain kind of way; a way that embodies the 10 Commandments. 

Here is what we need to pay attention to regarding the covenant with Moses.  It does not describe God’s relationship with all of creation nor is it made with the entire human family.  It sets up a relationship between God and those people who were freed from bondage in Egypt and led out into the wilderness.  The covenant with Moses, through which the 10 Commandments are issued, defines how this group of people is to live with God and with one another.

These folks – Hebrews – came to think of themselves as the Chosen People because God picked them to be in a special, unique relationship.  Some people associate being chosen with privilege and prestige.  They may even assume it implies superiority compared to others: “We are better than you” or “God loves us more than you.”  But being chosen is not that.  Rather, it implies responsibility.  It involves being given a task.  St. Paul used the metaphor of an ambassador to describe it.  God’s chosen people were called to live life in a way that helped everyone else to make sense of life.  They were to be lights in a dark and godless world.  They were to be exemplars of all that God dreams for the human family and for creation.

Professional sports teams are always trying to find veteran players who can provide leadership.  They need people who can show the younger players what it takes to be a winner, who can help rookies understand what it looks like to be a professional.  A particular veteran may be added to a team not because he is at that peak of his career or the most skilled or athletic person on the team, but because he can embody for everyone else what it means “to take care of your business”; a phrase often associated with being a professional athlete.

Those people invited into a covenant relationship with God through Moses were tasked with helping others understand what it means to take care of the business of life; not by going around and pointing out to everyone else what they were doing wrong, but by living themselves in a way that was right.  It is like the old quote attributed to St Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times and only when necessary use words.”

Along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we in the Christian tradition are inheritors of God’s covenant with Moses.  Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, believed that if the people of England could recite in their own language the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 10 Commandments then most of the time they would know the right thing to do and would do it.  This is why these three feature so prominently in our worship life.  And it is why many older Episcopal churches have tablets like the ones we have in our chapel where all three are written out and in plain view for the congregants.

We Episcopalians enter into a covenant with God through baptism.  It tasks us with a responsibility to live our lives in a manner which we believe witnesses to what God desires of all people:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

Our baptismal covenant stands not in opposition to the 10 Commandments or to Jesus’ summary of the law, but as focused expression of both.  The more we say these words the more they form us and give us a language to express what we believe God dreams for us.  Through our baptism we are called and empowered to be ambassadors, lights, beacons, examples.  We use our religion not as a club to beat over the head those who do not live as we do, but as a witness to all that is good and healthy and full of life as God intends.

Today we add to our emerging Lenten display the image of the tablets.  The rainbow ribbons remind us of God’s covenant with Noah and all of creation.  They invite us to ponder our Noah-like role to care for every living thing.  The paper figures remind us of God’s covenant with Abraham, a covenant that binds together the entire human family by bringing us forth from a common ancestor.  They invite us to ponder our responsibility to live into God’s dream for all people.  And today we add the tablets – a reminder of the covenant of Moses where we are tasked to live in this world in a way that embodies all that it is good and godly.

I will give you a few moments of silence to reflect on what you are already doing to live into the covenant with Moses and also to ponder what one thing you might commit to doing to take the next step in being a faithful ambassador and witness.