There are plenty of laws and rules in the Bible. In the second creation story (the one with the Garden of Eden), Adam and Eve are explicitly told they can eat from any of the plants and trees growing in the garden—except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s a rule, and if they break it, there will be consequences. As indeed there are.
The first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are full of rules. These books are referred to as Torah, or the Law: Over 600 rules on how to live as an upstanding person before God and in community with others.
Today we heard two readings about God’s rules. The first was the Ten Commandments, and the second, Psalm 19, was really a celebration of the Law. I’m going to spend some time examining the Ten Commandments, especially the first five of them, in light of Psalm 19’s celebratory tone and also in conversation with Mary Oliver’s poem “Six Recognitions of the Lord.”
If you think about the Ten Commandments as being on two tablets, as they are often depicted in paintings, we might split them up this way: On one tablet, there are all the commandments about how we are to relate to God, and on the other are the commandments about how we relate to each other. That second tablet is pretty straightforward: Honor your parents. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness or lie. Thou shalt not covet other people’s people or things.
But let’s talk about the other tablet for a minute, the one that has to do with how we relate to God.
Have no other gods but God.
Do not make idols; do not bow down to them or worship them.
Do not make wrongful use of God’s name.
Honor the Sabbath.
I could preach a whole sermon on the commandment about making wrongful use of God’s name. I have spoken before about how the Bible is often used as a weapon, God as a judge condemning us all. So I’m going to set that law aside for another day and focus instead on the other four that talk about how we relate to God.
One might think of the first three as connected: no other gods, no idols, no idol worship. A more positive way to frame this occurs elsewhere in the Bible: You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. [Deuteronomy 6:5] Don’t get distracted or lured away by the false gods of money, popularity, comfort, beauty, sex, addictions, and all the other things that can get between us and God.
Lent gives us a chance to work on putting God first and getting rid of those other false gods or idols. Lent is all about stripping our lives down to the essentials so that we can work on our relationship with God. Some people give up things during Lent: sugar or meat or Facebook or alcohol. Doing so may create the space for us to become more aware of God in our lives.
We can also add things during Lent, for example, dedicated time to linger with God, however that works for us. Some work on their relationship with God through formal prayer, either aloud or silent. We don’t have to make prayers complicated. Here’s what Mary Oliver says about prayer in her poem “Six Recognitions of the Lord”:
I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.
[Mary Oliver, “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” in Thirst, 26-28. Emphasis mine.]
Lingering with God in creation might look less like formal prayer and more like emptying ourselves so that we can absorb the gifts of creation. This, too, can fill our souls. Mary Oliver again:
I lounge on the grass, that’s all. So
simple. Then I lie back until I am
inside the cloud that is just above me
but very high, and shaped like a fish.
Or, perhaps not. Then I enter the place
of not-thinking, not-remembering, not-
wanting. When the blue jay cries out his
riddle, in his carping voice, I return.
But I go back, the threshold is always
near. Over and back, over and back. Then
I rise. Maybe I rub my face as though I
have been asleep. But I have not been
asleep. I have been, as I say, inside
the cloud, or, perhaps, the lily floating
on the water. Then I go back to town,
to my own house, my own life, which has
now become brighter and simpler, some-
where I have never been before.
Some people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They do not come into a church building or join a congregation to work on their relationship with God. Instead, they may go out into nature, meditate on a mountaintop or by a stream, sit under a tree and listen to the birds. [You may recall from another faith tradition that Buddha sat under a tree until he reached enlightenment.]
Apparently the person who wrote Psalm 19 experienced God in nature in this way, for the psalm opens with the joy of celebrating God’s presence in all of creation:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
But out of that sheer joy with creation, the psalmist shifts to praise of the Law:
The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple.
And it goes on that way for multiple verses.
What is the connection between love of creation and love of the law? I think it comes from practicing love of God. When we love God—through prayer, through spending time absorbing and appreciating God’s creation—we may find ourselves wanting to belong to this creation in harmonious ways, in respectful ways, in ways that make room for everyone and everything.
Mary Oliver gets this, too:
And we enter the dialogue
of our lives that is beyond all under-
standing or conclusion. It is mystery.
It is love of God. It is obedience.
Mystery, love, and obedience are all wrapped in the same package here.
Which leads to the next commandment: keeping the sabbath. Why would it be so important to take a day off that it makes God’s top 10 list? Relax? Take a break? Really?
What does it mean to keep the sabbath? It means you can’t work yourself to death. It means everyone in your household, including the animals, gets to rest and recover from the week. That’s a justice issue, a labor rights issue. That connects directly to such concepts as paid vacation and sick leave. When we work all the time, we are not at our best.
Keeping the sabbath means there is time to dedicate to God, no matter what else is demanding our attention. We must never be too busy for God.
It also means we are practicing peace. We are living into the realm of God where there is enough, where people have time to play, sing, dance, enjoy each other and the day and God’s abundance. We have time to give thanks. We have time to step back from our daily lives, assess how things are going, ask forgiveness for our mistakes, and consider how we might do better.
When we think about laws and rules and regulations, we may think of things that constrict us: no trespassing, no parking, no loud noises. We may think about all the emails we get encouraging us to call our legislators about such-and-such a bill—make sure it gets voted into law, or make sure to vote it down! Laws and rules and regulations can feel like a drag.
So what a turnabout to find them arising out of abundant love: God’s love for us, our love for God, and our desire to live in harmony with God and with each other.
Let us continue to rejoice in and live by the Ten Commandments.
Let us continue to love God and our neighbor and ourselves, for out of that great love flows all justice.
Let us continue to work for justice under the law for all people and for all of creation.
And let us continue to keep the Sabbath: to take breaks, to rejoice and celebrate God’s abundant gifts, to rest, to gather in community and worship.
Every summer the lilies rise
and open their white hands until they almost
cover the black waters of the pond. And I give
thanks but it does not seem like adequate thanks,
it doesn’t seem
festive enough or constant enough, nor does the
name of the Lord or the words of thanksgiving come
into it often enough. Everywhere I go I am
treated like royalty, which I am not. I thirst and
am given water. My eyes thirst and I am given
the white lilies on the black water. My heart
sings but the apparatus of singing doesn’t convey
half what it feels and means. In spring there’s hope,
in fall the exquisite, necessary diminishing, in
winter I am as sleepy as any beast in its
leafy cave, but in summer there is
everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,
the hospitality of the Lord and my
inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body
through this water-lily world.