Preaching from a list of laws is almost as exciting as preaching from a genealogy. Certainly, there are ways that we can make it exciting, ways to turn each law into a story. But in the end, we are simply rehashing things that people already know. The deeper questions are, “What do all these words have to do with the kin-dom of God as Jesus describes it? What do all these words have to do with loving our neighbor and living in community right here and right now? What do they have to do with dealing with systemic racism and the destruction of our planet?”
To many people, these words are simply a base level from which we then build a better sense of law and order or a greater sense of responsibility for working beside the Spirit to build the eternity that God has envisioned for us. What do all these words have to do with life and death and covenant and commitment, with promises and community?
They’re about drawing lines. Wait, what? Lines. Boundary lines. We talk about life and death when we gather for a funeral or memorial service. We reflect on the weaving of a covenant when we stand before the altar and perform a wedding. We redefine family when we welcome new members making a commitment to live and learn and love among us. We are sketching the circle around a table of sacrifice and grace when we gather for the sacrament of Communion. We’re drawing lines.
The problem is that we usually see that as a negative. Drawing lines is about limitation, we feel. It is about right and wrong, in and out. “Don’t fence me in,” we complain. “Don’t cramp my style”; “don’t get all up in my grill” ... actually they don’t say that anymore, but you get the point. Drawing lines goes against the great American value of freedom. We put the words “no limits” on the rear windows of our pickup trucks. We wear them on our jeans. They are not just a slogan; they are how we define ourselves, how we understand ourselves.
Yet, in our rational minds, we know that boundaries and rules are good things. And that is why we reluctantly accept them. Like a kid who wants to play late into the night but trudges up to bed anyway, we say that the lines are good for us. Like broccoli or cod liver oil. Close your eyes, and open up. Here it comes, all these words.
Oh, right. Those rules. Those lines. Got it. (Sigh.) We suppose it is for our own good. Right? Well, you have to wonder. Is God one to bring the whole nation of Israel out into the wilderness for a time out? Is this conversation started with a wag of the divine finger and slow shake of the holy head, displaying disappointment and the prelude to punishment? Are these ten words given because the people of God have proved unworthy, have fallen short of the ideal of who they could be, who they were intended to be? Are they being grounded by these words? Restricted, chastened, reproved by the law? Take your medicine, you won’t like it, but it’ll be good for you in the long run.
Or is there something else going on here? What if we took a whole different approach to the lines thing? What if we saw them not as limitations but as definitions? What if we looked at this moment in the history of the people of God not as punishment for less than stellar behavior, but as a gift because of a greater than imagined love?
Sure, there are boundaries in the covenant of marriage, but who would call them a punishment? Instead it is a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. We are redefined when we make that commitment to love and to cherish. We make promises that don’t constrain us so much as set us free to love. We aren’t hampered by the lines that are drawn so much as we are encouraged to go deeper and higher, to love more profoundly.
Baptism and confirmation are about making vows to love as well. The lines that are drawn are about finding your way into the fellowship and family of the church. It is about making a commitment to serve and to participate and gather with the community of faith. It is about claiming that in this journey that is life and faith, we acknowledge that we need support; we need companionship; we need a community to surround us as we make our pilgrim way.
Communion draws the lines and invites all to be inside. It isn’t about separation; it isn’t about better than or holier than. It is about invitation and inclusion. It is about welcome and hospitality. It is about a table of grace and finding your way in.
The ten words are not so much commandments that we ought to follow reluctantly or not, as they are descriptions of the kind of people we can choose to be. The people who love God (Words 1 through 4) and who love neighbor (Words 5 through 10). One Hebrew language teacher said we should retranslate them not as “Thou shall” or “Thou shall not” but as description, “You are the people who have one God” and “You are not the people who kill and steal and bear false witness.” That is just who we are and who we are not. God doesn’t say, “Jump through these hoops and I will love you.” Instead, God says, “My love for you will shape you into these kinds of people, this kind of community.”
And we live these descriptions into the world around us. We look across some lines, the lines that society has drawn, the lines that history has drawn that cause us to divide up into us and them, into good and bad. Our descriptions cross those worldly lines, those false divisions of race and ethnicity that instill in us the fear of the other. No, Jesus reminds us, these are our neighbors too; these are a part of the family of God, and we treat all with the same love and respect with which we treat those like us. We are all one family; that’s what these words are telling us.
Even further, these rules seem anthropocentric, but what if all creation was included? What if we began to treat the air and the water, the living creatures of this world, the resources available to us with the same kind of respect, drawing lines that we will not cross? Not taking benefit that causes harm elsewhere. What if these words were not just for the human community, but for the human community to determine how they were going to walk before God in all things? What if we heard these words as a description of the kin-dom, a redeemed Edenic environment of which we are but a part? What if this is what it meant when these words said, “So that your days may be long.”
How long? Into eternity. We draw the lines at a funeral as well. The lines of welcome into the heavenly home. And what we thought was a line, the line that divides life and death, was only a doorway, only a corner to turn, that brings us into a new reality. But the lines of God’s people define us here and there. God announces where the lines are for us to live well now, but also so that we will be at home in eternity with God. So that we will recognize the place when we get there. And we’ll go on living between the lines that God has drawn, now and in God’s eternity. All these words draw a picture that sees beyond our vision.