Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ten Commandments - the place of rules

Yet again, I have found the sermon at St James educational, affirming and enlightening especially when Michael Horsburgh is preaching. Last Sunday the topic was the Ten Commandments which does not sound very inspiring. I have chosen to copy sections of the sermon which were most helpful to me. The complete sermon is available as a pdf file on the church website. I have emphasised some sections.

For us the Ten Commandments might appear to be part of the landscape of our faith, something always there. Yet we almost never mention them. I want this morning to suggest that they offer us some challenges that go beyond their apparent role as moral and religious law. Like many familiar biblical passages these Commandments have some hidden traps and some surprising challenges.

We think of adultery, if indeed, we still regard it as a sin, as a sexual relationship outside marriage by a married person. In the context of this commandment, the offence is narrower and is more limited to events involving married women, who are the property of their husbands. Any man who had a sexual relationship with another man’s wife committed adultery, whether he was married or not. If he was married and had a sexual relationship with an unmarried woman it was not adultery, despite the fact that the woman’s father, her current owner, would be very angry, not least because his property had been damaged.
As far as the women were concerned, the married woman committed adultery regardless of the marital status of the man, but the single women did not commit adultery with the married man. This context is confirmed by the tenth commandment, which is clearly directed towards the intending adulterer eying up his neighbour’s wife, along with his neighbour’s other property. In this sense, adultery is a form of theft rather than infidelity. It is an offence against another man rather than against the adulterer’s wife. When the prophet Nathan rebukes King David over his adultery with Bathsheba he uses precisely the analogy of the theft of a lamb. The lamb herself barely rates a mention. This analysis is a clear warning against assuming that ideas about marriage and sexual behaviour can easily be carried unchanged over the centuries.

They are part of a set of 613 commandments that Jewish authorities regard as the whole of the law given by God. A considerable part of the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are given over to these laws, which cover a range of both liturgical and secular issues. Amongst them are some of the laws that lie behind the divisions currently exercising the Anglican Communion. When we see them in that context, we will realise that there is a huge debate about which of these rules should be obeyed and, if so, what they mean. Whatever we might learn from this debate, it is apparent that absolutely nobody argues that we should accept them all. Jewish communities, as well as Christian ones, have always had to wrestle with the problem of how to apply ancient rules in a way that is both respectful to them and relevant to changing circumstances.

Thus our attempt to understand the Ten Commandments also exposes how we relate to the
Bible: what authority does it have, and how should we interpret it? There are no purists here, not even in the Diocese of Sydney. Lest we think that these are simply academic questions, we should also note that they have practical outcomes in both ecclesiastical and secular politics. The most obvious current example is the kind of legislation that we should have about the rights of gay couples. But we have had the same debates about slavery and the death penalty.

This debate may tempt us to think that the Bible is principally about the creation of laws. If we do, we will be inclined to take, for example, the comments of Paul about women in church as rules, rather than statements in a specific context.

In the preface to his recent short study on the Ten Commandments, Scott Cowdell comments on his aunt and grandmother, who, he says,
Despite a lifetime of weekly attendance at church ... had picked up a largely moralistic understanding of Christianity. Religion was primarily about how you lived your life, and the function of worship was to provide reinforcement for certain norms of behaviour. ... Sadly, my grandmother died in fear of an angry God, with no apparent understanding of grace and salvation despite 89 years of regular church attendance.

It may help us to ask some fundamental questions.
The first question is; who are we? To this question the commandments give two different answers: one about God, the other about ourselves.
The answer about God comes in the first three commandments: we are a people who depend on God; so we do not replace God with lesser and competing priorities; and we do not misuse God for our own purposes, the God is on our side syndrome. The answer about ourselves comes from the fourth and fifth commandments: keeping the Sabbath and honouring our parents. We should acknowledge and value our heritage and tradition; and live in a space that has room for our spiritual life.

The second question is; what defines our community? Commandments six, seven and eight, against murder, adultery and stealing, draw our attention to the cardinal values of respect for life, of faithfulness and of integrity. Without these values no community can long survive.

The third question is; how shall we encourage virtue? Virtue is the way in which we make our values into our normal way of life. We can understand this if we reflect that we don’t agonise about our actions all the time. Certainly some things pose us problems but, for the most part, we do naturally what we know we should do. Commandments nine and ten, about not lying and not coveting, remind us of this need for virtue. They anticipate our mistakes and seek to head them off.

If we ask these questions, we will make these commandments into life giving guides to a healthy community here at St James’ and elsewhere. We will also be protected from turning our Scriptures into rules and instead see them as avenues of grace and freedom. We will know who we are, we will know what we value and we will know how to live. Above all, we will live in freedom and generosity.

Michael finished with the verse from Frederick Faber’s hymn, ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ which as I told him is on my webpage.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own

These ideas might seem quite commonplace in many areas of the Anglican communion but not here in the Diocese of Sydney. I was reminded of this when speaking with an acquaintance who told me he had been accepted for ordination as a deacon in another diocese within Australia but has to remain living and working for a time within the Diocese of Sydney while he continues his studies.
He wants to work in a parish but his ordination will not be recognised in Sydney as he is divorced and remarried. He must work as a catechist and had just filled in the necessary forms which asked him if he had ever sighted pornography and had ever had sex outside marriage. I must ask him when we next meet if he was also asked about envy, greed, gluttony, anger and sloth. Somehow I doubt it, they are not so important in this diocese.

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