Trinity 18: The Ten Commandments Exodus 20, 1-4, 7-9, 19-20 & Matthew 21, 33-end
There is a saying isn’t there that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ I guess many of us will have heard the Ten Commandments so often that it becomes easy to gloss over the depth of their meaning; it’s like that with a lot of the words we both hear and say in church on a regular basis. And, yet just occasionally, it is good to ponder anew the foundations of our faith which are summarised through the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Grace and so forth. In Lent next year I plan to do some teaching on the Lord’s Prayer but today let’s focus on the Ten Commandments. I will, however, be doing so with reference to the Lord’s Prayer.
Recently I met with a very remarkable lady. She was born into another faith and yet wants her children to be brought up in a distinctly Christian environment. She above all else values the notion of religious community at its best. She explained to me that she wants her children to have the freedom to be the people that only they can be, but that she wants them to live within certain moral limits. She also wants them to know their place in the greater scheme of things; in other words to know that God is God and they are his creation. What I would want to suggest is that this lady, who has to my knowledge never received any formal theological training, possesses a profound understanding of the theology behind the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments begin with the notion that God is to be treated with awe and respect; he is after all the ‘our Father who art in heaven.’ To rank anything alongside or even above God is to commit the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is the most dangerous of all sins because what it does is to invert the most sacred of relationships. When people individually, or even communally, commit idolatry what they are essentially doing is ranking themselves above God in the pecking order. The result of this can only ever be the misuse of power and authority. The consequence then becomes, as we have heard in the gospel reading, tyranny, violence and ultimately death. So, as Christians to pray ‘Our Father’ is to acknowledge our status before the all loving God, which in turn frees us from the temptation to commit the worst of sins.
The remainder of the commandments then provide people of faith with the basic standards of morality to govern life. They set boundaries. They suggest we shouldn’t steal, that we shouldn’t covet, or tell lies, and that we should honour our parents. What they are doing, again by reference to the Lord’s Prayer, is suggesting that we shouldn’t commit acts of ‘trespass.’
Trespass is an interesting word and has clear technical and legal connotations but I prefer to think about the word as a real infringement against other people’s freedom to be themselves; the people they were created to be. When we ‘trespass’ we cross not just technical but moral boundaries. And, of course, the place where sin, or ‘trespass’ begins the toxic journey of disrespect, intolerance and violence is in our hearts, in our desires, hence the commandment that we shouldn’t ‘covet.’ Coveting and idolatry are the very DNA of sin.
If we want to live out the Ten Commandments the place where we must start is by paying honest attention to the state of our hearts. The phrases in the Lord’s Prayer ‘our Father who art in heaven’ and ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ are perhaps appeals to be liberated from the sins of idolatry and the tendency to covet?
So are the Ten Commandments sufficient to allow us to live a truly moral life; one which ensures that our relationships are characterised by respect for both God and each other? Are they alone capable of allowing us to live as God’s chosen people in harmony with others? I suspect not! Now that may in itself sound blasphemous but what I would want to suggest is that they are the starting point. They are our basic Christian duties, and there is nothing wrong with duty. Duty is not an old fashioned, passed its sell-by-date notion. But, what we really need, for the sake of human flourishing, is duty animated and strengthened by love. Jesus after all sums up the entirety of the law by stressing that we should first love God and then love our neighbour. Love is the divine impulse, the energy that makes all things good.
So when we read the Ten Commandments and pray the Lord’s Prayer let us do so having opened ourselves up to the Love of God, for when we do so the words ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ become real and explicit through the way we live our lives and people, like the lady I spoke with earlier in the week, will continue to be drawn into the community of faith.
Living the Ten Commandments animated by love is to live a life of infectious evangelical witness and, put simply, that is our calling; yours and mine.
Sermon 1st October St Michaels and All Angels; Hebrews 1, 5-end & John 1, 47-end
Angels are an interesting subject. We don’t really know a lot about them and we don’t, at least knowingly, seem to bump into them in our everyday life. They are strange and other. Maybe, that’s part of their rationale. Angels are quite an interesting phenomena for our times, because they simply cannot be empirically, or scientifically, proved. This week I have asked a fair few people ‘do you believe in angels,’ and I have been surprised to discover that many people, rationally minded people, do indeed believe in angels.
Angels have of course been the subject of films and music – think Dan Brown, Robbie Williams and Abba – so there is undoubtedly something intriguing about them. I particularly like how Abba describe the angelic rationale:
‘I have a dream, a fantasy, to help me through reality, and my destination makes it worth the while, pushing through the darkness still another mile. I believe in angels, something good in everything I see, I believe in angels.’
Angels for Abba exist to accompany us through reality, occasionally, grim reality, helping us to keep in mind that we have a final destination. A destination that will be defined by goodness.
Angels, I think, help us to keep hold of the notion of goodness even when things seem dark. Angels are light bearers. The collect that I read just a few minutes ago stresses the role of angels in ‘helping and defending us on earth.’ I suspect that many of us will at least have had a sense such an unexplainable angelic presence; a force or power that keeps us going. It is this sense that I suspect allows rationale human beings to say, yes ‘I believe in angels.’
The ‘first Christian theologian’ Origen was convinced that angels were real spiritual beings and, that our destiny is to become one with the angels, as members of ‘the communion of saints.’ Liturgically we celebrate our destiny through the words in the Eucharistic Prayer where we proclaim that in our earthly communion we are joined by the ‘angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.’
There is a saying, isn’t there, that such and such a person maybe ‘so heavenly good that they are of no earthly use.’ Well, I suspect that the angelic role is to ensure that we are of earthly use, whilst continually holding before us the notion that heaven is to become our spiritual home. The gospel reading concludes with the words ‘very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,’ Jesus in other words.
The use of the metaphor Son of Man is used to depict Jesus in his fleshiness and humanity. Angels, although they are ‘other world’ beings exist to help us become more fully human, so we can be of earthly use, as ‘this world beings’ They do this by defending us and shining light into, through and beyond the darkness for us. I don’t think it is possible to logically and empirically prove that strange phenomenon called angels exist but I do think it is credible based on experience to testify to the angelic presence. So like Robbie Williams, Abba, and the theologian Origen I too believe in Angels.
One final thought: when we share in the Eucharist today lets seek to do so in the belief that we truly are sharing in our earthly communion alongside the ‘Angels, Archangels and All the Company of Heaven.’ Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Sermon for Addington Harvest Festival: Psalm 65 & Luke 12, 16-30
A couple of years ago when my elder daughter’s boyfriend came to stay we invited him to our harvest festival service. He looked confused which was strange because he is a very intelligent chap. ‘What’s a harvest festival he asked?’ We explained. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘we have a similar festival on Jersey,’ where he is from. On Jersey their harvest festival is to celebrate the work of the fishing industry. We are about as far from the sea as you can get so I suppose a festival to celebrate the off-shore fishing industry wouldn’t really work here. But, I think that it is important to celebrate and give thanks for harvest in the context you are located in. We are blessed to be surrounded by beautiful and gently mellow countryside.
Celebration and thanks, or gratitude, are two of the key harvest watchwords. At harvest we celebrate the work of all who work the land to provide us with food and harvest reminds us of the importance of gratitude for the beauty of the natural environment. The words of the reading from Psalm 65 make precisely this point:
‘You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it, the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon trucks overflow with richness, the pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout together and sing for joy.’
Harvest invites us to give thanks for the inheritance of the natural environment, or created order. We should also, of course, treat it with dignity and respect. If the reading from the Psalm leads us into attitude of respectful gratitude then the reading from Luke’s gospel prompts us to thinking about simplicity and, ‘enoughness.’
I profoundly believe that we, as a species, need to recapture the virtue of simplicity. We need to develop a richer understanding of the stanza in the Lord’s Prayer where we say ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ When we pray this line we are also saying ‘please help us to ensure that the produce of the earth’s goodness is equitably shared.’ This sentiment, expressed in one stanza, stand in opposition to the aspirations of the rich man – or ‘fool’ – in the gospel story.
From this benefice we can’t change the world, but we can play our part, and we are playing our part. We will continue to play our part. Through playing our part, through living the harvest virtues of gratitude, simplicity and generosity with a commitment to equality and justice we can help shape the world for the better and surely that in a nutshell defines our ‘harvest vocation?’
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
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