Sermon preached by Nils Chittenden for St Joseph’s Episcopal Church/Episcopal Center at Duke
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Even though I have lived in the States for almost five years now, my go-to source for news and current affairs remains the dear old BBC. I value its objectivity, its relative gravitas and the familiarity it brings to an ex-pat.
Obviously, the BBC needs to move with the times, and reflect the contemporary context, but I have to confess that my heart sank just a tiny bit when I saw an article the other day entitled ‘Six Reasons Why the Indian Rupee is in Freefall’.
Six Reasons why the Indian Rupee is in Freefall?
What is this? Is the BBC Buzzfeed now?
Well, this is the way things are going, you know. Part of the success of Buzzfeed is that it serves up these bite-sized chunks – we feel more in control of the prodigious amounts of information if we quantify it. ‘Six reasons why…. whatever’ gives us back a feeling of control, of manageability, of our time being corralled into discrete little packages, where we are spoon-fed stuff without us having to expend a whole ton of mental energy in the process.
You see, although my heart did sink a little when I saw the BBC going down this road, I am quite happy to waste far too much time on Buzzfeed as well. And I actually do have sympathy for us wanting to be spoon-fed our news and current affairs, because the amount of information, media, choices…. STUFF…. is such an overwhelming flood that it contributes to us feeling deeply unsettled, if truth be known.
Although the ‘Six Reasons How Numbered Lists Can Make Your Life Easier’ stories are apparently a new phenomenon, they’ve actually been going from time immemorial. Let’s not forget that a prominent celebrity once came down from a mountain in the east of present-day Egypt, with an article entitled ‘Ten Ways You Should Be Nice to Everyone and Keep the Wrath of God at Bay’.
I don’t mean to in any way diminish the witness of Moses to the need for his tribe of Israel to be more just and ordered and morally upright, but it seems to me to be the case that what Moses offered his people through his tablets of stone were bite-sized chunks of moral observance that both set out the kind of society God wanted, but also made it simpler and more manageable to keep on the right side of.
When Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai, what he brought back to the Israelites was a mediated version of what he, Moses, understood as best he could, the revelation of God. As well as being a supremely important framework that laid the foundations of all Judeo-Christian ethics, and in many ways laid down the global moral absolutes that we still live by today, the Ten Commandments were also among the earliest attempts in monotheistic religion to record a comprehensive picture of what the personality and character of God is.
However…. I fear that if Moses were working towards his MBA, he would need to be much clearer about the difference between aims and objectives.
Just to clarify – this is the way I think about the difference between aims and objectives: ‘Aims’ is where you want to get. ‘Objectives’ is how you get there.
You may be thinking what on earth this has to do with anything – and I’ll come back to Moses’ MBA in a minute.
One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that God’s revelation was mediated by Moses, and that the Ten Commandments were not just dictated and etched into the tablets by some kind of celestial 3D printer, is because of the Gospel reading that we heard today. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees which of the Ten Commandments is the greatest.
We’ll set aside for a moment the fact that this passage comes from a whole bunch of interactions Jesus had with the religious leaders of the day which were designed to entrap him.
So, Jesus answers, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And then Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Which is why I contend that Moses lacked clarity between aims and objectives: two of the commandments are akin to aims, the rest are objectives. To be honest, Moses could have had seventeen thousand commandments, but sixteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight of them would have just been description, because all anyone needed to know was that one should love God, and love one’s neighbor.
As I was saying in another sermon a few weeks back – John Lennon was absolutely right when he said ‘All you need is love’. It didn’t make him bigger than Jesus, though.
In the Epistle to the Romans (which we didn’t hear this morning), St Paul echoes what Jesus tells the Pharisees. This is what Paul says:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
It’s all very well, he says, having laws against crimes like murder, or adultery, but these laws would be utterly unnecessary if only we realized that we should to love our neighbors as ourselves. Fundamentally, there is no law, no statute, no rule, that does not boil down to this singularity and that if we were to be so bold as to love our neighbors as ourselves, that would be the last word.
Clearly, none of us are that bold. We have a go at loving our neighbors as ourselves, but we tend not to do a very good job of it, and so we end up needing more and more explicit instructions on how exactly we are meant to do it. And, despite some glaringly obvious exceptions, that’s all that the laws, statutes, regulations and rules throughout the history of humankind have been trying to achieve: to get us to love our neighbor as ourselves – and why Moses’ tablets of stone elaborated on the basics of love with some contextual laws for the tribe of Israel.
It seems to me that rather than simply thinking of laws and rules objectively, as ends in themselves, it would be good for us to think of them subjectively, basically asking ourselves the question, ‘how does this law or rule help me to love my neighbor as myself?’ Perhaps it is also a good test of determining the rightness or otherwise of a law. ‘Does it help me love my neighbor as myself?’ ‘Does it help me to treat others the way I would want to be treated myself?’
I think that all of us could do with thinking more consequentially about our actions. The Ten Commandments are often specific, yes. About not coveting one’s neighbor’s livestock, or worshiping huge golden calves. But the point is that we need to ask ourselves, ‘why might envy prevent me from treating my neighbor as I would want to be treated myself?’; ‘how might sexual promiscuity actually not be loving to my neighbor, and would I want to be treated in this way?’. Some actions, by themselves, might not seem that big a deal BUT take time to think through the consequences – not just the immediate, obvious ones, but the more removed, unforeseen ones, and something that seems relatively innocuous might not really be so.
Using the test on a law, or regulation, ‘does this help me to treat my neighbor as myself?’, ‘Is this being loving to my neighbor?’ can equally mean that actions that have been enshrined in law for centuries might not necessarily be loving to our neighbor.
God’s love cuts both ways – some of our human laws meet it, and others don’t. We’re never fully going to know which do, and which don’t – it’s never as clear-cut as that. In fact, it’s not easy at all.
Perhaps that why we like things in easy, bite-sized chunks, like Buzzfeed. Perhaps that why we often prefer to have our moral codes served up in manageable little packets like the Ten Commandments. Being told what to do is, after all, much less complicated than having to figure it out for ourselves. By Jesus’ time, the simplicity of God’s law had mushroomed into specific laws for almost every conceivable situation and, like the deluge of information and media that threaten to drown us today, those endless specific laws had actually stopped people thinking deeply about the simplicity of God’s love.
Of course, we do require laws. We are, sadly, self-serving and self-seeking people and more often than not we cannot be relied upon to exercise our self-discipline, personal responsibility and actions entirely motivated by love, but what I am saying is this: that we will be better people if we take the more demanding path than if we just opt for an uncomplicated and unthinking life of simply being told what to do.
To love is to take risks, to think for ourselves, to consider others, to dare to be different, to make the effort to discern a Christ-like response to a situation and not to confine God to sets of earth-bound rules.