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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

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O God-chosen waif down the lane serving families and God with gentle obedience, a smile across your brown face, your brown hair tied back to keep it out of the way of wash cloth, dust mop, dish water and bath water; were you waiting, were you listening for angelic footfalls or the wing startling breeze shaking the world like a snow globe-in an upside down, sideways, topsy-turvy cosmic revolution of grace

Were you, grace filled young woman, singing the ancient song of joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!” after Gabriel surprised you with the unfathomable good news?  Did you think mouths full of laughter were as joyful and wondrous as mouths full of Godiva raspberry truffles or Leo Bakery cakes layered with butter cream frosting? Did you know the joy of those who sowed their fields with the tears of exile, but who brought the harvest  home, the home God created for them, with shouts of joy?

Was that what made you race to your cousin Elizabeth? Because you just had to share the joy and wonder with someone? Did you know your aged cousin would share your joy because what mother has not waited for the first stirrings of her child or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb? Was your and Elizabeth’s twin joy expressing the joy of all mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child, making every child’s birth a sign of salvation, of being blessed, of living with promise and realizing its fulfillment? Did you sense God’s saving work in your life to be the invitation to consider how the experience of patient expectancy teaches human beings God’s way of gracious work? Was your and Elizabeth’s joy peaked by waiting?  Did you realize your aged cousin’s son was the one who will bring one age to the close while you, the young mother, would birth a son who will usher into being God’s new age? Did you already feel blessed by God? Did you grasp the full meaning of the leaping joy of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb at your arrival? Did you realize your blessing for trusting God had already happened?  Did you hear all of that in Elizabeth’s song to you? Did you think the joining of this wonder with God’s saving work was God’s brilliant idea, so you might experience God’s gracious acts of new life in the same way the prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant in his song, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Was this servant’s song, your song, Mary? Did you feel the way the prophet Isaiah did at his call, you who are the unlikely one living in a remote, country village, yet blessed by God to birth a child who will be a blessing to countless generations throughout the world?

Is that why you sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Was joy filling every nano particle of your being until it overflowed in glad abandonment? Was that why you, Mary, so joyously proclaimed that all of your actions, your thoughts, your daily activities- every aspect of your being—the entirety of all that makes you this distinctive person named Mary-will point all people to see the greatness of God in all that God does? Pointing to the promises of comfort and strength for those who mourn that they might have garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning? Pointing to the promises of new life springing forth like crocus shooting up out of the earth. Pointing to the healing of all who suffer, Pointing to all who have been pushed to margins of society are being drawn toward the communities center.

Is that why Mary sings aloud with the excitement and wonder of a joy that pours out of her like a thunderous spring swollen waterfall cascading down a mountainside, “for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant, Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed?”

Indeed, God’s blessing of life within Mary, transforms her and her life so decisively she will never be the person she dreamed she might become. Instead, she and her life will be celebrated for the wonder and amazement of God creating a new life  the way a caterpillar is transformed by the cocoon into the stunningly beautiful Monarch butterfly that will fly from flower to flower in spring delighting our eyes and imaginations with such amazement and awe that we are compelled to share with others this wonder. Future generations will remember God-transformed Mary and will say, “Yes, God has blessed you Mary with such extraordinary joy that rejoicing and praise is the only possible response to this pure gift of grace.”

“There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy, “a theologian writes. “It has no relation to merit or demerit. It is not a quality they have wrested from the vicissitudes of life. To them joy is given as a precious ingredient in life. And, wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others. To be touched by them is to be blessed of God.”

Mary is one such person. Through her we experience a tantalizing taste of joy in this our season of anticipation and expectation. After all, she is one of us. She was not powerful like a queen or a president. She was not even one of the wise women of the village.

Yet, out of all the women in the world God could choose to take part in this wondrous blessing, God chooses Mary to receive this life-transforming blessing of joy. She didn’t get a detailed explanation about why she was being chosen. God simply sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary this good news with the familiar, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Which is, but one of the ways grace comes bounding into our lives like a puppy romping through new fallen snow. Mary’s experience of grace was mysterious because it did not fit with the rhyme of common sense or laws of logic, but worked based on some kind of out of left field, principle of divine math where two plus two equals 27.

However, at other times, grace makes a serendipitous appearance, showing up just when we need it most like a non-essential embellishing note in a musical score, whose beauty is unmistakable and carries with it splendor and an over-the-top quality of unanticipated loveliness.

Then, again we may experience grace moving unobtrusively, calmly gliding under our lives, so we might land on our feet when we’ve lost our way. Of course, there is the grace that dresses up in everyday clothes, experienced in the common rough and tumble moments of life, working through our myriad fragilities and adjusting to where we happen to be at any given moment to take us to the place where well-being and joy overflow. But, sometimes grace is weightless, effortlessly entering our lives with levity and humor like a precious buoy of hope reminding us that strident morality lends heaviness to much of life and legalism simply drowns the human spirit.

Whichever way grace chooses to come to us, it brings a fullness of life into being, which move us to songs of gratitude and joy. The same joy recurring throughout the Gospel of Luke from the joy of the annunciation and the visitation and births of John and Jesus to the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead to new life, outcasts of the community being drawn to the center of Jesus’ ministry to the ascension joy of the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and entering the Temple praising God for resurrection and the Holy Spirit pouring over them setting ablaze their passion for humanity transforming justice leading to peace.

This is the joyous praise for a new life as intimately connected to God as Mary is connected to the life within her, compelling all who experience it to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” because we too are those whose mouths are filled with laughter, those whose whole being is filled with the overflowing joy of God’s love.

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