Beginning Again at the Beginning
copyright Douglas B. Olds, 2008
Beginning Again at the Beginning
A Sermon Presented to Montgomery Chapel
San Francisco Theological Seminary
Douglas Olds, October 3, 2008
Lectionary Text: Exodus 20: 1-4; 7-9; 12-20
What happens when the 10 Commandments are read in church?
Do we suspect that seekers in the room are turned off by demands for self-control?
Do our ears burn with cultural embarrassment because conservative Alabama judges nail them to their coutroom walls?
Is vision colored by Hollywood:
Charlton Heston hugging rock, cowering and waiting for the encounter with threat and fire to be over.
Is our grasp on God’s grace loosened because they seem to demand the impossible?
All these are valid parts in the dense layering of Christian experience.
Because Sunday is World Communion Sunday, my message is that Mount Sinai is eternally a stop on the World’s pilgrimage toward Christ. I structure my thoughts on on Karl Barth’s thought that “we turn to God by beginning again at the Beginning.”
We might turn to God by beginning again at the beginning of the church:
The first epoch of Christian history inside Judaism worked to harmonize the appearance of the messiah with the Temple. The Hellenistic era of Christianity that follows proposes Constantinian settlements flexible in carving out domains of command and control for both Empire and Church. Hellenism’s scholastic settlements propose timeless, unchanging images of God to accommodate western cultures’ calls for permanence.
Christianity’s third historical epoch, according to Karl Rahner, began to take shape when the West began to decolonize, dispersing the demographic and cultural center of Christianity from the West to the Global South.
[Exegesis:] To understand this shift, we might begin again at the beginning with Jesus’ proclamation to the Judaic communities of his day—the Reign of God was near, and with it the need for repentance toward God’s grace. Were these found in the temple?
Jesus remarked that its worshipers trusted in their tithes of dill and cumin; they redirected filial obligations away from mother and father through corban temple promises. Jesus marked temple corruption by overturning the tables of Mammon and predicting the temple’s destruction. He directed Peter to obtain the Temple fee from a fish’s mouth so that their presence in the Temple might exhibit outward propriety; and the time was coming when one would no longer worship on Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth.
To begin once again at the beginning, with the positive message of Jesus,
it is my reading that he locates Israel’s holiness in the Decalogue. For Jesus, the Decalogue is a revelatory text, and he guides those who come to him to the Decalogue’s guidance and authority.
More than that, Jesus intensifies the relationality prophetically outlined by the Decalogue:
Not only will you not kill, you will not curse.
Not only will you not commit adultery, you will not look with lust upon someone else’s spouse.
Not only will you love your neighbor, you will love your enemy.
Not only will you read the Decalogue in the Kingdom of Heaven, great is the one who keeps it and teaches others to do so.
The Gospel of John’s prologue proposes that what Christ teaches pre-dates Jesus’ birth. The pre-existent logos is that action through history which points beyond itself to the Reign of God and acts in service of neighbor, as the Decalogue does.
So the world is called to turn to God by beginning at the Beginning, at Mount Sinai.
After passing through the Sea of Reeds, which commits the Passover Community to becoming God’s earthly agents in the Promised Land, there was no going back. We read at Exodus 19.6, in the Shadow of Sinai, that the Passover Community discovers its commissioning to become a Royal Priesthood, a Kingdom of Priests.
It is in this narrative context of mission that the Decalogue Declarations of God appear. The first declaration names God and points to the act by which God wishes to be known:
I am the Lord who has freed you from servitude in Egypt.
The God who elected Abraham now acts in history as the Liberating God.
God’s davarim, God’s words, continue. I believe these are better translated as Declarations than as commandments. These davarim are not imperatives. They are indicatives. They summarize indicators of relationality.
You will do this in relation with God that points to God’s reign in your life; you will not do that because of the interests and needs of your neighbor. Stated in the future tense, these Declarations indicate a coming reality.
These indicative declarations all refer to a singular “you” as either subject or object.
God’s declarations point prophetically toward election and fulfillment rather than judgmentally. In this, they inspire apocalyptic desire, a desire for Decalogue relationality. According to my reading of the Bible, the tragedy after grace is that the priestly royal mission and the apocalyptic desire are lost to pragmatic arrangements and human reciprocity. The community prefers the creation of human idols of the future to the living and life-making leadership of God in the present.
In the Biblical history that follows, God reappears with various epithets, speaking through prophets to negatively guide—
that is condemn—
both monarchic and priestly factions.
The Prophets come to re-orient the ritual appeasement of God’s NO
And proclaim God’s NO to elite-orchestrated injustice and exclusivity.
Yet on this side of the resurrection, we are enabled to read the Decalogue not as command
but as commissioning leadership that will guide with a giant YES to God and a prophetic NO to neighbor violations; we might see the Decalogue as unveiling Wisdom to the whole People of God.
[Application:] Let me illustrate this interpretation of the prophetic Decalogue by bringing up the Mayor of San Francisco’s adultery with the wife of his top advisor.
When the advisor found out, he quit, as did a number of other high officials in Newsom’s government. I remarked at the time that the Mayor was going to find himself with a lot of new friends—with whom he shared less relational history and commitment. It has since seemed to me that his civic leadership and commitment has waned.
Does this creeping failure reflect God’s punishment for commandment violation?
This same dynamic played out in the waning days of Eliot Spitzer’s governorship in New York.
His longtime confidants and advisors railed bitterly in the press about his betrayal of what they had worked for and committed to: his leadership career.
Was Spitzer brought down by God’s punishment?
If we read the Decalogue as a re-orienting historical waypoint in the Christocentric narrative of election and desire for life, there is after the Resurrection no divine punishment in these events, only divine guidance. It is the Risen Lord’s wisdom that is revealed—we are able to discern how leadership fails when a leader introduces betrayal into that group he leads. The community loses trust in the leader to unify and build purpose when he or she betrays the just interests of the community.
The result is spreading estrangement and disorientation within the community, and the leadership and the community break apart. We might be seeing examples of this in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, where covetousness and false witness are alleged to dominate.
[Conclusion:] In this moment of crisis in a tightly connected, fallen world, the Decalogue is an essential symbolic layer in the Good News of Christ. All may expect forgiveness because of Christ’s victory. At this juncture in history, American Protestants celebrating World Communion might attempt to prolong, refine, and lead from its Hellenistic center, or we may follow the Spirit’s unfolding of history that has made America a melting pot microcosm of developments in World Christianity.
Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal, New Age environmentalism and animist seekers, demographic power located in the young, and God’s walk with the poor.
In this mix, Calvinism’s understanding of the right and resolving tension between law and grace can be the basis for world dialogue: Christ’s leadership is acknowledged when even those outside the church accept the Decalogue’s moral seriousness. After that, the Church is commissioned to announce the good news, the unveiling of salvation, the forgiveness obtained for us by the ministry of the Cross.
World Christianity is building upon the cornerstone of Christ-centered narratives of election that signal God’s overflowing desire for creation.
This is very good news, and is the foundation for our role as peacemakers.
In the narrative Trinity of election, liberation, and salvation, the Decalogue promotes a mission that prepares the way and makes straight the paths for the approaching reign of salvation.
Instead of betraying neighbor in order to serve our idols of the future—our ego’s being in becoming—repentant humanity fulfills its divine calling of “becoming through being.”
Being present, being here, being free, being ready to serve, witness, and proclaim.
Being fully present is living life in prayer.
In this sense, World Christianity will be an endeavor of mutually defining our Christian identity, with the demographic and theological center in the young and the poor a corrective to the West’s privilege over dogma and a claim on its accumulation of resources.
By beginning again at the beginning, we need not look into what is hidden away from us by the design of heaven—the primordial image of God or the structure of God’s apocalypse.
Instead, we look all around and see neighbors and enemies, and neighbors who are enemies.
They are not hidden from us by God’s election, and neither is Christ’s love for them.
Forward, back, and all around: in time and space we see Christ accompanying birth and death, misery and joy, friendship and forsakenness. Among the many-layered meanings brought to this table is the expression of Christ’s eternal trust in and desire for the creation of time and space.
Christ’s is an unquenchable desire for living.
As sin leads fallen history from crisis to crisis, our desire for the Decalogue future grows and grows until it overflows our capacities for anticipation and dreaming.Our overwhelming desire, thirst and hunger for the Decalogue future flows into the living, beating heart of each present moment.
The Decalogue becomes an eternal moment in the World’s pilgrimage to Christ.
It attends this Table through the dense layering of the Christ narrative. This Table is where the world comes to transcend its dread of time because of its past, and to train instead for eternity, an eternity in eternal love with the present.
By turning to God in crisis by beginning again at the beginning, God renews our hope for the future in a way that radically reorients us to the present.
Thanks be to God for this marvelous and sustaining grace. AMEN.