“A Foretaste of the Feast to Come”

This summer, I traveled with our confirmation class and others from First Church to Guatemala to learn and serve. It’s always fun, on such journeys, to encounter each other’s weird habits. I won’t go into everyone else’s… But, my quirk was photographing plates of food before I ate them. I just couldn’t help it – I was completely intrigued by the cultural fusion those kitchen ladies cooked up. All the meals at the parish were a cross between traditional Guatemalan cuisine and what the women perceived to be the standard fare of Minnesotans. A typical breakfast was dull oatmeal accompanied by sweet, delicious bananas, and gorgeous black beans: dark and shiny, soft, but not mushy. A sample lunch: homemade corn tortillas, macaroni with a light cheese sauce, beef stir fry, and watermelon. It intrigued me the way these Guatemalan chefs took two quite different cultures of food, with very different “rules” about how to cook and what to eat, and freely combined them.

The 10 commandments represent a similar dialogue between rules and freedom. The preacher and teacher Thomas Long reflects on the story of Alabama justice Roy Moore who fought to keep a monument to the commandments in his courthouse. Long points out that that this monument was extremely heavy: it weighed 5,280 pounds, approximately 500 pounds per commandment. Long writes: In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.” For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society. (“Dancing the Decalogue”, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006. p. 17.)

Yet this sense of the commandments as burdens does not fit their biblical context. Today’s text from Exodus begins with these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me.” This verse links the commandments with the experience of the Exodus. God liberated the people from slavery in Egypt, and God continues to bring freedom – that’s the framework for these laws. For generations, the Israelites wandered an aimless path in the desert. They complained, rebelled, despaired, and even grew nostalgic for the land of their bondage. The commandments are meant not to be burdensome, but to ease the confusion and terror of that journey through the wilderness. These rules are intended to give the people the structure and security they need in order to leave behind habits of slavery, and live fully into God’s gift of radical freedom.

This week, I came across the kids’ book If Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover. It starts like this, “When there’s only one, that’s just SOMEBODY. But when there’s one …and one… and one… and more… that’s EVERYBODY. Did you ever think of what would happen if EVERYBODY did things like…” “Make tracks? The next page shows dirty foot prints in ridiculous places: on the couch and the crib, on the baby in the crib, all over the walls and paintings and even on the ceiling. Another page asks, “Did you ever think of what would happen if Everybody squeezed the cat? On the following page, the cat’s anatomy is permanently molded into an hourglass shape.

Freedom, in our biblical tradition, does not mean doing anything we want. It does not mean we have license to track in mud or squeeze the cat. Nor does it allows us to set aside the consequences of our overconsumption of energy or our collective failure to create an economy in which all have access to a living wage, to health care, to good food. We are free, not to be rugged individualsts, but to pursue the good of self and community as an intertwined whole. Amy Erickson observes “The commandments mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and one another.” (Commentary for “Working Preacher”: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/2/2011&tab=2&alt=1)

Keeping Sabbath is the commandment that lies at the very heart of this biblical notion of freedom. The Sabbath commandment is grounded in the identity of God as creator. We stop our work and rest once a week in order to remember that it is God, and not us, who is creating heaven and earth. The Sabbath command extends to EVERBODY – children, exiles and immigrants, domestic animals, and slaves. Yes, its ironic and troubling, the freed slaves held slaves. Yet this command asks, “what if EVERYBODY was able to rest, to find renewal, to recover perspective? It demands an economy in which all are free to live a sustainable life, financially, physically, and spiritually. As Creator, then, God is also liberator. Keeping the Sabbath, keeping any of the commandments, is not an end unto itself, but a glimpse of what the world could and should be like. It is a “foretaste of the feast to come”

Last year was my first Rummage Sale at First Church. As the day approached and the stuff piled up all around us, hemming us in on all sides, I really wondered … is this a burden or a joy for the congregation? Something we do more out of obligation than in freedom?  But when the day came, it was a feast – and indeed a foretaste of that great feast that gathers all, that renews weary, hopeless spirits, that heals creation’s wounds and rifts. A wondrously diverse crowd of people just kept streaming in, filling every cranny of this building with energy. All day, I sat at tables eating soup, bread, and treats and simply talking to people, learning about their lives. It was amazing, the way they talked about the sale- some who had come to taste this feast of community yearly for decades. When I told them it was my first year, they smiled knowingly, as if letting me in on a secret. They replied, “oh, isn’t it wonderful?”

Today, we receive the Neighbors in Need Offering of the United Church of Christ. Each year this offering gives grants to about 50 different non-profits who engage in ministries of justice and compassion across the US. One of this year’s bulletin inserts tells a story about the San Francisco Night Ministry. Rev. Thom Longino describes his work: “Many nights I start my nightly walk by going to a Burger King near our home base of operations. I have gotten to know several of the guys who panhandle there. There is one in particular, ‘Mason,’ with whom I have had extensive conversations— sometimes over coffee and donuts, but mostly standing there while he panhandles at the drive-thru” Longino explains that “Since I have known Mason, he has gone from sleeping on the streets and sometimes on friends’ floors, to having his own room in a residential hotel. Mason has also started to think about what he wants to do for money by not panhandling. Mason is thinking of gardening or working as an in-home health aide. I do not claim responsibility for this. However, Mason has said that our on-going conversations have often been the impetus for his thinking about his future.” It seems REALLY important to notice that it is not charity that is transforming Mason’s life, but the gift of accompaniment, the structure and support of conversations that gently hold him accountable for the choices he makes with his own freedom.

You may be wondering what’s up with the bulletin cover this week.  (It was a numbered list without content)  Did we forget to print something?  Nope.  It’s an invitation to compose your own Ten Best Words of freedom. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches that we can sum up not only the commandments, but the entire Jewish law, with love for God, self and neighbor. (Matthew 22: 34-40) So, the question is: what particular rules, structure, or accountability would free you to more fully and fruitfully enact that love?

Again and again, it seems that we need to hear Gospel, the good news, that we are free people, that we can choose the life we most desire, that we can claim a path that accords with our deepest values.

We are free to let God be God.

We are free from the gods of our own creation: money, power, violence.

We are free to talk about God in ways that give life.

We are free to rest.

We are free to care for our elders and learn from them.

We are free to solve our problems peacefully.

We are free to keep our promises. We are free to be honest.

We are free to speak with love about each other.

We are free to be happy with what we have.  Amen.