God’s framework for living

Sermon given Sunday 3rd March 2024 by Thames North Synod Moderator, Revd George Watt at St. Andrew’s URC Ealing

Reading Psalm 19:7-14; Exodus 20:1-17

In one of my previous churches which was by and large very plain apart from the war memorials, a church member offered to have the Ten Commandments carved on to the wood panelling. Sadly Peter died before we could even discuss it and the suggestion went no further. I wasn’t sure about it even though it is a feature in many churches. I wondered whether it would feel like pinning the rules to the walls and we often have enough of those around our churches anyway – don’t move this table, chairs should only be stacked 6 high, no food in the sanctuary (even although we have communion – rules are made to be broken).

It was in that Church early on in my ministry that we had Canon J John come to lead a mission along with other local churches. It was a 10 week series based on the ten commandments. Much of what he said stuck with me. First of all we automatically think that thy are about a set of ‘Do not’s’ which was part of my reticent about carving them on the walls. But the context is a very positive one ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ These are not not rules from some malevolent dictator but the creator God who comes to rescue, who come to bring life and bring it in all its fullness. What follows is a response to who God is and what he has done. It is a two sided relationship, a covenant relationship – God is the protector and we gladly subject ourselves to his kingship, because his kingdom is what we hope and long for. A kingdom very different to some of our experience today.

It may seem strange that I have just chosen two Old Testament readings when we might see ourselves as New Testament people. Indeed we might rightly struggle with somethings we find in the Old Testament, but that is no reason to throw it all away. It is still part of the story, our story and is relevant – honestly. Jesus, when he came proclaimed ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ We can sometimes think that rules and laws are negative and sometimes pointless. But Jesus makes it clear that God’s law has a purpose.

Like many I have struggled with perhaps not so much the 10 commandments but some parts of the first 5 books of the Old Testament which we know as the Pentateuch and referred to as The Law. The light bulb moment came when it was described to me as being a way of life.

I find the image of a walled garden a very helpful one in this respect. It has boundaries and we can focus on these boundaries and see them as being constraining but actually they enable those in the garden to enjoy the freedom and the safety of it. Of course I would want there to be a door so that the walls are not there to exclude but that there should be a way in.

Some might say that being told that we always have to drive on the left hand side is very restricting. But it doesn’t take much imagination to think about the chaos that would ensue if people drove on whatever side they wanted to or if people ignore red traffic lights. Traffic laws are there to keep everyone safe and to enable freedom of travel. So with God’s Law.

God gave the ten commandments to the Children of Israel as they were leaving the land of slavery and as they were preparing to enter into the freedom of the promised land. God was preparing them for a new way of living. Lest we think that God gives us his laws to restrict and constrain us, remember that in actual fact he has given them that we might enjoy the freedom that Christ brings.

We can look at the Ten Commandments and think to ourselves that’s fine I haven’t broken any of those rules and feel very righteous. We haven’t stolen or indeed murdered anyone this week, (although we may have been tempted to do so). And therein lies the first challenge. Jesus pointed out that it isn’t just what we do but also even what we think that can be wrong.  He said ‘For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.’ Gulp, perhaps I am not so good at keeping the law as I thought.

We can also be superficial in the way that we read the ten commandments. No, we probably haven’t walked into a bank and held up the cashier and told them to hand over the money. But I wonder if I might have claimed too much in my expenses or borrowed something from somebody and not returned it. I am not intending to heap guilt on people, but we need to open our eyes to see where we have acted in ways we shouldn’t have. People may not notice, it may not seem to be very important in the scheme of things. But as we are faithful and live a life of integrity we can make a difference and we will stand out as people to be trusted. When we had the mission people were encouraged to return money and things to their rightful owners. Failing that we had buckets available for people to use to put money and items in that they couldn’t return. They were then passed on to charity.

And this is not just a personal thing. It is true for us a Church as well. If we employ people then they should get a fair wage. We seek to use fair trade products, so that we do not steal what rightly belongs to the producers. We take care of the planet so that we don’t steal the future of our children and grandchildren. You shall not steal, seems to be so easy but are we prepared to wrestle with what it means for us in our individual and collective lives?

You shall not kill. Again sounds so straight forward and irrelevant to the way we live our lives. But the Bible for instance talks a lot about the power of the tongue. It is very easy for us to say things that damage and ruin people’s reputation. We find it in the news. One politician has made claims about the Mayor of London which is damaging to his reputation and how do we respond?  Things are said about that politician which damages their reputation in return. I am not suggesting that evil shouldn’t be called out but sometimes we rush to say things without thinking of the consequences. What we say can kill!

I was at a racial awareness training event this week. I have generally thought about us a welcoming and inclusive country. But I continue to be shocked by the words and actions against brothers and sisters who are made in the image of God. Their worth is killed off. Yes, some of it is historical but sadly continues into the present. I heard the story of someone who came over from the Caribbean who went to a local church and wasn’t made to feel welcome and worse still was told not to come back the next week. She went to another church the following week and wasn’t made to feel welcome there either but she wasn’t told not to come back and so she persevered. Her son spoke of how she was very gifted and talented but could only get a job as a cleaner and prepare the bread and wine for communion. Perhaps we should turn the commandment round and instead of saying you shall not kill, say you shall enable people to thrive because that is what God calls us to do.

Here we are in Lent, a time of reflection, an opportunity to change our ways. What better place to start than with the Ten Commandments – not some dry dusty rules to be blindly followed but a way of life, a framework for us to live by so that we can become the people God wants us to be, so that our world can be transformed and we can enjoy freedom, freedom in all its fullness.