March 7, 2021
When the Mars rover named Perseverance touched down on the red planet’s surface on February 18, it brought joy to my space nerd heart. The pictures of the rover’s descent, the images it sent back from the planet’s surface – all of it was thrilling. This week the rover took its first test drive on the surface of Mars.[i] In 33 minutes it moved forward 13 feet, turned 150 degrees to the left, and then backed up eight feet into its new parking spot. It was a major step in the mission – and opened up all kinds of possibilities that are fun to imagine.
I was equally delighted by the news this week that NASA memorialized the spot where Perseverance first landed by naming it after science fiction author Octavia Butler. Butler was a brilliant writer – and she was eerily prescient about the future. Her book Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 but in it Butler imagines the world of the 2020’s in which civilization has essentially collapsed due to a combination of climate change and growing inequality between the rich and the poor. The main character is a young woman named Lauren, who, when her own home is destroyed in an attack, sets out with a group of other survivors to find a new place to live. Lauren eventually hopes that humans will find a way to live on other planets. In the meantime she develops her own ideas about how people might live peacefully together in community.
We see in Octavia Butler’s imagined version of our time what happens when the rules of society break down. Scarcity and poverty cause people to act in violent ways. Religious and ethnic minorities become the targets of attacks. When no one agrees on what is right, no one is safe. The travelers in Lauren’s group have to learn to trust each other and to make their own rules just to stay alive.
I thought a lot about that book this week, not only because of the news from Mars, but also because I knew the Ten Commandments would be our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus. As we make our way through the 40 days of Lent, we are meant to remember the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. Remember that they have come into this wilderness after a time of being enslaved by the Egyptians. They’ve spent years having their every move dictated to them, so the freedom of the wilderness is both welcome and confusing.
That’s why the commandments begin in relationship – a relationship with God, who has guided the Israelites to this freedom. God says: “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.” Having no other gods would make the Israelites unusual in an ancient world where most people had many gods. Think of all those Greek gods and Roman gods you probably studied in school. Their stories mostly involved those multiple gods running around doing terribly human things and getting into all sorts of squabbles. God says that the relationship between God and the people of God will be different. It will be deeper and more reciprocal and focused on the well-being of the community – how we treat each other and support each other.
The Ten Commandments are really more about living with freedom than they are about following a rigid set of rules. God is about leading us to freedom. The commandments show us, for example, that God wants us to be free from assessing our worth based on perpetual productivity. That’s why God tells us to take sabbath time – to rest our minds and bodies and souls.
God wants us to be free from longing for what other people have. That’s why we’re told not to covet – not to long for – what belongs to someone else, whether that’s a house, a spouse, an animal, or anything else. When we’re free from coveting, we can focus on gratitude for what we already have. And that gratitude in turn inspires us to be generous in caring for others.
In so many ways the commandments are completely countercultural – in the ancient world and in our own time. Our world wants us to see everything as a competition, and that the only way to win the competition for who has the most things is to work and work and work and work some more. God says: Hold up. What are you losing when you never stop to rest? What are you losing when you get eaten up with jealousy for what someone else has?
As if the original commandments weren’t countercultural enough, our friend Martin Luther came along in the 1500’s and wrote something called the Small Catechism in which he offered his own explanations of each commandment. He adds some extra depth to the commandments by describing not only what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.
Take, for example, the Fifth Commandment – you shall not murder. At first glance that seems like a fairly easy one to keep. But Luther explains that it’s about more than not killing someone. He writes: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help them in all their physical needs.” So it’s not just about not killing the people around us. It’s about making sure that others are safe and have what they need to live.
The one I find most challenging given Luther’s explanation is the eighth commandment – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. On the surface it means that we don’t tell lies about other people, which we can agree is a good start. But here’s what Luther says: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way.” Listen to that last part again. Defend them. Speak well of them. Explain their actions in the kindest way.
Think about the person who most antagonizes you. The person who gets on your last nerve, the person who seems uniquely designed to drive you crazy on a regular basis. Rather than gossiping about that person or spreading misinformation about them, we are challenged to give them the benefit of the doubt. Beyond that, to find ways to speak well of them. To consider their actions with compassion. And here’s the reality – most people who behave in difficult ways do so for a reason. There’s something in their story or their history that has wounded them. We may never know what that is, but we can, with God’s urging, respond with empathy.
Through these commandments God calls us into a deeper sense of community and a more powerful kind of relationship with God and with each other. We understand that whatever is good and precious in our relationships with one another flows from the love and mercy that God has first given us. God entrusts us with the gift of freedom that we so often misuse, and when we do misuse it, God forgives us and helps us return to a more faithful path.
Octavia Butler wrote in the Parable of the Sower that “Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.”
Butler is right. The gift of freedom can be used to harm or to help. It can be squandered or held sacred. It can destroy or it can repair.
People of God, may we use the gift of freedom this week in holy ways. May we use our freedom to share God’s love and mercy. May we use our freedom to set others free. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
January 31, 2021
This week in Confirmation we started our study of the Ten Commandments. We’ve been following the people of Israel as they struggled under Pharaoh’s oppression in Egypt, as Moses and Pharaoh went back and forth, with Moses demanding the Israelites’ freedom and Pharaoh time after time refusing to give it. We went through the plagues that God sent to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go, from turning the river to blood to unleashing all kinds of creatures, from frogs to locusts. Even once they make their escape, the Israelites have to deal with another change of mind from Pharoah, who sends his army after them. Then we have the parting of the Red Sea, which most of us picture in whatever way Hollywood has helped us imagine it.
It’s a wildly dramatic story, and whether or not you believe all of it literally happened in the way the book of Exodus describes, the prevailing theme seems pretty clear: God wants God’s people to be free. Free from oppression, free from power-hungry rulers, free to head out into a new place and build community together. God knows that they’ll need some help with that community-building, especially since freedom is so new to the Israelites, so that’s how we get the commandments.
Among them is this instruction found in Exodus 20. God says to the people: “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. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
The Israelites had lived for a long time among people who had many gods, many idols, many other entities to worship. And they would be moving into lands with similar challenges. But God was reminding them: “I have brought you into freedom. Be careful how you use that freedom. I’m the one God you have. Don’t get distracted by other things that seem pretty or powerful or compelling. Those other things will let you down. I won’t.”
Our confirmation kids are smart, and they understand human nature, so even though we realized that no one we know today is looking to worship a statue of a golden calf like the Israelites did for a moment, we have plenty of our own idols to hold us captive in 2021. They could name a whole list of things that distract us, that keep us focused on something other than where God is leading us. There are a thousand potential idols on the internet, including social media. There’s celebrity culture. There are our deep fears and anxieties about how other people perceive us, about our social status or our physical appearance or the unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves. So often our idols are strangely seductive because they show up as things that in small amounts seem good. We want to have friends and be healthy and work hard in school or in our jobs. But when those things take on a life of their own and get attached to standards of perfection or prosperity that aren’t attainable – that’s when they take hold of us in ways that make them idols.
Which brings us to the people of Corinth, with whom you might not think we have much in common. It was probably a bit confusing when John was reading that excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few minutes ago. He read it beautifully, but it sets out a situation that seems far from our experience.
Here’s some background. Corinth was a fairly pagan town, so the Christians who lived there found it hard to live in a way that was holy. Temptations were all around them all the time. There was no realistic way to live separately from that secular world.[i]
Paul recognizes some of those tensions, especially as Christians worshiped only one God while many of their Corinthian neighbors worshiped many. And some of those pagan neighbors would sacrifice animals to their various gods, and then the meat would be available afterwards for sale. So, then, was it OK for the Christians in Corinth to eat this meat that had been part of a ritual for these pagan gods? Paul reminds those Christians that while there are many gods recognized by others, for them “there is one God…from whom are all things and for whom we exist.”
So, for people who are clear that there is only one God, it doesn’t really matter if they eat this sacrificial meat from the other rituals. But Paul acknowledges that for some people whose faith might not be as deeply established, the eating of this meat might be confusing – or even detrimental to their faith. It might send the wrong message – that these sacrifices to other gods are fine. So, Paul suggests, maybe the Christians don’t eat the meat as a way of helping other Christians stay the course in their faithfulness to God.
In other words, Paul reminds us that our choices as members of a community matter. We have freedom, but how we use that freedom matters.
Paul understands that freedom is one of the things that is easy to turn into an idol. That’s what happens when we say “You can’t tell me what to do!” and insist on doing things our own way with no concern about the consequences for others.
And Paul also understands that in Christian community we become part of an interconnected set of relationships in which we value the interests of others as much as – and sometimes more than – our own. We realize that the decisions we make affect others.
In a superficial way this might mean that even though you don’t love a particular hymn, you sing it every now and then because it’s someone else’s favorite.
In this ongoing time of COVID it has meant wearing masks and staying distanced and worshiping online. Even when those experiences fall short of what we really want to do, we understand that these choices are better than putting other people in danger. The sacrifice is worth it to preserve the life and health of our neighbors.
Consider how this way of thinking plays into addressing something like climate change. The decisions and sacrifices we make now will have implications not just for our present community but also for the world that our children and grandchildren will inhabit. We can use our freedom now in such a way that their freedom is not curtailed by more hurricanes, more wildfires, more rising water levels.
My favorite part of Paul’s plea is this. He says: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” When knowledge is the focus, we try to present intellectual arguments that are more compelling than someone else’s intellectual argument. We try to win. Paul says: It’s not the head knowledge that matters; it’s the impulses of our hearts. Are we oriented toward the common good or toward our own self-interest? We can rationalize anything, but what will really serve and protect our neighbors? Have we made an idol of what we want, or are we willing to focus on what others need?
Imagine how that way of living and loving might transform our churches…our communities…our country. Just imagine.
God is here with us as God has always been – loving us and guiding us and saving us. And yes, giving us the freedom to make both helpful and terrible choices. I pray that we use this gift of freedom not as an idol that leads to selfishness, but as a privilege that builds communities in love and faith. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I appreciate this commentary from 2015 by Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson: