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