Incline Our Hearts to Keep This Law (sermon)

If you were a student, or young monastic in fourth century Egypt, your classroom was more likely to be a desert than a library. Instead of regularly scheduled class times, you’d wait weeks, or even months, for a great teacher to emerge from silent contemplation and prayer, and say something wise, like “repent and pray!”. Some of the sayings of these early Christian teachers, the Desert Mothers and Fathers have made it to the 21st century, like this story of Abba John the Dwarf.

Abba John the Dwarf  said, ‘a house  is not built by beginning  at the top and working down. You must begin  with the foundations in order  to reach the  top. They said  to him, ‘What  does this saying  mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is  the place to  begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’

Abba John’s words find us, on this third Sunday in Lent, beginning with another set of commandments—the Ten Commandments, from the book of Exodus. These are the same commandments that the scribe in Mark references when he asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all”. Jesus, as we know, answers the greatest commandment is love of God and love of neighbor—an answer that summarizes these ten injunctions.

I wonder, for you, what you think of when you hear ‘the ten commandments’. Do you think of a Sunday school lesson, or having to memorize them? Do you think of Charles Heston as Moses, walking down the mountain with two tablets of stone? For my own part, I think of the gold-lettered tablets inscribed over the altar of a colonial church I interned at. Common, and even required, in colonial and victorian churches, the pairing of cross and tablets in a sacred space is forever engraved in my mind.

The commandments begin with the reaffirmation of a relationship: “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.” Notice the “your” here—if you accept God as “yours”, if you claim the gift of freedom from bondage in Egypt, then THEREFORE you shall have no other gods. This is not a God who appears out of nowhere, summoning authority out of the blue. Rather, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same God who saved you, and is committed to your wellbeing, and desires relationship with you.

The second commandment is about this relationship too—Do not make for yourself an idol, for I am a jealous God. God and God’s people are in relationship, and unfaithfulness is devastating to that relationship. The following eight commandments detail how to be in relationship with God, and with others: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet. These are rules around how we are to live in community, a baseline for being God’s people in the world.

And, these ten commandments don’t just show up in our Bibles or in Sunday school. We’ll hear them in the decalogue, (next week), which takes the place of the penitential order for one Sunday of Lent. Decalogue—deca meaning ten, logue meaning words—the ten commandments, broken up individually, with a congregational response to each one.

I’d like to draw your attention to this response. We have two rites of our Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, most immediately differentiated by a presence of ‘thee’ or ‘thou’ in Rite I, and contemporary language in Rite II. However, the two have moments when they are distinct theologically: not just in how we’re praying, but in what we’re praying. The congregation’s response in the decalogue is one of those moments. In Rite II, we respond to each commandment, saying “Amen. Lord have mercy.” It is a response that says ‘yes, I hear this commandment, and I acknowledge my and our failure to obey it. forgive, Lord’.

But, the Rite I responses are, I think, actually a better indication of what our own responses to these commandments should look like. Rite I covers the same ground as ‘Lord have mercy’, but takes it much further. Listen to this:

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

This response continues until the final commandment: thou shalt not covet, when we respond:

Lord have mercy upon us,

and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

“we—this community of people—acknowledge our failure to obey this commandment. we ask for help in remembering… for the desire to keep it, and for it to be inscribed on our hearts”

What I think this response captures is that obedience to this communal covenant… this rule of life together, isn’t just about showing up to confess, and receiving a slap on the hand, and then being forgiven. Our Christian life isn’t just about trying to color inside the lines, or walk a tightrope to be as good as we possibly can be until we die—if that’s all we’re about, that’s a very bleak prognosis. But that’s not what this Rite I response is saying—for when we say ‘incline our hearts to keep this law’, we’re not just asking for forgiveness. We are asking to be changed. We are asking for the innermost parts of ourselves to be transformed. We are asking, not just for the chance to have a do-over and do better next time, but we’re asking for our desires… the very things that we want and that we prioritize to be transformed, so that we may live into our true identity as people made in the image of God.

Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley writes of this ‘turn towards divine desire’ as a transformation of our ‘very capacity to think, feel, and imagine’… what becomes an ‘erasure of human idolatry and subtle reconstitution of human selfhood in God’. In other words, the Ten Commandments become something more than just a checklist. These ten commandments are the bones, the relational foundation, of our transformation.

When we say ‘incline our hearts to keep this law’, and ‘write all these thy laws in our hearts’, we are asking for the desire and courage to change, so that our lives may reflect God’s reality. Like the psalmist, we are asking that words of our mouths and even the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in God’s sight.

The ten commandments are not a set of rules to follow, in order to stay out of trouble, but are part of the foundation for a transformed life. And while this is really exciting, and compelling, it also feels, to me, like a substantial commitment. I’m not excited about the ten commandments as a checklist of rights and wrongs… but transformation, and change, also feel intimidating. How much work do I have to put into this? What will I have to give up to be in this relationship with the living God? What of my beliefs, interests, political convictions, or habits, might change if I open myself to the gradual work of holy transformation? What will my friends or family think?

The final, the most essential part of our response to these questions, can again be found in the decalogue.

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Perhaps you’ve noticed it already—there is no singular first person “I” statement in sight. Each response is first person plural: “we” “us” “our”. The commitment to this transformed life, to following Christ, to living into God’s reality, is not undertaken alone. Transformation always begins in the work of community, be it prayer to the God who is Three in One, or care of our neighbors.

Abba John had it right, that ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one’. We must begin at this foundation—that we are not individuals trying to out-perform one another, but people whose transformation cannot begin without each other.

As we continue on this journey through Lent, and remember through prayer and penitence how much work there is still to do, may we live into our call towards transformation, as we pray

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

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