A Laundry List of Forgotten Commandments
Let me tell you a reimagined bible story by Rabbi Marc Gellman.
‘The first to hear the Torah, the first to receive God’s law was Moses. Moses went up on a mountaintop and tried to capture on a couple tablets of stone the commandments of God. Now, a rabbi tells us that when Moses got up to number ten, he ran out of room. But God kept talking and so Moses began to write on his sleeve:
“Commandment 11: No cutting in line.
“Commandment 12: Mind your manners.
“Commandment 13: Look both ways before you cross the street.
“Commandment 14: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
“Commandment 15: Share your stuff.
“Commandment 16: Remember to take out the garbage.
“But that was all Moses’ head could hold and even as he came down the mountain, he just could not catch all the commandments God had to give. So, he went home, slipped into his pajamas, and took a nap. Now Moses (like a lot of spouses) left his dirty clothes on the floor. And while he was sleeping, Zipporah, his wife, gathered up the tunic, threw it into the machine, and washed away God’s words.
“Now Moses awoke in a panic. Unsure of what to do, he called in seventy of his closest advisors: thirty-five on his left and thirty-five on his right. ‘Moses’, they said, ‘You’ve been up on the mountain too long. Ten of these commandments are hard enough. Most of us can’t remember more than six!'”
“Now Moses sort of agreed. but in times of need they came back to him. He recalled those unwritten words of God and he told them to his children, and they told them to their children. And over the years the extra commandments grew and changed. from generation to generation. One through ten, you can learn from reading the Bible, but if you want to know what comes after, the rabbi says, you have to listen to your parents.”
(Adapted from God’s Mailbox, Marc Gellman).
Now many generations removed at the start of a new year, the forgotten commandments were given once again to the People of God. Daughter Zion had come home from exile and Ezra called the people of Israel to rededicate themselves to God’s Word. Together they gathered outside the newly completed walls of the city of Jerusalem. Men, women, and children from every walk of life gathered at the Water Gate east of the city. A place where even the unclean were welcome.
Ezra unrolled the scroll of the Torah and began to read. And he read for three hours, from morning till midday, with more than just a little from his friends. He had rabbis on the right: Mattahiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uraih, Hilkiah, and Masseaiah.. And he had lay folks on his left: Padiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbanah, Zechariah, and Mushallan. Because God’s Word is much too important for any one person to puzzle out on their own.
Every generations’ new crop of Christians needs help figuring out what all of these commandments are about. The Bible is not a book to be read in a vacuum. It’s a veritable library of sixty-three holy books that evolved over forty-four generations. God’s word emerged in different languages in different places and under all kinds of circumstances. And for centuries, Christians have puzzled over every passage, every word, trying to pin down what it could possibly mean.
The Word of God is way too deep and much too wide for us to ponder alone. That’s why as Episcopalians we read it together in church. It’s not my personal story; it’s our story, and if it doesn’t belong to everyone, it belongs to no one.
This was a truth my seminary class, the Class of 1994, nearly thirty years ago, struggled with. We were a deeply divided lot, downright dysfunctional really. Rather than discuss important issues we chose to stick labels on one another. You could tell how a person read the Scriptures by where they sat at lunch. The bubbly charismatics sat way up front. The smoky Anglo-Catholics sat in the back. Evangelicals to the right. Liberals to the left. The former you would know by their ever-present Bibles. The latter you know by their Birkenstocks.
Nowhere were our rigid divisions more visible than at the Great Debate — held in my junior year. It was billed as the fight of the century, a theological shootout at the OK Corral. The contenders for the crown were Bishop Howe of Central Florida and Bishop Spong of Newark, New Jersey. The hot topic was a “biblical view of human sexuality.”
Tension filled the air as the evening of the debate approached. Students would circle one another in Scott Lounge. Are you going? Do you have a ticket? Who are you betting on to win? When the evening arrived, faculty and students queued up to take their seats.
I was my usual late self for such events and found myself standing behind a classmate of mine — Fletcher. As we waited Fletcher and I began to talk. Fletcher and I haled from different worlds. Fletcher was raised a Calvinist. I was raised a Catholic. Fletcher grew up in a small town in the south. I grew up in the shadow of the Nation’s Capitol.
Fletcher served one of the most conservative parishes in the Diocese of Virginia; while I did field work at one of the most liberal churches in the Diocese of Washington. We were polite, we made small talk, but by the time we had found our seats we confessed to one another that we were both confused. Each of us held fast to our differing beliefs, but neither one of us was very articulate about explaining our reasons why. We agreed that night that no matter what the bishops said, no matter which side was declared the winner, we would continue to talk to one another.
As imperfect Christians, we needed one another.
And for thirty years the Episcopal Church kept talking. And now our little corner of God’s kingdom fully embraces the LGBTQ+ community in marriage, in ordination, in everything.
As 21st century people of faith, we wrestle with all kinds of issues, that in their current context, Jesus himself could barely have imagined: abortion, climate change, racial reconciliation, pandemic politics, toxic social media, just to name a few. We will not find any of the above literally mentioned in the Bible. If we are looking for quick and easy answers, the Bible is sure to disappoint us.
If those of us on the left, and those of us on the right, and those of us somewhere in the middle can find ourselves worshipping in the same pews, then there is hope for this bedraggled Body of Christ. On Sunday mornings (whether under the roof at 1608 or on Zoom,) let us together as a congregation lean in to “read, hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” what scripture has to say that particular Sabbath.
Let’s engage with it, share it, have conversations about God’s Word. So, that by Her grace, we might unearth some of those very helpful commandments that we lost, some of those commandments that fell off the laundry list. One lectionary week at a time, lesson by lesson, let’s pray that God helps us find our way — in January of 2022.
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