Sunday, October 05, 2014

Building a foundation, putting down roots (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 5, 2014)

Several years ago Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, had the Ten Commandments engraved on a huge rock and placed in the foyer of the Alabama supreme court building. Many regarded Justice Moore’s action as an infraction of the constitutional guarantee of the free practice of religion and a breach in Thomas Jefferson’s wall between church and state and went to court to have the monument removed. The case went all the way to the U.S. supreme court which decided against Moore. They not only had the monument removed; they also had Mr. Moore removed.


Undaunted, Roy Moore began to take his enormous rock bearing the words of the Ten Commandments from place to place on the back of a flatbed truck. The rock weighs over 5000 pounds or more than 500 pounds per commandment. It was lifted on and off the truck by a 57 foot yellow I beam crane that weighs five tons, and even it sometimes buckles under the weight of the monument.[1]


I was living in Philadelphia when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision against Roy Moore and insisted that he remove the monument from the Alabama supreme court building. One night at a dinner party a friend asked me where I thought the Ten Commandments were now that they had been removed from the supreme court’s foyer. I said, “I don’t know where the monument is now, but the Ten Commandments are where they have always been: In the 20th chapter of Exodus and the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. And that’s where they belong.” They belong in our Bibles, in our hearts and minds, in our behavior, and perhaps even on our lips. They do not belong on a 5000 pound rock in a courthouse.


Make no mistake: I am a big fan of the Ten Commandments. They are a wonderful guide for our lives. They tell us how to live a genuinely human life, a life that allows us to flourish, not just exist.


We may or may not disagree with Justice Moore’s decision to place a monument to the commandments in a government building, but for many of us there seems to be a kind of heaviness around the Ten Commandments; perhaps there seems to be a kind of heaviness around any commandments, around the very idea of a commandment, a “thou shalt not” or even a “thou shalt.”


But I would like you to think of the commandments not as a huge stone weighing us down but as a firm foundation upon which we build our lives.


Poet Andrew King wrote this marvelous poem about the commandments. The commandments are


words that are beacons, words that cast shadow,

words that are firesparks struck from stone,

words that are trumpet, calling to silence,

words that will echo through ages to come,


words that are the beating heart of a covenant,

words of requirement, words that are gift,

words that are bones in the body of a people,

words that are blood flowing into their veins,


words that are power, spoken to weakness,

words that are freedom because they are fence,

words that challenge us, words that summon us,

words that are song for a life-long dance,


words that are dwelling place, words of foundation,

words that are law, given in grace,

words that are signposts, words that are journey,

words that are a pathway pointing to peace.[2]


The Ten Commandments create a kind of wall around human life. The purpose of a wall is both to keep things out and to keep things in.


The things that the Ten Commandments keep outside are things like lying, envy, murder, unfaithfulness to our spouse. The things that the Ten Commandments keep inside are truthfulness, faithfulness, gratitude, and life itself.


Much is sometimes made of the fact that the commandments are phrased in the negative: “Thou shalt NOT…”  None of us likes to be told that we cannot do something. There’s something in us, especially Americans, that likes being forbidden to do something. There’s even something about being forbidden to do something that makes us want to do it even more. I’ve always thought that God made a huge mistake when he told Adam and Eve not to eat that darn apple! That just about guaranteed that they would eat it.


Visual artists tell us that one of the best ways to learn to draw or paint is not to focus on the object we are trying to represent. If you do that, you will almost certainly fail. You have to focus first on the space around the object, the negative space. When Michelangelo carved a beautiful angel out of a block of marble, he was asked how in the world he was able to create such a beautiful object out of a cold, dead block of stone. Michelangelo replied that all he did was to take away the pieces of stone that were surrounding the angel and, as it were, liberate the angel from its stone prison.


In a sense, that’s what the Ten Commandments do, too. They carve out a space in which real, authentic life can flourish. They take away the things that are ugly and harmful, such as lies, unfaithfulness, envy, and murder and create a space for things that are good and healthy such as truth, faithfulness, gratitude, and life itself.


It would be impossible to enumerate all the things that we are supposed to do in life. Every day there are hundreds of tasks that we are supposed to do, such as get up in the morning, get dressed, make breakfast, drive to work, do our jobs, and so on. It would be impossible to list all the things we should do; it is much easier to eliminate the things that we should not do.


Let’s give some thought to the things that the Ten Commandments do NOT say. The Ten Commandments tell us nothing about which economic system we should follow. You will find nothing there about whether it is better to be a mercantilist or a capitalist or a socialist. The commandments leave us free to make our own decisions about that.


The commandments tell us nothing about the political system that is best. They leave us free to decide how to order our political systems.


The commandments tell us nothing about whether or not we should let women serve as political and religious leaders. We have to look elsewhere for guidance on that subject.


And the commandments say absolutely nothing about homosexuality. Neither did Jesus. It is time for the church to stop acting as though homosexuality is the worst of all sins. It is perfectly possible to observe every single one of the commandments and also love someone of the same sex.


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus quotes Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…” and goes on to say, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."


The Ten Commandments are like ten great foundation stones. They create a foundation on which we can build good lives. If we fail to observe them, then we pretty quickly see the truth of Jesus’ observation that “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces… it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” A man or woman who lacks the foundation of the commandments or who breaches the wall that they build around human life will eventually find life impossible as lies, envy, unfaithfulness, and lack of respect for life crowd into the space of his or her life.


We live in a world full of people who are looking for foundations for their lives. We are in a time of questioning; people are looking for answers. We here at Christ Church know a secret that the world around us longs to share – We have a foundation for our lives. We have found that life becomes richer, deeper, more meaningful, when we build it upon the rocks of truth, gratitude, fidelity, and respect for life.


But the stone of offense, the stumbling stone of which Jesus was speaking was not just the foundation of the commandments; Jesus was speaking of himself.


Jesus is the “great foundation,” the “cornerstone” of the Christian life. The author of First Peter says that we are “living stones” who are being “built into a spiritual house.” Beneath the foundation of the commandments is the very source of our lives. Theologian Paul Tillich called God the “ground of our being.”


This church rests upon a foundation not made of stone. It rests upon a foundation created by generations of people who worked to establish it – Mom and Pop Squires, Bishop Harry Graham Gray, Arthur Kean, Malcolm Jones, Talley Jarrett, Karl and Midgene Spatz, perhaps your parents or even your grandparents.


We have inherited both a great tradition and a great responsibility. It is our task now to build upon the foundation handed down to us, to invite all in this community who seek a foundation for their lives to join us, to find here a place upon which they can build strong and flourishing lives.


Our annual stewardship campaign begins today. Stewardship offers you the opportunity to share the foundation given to us with others, to maintain and build upon the foundation bequeathed to us.


I am asking everyone to consider increasing their commitment to Christ Church by at least ten percent. If we all do that and if those who are able to do even more, we will not only have a balanced budget, we will also be able to continue all our present ministries and even expand some of our ministries.


Although I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, I do not preach hellfire and brimstone sermons, but sometimes I have to tell you that our actions have consequences, and if we do not support our church with our pledges and increase our pledges gradually over time, there will be consequences.


There’s a wonderful murder mystery set in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It is entitled Divine Inspiration and is written by Jane Langton. Langton invents the Church of the Commonwealth although it is obvious to anyone familiar with Back Bay that the church she created for her novel is a combination of Trinity Church, Copley Square, and its neighbor Old South Church.


The section of Boston known as Back Bay was built in the 19th century to be a gracious neighborhood. To build it a section of Boston harbor had to be filled in, so Back Bay is built on land fill. Back Bay includes some of Boston’s most beautiful and important buildings, including the Boston library, Trinity Church, and Old South Church.


The tower of Trinity Church, a church built by Phillips Brooks – the author of “O little town of Bethlehem” and later bishop of Massachusetts – weighs almost 10,000 tons. That’s 10,000 TONS, not 10,000 POUNDS. In order to build it on the land fill of Back Bay, they had to drive enormous pillars down into the water beneath the land fill of Back Bay. As long as the pillars are surrounded by water, they are enormously strong, but if they ever dry out, they will crumble. There is a system of automatic sensors that measure the depth of the water around the pillars, and if the water level drops, additional water can be pumped in.


In Divine Inspiration, the water level is allowed to drop with disastrous consequences.


While the church’s organist is playing Bach’s chorale prelude, In Thee Is Joy, he accidentally pulls out too many stops, causing the building to shake with Bach’s joyful music.


“The building swayed… the floor rolled beneath him… shaken by the long waves rumbling within it…. The music swarmed… the building shook, the spongy floor sagged…Behind the pulpit the east wall crumpled and caved inward. A single block from the vault over the pulpit pitched down with a crash, and then the rest roared down together in an avalanche of stone…. The church was no longer in darkness. Looking up, [the organist] saw the limpid sky of morning…. Now only one of [the] massive vaults remained, clinging to the high walls south, west, and north, trembling in the empty air to the east, thrusting outward into nothingness its tons of arching stone…. It was Easter morning.”[3]


That is what happens when we do not build our lives upon the foundation of the commandments. That is what happens when we do not send the roots of our lives down into the foundation that God provides for our lives.


Stewardship provides us with the opportunity to build strong foundations and to invite others to join us under the shelter of the living stones who form the very house of God.



[1] Facts about the monument’s weight, the crane, etc. from “Dancing the Decalogue” by Thomas Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006.
[2] From “Andrew King’s New Weblog,” Sept. 28, 2014.
[3] From Divine Inspiration by Jane Langton.