Sermon
August 23, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 13:10-17
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." 15 But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (NRSV)

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Do you know your commandments?

"Do you know your commandments?" This is, in essence, the question the leaders of the synagogue ask Jesus on the sabbath when he heals the woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. It is the question they use as the basis of their conspiracy to destroy him. "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy" Don’t you know your commandments, Jesus?

"Do you know your commandments?" This question has been on my mind since last year when I saw how it was wielded as a weapon in Arthur Miller’s play, "The Crucible", and it has been renewed by the recent headlines coming out of our nation’s capitol and other issues in the news.

Let me begin by recalling how Arthur Miller sets the scene for this question in his play. The place is Salem, Massachusetts. It’s the time of the Puritans, the leaders of the congregational communities that settled many villages in New England. Our town, New Milford, was one such congregational settlement, dating back to 1706. This is a few years before that, - the year 1692 - the time of the witch hunts. The Congregational minister in Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris, has found his niece, Abigail Williams, and other girls at play in the forest. Apparently they went there with the slave Tituba to cast love charms and dance. Two girls, including the minister’s daughter Betty, fall into a faint for fear of their punishment, and some suggest this has the appearance of witchcraft. The Rev. John Hale, an expert on the signs of the devil, comes to Salem and is confronted by Abigail’s screaming visions of witches and demons. Soon a number of people are accused, and the investigation has reached the house of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail Williams had worked in this house, but was dismissed when Elizabeth suspected adultery between her and John.

Rev. Hale has come in the night to question John and Elizabeth. John has been a harsh critic of their pastor, Rev. Parris, and has broken off regular attendance at Sunday worship and refused to have his second child baptized by Rev. Parris.

After questioning this criticism of their pastor, Rev. Hale comments: There is a softness in your record sir .-. a softness. Elizabeth answers:

ELIZABETH: I think maybe we have been too hard with Mr. Parris. I think so. But sure we never loved the Devil here.

HALE, nods, deliberating this. Then, with the voice of one administering a secret test: Do you know your Commandments, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH, without hesitation, even eagerly: I surely do. There be no mark of blame upon my life, Mr. Hale. I am a covenanted Christian woman.

HALE: And you, Mister?

PROCTOR, a trifle unsteadily: I-am sure I do, sir.

HALE, glances at her open face, then at John, then: Let you repeat them, if you will.

PROCTOR: The Commandments.

HALE: Aye.

PROCTOR, looking off, beginning to sweat: Thou shalt not kill.

HALE: Aye.

ROCTOR, counting on his fingers: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods, nor make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain; thou shalt have no other gods before me. With some hesitation: Thou shalt remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Pause. Then: Thou shalt honor thy father and mother. Thou shalt not bear false witness. He is stuck. He counts back on his fingers, knowing one is missing. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

HALE: You have said that twice, sir.

PROCTOR, lost. Aye. He is flailing for it.

ELIZABETH, delicately. Adultery, John.

PROCTOR, as though a secret arrow had pained his heart: Aye. Trying to grin it away-to Hale: You see, sir, between the two of us we do know them all. Hale only looks at Proctor, deep in his attempt to define this man. Proctor grows more uneasy. I think it be a small fault.

HALE: Theology, sir, is a fortress; no crack in a fortress may be accounted small. He rises, he seems worried now. He paces a little, in deep thought.

PROCTOR: There be no love for Satan in this house, Mister.

HALE: I pray it, I pray it dearly. He looks to both of them, an attempt at a smile on his face, but his misgivings are clear. Well, then-I'll bid you good night.

Elizabeth and John are eventually brought before a panel of Judges. The presiding officer is Deputy Governor Danforth. Rev. Parris, Rev. Hale, and several neighbors to John and Elizabeth, are also present. Danforth begins with a question to John Proctor.

DANFORTH, straight into his eyes: Have you ever seen the Devil?

PROCTOR: No, Sir.

DANFORTH: You are in all respects a Gospel Christian?

PROCTOR: I am, sir.

PARRIS: Such a Christian that will not come to church but once in a month!

DANFORTH, restrained-he is curious. Not come to church?

PROCTOR: I - I have no love for Mr. Parris. It is no secret. But God I surely love.

CHEEVER: He plow on Sunday, sir.

DANFORTH: Plow on Sunday!

CHEEVER, apologetically: I think it be evidence, John. I am an official of the court, I cannot keep it.

PROCTOR: I - I have once or twice plowed on Sunday. I have three children, sir, and until last year my land give little.

GILES: You'll find other Christians that do plow on Sunday if the truth be known.

HALE: Your Honor, I cannot think you may judge the man on such evidence.

DANFORTH: I judge nothing….

Danforth certainly does judge - judges by what he fervently believes are God- given, eternal, immutable commandments. John Proctor’s efforts to get the court to put these Commandments into a context - to recognize, as Christ did in our gospel lesson, the higher law which governs the application of such social mores - these efforts fail. In the end, those who are so certain of their knowledge of the commandments humiliate Proctor and hang him from the gallows, just as the Pharisees and Herodians humiliated Christ and nailed him to the cross. It was not the ignorant who did this, not the ungodly, but the self-assured, the certain, the respectable religious authorities.

One issue which brought this scene back to my mind was a letter I received last week from my former theological seminary - the school where I went for three years after college to study for the ministry - the school where I worked as Director of Development before coming here. Some of you may know that I left that school a rather unhappy camper after a year long bitter dispute with the school’s president. But he had since been eased out, and a new administration brought new hopes for some reconciliation. I wanted to feel good about my school, and eagerly began reading this letter.

The letter was about the appointment of a new associate professor of Biblical Studies. She had taught a number of courses at the school while finishing her advanced degrees, and was well liked and well respected in the academic and church community. So the appointment seemed natural. Then an issue came up. She was living in a long term relationship with another woman. This was regarded by her as neither a badge nor as a secret. It was a fact of her life, indeed, a joy of her life, and known to all who knew her. But, to some who were now reading about her or hearing this second or third hand, this became an issue. The school could not stand the heat of the controversy, and the appointment was rescinded. I was deeply disappointed.

Do you know your commandments?!? For whatever reason the issue of gay people in the clergy has become a defining edge of social and religious mores just like the sabbath issue was at the time of Christ. It’s all in the news - from Fred Hammond’s religion opinion piece in last week’s Danbury News Times to front page stories in the New York Times about the Episcopal bishops meeting at the Lambeth Conference in England.

Fred Hammond, Executive Director of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry in Danbury, makes the point that the Christian Church can find little in the teachings of Jesus on which to base a universal condemnation of gay people. Yet, he notes, the prejudice against gays is so strong and so pervasive and held with such a level of certainty that you might think it was a Biblical concern equal to one of the ten commandments, right up there with "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

And speaking of adultery, I suppose we are all tired of the never ending talk about the public confession of sin made by our President on Monday Night. My 10 year old daughter, on her summer schedule, was awake and watching. When she understood what he was saying she said: He should go on Jerry Springer.

I’d like to be able to consider what’s been admitted to so far as a private matter - to no not be among those who say to the President: Don’t you know your commandments. As much as I’d like to forgive, and even more to forget, it is hard in this case since during this administration so many other people in the government and in the military have lost their jobs and had their careers cut short under similar circumstances. If you are a chief executive and you allow that to happen to people subordinate to you in an organization, you should abide by the same rules and resign. That’s just a personal opinion, and not one that I’m confident could be justified from a religious point of view.

After all, we follow a Lord who was the champion of forgiveness, the number one giver of fresh starts, new beginnings, and possibilities of redemption. Jesus knew his commandments, but he also understood the heart of the matter. He articulates this in a brief passage from the Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 9:10-13 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (NRSV)

This association with sinners really got Jesus in trouble. His healing and teaching on the sabbath did as well. The authorities doubted that someone who did acts of charity and mercy on the sabbath could be authentically sent from God. They knew their commandments and applied them with a vengeance. In the time of John Proctor some asserted that plowing on the sabbath to feed your family meant you had given yourself over to the devil. Such insight, they claimed, would be clear to any who knew their commandments.

I wonder if the terrorists who delivered those bombs to the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania felt that they, too, knew their commandments. God save us from the dark side of devotion.

The one thing that redeems commandments and makes them instruments of grace and life rather than law and death is the context Jesus gives them when he says: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Jesus declared all laws subordinate to and fulfilled in this great commandment, even the law of self-preservation. He was willing to put the needs of redemption before both judgment and survival.

To follow him means we temper of our judgments for the sake of forgiveness, community, and love. It requires that we set aside our self-assurance and cultural norms when they get in the way of healing and reconciliation. It demands a steadfast refusal to use our religion as a weapon of humiliation rather than a well spring of hope.

Do you know your commandments? "This is my commandment," says the Lord, "that you love one another as I have loved you." Amen

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