Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd            B Lent 3                          March 4, 2018       Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19

Last Sunday I talked about the cross being our moral compass with which we can take a cross-bearing to see if we’re on the right path and to help us get back on track. The lectionary reading for this week gives us another tracking tool that helps us assess our lives. This evaluative tool is the 10 Commandments.

The commandments have become a big hit in the southern United States, where many people have put up signs with the 10 Commandments on their front lawns. We might remember that the fourth commandment states that no work should be done on the Sabbath, the holy day of rest. Barbara Brown Taylor notes the irony of this commandment juxtaposed with the Sunday lawnmowers, who carefully cut around the sign. She wonders if the signs would be more appropriately turned around to face the homeowners, instead of preaching to the passers-by.[1]

John Calvin, our Presbyterian forebearer, wrote that the 10 Commandments serve 3 purposes. The first purpose is to act as fence, helping to control societal impulses towards unethical behaviour. The homeowners clearly understood the 10 Commandments as a fence to try to control their unruly neighbours. Calvin’s second purpose of the 10 Commandments is for them to act like a mirror, bearing witness to our true reflections. If the homeowners turned their signs around to face themselves, they may have been surprised to see what image of themselves was reflected back. Both the first and second purposes serve as a rather harsh judge of character. Calvin’s third purpose of the 10 Commandments is for them to act as a guiding light for those already committed to following the Way of Jesus. It serves less as a severe critique and more as a gentle, steady hand of guidance.

It is this third purpose that I wish to explore with you today through the poetic imagery of Psalm 19. This psalm, which we read responsively, refers to the law and commandments of God as a refreshing, joy-filled, pure light, more desirable than wealth, sweeter than honey. They revive the soul and rejoice the heart. That’s not usually how we understand laws and commandments. To take us to this unusual description, the Psalm begins with the laws of nature. How incredibly awesome is our universe, where some unknown force orders and continually creates beauty out of chaos. Where there are no words, no speech, no voice, God’s handiwork sings throughout the universe of the wonders of Creation. As our Song of Faith states, “Finding ourselves in a world of beauty and mystery, of living things, diverse and interdependent, of complex patterns of growth and evolution, of subatomic particles and cosmic swirls, we sing of God the Creator, the Maker and Source of all that is.”

I mentioned last Sunday that when I’m feeling confused or paralyzed about an issue, I have learned that I need to stop and listen deeply before making any decisions or judgements. I have also learned to immerse myself in beauty. There, in a place of refreshing awe, can my soul be replenished and wisdom be found. Thomas Edward McGrath, a Presbyterian minister, asks us to consider adding “wonder” to our Lenten disciplines.[2]

When I ski along trails, with rainbow diamonds sparkling all around me and snowy garlands looping around evergreens, I breathe in heaven. When the sun with its long, winter shadows draws me deeper into the woods as the chickadee calls and the pileated woodpecker flashes its red crest, I am stunned into stillness. And in that quiet, all seems somehow manageable.

But I find wonder not only in nature. Sometimes it surprises me in the least expected places. When I visited the West Bank a few years ago, as part of a United Church delegation, I saw Palestinians artisans selling their wares at the foot of an illegal Israeli settlement. I went over to them and saw a colourful ceramic mug with the word Shalom in both English and Hebrew. I was stunned that an Arabic-speaking Palestinian would make a mug with the word of peace in the language of the occupation. I was awed by this radical gift of hope.

I also found wonder in an incredible Olympic story about Norway’s astonishing lead in the medal standing. They only spend £13.7 million per year on summer and winter sports, compared to Britain’s £137.5 million per annum. Norway decided not to compete in the skeleton or bobsled competitions, because they cost too much. Athletes have to find work because they only receive small grants. They usually have to share rooms—even beds—with other athletes. What they do invest money in is local sports clubs for every citizen. 93% of all children and young Norwegians are involved in these clubs. One Norwegian Olympic athlete explained, “We are a very rich country but we believe in the socialist way of doing things—that success should be from working hard and being together”. And they don’t allow jerks on their teams by observing what they call a “no idiots” rule. Camaraderie is crucial to their success.[3]

This winter wonderland story inspired me, especially in the midst of other tragic news stories. It reminded me of how Jesus summed up the 10 Commandments into two: that we should love God with all of our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. I find myself awed every time I hear stories about communal care for one another.

The commandments are so much more than harsh, judgemental laws. When they are lived out, a soft, guiding light of inspirational wonder shines forth. And then, they truly do revive the soul and rejoice the heart.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective on Exodus 20:1-17” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 2, p. 77.

[2] Thomas Edward McGrath, “Pastoral Perspective on Psalm 19” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 2, p. 84.

[3] “No Jerks Allowed: the Egalitarianism Behind Norway’s Winter Wonderland.” https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/feb/22/norway-winter-olympics-success