‘Yes’ is a Complete Sentence

+In the Name of God who was, and is, and is to come.

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . .  Exodus 20:1-2

One of my friends and colleagues is an Episcopal priest whose name is Jim. He’s retired now after many years of effective ministry and lives in one of those lovely coastal Carolina communities where he stays active doing some writing and consulting. Just as Bonnie Perry did here at All Saints’ many years ago, Jim accepted a call to a deeply troubled parish in his 30’s and, after decades of hard work by a lot of people, transformed that church into a church full of life and energy.

In fact. the church where Jim served as rector became so strong and healthy that it was featured in a book by Diana Butler Bass – a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us. The book, first published in 2006, includes profiles of mainline congregations that have bucked the decline affecting so many places.

I’m oversimplifying things, but such tranformations seem to happen in churches when a leader arrives on the scene with a vision of what might be possible. That leader then persuades others to embrace the vision that new life can happen even when a church is as dead as Lazarus lying in his grave. Not many priests feel called to roll the stone away from the doors of churches like that! Failure can really stink up a priest’s career!

Since coming to All Saints’, I’ve heard many stories about how Bonnie’s ministry started here – how she was brought to All Saints’ to give a dying congregation a decent burial, only to fail miserably at the task she’d been assigned. It’s a wonderful story – one that had a compelling slogan I discovered early on in my tenure on some old stationery in my desk drawer – “A Rising Church for the Risen Christ.” Thank goodness All Saints’ isn’t the only church with radical renewal as part of its heritage! There are other stories like our story.

One of those is a well-known story about a church on Chicago’s south side. This past week I watched “The Black Church” – the documentary on PBS. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard academic produced and narrates the series. The program spans the growth of the church from slave “praise houses” to the early Black churches that sprouted within the Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Pentecostal and Church of God In Christ denominations. If you haven’t seen the show, I strongly recommend it.

Toward the end of Part Two, Gates talks about the transformation of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Gates tells the story this way in a voice-over over images of the church: “In 1972, fresh from divinity school and full of ideas, Jeremiah Wright arrived at Trinity United Church of Christ on the impoverished South Side of Chicago. The congregation had dwindled to 87 members and the local community felt the church wasn’t meeting its needs.”

In his interview with Gates, Jeremiah Wright recalled his start at the church and how he came to build Trinity into an 8,000-member church that included President Obama and his family. He said: “The core group said, ‘All we need to do is find a young fool to conduct a funeral for a dying congregation. I told them Jesus never conducted any funerals. He conducted resurrections.” There’s another slogan that captures the imagination. “Jesus never conducted any funerals. He conducted resurrections.” That’ll preach!

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that my friend, Jim, had some memorable phrases, too. One of them was in the form of a question, “Where is God in this?” It was a question he asked whether in good times or in bad – whether things were going well or going poorly. Jim would ask the question during coffee-discussion groups and Vestry retreats, during stewardship drives and counseling sessions. “Where is God in this?” Good question, right? Compelling. By asking it, he ended up teaching a whole congregation of people to be on the lookout for God in every situation and in all circumstances. I can still hear Jim asking the question, and I still find myself asking that question all these years later.

Another one of his memorable lines was this: “’No’ is a complete sentence.” What he meant was that sometimes a leader has to say “no” to something. It can be no to a request, or no to a direction. It can be no to some idea, or plan, or program.  No, he would say. Just no. People weren’t always happy when he said, no, but he wasn’t interested in pleasing people. He was interested in focusing on the things that would make for a vibrant congregation.

Like many effective leaders, Jim had a lot of confidence, and he still does. Even now when I have a situation that I’m unsure about, or I have a decision to make where I’m not feeling all that confident, I call him up and “borrow” some of his confidence. “Here’s the situation I’m facing,” I say. “What do you think I should do?” And Jim always knows exactly what I should do. Never any hesitation.

I don’t always take his advice. Nor do I always do what he says, but I appreciate his clarity.  And I can tell you, over the years of our friendship, he’s said “no” to me on many occasions – no, don’t do that. No, that’s the wrong direction. No, I wouldn’t touch that situation with a ten-foot pole. In fact, more often than not that’s what I get from Jim: No. He rarely offers any explanation. Jim practices what he preaches. “No is a complete sentence.”

This morning, we continue our look at the covenants from the Old Testament and consider the most famous and arguably the most important of all the covenants – the covenant between God and the people of God at Mt. Sinai.  And we consider the symbol that’s most closely associated with the covenant at Mt. Sinai– what the Jews call the Ten Words – and what Christians call The Ten Commandments.

Will Nifong, who wrote and delivered this week’s midrash on the Old Testament lesson, called his offering, ““Thou Shalt Not: A Lenten Rumination.” It’s understandable why Will would focus on the “Thou Shalt Not” aspect of the Ten Commandments. Eight out of the ten begin with a NO!  Don’t.  Thou shalt have none other Gods but me. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above or the earth beneath: thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship them. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain. Thou shalt do no murder. Thou shalt not: commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.  Thou shalt not. Thou shalt not. No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

As Bible scholars have noted, the Ten Commandments don’t include what the penalties will be if the commandments are not obeyed. These same scholars go on to point out the difference between apodictic, or absolute, law and casuistic, or case, law. Apodictic law involves absolute commands rendered from “on high” like the “thou shall not’s” of the Ten Commandments. Casuistic law is based on precedents and takes the form of “if/then” statements:  If you roll through this stop sign without coming to a complete stop (like most of the drivers do at the intersection of N. Hermitage and W. Wilson), then you will get a ticket. If you break into someone’s house and steal their jewelry, then you will go to jail. There are no “ifs” or “thens” in the Ten Commandments – there are only absolute commands. Do these things. Don’t do these things. Thou shalt not – “no is a complete sentence.” The demands of the covenant are unconditional.

Not surprisingly, there are those who feel that the commandments, with their predominant “don’t do this” or don’t do that,” advocate the kind of negative attitude that people all too often associate with Biblical religion. The Bible is so negative all the time – all the prohibitions – all the outmoded restrictions – all the things you can’t do.

Actually, the intention of the commandments was just the opposite. The Ten Commandments merely stake out the general limitations defined by the covenant relationship between God and God’s people, but within these limitations there is wide latitude for freedom of action and for the interpretation of our obligation to God and to our fellow human beings.

Jesus certainly understood this. He took the Ten Commandments, reduced them down to two and stated them in a positive form, what’s often called the Summary of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  And “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

What Jesus did with the Ten Commandments gives us the opportunity to see them differently, I think. What if God created the commandments and gave them to humankind for our good? What if we saw the commandments as a life-giving gift that helps us lead lives that reflect the character and image of God?  If the God we believe in is trustworthy, faithful, peaceful, and desirous of a relationship with creation, how can the commandments help shape our lives in ways that resemble this? What if we saw them as guardrails rather than stop signs?

Last Sunday Dan Finkelman joined me for our adult coffee-discussion group, “Brewed Awakenings” to talk about Jewish midrash – the old stories and commentaries that have been the inspiration for our use of modern Midrash during Lent here at All Saints’.  When he and I were preparing for last week’s session, we talked about the different covenants featured as our first lessons this year. When I told him that we would be looking at the Ten Commandments this week, he reminded me that Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah during the festival of Shavuot – or Weeks – the feast we know as Pentecost.

There are a lot of stories and traditions that surround the first hearing of the commandments.  One midrash says that the Hebrew people had little choice but to accept the Torah from God, since God plucked up Mt. Sinai and held it over their heads, threatening to drop the mountain on them if they did not accept the commandments. It’s a story that feeds into all the negative associations – accept these “Thou Shalt Nots” or prepare to be flattened!

Fortunately, there’s a growing practice among devout Jews that contrasts sharply with the mountain-flattening midrash. More and more religious Jews observe the first night of Shavuot by staying up all night to study Torah, Talmud, and other sacred writings together.  They offer this annual all-night gathering, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, for the mending of the world.  They remain awake to show that, unlike their ancestors at Sinai who, according to another midrash, slept in and were late for the party when God gave the law to Moses, they are ready to receive Torah.

It makes me wonder; how could the world be mended by our living in response to the Ten Commandments? What if we traded Jesus’ “yes” in the summary of the law for the “no” we often associate with the Ten Commandments? Put a different way – how could the world be mended if we loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? How could the world be mended if loved our neighbors as ourselves?  

No is a complete sentence. But you want to know something? “Yes” is a complete sentence, too!