1928, 2017, 10
Today we’re starting our Historic Liturgies project at St. Francis.
We really started it last week with the 1979 prayerbook liturgy that we use every week, but that’s so familiar it doesn’t really count.
This is the first week we’ll really strike out to try something different with our 1928 prayerbook liturgy.
Next week we’ll do 1789, then 1662, and finally 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer compiled by Cranmer himself.
Robert and I have collaborated on this project, and we’ve had to shorten most of the liturgies a bit.
The older prayerbooks had long, long exhortations to communion. This goes back to the days when lay people were not used to receiving communion more than once or twice a year and had to be encouraged by the priest to come to the altar.
One bit we took out this week which I’ve since realized we really should have kept in, was the Decalogue.
The Decalogue is the recitation of the 10 Commandments in worship, and it used to be at the beginning of every service of Holy Communion.
This goes back to the days when most people were illiterate, and Cranmer and his associates hoped that hearing the 10 Commandments at the beginning of every service would help people learn and memorize them.
In the 1662 rubrics, the priest is instructed to “rehearse distinctly all the 10 Commandments,”—make sure they really hear it!
We took it out this week to shorten the service, but you’ll see we’ll have a chance to reflect on it anyway because it is our scripture today from Exodus.
A colleague told me this week of a fascinating interpretation of the 10 Commandments he read that I’d like to share with you. “At the Red Sea, God took the Israelites out of Egypt. At Mount Sinai, God took Egypt out of the Israelites.”
Wow! Isn’t that an interesting thought?
And it holds up exegetically—the Israelites have been moaning all through the desert about how they wished God and Moses had just left them in Egypt because they really liked it better there despite being enslaved.
They need to have Egypt removed from their hearts and souls.
We so often think of the 10 Commandments as laws or imperatives, which of course they are.
But what happens if we think of them as gifts or promises?
It’s as though God is saying, “Now that I have taken you out of slavery, this is how you will be empowered to live. You will now be capable of living without lying, cheating, stealing or killing because I have liberated you and I am with you.”
It also makes the 10 Commandments startlingly relevant to us as individuals, right here and how.
We realize that the 10 Commandments are a set of beautiful ethical aspirations given as promises to us by God, gifts of God’s presence within us.
And since we know we are not living up to them, the question immediately asks itself: have we truly been liberated?
It’s easy after a week like we’ve had to believe that God was hopelessly naïve in giving us the 10 Commandments.
The unprecedented scale of death and injury in the domestic terrorism massacre in Las Vegas seems to demand bitter heartbreak from anyone not so worn down by tragedy that a cold cynicism is all that is left.
“Thou shalt not kill,” God said, apparently believing that we were capable of fulfilling that commandment.
Was God crazy? Is God crazy to still have faith in us today?
It takes me back to the meaning of having the Decalogue in worship every Sunday.
Cranmer must have realized in a flash of wisdom that we are always in need of having Egypt removed from our hearts.
Every week, the world of violence, greed and hatred makes inroads into our souls.
We need help pushing it back and reclaiming the internal sanctuary that belongs to the Holy Spirit.
Because it is only the Holy Spirit within us that can help us live up to the 10 Commandments. By ourselves, small, flawed, and beset by the world, the flesh, and the Devil—we have no chance.
Put yourself in the place of an Episcopal churchgoer in 1928.
Your grandfather served in the Civil War, and carries all that comes with having won or lost that war, or perhaps your grandfather was a slave on a plantation.
Your parents were astonished by the arrival of electric lights, automobiles, and airplanes, and perhaps lost family members in World War I.
You go to church in an America run mad with the greed and excess of the Roaring Twenties, not knowing that only one year from now the economy will plunge into a Great Depression in the crash of 1929.
Perhaps you are a factory worker in a crowded city, a farmer pushing west away from the Dust Bowl, or a young woman whose mother fought for years to win the still-new woman’s right to vote.
Totalitarianism is well-established in Russia and on the rise in Western Europe, immigration is a controversial topic, and the thought of another world war is no longer unthinkable.
You live in a world of unprecedented globalization, urbanization, and breakneck economic, political and technological change.
In other words, an Episcopalian in 1928 walked into church each week and felt much the same confusion, fear and despair that sometimes dog our own steps as we enter this nave.
What are we do to in this crazy world? What does God have to say to us?
And in that environment, the first thing the 1928 Episcopalian hears in worship is the 10 Commandments.
The first words that wash across them are an invitation to liberation, an aspiration to a nobler life, a blueprint for the Beloved Community.
That’s an incredibly hopeful way to start worship!
So perhaps we might spend some time considering this week how our sisters and brothers in 1928, 1789, 1662 and 1549 were trapped and enslaved by the Egypt in their hearts, and how the same is true for us.
What chains do we cling to, insisting they comfort us while remaining blind to their poison?
What is it within us that fears a God who tells us that lying, cheating, stealing, and killing will only drive us farther into pain?
Why do we hear these promises of new life as threats of judgment and retribution from God?
Because Egypt still reigns within our hearts.
And this gets to part of what I hope we take away from this historic liturgies project.
We have in worship each week a cruciform responsibility to the Body of Christ.
We are not in this church before this altar for ourselves alone. We are here praying for and with the suffering people of the world—those in Las Vegas, those in Puerto Rico, those in North Korea, those in Zionsville.
That is our horizontal responsibility—the call to prayer across space.
And we are here praying for and with all those in the communion of saints who came before us, those who suffered and those who kept the flame of faith alive that it might reach us today.
That is our vertical responsibility—the call to prayer across time.
At that intersection of the vertical and horizontal, of time and space, forms the holy crucible, the Cross, in and among us here and now as worshippers of the Living God.
Here we acknowledge the truth that we need liberation, and here we receive with gratitude the gifts of God that make it possible, like the 10 Commandments.
The fact that believers have been saying the same words together in holy space for generations and generations matters—it makes possible this sacred hour we are now in, a sacred hour that the world cannot corrupt or destroy.
And the fact that we carry these words forward with reverence and hope may make all the difference to someone in the year 2028 or 3017.
Let us pray.
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