Sunday 4th October

Here is the link to Sunday’s sermon entitled ‘Relationships not Rules’

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-17; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Relationship, not rules

The first reading was probably rather familiar. We know it as ‘the ten commandments’ – though the Bible calls them ‘the Decalogue’, the ‘ten words.’ What are these ‘ten words’? Most people see them as ten rules. But to see them as mere rules misses the point. The Decalogue is about relationship. These ten words invite us to look at what it means to be in relationship with God, and how we are to live in relationship with each other.

Recall how they begin. 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; you shall have no other gods before me. These are words for those who have a relationship with God. They are words for a people for whom God has done some very special things, and with whom God has formed a unique relationship. To these people God said: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ These are words for those who know God’s love – for those whom God has chosen, cared for, and freed from slavery. Without that relationship, the words don’t mean much. With that relationship, they mean everything.

God is saying to the people of Israel: I am your God, I’m the one who brought you out of slavery – I’m the one who is leading you into freedom. So people, here’s how I want you to live in the light of what I’ve done for you. Keep on living in relationship to me. Make that relationship with me the most important thing in your lives. And in your relationships with me, and with each other, and with the whole of creation, I want you to reflect my life.

The ten words often get divided into two groups – those about worship and our relationship with God, and those about human relationships and how we live alongside each other. But we can’t separate these two. The words about how to worship God are also about how the people are formed through that worship to be a certain kind of people. The ten words, and the books of law that follow, are about identity and formation: forming Israel as a faith community, a community rooted in right worship of God, and right living in justice and peace with one another.

That’s the sort of community the church is called to be. Our relationship with God shapes our relationships with one another. We can’t separate the two. Jesus summed up all of these commandments into two great commandments – or two put it another way – into two great relationships: To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The first relationship, with God, leads to the second.

The first four of these words tell us how to live in relationship with ‘the Lord our God’. They say to us: let go of any other competing claims – release yourself of anything that might negate your freedom to respond to God’s love and God’s choosing to be your God. This is the only real god. Any other god is a fraud. So, don’t try to worship anything or anyone else. Hold God’s name in reverence – as we would the name of anyone with whom we live in a relationship of mutual love and commitment. And remember, God must be free to be God – without being limited by our human-made images of God, whether these are carved out of wood or stone or created by language. Let God be God. Don’t put God into a box. We’re also called to live as God lives, to match the rhythm of our lives with God’s own rhythm. God balanced work and rest, so we’re to do the same. We’re to have one whole day each week when we remember that we aren’t the centre of everything, and the world isn’t just there for us to use for our ends.

The rest of these words guide our relationships with one another. They show us how to live in community. Living this way – not coveting, lying or stealing – creates the conditions where human relationships of love can flourish.

Relationship is the big thing – relationship with God who brought the people from slavery to freedom. So it is for us. We’re known and held and loved by God. We’ve been chosen and called into community with one another. And it’s our relationship with God that needs to be at the centre of our lives. I wonder then, what is it that God has done for you that will shape how you live in the time ahead? It was a question that was often in Paul’s mind. In his letters he frequently says: this is what God has done for you in Christ, and so this then is how you should live. We hear this in his letter to the faith community in Philippi. He starts by listing all his credentials. It’s an impressive CV. Ancestry, tribe, position, commitment, and then ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’. ‘You know all those rules’, Paul says – ‘well, I’ve kept them all – every one of them. But these mean nothing compared to my relationship with Christ. The surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord is the number one thing in my life.’

So, here’s a question. What is the most important thing in our lives? What is the centre around which everything else falls into place? For Jesus it was his relationship with his Father. That was the hub of his life. The sense that he was known and held and loved by God led to all that he said and did. Ultimately it led him to the cross and beyond it. We can see some of that in the parable about the wicked tenants and the patient landowner. Only Jesus sneaks in a line from Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone, and suddenly the story leaves the vineyard, and focuses on the son, the one who was seized, thrown out of the vineyard and killed. It turns into a story about Jesus. And the religious leaders get the point. They see themselves in there. Because what I think Jesus meant here is that the religious leaders in his own day were, just like Paul at the beginning, really good about keeping the rules – but they had forgotten about relationship. The relationship God wanted to have with them, and the relationships God wanted them to have with other people.

I wonder, how can we keep relationship at the top of our agenda? How can we ensure that, however important rules might be, they don’t dominate? How can we shape our lives around our relationship with God and let that flow out into our relationships with one another, and with the people around us in our community? I also wonder, how will our lives this week show a people living in a relationship with the God who loves us and leads us into a life of freedom?

Alister Hendery St Matthew’s, Hastings – 4.10.2020

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