Philippians 3:4b-14, Proper 22A, Sermons, Ten Commandments

Learn Your Lessons Well

(A sermon for Proper 22A — October 2, 2011 — Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14)

On our trip this summer, Lucy and I packed a bag full of CDs to listen to in the car, and the rule was that they be sing-along-able. We packed musicals, mostly, and even though I hadn’t listened to some of them in literally years, it amazed and pleased me that at a time in my life when I’m finding some things hard to remember, the songs were still there, both the music and the words.

We were both tired when we crossed the border from Connecticut to New York, and we had a long way to go to get to our destination in central Pennsylvania when we put Godspell in the CD player.  And it’s possible Lucy might have felt some regret at her willingness to have this be a sing-along trip, because suddenly, her mother became excited.

I can see a swath of sinners settin’ yonder 
And they’re actin’ like a pack of fools 
Gazin’ into space lettin’ their minds wander 
‘Stead of studyin’ the good Lord’s rules 
You better pay attention, build your comprehension 
There’s gonna be a quiz at your ascencion 
Not to mention any threat of hell 
But if you’re smart you’ll learn your lessons well! 

Every bright description of the promised land mentions 
You can reach it if you keep alert 
Learnin’ every line and every last commandment 
May not help you but it couldn’t hurt 
First ya gotta read ’em then ya gotta heed ’em 
Ya never know when you’re gonna need ’em 
Just as old Elijah said to Jezebel 
You better start to learn your lessons well! 
(Stephen Schwartz)

I am awful at memorizing things from a piece of paper or a page in a book, but set them to music? And I will never forget.
But without the music, well, I need a lot of repetition to get there, and I feel panicked at the possibility of forgetting, which makes it even harder. I have vivid memories of praying to remember the Periodic Chart of Elements, which would certainly have been miraculous, since I hadn’t studied it very well in the first place. If only there had been a song, like the one my children learned about the sixteen counties in Maine.
If you’re any older than I am, your school memories are probably influenced by how easily you could memorize things. If you excelled at reciting, teachers loved you. If not, you may have felt less than smart. Even in church, we expected little children to memorize pieces to say. But I’m not sure we cared whether they understood the words they were saying. We used repetition to teach things, really teaching the sound patterns more than the meaning.

How many times have you caught yourself reciting The Lord’s Prayer and realized you weren’t paying attention to the words? Many of us learned it before we could read it, simply by listening to it. We know the chain of syllables. I sat in the back for part of Bertha’s funeral service yesterday, and heard the way many of us mumbled along with the 23rd Psalm from memory, having a vague sense of its shape rather than a keen understanding of each particular word. We learned it by rote, and historically in churches we taught by repetition because a lot of people couldn’t read. We used repetition to teach. (See how I repeated that?)

Now we live in the world of Google. We look up what we need to know and hold onto the knowledge only as long as we need it. Need to fix the ice maker? Google it. (Or call a friend, but really, you can Google it.) Want to knit a sock? Google it. It wasn’t always this way. A friend tells the story of moving to what felt like a different century when she went to live with her husband’s extended family in Canada. There were two aunts in the house, and they both constantly had a sock going. My friend learned to knit from the Canadian aunts, who would even seem to knit in their sleep, sitting in the rocking chairs with their eyes closed. That’s the kind of learning that is part of your body, not flitting through your head just for the moment you need it. You learned to make apple pan dowdy by watching your grandmother make pastry over and over again, not by navigating to the Martha Stewart website every time you need to remember the recipe.

When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, where I’m pretty sure they couldn’t get 3G or Wi-fi, God provided Ten Simple Rules, carved in stone. And even though most of the Israelites couldn’t read them, ten was a short enough list to remember. If you go on further in the Torah, there were 613 laws, so it did get more complicated, in practice, to be a faithful Jew. There were rules about what not to wear and what not to eat and who not to marry and how to punish disobedient children and quite a few other things we’d probably just as soon not talk about in polite company on a Sunday morning. All of those rules were intended to keep the small community unique and cohesive. Most of them have been discarded by us as being suitable to that time and place and not to ours.

But for Paul, those rules, not just the Ten, but the 613, had been the framework for his religious life. The repetition of texts being read in worship and the repetition of practices throughout the day and the year formed his understanding of what God wanted. He was zealous. He says so himself. He was offended by Jesus, and so he persecuted Jesus’ followers.

My Baptist grandmother gave me a copy of Good News for Modern Man when I was a little girl, and the illustrations fascinated me. I particularly loved the stick man running on this page in Philippians. Paul used an athletic metaphor, the running of a race, to express the effort and energy he put into his spiritual life, to describe his eagerness to win through and be with Jesus. Paul had lived the life of rules followed for the rules’ sake, but he discarded it all to pursue the heavenly prize of salvation in Jesus Christ. He didn’t count on reaching it, but he pressed on toward it. This passage popped out at me because of the picture. The image drew me in and then I learned the words, and only many years later did I come to understand them, and I still find something new in them, even though I know them (almost) by heart. Maybe if I set it to music…

That’s my way of learning lessons best. It may not help me, but it couldn’t hurt.

Paul couldn’t learn his lesson without feeling it in his body. He had to be blinded on the road to Damascus. He had to lose his sight in order to really see. He came to believe that what Jesus showed us with his life and taught us with his words was a new law, more important than what came before, more important than his heritage, more important than his Jewish education, more important than the right practice of the 613 laws.

And even the Big Ten, the Ten Simple Rules, seemed to be missing something. You see, you can obey every single one of them without ever getting around to loving your neighbor.  In fact, you can obey every single one of them without loving God. They’re more about behavior than intention.

Jesus called us to something more than obeying the rules. He called us to understand the spirit of the law and not just the letter. He called us to learn our lessons by heart, to really and truly make them part of who we are. And I think we learn those lessons of love by giving and receiving care. Sometimes we don’t know where to start, but you could have learned a lot by hanging around here the past few days, watching people make sandwiches and fill up pitchers of water and punchbowls and set up chairs and play the violin and drop off flowers and park cars and greet strangers.

Many of us are feeling spent today, from the combination of grief and effort, but throughout, we pressed toward the goal of Christ’s call to us to show love and care. I’m grateful for all of you and for the love that poured out so generously. Those embodied acts mattered to families and friends in the midst of grief. They were a sign and symbol of God’s love in this community of faith, and it was a beautiful thing. Thanks be to God for the things we know how to do and the lessons we are still learning together, by heart. Amen.

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