My grandmother taught Sunday School for over fifty years; standing at the front of the sanctuary of her one room church with only a Bible in her hand she could hold the attention of her small, yet faithful, class. She liked to write letters. And whenever her weekly letters arrived, they had three parts: the family news, the community news, and the sermon.
And she liked to give religious jewelry for presents. On the day of my confirmation, she gave me a praying hands necklace; silver hands mounted on a faux–pearl pendant “to remind you to pray” she said. Even her gifts came with a sermon.
Another time, she gave me a Ten Commandments charm bracelet; “to encourage you to be a good girl”. I grew up in a culture where the threat of hell was real; where sin was something we talked about; and guilt was encouraged. And I was an oldest child; and the oldest child in my family. And like many oldest children I was conscientious, serious, and perfectionist. The pressure to be a proper young Southern lady and a good girl already seemed enormous. The thought of another set of expectations to meet, even God’s, felt overwhelming. That bracelet represented ten opportunities to fail.
A generation later, I am the Sunday School teacher, sitting on the floor of a Godly Play class, my hands in a box of sand. Godly Play shares Bible stories with children in a contemplative manner, using objects that children can see, teach, and move; deepening their reflection, inviting sacred play and holy imagination.
The box of sand is our desert box in which the story of God’s life with God’s people unfolds. In this box, children have heard and seen the clank and the thud of a big metal chain dropped in the sand. God’s people cut off from Jerusalem, forced into Babylon: exile. In this box, children have seen the blue felt water rolled back by the hand of God, allowing God’s people to pass through dry land into freedom: exodus.
And now, in this box, they see God’s people – wooden figures of women, men and children – gathered in the sand at the foot of a mountain. Moses stands before them, sharing God’s gift of the Ten Best Ways to Live. I take pieces of a puzzle from a large, red heart–shaped box. “Love God” says one. “Love People” says another. “God loves you” says another.
I place this heart shaped message of love in the desert sand. And next to it, I begin to push ten tablets into the sand, so the children can see them as they hear God’s words.
Don’t serve other gods. Make no idols to worship. Be serious when you say my name. Keep the Sabbath holy. Honor you father and mother. Don’t kill. Don’t break your marriage. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t even want what others have.
The children strike up a lively conversation. “Sometimes I dream that God comes and kisses me goodnight.” “My daddy says God’s name. My mommy says that’s a bad word.” “I love Sunday. We get to eat pancakes and then the whole family comes to church together.” “This church helps God, like when we make sandwiches for people who are hungry.”
A few children speak a different truth. “I told a lie at school this week.” “My parents are divorced.” “I don’t know my mother.” “Someone killed my brother.” “My sister is always taking my toys. It makes me really angry.”
Energy fills the room; a community of God’s children contemplating the Ten Best Ways to Live; wondering together what it might mean to love God, to love people, because God love’s us.
Two stories. Two very different responses. It matters where we begin.
Today, as a church, we find ourselves almost halfway through our Lenten journey. It’s a critical moment on our way to Easter. Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of our day, suggests that Lent carries a seductive danger.
For the possibility exists that in our desert journey of prayer, fasting, and repentance we may find ourselves mired in melancholy; feeling more failure than faithful. Like me and my Ten Commandments charm bracelet, working so hard to be a good girl or boy before God; we can find ourselves so focused on our personal sins and shortcomings; so determined to fix them ourselves; that our vision grows smaller. Trying, trying to redeem ourselves, we discover we cannot. Our efforts to save ourselves by ourselves only exhaust us.
We forget to remember: “I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of slavery into freedom.”
On the other hand, consider the children in Godly Play: rooted in God and in God’s story, practiced at wonder and contemplation, engaged in a community of God’s people; possibilities open, holy imagination and sacred play. A loving response emerges to God’s Ten Best Ways to Live; full of excitement, full of joy.
It matters where we begin in our Lenten piety and practice. It helps to begin with God and not ourselves. It helps to remember God’s life, God’s love, God’s people.
This morning’s Psalm serves as an antidote to our forgetfulness. It prods our memory of God’s creative handiwork in nature; God’s liberating word of law, God’s redemptive and healing power.
The Psalm opens with the cosmos and comes to rest in the intimately personal; it pulsates with nature’s energy and motion. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The visible becomes vocal. Everything God has made witnesses to God in a chorus of praise. Rising and soaring, rising and soaring until; until — wordless rapture, speechless speech. “They have no words, they have no language.” And yet; and yet …”Their sound has gone out, and their message is heard.” We pause in worship and wonder, in reverence and awe. Remember! God’s handiwork; God’s creative work.
A Cherokee musician friend sought out a tribal elder. He wanted to know how to discover the sacred songs he would play on the flute he had fashioned from river cane. “Go back to the river” the elder counseled. “Listen to the river and rocks, the wind and water, the trees and cane and birds. They will sing God’s music for you. Listen long enough, wait patiently enough, and nature will sing God’s song for you.”
Sometimes, we get caught up in the power of the world’s problems and forget the power of God. In times like these, we need to remember more than God’s work in nature. Here the Psalm turns. Surely the God who creates such a magnificent world can be trusted to help us know how to live in it.
“Treasure the law” the Psalm says. And here, the word law means Torah – the first five books of Scripture: the story, history, poetry, song and struggle of God’s life with God’s people. Torah: the wisdom producing, joy bringing, light bestowing, liberating law of God. Torah: to be followed in our lives; to be desired in our hearts.
Where we start matters: “Remember”, says the Psalm. I am the Lord your God. I have acted and intervened, heeded and heard, saved and served, that you might be free; free to be my people. I have borne you up on the wings of eagles. Remember!
The Psalm makes a final turn; a turn towards redemption. For before the law is about us, it is about God. God’s creative handiwork and God’s liberating law comes to us with clarity, flesh, and power in Jesus. Stretching out his arms upon the wood of the cross, we see God’s most profound work; God’s most liberating word, God’s deepest love. Remember! Love God, love people, for God loves us; and God redeems our lives.
So where should we start, you and I, in these final weeks of Lent? Ten Commandments Charm bracelet or the Ten Best Ways to Live? Let us pray that we will not forget to remember. God’s creative handiwork, God’s liberating law, God’s redeeming love.
And now, let us pray, as the Psalmist prays: “Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight; for you strengthen us, O God, and you redeem our lives.”