The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
On Earth as it is in Heaven
I remember vividly that moment on the morning of June 12, 2016. It was a Sunday morning and I was sitting in Room 211, upstairs, meeting with folks who were interested in our EfM program. And I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text message from my wife. She doesn't typically text me on Sunday mornings; she is aware that I am generally unable to check my phone; I have a lot going on and typically a lot of layers to navigate between hand and pocket. And so, I reasoned this must be important. I checked my phone; I wanted to be sure everything was OK.
It wasn't. “Did you see?” The text read. “Largest mass shooting in US history, 50 people.” And I felt instantly sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, I was not quite as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook. I excused myself from the class and went downstairs. My head spinning; my heart breaking. The first thing I did was check on a friend, a college friend who is gay and lives with his husband in Orlando, to make sure he was safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But it was and so I hurried to add a petition to the prayers of the people before the next liturgy.
All of it was too terrible to really process and so that Sunday morning, between the liturgies, I did things. Trying to respond in the moment to an event in our nation to which one should never have to respond. Later that week, on Wednesday evening, we prayed the Great Litany and tolled the bell – fifty times, one time for each person shot to death in that Orlando night club.
And then this Monday morning, my wife woke me up with another terrible message: “Did you hear about the shooting in Las Vegas? They are saying it is the worst mass shooting in US history.” And instantly I felt sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, not as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook, and not quite as sick as when I heard about Orlando. And that it does not make me feel quite as sick anymore, that makes me feel sick. Because I am worried that the shock is wearing off, like when one keeps watching the same horror movie over and over again.
What should be unbelievable is becoming increasingly believable. And what should shock me, shock us, is becoming too normal, as if, as a nation, we now expect these things to happen. And I will keep praying “on earth as it is in heaven.” But also this week a man rained down bullets on a crowd leaving 60 dead and hundreds injured. And so this week, I think, heaven feels far away.
The first thing I did was check facebook to make sure my uncle and aunt, who live in Las Vegas, were safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But of course it was.
Later on Monday, Fr. Brendan and I sat down and planned the public prayer services, for Monday evening and Tuesday morning, and then thought about how we might respond to this tragedy during Wednesday's Animal Blessing. We prayed our prayers and tolled the bell – sixty times, it's hard to even say that out loud, one time for each person shot to death. I hate that we now know how to respond to unprecedented mass shootings.
Which brings us to this morning and Thou shalt not kill. This one has been set in stone since the days of Moses. Of all the commandments it seems the most obvious and the most doable. Most people keep it without even trying.
And yet, from the moment Moses descended Mt. Sinai, humankind has invested countless hours and limitless resources developing the most devastatingly efficient ways to break this commandment. We can kill and destroy in such creative and terrible ways that probably we make the devil jealous.
The Ten Commandments have become more symbolic than understood in our nation - something to up on a courthouse lawn or drive around the country on a flatbed truck. The Commandments are surprisingly popular considering one of them is about keeping the Sabbath – not the most popular idea in our culture.
But I suspect the importance of the Ten Commandments has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone tablets. I think for many people the value is found in the promise of a moral code that is set in stone, something constant in a scary world that is ever changing. There is something mesmerizing about a document that seems so black and white in a world so colored grey. Would that the world could be so simple that ten rules were all we needed?
But while the Ten Commandments are God-breathed and vitally important to our faith – both in the days of Moses and still today – they were never intended to be the whole story or the final word. God doesn't stop with these Ten Commandments; the size of the Torah with its 613 laws is proof of this. This is not the end of the conversation; it the beginning. The Ten Words, so-called in the Jewish tradition, is the charter covenant between YHWH and the people God led out of Egypt. God is extending to the people an invitation into a relationship. And so while, some will always think of this as a list of rules, it is actually all about relationships. The Catechism in the Prayer Books asserts that the Ten Commandments are a gift given to the people of God “to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.”1
The Ten Commandments are the beginning of a conversation – a conversation intended to inspire compassion, encourage empathy, lead us into deeper relationships. They have become decisive in our time, but they were meant to foster community. Often we think of these laws as the “Thou shalt nots.” Though it is worth noting, as one commentator points out, “We can keep all of [the commandments] while taking a nap. That's hardly burdensome.”2 But Biblical Scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that eight of the commandments are stated in the negative for a reason. He writes, “As such, they open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors. At the same time, the negative formulation indicates that the primary concern is not to create the human community but to protect it from behaviors that have the potential of destroying it. Yet the commands implicitly commend their positive side.... For example... not killing suggests efforts to preserve life.... It is not enough for a community's life and health to simply avoid crimes.”3
God is not calling us simply to Thou Shalt Not; it is not enough to avoid doing terrible things in this world. We are called to make this world a better place, a place more like heaven. No one of us can dispel all of the violence of this age. But each of us can speak a word of life; each of us can take action against the forces of death.
God's first action was to breathe life into the void, into the chaos. We, created in the very image of God, are called to do the same. Thou Shalt Not Kill is not enough. We are people of life. Where there is violence, we sow peace. Where there is despair, we sow hope. Where there is death, we are called to proclaim life. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us. We are filled with resurrection power. Our story is that life overcomes death – every time.
In a culture seemingly addicted to violence and death, in which mass shootings have become so common we can only remember the ones in which there are double-digit fatalities, we, as followers of the Risen Christ, made in the image of the God who breathed life into Creation, are called to resist the forces of death by any means necessary. See the world I woke up to on Monday morning is not the world I want for my loved ones, for my children. I want better for us. I want Jesus' prayer; that's what I want. I want on “earth as it is in heaven.” And I think you do too.
Everything I read tells me to just accept things the way they are. I'm not gonna do that. Everything I read tells me that nothing will ever change. I don't believe that. Maybe on earth as it is in heaven is too much to ask. But that is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, so I believe there is hope. We serve a God who raises the dead, so I believe there is hope. We just need to dream bigger dreams. We need to dream dreams of swords beat into plowshares. We need to dream dreams in which gun violence is no more, in which there are no more mass shootings. We need to dream the dreams of the angels – for peace on earth and goodwill to all. We need to dream God-sized dreams for our nation, for our world. I am challenging us to use our holy imaginations to imagine something better. What does it look like? What does on “earth as it is in heaven” look like? And what are we willing to do to make our dreams come true? What are we willing to do to make our prayer, on earth as it is in heaven, become the reality?
1 BCP, 848.
2 Preaching the Old Testament, 95.
3Interpretation: Exodus, 221.