Sermon – 5 October 2008

When I turned up the readings to look at to prepare to speak this morning, I found myself thinking about the last time I was thrown out of a religious institution.

I was sent packing. Told to get out. Instructed not to return until I knew how to behave.

What was this cruel institution, I hear you murmur.

Well, it was not the General Synod – though I’ve said outrageous things there.

It was not Diocesan Synod that I got thrown out of – though I’ve tried as hard as I might. Indeed, I’ve been blessed with not one, not two but three patient bishops who have had to chair Diocesan Synods that I have been a member of. They will each receive a crown of glory one day for their pains.

No, the thing that I was thrown out of (albeit briefly) was the institution which taught me the 10 Commandments.

The thing that I was once thrown out of (and I think I’d rather you kept this just between you and I) was Sunday School.

I was given my marching orders one day for reasons which now escape me. However though I remember not the circumstances of my expulsion, I do remember things that I was taught there.

And when I say that I was taught the 10 Commandments in Sunday School, I actually mean it.

I was taught to recite them in rhyme. And I can.

Here we go!

Thou shalt have no God but Me.
Before no idol bow thy knee.

Take not the name of God in vain,
Nor dare the Sabbath day profane.

Give thy parents honour due.
Take heed that thou no murder do.

Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
Steal not, for thou of God art seen.

Tell not a wilful lie, nor love it.
What is thy neighbour’s, do not covet.

It is remarkable what sticks in the mind after 35 or so years ago.

The Ten Commandments seem so foundational. They stand like a monolith, a standing stone of Christian ethics. So fundamental are they that small children like me were once taught them by rote. In many a church you will find them written up on boards behind the altar representing tablets of stone. Law to keep people in order. Law written to keep things the way they should be.

Odd then isn’t it when I realised this week that I’ve never preached on them before and I don’t think in all my ministry anyone has ever had much of a conversation about them with me.

Its odd that. Do they matter to you or not? That is a real question. And I don’t assume that the answer is necessarily yes.

As I was reading the account of the 10 Commandments that we heard from Exodus this morning, I was struck by what came after them.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking they were afraid and said to Moses – You speak and we will listen.

It almost feels to me as though the 10 commandments are there to keep God at bay. As though the people wanted something simple from the lips of Moses rather than actually cope with knowing God. Better to have a set of rules that you could keep, recite and try to follow than to have to bother with dealing with the Holy One. God’s awesomeness, God’s majesty, God’s tremendous terrifying existence was far too scary for the ordinary person, it was assumed.

Just give us this God’s laws and we’ll do our best. That way we don’t have to deal with the real thing.

It is a kind of spirituality that is still with us today. Many is the person who will say that they just try to live a good life and God will have to be happy enough with that.

And I am sure that God does delight in those who do live within these commandments though it is not the kind of religion that makes me excited.

The question of how people make their minds up about how to live is at the back of much religious disputation in the world today.

Do you live because you are trying to keep commandments? I have to confess that I don’t. Very many people don’t.

The reason I don’t murder people is not because the Bible tells me that it is wrong to do so. The reason I don’t do that is because I think it is wrong. I’m a child of the enlightenment. I make my own mind up about how to live.

I’m like a lot of modern people who suck up all kinds of traditions, laws, conventions, proverbs, sayings, and wisdom from all over the place, including the Scriptures and then try my best to work out for myself how to live.

That might sound rather frightening, I’m not sure. Is it scary to hear the Provost on a Sunday tell people that he is not inspired directly by the 10 commandments in choosing how to live?

You can see how I managed to get thrown out of Sunday School really, can’t you?

The thing is, I’m in good company. Jesus had rather a knack of distilling the commandments and giving us other slogans to live by. Asked about keeping the law, (which involved a good deal more than the keeping of the 10 Commandments), he distils it all down to two. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.

Love God and Love your neighbour.

The shalts and the shalt nots have been replaced by a four letter word. Love.

Jesus, like the Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul of Tarsus whom we also heard of this morning, taught the law in a whole new way. Love was the essence of the law.

Jesus taught us that religion was about motivation rather than the terror of a frightening God.

Love is at the root of the law.

Jesus taught us that knowing God was possible, because love is the start, the middle and the end of knowing how to deal with all that is holy and all that is true.

I don’t know how you make your mind up and choose how to live and be.

No doubt the commandments are somewhere in the mix of what inspires you.

But if you are living by commandment alone you have understood nothing of what Jesus came to teach us.

He came to tell us that we are loved and blessed, and that no-one can ever throw us out of that. Ever.

I told you about being thrown out of Sunday School. Some of you have known far greater exclusions than that. Some of you have known the pain of disfellowship – of being thrown out of one institution of home or family or faith group or another because you have not conformed to someone else’s commandment. You have not believed the right thing or loved the right person the right way or something like that.

If you sit here having experienced any of that. Know this truth. Know it for it is gospel. You are made in the image and likeness of God. You are included in the sphere, the circle, the circumference of all that is holy, of all that is true.

You are loved. You are blessed. And nothing and no one can ever take that away.


  1. Rosemary says

    I also was expelled form Sunday School. It was for asking questions.

  2. Rosemary. I feel that there should be a support group for people like us.

    The only other choice is to wear that expulsion as a badge of honour.

  3. Elizabeth says

    I read Jesus’s commandment as not two but three-fold. Love God, love neighbour, love self.

  4. I was expelled from Sunday School (actually held on a Wednesday night, but inexplicably still called Sunday School) for calling the teacher a dirtball.

    Well, that’s what my classmates like to say happened. What actually happened was that I asked about evolution vs. the literal creation story of Adam formed from the earth. Objecting to perceived simian ancestry, the teacher said, “So you’re calling me a monkey?” To which I replied, “Well, you called me a dirtball.”

    I went out in a blaze of glory.

  5. Mary-Cate says

    Sunday school–for part of my childhood–was taught by Anglican nuns. They were pretty savvy (and scary!) and knew that the punishment lay not in being kicked out but rather in being made to stay. Mind you, they always had really neat things in their pockets. Oh and they had a really great Easter egg hunt at the convent when you could ‘accidentally’ go into all sorts of intriguing rooms that were normally off bounds

  6. Not thrown out of anywhere since sunday-school? God knows it’s not for lack of trying, Kelvin.

    Surely the requisite support group is simply the SEC? (or perhaps St Mary’s).

  7. That was lovely. And I’m glad that, in my experience, SEC Churches are indeed difficult to get thrown out of :-).

  8. traceymac says

    Wow. After all that’s happened… I’m loved. I’m blessed. And nothing can ever take that away. Kind of puts a bit of a lump in my throat when i think about it. Thanks for saying this, and for the opportunity to hear it and read it again and again… which is what i’ve been doing the last couple of days.

  9. Zebadee says

    There was a story that was told @ St Marys about you being asked to leave a seminar and also had a telephone hurled in your direction.

    Is this true or is it just one of the myths that St Marys will be telling at the 600 years celebrations of it’s opening?

  10. Kelvin says

    I don’t remember being asked to leave a seminar in St Mary’s though it is possible that happened. It does not sound like the kind of thing I would have forgotten.

    The story of the telephone flying in my direction though is certainly gospel. I took it at the time as a sign of endearment.

    I was asked to leave TISEC, but I don’t think that counts as it was before I had commenced the course. It was an appropriate start to a troubled relationship.

  11. Kelvin says

    As I’ve thought about the telephone incident further, it has come back to me that the trajectory of the telephone was accompanied by the words, “Get out, go on, get out!”

    However, this did not take place during a seminar but after a seminar.

    I remain convinced that behind the flying telephone lay a certain affection. The landing of the telephone was certainly received with respect. It was flung by one of several people at St Mary’s who helped me to become who I am and for whose challenging wisdom I will always be grateful.

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