If you were to travel back in time and visit St Bride’s in the days before the bombing raid of December 1940 completely destroyed the interior of our building, you would be surprised at how very different this church looked on the inside in those days.
And one of the differences would be what you would see behind me here. Because in the pre-war church, on either side of our altar, were a pair of very large wooden plaques – one of them headed ‘Exodus’, and the other ‘Chapter 20’ – displaying between them the words of the Ten Commandments, which we heard as our first reading this morning.
These ‘Decalogue Boards’, as they are called, are common in churches of the 17th and 18th centuries – and there is a reason for that. In 1602 the Church of England ruled that (and I quote): ‘The Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same.’ So at every service that they ever attended here, our predecessors at St Bride’s would have had the full text of the Ten Commandments staring them in the face – leaving them in absolutely no doubt about the conduct that was expected of them. There really was no escape.
In modern times, the Ten Commandments seem to have had a bit of a bad press in certain quarters – possibly not helped by the fact that, in days of yore, the Church used them in precisely that kind of menacing way. When I was involved in ministerial training some years ago, I can remember some of my students complaining that, as a set of guidelines for how one should live, they seem so overwhelmingly negative – a long list of ‘Thou shalt nots’. ‘They’re all about what you mustn’t do’, I was told. ‘We need something much more positive and aspirational these days.’
But I can’t help feeling that that kind of response actually misses the point – about what the Ten Commandments are, and what they are for. And part of the reason for that misunderstanding is that, when we read them, we almost always start in the wrong place (as indeed the Decalogue Boards might be said to do) – which is to go straight in with the first of the Commandments: ‘You shall have no other God but me’.
You see, it strikes me that the place where one ought to start is with the sentence that comes immediately beforehand – a sentence that is frequently overlooked, but is in fact where our Old Testament reading this morning happens to begin. Which is with these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’
In other words, when God delivers the Ten Commandments, he begins by reminding the Israelites of what he has already done for them, in liberating them from slavery in Egypt. Which alerts us to the fact that the Ten Commandments are not simply any old set of rules that God saw fit to impose upon his chosen nation. Rather, they are a charter for a newly-freed people; a people that previously had known nothing but slavery; they are guidelines to enable his liberated people to continue to live in freedom, and to help ensure that they do not fall into slavery again.
Seen from this perspective – as a warning against the things that can so easily enslave us – the Ten Commandments start to read rather differently, and do indeed have a voice that it is extremely important for us to hear today. So let’s explore that notion for a moment, reflecting, in particular, on what they might teach us about the true nature of freedom.
‘You shall have no other gods before me’: Human beings seem to have an inbuilt need to worship something. And so if it isn’t God, it is very likely to be something else instead: wealth, or power, or success, or influence, or sexual gratification – the kinds of things that can so easily become obsessions. And when our obedience to their pursuit becomes the driving force in our lives, and the thing the gives our existence focus and meaning, it can so easily, in the process, distort our priorities, wreck our relationships, and even end up eroding our basic humanity. I suspect that we have all encountered individuals who have ended up being enslaved by such things. We may even be aware of such forces at work within our own lives. And interestingly, although not the primary point of the parable we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, note that the story that Jesus tells is of a group of tenants whose greed and covetousness leads them into ever more violent and murderous acts.
‘For six days you shall labour’. When I first moved here to Fleet Street, six years ago this month, back in the days when offices were still full of people, one of the things that startled me most was observing the working hours that were kept by so many of them: they were chained to their desks far into the night, not merely from Monday to Friday, but even throughout the weekends. Late on a Sunday evening, I would see people still glued to their computers. And however much money they were earning by being there, I couldn’t help thinking that what I was seeing was just another form of slavery.
And then there is the burden that can come when one gets caught up in a tangled web of deceit – whether through bearing false witness or through infidelity, for example. There is the slavery that comes from being consumed by covetousness. And so on and so forth. It is worth reading through the Ten Commandments and identifying how many different kinds of slavery we are being warned about in its precepts.In the Old Testament, the story of the Exodus begins with the charge to Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. And we soon discover that the Israelites were actually very reluctant to hear that promise of freedom, because, we are told, their spirit was broken. It is indeed the case that sometimes it can be so much easier to remain enslaved than to summon the energy and the courage to break free. And of course, we can become so accustomed to the chains that bind us that eventually we lose sight of the fact that we are enslaved at all.
Conversely, we can also devalue and abuse the true meaning of freedom. A couple of Saturdays ago I went to visit the bookshop in Trafalgar Square, and stumbled across the big rally protesting against the wearing of masks and against other Anti-Covid restrictions. And looking at the banners that the protesters were waving, alongside signs that proclaimed seriously loony conspiracy theories, a recurrent motif was basically this: the requirement that I wear a mask is a violation of my human rights and my personal freedom.
But hang on just a moment: there is a basic problem and a fundamental confusion underlying that kind of assumption and attitude.
I was brought up to understand that, with the exception of children and the most vulnerable in society who are completely dependent upon others for their protection and welfare, rights are always accompanied by responsibilities. This means that I cannot demand that my rights are honoured to the letter, without also taking some account of how that will impact upon the rights of others. There will, of course, always be difficulties of balance and interpretation here, particularly where the issues are complex. But human beings are designed for life in community, for life in society, for life in relationship, that is how we flourish. And if our perceived rights can only be secured at the expense of the welfare and welbeing of others, that is surely no kind of flourishing at all.
Today, 4th October, is the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. Our parish pilgrimage back in April 2018 took us to Italy, where we spent a day in Assisi, including a visit to St Francis’ hermitage. The day we were there was unusually busy – it was a public holiday – and yet, despite that, it was possible to get a real sense both of the man and the place. Managing to find a quiet place away from the bustling centre for a few minutes, I became acutely aware of the beauty of creation around me and reminded of the joy and delight that Francis was able to take in the most simple things in life. He was a man born into wealth and privilege, and yet he chose to relinquish all of that in order to embrace a life of poverty; a life without possessions; a life without status; a life that brought joy and peace and inspiration to others; a life that really was truly free.
I am currently reading my way through the works of the 17th century Anglican and writer on spirituality, Thomas Traherne. And a couple of days ago I was very struck by a phrase in one of his works. Traherne wrote that it is God’s intention for us, that:
‘We are to grow rich, not by seeking what we want, but by enjoying what we have… It is madness to despise blessings because they are present.’
And thanks be to God for that. Amen.