I have a confession to make.
I have a terrible fear of heights.
It was bad enough when I was a child, but it became much more intense a decade ago when my son C broke through a raining on a second floor balcony and fell 25 feet to the ground, badly fracturing both arms.
It’s important for you to know this, because that fear is central to a dream that I have been having for more years than I care to count.
In the dream, I am in the jungle, and have walked through the dense foliage until I come to a cliff. Below me is a raging river, Class V rapids, a good fifty feet down. The jungle trail continues on the other side of the chasm, but to get there, I must cross a rickety rope bridge, just a bunch of old wooden slats tied together with questionable hemp ropes. It sways in the breeze over the rushing water. On the other side is a loved one – in the past dozen years, it’s always been my husband PH, and I know I want to be with him.
But to get to him, I have to cross that bridge, that looks like it would barely hold a small dog, much less me. And the water is still rushing and roiling underneath the bridge, and the wood looks splintery, and the rope looks frayed in spots. And PH is on the other side waiting for me.
Tentatively, shaking, I reach out to grab the ropes. The whole bridge shakes even more at my touch. I can’t seem to take my eyes off the turbulent brown water fifty feet down.
“Mibi! Look at me!” I hear his voice and I look up into his calm blue eyes.
“Don’t look down. Put both hands on the ropes. Step slowly, steadily. No, don’t look down, just look at me. You can do this. Breathe! One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Stay in the middle. Come on. Just a few more steps. You’re almost here. Reach out for my hand.”
And with the final few steps, I am across and safely in his arms.
On a dangerous journey, you sometimes need someone to call out some rules to you that will get you safely across the bridge.
Now, rules are something we often see as a burden. There’s someone more powerful than us who says what we must do, and it chafes to not be in control. It bothers us that someone else is telling us what to do. Whether we’re teenagers complaining about mom’s curfew, or adults who don’t like to keep to the speed limit, we’re not too happy about rules.
But the rules may be what we need to keep us alive while we look ahead at our final goal.
Diane Ackerman tells such a story in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were the husband and wife who managed the Warsaw Zoo in the years running up to World War II. They viewed themselves as scientists as well as nurturers of the animals under their care. They had a particular interest in native species such as Pryzwalski’s horse, a wild breed unique to one primeval forest in a tiny corner of Poland. As the war began, and the Nazis overran Poland, Hitler’s underlings also had an interest in the animals in that Polish zoo. They took some back to Germany to try and breed back to kinds of war-horses and great wild bulls that were mentioned in ancient texts. It was not only a desire to purify the human race that drove their dark plan, they wanted to do something similar to animal species as well. They allowed the zookeeper and his wife to keep running the zoo with the remaining animals. The zookeeper, a Christian, had reason to go into the Warsaw ghetto, the part of the city that the Jews were kept in – it had been walled in when Poland was overrun by the Nazis – and he had friends there, professionals whose services were required to keep the animals healthy. He went in and out of the ghetto, sneaking in supplies, bringing out messages. And when the Jews began to be taken away to the work camps that were really death camps, he began to smuggle out Jews from the ghetto, and to hide them in the empty animal enclosures on the zoo grounds. The Jews were hidden by day, but at night, they came into the zookeeper’s house, where the zookeeper’s wife would feed them with what little food they had to share, and there would be music and conversation. These hideaway Jews were referred to in the house as “guests.” The zookeeper’s house was always a place where many zoologists and biologists came to visit, so having guests in the evening would appear normal. There were rules, though, rules to keep them all safe. The guests could only come to the house via the underground passageways after dark, and only after they were told it was safe. The zookeeper’s young son was told over and over never to speak of the guests to his classmates at school, for fear that someone would get suspicious and betray them in hopes of currying favor with the Nazis. There were rules, rules that sometimes seemed harsh, but these were rules that kept them safe on a perilous journey from oppression to freedom.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear the ultimate list of rules, the Ten Commandments. This list of rules, all the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”, seems to confirm the impression we may have of the God of the Old Testament as a fearsome judge, all about laws and smiting and battles.
But perhaps these rules are something more than a demand for loyalty and a requirement for certain kinds of behavior.
Think about it: at God’s command, Moses has led the Jews out of Egypt. Once they got over the shock of escape from Pharaoh’s army, they’ve been an unruly lot. They seem to spend an awful lot of the time complaining. They have no food. They get so testy about it, they complain that they should have just stayed in Egypt, where there was lots of good food. God hears them and sends them manna and quails. They are thirsty. God instructs Moses to strike the rock and water gushes forth. And now they come to Mount Sinai. God meets with Moses on the mountain and says
(Exodus 19:4-6) " 4 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.'
It’s a love song: God took them out of Egypt, helped them along the way, and will make them His own special treasure among all the peoples on the earth. All they have to do is to love him and honor their relationship with him. You can hear the love, the commitment in his offer. God explains what the people must do to prepare for the next step in the journey, because it is still a long way to the Promised Land. He wants them to get there. He knows it will be a hard journey. So He lays out some rules.
Ten of them, to be exact. The first three are about the people’s relationship with God. The Fourth is about keeping a day of rest, not only to honor God, but to care for themselves. The fifth through the tenth are about building healthy relationships with each other. God’s rule are not simply about obeying and honoring Him, they are the survival strategy to keep them alive, to keep them together, to keep them focused on the difficult journey ahead.
God loves them so much, and wants to see them succeed so much, that He gives them rules that will help them survive the challenge of the journey ahead by binding them closer to Him and to each other. The rules will help them stay focused on the final goal, the Promised Land, and the One who is the reason and the endpoint of the journey.
They are rules borne out of love, out of a desire to keep those unruly Israelites safe on the journey and safely in relationship with the one true God. That relationship with God might well be called one of discipleship, following God, learning from God, carrying out God’s work and passing His teachings along to others. It’s one of the purposes of being part of a faith community such as this one. We not only follow the Lord, we follow the rules he has given us to keep us on the path in the midst of a difficult journey to our own Promised Land.
It is no coincidence that the words “disciple” and “discipline” come from the same root, the Latin word discipulus, or pupil, and before that from the Latin word discere, to learn. Disciples are pupils as much as they are followers. They need discipline, the ability to follow the rules, to be effective. They need rules to guide them as they follow their master. Following the rules means you honor the teacher. Following the rules means you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, and in many contexts, following the rules will keep you safe. Just as important, the rules keep you focused on the One whom you follow…that’s what being a disciple is all about.
The Apostle Paul certainly understands the challenge of the journey of discipleship in the passage from Philippians : “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
And it’s consistent with the message that Jesus gives as he explains the parable of the landowner: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Those of us who seek to be disciples, to follow Christ, have been given a great gift in the form of Scripture. These words hold within them a kind of discipline to keep us safely in relationship with Christ. They also keep us safely in relationship with one another. We stay focused on the path that lead us to our own Promised Land by following the divine guidance we’ve received and by keeping our eyes on the Lord. The journey in this troubled world is difficult. There are cliffs that drop off to terrible raging waters. The voice of one who loves us calls us, guides us, over the bridge to the next road on the way to Him.