Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28
Excerpt from Luther’s Large Catechism
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This brief reflection is from a service of Lenten midweek worship, part of a series on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
For Martin Luther, the Ten Commandments set an impossibly high standard. Take the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not murder.” That’s an easy one, right? But Luther says this commandment requires much more of us than just that we not take another person’s life. In the explanation of this commandment in his Small Catechism, Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Luther says that we violate this commandment not only when we take someone’s life but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and fail to do so. He takes this approach throughout his explanations of the Ten Commandments, each time saying that the commandment requires even more of us than meets the eye.
The effect is that we begin to realize we violate all these Ten Commandments on a regular basis. Most of us, most of the time, for most of our lives, will find ourselves falling short, failing to live up to the standard God sets for us. For Luther, that’s the whole point. The Ten Commandments reveal that we are broken, sinful people. Even at our best, we fall short. And when we come face-to-face with our brokenness, we realize we are people in need of God’s grace and mercy. We can’t accept God’s forgiveness until we realize we need it.
But here’s the thing: I think most of us know exactly how broken we are already. We don’t need the Ten Commandments to reveal the ways we fall short. We get the message all the time. There are plenty of voices in the world that call out our failures and shortcomings or just make us feel like we’re not good enough. Some of us even have a little voice in our own heads, an “inner critic” that monitors all of our actions and judges us harshly when we mess up.
Most of us work so hard to cover up our shortcomings. We want to look like we have it all together. So we plaster on a smile even when our lives are falling apart. In most of our interactions, even with close friends, we stick to conversation about nothing important because anything deeper might be too painful to bear. It might expose wounds we don’t want anyone to see.
And the result? For one thing, we all show up here at church and see a roomful of what seem to be picture-perfect families, and we end up thinking we are the only ones whose lives are screwed up, which only causes us to retreat even further and work even harder to hide our imperfections. It’s a vicious circle.
Brené Brown is a researcher whose famous TED Talk has been viewed over 28 million times. She says that human connection is what gives our lives purpose and meaning, and that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to really be seen. That means we have to be courageous enough to be imperfect, because if people see who I really am, they’re going to see someone who actually doesn’t have it all together. She says, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on… unique contributions that only we can make.”
Here’s the point: Confronting our brokenness and coming to grips with our imperfection is the only way we can experience grace. It’s only when we say, “Wow, I really screwed up,” that another voice can say, “I’ve been there, too. You’re OK. You’re enough. You’re human. We all make mistakes. I’ve got your back.” That is Martin Luther’s great insight: When we acknowledge we’re broken, God responds with grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Avery, 2015).
Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, June 2010.
Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000