Pentecost 16A 2011
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
The story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis tells us that, right from the beginning, we human beings were a perverse lot. There’s something in us that, when we are told we have to do this or not to do that, we dig in our heels and mutter, “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can or can’t do.” Dick and Kathy Harris and I have a shared loved for Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. I was raised, literally, by one when I was a baby and little boy. Chesapeakes are wonderful but stubborn dogs, and every one I’ve ever known, when told to do something he doesn’t want to do, lowers his head and looks at you with an expression that says, “I know what you’re saying, but I’m not going to do it.” Sadly, that’s not a trait limited to smelly big brown dogs.
So, when we hear the phrase ten commandments, the Chesapeake in us says, Commandments! What do you mean – commandments? And even for the most faithful of us, these orders from on high set up a black and white relationship with God. Either you keep a commandment or you don’t. And as soon as you don’t, you’re at a distance from God. So we develop sophisticated shadings of interpretation: keeping the sabbath means sometime during the week don’t go to work. Not committing adultery doesn’t apply if you’re not married, or to anything other than intercourse. Not stealing doesn’t apply to our taxes or to how we pay others. Not taking the Lord’s name in vain only applies to cussing. And so, like our ancestors Adam and Eve, we find ways to turn God’s desire for us to live in harmony with each other and with God into justification for doing things exactly the way we want to do them.
Some years ago I heard a teacher of Biblical Studies – and I honestly can’t remember who it was – say that it’s more helpful and accurate to understand the Decalogue less as decrees handed down from on high and more as a description of what life lived in love with God and with other people looks like. Here are ten images of the world God created in the beginning, and towards which God is drawing us. Sports psychologists work with athletes to visualize the perfect jump shot, the perfect dive, the perfect golf swing, so they can act out that picture. We have images in us of the perfect house, the perfect vacation, the perfect party, the perfect job. And, every now and then, we get it right. We know we get it right because the reality matches the image.
So, let’s walk, briskly, through these ten descriptions of the life God wants us to live:
· I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other Gods before me. The picture begins with a relationship: I am your God. God has made us for relationship with him and with each other. Everything that follows from here is only possible when we are in right relationship with God, the heart of which is you shall have no other Gods before me. This is a jealous, monogamous God. We cannot have two masters. Faithful life is a life with one object of worship. Mind you, gods aren’t just in the sky: they are anything to which we attach ultimate, saving importance. Philosophies, loyalties, economies, desires and values to which we give ultimate authority are incompatible with right relationship with this God.
· You shall not make an idol. I suspect that few of us have statues of pagan goddesses in our homes, to which we offer sacrifice. But there are all kinds of ways in which we make the Almighty Creator of the Universe over in our own image. The purpose of an idol in ancient times was to assert that human beings were bigger than the gods that they made. Here’s a test for idolatry: if there’s anything in this world that you believe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, then you have made of that thing an idol.
· You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord. This is not about cussing. In the Bible, names, including the name of the Lord, represent a person’s character. We preserve that when we talk about something giving us a good or a bad name. You and I are marked with the name of Christ – Christians – little Christs. When our lives are inconsistent with the character of Christ, we make wrongful use of God’s name. People really are watching us to see whether we walk the talk. I believe God is far more hurt by the slander of his character with our lives that he is by people cussing.
· Remember the sabbath day, and keep it separated for special use. Jesus taught that the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. Faithful life together in God is not frantic, exhausted activity leading to a collapse in front of a football game on the weekend. The picture of a godly community demonstrates that the world can get on just fine without our hyperactivity. Faithful life says no to the world, so we can say yes to God and to each other. Our church leadership, trying to help families, moved the bulk of our church activities to Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, so people could enjoy sabbath time. It’s not going well, because too many of us are not saying no to the frenzy of the world. I am more and more convinced that the answer to the mess the world is in is not to work harder: it’s sabbath.
· Honor your father and mother. One of the curious benefits of the collapse of our economy may be that multiple generations are going to have to live together again, they way they have for millions of years. Honoring the ancestors means to learn from them and value what they – living and dead – have to teach us. The Book of Ecclesiastes said two and a half millennia ago that there was nothing new under the sun. Everything we’re going through now spiritually, financially, politically, socially, intellectually can be found in our history. Yes, we have new technologies to deliver the crises of modernity, but the content is shockingly familiar to history. That’s why the Bible is eternally relevant: people were going through the same struggles four thousand years ago we are now. Faithful life with God and with each other learns from the past and lives in context.
· You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbor. These are all about taking what does not belong to us, whether it be a life, a relationship, the truth, or a piece of property. Life is not at our disposal – we belong to each other. People are not objects to be used or manipulated or thrown away at our convenience. The picture of faithful life together, with God, is one in which people cherish each other as sacred children of a common Father.
We’ve been talking about Life in the Wilderness this fall. We live in a world where it seems all the boundaries, all the rules, all the expectations are breaking down and so one solution is to impose commandments written in stone on the mountaintop. That does work for some people, who need hard and clear rules. Last week I talked about the different stages of cognitive, moral, and faith development, and how there are people stuck in that stage where if you’re good you get rewarded and if you’re bad you get punished. But I suspect that most of here are in a different place – the same place as all our ancestors who found pretty creative ways to get around the commandments for their own convenience.
So, what would it look like if we began pursuing a vision of our life together where all our values and loyalties depend on God, a God so much bigger than all our attempts to mold and define him? What if every moment of our lives were consistent with the character of that God? What if we trusted God to run the world without our hyperactivity, and just pulled the plug one day a week? What if we really honored our parents by learning the lessons they have to teach us? What if we stopped living lives of appetite, consumption, and manipulation, and were thankful for what we had and who we have, loving and respecting and cherishing each other as gifts? Maybe – just maybe – it would look like the Promised Land.