Monday, March 16, 2009

The Ten Commandments

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday in Lent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Exodus 20:1-7

Our first reading this morning was the Ten Commandments. I want to walk through them this morning and seek some relevance for our life today. Can these ancient commandments still speak to us?

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.

This first commandment may be the simplest: no other Gods but God, and not just any God, but the God of liberation.

The commandments are really how to live as a liberated people. They are not how the people are to be liberated; that has already occurred. It is how they are to react to their liberation and remain liberated.

And first things first: the God who liberated you is the only God. There may be things that we are tempted to treat as gods, but they are not to get in the way of our relationship with God. Relationship with God always comes first.

As I said, it may be the simplest commandment, but it is also perhaps the one we are most tempted to break. The things that compete with God for our attention and our loyalty are legion. We are tempted to put anything and everything between us and God, and God demands that we do not do that.

Why is this so important? Because it is the only way we stay liberated. We can only trust God absolutely with our freedom; anything and everybody else can take that freedom away, even those we love if we put them before God.

So the first commandment is how we stay a free people.

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 bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who keep my commandments.

The second commandment is the longest of the commandments, which means, if nothing else, that God takes this one really, really seriously. God is touchy about this one. Breaking it is clearly how easiest to get on the wrong side of God.

No idols. It is perhaps something we are not very tempted to do and it was clearly something ancient Israel was very tempted to do, so maybe it isn’t very relevant today.

Except there are other things that we worship. For us it is mostly people, people we “idolize.” The commandment suggests that idolizing another person is not a very good idea and it makes God very, very mad.

And the thing about idols is they always disappoint. They are, after all, human. They, like us, are incapable of not screwing up. They are not worthy of our ultimate trust because nothing is worthy of our ultimate trust except God.

We need to respect, appreciate, even honor other people, but never idolize them.

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.

We usually think of this as the commandment not to swear. Don’t use God’s (or Jesus’) name as a curse word. And sure, that’s right. But it’s way, way bigger than that. Misusing God’s name is perhaps the biggest temptation for religious people.

We throw God’s name around as if it were candy on Halloween. God has done this, God has done that. It’s as if we controlled what God does. This is the restraint commandment, I would call it. Be restrained in your use of God’s name. Be shy about attributing this or that to God.

Thank God for blessings, pray to God for relief from suffering and temptation. Tell God you’re sorry when you get something wrong, praise God for being God. But don’t go walking around as if God were your best friend who told you everything he ever did. God is not your best friend. He is God. Protect his mystery.

If you are tempted to tell somebody that God did something, just shut up. If you must say something, thank God you’re alive and leave it at that. It’s enough said.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

This is the other long commandment which again is a signal of how important God thinks it is. It’s really quite simple. Everybody and everything deserves a break. Rest is not only a means for our refreshment, it is the primary way we honor God.

Why is that so? It is because it is a sign of trust. It’s a time of letting go of our own productivity as a sign of our dependence on God.

Near my neighborhood there is an orthodox synagogue and so on Friday evening and Saturday you can see orthodox Jews walking to synagogue. They take sabbath very, very seriously. I envy them; we all should.

This is probably the commandment we break the most. We just cannot let go. It’s bred in us that we are what we do. What this commandment is trying to do is to protect us from that. Once a week we are to be reminded that we are simply who we are.

Honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Interestingly enough, this is the only commandment that comes with a promise. People have wondered why—with no particularly good answer—almost since it was first uttered.

I think it has something to do with relationship, not only with one’s parents but with one’s self. I will lead a troubled life if I cannot accept who I am and where I came from, the good and the bad of it.

My parents are not perfect; they have their flaws, which, of course, are most obvious to me. Yet I am commanded to respect them, for they gave me life. Hopefully I will love them, too, but that is not the commandment. The commandment seems to know that love is sometimes hard even for our parents. But respect is the bottom line.

You shall not murder.

The commandments now get short and to the point. These things are necessary if you are to live as a liberated people—if everyone is to live as a liberated people.

Taking another person’s life is wrong, period. They, too, are created in the image of God and are worthy of life.

You shall not commit adultery.

Those of us who have made a vow to another person are asked to consider that vow to be sacred. We are asked to be faithful, and that means, among other things, to be sexually exclusive.

Which is to say that relationships under vow should not be entered into lightly. It is serious business. It is about more than feeling love for another person, wanting to be with them. It is about establishing a sacred loyalty that is absolute.

You shall not steal.

The commandments recognize the right to personal property and command its absolute respect. What is not mine is not mine and it needs to stay not mine.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

This commandment is meant to protect people from false accusations that can deprive them of their freedom and livelihood. One of the bedrocks of a free and fair society is that people will tell the truth in a court of law. If that is not the case, then chaos ensues.

Sometimes this commandment is shortened to just, “You shall not lie.” That’s fair. All lying is bearing false witness, either about another person or about one’s self.

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.

Why is envy such a bad thing? I think it is mostly because it is sort of the opposite of gratitude. If I am envious of my neighbor’s house, I am not being grateful for my own. I can easily start to live in an “If only…” fantasy world that is destructive of my own sense of self-worth.

It is also a sign of what the Prayer Book calls an “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts” (Litany of Penitence, p. 268). In other words I become obsessed with what I don’t have which either drives me into despair or into the kind of acquisitiveness that can actually destroy my life rather than enhance it. I become dependent on more and more things. This commandment has a lot to do with the commandment against idolatry.

So there you are. I hope there were some fresh ways of looking at the commandments.

The last thing to be said about them is that we all break them and thanks be to God, we can “repent and return to the Lord” with the promise of forgiveness.

But nevertheless, these commandments are the simple ways in which we continue to live as a liberated people.

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