Lent 3B + March 4, 2018
What comes to your mind when you hear, “The Ten Commandments?”
I always picture Charlton Heston in the 1956 classic by the same name, standing on the holy mountain praying to God when suddenly God appears in a swirling flame of fire that carves out the ten commandments into the stone. I also think of the social-political battle and those who want to post the Ten Commandments in our civic places, believing that simple act might bring some kind of righteous peace into our society. I also wonder, who actually knows all ten of the commandments? I can probably list most of them, but I always seem to forget one or two. And I, like many, perhaps like some of you, have an uncomfortable reaction to the whole “Thou shall not” approach of the commandments, the feeling that they are more about condemnation than salvation.
The scriptures tell us that the Ten Commandments were written into stone by the very hand of God. (Exodus 31:18) They were intended to be a gift to the Israelites, to God’s people, a gift by which to organizes themselves, a gift by which they might live, a gift to keep them in relationship with God, and with one another, and even those they encounter, as they continued their long journey from slavery to the promised land.
Unfortunately, it over time, humanity seems to want to focus more on the notion that they “written into stone” and less on the promises of the actual words. It seems that humanity has more use for “stones” than the “living word of God.” So it is, the Ten Commandments are often used only as stone, stones to build walls. Walls that we hope will protect us, walls that we might use to judge others and somehow justify our ourselves, walls that separate us from each other, building walls, that in the process, separate us from God.
Ironically the Ten Commandments, written by the hand of God, are actually all about tearing down the walls humanity tends to build between each other. God knows that our “hand-made” walls never truly protect us, never set us free, and never give us life. The Ten Commandments were actually designed by God to make sure that we would not build walls, but rather tear down every wall that separates us from each other, and thus separates us from God, separates us from the life abundant that God would have us live.
So, this morning, let’s take a closer look at The Ten Commandments!
The Ten Commandments begin, “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.”
The commandments begin by declaring that we are in relationship. They begin by tearing down “the wall” between heaven and earth. God is not distant and uncaring, God is our redeemer. God heard the Israelites “cry out” under their slavery in Egypt. And God responded! God initiates the relationship, and the relationship is not between God and the individual but between God and the whole community. There are to be no walls between heaven and earth, between you and I, and between you and your neighbor.
The commandments continue, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, ....”
Idolatry, back then it had to do with Baal, and golden statures. Today it has to do with anything that demands our “primary allegiance.” Almost anything can be become an idol. Jesus pushes this commandment to the limit, as his life and ministry tears down the walls between God and the walls between people. Anything that cuts us off from our neighbors in the human family, even strangers, even enemies, is idolatry.
What cuts us off from God and from each other? It could be materialism; it could be extreme nationalism; it could be blind allegiance to party affiliation; it could be religious denomination; it could be racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, it could be many things, anything that separates us from each other and limits our understanding of community. God's relationship is demanding, Jesus' definition of neighbor is demanding, the call to love even the stranger in our midst is demanding; there is no room for walls in the great community of God.
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, ... ”
This commandment is about much more than “swearing!” How often have we built walls in the name of God, condemned people for the sake of the Gospel despite the nature of the Gospel? Historically and even today we can be self-righteous and arrogant in our faith. The cross is a symbol of God unconditional love, not a battle cry to be used against others.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
How often have we destroyed community and relationships by simply not taking the time to just rest with each other, by not taking the time to "recreate" with each other. The so called "rat race" in which we live contributes to the building of walls. We don't have time for each other, we don't make time for each other, and I'm just talking about family and friends, let alone our neighbor and God. This commandment reminds us that “time” belongs to God. “Creation” is finished with a day of rest, the Sabbath makes our life complete. We need a day of community, not as a function, but as "simple gift" to be enjoyed. We all need to just “hang out” more, engage in conversation with each other, discover each other, discover God in each other!
“Honor your father and your mother, ....”
“Honor” has the quality of relationship about it. It does not mean, or demand, blind obedience. We are people born out of relationships and into communities, - we are not islands unto ourselves. Surely, we are called to grow up and move on, to be transformed, yet we are also called to remember and stay connected. Honor and respect breed honor and respect. Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote that we are called to be in “I – Thou” relationships, not “I – It” relationships. To “honor” someone is to recognize their humanity, acknowledge in them the image of God. A world of honor and respect has no need to build walls.
“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;”
Commandments five through nine cover some of the basics of life. There is no sense of community without these things. But let us remember that Jesus pushes all these commandments as far as they can go. To hate your neighbor is to murder him or her, to lust after someone is to commit adultery. God is always calling us to a higher love. And though it is often impossible to achieve in our sinner-saint existence; it is still our calling. We are called to overcome our doubt and fear, to let our faith become active in love. And it is only in the experience of God's grace that we can begin this journey, and I am convinced that such grace happens primarily in faith communities, in vibrant communities that are wonderfully diverse, in the very Body of Christ.
And finally, the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This is a rough one for me, you should see my neighbor’s ox! Yes, aspects of the tenth commandment make it hard to relate to in “our” current context. Most of our neighbors don’t have livestock that make us jealous! Our neighbors don’t have “obvious slaves” serving them. Yet at its heart this is still a very relevant commandment.
To “covet” is to “envy,” or be “jealous,” of another - for their things and their life. The Tenth Commandment calls us to remember that God has given each of us a role, a place, a gift to share in community. We are not to spend our time wishing that we were someone else or wishing we were in another situation, rather we are called to discover our own unique gift, the giftedness that God has given each of us for the good of all of us, for the good of the whole community, for good of the entire world. Each gift is necessary, each gift is needed, you and I are both invaluable to the common good, we are all part of the body of Christ. Even if we don’t have an ox!
The Ten Commandments may have been “written in stone,” but they are not to be used as stone! Don’t let the “thou shall nots” fool you, they are not about judgment, they are not bricks to be used to build walls. The Ten Commandments are a gift of life for all the people of God, a gift that reminds us and challenges us to live in a great inclusive community. In this way, and in the places created by such living, we are the church, the body of Christ, a community with no walls, the place and the occasion for God's salvation and peace. Amen.