Sunday, March 19, 2006

Lent 3: The Definitive Word

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19:1-14

My modest goal for this sermon,
is to convince you, in less than twenty minutes,
to change your mind about the Ten Commandments.
That is, if your mind needs to be changed.
And my hunch is, most of our minds do.
You’ll have to decide whether yours is one of them.

The Ten Commandments have gotten a lot of public press recently.
A couple years ago a controversy erupted when Roy Moore,
former Alabama Chief Justice,
was removed from office for defying a federal judge’s order to
remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse.
I know precious little about constitutional law,
so I can’t say anything intelligent
about the legal aspects of that case.
But it does shed light on how many people in our culture—
Jews, Christians, and secular people alike—
think about the Ten Commandments.
We usually think about them as an isolated list.
10 distinct commands that have no particular social context.
A foundation for all moral law, for all humanity, for all time.
And that’s not a bad way to look at them.
They do read like a list.
The principles undergirding these Ten Commandments
do appear to be universal,
and they do speak of broad moral imperatives.
There seems to be good logic in putting them on public display.
They have been instructive throughout our history.
They’ve shaped social ethics.
They’ve probably guided the rulings of many judges.

But when we see these Ten Commandments as primarily
as law number 1...2...3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10,
we’re missing something important.
These are not first of all, a list.
They are first of all, a chapter in a larger story.
And we can’t fully appreciate the list,
until we grasp the story.

Three months before the Israelites stood at the bottom of Mt. Sinai,
where they heard the thunder of God’s voice,
and saw Moses come down the mountain with the stone tablets—
three months before that they were in Egypt, as slaves.

This awesome day at the mountain occurred, we’re told in Exodus 19,
on the third new moon, after crossing the Red Sea,
and escaping Pharaoh’s army.
Three months! Think about that!
They were only beginning to grasp what it meant to be free.
And they had almost no history with this God Yahweh.
They didn’t know much at all about what God was like,
much less have a relationship with God.
They had learned by now, that God was powerful and awesome,
that God could work frightening miracles,
like hail, and boils, and blood, and death of firstborn,
and parting waters in the sea,
and sending bread and meat from the skies.
God was fearsome and powerful.
And, for the most part, they were glad
this fearsome God set them free.
But God was not a known and loved being.

The covenant at Mt. Sinai was designed to change all that.
It was designed to introduce them to a loving and liberating God.
It was designed to invite them into friendship with God.
We don’t often think about the Ten Commandments that way,
but that’s exactly what they were.
An invitation to a group of freshly released slaves,
to live a life of love and freedom under God,
their liberator and friend.

I’m confident in describing them this way,
because of the larger story where these commandments appear,
and which we usually ignore when we quote the “Big Ten.”
In the chapters leading up to Exodus 20,
we get the whole story of their deliverance,
and what happened right afterwards,
all the challenges they faced finding out what it meant to be free.
It was wonderful for them, but also disorienting.
Because they only knew how to be slaves.
So poor Moses had to try to retrain them
to behave as civil and free people.
It was harder than you might think.
Moses worked day and night trying to pull it off.
He was getting close to burn-out,
and father-in-law Jethro came to the rescue,
and taught Moses the magic of delegating authority.
But the point is, the people of Israel were in their infancy,
in terms of their relationship with God, and with each other.

So God, out of love and compassion,
gave them the law at Mt. Sinai.
God graciously gave them a framework for living that
would enhance their social harmony,
would keep them in good relationship with God, and
would give them maximum freedom to be the kind of people
they were created to be.
That is the beauty of the Ten Commandments.

But it’s not only the surrounding story that helps us get to the heart
of what these Ten Commandments are about.
We have a huge clue in the commandments themselves.
Unfortunately, many versions of the Big Ten,
including the one you probably memorized,
skip it altogether.
You know, don’t you, that the stone tablets
did not come down the mountain already numbered,
with 1 through 5 on one tablet, and 6-10 on the other,
despite what you see in movies and picture books,
usually shown in Roman numerals, no less.
There is a traditional numbering system that Catholics use.
And it’s different from the traditional Protestant numbering system.
And different still from the Jewish system.
I prefer the Jewish system, and I’ll tell you why.

It will help if you turn to Exodus 20, if you’re not already there.
The system you probably memorized in Sunday School
begins in v. 3, with commandment number one,
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
The second commandment is in v. 4,
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
And it continues in that fashion.
It’s a logical way to number the commandments,
because v. 3 is the first sentence that’s worded
in the form of a command, “You shall...”
In Jewish tradition, however,
it’s verse 2 that contains the first commandment.
And it’s not even a commandment, technically.
It’s a word from God to the people.
In fact, in Hebrew, they are called the “Ten Words”
rather than “Ten Commandments.”

Starting with verse two, it seems to me,
makes all the difference in the world.
Or at least, it makes a huge difference if you skip v. 2 altogether,
as Protestants often do.

Verse 2 is The Definitive Word of God to the people of Israel.
It’s the definitive word, because it defines who God is,
and who the people are in relation to God.
Definitive, because it gives the commandments a social context.
And it gives the people a place to ground themselves,
in relationship to God.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”

If we begin these ten words from God,
by acknowledging that the person speaking these words is our God,
and is a God who brought us out of bondage,
is a liberating God.
is a God who gave us freedom,
it puts the other commandments in a different light.

These commands are not intended to bind us,
they are intended to set us free.
God did not bring his people out of the house of slavery,
only to put them in bondage again.
These laws are not a new kind of ball and chain.
They are chain-breakers.

Every one of these Ten Words is intended
to break the chain that would otherwise bind us,
were it not for this gracious and life-giving Word.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall have no other gods before me,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of divided and conflicting loyalties.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of making our faith trivial and profane,
and robbing us of the beauty of the sacred.

When we hear the Word,
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of compulsive busyness
and constant, unrestrained ambition.

When we hear the Word,
“Honor your father and your mother,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of uprootedness and individualism,
and a loss of heritage.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not kill,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of ever increasing violence.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not commit adultery,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of insecurity and lack of commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
it means God breaks the chain that binds us
to a life of extreme self-interest,
to a perverted notion
that life is all about me, and my needs are all that matters.

You see, we will discover, if we are willing to change our minds,
that these Ten Words are not sterile commands given from on high
by an angry, fearsome God trying to whip the people into shape.
They are the gracious gift of a loving, liberating God,
a God who not only wanted to break the physical chains
that bound them in Egypt, as slaves,
but who also wanted to break the chains that bound them within,
and kept them from freely entering into a community of
love and freedom and justice,
into a free and right relationship with God and each other.
The Ten Commandments are a gracious gift of love.
We have often lost sight of this fact.

The Psalm writer did not lose sight of it.
In Psalm 19, which we heard earlier,
the psalmist is practically giddy with delight in the law of God,
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul...
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart...
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”

Jewish worship has not lost sight of the law as sweet and precious.
The practice continues, even here in the synagogue in Harrisonburg,
that the Torah—the scroll of the law—
is carried through the congregation,
and all the congregants reach to touch it, to kiss it,
with a deep affection.
And by the way, if you were at our Taizé service last Wednesday,
you may have noticed what our Indonesian brother did
after he read the Gospel.
He lifted the book to his lips and kissed it, before he sat down.

How often do we relate to the law of God, our scripture,
with that kind of enthusiastic romanticism?
We have lost something, I fear,
from the casual, stand-offish way we often read the Bible.
This is sweet stuff, my friends!

The law of God gives us a home, a place of belonging,
a place of security, of knowing who we are and whose we are.
The law of God gives a home to freed slaves.
The God who brings us out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery,
welcomes us into the house of love and security and freedom.

And please realize,
looking at it this way, does nothing at all to diminish the commands.
If anything, it strengthens them.
The limitations on our behavior are still there.
There are ethical and moral boundaries to be respected,
and when we ignore the boundaries, we suffer the consequences.
But within those boundaries,
there is tremendous freedom to relate to this liberating God,
who loves us dearly,
and longs to be in relationship with us.

We are clearly and unequivocally commanded,
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
But why would we want to have any other God before us?
There is no other God like our God.
No other god is so gracious, like our God.
No other god loves us, like our God.
No other god liberates us from slavery, like our God.
No other god calls us friends, like our God.

Yet, we have often kept this loving, seeking, yearning God
at arm’s length.
We have not opened ourselves to the embrace of our liberating God.
We have neglected the definitive word in the Ten Commandments.
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
I’m the One who did this for you. I love you.
And I want you live in freedom,
and in right relationship with me.

For the many times we have rejected God’s loving, righteous embrace,
and tried to fashion our own law, and our own righteousness,
let us pray our confession, “Kyrie eleison...Lord, have mercy.”

—Phil Kniss, March 19, 2006

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