A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Lent 3 ~ Exodus 20:1-17
We’re spending the Season of Lent in the Hebrew Scriptures looking at the theological concept called: covenant. Each week I’m exploring God’s covenant love with us, and focussing on a different aspect of how God loves us. First we did Relationship, then we did Identity, and this week my sermon is called “Covenant Love – Way.”
Way. Which way? Whose way? Well, God’s way, obviously. The way of Jesus.
Jesus said his Way was: Love God, Love People, Love One Another. Love, love, love – we talk about it all the time. ALL THE TIME!
But here’s a thought – where did Jesus get his Way from? Yeah, I know he’s quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus – but I want to go back even further. All the way back to Exodus 20. There you’ll find the famous 10 Commandments. Well, one version of them anyway – did you know there’s 3 versions in the bible? (Check out Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5 for the others.)
But the 10 commandments. Famous, right? Great movie! The original Top 10 list!
One for each finger so they’re easy to remember. But do you? Remember? Can you name all 10? Maybe today will help!
So, let’s explore them. Yes, all 10. Yes, there’s a test after! (And yes, I’ll show you how to cheat!) We’re going to go through them one by one. I just couldn’t decide which ones to leave out! But don’t worry – I won’t spend more than 5 minutes on each one! [do the mental math!] And just for fun I’m going to read them from the old King James Version of the bible. They just sound more…commanding then. Oh, and it would help if you could imagine I was Charlton Heston. Here they are, God’s top ten! (in reverse order)
#10 – ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ Coveting has been an obvious reality in any and every society that has ever been. If there are only two people in town one will probably envy the other for some reason. But it isn’t just the desiring part that’s harmful. Coveting also carries the idea that you might actively plot or scheme how to relieve your neighbour of their car, or spiffy new phone, or hottie spouse. Coveting is all ego – me-centred. And ‘thou shalt nots’ sound negative, so let’s flip it and write all of these in the positive: How about this instead of worrying about coveting? Just ‘Be contented’.
#9 – ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ Be careful here: ‘Thou shalt not lie’….is not a commandment. That doesn’t mean thou shalt lie either, but it’s not what the 9th commandment is about. Basically it’s about honesty in court – but there’s another level. (There’s always another level!)
What about gossip? Or propaganda? In politics they used to call it spin! Now everyone calls it ‘fake news’. I guarantee fake news would have been on Moses’ tablets if TV had been invented back then!
What if we framed the 9th commandment like this: Speak genuinely.
#8 – ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Before you think to yourself that you don’t generally put on a balaclava and go sneaking through windows to pilfer the belongings of someone therefore you don’t steal, you might ask yourself what stealing really means.
Is it too far a stretch to say that our quality of life is based on systematic stealing from people all over the world? Aren’t we stealing quality of life from those who work in sweatshops to produce our cheap sneakers and electronics? Aren’t we currently thriving upon land that was acquired by treaties that have rarely been honoured? God said “Thou shalt not steal!” Just because we’re not donning a mask and a gun doesn’t let us off this barb. Taken narrowly it’s an easy commandment to keep – taken broadly, well, let’s just say it starts to get murky. Maybe we can just agree that we’re commanded to acquire whatever we have honourably. Acquire honourably.
#7 – ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ (No, it’s not ‘thou shalt not admit adultery!’) Rather than getting hung up on patriarchy, and how the ancients understood women as property, and how modern relationships are so complicated, I’d like to offer this as a rewrite for the 7th commandment. Love with respect and discipline – respect for the other person’s feelings, humanity, dignity, and discipline for yourself to not give in to passing desires, lusts, and temptations. Love respectfully. Follow that and you’ll do just fine.
#6 – ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Easy to keep, right? I mean, you probably haven’t killed anyone today – although, it’s still morning, so who knows what the day holds! Stated positively the commandment might read: ‘Thou shalt have reverence for life.’ If we start from the standpoint of profound reverence for life we should at least be able to enter authentically into all those difficult and complex conversations about things like capital punishment, and abortion, and medical assistance in dying, and war. Reverence life.
Well, we’re half way through. Time for an intermission. A Jew says to a Christian, “All your best stuff you took from us – the Ten Commandments for example.” To which the Christian replies, “It’s true we took the Ten Commandments from you, but you can’t say we’ve kept them!”
A lady is mailing a bible to a friend and the postal clerk looks at the package and asks, “Is there anything breakable in there?” The lady says, “Only the Ten Commandments!”
And now back to our regularly scheduled sermon…
#5 – ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’ Another obvious one. The question is ‘how’ shall we honour them? Treat them nice? Buy them stuff? Call on Sundays? What if they’re not still living? Do you get to cross out #5? Beyond feeding and clothing and housing a family, the ancient world understood a significant part of parenting to be passing down the wisdom through generations.
To honour a parent is to give weight to their wisdom. To listen. To respect. To learn. Especially about things like faith. That puts an obligation on parents too – to tell their stories – to transmit their faith. And all of us, whether our parents are living or not, can honour their wisdom. [Honour wisdom.]
#4 – ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’ This commandment takes the most words to describe in the list. Probably because we’re so bad at it! I did a whole sermon on this a few years ago called “Go Fourth”. So, why should we keep Sabbath anyway? Is it just a discipline that shows us how devoted and obedient we are? – A way to measure that we’re good children of Yahweh? No, Sabbath-keeping is subversive! It says that there’s something other than productivity that drives my existence.
Sabbath-keeping is like a fast. If we fast from productivity and busyness we create space and energy to feast on relationships and spirituality. Maybe you’d be unsure of what you should do to keep Sabbath. Well, the point is that you don’t “do” – you UN-do! You don’t have to sit in a chair and pray all day to keep Sabbath – but you do have to consciously and purposefully unplug from the frantic pace of life that we seem to all subscribe to. Cramming 18 hours of high quality family activities into your Sabbath day kinda defeats the purpose because it’s still frantic.
Sabbath-keeping is very subversive and counter-cultural – and it’s commanded by God. Yes, that even means indispensable you! Here’s what I hope you’ll remember today: UN-do!
#3 – ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.’ Taking the Lord’s name in vain is not about potty-mouthed obscenities. The NRSV bible gives a better wording: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.” It’s about attempting to draw on the power and presence of God for your own purposes or gain. I immediately think of the religious hucksters who get on TV [wink] and try to scare you into submission with threats of hellfire and damnation which can only be avoided if you turn to God – and send them $50. They are clearly misusing God’s name and power for their own purposes, and breaking the 3rd commandment.
So what is ‘rightful’ use of God’s name? Prayer! Rooting and grounding our spirituality in God’s name. Invoking God’s Presence for blessing, deepening, flourishing, loving. And yes, we’re back to that – if it’s about God is has to be about love – so if you’re using God’s name you’d better be loving! And that’s about it. Invoking presence.
#2 – ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’ If you can draw or make a visual representation of God (an idol) then you’re making a claim to understand God. You’re putting God in a box. You’re domesticating God. So this 2nd commandment isn’t so much about golden calves as it is about not diminishing God’s holiness, power, character, and awesomeness by thinking you can capture it in some sort of image.
Same goes for words too. Just think of all those poor forests slain breaking this commandment in the vain attempt to explain what God’s all about. Yeah, yeah, I know – preacher heal thyself! If anyone (including me!) thinks they can capture the essence of God in an image or words, well, they’re deluding themselves. No matter how smart, or insightful, or spiritual you are God is still beyond you. Thank God! Our job is to embrace that – to embrace the Mystery. [Embrace Mystery!]
And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, #1 on the chart, #1 in your heart, it’s a golden oldie that sounds just as good today as when it was first recorded, clearly one of God’s greatest hits, the very first commandment – ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me!’
I really think the other 9 commandments would be redundant if we could just keep the first one! God could’ve stopped right there. The other commandments are all about self-interest, self-importance, and self-satisfaction. In other words, self-interest, self-importance, and self-satisfaction become our gods – which means we’ve broken commandment #1. I’ve used two words to summarize each of the other 9, but I only need one word for the first commandment: Love.
So there they are; The Ten Commandments. Written thousands of years ago for people thousands of kilometers away, yet still able to speak to the centre of our spiritual lives today. Test time. Can you remember all 10?
If we followed those 10 commandments we would be living the Way of Jesus to the fullest. And while Moses was all drama and tablets, I bet if Jesus was telling this story around the fire he’d tell it like this:
“And God said to Moses, ‘Write this down, and share my Way with my people.
I am Love, so love! Love me with your whole being, your whole self, your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. And filled with that love, take that love and love your neighbour, and love one another. Love, love, love. Everything else is commentary.’”