Sermon October 5, 2014
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Matthew 21:33-46
“Take Two Tablets”
Comedian George Carlin explains why there are Ten Commandments by saying that if God had chosen nine or eleven, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. Think of the lists we see today: Ten most wanted. Ten best dressed. It was clearly a marketing decision intended to sell better. He suggests that they can easily be shortened. He says we should get rid of the first three. Honor thy father and mother should be based on the parents’ performance. Coveting your neighbor’s goods keeps the economy going, which creates jobs. He points out that while religious people think we believe “thou shalt not kill” it is not always the case. In fact, many people have been killed in the name of God so we don’t really mean that commandment. He keeps whittling them down until he gets to two commandments. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KiCEJoX9kE)
There seems to be two reactions to the Ten Commandments – they are revered and judges fight to keep them on the wall of the courthouse in Alabama or they are despised and we want to say they have no value to us so let’s ignore them altogether. I don’t find either reaction particularly faithful. Why is it we are always so quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Is there anything in these for us?
I began to think about the timing of them this week. The people of Israel have been freed from slavery to what? A long, torturous journey in the wilderness where they hunger and thirst. There is a lot of complaining. They have no stability and it is into this situation that God gives Moses these commandments. They are given in love to offer the community a code of conduct and show them how to be together. If they have only known brutality and diminishment in their lives, how do they learn to be together as a new community of free people? It is now that they receive these commandments. At the beginning of any community, participants must establish how they will be together.
When I was a youth director, I took my group on lots of retreats. There were some basic rules of course (nothing illegal), but we always spent the first hour together writing a covenant. We would begin by asking how we wanted to be with each other for our retreat. They would think about how they wanted to be treated and how they wanted to treat each other. They would often talk about being kind and helping each other. When we decided what we wanted to covenant with each other, we would write it on a big sheet of newsprint and we would all sign it and hang it in our meeting room. I never had issues on those retreats. The kids took what they had covenanted to do seriously and if someone started to stray, another kid would remind him or her of the covenant that we had signed. That seemed to be enough. I loved this process and I loved that the kids were invested in it.
When couples marry, we go over the vows they will take. Sometimes they want to write them and sometimes they want to use the ones in the Book of Worship, but we talk about the vows and what they mean. We talk about the commitment they are making to one another. When new members join the church, they commit to participate in the worship and ministry of the congregation. They promise to offer their time, talent, and treasure. The truth is any relationship has some sort of understanding of what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not. If that understanding is not there, then problems are inevitable. At my first staff meeting, we went around and talked about how we work and what we need from each other and how we can support each other in our work. It seems to me that our lives are about learning to care for the people who share our path whether we live together, work together, play together, or serve together. There is nothing that says this will be pleasant or easy, but having some understanding of what we are about and how we will be with each other helps.
Perhaps you have heard of the Charter for Compassion. Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion scholar announced her dream of a global compassion initiative when she received the Ted Prize in 2008. A year later this dream became real in the form of the Compassion Charter. Compassion is at the heart of all world religions and spiritual traditions. The charter calls us to make compassion the center of our lives and how we treat one another. It asks people to sign and show their commitment to compassion. It has been signed by over 100,000 individuals, communities and even the country of Botswana. It has been translated into over 30 languages. It asks us to activate the Golden Rule all over the world. I can’t imagine that anyone would argue with that.
So before you completely ignore the Commandments, can you approach them again and ask if there is something for you? For our community? I think there is. You don’t have to buy them as an unbending set of rules. But you can approach them as a way to think about relationships. There are two parts to the commandments… the first is about how we relate to God and the second is about how we relate to one another. They aren’t intended to be separate, but to enhance one another. Dorotheos of Gaza, a sixth century monk used the image of a wheel. He suggested that God is the center of the wheel and humans are the spokes on the wheel. As each spoke/human moves closer to the center/God, it is also moving closer to the other spokes/humans. In other words, the closer we move toward one another, the closer we move toward God and the closer we move toward God, the closer we move toward each other.
So what does move us closer to God? Making God a priority through prayer and worship and being intentional about cultivating our relationship with God is a good start. There is an invitation to recognize how we give other things “God-like” status in our lives. Perhaps we want to make some adjustments in the way we spend our time and our money to reflect our commitment to God. There is the whole Sabbath thing that I think can be life changing if we allow it. It is too easy to think of it as some kind of antiquated system where stores close and people stay home and practice boredom. Why would we think we should be busier than God?
Several years ago, I read Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath and it had a profound impact on me. Wayne nearly died and Sabbath became a matter of life or death for him after that event. I was so taken with the desire to practice Sabbath that I decided to practice it for Lent. I was leading a young adult Bible study at the time and they were eager to practice it too. Each week when we gathered, we would check in about how we had experienced Sabbath that week. Some weeks it was easier than others, but it became a priority for all of us to step off the roller coaster and just be each week. We didn’t all spend a full day, but we committed some part of our time to this and it changed us. We became less frantic and more centered. I am not so good at Sabbath and I am wondering what it looks like to take an iPhone Sabbath. I know that when there aren’t enough spaces in my days, I become difficult to live with and crabby. One of my favorite illustrations of this is a poem by Judy Brown called “Fire”. She begins by saying:
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
We douse our individual and collective fires all the time by adding more as if more is better. Sabbath is an invitation to practice subtraction and discover the goodness in less. Most of us don’t make space for Sabbath unless there is an illness or something beyond our choosing.
The other commandments have to do with how we treat each other. We know that lying, stealing, coveting, murdering, and adultery are destructive. We know that honoring the people in our lives – all of them - builds up the community. I’m curious that the Ten Commandments showed up on World Communion Sunday. They are an ancient version of the Compassion Charter and they call us to treat all of our relationships with care. If you find the language stifling, I encourage you to ask yourself, “How do I want to be in relationship with God and the people around me? What commitments am I willing to make?” I’d love for us to consider our commitment as a congregation. How will we be with each other? How will we be in the world? Perhaps the Ten Commandments isn’t a bad place to start.