A sermon preached on March 15, 2009, the third Sunday in Lent. Based on the Revised Common Lectionary text for the day:
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
The Ten Commandments are well known—even non-Christians have heard of them (giving you some idea of their reach beyond the world of our Judeo-Christianity). Something with such reach should give us all pause as to the their relevance and importance in our world.
These Ten Commandments are listed twice in the Hebrew Scriptures: in Leviticus 20, from which we read today, and Deuteronomy 5. Though they are known more commonly as the “Ten Commandments”, they are also known as the Decalogue, or, in Hebrew, the “ten words.” In Greek, “ten words” is translated as deka logoi: deka meaning “ten”, and logoi, the plural form of the word for “word”, logos. Thus, in modern English, we get the Decalogue, or ten words.
They are said to have come down from God, to Moses at Mount Sinai while the Israelites were wandering the desert after having escaped hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, and finally from Moses to the people of Israel after he had come down from the mountain. They were given in the context of a people who had forgotten who they were, and to whom they belonged—namely, to God. They had forgotten how to be in relationship with God because they believed God had abandoned them during their Egyptian slavery. They wandered the desert, following Moses, secretly, and later outloud, wondering if they might have been better off back in Egypt. So, God gave them the “ten words” to guide them in their journey through the desert and their journey back to God.
The first four “words” share how to be in relationship with God: put God first, don’t mistake the real presence of God with other things, don’t abuse this relationship, and trust God’s wisdom, taking time to rest and take care of yourself. The next six “words” share how to be in relationship with other people: honor your parents, gleaning from them the wisdom of their life experiences (both good and bad); don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t lie; and don’t covet.
These “ten words” have had an incredible impact on the world as civilization after civilization have tried to apply these words to their own context, trying to carve out a peaceful existence. In our own time, these words have created both comfort and discomfort. We can all remembered lawsuits over these ten words being posted in front of court houses, and how that butted up against our modern, though diverse, understandings of separation of church and state. Some of these laws have been used to shape our own laws in this country when it comes to our belongings and the belongings of others.
There have been thousands of papers and books written about these ten words. In fact, there have even been a number of take offs, like: the Ten Commandments for computer programmers and the Ten Commandments of customer service for retail chains. These are not particularly religious applications, but it gives us an idea of their far reach.
There have also been all sorts of interpretations of these ten words, like, one of my favorites, the New Cajun Version. It goes something like this:
1. God is number one… and das’ All.
2. Don’t pray to nuttin’ or nobody… jus’ God.
3. Don’t cuss nobody… ’specially da Good Lord.\
4. When it be Sunday… pass yo’sef by God’s House, now.
5. Yo mama an’ yo daddy dun did it all… lissen to dem.
6. Killin’ duck an’ fish, das’ OK… people – No!
7. God done give you a hu’band or a wife… sleep wit’ jus’ him or her.
8. Don’t take nobody’s boat… or nuttin’ else.
9. Don’t go wantin’ somebody’s stuff.
10. Stop lyin’… yo tongue gonna fall out yo mouf!
But, we know that different rules can mean different things to different people. There’s a story about a man who, having lost his hat, goes to a church to steal one, knowing there would be a wide selection of hats hanging on the coat racks. When he gets there, the priest was giving a sermon on the Ten Commandments. Something in the sermon caught the man’s attention and gave him a reason to pause. He did not steal a hat.
After mass, the man felt compelled to go to confession to tell the priest what he was about to do. Once inside the confessional, the man says, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”
“Go ahead, son,” the priest says assuredly.
So, the man starts to explain, “Father, I lost my hat and I came to church today to steal a hat off the coat rack.”
Somewhat surprised, the priest responds, “Is that so?”
“Yes,” the man says, “but when I heard you talking about the Ten Commandments, I changed my mind.”
Feeling rather good about his sermon now, the priest responds, “Really? My son, did you make this decision when I was discussing the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not steal?’”
“No,” the man says. “It was when you started talking about, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. I suddenly remembered where my hat was!”
These commandments, aren’t so much about a bunch of do’s and don’ts. If we take anything from this off-color joke, we might begin to realize that these God’s Ten Commandments are really about relationships—how we treat one another, how we treat God, and even how we treat ourselves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these aren’t commandments at all, these are “words” of invitation, from God, to a way of life different from that which we are taught in this world. They are words of freedom, true freedom, built on understandings of respect for God, for ourselves, and for all of God’s children.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians about how all this “commandment” stuff, this faith stuff, is seen as foolishness by those who do not share our faith. But, then he flips the tables. In verse 20 he writes, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” After all, where has it gotten us? Wars? Violence? Starvation? Spiritual bankruptcy.
I might add, hasn’t God made foolish the ways of the world that tell us on bumper stickers, “The one with the most toys wins!” Hasn’t God made foolish the ways of the world that tell us to do what ever it takes to get to the top; or, my personal favorite, “Second place is the first loser.”
The world doesn’t understand the grace of God’s words, God’s invitation to relationship, to love, to grace. I found a story about how the world sees all this foolishness:
There was a married man and woman whose names were Harold and Jane. They were not a very religious couple, but they tried their best. You see, they only went to church once a year, usually around Christmas time.
One Christmas, as they were leaving the church, the minister greeted them and said, “Harold, Jane, it’s great to see you, but it sure would be nice to see you here more than just once a year.”
“I know, I know” replied Harold, somewhat ashamed. “It’s just that we’re very busy people, leading very active lives. But, you may be happy to hear that we do keep the Ten Commandments.”
“That’s great,” the minister said. “I’m glad to hear that you keep the Commandments.”
“Yes, we sure do,” Harold said proudly. “Jane keeps six of them and I keep the other four.”
Harold and Jane, unfortunately, are only getting half the gift (or 60/40, depending on how you look at it). They aren’t getting the whole package.
In the Gospels Jesus summarizes all the 613 laws of the Torah, including these “ten words” with: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And…love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus really gives us three things: 1) Love God; 2) love your neighbor; but also, 3) love yourself. This is about healthy love, the kind of love that honors, appreciates, and cherishes all that God has done and created. If we have a healthy love of God, a REAL relationship with God, we will learn to appreciate who we are as individuals, loving ourselves for who God made us to be. When we love ourselves in a healthy way, we can then look beyond ourselves and appreciate who God made others to be.
The one invitation we seem to mess up more than the others is God’s invitation to love ourselves. We love God, not always well, and we try really hard to love others, but, in the end we in America have some real self-esteem issues. We are either obsessed with ourselves, or we struggle to love ourselves and find other ways to define our self-worth: buying a bunch of stuff that makes us feel important and successful, trampling over whomever gets in our way as we climb that corporate ladder, or even looking down on others we deem worse off because it makes us feel better about ourselves. If we truly love ourselves, we wouldn’t wrap our self worth up in our constant comparisons to others. We wouldn’t feel we need to out maneuver, out perform, out educate, or out purchase ourselves compared to others. Rather than padding a college application or resume, we might spend our early years in school discerning who are as God’s children. And as parents we might spend the early years of our children’s lives encouraging them to spend their time learning about and discerning who they are as God’s children. We might spend our time discovering our true gifts; not just what makes money, but what makes us complete, fully filled.
These “invitations”, as I like to call them, are more than just a bunch of do’s and don’ts. Paul sees the commandments as invitations to open our eyes and see the world as God sees it: full of beauty and worthy of respect. The Ten Words are about respect not only for God and other people, but for ourselves also. It works at least two ways: we show respect for God and all of God’s creation, including the people, and we may then grow in freedom to finally love and respect ourselves as part of the bigger picture; or we learn to love and respect ourselves for who God made us to be, and out of that growth of maturity we begin to see God and God’s creation differently, and even discern our part in it—we can’t help but grow to love and respect both God and those whom God has created.
So, here is your invitation, yet again. It is the same invitation God gave to the people of Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the same invitation God shared with God’s children throughout the history of the world. It is the same invitation God offered through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. You are personally invited to be in relationship with God and a part of what God is doing in our midst. You are personally invited to discover your self worth, not in what you do or how much you earn, but through the free and freeing salvation of hope and grace that can only come from the One who created us, loves us, and sustains us.
Do you, can you, will you accept God’s invitation into the freedom of love, respect, and grace?