Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
I have to begin with a confession: I have never struggled with a sermon more than this one today. And that is because recent events have me reeling. I suspect you might also be shaken this morning. I feel unanchored—It feels to me like the world has changed: the world feels more violent, more volatile, much more unpredictable. It feels like we have lost our way.
I hardly think I need to recite to you the list of horrific events of the last month, natural and human-made, that have distressed us all. But perhaps the most disturbing was the mass killing, a week ago today, in Las Vegas. What is happening? As I think and pray about our world, and about my reactions to all of this chaos, I feel many different things. I feel confused. What happened to the America I grew up in? How could someone undertake the coldhearted act of spraying hundreds of bullets on a crowd, with no other intent than mass death? What have we done as a country to become the gun death capital of the world? In America today, there is on average one mass shooting (where four or more people are injured or killed) every day. Where is God in all this?
I feel angry. Why won’t our political leaders do anything about all of this? How have we allowed this to happen? When did we turn into people who seem to place so little value on life? Why do we ignore all the data that shows the ways to curb this violence?
I am filled with fear. Will this violence visit my household? Do I need to protect myself? Do I need to think twice about being in crowds, or visiting places that might be visited by violence? Who can I trust?
Worst of all, I feel numb. When did I become a person who could sit by and tolerate this rate of violence and death? Why am I not writing letters, making phone calls, protesting on the street corner? How have I become so used to these news reports that I’m not weeping and wailing? Who have I become?
As a preacher, I feel inadequate. I have never had less confidence in my ability to witness to the Word (that’s the capitol W word) in the world. And yet, that is my job—that is my calling. And I am actually grateful that my work makes me wrestle with all of this, because otherwise I imagine I would just stick my head in the sand, self-medicate with food or something else, and not face into the storm that is all around us.
Now, one of the gifts (and curses) of our way of doing church is that we use the lectionary—we have a designated cycle of lessons that we read each week. If I were in a church that didn’t hold to that schedule of readings, I might just pick the passages that I thought most apropos for the moment. That would undoubtedly be a little easier. And there are no liturgy police, so I could certainly choose to take that route, even if I was bucking our system.
But I have found over and over that, in turning to the lessons for the day, I often find myself going somewhere other than the path I might have chosen on my own. Today, that path is through our reading from the Book of Exodus, where God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. I am sure this is not the road I would have taken, but perhaps there is something here for us. So let’s go!
The people of God – the Israelites – have been slaves in Egypt. They have suffered great oppression, and they have felt abandoned by God. But God has not forgotten them. God raises up Moses to be their leader. Moses first confronts the Pharaoh and tries to convince him to free the Israelites. When that effort fails, God bring ten plagues upon the Egyptians. Moses then leads the Israelites on a mad dash out of Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea to the land of Canaan that had originally been promised to their forefather Abraham. The Israelites journey through the desert, and they complain, longing for the creature comforts of Egypt in what, in retrospect, seemed like better times.
God is still present though, and provides manna and water. When they arrive at Mount Sinai, Moses has his first mountain encounter with God, where God instructs him to ask the Israelites whether they will agree to be his people. They accept.
God knows that this is a new beginning for his chosen people, and that he must reiterate the covenant—he wants to be sure they understand what they have signed on for. I have the idea that even as the people are trying to understand just who this God is, God is also trying to understand his creation, and trying to figure out how best to relate to humanity. These people have lived through slavery and exploitation, and it is now time to live into a new reality. God hopes they will root their new society in God. It is the moment to learn how to live in community without exploitation.
So Moses goes back up the mountain, and, in the midst of thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, and the blast of a trumpet, God comes down to the mountain and delivers the words of this morning’s reading: the Ten Commandments.
We often think of the Ten Commandments as basic decency—as “general statements of how life should be organized and people should relate to one another.”[i] But the text makes it clear that they are really about covenant: Theologian Randall Bailey says, “Because of what the deity has done for the nation, they have reciprocal responsibilities in allegiance to the Deity.”[ii]
Of course, these were commandments for that particular place and time. There are several ways in which they were tailored for specifically for that community. For one, this was a purely patriarchal society, and these laws are addressed to the patriarchs – to men. Scholars note that the “you” to whom the laws are addressed is masculine singular. Further, these commandments deal with property that belonged to men, which included humans (like slaves and wives), animals, and land. One scholar has suggested that the enumeration of these items shows that these commandments primarily protect men of wealth.
Of course, as we look at these specifics, some might say that they don’t differ all that much from our world today. Men still have more power than women; and the wealthy have much more protection than the poor. At the risk of being absolutely heretical, is it possible that the Ten Commandments are part of the problem?
Let me quickly say, that I don’t think so. We are the problem. Humanity: Our need for power; our need for control; our focus on self; our blood lust. The things that these commandments try to warn us against.
As I look at the events of last Sunday, and at our reaction as a nation to the rash of gun violence, I note that we are not honoring our basic covenant. Please be sure I am not advocating posting the Ten Commandments in every courtroom—far from it. Again, they represent another time, another way of understanding society.
What I am advocating is that we return to the intent of this covenant, as we see it restated in other places in sacred scripture: Remember the words of Jesus that we will hear in just a few weeks as we read from the 22nd chapter of Matthew (spoiler alert!): Jesus is again being tested by the authorities with the question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He replies, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:36-40, NRSV]
I think we have lost sight of the basics. As a society we have fallen out of love with God—we have fallen out of the belief that there is goodness and love in the world, that we are called to be our very best selves. We have replaced God with countless idols: money, fame, luxury, self. We have lost sight of love itself. As one theologian has said, “The idol that fills the space where God should be cannot ever cultivate within us integrity, well-being or shalom—the sense of being whole and fulfilled—that all of us desperately seek…. Relying on that which is not-God will finally leave us more lonely, fearful and desperate when its power evaporates.”[iii]
And we also seem less able to see the other, less able to turn away from selfishness to selflessness, less able to understand that we who have so much have a responsibility to all of society, not just ourselves and our own.
We are called to renew the covenant—individually and as a society. What does that mean for you? Only you know. Do you need to examine your checkbook or your calendar to understand your priorities? Do you need to set aside time for family, or community, to be sure you are connected to others? Do you need to set aside time for prayer and study of God, to explore what God means for you and how you can connect with the divine?
And as a society, we need to be unashamed to embrace love over fear, and to trust more than we doubt. We need to prioritize people over weapons, and learn how to turn the energy we put into suspicion and hatred into trust and love.
We are living in difficult times, my friends. I often find myself confused and frightened. I am nostalgic for what seem now like the simpler way of life we once had. I sometimes feel paralyzed and helpless.
But the scriptures point us to the basics of being in covenant with God, who is love—what the Godly Play curriculum calls “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” Perhaps this is the time for all of us as a society and as individuals to renew our covenant with the power of love, and to live our lives as instruments of God’s love. I pray that I will find the way to move myself out of numbness to action—that I will listen for God’s whisperings about how to embody love for the world and fight the forces of evil.
Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
[i] Bailey, Randall C., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Supplemental Materials for Track One. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) Proper 22, p. 2.
[iii] Askew, Emily. Feasting on the Word Supplemental Materials (op cit), Proper 22, p. 3