Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Checklist...

Thanks to Elizabeth Webb for her direction concerning the suzerainty treaty (which I fear I will never pronounce correctly), and to the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton for helping me see the Ten Commandments in the proper light.

I confess a deep aversion to preaching about the Ten Commandments. Thanks to certain Alabama politicians, I've been afraid to bring them up for far too long.

But it's time we took the Ten Commandments back, isn't it?

Here's the audio of this sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

This is the Word of the Lord.

There have been a lot of things said about the Ten Commandments over the years. Some theologians have tried to recast them as the “Ten Suggestions,” some politicians have built a career out of making them the focus of controversy, some denominations have made that fourth one, about the Sabbath, more important than all the rest… and I could go on and on.

Because of all of this, many people have lost the focus of what this section of Scripture is all about. For them the Ten Commandments have become an object of interest, perhaps, but on the whole, irrelevant to modern life; or else a checklist by which we make ourselves feel “good enough,” all too frequently over against someone or some group of someones that just don’t measure up. Often, the Ten Commandments have been forcibly separated from their context, made ironically into something of an idol in and of themselves.

This morning, I want to try, in some way, to take the Ten Commandments back. Put them where they should be, and while we’re there, I want to find out if, and how, these words of Scripture may speak to us in the here-and-now.

Three months have passed for the Children of Israel since they walked out of Egypt, since they walked through the Red Sea on dry land, with the water rising up on each side like the walls of a canyon. They’ve eaten manna from heaven, drank deep of water from a rock, they’ve been attacked by the Amalekites, and soundly defeated them, and now they have at last entered in to Sinai. Solemn preparations are made, and the people have gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to wait on the Lord.

And with thunder and lightning and the deafening, sustained sound of a ram’s horn, God arrives in fire atop that mountain. And Moses walks up the mountain, into the clouds, and disappears from view.

And I think that it might be Hollywood’s fault that we imagine Moses coming down a few minutes later with a couple of tombstone-shaped stone tablets with the Roman numerals one through ten on them.

But these Ten Words (as they are known in Judaism) are the beginning of the Law that God spoke to Moses on Sinai. God is laying out a covenant between God and the Children of Israel, and it’s different than the covenant God made with Noah, and the one God made with Abraham. With Noah and Abraham, God’s promise was not contingent on any response from either man. God would do what God said, and that was that.

Now, God is establishing what is known as a suzerainty treaty; that is, a covenant between a suzerain – a king, a lord – and his subjects. The suzerain lays out what he’s done for his subjects, and then stipulates what is expected of them, if they plan on remaining within the suzerain’s domain and under his protection.

The Ten Commandments are the beginning. What follows are details on how to build a proper sacrificial altar, treatment of servants, adjudication of personal injuries, protection of property, stipulations regarding social responsibility and laws concerning social justice, specifications for keeping the Sabbath, the establishment of three annual festivals, a promise of angelic protection and the establishment of a nation with wide borders, and that’s all before Moses came down from the mountain the first time. There’s a lot more after that, but you get the point.

God says, in short, that if the people keep their end of the covenant, all will be well and good for them.

In one way, the Ten Commandments can be seen as the outline of all the Laws that God gives Moses on Mount Sinai. They are the broad strokes that help to paint the picture of a people wholly committed to living worshipful lives.

Now, holding on to that thought, let’s look at how people today often seem to view the Ten Commandments: as a checklist – a way to reassure ourselves that we are “good enough.”

“No other gods.” Check. I’m a Christian, and I worship God alone, so no worries there.

“No false idols.” Check. Nary a Ba’al or an Ashteroth pole in the house anywhere!

“Don’t take God’s name in vain.” Nope, I don’t say that word, anyway…

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Yep. Church on Sunday!

“Honor your father and your mother.” Got that covered. Mother’s Day card, the whole nine yards.

“You shall not murder.” Well, of course not!

“You shall not commit adultery.” Not a chance!

“You shall not steal.” Nope, my hands are clean, thanks.

“You shall not bear false witness.” I’m a firm believer in telling the truth, because it’s easier to keep track of what I’ve said to folks that way…

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Yeah, we’re good. I like my house better, I think the wife thing got covered back in “don’t commit adultery,” and I never wanted an ox or a donkey from anywhere, much less from my neighbor. What would I do with an ox or a donkey anyway? Besides, I don’t think the city ordinances allow that sort of thing. No worries there.

I’m probably oversimplifying it, but that’s because this view is in and of itself an oversimplification, a loss of focus, a doctoral-thesis-level study in missing the point completely.

What was it Jesus said, when the expert in the Law asked him which was the greatest of all the commandments? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

When we use those words as the lens, it brings the focus back to the Ten Words being the broad strokes in a picture of a people wholly committed to living worshipful lives. Rather than a checklist, the Ten Commandments becomes a magnifying glass.

“No other gods.” Is God really first, or do other things get more of my attention, and even more of my loyalty, than God?

“No false idols.” How important are the things I own? Do I, like so many people around me, garner a significant portion of my self-esteem from the value and amount of possessions I have? If my house was on fire, is there an item that I would consider running back in to save?

“Don’t take God’s name in vain.” Do I use religion as a hammer to beat other people down, rather than as a ladder to lift them up? Do I pass judgment in the name of God against those who should instead be hearing the Good News of how much, how deeply, how completely God loves them?

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Am I creating space in my life for silence, for study, for meditation, for God to lead, nurture, and refresh? Or am I too busy, and an hour on Sunday will have to suffice, thank you very much?

“Honor your father and your mother.” How do I treat people who take on leadership roles in areas that directly impact my life? Am I cooperative, responsive, and when I disagree do I do so constructively?

“You shall not murder.” What of the violence that we do not speak against, the killings we don’t protest? To hearken back to what I spoke about last week, what about the damage done to others in the name of Christianity? Our own actions may not kill, but does our silence?

“You shall not commit adultery.” Apart from what Jesus said about “lusting in your heart,” which is a whole (very uncomfortable) sermon unto itself, I have to ask myself this: Do I love my spouse as Christ loved the church?

“You shall not steal.” Saint Augustine said that anything we have, more than we need, is stolen from the poor.

“You shall not bear false witness.” Is the truth always the truth, or, in supporting my own positions and self-interests, am I willing to spin the truth, to state the facts selectively, to ignore and even suppress evidence to the contrary?

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Am I truly content with what I have? Or am I allowing myself to be drawn by the siren song of advertising culture, to be jealous of what others have, into always wanting bigger, better, faster, shinier, more, and more, and more…

In this season of Lent, we are called upon to examine our lives. Under the magnifying glass of Scripture, we see ourselves as we really are, and sometimes it isn’t a pretty picture, but we cannot, we must never, stop there, thinking, “oh, I’m hopeless, I’ll never measure up.”

Like Jesus did with the moneychangers in the Temple, Lent calls us to drive out the misdirection and evil-doing, and this is a continual, lifelong process, make no mistake. Yet rather than driving ourselves mad with the relentlessness, we are reminded to rest at last in what Paul called, in our Epistle reading today, the “foolishness of the cross.”

Lent calls us to lay aside our checklists, to let go of the forever-losing proposition of trying to account ourselves “good enough,” and reminds us that, in Christ, grace is freely, abundantly, exuberantly given, and we who call on Christ’s name live in that grace, and just as freely, just as abundantly, just as exuberantly share that grace with others.

Amen, and amen.

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