Rev. Teri Peterson
Exodus 20.1-17, Romans 13.8-10
September 7, 2008, Ordinary 23A (ex. 20 = ord. 27a)
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.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
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 kill.
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.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Ah, the Ten Commandments—probably some of the most well known words in the Bible, thanks to Charlton Heston. Right? Everyone knows the 10 commandments—aren’t they the source of our laws, the rules that keep us in check, the thou-shalt-nots that have defined the negative view of religion for years? Well—maybe, but maybe not. I read this week that nearly 90% of Americans get stuck once they’ve named 4 commandments. The poll didn’t say which 4 were the most consistently memorable, which is too bad because I’m quite curious. Perhaps these words are not as well known as I thought! Nevertheless, they do in some way form a foundation for our life together. The form of that foundation is not always obvious, but I suspect it’s there whether we notice it, or whether we can name it, or not. As a society we are obsessed with rules—making rules, following rules, breaking rules, punishing people for breaking rules. It’s possible that some of that obsession comes from these very words.
Unfortunately, our focus on rules obscures something very important about the 10 commandments—did you notice the very first sentence? God says, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, who rescued you from slavery.” Before the rules, salvation. Before the commandments, grace. God first saves the people, sets them physically free, and then speaks these words. Following the rules isn’t going to save the people—they’ve already been saved. Following the rules isn’t going to earn them God’s good action on their behalf—they’ve already received the action. Following the rules isn’t going to make God like them anymore—God has already said, “I am the Lord YOUR God.” So what’s with the rules, anyway?
Tom Long also notes that the first words out of God’s mouth are not “follow these rules or else!” but are a proclamation of freedom already given. He goes on to suggest that we can view these 10 “commandments” as descriptions of what life is like in God’s vision of community—not as heavy burdens to bear, but as good news of liberation, of freedom from overwork, from idols who control us, from violence and loneliness and deception. God sees what our human community could be like, and offers us these 10 words to show the way to life after physical freedom, a life lived in response to God’s grace.
These 10 words as they stand now might be considered such a part of our fabric of life that we barely notice them—perhaps that’s why so many people can only name 4. I wonder what would happen if we though of 10 new words, words for OUR community. After all, God speaks to specific places and times just as much as to every place and time. What might the 10 commandments of our RCLPC community be?
Perhaps something along the lines of…
1. I am the Lord your God, who loves you and calls you…listen to my voice!
2. You shall worship and serve with all your mind…and also your heart and maybe even your body if you’re really into it.
3. You shall reveal any musical gifts you might have, ASAP.
4. You shall bring something tasty to potlucks.
5. You shall consider prayerfully when (not if) you are asked to serve on a team, teach Sunday school, or sing in the choir.
6. You shall eat together…often.
7. You shall laugh together, including at yourselves…often.
8. You shall talk to one another when there is a conflict—no gossip!
9. You shall ask for help when you need it—ask and you will receive.
10. You shall tell all your friends what God’s spirit is doing in this place.
This is a little tongue-in-cheek, of course…except the bits about musical gifts and potlucks…but you get the idea. The 10 commandments are not about following the rules to the letter, they are about becoming God’s people, living into God’s vision, being woven into God’s community. They are about how we live together, how we treat one another, how our community grows in spirit, how we work together, how we reach out together, how we serve one another, how we love.
I wonder if that’s what Paul was trying to say to the Romans in his letter. All these commandments can be summed up in one word: love. Jesus says this too—that love of God and love of neighbor is the whole of the law—not just these 10 but all 613 laws of the old testament. They aren’t talking about love the feeling, they are talking about love the verb—the action that we decide on every day, whether to love or not love. When we decide each day to love, we fulfill the law, we live in gratitude, we share the grace we have received.
But rules are so tempting, aren’t they? Even if it’s just our 10 ricklepickle commandments, it feels like they give us something concrete to do or not do, something to measure ourselves against and to feel good about when we do well, or to feel guilty about when we don’t. “love your neighbor” is harder—it feels vague and maybe even a little wishy-washy. How exactly do we do it? is what we really want to know. Tell us what to do so we can live up to God’s expectations, so we can be good enough, so we can go to heaven, so we can earn grace.
Because that’s what we’re really talking about—earning grace. And no matter how many times we hear that grace is free, that God gives it to everyone, that grace falls like rain, that grace is enough, that grace is God’s to give and not ours to earn, we still want to do something. Our Protestant work ethic kicks into high gear, as does our American “no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch” sensibility.
Except, where God is concerned, there is a free lunch. It’s right here on this table—offered to us with no strings attached, no rule-following as a prerequisite, no way we can earn it. At this table, God is the host and God invites whomever God pleases—and that just happens to be every single one of us. When we come to this table, we take a place in the vision God has for community—a vision full of good news, a vision of freedom from overwork, from idols who control us, from violence and loneliness and deception. A vision of a community, gathered around a table to break bread, to share stories, to love one another both with words and actions.
May we live into God’s vision of a community woven together by love.
Thanks be to God.