This sermon was preached on June 22, 2014 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was the 10 Commandments. You can listen to it, and read it, below.[audio:http://pomomusings.com/wp-content/mp3/The-First-Tablet.mp3]
As I get started – I’d love to do a little word association with the 10 Commandments. So, what words come to your mind when you hear “The 10 Commandments”?
Go ahead, shout it out.
Well, I can honestly say that I’ve never preached on the 10 Commandments before. The lectionary texts I’ve been assigned to preach on, over the past 5-6 years, have never had them as an option, and I’ll admit that they’re not the first text that has come to my mind on the Sundays that I was able to pick my own texts.
And so, I would be standing up here lying to you if I didn’t admit that I’ve been a bit stuck this week. As I thought about what direction I wanted to go with this sermon, and as I kept feeling like I was just spinning my wheels, not going anywhere, I began to wonder why it was that I was having a hard time figuring out what to preach on.
And maybe part of it is that the 10 Commandments have gotten kind of a bad rap.
- First of all, no one really likes rules…and at first glance, that’s what the 10 Commandments seem to be. Just a list of rules.
- Second, when we hear about the 10 Commandments, say, in the news, they’re often associated with some controversy…some group that believes a life-size stone reproduction of the 10 Commandments should be placed at a local courthouse.
Perhaps you remember the segment on The Colbert Report called “Better Know a District”, where Stephen Colbert interviewed congressional leaders about the districts they serve. Back in 2006, Colbert interviewed Lynn Westmoreland, from Georgia’s 8th District, who sponsored a bill that would have required the posting of the 10 Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. He believed that the 10 Commandments were an “important thing for people to understand and to respect.” Although, when Colbert asked Westmoreland what the 10 Commandments were…he could only think of 3 of them.
Hopefully some of us could do better…
And so I think that at least for me, I’m just not really sure what to do with the 10 Commandments.
I appreciate how Sarah set the stage for us last week, with the reminder that the 10 Commandments aren’t something that the Israelites needed to do to attain their freedom, or God’s commitment to them. That happened first.
God acted first.
God always acts first.
And so similarly for us, our relationship with God isn’t dependent on strict adherence to the 10 Commandments.
We aren’t a people who live in fear of God – picturing God up in the sky, watching for when we might mess up or break one of the commandments.
That isn’t the God who made a covenant with the Israelites, and it’s not the God who made Godself known to us through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Now, we could take each commandment, think about what it meant for the Israelite people in their culture, and then try to translate that to our culture today, so that we could see what it is that we should do, or not do, to attempt to follow each of these 10 Commandments.
We could certainly spend this week and next, reading through each of the 10 Commandments, analyzing them, seeing where we each fall short individually, and where we all fall short, collectively as a church.
But something tells me I might have a few less people here next week if I were to go that route. It’s not often the best preaching technique to stand up in a pulpit and remind everyone of their sin and of the ways that they have gone astray from God’s commandments.
But if that’s not the route to go…what is? What is the point of the 10 Commandments in our lives?
Well, before we get there – let me share this quote from biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. Writing about the 10 Commandments, Brueggemann says:
“These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.”
I like this idea of practicing God. Certainly, as the Israelites were a wandering people, trying to figure out what their new community of freed people would look like, to have something like the 10 Commandments gave them some structure to their lives.
But in another sense, as their relationship with God matured and deepened, they needed to know how to live with God and with others, and having these commandments, in a way, gave them a framework for how they might live together and love one another.
And that is how I think it’s most helpful for us to think about our relationship with the 10 Commandments. We too are a people who need help figuring out how we might live together and love one another. And as I was doing some reading about the commandments the past few days, I read something that really stood out to me, and gave me a different perspective on them.
Rolf Jacobson, an Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary, wrote the following about the commandments:
The law…isn’t about ‘us,’ per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better ‘you’ or a better ‘me.’ The law is not about us – it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.
Now, in reading about the structure of the 10 Commandments, I’ve always heard that the First Tablet (commandments 1 through 4) is also called the vertical tablet because the commandments speak to our relationship with God. And the Second Tablet (commandments 5-10) is also called the horizontal tablet because the commandments speak to our relationship with others.
But this comment from Jacobson is an interesting nuance to that understanding. So then…ALL of the commandments, are actually for the benefit of our neighbors.
Paul, in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Galatians, seems to advocate for such an understanding as well, when he writes:
You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.
The first four commandments:
- You must have no other gods before me.
- Do not make an idol for yourself.
- Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance.
- And remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy.
…these commandments do speak to our vertical relationship with God…these are four commandments that can help us be in tune with God, but I wonder if they speak about that relationship, insofar as it helps us to be better neighbors to others in our lives.
You know how when you get on an airplane, and they are going through their pre-flight safety demonstrations, one of the things they tell you is that before assisting others with their oxygen masks, make sure you _ wait for response __
Before you can be of any use to anyone else on the plane – before you can be a good neighbor – you need to make sure that you can breathe.
And maybe it’s a little bit like that with God and our neighbors…
The Second Tablet, which we’ll talk about next week, does seem to be pretty explicit about things we should do, or should not do, to our neighbors. It’s easy to see how those commandments are in place so that your neighbor can have his or her best life now.
But in a way, the First Tablet also directly relates to our neighbors, because the commandments help give us a framework for who we are, who God is, and what role God might play in our lives…all of which contributes to how we understand our role in the world, and particularly, how we treat our neighbors.
These commandments help get us thinking about how we can be in tune with God…and when we are in tune with God, when we’re able to get our oxygen mask on and breathe…then I think we will be better neighbors.
If we’re not putting God first…that can often mean that we’re putting ourselves first…thinking of our needs and desires. And it’s always hard to be looking out for your neighbor, or wanting the best for others, when you’re gazing at your own navel.
If we’re worshipping things other than God…well, it’s quite possible that we’re thinking of ourselves again, more than we’re thinking of God or our neighbors. There are plenty of things that ask for, that demand, our attention, our focus and our worship. It’s easy to get caught up in a world that puts the highest value on success, money, outward appearances, material possessions, political clout and more…
Not that any of these things are inherently bad…but when they become the things that we center our lives around, when they take the place that God desires to have in our lives…then it’s very easy for us to have tunnel-vision, and to stop being aware of our neighbors around us.
And if we’re not taking the time out of our weeks to rest, to experience Sabbath, if we allow ourselves to be convinced that our lives, and our children’s lives, are better when we’re always going, and going, and going, and going…we’re not going to be in the right state of mind, let alone have the energy, to love our neighbors.
As we heard summarized last week by Jesus in the Gospel text, when asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
As we live out the four commandments from the First Tablet…we are working towards loving God with all our heart, with all our being, and with all our mind. We are working on getting in tune with God…for when we do that…when we find ourselves connected with the Divine, that’s when we can be freed to focus on our neighbors.
Because when we seek others before ourselves, when we seek out our neighbors, we help our neighbors have the best lives they can now…
I like that.
That’s an understanding of the 10 Commandments that I can get behind. It makes the 10 Commandments not something about us, in the end, but about our neighbors…it’s about the others in our lives, those whom we encounter at work, in our classrooms, while walking around our neighborhoods or driving down the Edens Expressway.
The 10 Commandments aren’t really for us, then. They’re for everyone else. They’re for the world. They’re for all those outside the walls of our church…
This morning during our time of greeting…you all helped me with that important statement about our church. Something about Winnetka Presbyterian being a church that wants to share God’s love with the world…? With our neighbors? I think that’s part of it – I think our desire to share God’s love with the world is what these commandments help us do.
A good pastor friend of mine, Steve Wilde, preached at my ordination service, and said that the church often views itself as an airport. But as an airport that has its priorities mixed up. You see, an airport is never at its best when all the planes are on the ground, and the terminals are full, and there are people everywhere…
Airports are intended to be places where people come so that they can then be sent off to their destinations. He says an airport is at its best when it’s moving people in, and back out into the world.
I think we all want to be a church that is like an airport that has its priorities right…that we might be a place to which people are coming…to get in tune with God, to be reminded of the importance of that vertical relationship…but not just so that you can be a better “you” and I can be a better “me.”
No – that’s not the point. The point of it all is so that we can then be sent out into the world…so that we can share God’s love with the world…so that we can be blessings to our neighbors.
As a community of people who are freed to follow God, let us go out and practice God like that this week. Let us go and live out these four commandments so that we can be a blessing to our neighbors and to the world.