Saturday, September 29, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1-4; Mark 3:31-35

You haven’t forgotten the commandments have you? In their original form they were probably not more than one or two words each, the rest of the words around them and the other 603 rabbinic laws in the first five books of the Bible being how they were interpreted by later people. The first commandment is about loyalty to one God. The second commandment is about not remaking God in our image. The third commandment is about not making careless use of God's name. The fourth commandment -- the first of two stated in positive terms -- is a command to rest and remember. The fourth is as much about our relationship with God as the first three. If we don't "cease work" every seventh day so that we can "remember," then in time we will forget who we are and whose we are.

That brings us to the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother." Honoring and caring for one's parents was important in ancient Israel, just as it is in our society today. When the commandments were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, there would have been even more particular concerns. At that time, the people of Israel were nomadic, perhaps even refugees, always on the move with no land of their own. What happened when the seniors were no longer able to keep up with the rigors of the constant march in the wilderness toward the Promised Land, unless cared for by their children?

We can draw our own pictures of the needs of senior citizens in our time. I think it is fair to assume that provisions for seniors in our society have come about in response to the respect for age suggested in this commandment. One of the realities of our day is that more parents are living longer than ever before. With the Baby Boomer population beginning to retire, the number of seniors is increasing even more rapidly; so rapidly that many young people worry that there will not be enough resources to care for them when they are old.

These are all important issues that cry out to be addressed in our time, but I believe that the fifth Commandment is about more than caring for aging parents, important as that is. Why would "honoring parents" be ahead of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery? I think it is because the commandment to "honor parents" was as much about people’s relationship to God as it was for their relationships with each other. At heart, the commandment about honoring parents has to do with the means whereby faith can be passed from one generation to another. In a pre-literate nomadic society, how was the knowledge of God's great saving act in liberating them from slavery in Egypt to be passed down to future generations, if not from parents passing it down to their children? I think this is why a scribe added to these words to this commandment: “so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” If people didn’t remember who they were and whose they were, they would lose the land that God was giving them.

The struggle between the generations is inherently filled with tension and one of the most critical aspects of life. Without the passing on of the faith from one generation to the next, faith will be lost. The generational covenant breaks down when one of two things happens: either when the parents do not pass on the faith to their children, or when the children refuse to accept it and do not pass it on to their children. Some in this room would tell stories about how your parents did not pass the faith on to you and how you had to come to faith some other way. Others in this room would tell stories about how your parents were faithful in passing the faith on to you, but you left the church when you left home and have now found your way back. Some of you in this room would tell stories about how you tried to pass on the faith to your children but they didn’t honor you by receiving it and passing it on to their children.

The responsibility of parents to pass on the faith to their children is at the very heart of the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, not just children's responsibility to honor their parents. In the Gospel text we read today, Jesus had just begun his ministry, had healed several people and cast out a demon. Some people said he was crazy, or was demon-possessed. Jesus' mother and brothers apparently believed that, or at least were so concerned about Jesus' embarrassing the family, that they came to get him. Jesus doesn't let them get anywhere near him. He says to the crowd, "Who are my mother and brothers?" Then, looking at those sitting around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." These sharp words of Jesus are reminders that the commandment to honor parents is a two-part covenant: parents are to be honored when they are faithful in their parental responsibilities, and that includes passing the faith on to their children.

It might have been at that meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference when, at age 18, I was first appointed to pastor two rural churches west of Fort Worth. At each Annual Conference in June there was always a guest preacher who would preach four or five times during conference. I don’t remember his name, but he was some high powered preacher from a large church somewhere. I don’t remember any of his other sermons at the conference, except for one point he made.

There must have been a thousand people—lay and ministerial members of conference—gathered at First Church in Fort Worth where we always had Annual Conference. I’m not sure I had been listening before, but he got my attention when he said, “I’m DAMN tired of fathers telling me that they have fulfilled their parental responsibilities by putting food on the table, clothes on their backs and seeing that their children get to school.” Despite the fact that this was Texas, I think I can be fairly sure that four-letter expletive had never before been uttered from that pulpit. And from the silence that followed, I’m pretty sure that none of the other members of the conference had ever heard such language from a preacher in a sermon. Having gotten our attention, he went on: “Parents who do not provide for the spiritual growth of their children have failed in one of their primary parental responsibilities.” The preacher had used that four-letter word for effect, and it was effective, at least with me. I’ve often wondered how many of the others who were there still remember this point he made. For people of faith, parenting includes the responsibility to provide for the spiritual growth of our children.

When I was a teenager I didn’t want to go to church, but my mother made me. I made things pretty tough on her. It seemed like we had an argument every Sunday morning about going to church, but she always swept aside my arguments with the maddening, “Of course you want to go.” I went unwillingly, and years later, I was glad that she made me go. Even though I could not hear God calling me to worship, she could. And she fulfilled that part of her parental responsibility. Today, I give thanks that she did.

The spiritual nurture of children has never been easy, and it’s even more difficult today. For one thing, the structure of the family has changed since the time that preacher spoke. Families with two parents in the home are now in the minority and by the year 2010 less than 30 percent of our children will have two parents at home. That makes the job of parenting, and “Christian” parenting, even more difficult.

We can lament this situation with all kinds of “Ain’t it awful” complaints, but that is not going to change anything. It seems to me that the need for help in the spiritual nurture of our children is one of the critical reasons for being part of a community of faith, like this one on the Old Glenn Highway. In every age, but especially in this one, we need support in the all-important task of passing on the faith to our children.

In this community of faith, those of you who are not married, those of you who are married but not biological parents, those of you whose children are raised and gone, all have an opportunity—no, more, you have an obligation—to be models for our children of what it means to be Christian. Those of you who are parents and in the process of raising your children, what you do with your children and how you provide spiritual nurture for them is not only important for them, but for all of the children and young people in this congregation.

We have many programs here (Sunday School, Youth Group, etc.) to assist in the parent’s responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their children. Today, we presented Bibles to the third graders. There are many adult classes and groups where adults can be nurtured and thus be better prepared for the task of spiritually nurturing your children and answering their questions when they do read the Bible. When someone invites you to work in Sunday School, Children’s Choir, or in one of our youth ministries, I hope you will seize the opportunity with enthusiasm. You can help bridge the generations and contribute to all of our being faithful in observing the fifth commandment.

I have a special word for those kids and young people who may be here today because Mom, Dad, or someone else made you. I want to tell you that they made you come because they believe they wouldn’t be good parents if they didn’t. They believe that just as they have a responsibility to see that you are fed, clothed, cared for when you are sick, and go to school, they also have a responsibility to see that you learn to pray, that you learn about the Bible, and that you learn what it means to be a Christian. I don’t know what you will decide about your own faith when you grow up. You’ll have to make that decision. In the meantime, if there is an intergenerational struggle going on at your house, I hope the struggle is to honor and love.

That is, of course, not the only intergenerational struggle in today’s households. Families often include elderly parents in the home or in managed care facilities. These relationships have their own dynamics and struggles. If you are experiencing the intergenerational struggle at this level, I hope that struggle is also to honor and to love.

We sang these words earlier in the service: “O Lord, may church and home combine to teach thy perfect way, with gentleness and love like thine, that none shall ever stray.” Would you let those words be your prayer today?

Saturday, September 22, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-28

The Ten Commandments, God's means for ordering our relationship with God and with our neighbor, were probably only one or two Hebrew words each in their original form, the rest of the words around them probably being later additions to explain their meaning in different times and living situations.

Some of you have mentioned to me that you learned the Commandments in slightly different ways. I said last week that some groups number them differently. First, if you have a Jewish background you probably learned that the first commandment is what we have called the "Prologue:" "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In Jewish tradition, the second commandment includes both "You shall have no other gods," and "You shall not make for yourself an idol." The rest follow as we have learned them.

If you have a Catholic or Lutheran background you probably learned that the first commandment combined what we have learned as the first two: no other gods and no idols. That means that they have only nine commandments, right? No. They follow the text of the commandments found in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy and see in the commandment about coveting two commandments where we see only one: first, a prohibition against coveting your neighbor's wife, and a second, a prohibition against coveting your neighbor's property. We will talk more about that distinction when we consider the last commandment on November 4th.

If God gave the Ten Commandments today I am sure they would be printed with numbers and hanging indents so that there wouldn't be any mistaking which commandment was which number. But they were given in ancient times to a pre-literate people who didn't have much time for the luxury of things like hanging indents. Even so, the Ten Commandments are clear, both in their version in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5.

I can understand why, in the Jewish tradition, the first commandment might be considered those words at the very beginning: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." While this is certainly not a "Do" or "Do not" commandment, it is a reminder of what I have said each week: the Ten Commandments are as much about "grace" as about "law." Having those words as the first commandment is a reminder that the commandments are about grace: God's saving love that goes before the law. The commandments are not "rules" made up to make our lives miserable. They are the framework for meaningful life as children of the God who created us. They are given by a God who has loved and cared for us before when could do anything on our own. We obey the commandments out of gratitude. The converse is also true: disobeying the commandments are acts of ingratitude for all that God has done for us.

The first three commandments make clear the terms for our relationship to God: First, we are to be loyal to this God, and no others. Second, we are not to try to remake this God over in our image. Third, we are to take care how and for what purposes we invoke the name of this God. I want to suggest that the fourth commandment is just as much a part of the terms of our relationship with God as are the first three.

The fourth commandment is stated in positive, not prohibitive, terms: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." In the ancient world before this time, no society had a day of rest. They had occasional and set festivals during the year, but no day of the week when they were to rest. Perhaps that is why this commandment is stated in positive terms. Most of the commandments are set in the negative, or prohibitive, terms presumably because their intention was to “set limits.” But if people had no concept of what a day of rest was because there had never been one before, then it would have been difficult to cast the commandment in prohibitive terms. "Sabbath" in Hebrew literally means "ceasing." On one day of the week people were to "cease" from work, and that included children, servants, and even animals.

There are two rationale offered to explain this commandment. The first is offered in Exodus 20:8: God needs rest, and as children created in God's image, we do too. The text reminds us that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day rested. This is a remarkable image, that even God needs rest. The message is clear: if even God needs to be refreshed by rest, how much more do we need it?

The second rationale for the commandment is found in the version in Deuteronomy 5: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." (5:15) As slaves in Egypt, the people did not have the luxury of taking a day off. They were forced to work every day. Not only did that use up their bodies, but it also hindered them from remembering who they were. Now a free people, they are to cease from work one day a week, not only so they can be physically and mentally refreshed, but also so they can "remember" who God is and who they are.

Observance of the Sabbath is a public statement about this community's loyalty to God. I think that is why it is listed with the other commandments defining the terms of a relationship with God. Keeping the Sabbath "holy" (which means to "set apart for God's use") means to take this day in time and "set it apart" for both rest and remembering —“remembering” is what we do when we worship. Observance of the Sabbath includes two things: rest and worship.

This commandment and the texts we read about it today raise two important questions. The first is, "Why was the punishment for not observing the Sabbath so severe -- the penalty was death?" We might have asked why the penalties for breaking any of the commandments were so severe. I don't have a good answer to that question, except to acknowledge that bridging the thousands of years that separate an ancient nomadic people and our post-modern world is very difficult. What is clear in the meaning of the commandments for us, however, is that observance of the Sabbath was as important as the rest of the commandments. It was not, as some might think, a kind of "optional extra" commandment to do or not do as one chose. The observance of the Sabbath was regarded as a critical public statement of one's loyalty to God. How important is observing Sabbath for you?

The second question raised is "Why do Christians observe Sunday instead of Saturday as Sabbath?" Jesus and the earliest Christians observed the Sabbath on Saturday, just as the rest of their Jewish brothers and sisters. In the first three centuries after the resurrection, when Gentiles became more numerous in the church, relations between Christians and Jews became more strained, and the two faith communities separated. Increasingly, for Christians the focus of Sabbath observance moved to Sunday, the day when Christ had been raised from the dead. Sunday was not formally made "the Sabbath" for Christians until the fourth century, and then it was to emphasize the separation between Judaism and Christianity.

Where is Jesus in the observance of Sabbath? In the passage we read today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples are accused of violating the Sabbath because they were plucking heads of grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. Now we might debate about whether this was a violation of the fourth commandment, but in Jesus’ day there was no question. Within the 603 other rabbinic laws in the first five books of the Bible and the thousands of accepted interpretations that had come down through the centuries with the same force of law as the commandments there were provisions making it clear that this was a Sabbath violation. On several other occasions, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, which was also a violation. He apparently did so purposefully. Jesus rejected the narrow legalistic interpretation of the Law. To the charge against his disciples, he said, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27) While the Sunday observance is a painful reminder of the separation between Jews and Christians, I have a hard time imagining that God cares much about whether the Sabbath is observed on Saturday, Sunday or any other particular day of the week. But I think God does care about whether or not we observe Sabbath.

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill writes of the fourth commandment: "The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful."

You probably know that here in the Alaska Missionary Conference there is an annual retreat for the clergy and other professional church workers every January or February. The Oregon Idaho Annual Conference has a similar retreat except that it is in October. A couple of years ago, the theme was “Sabbath” and the question was how were we who are clergy doing in observing Sabbath ourselves? Since for clergy Sundays are “work days,” when do we observe Sabbath? There is the old joke, which sometimes is not really a joke, offered by some who are not clergy, “Well, since you only work one day a week, observing Sabbath on one of the other days of the week shouldn’t be so difficult.” The truth is, of course, that clergy are as prone to overwork as any other persons. One of the speakers at the retreat observed that some church members actually like it when the pastor works seven days a week because it justifies their working seven days a week. If that is the case, when we clergy don’t take breaks, it not only harms our lives but we set a bad example for those we are supposed to lead.

One of the pastors at the retreat spoke of how he had fallen into the trap of thinking that he had to work seven days a week. Then, he said, he bought a new car. I think he said that it was the first “new” car he had ever purchased. He read the owner’s manual and he read the instructions about how you are supposed to change the oil every three thousand miles. If this regimen is strictly followed, said the manual, the car will run better and last longer. He began to think about this in terms of his own failure to observe Sabbath in his personal life. He held up the Bible and said that this “owner’s manual” said that we should take strict care to observe Sabbath, not because it was a rule, but because when we observe it we will “run better and “last longer.”

The first commandment calls us to declare our loyalty to God. The second commandment warns against remaking God in our own image. The third commandment warns us to take care about how we use God’s name. The fourth commandment calls us to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” This could have been relegated to a lesser position, perhaps in the “top 25 or 50” commandments, but here it is in the “top ten.” Deep down, I think we know why: we need the Sabbath to keep our relationships to God alive and healthy, and we need the Sabbath so that we will “run better” and “last longer.” The question is this: can we recognize that need and decide to accept God’s gracious provision of Sabbath?

[1] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way everyone Thinks and Feels (Nan A. Talese / Anchor Books: New York, 1998) p. 144.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 19:1-6; 20:7; Matthew 5:33-37

This last week has been a little scary because of a health problem I have. But because of wonderful medical resources in Anchorage and the wonderful support of the people of this church, I am well and thankful.

The fundamentals of our relationship to God and neighbor are encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. Originally probably only one or two words for each, the commandments were simple enough to be counted on the hands and memorized by anyone. We have said that over the centuries there were elaborations on the commandments, the words around them in Exodus 20 and the other 603 rabbinic laws in the first five books of the Bible. We also said that elaboration was a necessary part of understanding how to obey the commandments in a particular time and place. What we are doing in this series of sermons is to better understand what it means for us to obey the commandments in our time and place.

In order to avoid confusion as we began, I didn't tell you that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The one most often cited is from the twentieth chapter of Exodus. The second is found in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy. You might want to compare them and see if you can find how they differ. And, there are different ways of counting the ten in Exodus; but we’ll talk about that on another day.

The last two Sundays we have reminded ourselves that the Ten Commandments are as much about "grace" as about "law." The commandments are not the whims of a capricious sovereign to make our lives miserable but rather the framework for full and meaningful living by a God who, as we are reminded in the prologue to the commandments, rescued this people from slavery in Egypt. We are to obey the commandments because they are given by God who created and loves us.

The first commandment, "You shall have no other gods," is about loyalty to one God amid the competing claims for our loyalty from other gods. We make a vow to be loyal to God when we are baptized and join the church. Loyalty is a choice that we have to make over and over, a choice we make every day.

The second commandment, "You shall make no idols," is a warning not to try to remake God in our image, something less than God really is. Once we have declared our loyalty to God, one of our temptations is always to try to remake God into our image. The second commandment is a warning not to attempt that with God. Counselors tell us who choose to commit to a life partner that it is not a good idea to do with them either.

The third commandment is "You shall not misuse of the name of the Lord your God." Of course, most of us who memorized the Ten Commandments when we were kids did not memorize this one in this form. Perhaps you memorized it from the old King James Version of the Bible: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."

When I was growing up, this commandment meant, "no swearing." I understood that to include a whole variety of four-letter words, of which "love" was not one. I heard a story about a preacher who was riding his bicycle down the Old Glenn Highway when he met a kid pushing a lawn mower in the opposite direction. The preacher greeted the kid and asked him what he was doing. He replied that he wanted to trade his lawn mower for a bicycle. The preacher needed a lawn mower so he said, "How about trading for my bike?" The kid said, "Can I ride it first?" "Sure," replied the preacher. While the kid was riding the bike, the preacher tried to start the lawn mower. He couldn't get it started. When the kid came back with the bike, he said, "I'll trade." The preacher said, "I tried to start the lawn mower, but I couldn't get it started." The kid said, "You have to cuss a lot to get it going." The preacher said, "I don't think I remember how to cuss," to which the kid responded, "Just pull the rope a few times and you'll remember." I think it was the English author and critic, G. K. Chesterton, who said about swearing, "He knew not what to say; therefore he swore."

I was a bit older when I realized that the third commandment might be about more than loosely using the name of God when I was frustrated or at my wit's end. In his book, The Ten Commandments, John Holbert, who will be here at the Lay Academy next week, suggests another translation of the third commandment: “You must not raise up the name of YHWH your god for nothing…”[1] He says that the term “raise up” is key to understanding what this commandment intends. Just before Moses is given the commandments, in one of the passages read today, he is instructed to say these words for God: “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) The message is the same as the prologue to the commandments, but here the image is of being carried, like a mother eagle bearing her chicks aloft to teach them to fly. The image is one of love, support and protection. The same word is used in the commandment about “raising up” or “carrying” the name of God. Thus, in the way that God brought the people out of slavery on eagle’s wings, so the people who are to “raise up and carry” the name of God do it only in love for that God, in support for the ways of that God, and to protect the honor of that God.[2] This commandment is a warning not to “raise up” or “invoke” the name of God for trivial purposes. Or, as Andrew Greeley has suggested, the commandment speaks of the consequences of “frivolous and hypocritical religion.”

There seems to be a natural progression in the first three commandments. The first commandment warns us not to run after other gods but to be loyal to this God. The second commandment warns us not to try to remake God over in our image, which is idolatry. The third commandment is a warning to take care about how and for what we invoke God's name.

I want to suggest that obeying the third commandment entails at least three things. You’ll have to decide whether or not you agree with my three.

First, we don’t need to invoke God’s name to tell the truth. In the ancient world an oath invoked the name of a deity to guarantee the truth of what was said. Under oath, what was said or promised had to be true and what was vowed had to be done. This is somewhat analogous to the legal distinction made in the United States courts between statements made under oath and other statements that are not. In our legal system to testify falsely under oath is a crime. “Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” If you knowingly don’t tell the truth you may be charged with perjury. However, when Jesus spoke about this commandment in the text that was read today, he abolished any distinction between words said under oath and words said without oaths. Persons were to speak the truth with all their words and to stand behind all that they said without any need for emphasis or validation by using the name of God. Jesus’ disciples were to be known as people who stood behind all they said without invoking the name of God.

Second, we are to pay attention when we do lift up God’s name. Do you think about the words you say, the words that you sing and pray in worship? We say the words and sing the verses so often that we may not pay attention to what we are saying or singing. The Hebrew prophets are noted for their anger at people running after other gods and failing to practice justice. But what really got their blood to boil was when people were content to say all the right things in worship but ignored the implications of those words for their lives. More than anything else, perhaps, such failure to pay attention was “raising up” the name of God for “nothing.”

Third, we are to think twice about what we use God’s name to bless. Is it something that God really wants to bless? Sometimes it’s just little things. I once knew a woman who when she drove to the city to shop would always pray that God would find her a parking place. She said that God always found a place for her. I’m not sure but that might not be “raising up” the name of God for “nothing.” More than little things, God’s name has been invoked to bless some of the most ungodly acts imaginable, completely contrary to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This commandment is a warning to think twice before you invoke God’s name for some cause.

The third commandment is not a commandment against invoking the name of God, but rather a call to be serious and intentional when we “raise up” that name. When we are known as people who speak truthfully, we are obeying the commandment. When we come to worship with a sense that we are standing on holy ground and that somehow the week ahead of us will be different because we were here, we are obeying the third commandment. When we are careful about what we invoke God’s name to bless, we are obeying this commandment.

Today, we remember how God has raised us up like a mother eagle teaching her young to fly. We also remember that we are called to “raise up” God’s name with care, love, and respect.

[1] John C. Holbert, The Ten Commandments (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) p. 37.

[2] Ibid. p. 41.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:4-6: 32:1-6; Matthew 22:34-40

Will you try it again this week? Hold your hands out in front of you with palms facing toward you so that you can see all the fingers and thumbs. Start on the right with your thumb: No other gods. Then take the right index finger: No idols. Take the middle finger: No misuse of God's name. Take the right ring finger: Observe Sabbath. Take the right little finger: Honor parents. Take the left little finger: No murder. Take the left ring finger: No adultery. Take the left middle finger: No stealing. Take the left index finger: No lying. Take the left thumb: No coveting.

I began this series of sermons last week by saying that it was likely that in their original form -- as they might have been on the tablets Moses brought down from the mountain -- each commandment was only one or two words in Hebrew, simple enough to be memorized by anyone and the convenient number corresponding to the number of fingers on the two hands.

I also said that the Ten Commandments are as much about "grace" as "law." The introduction to them makes that clear: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…" These are not the commands of a God who wants to burden us with laws, but are the conditions of meaningful life given by the God who has loved us before we could do anything on our own. For Christians that's why the Ten Commandments have not been set aside or superseded by Jesus. They remain the fundamentals for any who would enter into covenant with this God.

We looked at the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." If we choose this God over all the other gods competing for our loyalty, then why is there any need for the second commandment? "You shall not make for yourself an idol." The temptation addressed by this commandment is not to follow a rival god, but rather the temptation to domesticate God into a visible, controlled object. The difference between the first and second commandments is like the selection of a life partner. The first has to do with selecting and being loyal to one particular partner. The second addresses the temptation that comes after the selection: it is the temptation to remake that person into what you would like the partner to be.

In premarital counseling I try to get the couple to look at how they see each other and how they view such critical issues as money, family, sex and faith. What they are tempted to do when they see serious conflicts in how they view these matters is to think to themselves, "Oh, with time I will change him or her." Such assumptions are, of course, recipes for disaster in any serious relationship. Many marriages and friendships flounder on the attempt to remake the other into what we want them to be. The second commandment is a warning against the temptation to try to remake God into what we want God to be.

The story of Aaron and the making of the "golden calf" while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the commandments was not an attempt to forsake the God of Moses for another god. (Exodus 32) It was an effort to remake the mysterious God of the Exodus into something more tangible and visible. When they reduced God to a golden calf, however, disaster was the result. If they could remake God into their own image, then they could also remake the rules of their relationship with each other. What they intended to be a celebration of God turned into a drunken orgy.

The second commandment is a reminder that God is greater than any of our preconceived notions and that we dare not try to reduce God to something that is more manageable and makes fewer demands on us.

We have been talking about the negative because the second commandment is so stated. I believe it is so stated because it is a boundary: whatever else you do, do not try to remake God in your own image. But there is a positive way to talk about loyalty to God and not attempting to remake God. If the people of the Jewish faith had a creed, there is little doubt that it would be these words from Deuteronomy, called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all our soul, and with all your might.” (5:4-5) Loyalty to God is to be expressed with our whole-hearted love, just as is loyalty to our spouse. When Jesus was asked what commandment was the greatest, he did not cite one of the “Big Ten,” but rather the Shema from Deuteronomy. And to that he added the words from Leviticus: “And a second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

How do we love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and our neighbors as ourselves? At the most fundamental level, don’t we love God by not having other gods, by not making idols, by not making wrongful use of God’s name, by observing Sabbath, and by honoring our parents? Also at the most fundamental level, don’t we love our neighbors by not killing them, by not committing adultery with their spouses, by not stealing from them, by not lying to them, and not being preoccupied with wanting what they have?

Have you seen that bumper sticker that says, “The Ten Commandments are not multiple choice”? Together, the commandments provide the framework for what it means to love God and love our neighbor. They are not optional and they call for commitment.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has rightly observed that we are all "children of Feuerbach." Ludwig Feuerback (1804-1872) was a nineteenth century philosopher who articulated the assumption made popular during the Enlightenment, "that God is in the end a projection of our best humanness."
[1] This temptation to make God like us can be seen in two extremes. On the one hand, there is the temptation to make God "warm and fuzzy," so domesticated that this God would never challenge anything we do. If we are not careful, when we use expressions like "God has no hands but ours," we may be putting God into a mold that is alien to the awesome God we see liberating a people from slavery and calling them into an accountable relationship. The other extreme of our attempts to make God like us is to reduce God to a set of fixed propositions that give certitude and stability, and forget that the God we say we worship is a God who is always doing "new things" in history.

The tragedy of remaking God into our image is not so much that it is an insult to God. I assume that God has more to do than to get irritated and enraged by our misconceptions. The tragedy is that the reduced God, the god made in our own image, prevents a meaningful relationship to the real God.

There is a danger in comparing our relationship to God with our most intimate human relations. We are not equal partners with God, as we are with our significant others, for example. But the most intimate human relationships can give us clues about our relationship with God. When we try to remake our significant other into our image, we no longer know the real person. Divorce is often the result, but sometimes it means lifetimes of being lonely because two people don't really know each other.

We do not set out to remake somebody else in our image. Sometimes we do it out of fear. When my stepmother Isabel was dying of cancer, my father could not admit to himself or to her that she was dying. In a way, he remade his image of Isabel into someone she was not because he could not confront the reality that she was dying. In the months before her death, the relationship between my dad and Isabel became more superficial. They could not share the deep things they needed to confront. Isabel could not talk about her fears of dying. Dad could not talk about his fears of living after her death.

What happened to my dad is what happens when, for whatever reason, we try to reshape our significant other into something they are not; the relationship between the real persons dies. That's the tragedy of trying to remake God into our image. We end up losing the relationship with God.

How do we avoid remaking God into our image and losing that most important of all relationships? An important part of the answer is a lifetime of learning with others in a prayerful openness to God. On this day that we begin a new church school year you have an opportunity to consider a myriad of different learning possibilities. While much of our learning and openness to God is done alone, we are seriously lacking if we do not have others to help us test what we think we know about God. We need to risk putting ourselves in situations where, as the writer of 1 Peter says, we have to give account of the hope that is within us, and listen to their accounts. Some adults, even some who recognize the importance of life-long learning in their career paths, may be content with the equivalent of a third grade education in their spiritual lives. Some of those folks say with pride that they went to Sunday School when they were children; and they think that’s all they need. A third grade education is great for a nine year old, but woefully inadequate for adult. We know that acquiring knowledge and building relationships require effort. Where did we ever get the notion that such effort is not needed for our knowledge of, and relationship with, God? The good news is that we have classes for all ages, and for adults, we’ve got classes on Sunday and on different days and hours of the week. The bad news is that you may not be registered for one or more of them. One of the most important things you can do to avoid making God in your own image is to put yourself in a discipline of study and prayer with others in the congregation. Don’t miss the opportunity you have today.

Let us leave this place today determined not make idols, determined to resist the temptation to try to remake our life partners or our God into our own images. Let us be open to the wonder, newness, and mystery of authentic relationships; and cherish the intimacy that openness makes possible.

[1] "Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections on the Book of Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 843.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:3; Matthew 5:17-20

Hold your hands out in front of you with palms facing inward so that you can see all the fingers and thumbs. Start on the right with your thumb: No other gods. Then take the right index finger: No idols. Take the middle finger: No misuse of God's name. Take the right ring finger: Observe Sabbath. Take the right little finger: Honor parents. Take the left little finger: No murder. Take the left ring finger: No adultery. Take the left middle finger: No stealing. Take the left index finger: No lying. Take the left thumb: No coveting.

It is presumptive in the extreme for us to assume we understand why God does things the way God does, but you will have to admit that to be able to get the absolute fundamentals of life onto the ten fingers is pretty remarkable. It is all the more remarkable when you consider that the people to whom these fundamentals were given were a primitive nomadic tribe who did not yet know how to read or write.

Scholars pretty much agree that in their original form the commandments were just as brief as we stated them, perhaps one or two words each in Hebrew. In fact the word used in Hebrew to refer to the "Ten Commandments" is "words" -- the "ten words." These utterly primitive basic injunctions were simple enough that they could be easily memorized by anybody. That is probably what was on the original tablets Moses brought down from the mountain. So, if you are wondering about the rest of the words around the commandments, like God's vengefulness in punishing not only the wrongdoers but the wrongdoer's children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, you are welcome to consider them as later scribal elaborations on the meaning of the commandments.

I do not intend to disparage elaboration on the meaning of the commandments. Elaboration is what happens when you try to figure out what the commandments mean for you in your time and place. Just as it was necessary for the people of Israel to understand the implications of the commandments for their life together, so will it be necessary for us to consider their implications for our life together here in Chugiak, Alaska. We will do that with the modesty that understands that people who come after us may wonder how we arrived at the interpretations we did. That likelihood, however, makes it no less necessary for us to try to understand what God intends for us to hear and do from those original "ten words." Because of the work we have to do, it is highly unlikely that we will all agree on the meaning of the commandments for all the issues we face. That's okay because we don't have to have to agree on everything.

We do, however, begin with the assumption that these "ten words" are God's words for us. We recognize that there is a sharpness to their meaning well expressed on that billboard somebody put up in California: "The Ten Commandments: What part of 'No' don't you understand?'" That sharp negative must not be lost or minimized any more than a road sign that says "Stop!" These are not "Caution" signs: they are "Stop" signs. They are the boundaries that define the life of God's covenant people.

It is not accidental that the first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before me." This commandment is about loyalty, loyalty to one God. This is about loyalty in a far more profound sense than our loyalty to country as we express in the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to United States of America and to the republic for which it stands."

Notice that I didn't say THE one God, for when these commandments were given the idea that there was only one God (monotheism) had not yet been born. The people of Israel lived in the midst of many gods competing for their loyalty. The names of the other gods changed from Baal to El to Astarte to Tammuz, but these gods were not Yahweh. Because this God, Yahweh, had saved them from slavery in Egypt, they would have had to be fools to turn to other gods. But turn to other gods they did. In a sense, the rest of the Bible can be read as one story after the other of people seeking other gods.

John Holbert is a professor on preaching and Old Testament interpretation at Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas. It is our good fortune that he will be teaching in the Lay School of Theology hosted here at our church on September 21 and 22. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Professor Holbert suggests that in the original Hebrew this commandment may not only be translated “you shall have no other gods before me,” but also as “you must not become other gods.”
[1] This is similar to the words of the snake to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The snake said that if they ate of the tree of knowledge they would “become like God,” or “You will certainly become God!”

However one chooses to hear this phrase – whether as “You shall have no other gods” or as “You shall not become other gods” – the point is clear: Yahweh demands loyalty. Yahweh is the God who brings you and me out of our slavery, out of the houses of our bondage. No other gods – least of all those of us who think we can be our own gods -- have the power to save us from ourselves.

Who are the gods that compete for our loyalties? It might be said that anything may become a “god” for us: food, sex, drink, drugs, television, the Internet, video games, and on and on. When Jesus spoke about the matter of competing loyalties, he spoke clearly: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 5:24) I don’t think Jesus had anything against wealth per se, but when wealth, or security or power blind us to the gifts of the God who cares about people in slavery and calls us to live lives of justice and compassion, “wealth” has become a god and cannot be tolerated. While we may not be slaves like the Hebrew people were in Egypt, we may find ourselves enslaved to other gods and in need of liberation.

In my column in the newsletter, which may or may not have found its way to your box yet, I spoke of our need to see the commandments as both “grace” and “law.” I will not repeat what I said there. You can read it when the newsletter finds its way to your box, or you can read it on the blog. I was talking about this to a Jewish friend of mine and he said, “Did you know that mitzvoth, the word in Hebrew for ‘commandments,’ also means ‘blessings’”? Grace is not only God’s love that goes before us and meets us on the way, but grace is also God’s love that blesses us with the commandments that, as the Psalmist says, can revive our souls.

In her best-selling book titled, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,
[2] Ann Lamott tells the story of her early life lived in a counter-cultural home environment in California in the 60s and 70s. Hers was the picture of a girl lonely in her own family, seeking solace for her loneliness in love affairs, alcohol and drugs. The death of her best friend seemed to make her struggle with drugs and alcohol an impossible one. But then she happened onto St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Marin City, California.

She listened to the singing coming from the church from across the street long before she entered the door. It was, as she said, "the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open." "Somehow," she said, "the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated." "No one tried to con me," she said. The people radiated kindness and warmth. They just made a place for her in the church. Her struggles with alcohol and drugs didn't end, nor her other struggles, but she finally came to the place where she said to drugs, "I quit," and to Jesus, "All right. You can come in." She declared her loyalty God. Her troubles weren't over, but she now had something to hold onto. She said that she and her son didn't miss church ten times in the next twelve years.

Anne recalled a story told by Veronica, the tall African-American woman who came to be the pastor at the church. Veronica said that one day when she was about seven, her best friend got lost. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn't find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.’”

"And that,” said Anne, “is why I have stayed so close to mine -- because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home." (p. 55)

I think that the word of grace Anne Lamott received from the folks in that church was not different from the word of grace those former slaves in Egypt received when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets, “I am the God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Grace is unearned love – the love that goes before and greets us on the way. Only after we have heard that word of grace can we understand that the commandments are given because God loves us and that they are for our benefit. Only then can we declare our allegiance not to have any other gods.

Anne Lamott’s experience is not only about grace and learning about how the commandments are for our benefit; it is also about the community of faith where she was able to hear that word of grace. Almost every Sunday we have people visiting our church. What do people find when they come here? Are they welcomed like Ann Lamott was in her church? She experienced the grace of God at the hands of the people in her church. Do visitors to our church experience the grace of God in the form of genuine kindness and warmth, with no cons? Only when we have experienced that grace can we understand that the commandments are God’s gift to keep us from destroying ourselves and to give us a framework for full and creative living. Then, no matter what we’ve done or how bad we feel we will be able to find our ways home.

[1] John C. Holbert, The Ten Commandments (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) pp. 18-19.
[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).