Monday, October 29, 2007


Are we still talking about the ninth commandment, the one about not lying? I get upset any time I find gross misrepresentations of persons' views for propaganda purposes. I get livid when it is done by people in the name of Christ!

This afternoon I received an email from a friend who was forwarding it from a friend, who was forwarding it from a friend, who was... It was about what Ben Stein supposedly said on CBS Sunday Morning commentary. I'm not reproducing because over half of it is a forgery. If you are interested enough to read it you can find it, along with what Ben Stein actually said at

By the time I got to the last half of the email, I recognized paragraphs I had seen in numerous other emails and decided to check the source. The actual commentary by Ben Stein and recited on CBS Sunday Morning news was only about half the length of this one. The second half of this document was forged by someone else to try to make something of Ben Stein's name.

I don't know if the quote from Anne Graham Lotz is true or not. We know that Stein did not repeat it. If she did say it somewhere, I am sad that her view of God is so small and nationalistic. The God of the Bible has nothing to do with "gentlemanly" actions.

The writers of the forged document had the audacity to sign it with "Honestly and respectfully, Ben Stein." Do they believe that the ninth commandment doesn't apply to them. The scariest part is that they may actually believe that their lying is justified because they are in a battle against non-believers.

I weep for our nation, but I weep even more because of people who are willing to lie in the name of Christ. There are days when I am ashamed to be called a Christian.

I would like to know what you think.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:16; Psalm 15, Ephesians 4:14-16, 25-32; Matthew 15:10-20

In each of these sermons I have said that in their original form the Ten Commandments were probably only one or two words each in Hebrew, and that the words around them, together with the other 603 rabbinic laws interpreting the commandments, were written centuries later. Jesus did not equate the authority of the "Ten" with the 603 other rabbinic laws nor with the tradition of oral law that preceded them. Jesus and the early church clearly and intentionally violated or rejected some of the rabbinic laws found in the first five books of the Bible -- the kosher laws, for example, as reflected in the Matthew 15 reading.

I think it is for good reason that we have disregarded many of the rabbinic laws of the first five books of the Bible. Just because the rabbinic law approves of buying slaves just as long as you buy them from neighboring nations, that doesn't mean slavery is OK, does it? (Leviticus 25:44) Just because the rabbinic law says that a person who works on the Sabbath should be put to death, that doesn't mean that it is OK to put such people to death, does it? (Exodus 32:2) Just because the rabbinic law says that witches are to be put to death, that doesn't mean that it is OK, does it? (Exodus 22:18) Just because the rabbinic law says that eating shellfish is an abomination to God and forbidden, that doesn't mean that we should refrain from eating shrimp and king crab, does it? (Leviticus 11:10) And just because the rabbinic law condemns homosexuality as an "abomination" to God -- the same level of condemnation as for eating shellfish -- that doesn't mean that we should also condemn it, does it? (Leviticus 18:22) Are we to give equal weight to the 603 rabbinic laws as we do the Ten Commandments? The answer of Jesus seems to be a clear "No!" We have to decide these matters on grounds other than their being rabbinic laws in the Bible.

We looked at the first five commandments with a view to what they could tell us about our relationship to God, and we are looking at the last five with a view to what God expects of us in relating to our neighbors. We said that the sixth commandment, the one forbidding murder, recognized of the value of human life. We said that the seventh commandment recognized the importance of sexuality in human life. We said that the eighth commandment recognized that certain goods are necessary for life with dignity, and that the goods of another person must not be seized.

Reflecting on the command not to steal, one of you wrote to me with another dimension of "stealing." You said that we can also "steal" another person's peace of mind by a careless word, that we can "rob" another person's sense of well-being by hurtful words or gossip. I wondered if that did not lead us to the ninth commandment.

The ninth commandment—"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."—is an acknowledgement that viable human community depends on truth telling. Since I have not preached at Chugiak these last Sundays I wasn’t tempted to do what one pastor did when preaching on this commandment. On the Sunday before, he asked the members of the congregation to read the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark as preparation for the sermon. One week later, when he began his sermon, he asked how many people had done their assignment and had read the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Hands went up all over the sanctuary. Then, the pastor said, "There are only sixteen chapters of the Gospel of Mark. Today, we will talk about telling the truth."

But if I told you that the ninth commandment is not concerned with "white lies," little lies, or inconsequential lies, would you be disappointed or relieved? I think Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann is correct when he writes, "This commandment is not concerned with 'white lies,' but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology. The primary reference is the court, where witnesses speak and testimony is given."
[1] I suspect the reason for Brueggemann's conclusion is that in Hebrew there are other more common words for "lying" than the more specialized term used here, more like our legal term "perjury" -- the giving of deliberate false evidence while under oath.

Brueggemann explains further that this commandment "understands that a free, independent, and healthy judiciary system is indispensable for a viable community. The courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion. It is remarkable in this list of prohibitions that concern the sanctity of human life, the mystery of sexuality, and the maintenance of property, that courts should be so prominent."
[2] That courts should so clearly figure into the Ten Commandments may be remarkable, but Brueggemann recognizes, as I think we do, "that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported."

I understand the sentiment that says one of our problems today is the lack of the public's confidence in our courts and judicial system, and that by and large the public does not believe that the courts succeed very well in distinguishing truth from falsehood. Some complain that the very laws intended to get truth while protecting the innocent result in weighting the balance in favor of the guilty. Some complain that "money" not "truth" is the final arbiter of guilt and innocence in our court system.

There is a crisis of public confidence in our judicial system today, and the way to restore that confidence is not clear. I am suspicious of simple answers for problems that are very complex. I am also suspicious because the human propensity to distort reality (the "facts") to suit our own interests is deep and pervasive. Because of that propensity, there will always be people finding ways to abuse the law and the court system. Rather than cynically accepting this reality, we can determine that if we are called as witnesses in court we will "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We can decide that we will obey the ninth commandment, regardless of our vested interests.

This commandment has implications for truth telling far beyond the confines of the court system. It has to do will all the institutions of society on which we depend for information. Much more than public confidence in our court system, the real crisis of our time may be our mass culture's transformation of truth into propaganda that entertains. In 1986 Neil Postman wrote a book the title of which nearly says it all: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Postman was Chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University. His study concludes that in our mass culture truth is held hostage to entertainment. This hasn't happened according to George Orwell's chilling vision of the future in his book titled, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1949.
[4](4) In this book Orwell predicted that we would be overcome by externally imposed oppression, and coined the term "Big Brother." Postman says that the danger is from a slightly older, less well-known view of the future -- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1932.[5] I suggest that both books are good reading for us in this first decade of the twenty-first century.

According to Huxley, Postman points out, no Big Brother is required to take away our freedom, our maturity and our history. Huxley said that people would come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Orwell feared that books would be banned. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban books, because no one would want to read them. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared that truth "would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

Some would say that Huxley has aptly described modern television and the Internet. What I would like to know is how did Huxley -- way back in 1932 -- so clearly anticipate television at the beginning of the twenty-first century? As one who uses the Internet regularly to find information, I can testify to the "sea of irrelevance" through which one must swim to find hard reliable data. What is true of the Internet is also true of the mass media, both print and electronic, including the main source of news for many people -- the talk shows on radio and television. While the radio talk shows I hear on local AM stations regularly castigate the news media for not telling the truth and for hiding it, they do not acknowledge that they are as much hostage to making truth entertaining as the rest of the media. Under the guise of public forums for finding truth, they are models of the way in which truth is compromised by making it entertaining. "Bearing false witness" is caricaturing those who differ with you and not telling the whole truth, and it is an indictment of our mass media. If we want truth in our time, we will have to work to get it, and not expect to be entertained by it.

Last week I reminded you how -- eight centuries before the birth of Christ -- the Hebrew prophets became the social and religious conscience of the people of Israel. When the courts and other institutions compromised truth, these prophets denounced them. That's why Jesus could talk about a tradition of "stoning the prophets." But they were just as vigilant when religious leaders succumbed to deception to advance institutional interests. The prophets' harshest condemnation is for religious leaders who say the things that the authorities and persons in power like to hear, or as the prophet Jeremiah said, religious leaders who cry "'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:13-14) Such religious leaders didn't even know how to blush, said the prophet. We who say we will obey God's commandments have a special obligation not to let truth be compromised by partisan interest.

For all the failures we see to live up to it, the ninth commandment assumes a viable alternative to deceptiveness in life. That absence of deceptiveness is to be modeled in the community of faith. The apostle Paul could have been speaking directly to us in our age when he wrote the words from Ephesians read earlier: "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…" (Ephesians 4:14-15)

We are to speak the truth to one another. We should not have to take an oath on the witness stand for our words to be credible. Notice what Paul says, "speaking the truth IN LOVE." This brings us back to where we began today, with what one of you told me about how we can "steal" the peace of mind of another person by careless words, even words that are true. In the community of faith we are obliged not only to speak the truth, but to speak it in love, not as a weapon to hurt and embarrass.

Today, let us recommit ourselves to the honesty called for in the ninth commandment: that we will not speak falsely against our neighbor; that we will not bend the truth to serve our own self-interests; that we will not caricature those with whom we disagree; that we will speak the truth as we know it, and speak it in love.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 851.
[2] Ibid., p. 848.
[3] (New York: Penguin, 1986)
[4] Published in 1949, it is now out of print but the text of the whole book is widely available on the Internet.
[5] Brave New World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. Inc., 1932.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:15; 22:1-14; Matthew 19:16-26

Each week we have reminded ourselves that in their original form the Ten Commandments were probably only one or two words each in Hebrew, and that the words around them, together with the other 603 rabbinic laws interpreting the commandments, were written centuries later. As a part of our quest, we have sought to understand how the ancient Israelites first understood the commandments, how Jesus understood the commandments, and the way they were interpreted in his day. We have done that to help us think about what the commandments mean for us in our day.

We looked at the first five commandments with a view to what they could tell us about our relationship to God, and we have started to look at the last five with a view to what God expects of us in relating to our neighbors.

The first of the last five commandments, the one forbidding murder, is a recognition of the value of human life. The seventh commandment is a recognition of the importance of sexuality in human life. The eighth commandment -- "You shall not steal." -- is recognition that certain goods are necessary for life with dignity. Those goods of another person, say this commandment, must not be seized.

Some scholars have pointed out that the verb "steal" used here in Hebrew also means, "stealing a person," or "kidnapping." Some have even suggested that the forbidding of "stealing a person," was the primary meaning, thus having the capital crimes of murder, adultery and kidnapping the sixth, seventh and eighth commandments. Most scholars, however, assume that the commandment forbids stealing in the broadest sense.

That was certainly true of the ancient Israelites when they wrote down what they understood this commandment to mean hundreds of years later. In the passage from Exodus 22 there are the laws of restitution and punishment for stealing. For example,

- When someone stole an ox and slaughtered it, they had to repay the owner with five oxen. If the ox was recovered alive, then the thief only had to pay double. (22:1)

- If a thief was discovered breaking and entering during the night, the occupants could kill the thief without being liable for murder. If it was during the daytime, the occupants could be liable for murder. (22:2)

- When someone's livestock got loose and grazed over someone else's field, restitution was to be made from the livestock owner's best field. (22:5)

One might assume that the eighth commandment is the simplest and least ambiguous of all the commandments: "Don't take another's property and don't steal a person." When the Hebrew prophets emerged as the social and religious conscience of the people of Israel eight centuries before the birth of Christ, they had a lot to say about "stealing," but most of what they had to say was addressed to rich and powerful people "stealing" from poor people, not the poor stealing from the rich. The prophet Isaiah's harsh criticism was that people with money and power made and used the laws to take advantage of the poor. Listen to his words: "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!" (Isaiah 10:2)

What Isaiah and the other prophets wrote about centuries before Christ, Woodie Guthrie sang about in the first half of the twentieth century. Probably the most important folk singer of the first half of the century, the Oklahoma-born Guthrie saw first-hand the devastation wrought to the land and people by the "Dustbowl" and the "Great Depression." But, like the Hebrew prophets, he saw how rich and powerful people took advantage of poor people in these catastrophes. In his song about the Oklahoma outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd, he sang what he saw: "Some men will rob you with a six-gun, other men will rob you with a fountain pen."

We understand what the prophets railed against and what Woodie Guthrie sang about -- how "white collar crime" deprives vulnerable people of the goods necessary for life with dignity. We understand that this is a reality of our day and we understand that "stealing" done in the name of corporate policy is still "stealing," don't we?

There is another way that theft is practiced: it is what I call "stealing the future." When we take actions that will unfairly deprive people who come after us of the goods they need for life, that too is "stealing." For several years, I lived on a small farm in Georgia. I did my best to preserve the land on which I cultivated, both for fruit and vegetables. I didn't use herbicides and I tried not to use pesticides. (However, I never did figure out how to grow peaches in Georgia without the use of some pesticides.) For my children and their children, I wanted to leave the land in just as good condition, or better, than I found it.

One day a neighbor called and told me to turn on the television. When I did I saw pictures of a farm just up the hill from mine. Hidden within a grove of trees along the bank of a creek where water flowed down toward our property, there were fifty to sixty barrels of what would later be determined to be toxic waste. The barrels were leaking and the waste was seeping into the creek. An elderly widow who hadn't farmed the land for years was the owner. Two men had come to her and offered to rent the land, telling her they wanted to farm it. But they didn't want it for farming, but as a place they could dump toxic waste without having to dispose of it properly. I took some satisfaction from the fact that the two men were the first to be convicted under a new Georgia law making the dumping of toxic waste a felony. They went to jail, but the effect of their actions would be destruction of the environment far beyond their jail terms and beyond their lifetimes. By their actions, they had stolen the future both of the land itself and those who would farm it after me.

The eighth commandment forbids our taking the goods necessary for the life of other people, whether simple theft in the night, armed robbery, or by manipulating the law. As one of you often reminds me, the commandment says "Thou shalt NOT." Some scholars have said that the negatives of the commandments have implications for positive actions. The rabbinic law in Leviticus 19:18 states "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." You love your neighbor as yourself by not committing violence against them, by not committing adultery, and by not taking from your neighbor what is not yours. But when Jesus took this rabbinic law and made it the second of the "Great Commandments," I think he meant more than simply refraining from negative action toward our neighbor. He made that clear in his conversation with the rich young man who came to him wanting assurance of eternal life. The young man assured Jesus that he had obeyed the Ten Commandments. Jesus' response to the rich young man was that God expects more of us than not hurting others: God expects us to do good to others.

Would Jesus expect us not only to refrain from stealing others’ futures but actually “give futures” to others? Do we give futures to others when we care for the land so that it will be productive for those who come after us? Do we give futures to others when stop asking for more studies of global warming and begin to take measures to slow it?

What if I told you that for $10 you could help provide a future for an African family? You can! Those of you at Chugiak United Methodist Church on Sunday, October 21st, will hear all about “Nothing But Nets.” A unlikely coalition of organizations including The United Methodist Church, the National Basketball Association, Sports Illustrated, the United Nations Foundation, and other organizations have come together to provide bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria in Africa.

You will hear about how Malaria infects over 500 million people a year, how it kills more than a million people each year, and how it is the largest killer of children in Africa. You will also hear how malaria is both preventable and treatable. Inspired by a columnist in Sports Illustrated “Nothing But Nets” seeks to provide families and individuals with insecticide-treated bed nets to sleep under and taking steps to kill mosquitoes where they breed and when they enter houses to feed at night. Each bed net is designed to last for at least four years. With its long history in Africa, The United Methodist Church is uniquely positioned to help get these nets to people with the proper instructions for their use. Yes, fresh water and medicines are still needed throughout Africa, but for $10 a bed net you can help give a future to a family in Africa. If you don't happen to be at Chugiak on Sunday you can find out more at

The eighth commandment prohibits taking the goods necessary for another person's livelihood: "You shall not steal." We love our neighbors not only when we do not steal from them, but when we take steps to see that all persons have the goods necessary for life with dignity. What we do here today may seem like very small acts, and they are. But from such small acts things happen, the results of which we cannot see. Natalie Sleeth has expressed it well in “The Hymn of Promise”:

"In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold of snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."

I hope you won't miss the opportunity you have today to plant some seeds for the future.

[1] "Hymn of Promise," The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, # 707.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Note: This is not a sermon I will be preaching in Chugiak on Sunday. For health reasons, I have had to return to our home in Bend, Oregon. I will continue to prepare and post (not preach) the rest of the sermons in this series. My plan is to post them on Saturdays as I have in the past. I encourage you to read the Scripture texts before you read the sermons.

Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:27-32; John 8:2-11

We looked at the first five commandments with an eye for seeing what they tell us about our relationship to God. We are looking at the last five with an eye for what God expects of us in our relationships with each other. And as we considered the first of these—the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder"—we considered how actions that result in the death of another person are in a special category. Of all the things we can do to each other, there is finality about murder that is different from the other four. Once a life has been taken it cannot be given back, no matter how great the sorrow, no matter how great the punishment. But I also suggested that perhaps commandments six and seven were in the places they were because "murder" and "adultery" may be unique in the amount of destruction they do to individual lives, families and communities.

Just as the sixth commandment points to the value of human life, the seventh commandment points to the place of sexuality in human life. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of this commandment, sexuality is "enormously wondrous, and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations."

When the ancient Israelites interpreted the commandment about adultery, they understood it in a very limited sense: it was a prohibition against sexual relations with the wife of another man. It was not understood to prohibit sexual promiscuity on the part of the husband, unless of course the husband became involved with the wife of another man. Women were understood to be the property and trust of men. This violation of another man's wife was viewed so seriously that it was a capital offense. Leviticus 20:10 reads, "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death."

This old patriarchal understanding of the seventh commandment has continued to have its supporters even into the modern age. When I was growing up in Texas, I learned that there was a "certain understanding" in the courts that a husband who killed his wife, or a man suspected of committing adultery with his wife, would never be convicted of the crime in a Texas court. It was said to be an adoption from Mexican common law, but I'm not sure if that was the case. I do know that it was a common understanding about a husband's rights. That "common understanding" did not include a wife's rights to shoot her philandering husband and partner. Please understand me; I am not an authority on Texas law. I am speaking of “an understanding" common when I was growing up. I have a suspicion that Texas was not the only place where such views were held. That understanding, wherever held, was a legacy of the old patriarchal view of the seventh commandment, not necessarily of the commandment itself.

The patriarchal understanding of the commandment did not go four thousand years unchallenged. In Jewish and Christian communities it was later broadened to include men as well as women. That development may have happened because of Jesus. In the Gospel text Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27) Remember what I said about Jesus' view of the commandment not to murder. He was not talking so much about the sixth commandment itself but its interpretation over the centuries. He was not equating "murder" with "anger," but pointing out that one could not take refuge in the system of laws interpreting the commandments. One might not be legally culpable for "verbal abuse," but Jesus said that we were accountable to God however we hurt other each other.

In discussing the seventh commandment, Jesus addressed his comments to men. He was not warning women about the sin of adultery, but men. Jesus was objecting to the sexual injustice that had been codified in law. In the matter of divorce, which Jesus also addressed, in his day a man could obtain a get, or a "writ of dismissal," for such a trivial reason as bad cooking. But there were no grounds under which a woman could obtain a get against her husband.
[2] Jesus said that the one legitimate cause for a man to divorce his wife was adultery.

But what did Jesus mean about adultery? Did he really intend to equate the act of adultery with lust? In his book on Jesus, Thomas Cahill facetiously writes, "Earth to Jesus: Hello!" but then goes on to explain that what Jesus was objecting to was not "spontaneous arousal but sexual oppression—the ease with which any man of the ancient world, especially a well-connected one, could arrange to satisfy himself on any woman he wished, her wishes in the matter being beside the point."
[3] I think Cahill is right. Jesus was not equating the act of adultery with lust, but was contesting the authority of the legal codes interpreting the commandments, which legitimized sexual injustice toward women. What do you think?

Jesus' criticism of the accepted pattern of discrimination against women is made even clearer in the story of the woman charged with adultery in the eighth chapter of John. Recall the story. A woman is brought before Jesus. She was caught in the act of adultery. The text makes clear that this is a trap for Jesus. They make her stand in front of Jesus and the assembled crowd. The scribes and Pharisees reminded Jesus that the penalty for committing adultery was death by stoning. They wanted to know what Jesus would say. He said nothing to the accusers. He did not argue the law with them -- the one from Leviticus we read earlier that sets death as the penalty for a wife and her lover guilty of adultery. Nor did he ask the accusers the obvious question: "How can you catch a woman in the act without catching her male partner?" He didn't say that. Instead, the text says that he bent down and wrote with his fingers on the ground. I wonder what he wrote.

The accusers probably assumed that his non-response meant that he could say nothing. Thinking they had Jesus where they wanted him, they persist in demanding a response. Then the text says, "He straightened up" and said ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground." He had gone straight to the heart of the matter: the guilty consciences of each of the men present. The accusers knew that they were guilty of bringing only the woman for punishment, not the male partner. They sought to trap him, but Jesus trapped them in their hypocrisy. They had no option but to drop their stones and walk away.

But the story does not end there. The woman is still there. She had not said anything. No one asked her anything. She was simply a pawn in a game to trap Jesus. She had witnessed the hypocrisy of the failure to bring her male partner. She had no rights. She could not contest anything. She was more sinned against, than sinner. Then again, the text says that Jesus "straightened up" and spoke to the woman. Jesus looked up at her and said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" And for the first time, she speaks, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said to her,
"Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

Sexuality is a wondrous gift. The seventh commandment is a warning not to use this gift outside of a committed relationship. Remember what one of you said to me some weeks ago, "The commandment says, 'Thou shalt NOT." Jesus' teaching about the commandment warns that it applies to men and women alike, and that committed relationships are ones of authentic mutuality without abusive behavior. Jesus' teaching is also a warning about our temptation to be hypocrites in judging others, and that God expects more of us than the letter of the law.

Finally, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery contain two words that many of us need to hear: First, some are so filled with guilt about their own violations of this commandment that they need to hear, "neither do I condemn you." This is not the permissive "you do your thing and I'll do mine" creed popular in our society. It is the promise of God's willingness to forgive us for our sin, and it is indissolubly linked to the second, "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." This is the good news from God: God forgives you. Get on with your life. Don't do it again.

Contemporary hymn writer, Ruth Duck, has written lyrics based in part on the story of Jesus and the woman. Will you make it your prayer?

God, how can we forgive when bonds of love are torn?
How can we rise and start anew, our trust reborn?
When human loving fails and every hope is gone,
Your love gives strength beyond our own to face the dawn.

When we have missed the mark, and tears of anguish flow,
How can you still release our guilt, the debt we owe?
The ocean depth of grace surpasses all our needs.
A priest who shares our human pain, Christ intercedes.

Who dares to throw the stone to damn another’s sin,
When you, while knowing all our past, forgive again?
No more we play the judge, for by your grace we live.
As you, O God, forgive our sin, may we forgive.

[1] The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 848.
[2] Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Nan A. Talese Doubleday, 1999) p. 82.
[3] Ibid., p. 83.
[4] Words by Ruth Duck, Hebrew Melody, Words©1996 The Pilgrim Press. Reprinted from The Faith We Sing, # 2169

Monday, October 8, 2007


Last Sunday, when we might have been talking about the sixth commandment but were interrupted by my departure sermon, one of the lead articles in the New York Times was titled, "Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Game at Church."

Written by Kevin Moloney, the article begins this way:

"First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace.

"Across the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo."

I may be hopelessly out of touch, but for me the use of violent video games to attract young people gives our blessing to our culture of violance and defeats the reason for wanting them in church. Some pastors and churches obviously disagree with me.

Check out the article and see what you think. You're welcome to post your comments here.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


[The second of two sermons posted this weekend]

Deuteronomy 34:1-7; John 12:20-24

This is not the sermon I planned to preach today. Many of you have already heard that a heart condition has rendered me unable to fulfill my responsibilities as your interim pastor. I have gone through anger, denial, deal-making (can’t I just make it through November?), and now acceptance of my need to return home to Bend, Oregon to continue the treatment there. Please understand that I am not leaving because of better treatment Outside; there are few places in the world that are better than the Heart Institute in Anchorage. I am leaving so I can be at home for the convalescence that will be required.

Our Superintendent, Rachel Lieder Simeon, has arranged for preachers in the next few weeks before an interim arrives on November 11 who will stay until your permanent pastor is appointed in June.

Since this is my last Sunday with you, I decided not to preach the sermon I had prepared on the sixth commandment. I have been asked to complete the series of sermons on the Ten Commandments and post them on my blog. I will do my best to prepare and post one a week over these next five weeks. You will find the sermon on “no murder” already posted. Like a TV soap I wouldn’t want to leave you without finding out what happens when you get to the tenth commandment. I hope you will continue to talk back to me through the comments.

While we are not going to talk about the commandments today, we are going to begin not far in time and space from where the people received the commandments at Mt. Sinai. We don’t know how long it was after Moses presented the people with the Ten Commandments, but the time came when the wandering in the wilderness neared an end and the Promised Land was not far away.

As I thought about my leaving, my mind was drawn to the story of Moses in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy. I tried to imagine what it was like for him. He must have been exhausted. In his earlier years this climb would have been nothing for a man of his strength and endurance. But he was not the man he once was. He was dying and he knew it. But something—God!—beckoned him up to the top of the mountain, a mountaintop from whose peak he could see over to the other side of the Jordan River to “the land of milk and honey,” the land toward which he had spent most of his life leading people.

I wonder if this old man—the text says Moses was 120 years old—protested this indignity to God. Why couldn’t he have used his last energy to go from the Plains of Moab on over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land? It was not to be. Moses was led up the mountain to see the land, but not to enter it. Having seen the Promised Land from the top of the mountain the old man lay down and died without finishing what he began.

We too shall die without finishing what we begin. Moses lived for one hundred and twenty years. He was strong and vigorous. More to the point is that he was God-sensitive and God-led. Even that was not enough to enable him to finish what he had begun. And many do not have a full lifetime to get done what they long to accomplish.

I wonder if that occurred to Jesus as he made his way to Jerusalem. The journey had begun just days before when he himself had been up on the top of a mountain. Now, he had to come down. He was at the peak of his “career.” People all over the country had heard about him: how he called plain people as his disciples, how he healed sick people, how he taught and proclaimed a message of a God of love, and how his ministry seemed to move toward a cavalier disregard of the accepted patterns of discrimination that made some people “insiders” and others “outsiders.” He couldn’t go anywhere without large crowds pursuing him, hanging on his every word. But Jesus knew it couldn’t last. He knew he wouldn’t have seventy years, let alone Moses’ one hundred and twenty. He knew that he would do well to have thirty-five. I wonder if he thought about that as he walked the dusty road to Jerusalem.

Years later, when the writer of the Gospel of John looked back on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem, he remembered his words: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It sounds to me like Jesus understood that he wasn’t going to finish everything, but that what he had done would “bear fruit” after his death.

We can never accomplish what we begin in a lifetime, whether in 18, 35, 69, or 120 years. If Thomas Cahill is right the deepest of all Hebrew insights may well be that “accomplishment is intergenerational.”
[1] In his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Cahill recalls the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. The Centering Words in today’s bulletin are his. Will you read them aloud with me? "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love." Moses and Jesus both knew that. Please do not mistake what I am saying to be a message that accomplishing all we can for good in our lifetime is not important. Our best efforts are critical! What I am saying is that there are no quick and easy fixes for accomplishing what is truly worth doing.

For several years I lived on a small farm southeast of Atlanta, Georgia. There were a few acres of orchard and a few acres for vegetables. Around the house there were eight or nine large pecan trees. Once I discovered what a “pecan-picker-upper” was and got one, my back recovered from the stooping to harvest the trees’ abundant crops. The pecans were a paper-shell variety and a delight to eat.

One of the spiritual giants of the twentieth century was Howard Thurman. Born in 1900 of parents who had been slaves, Thurman was Dean of Chapel at Boston University in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He retired the year before I arrived at the university for graduate study. You will understand that when I heard this story by him, it had special meaning for me and my pecan trees.

Thurman said, “I watched him for a long time. He was so busily engaged in his task that he did not notice my approach until he heard my voice, then he raised himself erect with all the slow dignity of a man who had exhausted the cup of haste to the very dregs. He was an old man as I discovered before our conversation was over, a full 81 years. Further talk between us revealed that he was planting a small grove of pecan trees; the little treelets were not more than two-and-a-half or three feet in height. My curiosity was unbounded. ‘Why did you not select larger trees so as to increase the possibility of your living to see them bear at least one crop of nuts?’ [Pecan trees take from 10 to 20 years to bear fruit.]

“He fixed his eyes directly on my face with no particular point of focus, but with a gaze that took in the totality of my features. Finally, he said, ‘These small trees are cheaper and I have very little money.’

‘So,’ I said, ‘you do not expect to live to see the trees reach sufficient maturity to bear fruit?’”

“No, but is that important? All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant. Why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone? Besides the person who plants only to reap the harvest has no faith in life.”

How many pecans had I picked up, given away, and sold? How many had I roasted in the oven with honey and curry? I was able to do that because someone long before me on that piece of property in Georgia had planted the trees, and perhaps had not lived long enough to enjoy the fruit. It is not just so with pecans. We are always standing on others shoulders, benefiting from the labors of those who have gone before us. The important question for us today is not whether we will live long enough to see the results of our earnest endeavors, but whether or not we are planting trees to bear fruit for those who come after us.

The old pecan farmer understood what makes accomplishment possible—something Moses and Jesus also understood: the past is gone and the future is a mystery. All we really have is today.

In the churches I served in Juneau and Fairbanks, I was surprised to discover that much of the leadership came from Coast Guard, Army, and Air Force families, who were stationed there for two or three year assignments. What I observed was that often when a new military family arrived at the church, they would be ready to join and be put to work within just a couple of weeks. I asked one of them about it and this is what he said “If we waited around to get acquainted we would be on the down side of our tour before we got to work. We don’t have that luxury.” Truth is, none of us has that luxury. They understood what is true for all of us, whether we’ve been here fourteen weeks or fifty years. What we do with the “present” will determine what we accomplish within and beyond our lifetimes. That will be true for me as I return to Bend, as it will be true for you here at Chugiak.

With visiting preachers here for the next few weeks and another interim, you may be tempted to take it easy and simply coast until you receive your regularly appointed pastor in July, sort of like what we did when we had a substitute teacher in school. I hope you won’t do that; none of us has the luxury to waste the “presents” God gives us. In these next weeks, BE the Church God has called you to be: healing, teaching, nurturing, and reaching out. And if you are new, don’t wait. Jump right in and get to work. There is much to be accomplished.

I am honored to have been among you as we planted trees together, and I give thanks for you. Keep on planting!

[1] New York: Anchor Books, 1998. pp. 170 -171.

Friday, October 5, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:13, 21:12-17; Matthew 5:21-26

[The first of two sermons for this weekend]
As we have moved along through this extended reflection on the Ten Commandments we have mused about the significance of the order, or if there is any significance to the order at all. We have seen a kind of order emerge: first, a commandment about loyalty to this one God; second, a commandment about not trying to remake this God into our own image; third, a commandment about being very careful how we use the name of this God; fourth, a commandment about "ceasing work" so that we may rest and remember who this God is and who we are; and fifth, a commandment about the means by which the knowledge of this God is passed from one generation to the next -- honoring our heritage by passing it on to our children.

At least to me, there seems to be a progression there, all related to preserving our relationship to God. Does it seem that way to you? It also makes a certain sense to me that there are five for our relationship to God and five for our relationship with our neighbors. That makes it neat when you look at your two hands and ten fingers. We'll never know if that was what was originally intended in the order.

Whatever significance you attach to the ordering of the commandments, it seems clear that the final five are the fundamental pillars that govern all human relationships. I also believe that while the final five are the indispensable elements of any meaningful community life, that the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery head the list of five because murder and adultery are the greatest destroyers of individuals, families, and communities. This is at odds with the current values in our culture: our culture for the most part takes murder seriously but it tends to wink at adultery. We'll talk more about adultery next week.

We would probably not question the command not to murder being in the number one position of commandments having to do with human relationships. Of all the things we can do to each other, there is finality about murder that is different from the other four. Once a life has been taken it cannot be given back, no matter how great the sorrow, no matter how great the punishment. In that regard, murder is in a class by itself.

Having stated what we agree on about this commandment, stating what else we might agree on is more difficult. The stark simplicity of the command, "no murder," raises as many questions as answers. How are we to understand this commandment in issues that face us today: capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and abortion? When the people of Israel tried to understand what it meant for them to obey the commandments they didn't conclude that this commandment forbad capital punishment. As you heard from the reading from Exodus 21, the chapter following the one containing the Ten Commandments, you heard about those conditions under which another life could be taken. Premeditated murder, the striking of one's mother or father, kidnapping, and even cursing one's parents were all crimes punishable by death, as well as a whole host of others we didn't read. The people of ancient Israel didn't understand this commandment to forbid killing in wartime, and perhaps not in euthanasia or abortion.

Whether or not you agree with them, these harsh laws of capital punishment are offered in defense of human life, to preclude actions that would destroy community. If we've learned anything in our time it should be that "valuing human life" is not simple. The proponents of capital punishment, those who accept the sometime necessity of war, those who advocate some practice of euthanasia, and those who oppose abortion, all value human life. But of course, those who oppose capital punishment, those who are pacifists, those who oppose euthanasia, and those who are labeled "Pro Choice" in the matter of abortion, they too, value life.

Although our disagreements over these issues are deep and complex, our discussion of them is made more difficult by the tendency to demonize our opponents by saying that they do not value life. As we wrestle with the public policy implications of these issues, I wish we could acknowledge that both sides are represented by people trying to be faithful to the valuing of life implicit in the sixth commandment.

In the 20th century there may be no one who struggled with the questions of violence and valuing human life more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s, this brilliant scholar left the security of the United States to return to his own country where he became one of the leaders of German Christians who refused to accept Hitler's doctrines of National Socialism and even entered into an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested, kept in prison, and executed in April 1945, just before the Allies liberated the area where he was imprisoned.

Bonhoeffer's expertise as a theologian was in the area of Christian ethics ("Ethics" is the study of values and principles that guide one's actions). His "valuing of life" led him to the conclusion that killing Hitler would save many lives. In retrospect, that seems so obvious to most of us, doesn't it? So seriously did Bonhoeffer take the sixth commandment and all of the teachings of Jesus that he is said to have confessed to a friend, "I know that I may burn in hell for this action." I think Bonhoeffer was wrong about his fear, but I know he was right in his extreme reluctance to take a life, even in such a justifiable situation. If we followed his example we would be more reluctant to execute people on death row, more reluctant to make war, more reluctant to engage in "mercy killings," and more reluctant to have abortions. I didn't say that those things were never the right course of action. The sixth commandment and Bonhoeffer's example all warn that "valuing human life" requires that such acts be taken only with the greatest reluctance and with the knowledge that we have to answer to God for those actions.

"But what did Jesus say about murder?" you may be asking. If you are looking to Jesus to give you a legal code like that of the 613 rabbinic laws in the Old Testament, you will look in vain. Those who have taken his teachings in the New Testament and tried to make a new legal code of love have, in my opinion, misunderstood him. He did not remove the inherent ambiguity of this commandment. Out of respect for the commandments the people of ancient Israel attempted to work out a system of regulations, both written and oral, that could tell a person the "right" or "wrong" action in every situation. The result, however well meaning, was to establish a massive set of regulations that only religious professionals could hope to keep. The regulations became a way of categorizing people into "good" and "bad," "righteous people" and “sinners." A system designed for moral uprightness had become small-minded pettiness, a practice that Christians have all too often repeated.

That was the situation into which Jesus was born. His teaching about the Law is directed to the abusive system of rules and ordinances that had been institutionalized over the centuries rather than to the Ten Commandments themselves. In the passage we read this morning Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…" Jesus was not equating "anger" and "murder." It was a statement that physical violence was not the only way to hurt someone: "anger" can also do damage. Jesus' words were intended to show the limitations of the legal system erected to interpret the commandments. It is as if he were saying, "You think that the legal system has all the answers as to what constitutes violence to another person. I'm telling you that even verbal abuse is violence and makes you liable to God's judgment." Jesus was not giving a new law: he was saying that even adherence to their intricate system of law did not cover all the ways that they could hurt each other. In our culture where so much of our violence is "domestic violence," it is well to be reminded that God cares not only about physical abuse, but also about verbal abuse. We may not be legally accountable for verbal abuse, but we are accountable to God.

If Jesus were to talk today about expanding our understanding of violence, as he did in the first century, he might point to the ways God may hold us accountable for "murder" indirectly committed by government or corporate policy. Suppose, for example, an auto manufacturer knows from statistical projections that a defect in one of their cars will result in five additional fatalities in a year and that as a result of those five deaths the auto manufacturer will have to pay out $20 million in liability settlements. The manufacturer also knows that to have a recall and change the defects would cost $40 million. If the manufacturer knows this and doesn't make the change to save $20 million, is the manufacturer guilty of murder? If stockholders know this and continue to hold stock in the company are they also guilty of murder? At what point are death-causing government or corporate policies "statistically insignificant" and at what points do such policies constitute "murder?" In our high tech and interdependent world, actions that kill people can be very indirect, but just as deadly.

We should not take comfort in the fact that neither the commandments nor Jesus' teaching gives us clear answers for all the ethical dilemmas with which violence confronts us. While individuals and societies in each time and place must work out what the "valuing of human life" requires and restricts, Jesus insists that the absence of rules governing every situation does not exempt us from responsibility to God for our actions. God expects us to use our heads and our hearts.