Thursday, November 29, 2007


On Saturday, December 1, for the twentieth year, communities and congregations around the world will be pausing to reflect on the impact of HIV/AIDS. Statistics reveal the stark reality:
57 million people will have died from AIDS-related diseases in 2007; 68,000 are still being infected daily, of whom 12,000 are children under the age of 15 and about 29,000 are women 15 years and older.

I know the numbers are important, but this year my observance will be to remember faces, faces of people I knew, faces of people with the disease, as well as people who cared about them.

The disease is often identified with homosexuality, especially homosexual men, but even at the outset of the epidemic in 1981 health authorities learned that nearly half of those infected were not homosexual men. Fear of the disease and homophobia flowed together to create near panic in the first decade of the epidemic. In that hysteria I learned about what was then a unique church in Atlanta.

Someone asked me if I had heard about a United Methodist Church where gays were welcome. I hadn’t and was doubtful. My son and I visited this church near downtown which itself was the result of bringing together two small churches that had been casualties of urban decay in the area surrounding downtown.

What I discovered on my first Sunday at Grant Park-Aldersgate United Methodist Church was that half the congregation was over sixty-five, and as I would learn later "straight," as was their pastor, Sally Daniel. The other half of the congregation was made up of young and middle aged gay men and women. The church was not dying; it was thriving!

I asked Sally to lunch in part because I was curious about why she had chosen to commit “vocational suicide” by opening the church to gays and lesbians. She was a tall blond former ballet dancer who had come into the ordained ministry at mid-life. She told me that she hadn’t done anything special. Two years before, the Metropolitan Community Church in the city had been burned to the ground by arsonists. An appeal went out to the clergy of the city to show up at the site in solidarity with the people of the church. Only four clergy showed up. Sally was one of them. She told me that one of the members of the burned out church asked her if he could come to her church. She said, “’Unaccustomed to being asked if someone could attend the church where I was pastor,’ I said ‘Of course!’” That man came and was followed by many others.

Years later I learned that hadn’t been the beginning of her special ministry. When she was doing her pastoral care training at a local hospital as a student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, she found a young man dying of AIDS in one of the beds. The panic over the developing epidemic made even the medical personnel reluctant to be around him. He was dying alone. Against the warning of the floor supervisor, Sally entered the room, sat beside his bed for hours holding his hand, mopping his brow, and leaning close to his ear telling him that he was loved. She refused to leave until the young man had taken his last breath.

On our third visit to Grant Park-Aldersgate, my son and I sat a few rows back from a young man whose appearance you couldn't miss. His head, face, and hands were covered with lesions, or sores. "Horrible" was not too strong a word to describe his appearance. The young man had AIDS, and not too long to live.

After the sermon, he was called down to the front where the pastor baptized him and received him into the membership of that church. Then, as she always did when new people were received into membership, she invited the congregation to come forward to give this new member "a real Grant Park-Aldersgate welcome." I was transfixed as I watched the entire congregation of about 50 or 60 get up out of their seats and go down the aisle. Older people, young people, middle-aged people, one by one, took this young dying man into their arms and hugged him. No handshakes, just hugs and warm embraces. And, it was almost as if I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, "Pay attention, Milo, this is what the church is supposed to be." When this man died a few weeks later, he died knowing that there was a place and a community of people who loved him, who didn't treat him like a leper, who weren't afraid of his disease, who didn't condemn him because he was gay, and who treated him as the precious child of God he was. After that experience I could never be the same again.

Sally died in 2006 at the age of 75. On Saturday I will be remembering and giving thanks for her.

Not long after my experience at Grant Park-Aldersgate, in 1992 I became pastor of a church in Juneau, Alaska. The church had half the name of Sally’s church. I took that as a good omen. Aldersgate was a five year old United Methodist Church the majority of who’s sixty or so members didn’t have previous experience in any church. Linda was a member of the congregation.

Linda was sick with the flu and felt terrible, but she was on the plane coming home to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle. Her husband and their six and nine year old girls were waiting for her. It’s bad enough having to fly when you feel that bad, but to fly “the local” – making stops in Ketchikan and Sitka before landing in Juneau – might be regarded as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Besides that the plane was full and the only seat she could get was a middle seat between two men. They introduced themselves as Jim and Tom. Somewhere along the way, somewhere between stops, somewhere between bouts of nausea, Linda learned that both Jim and Tom were HIV positive; they both had AIDS. She told them about her church in Juneau and asked them about theirs. They didn’t have one. Jim had never been in church. Although Tom was raised in a Christian family, he felt that his family disowned him when he contracted AIDS.

Linda always invited people to church, and she invited Jim and Tom. They lived ten miles from the Mendenhall Valley where the church was and where Linda and her family lived. Jim and Tom didn’t have a car. Never mind! Linda and her husband Steve went into town to pick them up – Sunday after Sunday. In the small congregation Jim and Tom were welcomed. They shared freely about their medical condition. Within a couple of weeks, they asked to be baptized and to become members of the church. And they were. Transported by Linda and Steve, they came to worship regularly.

Within a year Jim died, and in another six months Tom was dead. As both of them said many times, in this congregation they felt they had “come home.” We believed that they had – all because a woman sick on an airplane didn’t hesitate to reach out to them. The members of the congregation also welcomed them. None of them had had any experience with persons with AIDS, but they wrapped their arms around Jim and Tom in such a way that the word got out into the AIDS community and the church found itself in ministry to others with the disease. They learned that this was a place and people where they would be welcome.

On Saturday I will be giving thanks for Linda, Jim, Tom, and the Aldersgate congregation.

Another member of the congregation—Gay was in her 80s—told us about her neighbor, a young man with AIDS. She asked him if he would like a visit from her pastor. He said he would and one afternoon Connie and I went to see him. He looked up at us from his bed and said, “I have AIDS. I want you to help me learn to pray and how to die.” We visited with John regularly and when he felt up to it he had someone bring him to the church where he would sit in the sanctuary by himself meditating. He told us he wished he had started this process earlier in life. He was all of twenty-five. He never joined the church. That wasn’t important to him or us. He had learned to pray and was ready to die.

We had his funeral at Aldersgate. Since he had never attended a service there, except for his neighbor, the people in the church didn’t know him. Four elderly women from the congregation prepared a lavish reception with all kinds of salmon spreads, cookies, cakes, and coffee. The friends of John who came to the funeral were about twenty scruffy looking bikers. They joked about never having been in a church before. Others might have been intimidated, but not these four seniors. Before the afternoon was over they had charmed the guests with their food and hospitality. The young men didn’t want to leave.

On Saturday I will be remembering John, Vi, Vickie, Mae, and Gay.

"An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.

'Could it be,' asked one of the students, 'when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it's a sheep or a dog?'

'No,' answered the rabbi.

Another asked, 'Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it's a fig or a peach tree?'

'No,' answered the rabbi.

'Then when is it?' the pupils demanded.

'It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.'"

Saturday, November 24, 2007


No Christmas season is complete without psychologists and therapists of various sorts hitting the airwaves to give advice about coping with the "holiday depression syndrome" (HDS). Unfortunately, the "season of joy" becomes for many a season of sadness and depression.

I have no quarrel with what I usually hear on these programs, but it seems to me that there are some important contributing factors to HDS that the holiday experts seem to ignore. Those factors are all related to our cultural images of the "good Christmas" that begin to rain down on us like an artillery barrage just about the time we are carving scary faces on pumpkins. What does this have to do with HDS? A lot! I suggest that there are several good reasons for holiday depression:

First, if you are going to be alone, you must confront daily reminders from ads and programs that celebrating Christmas is for family and friends. You don't measure up to this society's standard for "a good Christmas." Being lonely is bad anytime, but being constantly reminded of your situation is worse. This may be a good reason to be depressed.

Second, even if you are going to be with family and friends, you have to contend with the images of "happy family and friends." What many of us know is that when our family gets together there are tensions. We know that when Aunt Minerva and Dad get together there will be hostility. If we measure ourselves by the "happy family" images, of course, we come up short and feel guilty. "Why can't my family be like that?" we wonder. This may be a good reason for depression.

Third, if you want to observe Christmas as a holy season, you realize that all around you the center of attention is the advent of Santa Claus, not the birth of a baby two thousand years ago. It's more than Santa Claus. Our most sacred symbols and images are exploited to get us to buy. Advertising's behavior modification specialists have taught those who sell that playing "Joy to the World" in the mall in November and December will bring joy to the producers and sellers, and that "Silent Night, Holy Night" will do it even better. Even though we know better, we are seduced by the manipulation year after year. And that makes us feel used, and a little dirty. This may be a good reason for depression.

Fourth, if you happen to be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or profess no religious faith, you may well feel under a religio-cultural attack during the month of December. Three quarters of the annual advertising dollar is spent in the last quarter of the year. Christian religious songs and symbols are the “weapons” used in this “campaign.” Under such pressure, your children may be asking why you can’t celebrate Christmas like everybody else. This may be a good reason for depression.

Fifth, if you can't afford to spend money at Christmas, you're in trouble. Although we are told that Jesus' coming was "good news to the poor," the way we celebrate his coming in this society could hardly be so described. As a friend of mine once wrote, "No, Virginia, Santa doesn't come to the ghetto." If you have some money you may feel pressured to spend a lot more than you can afford. Sometimes it is only when you see all of the stuff under the tree that you realize just how far you have gone into debt to provide a "good Christmas." If Christmas morning doesn't do it, the arrival of the bills in January will. This may be another good reason for depression.

Sixth, finally, even if you have money, and can buy whatever you want, joy at Christmas does not automatically follow. We fall prey to advertising's insidious suggestions that buying things brings happiness. And we are disappointed when they don't. Once the packages are all opened on Christmas Day, instead of joy there is often a void. But our culture has an answer for that, too. We are programmed to think: "If I had just bought that bigger and better model..." This may be another good reason for holiday depression.

Seventh, if you are a woman, and if as is often the pattern in our society, you bear the responsibility for preparing for Christmas at home -- cleaning the house; buying, wrapping, mailing the gifts; preparing a Christmas dinner for family and friends, all on top of your other responsibilities -- you may express those oft heard sentiments, "I'll just be glad when it is over." That may be another good reason for holiday depression.

All in all, there are many good reasons to be depressed at Christmas time. I suggest that the Holiday Depression Syndrome is like the red warning light in our car: it comes on to let us know that something is wrong. The problem with many of the HDS advice programs is their common assumption that the problem is inside our heads, that there is something wrong with us to make us depressed during the holidays. I am sure that there is some truth in that. I am just as sure that HDS is also caused by a sickness in our society. Our spirits are smothered under an avalanche of expectations that have little to do with the real world, or the real sources of joy and fulfillment.

With the holiday season now upon us, I suggest that if folks begin to get a little sad and depressed, they might consider that the screw that's loose might not be in their heads, but in our society. If it is true that much of depression is a cover for unexpressed anger, I suggest they might even consider getting mad and that they begin with those who attempt to manipulate their emotions and exploit Christmas for profit. I suggest that they save some of that anger for churches and religious leaders that have not helped them recognize the commercialized Christmas scam for what it is. Instead of turning their anger inside so that it becomes depression, I suggest that they direct it where it should go.

I’m not big on sloganeering about the “commercialization of Christmas.” We cannot be held responsible for what our culture does around Christmas, and I, for one, give thanks that the religious community does not have the authority to enforce the kind of “blue laws” that were enforced around Christmas in Puritan England and New England. What we are accountable for is for the way we celebrate in our households and in the household of faith. In both of those places, we can change the way we celebrate Christmas.

This is the time to remind ourselves that we don't have to measure ourselves by our culture's unreal Christmas expectations. You may not be able to change the culture, but you have a lot to do with how Christmas is observed in your household and in your heart. Look again at the seven causes of HDS and see which of those expectations you can change this year. Then, perhaps, just before you go to sleep on Christmas Eve, you will hear the voice of the angel from long ago saying, "Do not be afraid [or depressed]; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…" That "you" also means you! Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 16, 2007


So you’ve bought your turkey, the cranberries, and pumpkin pie filling. The guests have already been invited. You’re almost ready for Thanksgiving.

Or, are you?

Harvest festivals have been part of human history since the beginning of agriculture. With harvesting completed and food stored away for the winter months, those early tillers of the soil celebrated the results of their labor. They also recognized their dependence on elements and forces beyond their efforts that made harvest possible.

Jews celebrated harvest thanksgivings in several periods throughout the year. In medieval times many Europeans observed the Feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 11, and in England "Harvest Home" celebrations began in the sixteenth century. Today, we no longer call these "Harvest Home" celebrations, but "Thanksgiving." Thanksgiving Day is observed on the second Monday of October in Canada, while in the United States it is on the fourth Thursday of November.

At Thanksgiving, we sing hymns like "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come"

"Come, ye thankful people, raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin."

Let's face it, at this time of the year here on the high desert in central Oregon, let alone Alaska, it is a little difficult to enter into the spirit of an agricultural "harvest" festival. Here, the harvest was gathered in September and October. And, if the truth be told, the celebration of a "harvest festival" at the end of November is late, even for Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Actually, the "first" Thanksgiving in America is subject to debate. Some Native American tribes had been having harvest thanksgiving festivals for centuries, as had the Europeans who came to these shores. Perhaps the first observance of the latter was entirely religious and involved neither harvest nor feasting. On December 4, 1619, 39 English settlers arrived at the mouth of the James River in Virginia. Their charter required that their arrival date be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God. Their thanksgiving was not for bounty, but for the fact that they had survived. That was reason enough for an annual observance of thanksgiving.

Most people, however, associate the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims who arrived a year later on November 11, 1620. Escaping religious persecution in Europe, these colonists attempted to reach the Virginia colony. Their sixty-seven day voyage ended instead several hundred miles north on Cape Cod -- in what is now Massachusetts. At a recently vacated Indian settlement, they discovered corn set aside for spring planting. Already on a starvation diet, they were more concerned about their immediate need for food than for anyone's future crop, so they took ten bushels of the Indian's seed corn in order to survive the winter.

In the summer of 1621, less than a year after their arrival and after a terrible winter when half of the colonists died, hope was renewed by a good corn crop. Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag nation who had previously visited England and knew how to speak English, helped the colonists during their first winter and spring, showing them how to prepare the fields and plant corn. He was also the Pilgrims' go-between with other tribes, helping arrange the pact that allowed the Pilgrims and Indians to live in peace.

The first corn harvest brought rejoicing, and Governor William Bradford decreed that a three-day feast be held. Chief Massasoit was invited to share the celebration, and share he did. Ninety members of the tribe came with him -- probably to celebrate their traditional harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn't have enough food for three days of feasting with such numbers, so the Indians went out and brought back most of what they ate at the feast: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries.
[3] Sweet strong wine from wild grapes supplemented the feast.

The feast lasted for days, with little attention to religious services. Some believe that the Pilgrims chose to keep their harvest festival secular because they disapproved of mingling religious and secular celebrations. It seems to have been a one-time occasion, with no thought to future celebrations. Although not a religious observance, the Pilgrims celebrated their surviving that first disastrous year and the bounty of the land they had discovered. It was also a celebration with the people who had made their survival possible. It was a grateful acknowledgement of the way their life, indeed survival, was dependent on the Native Americans.

Serious questions have been raised about the nature and purpose of Thanksgiving Day observances in the subsequent one hundred years. William B. Newell, a Penobscott Indian and former chair of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, says that the first "official" Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 -- fifteen years after the Pilgrims' celebration at Plymouth. The purpose of this celebration, says professor Newell, was to celebrate the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children at their annual Green Corn Dance (their Thanksgiving) in the previous year.
[4] The murder of a white trader and Indian-kidnapper had been the excuse for the Puritans to make war on the Pequots.[5] After that there were massacres on both sides. For the next hundred years, says Newell, "every Thanksgiving day ordained by a governor of Massachusetts was to honor a bloody victory thanking God for the battle won."

One hundred and fifty years later on November 26, 1787, President George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of thanks, but for many years afterward there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Thanksgiving did not become an annual observance until 1863, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when President Lincoln proclaimed it an annual national observance.

If celebrations give voice to the values and ideals by which we are trying to live, perhaps -- in view of the history of the way Thanksgiving has been observed -- it may be easier to first think of how we ought not observe it.

First, let it not be a day for thanking God for our affluence while others go hungry. The notion that it is God who gives affluence to some and poverty to many not only ignores the role that humans have played in arranging patterns of affluence and poverty, but flies in the face of the Biblical God of love and justice.

Second, let Thanksgiving not be a time to claim God's special blessing on any nation. As a persecuted minority religious group in Europe, the Pilgrims knew only too well the problems that occur when the interests of God and nation are identified by a dominant religious group. It was a lesson they themselves forgot as they became the dominant religious group in New England, and it was the Native Americans who suffered.

Third, let Thanksgiving not be an occasion to romanticize the cooperation between the Indians and the settlers, unless to recall as well—and in sorrow—the subsequent centuries' genocide of Native Americans.

Fourth, let Thanksgiving not merely be a day of rest and football before the two largest shopping days of the year, when giving thanks is swept out the back door so we can "shop till we drop."

If we want Thanksgiving as a day that gives voice to our values and our highest ideals, how might we observe it?

First, let Thanksgiving be a day to remember with gratitude and humility that we alone are not responsible for whatever bounty is in our lives. Let us not forget to be grateful.

Second, let Thanksgiving be a day to acknowledge that part of our bounty has come at the expense of others, including Native Americans, slaves, farm workers, family members and hosts of others we do not even know. We might even try to consider how illegal immigrants contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner—on the turkey farms, in the processing plants, in the harvesting of the vegetables,…you get the idea—and give thanks.

Third, let Thanksgiving be a day when we share what we have with others, and include in our celebrations those who might otherwise be alone.

Finally, let Thanksgiving be a day when we anticipate a world like that hoped for in 1621 when Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down at table together, a world where hungry children are fed; the homeless have homes; and those who suffer from discrimination because of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or age are respected; and where we live peacefully with those who hold different opinions about important matters.

If this can be what we celebrate, then we will recapture the all-too-short-lived spirit of that Thanksgiving in 1621. Happy Thanksgiving!

[1]"Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," Words: Henry Alford, 1844; George J. Elvey, 1858. The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, P. 694.

[2] Larsen, Charles M., "The Real Thanksgiving," the letter of Edward Winslow dated 1622, pp. 5-6. (The Center For World Indigenous Studies Project, c/o The Fourth World Documentation Project, P.O. Box 2574, Olympia, Washington USA 98507-2574)

[3] Ibid.

[4]Akwesasne Notes, Mohawk Nation. Vol.12 - August 1980, p. 3.

[5]Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980. p. 14.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007



The good people at Chugiak United Methodist Church, just outside Anchorage, endured a ten-part sermon series on the Ten Commandments that began on September 2nd. Well, they didn’t have to endure them all because I had to leave when I was only half finished, I agreed to write and post the last five as I might have delivered them had I been there. Now that I’ve done that I probably ought to leave well enough alone. But I did the series without once mentioning the great “Ten Commandments Controversy.”

Unless you have been living on another planet over these past ten years, you know what I’m talking about. The controversy has not been about our failure to observe the commandments, nor has it even been about our making a key cultural and economic value out of violating the last one, the one about coveting. No, the controversy hasn’t been about any of that; it’s been about whether plaques of the Ten Commandments should be hung on the walls of courthouses and in public schools.

This is a matter about which people of good faith can and do disagree. There can be little doubt that the Ten Commandments played an important formative role in the history of western civilization. Some folks say that the Ten Commandments should be posted in public buildings because this nation was founded on “Christian principles.” Others have argued that the practice would violate the separation of church and state. Still others have argued that it wouldn’t violate that principle because as State Senator John Andrews of Colorado said, “the commandments are not religious, but educational and civic.”

You remember the saga of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, don’t you? Back in 2003 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ordered Moore to remove his two and a half ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments removed from the courthouse. He refused. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary then removed Judge Moore from the Bench. Moore ran for governor in the 2006 but was defeated in the primary. Professor Marcia Hamilton is an internationally recognized on constitutional law and frequently advises Congress and state legislatures on the constitutionality of pending legislation. She clerked for Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Hamilton wrote that Moore was not a fit justice, wouldn’t be a fit governor, and belonged in the private sphere. Check out her article on “Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments” at

Alabama hasn’t been the only state where there have been attempts to put the Ten Commandments in public places. Kansas, Kentucky, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and I’m sure others. When a bill was put forward in the Colorado legislature to put the commandments in the public schools, the faculty members of United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver protested. They argued that the posting of the Ten Commandments was a violation of the separation of church and state. They offered eight reasons why the commandments should not be posted.

1. The commandments make numerous references to God.

2. The commandments are part of a covenant God makes with a particular people.

3. There are two different versions of the commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), so who would decide which would be posted?

4. Jews and Christians don’t agree on what counts as the first commandment, so who decides?

5. The commandment to observe the Sabbath causes confusion for Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians.

6. Posting the Ten Commandments without reference to all of the 613 rabbinic laws is an insult to Jews.

7. Most commandments are stated without explanation; would explanation be provided, and who would provide it?

8. The consequences of violating the commandments (frequently death) are given elsewhere in the Bible. How will teachers answer questions about consequences?

On “Judaism 101,” a website designed to answer basic questions about the Jewish faith, the “Ten Commandments Controversy” is addressed. Agreeing with the reasons put forward by the faculty at Iliff, “These may seem like trivial differences to some, but they are serious issues to those of us who take these words seriously. When a government agency chooses one version over another, it implicitly chooses one religion over another, something that the First Amendment prohibits. This is the heart of the controversy.”

It goes on to add, “But there is an additional aspect of this controversy that is of concern from a Jewish perspective. In Talmudic times, the rabbis consciously made a decision to exclude daily recitation of the Aseret ha-Dibrot from the liturgy because excessive emphasis on these statements might lead people to mistakenly believe that these were the only mitzvot (commandments) or the most important mitzvot, and neglect the other 603
(Talmud Berakhot 12a). By posting these words prominently and referring to them as "The Ten Commandments," (as if there weren't any others, which is what many people think) schools and public buildings may be teaching a message that Judaism specifically and consciously rejected.” Check out this site at

While the concerns expressed by Marcia Hamilton, the Iliff faculty, and the Judaism 101 website might surprise some Christians, I don't think they would have surprised Thomas Jefferson who drafted our Declaration of Independence. As suspicious as he was of the unchecked power of government, and he was, Jefferson was even more suspicious of the power of unchecked religion to coerce others. He knew well the history of the intolerance of churches that were “established” or identified with the state in Europe and he feared for what might happen in America. He wanted a high “wall of separation” between church and state so that neither infringed on the responsibilities of the other. In 1817 when Congress passed the Elementary School Act, Jefferson insisted on this provision: "No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination." I think we can guess where he would have stood in this controversy.

However important the Ten Commandments are to Jews and Christians, the posting of them on the walls of public schools or courtrooms seems to me not only a violation of church and state, but also a misuse of God's name. Don't misunderstand me! I think it is important that Christians know the Ten Commandments. The commandments should be taught in churches and synagogues and by believing parents in their homes. We should not, however, want the state in the business of teaching them. More important, it seems to me that the very best way we can commend the commandments to others is by obeying them ourselves.

I would like to know what you think.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:17; Micah 2:1-2; Matthew 6:25-34

Since September 2nd we have been on a journey exploring the Ten Commandments. From my conversations with you, my mail and my email, I know that some of you have at least been thinking about the commandments. Several of you gave me copies of an ad for a wall hanging under the title, “Country Commandments,” with these as the ten: “There is only one God, No False Gods, No Cuss’n, Gather on Sunday, Mind your Ma and Pa, No Kill’n, Cheatin’ is forbidden, Ya’ll Don’t Steal, No white lies or gossip’n, and No hankerin’ for others stuff.”

One of you gave me a cartoon in which a child says to the Sunday School teacher, “My Mom says the Ten Commandments are ‘settle down, stop that, wash your hands, be quiet, go to sleep, eat your vegetables, drink your milk, sit up straight, pick up your room and listen to your mother and father.”

Today, we have come to the Tenth Commandment -- "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exodus 20:17) According to the dictionary, the word "to covet" means "to desire eagerly, especially something that belongs to someone else." There was an expression common when I was growing up in Texas that seems to have the sense of what it means to covet: "I wish I had [something that belongs to you], and that you had a wart on your nose." That expression was probably limited to West Texas.

We need to be clear: there is nothing wrong with the act of "coveting" itself. The term is used in a positive sense in the expression, "I covet your prayers," which means, "I eagerly desire your prayers." So what does this commandment actually prohibit? One of the most respected Biblical scholars in the world, Walter Brueggemann, on whom we have depended at several points in this series, says that the text knows that humans are driven by desire and that the commandment itself does not regard desire in and of itself as good or bad. Whether the desire is good or bad depends on its object and how “eager” is our desire for it. The prohibition in this commandment, says Brueggemann, is the neighbor’s "house," which in a patriarchal society included the wife, slaves, and working animals. The commandment expects that within the community of faith ”the drive of desire will be displaced by the honoring of the neighbor, by the sharing of goods, and by the acceptance of one’s goods as adequate.”
[1] This commandment is not focused on general envy but on a kind of acquisitiveness that disrupts the lives of others.

When the prophet Micah interprets this commandment, he focuses on its implications for “the development of large estates at the expense of vulnerable neighbors.”
[2] Read again his words: "Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance." (Micah 2:1-2) Just as Jesus' comments on the commandment on adultery -- "whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart" -- were addressed to men who had the power to take women for their pleasure without regard to their wishes, so the tenth commandment seems especially addressed to the "eager desires" of those who have it within their power to take vulnerable people's property.

So then, for example, what does this commandment say about "hostile takeovers" in the corporate world? There may be no other point where the Ten Commandments are more in tension with the operative values of our society than with this tenth commandment. We live in a consumer society where consumption is based not on need but on the need to consume. The purpose of advertising is less to inform about products than to generate "eager desire" for new products, whether we need them or not. While few of us do not want the newest products -- whether food, cars or computers -- we know that they come at a high price, not just to us but also to the rest of the world. While citizens of the United States make up only 6% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s energy. While, of the nations of the world, we have some of the most stringent laws to protect the environment, our rate of production and consumption make us the largest producers of waste and garbage in the world. There is a popular assumption in our society that we should be able to have these products, no matter the consequences to other people or the environment. Or, as James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communications at Rutgers University, has put it, "If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people.".

This ideology – and it is an “ideology” -- has its own history in our society. Other societies have their own ideologies. At this point I am not interested in comparison but simply to understand how we got the one we have and its implications for us today. In 1776, the year the Thirteen Colonies declared independence from Great Britain, a Scottish economist and philosopher published a book that became the classic statement advocating free market economics. Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his book, The Wealth of Nations, argued that market forces should be allowed to operate without interference. Smith said that the well being of all would be best served as everyone pursued their own self-interests. The market forces were guided, he said, by an "invisible hand." Smith's "invisible hand" was not a theistic notion, but simply a mechanism of the market. Smith's conclusion was that each person should pursue their own self-interest, regardless of how those interests affected others, because in the end the well being of all would be best served.

That the well-being of all was best served by everybody pursuing their own self-interests without restraint proved to be wishful thinking. Another rationale was added to justify the unrestrained pursuit of one's self-interest. In the nineteenth century Adam Smith's ideas were merged with those of the "Social Darwinists." "Social Darwinism" held that society evolved on Charles Darwin's biological model -- an inference, by the way, not at all shared by Darwin himself. Social Darwinists explained economic inequalities among people as natural and inevitable by the law of the "survival of the fittest." The result was a popular ideology, which held that persons should pursue their own self-interests no matter the cost to other people. One of its main advocates in the United States, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), said that such a system resulted in the "beneficent elimination of the ill-adapted." That is, no tears should be shed for those who were vulnerable and hurt by others pursuit of their self-interests. The world was better off without such "weaklings."

Today, not many economists or industry leaders would advocate "the unrestrained pursuit of self interest" as the best economic or social policy. Even among the most ardent supporters of a free market economy, some restraints are seen as necessary. The tenth commandment is a warning against the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest, whether at the level of corporate or government policy, or in how we use our resources as individuals and families. Just because you want something that belongs to someone else doesn't mean that you have the right to get it.

The positive intent of this commandment may well be what we learned as Jesus’ “Golden Rule:” “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) While there is nothing wrong with pursuing our own self interests, when those pursuits impinge on others, people of faith will not do anything to others that they wouldn’t want done to themselves. That sets the bar pretty high, doesn’t it?

The commandment not to covet may be the last of the Ten, not because it is least important, but because "eagerly desiring what belongs to others" may be the primary path that leads to the violation of the other nine.

This brings us to perhaps the most critical questions of this series. Do the Ten Commandments require so much that we can’t possibly hope to live by them? Or, are they the necessary boundaries for the full and meaningful lives we have been created to live? In every age obeying the commandments has meant living out of step with the values and practices of the prevailing culture. It is no different today. If we believe the commandments really are God’s expectations of us, we will do our best to obey them, won’t we?

In his book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill writes that the commandments are written not for the past nor for the future, but for the present. Listen to his words: "… this gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now. What I have done in the past is past mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth the candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in this moment -- and only in this moment -- I am in control."
[3] We can decide that in this day we will obey the commandments. Recovering addicts of all kinds have learned that the only way to recovery is "one day at a time."

Perhaps our prayer today should be in the words of Marijohn Wilkin who wrote a country gospel song with that title. "Yesterday's gone sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine. Lord help me today, show me the way" [to obey the commandments], "one day at a time."

[1] Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 849.
[2] Ibid. p. 852.
[3] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Nan A. Talese / Anchor Books Doubleday, 1998) p.146.