Sunday, May 11, 2014

Looking at the Ten

Looking at the Ten
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 11, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 5: 4-21

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

While the people were below making the golden calf, God and Moses were making covenant on the mountain. This covenant would be sealed in law. . . we know it as the Ten Commandments. . . this taken from the second place these ten are found in the Bible. . . Deuteronomy 5: 4-21

4 The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5 (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.
8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
17 You shall not murder.
18 Neither shall you commit adultery.
19 Neither shall you steal.
20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Where do you start when you are looking at the 10 commandments. They are such a framework, such a foundation for all of how we look at the world around us. In them is the basis for most of what we think of when we think about right and wrong, justice, righteousness. We memorize them when we are kids. We put them up in our courtrooms. Many churches have them displayed in their sanctuaries. If you ever visit Jamestown Settlement, there in the restoration of the first church in America, you will find such an example. There in big letters on either side of the cross, dominating the visual from the pews, you'll see these ten familiar rules, standards for living life, given to Moses directly from the mouth of God on the mountain, a perfect example of divine revelation. The Old Testament covenants, to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob, have all been building towards this moment, where God is giving standards for living, ways to live once the Israelites have been given the land, a roadmap to sustainability under God's almighty hand. I wonder, would we have come up with them on our own? Would these be our list? If we were planning a new society to create, is this the list we would go with? Let's take a look. . .  and we'll skip over the ones about God for now to come back to them later.
So we'll start today on Mother's day with Honor your father and your Mother. . . certainly a good rule, a good standard. . . it would be good for stability, good for the compassion of a society. There are really two main parts where this is important, I think. . . One is for children for sure. . . it is important to honor and respect your parents. . . listening to them. . . learning from them. . . doing what they say. Parents are seeking to mold and shape their kids, they have their best interests are heart. . . honor is important there. And then later when the roles reverse to some extent. . . when the child has become the adult, become the solid one, it would be important to care for, to extend the honor, there are always still lessons to be learned and love to give to a parent. I get this one. . . but top 10? Would we have put it as this important, crucial? Is it this foundational? Isn't it natural to some extent to love and honor  your parents? Wouldn't we do so without the rule?  I don't know that we would have included this on the list? So I think it's extra special that it is here included. . . extra important. . . .There must be more to it than simply the practical, and the natural reason, the text says, Honor them that you may live long in the land. . . it matters that much. . . it is connected directly to remaining in the land. Why so important? Stop and think for a minute, stop to think about what some of those reasons might be, for it to be that important. . . why is it in the top 10 to honor your mother and father?
The next ones all seem to be pretty important for preventing discord. No murder, that's certainly pretty standard. . . No committing adultery. . . that certainly keeps things from getting out of hand. . . it prevents a lot problems for sure, marital problems, paternity problems, lots of problems. . . and then stealing. . . yes property is important, what you've earned, what you've made, what you own. . . it is important for people to maintain their property. . . . bearing false witness. . . lying. . . yeah what we say is important. . . that it is truthful. . . that we don't lead people down the wrong paths with our words. All of these are important and pretty standard. . . they are human laws that you find in almost every culture. These four seem to be the basis for so much of it, and maybe people could point to the breakdown of these four in a culture, in a country to see decline. . . society breaking at the seams when these four aren't central. . . . all four of them?  What do you think? Would you leave any of them off  your list? Any exceptions?  It's worth thinking about because some are up for debate in this day in age, for better or worse.
The last one or two is interesting in that it is about your own mindset. . . not any action per say but thinking about, obsessing about, and desiring, coveting. You shouldn't desire your neighbor's wife and your neighbor's stuff. . . anything that they have. So you get an idea here that there is more than just acting here that is at stake. . . marriage is important and property is important. . . and respecting what someone else has is paramount to living rightly. . . so yeah envy and jealousy are out, but how do you regulate this? How do you ever know? How do you measure it? How do you know that someone is or isn't coveting? It's a hard one? How much coveting is acceptable? Think about that in a courtroom. You start getting into gray area when you are talking about things that are going on in the privacy of someone's mind. How do we have a law we can't regulate? When I think about the gray area, I can't help thinking about an old Saturday Night Live skit, where they had Bill Clinton as Moses, and he was negotiating with God about this commandment. . . He was like, "now what if she lives four houses down the street, is she not my neighbor then. . . what about five. . . come on now God. . . five is barely even in my neighborhood." Are there any other sins of the mind you'd include in  your list? Or would you leave this one off too because it's too hard, too impossible to regulate?
What is missing here in this list? If we are going to look at actions. . . there are a bunch of actions that maybe should have made the list. . . or if we are going into the mind. . . I know a ton of thoughts that should have been brought up. The Bible must have thought so too because there are over 200 other rules, other much more specific laws that get much more detailed. There are tons, everything from how to properly sacrifice to God, to things like what happens when your cow gets loose and runs rough shod all over your neighbor's stuff. . . ruining his fence. . . ruining his house. . . trampling his cow. . . trampling his child. . . it's all covered, but why should we give special prominence to these Ten. . . that they are placed in our law courts, that they are foundational to the way we see our laws. That we would fight to have them stay up there, that others would fight to have them removed. Why are these Ten so important? I'm not sure they would be if it weren't for the first four. . . the four we skipped. . . because these the first four put the others in perspective. I had a student one time tell me that it should all be about the Ten Commandments. . . . that those perfectly define morality. . . he said you know. . . not killing. . . not lying. . . not stealing. . . all cultures all religions, we can all agree on the Ten Commandments. . . it's all about being a good person after all. . .  now I know he doesn't believe in God. . . so I was like what about the other four. . . the first four. . . how do you jibe with them? They are very specific to a specific God, who did specific acts in History? They are specifically tied to the Exodus, to having brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
They are pretty explicit, too. . . no other Gods, period. . . no idols, don't make them, don't worship. . . no misusing the name, don't say it, don't swear by it, don't act like you own it. . . and remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, all of this within the framing context of remembering what God has done. . . that God is responsible for pulling them out of slavery. . . that God is responsible for all  of it. . . . and who God is, that God is God, creator of the heavens and the Earth, almighty and all powerful, and that there just is no other. From a practical point of view, if it were just about morality, if it were just about behavior we could leave these off of the list. . . but it isn't. When it comes down to it the Ten Commandments are about God. They are about covenant, and agreement between the Israelites and God for how they are to live in the land, and they come down to us, extrapolated out from that specific historical context,  to fit into the way we should live. . . not just about behavior, what not to do, but properly ordered behavior, not a list but values.  
The first thing that we do is not about doing at all, it is about believing, and knowing God. . . everything else flows from that. "I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt" so don't have any other Gods. You were in slavery, now I will teach you how to remain free. Here are the things that are important. When you look at it that way, the Ten Commandments become more about what is to be valued in life. God, one God, no others, no false ones, none that you make, rest. . . commemorative rest. . . rest in the way that God did, you need it, it is part of the rhythm of life according to the way God made us, but it is also about remembering, remembering the way God does things, that God created the world. . . remember it. . . honor your parents. . . notice the funnel of remembering where you came from. . . God. . . to parents. . . now to  you. . . respect life. . .honor it, it is special don't destroy it. . . in the same way respect each other. . . there is a proper way to engage with each other in making new life. . . it is special. . . a gift. . . cherish it as such and be respectful. . . property is important. . . what you make. . . what you build. . . you own it. . . no one should take it. . . give of yourself. . . respecting others, and what they made. . . respect the truth. . . the truth is something so precious. . . easily manipulated. . .as easy as talking. . . respect the truth. . .and be content with yourself. . . respect yourself, and what you have. When you look at these values and the order becomes important. . .there seems to be a real development from God through respect of others, to finally respect for yourself. . . contentedness stems from this pattern of life. . . contentedness, and life will flourish in the land. . . so simple. . . so easy on paper. . . but life shows just how hard it is.
Because we can convince ourselves that it doesn't matter, that God isn't real, that these aren't the standards, and it falls apart. . . that we have our own standards. . . and they are higher. . .but they aren't, and it falls apart. Jesus shows us that we can put it back together in faith and love, and it all starts again with God.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 5:4-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.