This sermon was preached on June 29, 2014 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was the 10 Commandments. You can listen to it, and read it, below.
Well, we are working our way through the 10 Commandments this summer, and this is week 3. Sarah set the stage for us 2 weeks ago, with the reminder that these commandments are not things that we have to do to secure God’s love and grace and acceptance. God doesn’t wait around until we have followed all of the 10 Commandments before God establishes a relationship with us – God acts first.
Last week, we talked about how the 10 Commandments aren’t actually for our benefit…they’re not things that we do so that our lives can be better…or so that we become better, or even perfect, people. But rather, the 10 Commandments are, in the end, for our neighbors. They are things that we can do, or not do, to help our neighbors have their best lives now.
We talked about how the commandments from the First Tablet, those which seem to be more focused on our vertical relationship with God, are also commandments that, when followed, allow our neighbors to have their best lives, and allow us to better share God’s love with the world.
And today…we look at the Second Tablet…the commandments that have traditionally been known as the ones that focus on our horizontal relationships – those relationships with our family and neighbors.
As I was thinking about these commandments this week, it struck me how four out of the five are framed negatively…Do not, Do not, Do not, Do not…
I don’t know how you all respond to being told to NOT do something…but I know that making pronouncements to Caleb, our 2.5 year old, that begin with “Do not…” doesn’t always turn out the way I had hoped. As Caleb grows up and continues to find ways to assert his independence, it is often the case that Sarah or I will tell Caleb to NOT do something…and then he gives us that look.
I’m sure you all know that look.
It’s the look that says, “Oh…you don’t want me to do something? Huh. That’s interesting. Well….watch….this!”
And then he does what we asked him not to do.
Now, I’m not saying that when I stand up here and say “Do not steal…” that you’re all going to leave church today and then go…and…steal from someone.
But I just think it’s good to point out that not everyone responds well to being told what they shouldn’t do…
I also feel that thinking of these commandments as actions to avoid doesn’t really give us a lot to work with. For example…take the commandment “Do not kill.” Okay…well, if I were to tell you that in my 34 years of life, I’m currently batting 1000 for the “Do not kill” commandment, I don’t think many of you would actually be all that impressed.
Yes, I’ve avoided the action of killing anyone, and so, seemingly have done a good job obeying that commandment and helping my neighbor to have the best life that they can.
But again, that’s not all that impressive, and it made me wonder if there might be more behind the “Do not kill” commandment than simply not killing anyone.
So I wonder if we look at these “Do not…” commandments, and try to reframe them positively. Because I think that doing so might help us be invited into a life where we are called to much more than simply avoiding certain actions.
Do not kill.
Okay – as I mentioned earlier – I’m guessing we’re all pretty good with that one. And again, knowing that we haven’t killed anyone, it might be easy to just gloss over it, and not think much more of it. But I wonder if we reframe that command positively, how might that change the way we approach it?
So, maybe instead of “Do not kill,” we could think about it, like, “Allow others to live life abundantly.”
Jesus said, in John 10:10,
“I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”
The NRSV says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
And so that is certainly an invitation for us to life live abundantly, but…if we are commanded to not kill, perhaps another way of thinking about that is that we are also called to find ways to allow others to live into that abundant life that Christ came to give them.
Who in your life could use some help living a full life? What can you do for people whose paths you cross each day, that might help them live an abundant life?
Do not commit adultery.
Now, I’ll admit…that…not committing adultery…that’s a pretty good commandment to follow. But, if we think about that commandment in a slightly different way, what might the positive spin on it be?
Perhaps it’s an invitation to strive for rightly ordered love. Saint Augustine, one of the great Christian theologians, wrote about the idea of “rightly ordered love” in his book, On Christian Doctrine. He defines it this way:
…love things…in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less…or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
The flip side of “Do not commit adultery”…then…is our invitation into rightly ordered loves. It is our invitation to be constantly seeking to love what is to be loved, and to be aware of the times in our lives when our love gets disordered.
For example, if we find ourselves putting money and financial security above all else, above our relationships with family and friends and God…that would be a disordered love.
Or when we look to the things and stuff in our lives…our cars, our homes, the newest smartphones and other gadgets…and expect to get satisfaction and fulfillment from them…we are disordering our love.
The 10 Commandments, then, give us a welcome opportunity to order our loves, to focus on that which is to be loved, and to love those things, and those people, deeply.
Do not steal.
I still remember the convenience store just over the railroad tracks in Chehalis, WA, where I grew up. Steve Papineau and I used to ride our little Huffy dirt bikes down to the store in the summer to buy baseball cards, gum or cans of JOLT soda.
And I also remember the day when I grabbed that Snickers bar, and snuck out of the store. I don’t know why I stole it, but I did…
And I’m sure that the first time I heard the 10 Commandments after that, I was probably scared of what God might do to me if God found out about that little Snickers bar.
Do not steal.
Again, seems pretty simple and straightforward. But…for those of you who are holier than I am, and haven’t stolen a Snickers bar in your lifetime…does that mean you’re off the hook?
Sure, we may not have stolen from anyone recently. But, if we take that commandment and look at it from a different angle, I think you can come to the conclusion that we are invited to “live generously.”
And this is something that so many of you here at WPC already do and live out so wonderfully. This is a very generous congregation – a congregation whose members are generous with their financial resources, but also with themselves: their time and their gifts.
When we live generously – we are seeking to help our neighbors have their best lives now. When we live generously – we are putting others’ needs before our own, and looking for how we can be a blessing to the world.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
How many of you remember, at some point in your life, asking yourself, “Now…what’s really considered lying? If I just bend the truth a little, does that count as lying and breaking one of the 10 Commandments? What about just a little white lie? Or a fib…?”
When the commandment is “Do not lie” – I think you can spend a lot of time trying to think through what exactly counts as a lie. And maybe that definition is different for different people.
But if we think about a positive spin on this commandment, I think that we can view this as an invitation to lead lives where we are being honest, with one another; this is an invitation to be truthful.
Now, that doesn’t mean it will always be easy…being truthful with one another can, at times, even be quite difficult. But I believe this commandment invites us into the practice of living our lives with integrity before one another in honest and truthful ways.
See how this opens up the commandment in a way? Instead of simply avoiding the action of lying…we are invited to be truthful, something that we can live into and enact in many different ways throughout our lives.
Many of you are aware of the recent decisions made by the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It’s pretty hard not to, considering that they’ve been thoroughly covered by news outlets from all over the world.
And I know conversations have been taking place within this congregation about the content of those GA decisions, how they came about, what this means for the denomination as a whole, and what it all means for those of us here at WPC. I’ve been privy to some of those conversations on Facebook, the elders had a very thoughtful conversation this past week at Session, and I’m sure there have been even more discussions taking place at coffee hour, over email and in many homes.
As I shared with the Session this past week, since we’re Presbyterians, and there were about 12 of us sitting around the table in Conference Room B, it was quite possible that there were about 13 different opinions on the issues that we were going to talk about that night.
Like many Presbyterian churches, we are a diverse community, with people on all sides of the theological and political spectrum…and as I’ve said before – I think that’s good. I think that with all of our varied life experiences and thoughts about important issues, we can push each other, challenge each other, and all be better because of it. It’d be pretty boring if we all believed the same thing about everything.
As the summer continues, and as we head into the fall in a couple months, we are going to be looking for opportunities when we can gather together for discussion around the significant decisions that were made at GA last week. We want to be able to provide venues for everyone here to be able to have their voice heard and to join in on this conversation.
And trust me, we are not alone. Presbyterian churches all across the country are now realizing that stuff actually does happen at General Assembly some years, and are now looking for ways to bring people together for conversation.
And as we do that…I think our reframing of the commandments for today actually gives us guidelines for how we might enter into that space together.
- Allow others to live life abundantly. I think we all want our conversations and discussions to be life-giving. The issues that we will discuss are certainly controversial and many have strong feelings about them, on all sides…but I think it’s important for us to approach each other with the hope that we might all help each other live full and abundant lives, and that the way that we talk with one another would be live-giving.
- Strive for rightly ordered love. Many of us feel strongly about our views on certain issues – and have deep reasons behind what we believe. But a question that we can ask ourselves is: “Do I love my belief or would I put my belief above and before my relationship with another person?” As we strive for rightly ordered love in our lives…we have to ask ourselves, “Is it more important to be viewed as being right? Or is it more important to be in relationship with one another?
- Live generously. Let us be generous with one another, generous in spirit, generous in kindness, generous in taking the time to understand what compels someone to believe the way that they do about certain issues.
- Be truthful. Finally, hopefully we feel like this is a safe space in which we can be truthful with one another. As we gather together to talk about these decisions, it doesn’t do anyone any good to not be truthful. If we are being generous, if we are striving for rightly ordered love and if we are doing what we can to allow others to live abundantly…we will be in a space where we can be truthful and honest with one another.
I trust that God will guide us through this process, and hope that this reframing of these commandments might allow us all to approach these conversations with humility, honesty and generosity.
Do you think Moses ever thought that the content he chiseled on those two stone tablets might help guide future generations?
Something tells me that someone knew what they were doing…