Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 2: Loving the One We Can't See, Exodus 20:1-11

The things God will do to get our attention...!

 Scripture can be found here...

I don’t think it’s possible to convey the sheer trepidation with which I set out to share these words with you. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the stakes are very high here. Very high.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea. I believe in that God, who wants us, and who seek us out, and who, no matter what, will claim us, in the end.

But what about the days and nights between now and then? What about the hours and minutes and seconds? What we make of them is everything. The stakes are high.

We are talking this morning about what is traditionally called “The First Table” of the law. The commandments are divided into the first table, commandments about God, and the second table, commandments about our neighbor. This echoes just what Jesus said in our first reading. These first four commandments are all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.

This is a fearsome thing, to love God so completely. I know I aspire to it. I know I fail at least as often as I succeed. But I also know it is what we are called to do.

God begins with a reminder: it is God who frees us—who has freed us—from slavery of one kind or another. Each of us has to work out with fear and trembling what those things are that enslave us. And as fearsome a thing as it is to even try to comprehend what whole-hearted, and whole-souled, and whole-minded, and whole-strength love of God is, in the end, we may find it more frightening to contemplate a life enslaved to our self-image or our cell phones or our addictions. Hear these words, from the God who sets us free.

But first, this: remember how I said last week that it’s really hard to memorize the Ten Commandments? A quick look at the chart[1] below reveals why that is.

Catholic, Lutheran,
Reformed, Anglican,
other Protestants
1. I am the Lord your God

2. No other Gods (and no    graven images)
1. No other Gods (and no graven images)
1. No other Gods

2. No graven images
3. Do not misuse God's name
2. Do not misuse God's name
3. Do not misuse God's name
4. Keep the Sabbath
3. Keep the Sabbath
4. Keep the Sabbath
5. Honor father & mother
4. Honor father & mother
5. Honor father & mother
6. Do not murder
5. Do not murder
6. Do not murder
7. Do not commit adultery
6. Do not commit adultery
7. Do not commit adultery
8. Do not steal
7. Do not steal
8. Do not steal
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
8. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house
9. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house

10. Do not covet your neighbor's house

Across the faiths—for Jews and Christians—we agree on the content of the commandments (mostly), but we divide them up differently, which ends up creating different emphases. For Jews, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is the first Word, out of ten Words spoken. For Christians, this statement of identity and action is preface to the commandments. It is a last reminder of the source of all these words.

The first commandment: You shall have no other gods before (besides) me. ~Exodus 20:3

In the ancient world people believed in many gods. Even the ancient Israelites, for a time, believed that there were many gods—this commandment provides sly evidence of that fact. An order to have no other gods besides YHWH acknowledges that those other gods exist. And having sojourned for 400-plus years in Egypt, the Israelites were no doubt familiar with the likes of the mother-goddess Isis and her husband Osiris, god of the afterlife, and their child, Horus, god of vengeance, protection, war, and the sky, not to mention Imhotep, god of peace.

It is relatively easy for us to disavow these gods and goddesses, and to look upon them as remnants of another age. It is comforting to think of ourselves as having evolved beyond such childish notions. It is less comforting to notice the many gods we still serve, even though they go by other names. Anything that interferes with God’s primacy in our lives is, in fact, another god. It is relatively easy to identify other people’s gods—how many times have we noticed someone else who seemed to worship power, position, sex, possessions, mind-altering substances? It is much, much harder to complete this sentence with brutal honesty: “I confess that _______ is my god.” Which is to say, “I confess that ________ is the thing that has me enslaved.” The first commandment is the hardest: it is the one that urges us to put down those other things that come between us and God. It is the one that begs us to recognize that this is our only hope for true freedom. Can we empty ourselves of our little gods so that we can open ourselves to a real relationship with the one true God?

The second commandment: 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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” ~ Exodus 20:4-6

OK. First things first. Flat Jesus is not in violation of this commandment, unless: you are actually worshipping your particular version in ceremonies at home, none of which was suggested in last week’s children’s message OR in the take-home letter!

Seriously. What is this about? Well, in a few chapters we will have an example, when the people Moses left at the foot of the mountain get antsy and start melting down their jewelry to make a golden calf. But we have to step back a bit, I think, to really understand the commandment against making idols for ourselves to worship. We serve a Creator-God who is still creating, and to be made in God’s image is to participate in God’s creative acts. Many of us have experiences of God that are mediated through creation: we gaze in awe at the beauty of a waterfall or perfect blue sky patterned with gorgeous cumulus clouds. We hover by a window, listening with spine-tingling delight to a powerful storm. Alice Walker writes, “I think it [ticks] God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see [God is] always trying to please us back.”

That’s why making an idol for worship is to worship in precisely the wrong direction. When we create something for the purpose of worshiping it, we always end up worshiping, not God, but ourselves—our own cleverness and artfulness. This is one of the reasons the Reformers tried to do away with art that represents God in worship spaces: the fear that we would forget to worship God and, instead, end up worshiping the wonderful sculptor or painter, human creativity, rather than the Creator of all.

The prohibition on idol worship suggests something else, especially if we remember the story of the golden calf. The creation of that idol was born entirely of the anxiety that can be generated when the God we worship is not readily visible to us. We long to gaze on God face to face. God is invisible, not so that we will stop seeking, but so that we will seek God more deeply where God can be found.  God will not be seen in our melted down jewelry. God insists, instead, on showing up in scripture, in nature, in prayer, and even in the faces of other created humans. Can we open a space for God by refusing to worship the products of our own labor and creativity?

The third commandment: 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.” ~Exodus 20:7.

As children many of us learned this commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which I still find a useful way of saying this. To do something ‘in vain’ is to do it for no good purpose. It is a waste of time, or, as here, a waste of breath. It is a waste of the Name, YHWH, which is treasured in Hebrew scripture and in Jewish practice to this day. My seminary was located across the street from Jewish Theological Seminary. At some point in my seminary career I learned that there is a repository (called a genizah) at JTS for all seminary-generated paper printed with the name of God. The Talmud Tractate Shabbat prohibits the destruction of anything bearing God’s holy name; such items are to be given burial in the earth. Until that burial, they are kept in genizahs.

Such care with God’s name has slipped away from a lot of us. Hoo boy, it really has. Maybe this could help us: imagine using the name of a person you deeply love in the way we often use God’s name. If we wouldn’t use the name of a cherished child, parent, friend or spouse that way, perhaps we can unlearn the habits that let us to use God’s name that way. Can we open up a space for God by being very intentional in the way we use God’s holy name?

The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” ~Exodus 20:8-11.

How hard it is to stop. Just stop. And that is what is at the root of the word “Sabbath”: it is a form of the Hebrew word for “stop; cease.” And how many of us are able to find time in our lives to simply cease all our crazed activities, to simply “be still, and know that [God is] God?” In Exodus, there is a rationale given: even God, after all the labor of creation, rested on the seventh day! In Deuteronomy, the rationale is even more pointed: “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” (Deut. 5:15). As Rolf Jacobson wrote in the commentary, " the Sabbath is also a day of rest and justice. The Sabbath was the first fair labor law." Not to observe Sabbath is to be a slave—to something. We might not be building pyramids for Pharaoh, but we are enslaved to some notion of busyness, or achievement, or perfection, or tradition—something that does not allow us to simply stop. Simply be.

This is not to say that the Sabbath is to be a time in which we can’t do anything. John Calvin found joy in bowling. Ask yourselves this about your Sabbath observances: Is there joy? Is there time to be with the ones you love? Is there time from which you unplug from your other obligations, or from those things that fritter away your time (like phone screens and computer screens)? And if you can’t manage 24 hours in this Eden of rest, can you find an hour? Just an hour for time that is for nothing but enjoyment of people, of creation, of the bliss of rest from a busy life? Can we open up one hour of Sabbath for starters? Can we simply stop, and know that God is God, and we are most emphatically not?

It is a fearsome thing, this first table of the law, which is all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. These commandments urge us to open a space for the One who is truly the great love of our lives, if we will only allow it. Yes. We believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow us, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, and find us and claim us. But why wait to be rescued from ourselves? Why not open ourselves to God’s love now? The stakes are so high. We spend so much of our lives fleeing God. Why not spend ourselves on the One who will make us truly free? Can we open a space for God? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Chart courtesy of

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