Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, 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; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 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. 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 – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 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.
Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”
It is not an easy season in the life of the church.
In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.
Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.
Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.
I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.
Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.
I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.
I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.
Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.
I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.
I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.
There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.
Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?
When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.
It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.
And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.
Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!
But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?
Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?
Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.
Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.
God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.
And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.
We make them more about us, than about God.
The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.
But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.
Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.
It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).
Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.
But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.
Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.
But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.
We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.
It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.
The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.
We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.
We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.
We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.
Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.