Don’t Keep the Commandments

Exodus 20:1-17
© Stacey Steck

A machete is a pretty useful tool. I used to use mine all the time at the farm in Costa Rica to keep the weeds under control. But it is also a pretty dangerous weapon. Many of the killings in the Rwandan Genocide were performed with machetes and they were also the distinctive weapon of the Tonton Macoute who terrorized Haiti in the 60s and 70s with them. What makes them so effective in either agriculture or violence is, of course, their sharp edge.

The Ten Commandments also have a sharp edge to them and that makes them dangerous as either a tool or a weapon. On one hand, they are dangerous because they offer us a pretty radical vision for how to live the way God wants us to, and that usually gets people into trouble when they really do what God wants them to do. But the Ten Commandments are also dangerous because they come in such a neat and tidy package of dos and don’ts. They make it seem like life and faith are neat and tidy if we would only follow the rules. I mean, there are only ten, right? We can wrap our minds around ten. If everyone followed those ten simple rules, everything would run smoothly, right?

A few years back, around the turn of the Millennium actually, there was a group that showed just how dangerous the Ten Commandments can be, in the worst sense of dangerous. Maybe you remember the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God that grew up in Uganda. It’s a really tragic story of people who got caught up in some really bad theology pedaled by some really manipulative people. The goals of this Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were to obey the Ten Commandments and preach the word of Jesus Christ. They taught that to avoid damnation in the apocalypse, one had to strictly follow the Commandments. The emphasis on the Commandments was so strong that the group discouraged talking, for fear of breaking the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” and so on some days communication was only conducted in sign language. Maybe if they had spoken a little more openly and honestly, the almost 800 people who lost who their lives to a combination of murder and suicide by poisoning and arson might still be around. Somehow this doesn’t seem like the idea behind God giving Moses those Ten Commandments.

Martin Luther, on the other hand, knew just how dangerous the Ten Commandments were for the right reasons. That great German reformer, who took on the Roman Catholic Church of his time and helped to start the Protestant Reformation, loved the Ten Commandments. He thought they were the greatest thing since justification and sliced tortillas. So primary were the Ten Commandments that in his Large Catechism, his primary instrument for instruction on the faith, he placed the questions concerning these Old Testament laws before such profoundly New Testament concepts such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. And Martin Luther did this because of his profound insight about how dangerous are Ten Commandments, in that positive sense, that far from limiting our freedom, they are a means of expressing our freedom in Christ. And when we know how free we truly are, we become truly dangerous.

That’s probably not how you have heard the Ten Commandments explained before. Usually, we read the Ten as if they are a checklist for religious behavior with the implicit threat that if you break them, “God’s gonna get you!” This makes the Commandments only slightly more appealing than the tax code or a speed limit sign. Coupled with the Church’s traditional emphasis of grace over law, there’s not much to like about the Ten Commandments at all, unless they can serve some purpose for you. Many places in the United States are still campaigning for the use of the Ten Commandments in schools even though it amounts to little more than an attempt at social control of children, putting God’s scary laws up on the wall next to the Declaration of Independence in an effort to keep them in line. They might as well put up one of those paintings of a scary looking guy who has eyes that seem to look at you no matter where you are in the room and save the legal fees incurred by the inevitable challenge by civil liberties groups.

Yes, the Ten Commandments are dangerous either way, but whether we will use them as a tool or a weapon is up to us. But how do we tell the difference? How do we know how we are wielding that machete? Let me suggest that the distinction is subtle, but worth wrapping our minds around, since there is enough death and destruction already in this world, and we need more kingdom builders. So this is what I want you to know about the Ten Commandments, that they are better obeyed than kept. Better obeyed than kept. What’s the difference? Well, let me go back to that example of traffic laws. To keep the commandments is like driving around and always looking over your shoulder wondering when the police are going to pull you over for speeding since it is they who are keeping you from getting where you want to go faster because of their stupid speed limit signs. To keep means to observe, to make sure you don’t transgress the letter of the law because there is a penalty or a judgment attached to being caught. It’s like the apology of the child caught breaking the rules. Little Johnny isn’t sorry he hurt another person; he is sorry he was caught breaking the rules and sorry he is getting punished. Not much of a deterrent against future crimes really.

However, to obey the commandments is like making driving the speed limit a way of life so that you do not endanger the lives of the children who are riding their bikes, or getting off the school bus, or jaywalking across whatever street you happen to be on. To obey the commandments is to have respect for the One who placed them in our lives and to understand that they are not there to limit us, but to free us. To obey means to live the purpose of the Commandment in the first place which is to make human life more human. This was Luther’s great insight about the Commandments: that they are a statement of freedom, not a list of potential violations. They give us freedom to love. I suspect Luther loved Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving my soul. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”

There is so much to say about the Ten Commandments and why they are desired more than fine gold, and sweeter than honey, but we can’t do it all this morning. So what I want to do is kind of offer a brief overview of what Moses brought down from that mountain, and how that meets us here today. You know the story I’m sure, and not just because of Charlton Heston. The Israelites have been led out of Egypt by the outstretched arm of the Lord, and they have sung their songs of victory, and they have complained about being hungry and thirsty, and God has provided for their basic needs with manna and quail and at last they have come to Mt. Sinai where God gives them these commandments we have come to cherish. It is a transformational moment; the Israelites will never be the same. The freedom they experienced leaving Egypt is now given a form for their future together.

And so Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets. Legend has it that the tablet in Moses’ right hand contained the first four commandments and the tablet in his left hand held the final six. This is significant not just that they are on different tablets, but because the Hebrew language is written from right to left, and that means that the first four commandments are really the first four. They are first because they detail the relationship between God and humans, while the final six detail relationships among humans. The two tablets are very different but they are related in the most profound way. When we “get” the first four, we can “get” the last six. When we know who God is and what our relationship with God is, we can then begin to know who our fellow human beings are and how we are to behave toward them.

Knowing who God is is indeed a difficult task, but our first four commandments give us something of what we need to know and maybe this is why they are sweeter than honey. God gives us a personal introduction: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Simple enough right? But notice that it recalls all the wonderful events of recent days and the horrors of the previous 400 years and it helps Israel, and us, to realize that there is no other God who can compare, and certainly no other god worth having in the place of so mighty and gracious a God as Yahweh. It is a claim of exclusivity: I am your God, you are my people.

Then God says more: “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, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” This God is jealous for you. This God wants you, and loves you and will allow no other god to claim you as its own. This is a God who loves you so much that steadfast love is more powerful than punishment. Friends: Please do not be caught up in the “unfairness” of three of four generations of children being punished for the sins of the fathers. Instead, be caught up in the grace of steadfast love flowing to a thousand generations. Those who would reject the Lord, reject the Lord for the generations in their household, and generations will suffer from not being a part of the community and from not having the law. When grandpa says no to God, the result is a whole family, three or four generations, which does not know God. But when grandpa says yes to God, God’s love flows to a thousand generations. This is what divine jealousy is all about.

I could go on about these first four commandments but it will be enough to say that they speak volumes about God’s loyalty to us and the loyalty God demands from us. They tell us of the intimacy available to us from a jealous God, an intimacy that endures, and an intimacy we are called to share. There may be no better place to recall all these things than at the Communion table, when we celebrate how Christ lived his life obediently, but with the greatest freedom and dangerously, in that positive sense. It is here that we see that same divine intimacy and jealousy. Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was not just a farewell dinner for a friend leaving on a long journey. That supper was a celebration of the same grace God showed on the night those Hebrew slaves became free so many years earlier. That supper was an echo of the Ten Commandments that gave yet another new form to their freedom for their future together. In Christ’s words, “each time you break this bread and drink this cup, remember me,” you can hear the same sharp edge that presents us with the choice to use them as either a tool or a weapon, to obey them or to keep them.

We are not required to keep this commandment to remember Christ as a condition of our relationship with God. Rather, we choose to obey it because of our relationship with God. If we keep that commandment, all we do is eat and drink. All we do is go through the motions. All we do is congratulate ourselves that we kept Christ’s commandment again this month. But when we obey it, when we get to its heart, it opens up so much for us: it provokes us to act on behalf of the hungry, to remember our unity with Christians far and near, to rejoice that we have a freedom to love and serve others as Christ loved and served us. As we come to the table once again on this World Communion Sunday, let us do so with gratitude for the choice God gives us to obey the commandments, and to live dangerously free. Amen.

On the Virtures of Downward Mobility

Philippians 2:1-13
© Stacey Steck

“Every child had a pretty good shot. To get at least as far as their old man got.” It a line from that old Billy Joel song, Allentown, a song that laments the loss of upward mobility, the idea that every generation should be able to improve on the standards of the one before it, that it is possible to transcend the class into which one was born, or at least not slide backward. Upward mobility is a core principle of the American Dream, that if we work hard enough, or work smart enough, we’ll get ahead. If we pull hard enough on those proverbial bootstraps, we’ll be able to lift ourselves up and be on our way to a brighter future, no matter how far down we began. To believe so is practically a requirement for citizenship.

We believe in upward mobility at Thyatira. Maybe it’s not part of our mission or vision statements, but deep down, we must believe in it. It’s one reason we’ve decided to make supporting our students and their schools our mission priority, since we know and believe that education is such a key factor is helping promote upward mobility, along with health, wealth, housing, and many other factors. Our community has a lot of people who need a little movement in their lives, as the term mobility suggests. The poverty rate in our county is among the highest in the state, and not just in the city of Salisbury. And our region, despite how prosperous it seems if you drive through parts of Mooresville and Charlotte, isn’t exactly known for its upward mobility. According to a recent study, “The city of Charlotte ranks dead last (50th out of 50) among America’s largest cities in Upward Mobility. This means that for a child born in poverty in Charlotte, it is harder to get out of poverty than any other large city in the United States.” There is a lot of work to be done around here and praise God that we are using what we’ve been given to do our part. We may not be the wealthiest or the most connected, but we have responded to God’s call. Can I get an amen?

But for all the efforts that go into promoting upward mobility, both individually and institutionally, there’s actually not a lot of movement, as the study I mentioned shows. A lot has been invested with not nearly enough to show for it. We are up against some serious challenges if we want to have an impact and help others end up better off than when they started. This is a pretty complex issue actually, one for which there are no easy answers. The easiest of those uneasy answers usually blames the victim, and suggests that the laziness, or bad habits, or criminal sensibilities of those in poverty is why they never move forward. While there is no doubt there are some who fail to advance because of those reasons, I am also reminded of the old saying that “If wealth were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Lots of people work their fingers to the bone and never go anywhere and it’s not because they are lazy or stupid. It’s also just as silly to suggest that the far fewer number of people who have made it didn’t have to work for it. By the sweat of their brow, or the sacrifice of their families, or because they had access to a program or a scholarship somewhere along the line, many have moved upward. No, there are no easy answers.

It is not my intention to give you some kind of lecture on socioeconomics. But I am as concerned as the next person about what poverty does to people, and what I can do about that. I may not be able to affect monetary policy or health disparities to provide upward mobility, but what I can do is to reflect on the story of the one whose promotion of downward mobility has affected people so profoundly. Yes, it is good to be productive. Yes, it is good to try to achieve. But is it good to work so hard for upward mobility when Jesus so regularly practiced the opposite? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” So sayeth the words from the Apostle Paul’s beautiful letter to the Philippians, words which may be some of the oldest written about Jesus Christ. Many scholars believe that this little section of chapter two was actually the earliest Christian hymn, the words of which Paul borrowed as he makes his case for Christ. Ancient words with meaning still today.

What the age of these words suggests is that even the earliest recorders of our tradition recognized that the ticket to peace and joy and all things divine is not power or coercion or self-interest, the things which seem to drive the powers that be in every age, but rather that we find these things in humility and cooperation and compassion. Jesus had resources at his disposal. As he was being arrested, he alluded to the power within his grasp when he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” He had all the power in the world to just snap his fingers and make it all better, but for some divinely mysterious reason he chose instead to abdicate that power. He had all the power in the world to save himself, to make sure he lived to fight another day, but he chose to be obedient to a divine command which makes no sense to our human way of thinking.

Paul shares with us this divine logic in the fifth chapter of Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you get that? Christ became downwardly mobile for us, we who least deserved it. Who dies for their enemies? Most of us wouldn’t really give up our lives for our friends! We would be far more willing to take someone else’s life to save a friend than to offer up our own. Isn’t that why we keep guns for self-defense? To protect ourselves and our loved ones? That was Peter’s first instinct when he cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest when Jesus was being arrested. But Jesus tells him to sheath his sword and allows himself to be taken into custody, to be tortured, and to be killed. And he did that for ungodly persons, not righteous persons, or even just good persons, but for sinners, for those who couldn’t help his upwardly mobility even if he desired it.

Yes, Jesus lived a life of downward mobility, and in doing so, he has shown us that in trying to save our own lives we will lose them, that in trying to get ahead, we will fall behind, that in trying to be the master of others we become slaves to a way of life that offers no life. But we are just scratching by, Jesus! You want us to give up more? The money runs out before the month does. There aren’t enough hours in the day to meet the needs of my loved ones. What kind of twisted is divine logic that keeps us suffering? What about that abundant life Jesus talked about? I want some of that! Give me some of that prosperity gospel, Pastor! Tell me that if I tithe enough to the church that God will bless me with good health and abundant wealth, and that if I’m faithful enough, nothing bad will happen to me, because I’ll be covered in the blood of Jesus. Tell me that! Well, if I were upward mobility minded, I would tell you that. I’d tell you that while I was buying my next Mercedes, because that’s the kind of car I’d buy if I were a popular televangelist who just told you what you wanted to hear rather than what God wants you to hear. Yes, I’m being presumptuous in saying that I know what God wants you to hear, but I can say that with a clean conscience, knowing that practicing a kind of faith that isn’t very popular, that doesn’t lead to upward mobility, that asks a lot of those who profess it, suggests a continuity with the words we have heard again this morning from Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Jesus did not use his relationship with God to better himself, but to better us, and we can hardly do otherwise.

I want to suggest a couple of ways we can practically live a life of the kind of downward mobility that the Bible commends to us. The first might sound like you’re listening to a televangelist’s broadcast, I admit, but I think you’ll be able to see where it’s different. Being downwardly mobile means giving more and living with less. It means living simply so that other may simply live. It doesn’t mean taking a vow of poverty, but it does mean recognizing the difference between what we want and what we need, and that living on the edge means that we are living faithfully rather than comfortably. There’s an old saying that the church should always live on the brink of bankruptcy, by always spending the difference between faithful and comfortable. When we forsake our comfort, others can survive. When we go without, others can get by. And I think that applies to our individual lives as well. And that’s hard when you know the roof needs to be replaced one day. That’s hard when you look ahead to paying for college. But one of the blessings of this kind of downward mobility is the spiritual benefit of becoming dependent on God rather than our own efforts. When we allow ourselves to become dependent on God, we are so much wealthier than when we have money in the bank.

If that seems challenging, I want to push you even a little further. Downward mobility is not only about money, or a standard of living. It’s about relationship. It’s about community. It’s about justice. And frankly, it’s about power and privilege. Our society’s inequality has been a long time in the making, and it’s not going to become more equal overnight, but it can change. The problem is that it won’t change if we pursue it by focusing on the upward economic mobility of those who can’t seem to get ahead rather than the downward political mobility of those who are already ahead. We’ve already tried that and it hasn’t worked.

But letting go of some of that power and privilege brings the same benefits as letting go of more of our money. It makes us more dependent on God and less on ourselves. That might mean becoming radically curious about the story of someone different than us instead of being suspicious about their motives. It might mean taking a deeper look at our own biases. It might mean recognizing that just because we have the right to do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should do it. We don’t have to adapt our language to reflect the way that others see themselves and how they prefer to be called. We don’t have to accept a different perspective on history or experience. We can just label it political correctness and dismiss whatever makes us uncomfortable. We have the power to do that. We have the right to say what we believe. But as long as we hold on to the rights of citizenship that let us feel comfortable and in control, we will miss the opportunity to practice the responsibilities of community that allow us to be of the same mind as Jesus Christ, and the same mind with each other. “If then,” Paul says, “If then, there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

For those of us with power and privilege in society, and by that I do mean white people, these are challenging words indeed. I get it that hearing phrases like “white privilege” and “structural racism” is uncomfortable. I get it. I really do. But if we are simply dismissing the idea because we can, because we can afford to, because it’s somebody else’s problem, then we are not practicing the kind of humility which would make Paul’s joy compete. Yes, the issues are complicated and messy and imply downward mobility for some, but wasn’t that the life Jesus lived? But in becoming downwardly mobile, “God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus did not use his privilege as the very son of God to exalt himself, but became exalted by giving it all away. May our downward mobility bring glory to God the Father and upward mobility to those who truly need it. Amen.