Do you remember learning the 10 commandments?? I was having a conversation with a colleague and she can remember that Sunday school classroom, the teacher Kama and could drive you past that teacher’s house if you were both in upstate New York. Do you remember learning the 10 commandments?? I was having a conversation with a colleague and she can remember that Sunday school classroom, the teacher, and could drive you past that teacher’s house if you were both in upstate New York. I don’t have that memory. I could tell you about the church Probably because I have been there in the last 10 years. But it’s kind of like the commandments the 10 of them had always just been there. It’s as if they were a part of me, one that I didn’t have to learn but 1 that I was born with, which I know is absolutely untrue.
It often amazes me how the 10 commandments are and have continued to be part of the common discourse, even secular culture. They are named or considered the basis of our legal system and honestly, I don’t really have an opinion on some of them just seem like good practices for a society to function at all.
But there are people who certainly have opinions.
In 2001 judge Roy Moore had a 5280-pound statue of the 10 commandments installed in his court. In 2003, after multiple court cases and appeals, it was removed for the separation of church and state. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”
That’s just how it is sometimes or at least how it is perceived. How Christianity is perceived by many, how the 10 commandments are seen in our world. We call them laws, we call them rules, we call them commands from God and they become a weight, 5000 pounds of weight, holding us down and holding us back and telling us what to do. And we are living in and among a culture where we are free and we will say you can’t tell me what to do I do what I want. We see those thou shall not’s and we think Yeah but I just might shall. Even if, again based on the list we probably won’t.
We can see the commandments as restrictive and oppressive. As if the God who freed the people from Egypt and the God who freed the people from Babylon had given them a new set of chains and burdens under the guise of liberation.
It’s either that or we hold them up as the checklist at the end of the day of whether or not we have done terrible things. Have I murdered anyone today? Excellent, I’m still a good person.
As if the 10 commandments are the moral guidelines, To make sure individuals do the things they are supposed to do and not the things they’re not supposed to do so that they can be good and moral and upstanding individuals.
In 2020 Ray Moore’s statue of the 10 commandments made a comeback at his nonprofit the Foundation For Moral Law. At the ceremony where they were installed in the entryway, portico Ray Moore said ‘the 10 commandments are their moral foundation and without them, we see an uptick in crime.’ In 2017 Ray Moore was accused of sexual assault that had happened years earlier and 2 of those victims had been children. I’m not arguing his case but even if he did it’s not one of the 10 so he’s still a good moral person, right?
Here’s the thing, God did not give the law to the Hebrew people so that they could turn out to be good and moral individual persons, and certainly not good and moral persons who pass judgment on those who are not in covenant with their God. The law was given to a group of people wandering in the wilderness with no unifying idea to make them into one people. God was not making moral individuals, God was building a community, a way of living that would be a light to the nations.
I think that’s the 1st thing we get wrong when we, Western 21st century Christian read these ancient texts, The culture of the time, the air they were breathing and the water they were swimming in, and the way that they saw what it meant to be human and live in the world was very different from ours. We live amid an ideal of individualism, that we are each full and complete without each other, that we don’t anyone else, that I have to look out for myself, and that if there are consequences for my individualism–it’s because “they” aren’t doing enough, to do whatever it is to advance themselves, as individuals.
In the world of the texts, stories, these words, it wasn’t about the individual, it was about the us. Everyone was needed to make the agrarian, trade-based economy work. Everyone was needed to make the family work. And there was going to have to be a decision made. They could have valued the bodies and the people who would be the most productive, and the most useful, those who could advance the community to the next level or whatever it is, and devalued and removed from their community those who did not. But our story begins with all things being made out of a word and out of love and called good and blessed and made in God’s image. And our story tells us that 1st century Jews are going to sit down and have a conversation, and say that the law, that is the Torah and the prophets can be summarized in this: to love God with all our heart and all our strength and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Why do we see the law as a 2 and a 1/2 ton burden when it begins and ends with love?
What if we stopped calling them laws and commands and celebrated the day we had them memorized? What if, instead, they were our guiding principles, So deep in our core they stop being rules on a page or carved in marble and start being who we are? What if we saw them as how we love God, each other, and ourselves well? What if we told the stories of the times and the ways we have experienced them and the world around us?
Because it’s all there, rooted in the history, shining through the living scripture, lighting a path for us today. What if we defined them for our time, because honoring one’s parents isn’t about children obeying. In an agrarian society, there comes a time when one’s body can no longer farm. What do we do with people who society, culture, capitalism deem not useful?
#5. Honor the sick, the differently-abled, the mentally ill, the vulnerable and outcast, the laborer and those who can’t labor, the infant and the elderly at all as beloved, image-bearers of God.
What are the stories of loving, caring for those in vulnerable positions? What are the stories of someone caring for you? What do you hope for your future or the future of your children?
Let’s go back,
#1 and 2. Be careful what you put first or worship, because it will ask things of you. And it will ask increasingly more of you.
Is it your career? Money? Reputation? There will never be enough time, enough energy, enough good deeds to keep those first. What are the stories of putting God first? The God who’s asks are not easy as it is more love, more kindness, more generosity, more care for the whole.
#3 Don’t justify your actions and your evil by naming it from God.
#4 Rest, everything deserves rest. What do you learn when you stop and reflect? What gift is it to let others do the same?
#6 Do not let your anger and bitterness cause harm on others. The Hebrew word for murder here is always in the context of aggression, vengence, or anger. What are you stories of choosing to hold onto anger? How did it affect you? What are you stories of grace and forgiveness?
#7 Honor each other’s bodies and covenants. What are the stories you have when that did not happen? Or the stories when someone finally did. Please don’t forget: Nearly 1 in 5 women have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime. And 1 in 8 of those were 10 and under. The ancient word wasn’t always great to women, but if we move it through time, at the least, we ought to have a sexual ethic that allows dignity to each other.
#8 Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you but also, assure that others can hold on to what is theirs, that they might have access to what they need. What was it like in 2008 and all those who watched their homes be taken because the system was only looking out for itself? What is it like supporting a family from homelessness to into a home, employment, to be settled?
#9 Use your words to bring about justice, compassion, and community. Use your words to lift each other up. Do you remember the hurtful words someone you loved said to you? Can you remember the kind words from another? What if we made it our mission to only speak well, kindly, compassionately to each other? And if we used our voices, our platforms, our privileges to raise up those who are on the margins.
In Deuteronomy 6, the people of the words are told that: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Now, if something is so ingrained in your heart, they aren’t just words that you have memorized, they are way of being and living in the world. And children might memorize the words, but they learn by seeing, experiencing, living the commandments passed on from generation to generation.
Professor Robert Wuthnow talks about how we transmit our ethical ideals to future generations by telling stories. “Stories do more than keep memories alive,” says Wuthnow. “Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”
Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.
This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack. “You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.
There’s a gospel song by Hezekiah Walker, and we would sing it in our gospel choir at seminary.
I need you, you need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me, agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body
It is His will that every need be supplied
You are important to me, I need you to survive
And I’ve always been struck by that line: I need you to survive, because it hits me on so many levels. It could be that my survival depends on you being in my life. It could be I need you in my life, so you need to survive. And I think it’s both. And it’s not just the people that we know and like, it’s all of us. It’s the church universal, it’s communities working for the benefit of those in need. It’s UCC congregations getting together to support refugee families. It’s caretaking and recognizing that even the caretaker needs to rest. It’s living as if the community, the whole, each other is vital to our survival, so we treat them well, assure their survival and whole and abundant living, because even our neighbors on the other side of the world, town, block are vital to our survival, too.
Because that is what the commandments are all about–liberation from the God who set the captives free, love and compassion from the people who put that God first, community from those who realized no one can live this life alone. We need each other.
As we come to the end of June, the end of Pride month, We remember what started Pride movement was a trans woman of color who refused to be seen as less than another day. We remember that there are still many, even in our area, who are not welcomed in love by their church and their families and we grieve that. Today, UCC congregations around the country are remembering their covenant to be Open and Affirming, and we join them, remembering that we are people who take seriously what it means to live in covenant–both these that are asking us to look out for each other, and our covenant to be a safe, welcoming, embracing community to all who come through our doors and all we meet in the world, as we are the church embodied in the world.
Please stand as you are able as we reaffirm our covenant:
At Emmanuel UCC, we welcome into full membership and participation in the Body of Christ not only persons of every race, language, age, physical & mental ability, economic & marital status, and faith background, but also persons of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
We affirm and celebrate all loving and committed relationships and we commit ourselves to work diligently to end oppression and discrimination wherever it occurs.
May our covenants be liberation and not weights. May they fill us with joy and dancing, may they make us a community united in love.