Top Ten List

Ten Commandments Capture
The Top Ten

(A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, using Exodus 20:1-17 and Philippians 3:3b-14)

It’s a cultural touchstone, a list of ten things we all ought to know. There are legal battles over displaying these religious laws in courthouses. People who argue in favor may not even be able to tell you what they are, and lots of us would have trouble putting them in order.

Another cultural touchstone is the Top Ten List, counting down from ten to one. That’s the way we’re going to take the Ten Commandments today. Can you get them in reverse order?

I have a cheat sheet.

10)     Thou shalt not covet.

9)        Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

8)        Thou shalt not steal.

Let’s stop here, and I’ll tell you a story about a little doll I wanted. I was 8 or 9, old enough to walk to a friend’s house by myself. We lived in a sprawling neighborhood, and my mother was busy with my little brother. One of the things I really wanted and never had was a dollhouse, so any little girl who had one seemed like an ideal friend to me. One had a fancy house with working lights, but she was an only child whose mother took a great interest in all her activities, and that house wasn’t much fun to visit. Farther down the hill and around a corner lived a family more like mine, where the mom let the kids come and go and didn’t worry so much about overseeing our activities. The daughter of that family had a doll house, too, less fancy, but she had what I coveted most: the dolls. They were those little dolls with the bendy legs and arms, and plaster heads, hands and feet.

Thou shalt not covet. It sounds pretty straightforward, and our passage expands on it.

“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.” (Exodus 20:17, NRSV)

You shall not covet your neighbor’s doll.

It was a whole family of dolls: a mother and father, a boy and girl, and a baby. They were so little, just the size to fit in a pocket.

We were playing, and a moment came when I was alone in the playroom, and having failed the 10th commandment, I proceeded to fail the 8th, too. The little girl doll took a dark ride in my skirt pocket, back to my house. My heart beating fast, I came through the door, trying to act natural.

I couldn’t play with the doll. I considered telling my mother that my friend had given it to me – which would have been a failure on #9, to boot! Instead, as soon as I could, I went back and snuck the doll into her right place. In the days between I suffered all the pains of the guilty, and all the way there I feared my friend would see me and accuse me of stealing. I felt afraid and upset with myself, and the relief of getting away with it didn’t make me feel much better. I never went back to play at that friend’s house again.

Following the commandments doesn’t just make us better people; following the commandments makes it possible for us to live in community. Listen to the next three.

7)        Thou shalt not commit adultery.

6)        Thou shalt not kill.

5)        Honour thy father and thy mother.

Those first six commandments, as we count backward, were on the second tablet Moses brought down from the mountain. He brought these rules to a group of refugees who didn’t see their escape from Egypt as a good thing yet. They were hungry and thirsty, and after many generations – 500 years – of living as slaves, they had learned to abide by the rules of the masters. They didn’t know how to live together as free people.

Moses brought down a law for living to help them learn a new way, and it’s a good way for us, too. The preservation of life, regard for others, a respect for our commitments – add them to truthfulness and good boundaries about what belongs to others and what rightfully belongs to us. These commandments form the basis for living successfully in community.

Moses brought another tablet, as we continue to count backward, and this tablet guides us in our relationship with and to God. These may seem obvious to us and over-familiar to us, but we need to remember that because the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, they had not been practicing their faith as they would now begin to do together. They knew they had gotten out of Egypt, but they did not know the One, the Lord, who made it possible.

4)        Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

As slaves, they didn’t have a day of rest.

3)        Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

Don’t take me or my name lightly, says the Lord. I am your God.

2)        Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

A dozen generations lived in Egypt, with its panoply of gods and idols, but this God told them not to make anything else an idol. We remember the story of the golden calf the Israelites made – it actually comes shortly after this. They built an idol because that was the way they saw their masters call upon the gods. Over and over they expressed their anxiety, because for them, this was a new relationship. It was this God, newly revealed, showing power over and over again by delivering them from slavery and leading them to food and water in the wilderness, this God who said:

1)           I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Boom.

Straight Toward the Goal
Straight Toward the Goal

Ten commandments and hundreds of other laws gave the Israelites their parameters for life and worship and relationship with each other. By the time Jesus lived, the law and the right way to follow it had been passed down and refined and perfected. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul makes the claim that he was better than anybody at all of them. Born into an observant family, he describes himself as righteous and zealous on behalf of the law, to the point of having persecuted Jesus and his followers. He gives us his bona fides, and then tells us none of it really mattered anyway. He says, these things I could do better than anyone else are all like garbage to me compared to Jesus.

But Paul isn’t actually telling us to stop obeying the laws. He didn’t worship Jesus for being permissive. He pressed toward the goal of a heavenly prize, an attainment in which the law becomes more than a checklist reassuring us and instead becomes a part of who we are.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Not even the law.

These ten still speak to us, and they are just as hard for us as they were thousands of years ago. We want things other people have. We struggle with respect and commitment. We may not melt down our jewelry to make a golden cow, but we make idols out of all kinds of things. Watch the baseball playoffs and see our gods in the commercials. We worship trucks, cars, youth, strength, vitality, wealth, popularity, notoriety, and above all else, success.

We live in a digital wilderness, and it’s easy to forget how to worship God. We have forgotten why to do it. This Top Ten List is not a set of punitive set of restrictions or an arcane set of instructions. This Top Ten List is a guide, intended to bring us safely through the wilderness of life, whole and healthy. This Top Ten List is a reminder about who to put first if we want to get our bearings.

This Top Ten List is a gift from the God who loves us and saves us from ourselves over and over again.

10)     Thou shalt not covet.

9)        Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

8)        Thou shalt not steal.

7)        Thou shalt not commit adultery.

6)        Thou shalt not kill.

5)        Honour thy father and thy mother.

4)        Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

3)        Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

2)        Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

1)        I AM the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; thou shalt have no other gods before me.

In the name of the One God – Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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