Sermons, Ten Commandments

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.


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.

Prayers for Pastors, Ten Commandments

Late Show Top Ten (a prayer for pastors)

Fill in the blanks.
Fill in the blanks.

Preachers, let us pray about the Ten Commandments.

10) Thou shalt not covet.

O, Lord, forgive me. I hear about the big church my friend has, the budget for continuing education, the staff that works well together, the supportive lay leaders – and I wonder, why not me? Why am I struggling here? What do you want from me? I wonder why I didn’t go into real estate, or teaching, or truck driving. I wonder why I didn’t go to law school. I was smart enough, and I’m a better person than most of those…no, I have to stop it. I will not covet. I will try not to covet. Help me.

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

Maybe it’s not all so perfect for those other pastors. I pray for them, too.

8) Thou shalt not steal.

Every week I struggle to find the right words to say, and I wonder if my words are good enough, and I’m not exactly tempted to take anyone else’s words, but sometimes it’s hard to know if a thought was mine or something I heard or read somewhere. Help me to have clear boundaries in the work of my mind.

7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.

I hope you don’t expect me to preach that one. People prefer to keep these things quiet and not have the preacher discussing sex from the pulpit. They would rather forgive preemptively than examine themselves. Okay. We would. Help me to have clear boundaries in the life of my heart and to keep my commitments to others.

6) Thou shalt not kill.

Even at coffee hour. I’m on board with this one.

5) Honour thy father and thy mother.

My father and mother have long since gone to be with you, Lord. I hope the way I live gives credit to the way they raised me and honors you, too. Help me to honor their good intentions but not fall into family patterns that separate me from you.

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

When I have finished creating and leading worship with the purpose of bringing people closer to you in their Sabbath observance, help me remember that I, too, need to check out from the daily responsibilities and check in with you.

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

Shoot. Rats. Okay. Trying.

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.

No Apple products or Ford trucks or new refrigerators with ice through the door or blogging awards or publishing contracts or famous athletes or movie stars or even other pastors we have admired, whose lives we may have coveted (see above). No false idols, no matter how winsomely they use their words. None.

1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.


I give my life to you, to serve and love your people, to tell the stories that show your love and the stories that lay down the law, and to find the ways they are one and the same. Be with me this Sunday, and every Sunday, I ask in Christ’s name. Amen.

Philippians 3:4b-14, Proper 22A, Sermons, Ten Commandments

Learn Your Lessons Well

(A sermon for Proper 22A — October 2, 2011 — Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14)

On our trip this summer, Lucy and I packed a bag full of CDs to listen to in the car, and the rule was that they be sing-along-able. We packed musicals, mostly, and even though I hadn’t listened to some of them in literally years, it amazed and pleased me that at a time in my life when I’m finding some things hard to remember, the songs were still there, both the music and the words.

We were both tired when we crossed the border from Connecticut to New York, and we had a long way to go to get to our destination in central Pennsylvania when we put Godspell in the CD player.  And it’s possible Lucy might have felt some regret at her willingness to have this be a sing-along trip, because suddenly, her mother became excited.

I can see a swath of sinners settin’ yonder 
And they’re actin’ like a pack of fools 
Gazin’ into space lettin’ their minds wander 
‘Stead of studyin’ the good Lord’s rules 
You better pay attention, build your comprehension 
There’s gonna be a quiz at your ascencion 
Not to mention any threat of hell 
But if you’re smart you’ll learn your lessons well! 

Every bright description of the promised land mentions 
You can reach it if you keep alert 
Learnin’ every line and every last commandment 
May not help you but it couldn’t hurt 
First ya gotta read ’em then ya gotta heed ’em 
Ya never know when you’re gonna need ’em 
Just as old Elijah said to Jezebel 
You better start to learn your lessons well! 
(Stephen Schwartz)

I am awful at memorizing things from a piece of paper or a page in a book, but set them to music? And I will never forget.
But without the music, well, I need a lot of repetition to get there, and I feel panicked at the possibility of forgetting, which makes it even harder. I have vivid memories of praying to remember the Periodic Chart of Elements, which would certainly have been miraculous, since I hadn’t studied it very well in the first place. If only there had been a song, like the one my children learned about the sixteen counties in Maine.
If you’re any older than I am, your school memories are probably influenced by how easily you could memorize things. If you excelled at reciting, teachers loved you. If not, you may have felt less than smart. Even in church, we expected little children to memorize pieces to say. But I’m not sure we cared whether they understood the words they were saying. We used repetition to teach things, really teaching the sound patterns more than the meaning.

How many times have you caught yourself reciting The Lord’s Prayer and realized you weren’t paying attention to the words? Many of us learned it before we could read it, simply by listening to it. We know the chain of syllables. I sat in the back for part of Bertha’s funeral service yesterday, and heard the way many of us mumbled along with the 23rd Psalm from memory, having a vague sense of its shape rather than a keen understanding of each particular word. We learned it by rote, and historically in churches we taught by repetition because a lot of people couldn’t read. We used repetition to teach. (See how I repeated that?)

Now we live in the world of Google. We look up what we need to know and hold onto the knowledge only as long as we need it. Need to fix the ice maker? Google it. (Or call a friend, but really, you can Google it.) Want to knit a sock? Google it. It wasn’t always this way. A friend tells the story of moving to what felt like a different century when she went to live with her husband’s extended family in Canada. There were two aunts in the house, and they both constantly had a sock going. My friend learned to knit from the Canadian aunts, who would even seem to knit in their sleep, sitting in the rocking chairs with their eyes closed. That’s the kind of learning that is part of your body, not flitting through your head just for the moment you need it. You learned to make apple pan dowdy by watching your grandmother make pastry over and over again, not by navigating to the Martha Stewart website every time you need to remember the recipe.

When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, where I’m pretty sure they couldn’t get 3G or Wi-fi, God provided Ten Simple Rules, carved in stone. And even though most of the Israelites couldn’t read them, ten was a short enough list to remember. If you go on further in the Torah, there were 613 laws, so it did get more complicated, in practice, to be a faithful Jew. There were rules about what not to wear and what not to eat and who not to marry and how to punish disobedient children and quite a few other things we’d probably just as soon not talk about in polite company on a Sunday morning. All of those rules were intended to keep the small community unique and cohesive. Most of them have been discarded by us as being suitable to that time and place and not to ours.

But for Paul, those rules, not just the Ten, but the 613, had been the framework for his religious life. The repetition of texts being read in worship and the repetition of practices throughout the day and the year formed his understanding of what God wanted. He was zealous. He says so himself. He was offended by Jesus, and so he persecuted Jesus’ followers.

My Baptist grandmother gave me a copy of Good News for Modern Man when I was a little girl, and the illustrations fascinated me. I particularly loved the stick man running on this page in Philippians. Paul used an athletic metaphor, the running of a race, to express the effort and energy he put into his spiritual life, to describe his eagerness to win through and be with Jesus. Paul had lived the life of rules followed for the rules’ sake, but he discarded it all to pursue the heavenly prize of salvation in Jesus Christ. He didn’t count on reaching it, but he pressed on toward it. This passage popped out at me because of the picture. The image drew me in and then I learned the words, and only many years later did I come to understand them, and I still find something new in them, even though I know them (almost) by heart. Maybe if I set it to music…

That’s my way of learning lessons best. It may not help me, but it couldn’t hurt.

Paul couldn’t learn his lesson without feeling it in his body. He had to be blinded on the road to Damascus. He had to lose his sight in order to really see. He came to believe that what Jesus showed us with his life and taught us with his words was a new law, more important than what came before, more important than his heritage, more important than his Jewish education, more important than the right practice of the 613 laws.

And even the Big Ten, the Ten Simple Rules, seemed to be missing something. You see, you can obey every single one of them without ever getting around to loving your neighbor.  In fact, you can obey every single one of them without loving God. They’re more about behavior than intention.

Jesus called us to something more than obeying the rules. He called us to understand the spirit of the law and not just the letter. He called us to learn our lessons by heart, to really and truly make them part of who we are. And I think we learn those lessons of love by giving and receiving care. Sometimes we don’t know where to start, but you could have learned a lot by hanging around here the past few days, watching people make sandwiches and fill up pitchers of water and punchbowls and set up chairs and play the violin and drop off flowers and park cars and greet strangers.

Many of us are feeling spent today, from the combination of grief and effort, but throughout, we pressed toward the goal of Christ’s call to us to show love and care. I’m grateful for all of you and for the love that poured out so generously. Those embodied acts mattered to families and friends in the midst of grief. They were a sign and symbol of God’s love in this community of faith, and it was a beautiful thing. Thanks be to God for the things we know how to do and the lessons we are still learning together, by heart. Amen.