As we ponder the ten commandments today, what do you think about them? What do they mean for you as a person of faith? Are they one more list of things to add to your already full to do list or are they life giving models for how God dreams we can live? Possibly they fall somewhere in between for you or maybe you rarely think about the 10 commandments.
Thomas Long said this in an article on the commandments, “In popular religious consciousness, the 10 commandments have somehow become burdens, weights, and heavy obligations. For many the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.”¹ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publically placed on the necks of rebellious society.”
Viewing the 10 commandments in this way as a burden or restraints around our necks, rules that must be followed or else, holds us back from living our lives in the way God intended. God gave us the gift of life, so not living our lives the best way possible is in fact, a sin. We sin when we live in fear of failure because we are not using the gifts God has graciously given us. If we spend all our time thinking about what we aren’t supposed to do, there is no time left to do anything. God wants us to live our lives, to see the beauty in creation, to build strong relationships, to help others live. We were created to do good and that is what the 10 commandments help us to do.
Let me briefly sketch the story that surrounds the commandments. As the book of Exodus begins, there arises in Egypt a king who didn’t know Joseph. Remember, Joseph had found favor with the Pharaoh when through Joseph God interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. The Egyptians were saved from starving in years of drought and for this Joseph became the Pharaoh’s right hand man. When the book of Exodus starts, Joseph has been dead long enough that those in power no longer remember him or his technocolor dreamcoat. This leaves the Hebrew people vulnerable.
This new king noticed that the Israelite people outnumbered the Egyptians. With their great numbers will they soon become more powerful than the King and his people? He decides to exercise his power in a decisive way. And so the Hebrew people were forced to work for the Egyptians. The work became more and more difficult until the Hebrew people were slaves in the land of Egypt.
God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
And God does just that. This is why today’s scripture began with 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.” God begins this life-affirming set of instructions with a reminder to the people of where they have been, where they are now and how they got here. Even though they haven’t yet arrived in the Promised Land, they are no longer slaves and their new land, the land God promised, is coming soon.
The story is as simple as this. God sees our suffering. First, God frees us to new life and then God offers a new way to live. A life rooted in freedom with ways to live that will allow us to stay free. God gave us these commandments as a way to live in God’s promise of life for everyone. In my previous church, the chidren learned our faith stories by using Young Children in Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman. This book calls the 10 commandments, The Ten Best Ways to Live. What if we stopped calling them the 10 commandments? Instead, we could call these life-giving, relationship-strengthening, community-building verses The Ten Best Ways to Live.
Would they sound easier, if they were worded in this way, “Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free to love your elders and keep them safe now as they protected you when you were young; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols and empty words; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.”¹
By the time God gives the 10 Best Ways to Live to Moses, God has been in relationship with humans long enough to know a lot about the way we operate. That is why these guidelines, instructions, commandments were not handed to the people as soon as they left Egypt. God knew the people had been forced to do things, told what to do for so long that they might just rebel if they were told what to do again even if God was offering something better. So after the people escaped there was a time of celebration – dancing and singing. As the people began their journey, God provides water and manna from heaven.
God was with them as they met up with people who lived in the land they were traveling through and as people had disputes with each other that Moses mediated. And finally, God knows the people are ready for some instructions, some guidance for their lives. And so God give them a better way to live, freedom. Not a to-do list or a list of laws or requirements to be a good person. God gives these best ways to live to those God loves, the people with whom God is in a relationship.
And our gospel reaffirms that these are the 10 Best Ways to Live. Jesus encourages a man who questions him to live the commandments. I’ve always struggled a bit with this man’s response, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Wow. We know the 10 Best Ways to Live are life enriching and we know they aren’t easy. I’m not sure anyone here today would say sure I’ve been faithfully following all 10 for years. And yet, even with this man’s faithfulness, Jesus says there is more to do and the man is unable to do that one last thing. Do not be discouraged when we cannot do one more thing for God or for each other because this week’s gospel passage ends with these words of hope “for God all things are possible.”
The 10 Best Ways to Live and Jesus’ call to follow him are offers of relationship. We are those with whom God wishes to be in relationship. How is your relationship with God? What, if anything, is holding us back from strengthening this relationship? It could be any number of things in these days of busyness and hurrying. So many things filled our lives that God gets pushed to the side. And sometimes the relationship is strained because of events in our lives-we wonder why this happened and where is God? Or your relationship with God may be great right now which still doesn’t mean you can stop thinking about it. Are you neglecting your relationship with God? If so, what can you do about it?
Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World is filled with ordinary practices you can do with thoughtfulness while looking for God in our midst. In the introduction she says, “If you are tired of arguing about religion, tired of reading about spirituality, tired of talk-talk-talking about things that matter without doing a single thing that matters yourself, then the pages that follow are dedicated to you…My hope is that reading will help you recognize some altars in this world—ordinary-looking places where humans being have met and continue to meet up with….God.” (xvii)
Her fifth chapter or practice is about getting lost. She talks about how we get into routines and fail to pay attention. We drive to work and can’t remember the route we took or anything we saw along the way. We go about our daily lives without ever paying any attention. We get from point A to point B as fast as possible because we have much to do. In the midst of this chapter she talks about all the people who got lost in the Bible and how while they were lost they found God. Our ancestors in the faith who received the 10 Best Ways to Live, “needed forty years in the wilderness to learn the holy art of being lost…(because) by the time they arrived in the land of milk and honey, they knew how to say thank you and mean it” (74-75).
I hope you have a great getting lost story…where your best laid plans flew out the window as the route you planned to take was no longer available or the place you planned to stop was not open. When we have to move from our carefully constructed plans to plan b, c, or d, we are changed…hopefully for the better.
Where do we need to get lost to be more attentive to our relationship with God? Toward the end of the chapter, Barbara says, “If you are not able to set priorities any other way, then getting lost may be the kick in the pants you have been waiting for” (85). I hope today you feel the Holy Spirit moving in your life inviting you into a stronger relationship with our God.
Are these commandments rules from long ago that should be etched in stone, in our courthouses, for symbolic reasons perhaps more than practical ones, or are they etched deeply into our hearts, where we long for the wholeness and newness that God offers us? Are they holding you back or giving you new life in God? If they are holding you back, may you find some time today or this week to get lost and see God in your ordinary, everyday life. Amen.
This sermon was originally preached on October 14, 2012 at St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has been edited for this blog post.
¹Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006), 17.