Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“A Meaningful Life”
Rev. Art Ritter
October 4, 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all 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. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 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.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
We continue our whirlwind tour through the book of Exodus by focusing a bit today on the Ten Commandments. Trying to tackle any kind of reflection on all of the Ten Commandments at once is a daunting task. A few years ago I did a ten week sermon series and that makes it much easier to eat and digest. This morning in just a few minutes I would like for us to consider why we need these words in the first place.
Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments will make the news. I saw a Facebook post this week where someone was wanting everyone to copy their post supporting the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public schools. There has been a recent news story about how a controversial Alabama judge has fought court orders demanding that he remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from the walls of his courtroom. There have been additional stories of legal controversies about whether or not stone replicas of the Ten Commandments can be left in the lawns of county court houses.
That is how the argument usually goes. We tend to talk about how the Ten Commandments are displayed or engraved or even worshiped. We certainly don’t spend as much time talking about their content or the message that they are intended to convey. In a poll taken in America less than ten years ago, a majority favored the placement of the Ten Commandments in some sort of public forum. Of that same group, less than 20 percent could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments. Gary Anderson writes that because we have tried to make the Ten Commandments into something of a cultural icon we have lost the sense of “religious awe” about them. We have distanced them from God’s own revelation. Anderson says, “These are not ten good maxims for the good life but the living word of God.”
The Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai as part of a conversation. They are actually found twice in Scripture, hear in Exodus and then just before the people of God entered the Promised Land as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. According to our reading from Exodus, the Ten Commandments were given to the people immediately after the covenant was established between God and God’s people. The giving of the law was tied to the promise that God had made with the people of Israel. It that way the Ten Commandments are something like the vows of marriage, the promises and expectations of this divine-human relationship. It wasn’t so much that God was requiring the people to obey each of these ten rules in order to receive a reward or a prize. These commandments are not rules enforced by a watchful and lurking God much as the local police enforce the speed limit on Meadowbrook Road. They were intended to be guidelines to a relationship.
There is a story of two men in a truck who were passing through a small town one day. They came to an overpass with a sign that read, Clearance 11’3”. They got out of their rig and measured the height of the truck. It was just over 12 feet tall. They weren’t quite certain as to what to do. As they climbed back into the cab, one of the men said, “What do you think we should do?” The driver looked around, then shifted the truck into gear saying, “There’s not a cop in sigh. Let’s take a chance.”
Perhaps that is our attitude about the Ten Commandments. We might see them as the things you need to do when God is watching you. Or we might seem them as the things you shouldn’t do because you are afraid that God might be watching you. But these are not laws intended to hung on a wall be enforced by a court of law. They are not meant to be legally enforced. They are laws of the heart, designed to direct our lives to God’s intention. They are meant to shape our attitudes and to guide our spirit. They are ten laws or as the people of God first called them, “ten words” to create a community, a place where all of us can live together as God intends for people to live.
In her study on the Ten Commandments entitled “Laws of the Heart,” Joan Chittister writes that “the Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the Commonwealth. They lead to fullness of life, not simply to the well ordered or precisely directed life. Aristotle says that the perfect life is one where we contemplate, spend our life on, focus our life on the best, most worthy things, the things of highest merit. Well, the Ten Commandments tell us what’s worth focusing on in life. They are a new vision of what it means to be a good, healthy, happy, authentic human community.”
Walter Brueggeman writes that we should see these laws, the Ten Commandments, now as restrictions that hem us in but as keys that unlock us, expand and energizing the way we organize our lives personally and communally. He connects these laws to “neighborly matters.”
That is what God gave to God’s people long ago. And that is what God gives to us still today. The Ten Commandments are not rock hard positions of judgement based the condition of God’s love. They do not say act right and I will love you or mess up and you are on your own. The Ten Commandments are words of grace that describe how God’s grace can be experienced in the living of life. Obeying the law doesn’t earn us anything. Obedience to the law is a sign that we understand God’s promise. This is how God wants us to be- how God wants us to be as persons and as a community, to value life and relationships, to care for creation and for one another, to give God proper worship and value, to be humble and to be responsible, to be transformed but not convicted.