Rev. Dr. Merritt's Sermon for March 11, 2012
Law and Order
Rev. Dr. Jim Merritt
March 11, 2012
The Ten Commandments; how many of them can you list? Even after hearing them just a few minutes ago, how many of them can you recite from memory? A 2007 survey reported in Reuters showed that most Americans could rattle off the ingredients of a Big Mac more readily than the Ten Commandments. Still, the Ten Commandments play an incredibly powerful role in our culture and particularly in this season’s political fiasco. Most of us remember them best in the image of Charlton Heston holding up a pair of stone tablets over his hear with this list of rules engraved on them. Debates continue about the placement of the 10 commandments in public parks and on public buildings all over the United States. It is abundantly clear to all of us that these Ten Commandments are very influential cultural and religious symbols, even if we don’t know much about them. Think about these questions: What makes this set of Laws so powerful? From whence does their power come? Why has their influence held on for so many thousands of years? What did they mean to God? What did they mean to Moses? What did they mean to those who heard them first? And, what do they mean to us today? Law and Order, where does it come from? Would you pray with me?
God, we thank you for your word that enlightens us about the history of God with the people of God. Open our ears, our hearts and our minds this morning so that we might hear your message for us this day. AMEN.
The Ten Commandments:
Although I am not quoting them today, I want to share the names of writers whose work contributed to my study this week, including the esteemed biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann and Eric Baretto. I recommend their work for your ongoing study of the Hebrew Bible.
Interestingly, the narrative of Exodus 20 begins, not with the listing of the first and thus the most important rule, but with the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian captivity. This shows us that these commandments are rooted not just in God’s power to enunciate them, but also in the Israelite experience of deliverance and salvation. These commands not only represent good pieces of advice from a powerful and devoted God, but they also call for a response that is not just expected, but required of a grateful people.
Thankfully, the lectionary leaves out the business about visiting the consequences of sins on the grandchildren and great grandchildren; it seems that God’s memory is fully intact and very long lasting. After laws against using God’s name flippantly and orders about keeping the Sabbath, we then turn to commandments that we can embrace and to some extend adopt with somewhat less difficulty. Respect your parents. That can be difficult for people like us, many of whom have endured very difficult and sometimes even violent relationships with our parents. We try to respect them, we respect what they might have tried to do, and if we happen to be amongst the lucky ones who honestly had or have parents who did or are doing the very best they know how to do, we get on our knees regularly and thank God for them. Whatever our relationship with parents is or was, we develop a healthy respect for God who models for us the honest and forever love of a good parent.
Don’t murder. That one seems doable to most of us. Don’t commit adultery… that give some of us a very difficult time. Honestly, this concept can be very difficult to define as we look for biblical examples of what our society calls “traditional” relationships. What we see in practice looks more extremely non-traditional relationships. So, what it can boil down to for many of us is a commitment to live within the agreements or the boundaries to which we have agreed within our own partnership. I might suggest that an honest definition of adultery would be breaking the covenant that partners make with one another and with God. I am not able, within the context of this sermon, to develop that further, so, in summary, let me refer back to last week’s sermon during which I suggested, when you make promises, mean what you say and KEEP THEM. I will get off of some of your toes now and move forward.
Don’t steal people’s stuff, don’t lie and don’t be jealous of your neighbor’s success and prosperity. I think we may be able to handle the first of these, but what about the second. Is it ever okay to lie? Is it okay to lie to protect someone or is it okay to lie to avoid hurting someone? Perhaps better yet, is it okay to lie when we’ve promised not to tell? The truth is this morning, I do not have the answers to all of those questions. “Don’t kill” falls in line with those, and even that leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What about war? Don’t kill. What about the death penalty? Don’t kill. Is it ever okay to kill someone? Sometimes, my sisters and brothers, the only honest answer might be, “I just don’t know.”That may be shocking to some of you. I acknowledge that I grew up in a church culture of black and white rules. At the very least, the Pastor was supposed to have the correct answer to every moral and ethical dilemma. Everything was either okay or wrong, good or bad, allowed or not allowed. That worked for a little while and then like you, I began to realize that very little in life is concrete. At times today I have to confess, “I don’t know.” Sometimes it a lie may be okay and at other times a lie absolutely is not okay. Some time I might encounter a situation where I would say somebody had to die. I just don’t know about that. The best news I have ever learned about questions such as these is that sometimes the answer is YES and at other times it is NO. God is a God of every situation and God is smart enough and big enough and wise enough to let us work out our own answers with God. We do not need a multi volume rule book to answer every one of life’s dilemmas for us. God is great enough to handle that and when our relationships with God are vital enough, we will grow more and more comfortable with answers like, “ I just don’t know.” The more I study, the more I realize how much there is that I just do not know. Are you experiencing that, too?
So, in closing, allow me to make some suggestions to you about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not primarily a set of universal rules or laws. They are not just a binding list of do’s and don’ts for all times and all people in all places. They are not God’s attempt to summarize all the world’s wisdom on two stone tablets. What they are is this; the Ten Commanments are integral to the identity of a particular people in a particular time and place. Without a doubt, they clearly state basic morals and ethics that all kinds of people would and still do embrace for the better. Ultimately, however, the Ten Commandments are less about proper behavior than they are about identity. They tell us who we are, and more importantly, they tell us whose we are. The help us evaluate our relationships with God and with one another. Finally, the Ten Commandments are most importantly about the identity of God. They show us the character of God and of the people of God. They describe right relationships between children of God and one another.
We come from many different backgrounds and many different theologies in MCC. Our identity and our theology are as intermixed as they possibly could be. Although they are both indispensible and incredibly difficult to understand fully, working diligently to follow them in our lives, in our relationship with God and in our relationships with one another can bring about a sense of order, a sense of peace, a sense of righteousness and a sense of readiness for what God is about to do, right before our very eyes. Law and Order, God’s way; it is a very good thing.
God bless you. AMEN.