Sermon for August 11th, 2013

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Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

Deuteronomy 5:1-7

1Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. 4The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5(At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said: 6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7you shall have no other gods before me.

Ten Laws, One Love: The First Commandment

Before I was a pastor, before I went to seminary, before any of my children were born, and right after Amy and I were married, I was a high school teacher. I taught ninth grade English Literature in downtown Dallas, Texas. It was in every sense an inner-city school, with all the problems of poverty, gang violence, teen pregnancy, high dropout rates, low test-scores, etc. The school where I taught wound up in the Dallas news about as often as all the EPISD schools put together over the past year, and like the EPISD schools, when we were in the news it was rarely ever about something good. Teaching in that environment was a challenging experience...and yet it was also one of the most fulfilling, inspiring, and meaningful experiences in my life.

My first year as a teacher (I was 25 years old) I was a little bit worried about the chaotic environment, and the school's reputation as a "dangerous" school. That changed one morning when I came into my classroom before school had started and a few students were already there, early. They were watching the "Channel One" news program broadcast into all the classrooms every morning (not because they wanted to, but because it's the only thing the class televisions would play!). They were watching a news story about some Columbine-style school shooting that had taken place in an affluent, suburban school somewhere in another state, where a disturbed young man had gone on a seemingly random shooting spree, killing several of his fellow students. I should also mention that about 98% of the students in the school where I taught were minority students, either Hispanic or African-American. They were unusually fascinated by this particular news story, and finally one of them turned to me and said, "Mister...why do white people do crazy stuff like that?" (only he didn't actually use the word "stuff.") Then he said, "If one of us had a problem with you, we'd just slash your car tires, and that'd be the end of it." After that, I felt much safer.

I felt safer, but there was still never any shortage of fights, vandalism, behavioral problems, and general chaos. And where there is chaos...a good teacher makes rules (at least, that's what I thought at the time). That first year of teaching, I had a long list of rules, most of them starting with "don't" or "no..." By my second year of teaching, older and wiser educators had taught me how to phrase my rules positively, so instead of saying "no profanity in the classroom" I would say "use appropriate language only." The main difference between negatively and positively phrased rules? The first year my students ignored all the rules. The second year, they positively ignored all the rules.

Through the following years my rules became short, simple, and comprehensive. Eventually, I settled on three: Respect me. Respect each other. Respect your school. I figured most things were covered under that. And gradually, things settled down in my classroom; order (for the most part) prevailed and education happened. But looking back now, I'm almost certain it had nothing to do with my rules--positive or negative, 25 or just three. What made the difference, I'm convinced, was that I was learning how to build a relationship with my students, earning their respect, earning their trust, and eventually their admiration and their loyalty. The rules were still hanging on the wall, as always, but it was what was behind the rules, around them, and in between the lines that finally gave the rules real life and meaning.

There are rules all around us in our daily lives--from the laws of our country, state, and city, to the policies and procedures of our workplaces, our places of recreation, and our households. Rules are good things, necessary things. As Presbyterians, we've got entire books of them (and some of our country's rules were actually based on some Presbyterian ones). Some people have argued that the very foundation of all our modern laws and ethics can be traced back to one ancient set of rules, given by God to humankind on two stone tables somewhere in the Sinai peninsula around the 10th century BCE. The Ten Commandments.

Today we begin a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments: Ten Laws, One Love. We'll look at each of the commandments through the lens of what Jesus called the greatest commandment, to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Over the course of the next ten weeks, I hope I can convince you that the Ten Commandments--while they may indeed be the foundation of our legal, ethical, and moral codes--were never intended by God to be any of those things, and that when we take them out of their true context (for example, when we display them in a courtroom, or use them as a basis for judging or legislating the actions of others) we are missing the point, and mis-using one of God's beautiful gifts to his people.

So. Let's begin. If the Ten Commandments are not supposed to be a legal, moral, or ethical code...what are they? There's a cute saying I've seen on t-shirts and bumper stickers lately that goes something like this: "God gave us the ten commandments...not the ten suggestions." It's a funny saying, and it points (correctly) at our tendency to pick and choose which parts of the bible we want to follow and which we want to disregard. But ultimately, when people make this joke, the joke's on them--because in the Hebrew in which the Bible is written, they aren't called the ten "commandments" at all...In Hebrew, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses refers to them as the עשרת הדברים (aseret = 10 + d'barim = words). The ten words, or ten sayings (which, ironically, is a lot closer to "suggestions" than "commandments"). It's easy to understand how this became mistranslated, though--they are a list of imperatives: "do this," "don't do this," and so "commandments" seemed like a good English word choice. But there are several other words in Hebrew that do mean commandments, laws, rules, and these words are used to refer to the hundreds of other laws and commandments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. הדברים seems to be very intentionally used, always when talking about these ten things, which clearly are commandments, but yet are called sayings, words. Why is that?

In Greek, the Ten commandments are called the δεκάλογος (deca = 10 + logos = word). That word, λογος, should sound a little familiar. It's the same one used in the first chapter of John to refer to Jesus: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Twice in the Bible, God sends his λογος, his Word into the world in solid tangible form: In the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, it is the stone tablets of the ten commandments. Both are God's gift to his people, the visible, tangible representation of God with us here on earth.

What are the Ten Commandments? This is the first thing I want you to remember: The ten commandments are a gift; a representation of who God is, to help us discover who we are...and who we can become.

There are two more things I want you to remember in answer to the question, "What are the Ten Commandments." For the second and third things, we need to look at the historical context of the Ten Commandments. Much like we did with the book of Revelation and the letter to the Galatians, examining what was happening all around our Biblical story can help us to understand what it all means and how it came to be.

The Ten Commandments (if seen as an ancient "law code") often get compared with another famous, even more ancient law code from the same region: The Code of Hammurabi. But if you look at the two closely, you'll find they're quite different. The code of Hammurabi is 282 laws, not ten. They deal with everything from contracts, to trade, military service, and the judicial process. They are very specific laws, whereas the Ten Commandments are broad and general. The code of Hammurabi actually resembles more closely the Law of Moses--the other laws found in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. The same holds true if you compare other ancient law codes to the Ten Commandments...they're more different than alike. But there is one type of ancient document that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Ten Commandments. It's not a law code, not an ethical or moral framework. It's actually a treaty.

When an ancient, Middle-Eastern King would acquire a new territory (either by conquering it, or at the request of its people to protect them) he would draw up a treaty that laid out the expectations and responsibilities of the new relationship. It usually had three parts: First, the King would remind the people what he would do for them, or remind them what he had already done for them. The second part would outline how the king's subjects were to relate to people outside the kingdom ("enemies") and third, how they were to relate to the people within the kingdom ("friends").

Listen to verse six of today's scripture passage: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." Remember what I've done for you! The first two commandments deal with idolatry--how you should relate to those foreign Gods, enemies. The last six commandments deal with how you should relate to each other--get along! Be peaceful! So this is the second thing to remember about the Ten Commandments: It is a treaty, a covenant between a King (Yahweh) and his people (Israel). As Christians, we count ourselves among God's people, part of this covenant. But it is a private, exclusive treaty between God and us...without that relationship in place, it means nothing, and therefore we cannot impose it upon those who do not claim to be God's people.

Looking again at the context of the Ten Commandments, they were given to the people of Israel after they turned away from slavery and oppression in Egypt to follow Moses into the desert. Now, that may seem like a no-brainer (slavery vs. freedom), but there were plenty of times when they were tempted to go back to the familiar life they had known, even if it wasn't a very good one. By the way, does this story sound familiar? Moses and the ancient Israelites vs. the powerful and oppressive Egyptian Empire. Daniel and the children of the captivity vs. the Babylonian Empire. Jesus and the disciples vs. the Roman Empire. This is a recurring theme throughout the bible: A small group of faithful people turn away from the dominant Empire of their day to follow God into an unknown future. The third and final thing to remember about the Ten Commandments is this: Like the voice of the prophets, like the prophecies of Revelation, they call us to turn away from the great powers of our time, to reject the Empires of the World and follow God into a new kingdom.

The Ten Commandments, then, are not an ethical code or a legal precedent. They are a Gift from God reflecting his presence. They are a treaty establishing a relationship. They are a Revolutionary Manifesto calling us apart.

One final warning: Please don't leave here thinking, "Pastor Neal said I can ignore that thing about not committing adultery. It's not a commandment, it's just a saying." Over the next ten weeks, we'll talk about each one of the Ten Commandments; we'll learn why each one is important to God, and why each one should be important to us as God's people. But if all you see when you look at the Ten Commandments is a list of rules to the high-school students I taught, you'll have a hard time not breaking them. My hope and my prayer is that you will come to see in them, through them, and all around them...not rules, but relationships. Not ten laws, but one love.

One love, that holds all of them, and all of us, together.