Sermon for September 15th, 2013
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 16 Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 17 You shall not murder.
Ten Laws, One Love: You Shall Not Kill
There's a slang expression I've started to hear a lot lately: "You killed it!" It means you did something really well, you "nailed it" or you did it so well there's a finality to the act--you killed it. It's an interesting expression, because I think it shows our fascination with and our casual usage of a very violent concept, to kill someone or something.
We've been talking about how the ten commandments are not about rules, they're about relationships (3+7).
If you kill someone, it makes it a little bit difficult to have a relationship with that person. So the sixth commandment is a show stopper, a deal breaker. A covenant killer. But because it's so final, so huge and heinous an act, we tend to think it's easy to keep (and for those who break it, it's all the more devastating)
I'd like to argue this morning that this one isn't as easy as it may seem. On some level, we're all killers.
I've been using the word "kill" but you might have noticed that our scripture passage says "you shall not murder." About half of the English translations of the Bible use "murder" and the other half use "kill." The NRSV, which is what we use, says "murder" but then it has a footnote that says "or kill." So which is it? In our language, there's a pretty important difference between the two.
Kill vs. Murder. The Hebrew word is רְצָֽח (ratzach) It means both. Sometimes it means murder, and sometimes it means kill. In Deuteronomy 4:41-42, it refers to accidental killing. In Numbers 35:30 it refers to state-sanctioned execution. Nuance between "murder" and "killing" is a modern distinction not present in ancient Hebrew. The commandment is straightforward: Anyone who kills another person breaks the sixth commandment, even those who do so in self-defense, or in the line of duty to their government.
That's hard. But it's about to get harder.
You shall not Kill. Notice there are no qualifications or explanations attached to this commandment. It doesn't say, "you shall not kill unless..." or "you shall not kill anyone except..." In fact, it doesn't even say "you shall not kill any...one. This commandment is not necessarily limited to human beings. In the broadest, most simple sense, I believe the sixth commandment expresses God's desire that his people not kill any living creature. That would include animals and insects, too.
Now wait a minute, you might be saying...that's ridiculous. And maybe even impossible. And you might be right--but I wouldn't throw a radical statement like that out there without backing it up, so let's go back to the very beginning of the Bible, in the garden of Eden, at the dawn of creation.
Genesis 1:28-31. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
Now notice that at this point, man is given "dominion." That's not necessarily a license to kill...and eat. Because listen to what comes next:
God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, on the sixth day.
Once again...God's original plan for his creation--mankind, animals, everything that "has the breath of life"--was to get along, and live in harmony together, not eating each other, not killing each other.
So what happened? Sin entered the world, and Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. I would probably add to that a healthy dose of evolution, Darwinism, and survival of the fittest.
It is only later in Genesis, after the flood, that God tells Noah and his family that "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. This is a concession to what God has already acknowledged by destroying most of the world in a flood: Humanity has not lived up to God's ideal, and God allows for our weakness, even if it wasn't the original, or the ultimate plan.
In fact, there's a very familiar passage from Isaiah 11:6-9 that describes the future, "peaceable Kingdom of God" in these words: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox....They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."
By the way--in the interest of full self-disclosure, there are two things you should probably know about me. One, I'm a hunter. I hunt white-tailed dear with my father-in-law and brother-in-law about every year, and have a great time doing it. The second thing you should know about me is this: I love bacon. A lot. And while I'm not anywhere close to letting go of my 30-06 Winchester rifle OR Keith Wilden's Double-bacon-wrapped Jalapeno poppers, I think somehow, deep down, we instinctively know that it's wrong to kill animals. We rarely raise an eyebrow when a cow is slaughtered at some distant ranch in order to provide us with cheeseburgers. But if someone were to violently take the life of the family dog, or the family cat, we would see that as inherently wrong. Incidentally, what's the difference between the two? A relationship.
Alright, if you've never killed anyone AND you're a vegetarian, you're probably feeling pretty good about yourself right now. Hopefully that won't last too much longer. But before we turn our vegetarians into killers, I'd like to turn briefly to the question of WHY God asks us not to kill in the sixth commandment, even in circumstances where it seems like a good and necessary idea.
Do you remember a few weeks ago that I said the Ten Commandments were intended to be a treaty, a covenant between a King and his people? In an ancient middle-Eastern Kingdom, the power to grant life and death belonged solely to the King, and his word was the final appeal in any life or death case. But even an earthly king would never have had the ability to truly "grant" life...only mercy or an extension of life to someone who was already living. God on the other hand, the King of Kings, breathed life into every living thing, and is the only one with the power to do so.
Following the sixth commandment is really following the first commandment, "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me." Any person or entity that takes another person's life puts himself in the place of God, taking away what he cannot give. Life--all life--belongs to God and God alone. Not only is taking life idolatry, but since we are made in the image of God, to kill someone is to kill God's image, a direct attack on God.
Back to our vegetarians--and really back to everyone, because I think this next part is what makes killers out of us all. So far we've been hanging out in the Old Testament--a place where, despite this commandment, despite God's original and ultimate plan for us, there is a lot of killing going on, both of animals and people. Some of it even seems to be directed and instructed by God. If you need to wrap your head around how that's possible, call me and we'll talk about it sometime. But for now, we're moving ahead to the New Testament, and to Jesus, who had a few things to say about the commandments, including this one.
Jesus knew that our actions are actually just the final step in a long process that begins with what's inside our hearts and minds. In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus says:
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not kill”; and “whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Have any of you ever been angry with a brother or sister? Have any of you ever insulted someone or called someone a fool? Raise your hand if you're a killer.
John Calvin taught that we also kill when we fail to hear Jesus say "I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me no food or drink. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me; I was naked and you did not clothe me; I was sick and prison and you did not visit me." In other words, we often kill not by our actions, or even our active thoughts...but by our neglect. By ignoring or shutting out the things that are killing others in our world, or by making sure we are protected...while allowing others to be exposed.
So we're all in this boat together, we are all breakers of this commandment. We're all guilty. But I don't want to leave us there...if all we do is say, "yep, I'm a killer" and then go about our lives without changing anything, what good does that accomplish in the world, or in God's eyes? And yet, I'm not entirely sure we can break our dependence upon killing. Like I said before, I'm pretty attached to my bacon. I'm not entirely sure I want our law enforcement officers and our military to just lay down their guns and stop protecting us. And I don't even know how to not get angry when someone hurts or offends me. So I seem to be at an impasse.
Martin Luther said that the commandments are meant to strike us dead, to drive us into the hands of a merciful God. Realizing that we cannot keep this commandment on our own is a first step, and realizing that we must look to God for help is a second.
I have said that the ten commandments are a treaty, but they are also a gift; a representation of who God is among us, to help us discover who we are, and who we can become. In other words, God is our example in all things. While we cannot breathe life into another person (only God can do that) there is something related, something life-giving that we can offer to God and to each other: Love. Jesus summarized the commandments (including the sixth commandment) when he told us to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So if we want to begin...if we truly want to take the first small steps toward being life-givers and not life-takers, that means starting to look at everyone and everything through the lens of love.
I'll close with an example: Right now there is a lot of killing going on in the country of Syria. Though some progress has been made in diplomatic talks, our military is poised and ready to invade Syria, which would probably result in even more killings on all sides. Despite all this, and all the media coverage, it would still be pretty easy for me to just tune it all out and ignore what's happening in Syria. After all, it's on the other side of the world, and whatever the outcome of this situation, it would be unlikely to change my life much, here in the United States. Except for one thing:
I know George and Sarah Lutfi, who are members of our congregation, who came here from Syria. I have talked and laughed and broken bread with them on many Wednesday nights cookouts here at our church. I have gotten to know Sarah's mother, and some of her brothers. I have watched their son, Arthur, as he plays with my son, Jonah. And I have heard the desperation in George's voice as he speaks of his sister and his brother and their families who are trying so hard to get out of Syria, out of Damascus, out of the danger that threatens their lives.
I care about Syria, and what happens in Syria, because I care about the Lutfis. I am connected to Syria through this relationship. I probably can't stop the violence and killing there, but I also can no longer ignore it, nor can I sit idly by and do nothing. That's the power of relationships, the power of love directed through relationship.
God asks us never to take the life of another living being, through violence, anger, or neglect. May our eyes, our hearts, and our doors always be open to those who travel this life with us, and may we always be ready to love those whom God places in our paths. As we learn to live, may we learn to love, and may our relationships extend God's love throughout the world until we live with him in that peaceable kingdom where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.