“Ground Rules” Exodus 20:1-17
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL John 2:13-22
Third Sunday of Lent
Rev. Sean Weston
I have a distinct childhood memory of visiting the rural Michigan public school that my mom attending as a child. I remember nothing about what we were doing there, or even who we were with. All I remember is seeing the Ten Commandments posted in the hallway somewhere. I was surprised. After all, I had grown up on a steady diet of the separation of church and state. How could this public school post the Ten Commandments? I asked my parents this, and I mostly remember them chuckling a little bit – that chuckle that says, “of course you’re right, but this is how things are.” I learned a lot about my mother’s childhood that day.
There are Christians in this country who seem to believe that the most important thing to do with the Ten Commandments is to try and post them in as many civic places as possible. The town where I grew up experienced an uproar when a stone replica of the commandments was moved from in front of City Hall to the front of the local Christian College – which, I might add, is on a busier street. People tried to get the mayor recalled from office and everything. Such fights play out across the country all the time.
In response to this, I can only think of my dad’s favorite saying: “worry about your own self. There’s plenty there to keep you busy.” The most important thing to do with these commandments isn’t to post them everywhere in a show of your religious dominance. The most important thing to do is to try and follow them. There’s plenty there.
Psychology tells us that loud religious arrogance tends to be a cover for guilt and fear of one kind or another. Those most obsessed with plastering the Ten Commandments everywhere are likely in terrible fear about the many ways they have broken those commandments. You’ll find example after example of vehemently anti-gay politicians and pastors who are themselves gay. The harder someone thumps the Bible at others, the harder they probably are on themselves.
After all, no matter how simple we may believe these commandments are, they are incredibly difficult. The bar is set very high – if each of us were to count those we have broken so far today there would be plenty.
Who hasn’t put something before God? Misused God’s name? Failed to remember the sabbath? Failed to honor those who came before? Who hasn’t said something false or unfair about another person?
The commandment against killing is so contrary to how the world works that there is a long tradition of hairsplitting: arguing that the Hebrew says “murder” when it doesn’t, opening a loophole large enough to render the command nearly meaningless.
If you haven’t committed adultery, you may think you’re good to go with that one, at least. But faithfulness to our loved ones has many dimensions. I’d imagine all of us have failed at times to live up to our promises. I could go on, and on, and on.
There’s a temptation when preaching this text to become a thundering voice for righteousness, condemning all bad behavior, all failures to live up to what God expects of us, all the rule-breaking that you and I do day in and day out. There’s a certain thrill I’m sure from that kind of preaching, six feet above contradiction.
But I think most of us already know all the ways we fall short. If anything, many of us are too obsessed with our shortcomings, stuck with an image of God as an angry disciplinarian, ready to punish us for every infraction. But God doesn’t give the Ten Commandments so that more people can be punished for more things. God offers these words so that God’s relationship with the people, and their relationship with one another, can deepen and flourish.
After all, the people had been on a long wilderness journey from Egypt for quite some time. As memories of slavery in Egypt faded away, they began to focus more and more on the difficulty of the current situation. To be fair, it wasn’t a great situation. They were alone in the wilderness. Their very survival was at stake. Nostalgia began to take hold. “Remember how things were back then? We always had enough to eat. We didn’t wonder where the next meal would come from. We were able to stay in one place. Things were safer and more predictable then.
Sure, they had this covenant thing. God had promised to be their God and take care of them. But you can’t eat a covenant or use it to protect you from weather or to pay the bills. It’s not hard to see how the people could get a bit restless. There was a decent amount of what the Bible calls murmuring against Moses, their leader.
It was to those restless, murmuring people that God spoke these words. And they began not with rules: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
The first words God speaks are the most important: a reminder that the people are not alone in the wilderness, no matter how often they may feel like it. No – the people are in a relationship with God, a God who is good, who has liberated them from a past that was much worse than the nostalgic memories would suggest.
Then God offers them what we now call the ten commandments. They don’t come with specific punishments attached, like laws. What God offers the people is a sense of purpose, a something to strive for. I think of these as ground rules – guidance for building good and faithful relationships that honor God, others, and ourselves. God calls them out of their nostalgia about the past and gives them something to strive towards – a sense of purpose and identity.
God’s people – being people – will always fall short of those ground rules, whether in ancient days or today. But even today, we need ground rules to help us live faithful lives. We need something to strive for in the way we relate to God and one another. Even if we will never live up to them, we need ideals. Without that sense of purpose and calling, we will fall back into the trap of nostalgia and fail to see the opportunities before us today, the chance to be a community focused on loyalty to God and putting care for others at the center of our lives.
So, I believe, God calls us today to get back to the basics. Like God’s people long ago, we in the church sometimes get so stuck in the grip of nostalgia, so focused on questions of our own survival, that we forget why we’re here in the first place. We are not alone. We are sustained by our relationships: our relationship with a God who will always be with us, our relationships with one another, companions on life’s difficult journeys. These relationships have a purpose today, here and now.
If I were to write these ancient words for today, they would sound something like this:
- I am God. I alone am worth your trust. Put me first in your life, no matter how enticing or popular the other options are.
- Learn to judge what is true from what is false. You shall insist on the truth in your life and relationships.
- Respect the power of words and language. Know the power of speaking God’s name and never do so without great care.
- Remember that your body and soul need to rest. Take care of yourself, and support others in doing the same. God loves us not for we accomplish, but simply because God made us.
- Learn to respect the goodness in your roots, leave behind what must be left behind, and make peace with your family’s story.
- Let other living beings live, even those you dislike or fear. Speak out against the ways of death. The power to create and end life is God’s alone.
- Be faithful to the promises you have made to your loved ones. Respect the promises others have made.
- Focus on what you can give to others, not what you wish to take. Seek a world of generosity and not scarcity.
- Be a person of truth and integrity. Have the courage of your convictions.
- Seek to be content with your own life, finding your own happiness, not seeking the apparent happiness of others. Spread joy, and in so doing, find your own.
In these words from God, we find the work of a lifetime. A life not of of using these words as a weapon against those we don’t like; not of using them against ourselves, only to fall deeper into guilt and shame; not of looking back and yearning for the past, not of wondering “what if” or casting blame, but a life lived in good, healthy relationship with God and one another. A life lived for a purpose, striving toward these simple yet powerful ideals.
May it be so. Amen.