Sermon: 18 Pentecost, Proper 22A, Preached on October 8, 2017 at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Mary's Memorial Church, Berryville, VA
Text: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
I have a bit of a confession to make. You see, I had a perfectly adequate sermon on today’s Gospel reading practically ready to go. And then, last night, as I was working on my Bible study for this coming Wednesday, the Holy Spirit gave me a shake. She may have actually whispered, “You need to preach on the 10 Commandments,” in my ear!
In both the section of 1st Samuel that I was working on last night - and in the introduction to the 10 Commandments, God reminds the people that he brought them out of slavery in Egypt. In fact, I learned last night that God (and God’s prophets) remind the people of Israel that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt a whopping 125 times in the Old Testament. It’s why Samuel is pretty sure that it’s a bad idea for the people to have a king. (You’ll need to come to Bible study on Wednesday to find out more!) It’s the basis for so many of the reminders about God and God’s love for the people of Israel.
And today, it’s given as the reason for those words we’ve come to know as the 10 Commandments. It can be difficult when we get a passage of scripture like this one that is so well known. We think we know everything about it. Show of hands - how many of you had to memorize them as a child? I remember being asked to memorize them in the 5th grade. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be nice to your parents. Blah, blah, blah. We think we know them. But then, we stop hearing them.
To counter that today, I want to back up a bit. I want to start with the opening line about them. Why is it significant that these commandments come out of the Exodus from slavery? How does that help us to understand them? And then, what is it that they are actually asking us to do?
Since the summer, we’ve been hearing the story of how the Israelites spent a period of time living in Egypt. Eventually they were enslaved and Pharaoh treated them brutally. They were forced to work harder and harder - and they cried out to God for help. God heard their cry, saw their suffering and sent Moses to deliver them. After many travails and a bunch of plagues, they fled Egypt. Eventually, God delivered these Commandments to them to guide them in their new lives as free people.
And that’s important. Here’s something else important. Just before giving them these commandments, God calls them to be a holy people. That word holy isn’t only an adjective that describes God. It has come to be a word that is defined by itself - we think of holy as meaning, well… holy. But the word holy really means separate and distinct. God is holy because God is separate and distinct from humanity. And God’s people are called to be holy - that is separate and distinct - by behaving in ways that are separate and distinct from our surrounding culture.
Ultimately, the 10 Commandments call God’s people to live distinctly from the Egyptians. To live distinctly from the other cultures that surround them. In our own place and time, we are called to be holy by also being distinct from our culture. And the 10 Commandments can help.
I was taught to think of them as a rule book. Do this. Don’t do that. Really really don’t do this other thing. In fact, God doesn’t want us to have fun - so God made up some really hard rules - and we have to live by them, or else. Now, doesn’t THAT sound like a ringing endorsement for being God’s people?
I want to invite us to think about the 10 Commandments in a new way. And I want to start in the middle. I want to start with the Commandment about the Sabbath. The Israelites came out of Egypt as slaves. There was no Sabbath there. It was all work, work, work. The Sabbath commandment invites God’s people to take a rest. To enjoy the freedom of NOT being enslaved. The Israelites were to extend that freedom to those who worked for them and to their beasts of burden.
And we are invited to do the same. The sabbath isn’t about not having any fun. (I still remember the horror I felt as a girl reading about sabbath restrictions in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books!) The Sabbath is meant to give us a break - to encourage us to enjoy creation and freedom from bondage.
Today, I think it’s not so important that we take a certain day as a Sabbath, as much as it’s important that we find some time for Sabbath. If all we do is work, work, work and run, run, run - then it’s like we are still enslaved in Egypt, making bricks for Pharaoh. Instead, we are called to intentionally step off that particular treadmill and rest.
The commandments that come ahead of the Sabbath commandment are, primarily, about our relationship with God. They ask us to make God what we love and worship and to avoid misusing God’s name. Misusing God’s name can be done in more ways than just cursing. I’d say that using God’s name to put forth our own agendas is as egregious as cursing. Worshiping idols isn’t just about a carved statue. An idol is anything we worship that isn’t God.
These commandments about worship matter - because it’s in worship of God that we are formed to be people who can live out the rest of the commandments - the ones about our relationships with other people.
These are the commandments that come after the Sabbath commandment. They describe how we relate to others. Each of these commandments describe actions that harm another person. It’s certainly true that I do you less harm by simply coveting your iPhone 8 than I do if I kill you to get it. The reality is that coveting objectifies another person and robs them of their personhood.
It all comes back to Egypt. The people of Israel were harmed by the Egyptians in so many ways. The 10 Commandment are God’s way of calling God’s people to live in community with God and one another - in ways that are separate and distinct from the Egyptian culture of slavery. Think about it. The commandments call us to love God and love neighbor. Sound familiar? When you think of them in that way, you can see why Jesus said that on those two commands hang all the law and the prophets.
I want to close with some words from Elizabeth Webb. She’s an Episcopalian and a theologian. She writes:
“The Ten Commandments, and the books of the law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong... . It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is what you were made for. You were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. You were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with your God. Stay true to these commandments.’”
The same is true for us, as well. This is what WE were made for. WE were not made to wander, to be afraid, to hunger and thirst, to be lost. WE were made to live in this community of justice, in right relationship with OUR God. Stay true to these commandments. AMEN.
Quote from Elizabeth Webb, “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17,” found here.
I'm Fran Gardner-Smith. I'm an Episcopal priest, a wife, a grandmother, a feminist, a writer, and an artist.