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Signs, Signs… 10 Commandments – Signs for Life Sermon for Lent Exodus 20:1-17
March 5, 2018, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Sermons

“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” As I prepared for this Sunday, I couldn’t get this song from the 5 Man Electrical Band out of my head! “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

When I visited my last parish during the interview process, one of the first things I noticed were the signs. All along the fellowship hall, on each Sunday School door were big posters in the shape of road signs with quotes, “Obey the Lord!” “Stop- sinning!” “Yield to God!”

Once you got past the door, inside the classrooms were lists of the 10 Commandments, described as rules for life.

Signs, signs- rules, rules. A quick glance around told me that was what was important in this community. It was a German church and with it’s focus on telling kids the rules and expecting them to follow them, it fit my stereotype of my own German immigrants grandparents. I immediately had flashbacks to my grandfather telling me never to touch the white walls with my dirty fingers, or learning from my grandmother to vacuum in a straight line so that the vacuum marks lined up just so. Order and rules.

That church isn’t alone in elevating the Ten Commandments to a central place. Groups try to get monuments of the commandments next to the courthouse as a way of saying, “here is God’s law” and it had better be upheld by civil law. Rules are how we order our society. At my church and many others, it was convenient and holy to teach kids to behave by saying these are God’s rules and you’d better be good. Treating the Ten Commandments as rules serves to try to keep people in line, but I don’t think it serves the central purpose of the Church.

More rules, even holy ones, don’t give life. They don’t create faith. Posted as a list of ten thou shalt and thou shalt nots- dos and don’ts- they are nothing more than a scolding finger wag, fodder for rebellious songs.

When we focus on the Ten Commandments as rules, we lose sight of the promise. God’s promise gives life. God’s promise creates faith. Proclaiming the promise is the work to which the Church is called.

These commands begin with and have their foundation in God’s promise, “I am the Lord your God.” They begin with God’s faithful action. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God is affirming, continuing the promise made to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, “I will be your God.” God describes how God has already been faithful to them by hearing their cries during their enslavement and freeing them.

The Commandments are all about relationship and gift. The commands, “you shall have no other gods” and “you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” both center on the value and gift of God’s establishing relationship with us. God has come to us to be god to us, giving us access to be able to call on God. We can claim God God as OUR God because God has decided to make that relationship with us.

The command to “remember the Sabbath day” recalls the promise that we are made in God’s image. Just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, those created in God’s image are to reflect God’s day of rest in their own weekly rhythm.

The long list of “you shall nots” lifts up the gifts of God that include life, commitment, relationship, and property. God has given us all we have, from life to donkey, this is all a gift of God’s love for us.

Martin Luther wrote his small catechism to help parents teach the faith in their homes. As he explains the Ten Commandments, he begins each explanation, “We are to fear and love God, so that…” Luther wanted people to understand that we follow these commands in response to a relationship with God. One does not honor and love someone unknown. It is the relationship God has created with us that drives our desire and ability to live into these commands.

Relationship with God means a changed relationship with all that God has created. Drawn into relationship with God, we are not alone, we do not live to ourselves. We are joined to all of creation. We live, as Jesus does, for the sake of others. Embedded within these commands is a radical care for the other, especially those who are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit.

We can miss this protection for those at risk when we read that the commandments include an assumption that the faithful would own slaves, or that a man’s wife is understood to be his property. There is a historical context in which these commandments were received that thankfully is not our context today. But given that some lives were valued more than others in that time period, the commandment’s encouragement to care for these lives is all the more powerful.

To see how God built into the commandments special care for those who are most vulnerable, let’s look back again at that commandment to remember and keep the Sabbath day holy. We read, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The Sabbath is not a day of rest only for the rich landowner whose wife or servant is cooking supper. It is a rest for all – children, slaves, immigrants, even the animals!

The relationship God brings us into is a relationship marked by care for all God has made. It’s never just a me and my God thing. It’s always about me within a whole community that God makes beloved and chooses to care for. So the commandments are not rules that tell me if I’ve gotten in good with God, but are guides to shape how we live out the relationship God has gifted us with- a relationship with God and all of God’s creation. God doesn’t need our faithfulness to these commands, but our neighbors do.

This perspective expands the Ten Commandments from a negative checklist of things I can’t do into a reorientation of my life that is guided by a desire to reflect God’s love by asking, “What does my neighbor need? How can my living make a positive impact on my neighbor?” Luther’s explanation to “You shall not murder” is, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Instead of a minimal threshold of the Commandments as providing us protection from each other, they are expansive in guiding us to care for each other.

The 10 Commandments are not meant to be posted on signs in order to add to guilt and judgement. Understanding them as rising out of God’s relationship to us and God’s gifts for us guides us into an alternative use. The 10 Commandments are meant to be signs. They are not meant to be signs that push people away, but signs that point to God.

They are signs that identify those who follow them as people set apart. God’s people, the Israelites, were conquered by a neighboring empire and many people were taken away to be held in a distant land. While they were there, and even back at home, there was pressure to forget God and live like everyone else. These commandments, especially the remembrance of the Sabbath, are signs of identity that help the community hold together and hold on to their faith. They live differently from others because they have a different relationship, they know God.

Today, our living into the Ten Commandments can serve to point others to God. Instead of using these commands as rules to shout at those who don’t recognize God, they can be ways of life that show the compassion, care, and love of God. They can start curiosity and questioning.

If our congregation and us as individuals are known for working for the well-being of our neighbors, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “you shall not murder.” If we are known for advocating for family leave or sick time, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “honor the Sabbath.” If we stand up to predatory lending or work for fair living wages, that can be our way of living out the commandments, “you shall not steal and you shall not covet.”

We might surprise the world into a curiosity about faith if we don’t use these commandments as something to post on walls with an attitude of judgment, but rather use them as guides into God’s new creation in which there is justice, peace, and well-being.