March 8, 2015 (Lent 3 – B) “The Ten Covenants”
In seventh grade Social Studies class in my hometown in Florida, our assignment was to write a report on one of the 50 states. I chose Alabama. I’d been born there. My dad still lived there. I felt connected to “The Cotton State” and was glad to write a report on it…
…until Mr. Maple, my teacher, said, “I’ve never had any use for the state of Alabama.” I couldn’t believe my ears. How could he reject the state in which I was born???
Fast forward to 2003. That’s when “Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments (which he had commissioned) from the Alabama Judicial Building despite orders to do so from a federal judge. On November 13, 2003, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary unanimously removed Moore from his post as Chief Justice” (Wikipedia). Remember that?
I don’t know about you, but that was one of those times I was embarrassed to be associated with other Christians. I thought I was having a flashback a couple of weeks ago when Moore– who in 2012 was again elected Chief Justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court–encouraged probate judges in Alabama to defy a federal decision to lift the ban on gay marriage in the state.
Though I still love my native state, I’m beginning to understand Mr. Maple’s summary dismissal of Alabama. (In contrast, this week probate judges in Georgia began adjusting the language on marriage documents in advance of the change that is sure to come to Georgia law.)
Do you ever feel like you have more in common with people of other faiths than you do with fellow Christians? I sure do…and not just the ones in Alabama. Every time I hear someone reject the church because of what particular Christians say or do, it makes me sad. I’m reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Sometimes, I’m not so fond of Christians either.
What do we do with Christians who live the faith so differently from the way we live it? Ironically, I think we can find help in the Ten Commandments…not only in their content, but in the very fact of their existence.
A couple of weeks ago when we looked at the flood story, we heard from a character in a novel who said: “Give people a system of justice…and they will not become depraved.” That’s exactly what happens in the story we’re hearing today. In the stories of Noah and Abraham, God makes covenant with human beings. In the Ten Commandments, God gives people the means of knowing how to keep covenant with God.
That was huge in ancient Israel’s time. Most people in the ancient world didn’t have a clue what their gods expected. The gods’ actions were so arbitrary that trying to please them was little more than guesswork. Israel’s covenant with God—this idea that deity and people were in mutual, if not equal, relationship—was a significant theological innovation for that time. Now faithfulness to God wasn’t guesswork; it literally was written in stone.
So, the fact of the commandments—the fact that they had them—was a big deal. But what about their content? What must we do in order to stay faithful to our covenant with God?
One version of the Commandments is included on the cover of your bulletin. Someone read the first three. (Read)
- Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.
- Thou shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
What are those commandments about? They’re about our relationship with God. It’s like a marriage. If we’re really going to commit ourselves to our spouse, we can’t go off galavanting with other people. The same is true with God. If we want to commit ourselves to God, we can’t go off galavanting with other gods.
Somebody read the next one. (Read) Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Sabbath. Rest. Essentially, remember who you are.
Someone read the rest of them. (Read)
Honor thy father and thy mother.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Though shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Thou shalt not covet.
What are these last commandments about? They’re about our relationships with other people—Honor the ‘rents. Don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.
To sum up the Ten Commandments—The first three are about remembering and respecting God. The one about Sabbath is about remembering and respecting ourselves. The rest of them are about remembering and respecting other people. Several years ago a UCC new church start in Atlanta called itself “God, Self, and Neighbor.” Their name said it all. So did Jesus. When asked to name the greatest commandment, he replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
So, though the Ten Commandments might seem a little constrictive at first–especially when we see them written in stone–they actually were quite innovative for the time in which our ancestors in faith dreamed up this story. That God would seek to be in mutual relationship with people? And would offer guidelines for how to remain faithful in our relationship with God? A faithfulness that hinges on how we treat others? Huge!
All that sounds good, but it doesn’t explain how people of Christian faith can understand things so differently. Some of us–as we’re doing today–read the Ten Commandments metaphorically. We find in them assurance of God’s love for us and God’s covenant always to be our God–to the thousandth generation. At the same time, other Christians recreate the Ten Commandments in stone or wood and impose them on everyone else. What does the thoughtful Christian do with these differences?
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law in 1964, but voting rights were not part of that law. Many southern states were still making it difficult—in some cases, impossible—for African Americans to register to vote. The people of Selma, Alabama, weary of having their attempts to register to vote constantly rebuffed, organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capital.
The marchers lined up in twos at Brown Chapel AME Church and began the journey out of town. John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the way. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met by law officers bearing clubs and tear gas. You perhaps have seen pictures of John Lewis (now a U.S. representative from Georgia) wearing a light-colored rain coat, with a back pack slung over his shoulder. Assuming he’d be jailed, Lewis had packed some books, a toothbrush, an apple and an orange—things he thought he’d need for a stay in jail.
As it turned out, jailing the marchers wasn’t what the lawmen had in mind. As Lewis, Williams and the others knelt to pray, the troopers advanced on them, beating them with the clubs and shooting canisters of tear gas into the crowd.
Here’s the thing that’s so hard to understand—nearly everyone present on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day would have called himself or herself a faithful Christian. And yet, their actions were different as night and day.
I’m guessing the Christians most of us would have identified with that afternoon on the Edmund Pettus Bridge would have been the marchers. Jesus’ admonition to love God and neighbor is pretty clear, right?
But what do we do with people of our own Christian faith who—in our estimation—pervert the Gospel message of God’s love for every person? What do we do with our brothers and sisters in Christ who seem to hope for something other than the wholeness of others?
In truth, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out since I was a teenager, called to pastor and unable to hear that call because my church told me women couldn’t be pastors.
So, I can’t say with certainty what to do with fellow Christians who don’t seem—to us—to follow Christ…but I’ll tell you what I do—and I don’t know if this is right or wrong—but I ignore them. I ignore those who understand the Christian faith differently from the way I understand it, because to engage them in debate is a losing cause. Believe me. I’ve tried.
Engaging those who live the Christian faith so differently from the way we live it takes time and energy away from actually living our faith. We can spend our lives debating Christians who understand the Gospel differently from us…or we can spend it doing what we believe we, as Christians, are called to do—love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and love our neighbors as ourselves. We can spend our time opposing those who we think have it wrong, or we can spend our time doing what we think is right—acting others into well-being in God’s name. It’s true that fellow Christians also are our neighbors; we are called to love them, too. But, as John Wesley once said: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
If, like me, you have to work at loving Christians who think differently from you, I invite you to sing with me now. May we too, someday, be known only by our love.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand, And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
We will work with each other, we will work side by side, And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.
All praise to our Creator, from whom all things come, And all praise to Christ Jesus, in whom love was begun, And all praise to the Spirit, whose love makes us one.