Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Holy Roadmap - Sunday Sermon, March 11, 2012

Chaplain Mel Baars
March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17

“A Holy Roadmap”

There are certain subjects and scripture passages that most preachers try to avoid, at least most of the time. It’s not so much because of their potential for controversy, but more for their propensity toward being trite. This must be the reason that in all the years I have been preaching, I have cleverly avoided a sermon on the Ten Commandments. In part, I have been wise enough to recognize that preaching on all ten is rather ambitious. Each one alone lends itself to an entire sermon. I also acknowledge that preaching on this subject implicates me and my own disobedience to most of them in any given week, and especially here.

Can there really be a Sabbath day during deployment? I just don’t think a “Low Battle Morning” was what God had in mind when saying, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day… 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.” Somehow, I doubt our commanders would appreciate any insistence on our part to walk away from our jobs for a full day, not when the mission is non-stop, 24/7. God does have a bit of a point though. If the Lord could make the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, all in six days, and then rest on the seventh day, you would think we could follow suit. But, even if we set the whole Sabbath thing aside for this year, it’s not only this one commandment that I am guilty of ignoring. There is also that “shrine” I have in my room, a pile of random objects, including a very special pink blender, left behind by friends from this deployment who have gone home for good. It is how I have promised to remember them. It is mostly a joke. I don’t pray to it, but that doesn’t mean that I am not culpable of putting other things before my relationship with God, to include but not limited to the fact that I often fall asleep watching NCIS and totally forget to pray. If I really examine each commandment, I might discover, at least on some days, that I don’t really follow any of them fully, at least not in their spirit.

The Ten Commandments are some of the oldest words we have preserved in our Bibles, so old that they were most certainly heard long before they were ever written down and read out loud. Scholars agree that they bear marks of an oral tradition simply based on their number. Ten. We each have ten fingers, hopefully- an always available, built-in device for keeping count. Their grammatical structure also helps in remembering. “You shall not...” fill in the blank, depending on the finger.

Yet, here I am preaching on the Ten Commandments and even now I am not sure that I could tell you all ten without cheating. But, using your hands actually helps, if you think of your hands as the two tablets themselves. The first tablet, with the exception of the last finger, is all about our relationship with God- having no other gods but God, idolatry, not using God’s name in vain, keeping God’s day holy. These are the ways to be in right relationship with God. The other tablet, plus a thumb, is all about our relationships with our neighbors, honoring our parents, not murdering or committing adultery, not stealing or lying or coveting. Doing these things are the ways to be in good relationships with our neighbors. God and neighbor, does this sound familiar?

In the twelfth chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is asked by a scribe to name the first and greatest commandment. Jesus sums up the first four of the Ten Commandments, the ones pertaining to God, by quoting perhaps Israel’s most recited verses, the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. He says this, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then without even skipping a beat, Jesus transitions right into the other six of the Ten Commandments, the ones pertaining to neighbors by quoting Leviticus 19:18. He says, “The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The two are inextricably bound. We can’t truly love God, if we don’t also endeavor to love our neighbors, and we don’t really know how to love one another without loving God first. There is no one without the other. They cannot be understood separately, apart from the other, and nothing else, no rule, no verse, no teaching is more important than these.

Where I come from in the Deep South, the Ten Commandments have often caused quite a stir. There are certain folks who think that the commandments should be posted up in courthouses and other government buildings, and they get really upset with the ACLU comes through town and attempts, often successfully, to take them down. For years as I was growing up, I didn’t think twice about the Ten Commandments being posted for all the world to see and remember. Why wouldn’t we all want to follow them, even people who aren’t from a Judeo-Christian background? They promote good morals and help maintain order within society. Who in their right mind would be opposed to that?

Nevertheless, reducing the Ten Commandments to some kind of moral guideline really misses their point altogether, while also cheapening their significance. Because the law, the Torah in Hebrew, didn’t just signify “law,” as we understand it today. When we think of “law,” we think along the lines of crime and punishment, rules which citizens either abide by or transgress upon, depending on their good or questionable character. When the law is kept, nobody gets in trouble. All is well. When the law is broken, the offender faces the necessary punishment. For instance, if I go speeding down Disney Rd at a dangerous high speed of 35 kilometers per hour, which in “American” is about 22 miles per hour- how reckless of me- we know there will be some hell to pay. My commander will not appreciate his vehicle being confiscated and taken off the road for 30 days or whatever the policy is. So, the purpose of abiding by the speed limit law, at least here in Bagram, is not getting in trouble.

But, consider for a moment the Psalm that we just read together. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul, the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; More to be desired are they than gold, sweeter also than honey (Psalm 19:7-8,10).” Does that sound like the way that you and I would describe our laws, speed limit laws or any other law for that matter? I don’t think so.

“Law” as the Hebrew people understood it had a deeper significance. Torah also meant “teaching” and “direction.” These commandments weren’t just another set of rules to follow, a way to avoid getting in trouble with the authorities, in this case, with the highest authority. But, these teachings were a way of life, a roadmap which gave God’s people a path through the wilderness. This was the way they would survive whatever life was waiting for them, because goodness knows, there would be days when the wilderness would be so dark that they wouldn’t be able to see a hand in front of their face. There would be moments when the world’s logic would not suffice, when they would doubt their purpose, doubt their journey altogether. These commandments, God’s very own proclamation about just who God was and just what God desired for this beloved community, were all God’s people had to grasp when there was little else to hold them firmly to the ground. These teachings were a precious gift, not a burden, not even close.

In a world of structure like ours, particularly in the military, ten more rules, no matter how helpful, may feel more like a burden than a gift-- just more constraint, more ways of being bound. But, if we stop thinking about them along the lines of additional rules and instead consider them as ten teachings which guide us in the way of good, full life, we may be surprised. However much our culture tempts us, to dream, to covet, really, the next generation iPhone or the newest model of luxury vehicle, or just to work a little more, to be that much more productive so we can get ahead, to think that through money or power or prestige or status, we may find satisfaction and contentment, these teachings maintain a steady counter argument. One commentator puts it this way. It is as if God is saying to us, “Trust me... Those other teachings are not good for you. The life you think they bring you is not real life.”[1] It’s not real joy. It’s not real peace.

The Ten Commandments were and still are a means by which we learn faithfulness, true faithfulness in a world where it is too easy to forget God altogether. Good order within society and a straighter moral compass may be an additional bonus when following these teachings, but morality is not the real goal. Loving God and neighbor, living our lives well, very well, as was intended by God from the very beginning, this is what results when we follow this holy roadmap.

In this season of wilderness, when it is easy to be lost in ways of death, rather than found in ways of life, may we discover the gift of God’s ten teachings, of God’s direction for us which ultimately sets us all free. God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. May we follow this light, sharing it with one another as we continue on this journey. Amen

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17.” Feasting on the Word. pp 74-79

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