Let’s talk about the rules. Growing up, we all had rules. Our parents had rules. Our grandparents had rules. When we went to visit that certain aunt, we all had to follow her rules. Our schools had rules. We had a choice – whether or not we would follow their rules – but as children, we didn’t get to make the rules. In my family, each of the children developed their own way of following the rules. My much older brother, the eldest, would argue vehemently for what he wanted to do. Voices were raised, tempers flared, stomping was heard, and doors were slammed – in short, it seemed to me to be a whole lot of work.
My next eldest brother took a different approach: he would sit the parents down and explain why what he wanted to do was such a good idea. He would carefully explain why his idea was best for him, for our family – for everyone in the town, and the State of Massachusetts, and in fact for the promulgation of world peace. To me, it still seemed to be a whole lot of work.
When I came along, I neither argued nor reasoned in search of parental permission. I simply did as best I could and asked for forgiveness as circumstances warranted. In other words, I begged for pardon but only when caught. My strategy seemed a lot less work for all concerned and usually produced better results for me than did either of my brother’s tactics.
In part, my success in following the rules came from the kind of rules my parents set for us. Other children had to be home for dinner at a set time or their world might very well end. Their parents demanded literal adherence to the rules. Exceptions were not permitted. Rather than set an arbitrary expectation through a detailed rule, our parents taught general principles which we had to apply to our life. They sort of taught us an operating system for making good decisions. I knew that if I was going to be late for dinner then I should call and say I would be late. Later in life, I knew that if I was out to dinner with my Mother, then after the meal I should ask the waitress to bring Mom a cup of tea and me some brandy in a teacup. I learned a set of “if – then” rules that helped me adapt well to change – like the change of moving out of the house and into a dorm for freshman year of college. Even though circumstances changed, even though the parents weren’t there to enforce their rules, even though many of their rules no longer applied – or even made any sense, I was able to live within a set of rules that helped me understand the world and succeed in life.
Later in life, I knew that if I was out to dinner with my Mother, then after the meal I should ask the waitress to bring Mom a cup of tea and me some brandy in a teacup. I learned a set of “if – then” rules that helped me adapt well to change – like the change of moving out of the house and into a dorm for freshman year of college. Even though circumstances changed, even though the parents weren’t there to enforce their rules, even though many of their rules no longer applied – or even made any sense, I was able to live within a set of rules that helped me understand the world and succeed in life.
In today’s’ reading from the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel are in just such a quandary. The rules that applied when they were slaved in Egypt no longer apply and worse the Egyptians aren’t there to enforce the old rules. No one seems to have an idea what the rules are or what the rules should look like. It is a mess.
How bad is it? Well, let’s reverse engineer an answer: by looking at what the 10 Commandments prohibit we can gain a good idea of the problems which these rules were designed to eradicate.
You see, we don’t make rules to solve problems that don’t exist. Or at least we didn’t’ until the current Congress and president were elected. At least in the past, people only made rules to solve really clear problems. So by looking at what the Ten Commandments prohibit we can see what some of the most pressing problems were in amongst the People of Israel right after they left Egypt.
The first five commandments in the Big Ten center on accepting God as the ‘one and only God’ and talking about how we relate to God. Remember this is a big change for some people. You can almost hear people grumbling, asking why if the Egyptian’s get to have so many Gods, Israel can only have one God.
The fifth commandment tells us to honor our parents. Then we get some rules for living in community: don’t kill; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t bear false witness against others, and don’t covet what belongs to or goes with other people. Together, these commandments tell us how to solve the problems facing the people of Israel at that time in their life together. These commandments continue to carry weight in people’s lives because they are effective ways for folks to live with God and their neighbors. The Big Ten has survived for centuries because they work – they help people live in community.
We read the Ten Commandments in this section of the Book of Exodus at a time when the People of Israel are a few days into their 40-year trek through the desert. We read them again in Deuteronomy 5:4–20 just as the People of Israel are about to enter the promised land and experience a new period of change, a time when old rules would seem not to apply, and an era when those who enforced the rules would find their authority diminished.
Part of our problem is that some of the words of these Ten Commandments have lost their meaning and context. One commandment says ‘don’t kill,’ yet some use this rule to justify killing doctors who provide abortions. One commandment says ‘honor your parents’ yet how can we honor parents who disown their young children for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? One commandment says we should not lie, but the man elected president by people who identify as “evangelical Christians” seems unable, to tell the truth.
Another element of our problem is that people who identify as “evangelical Christians” have so demeaned the Ten Commandments that they are not credible. They may be good ideas, they may work as rules for living in community, but the misguided actions of people who identify as “evangelical Christians” has robbed scripture of its power, they have made a mockery of following Christ. And now we are faced with the question of how to rescue Jesus from wild-eyed people who are afraid of diversity and believe their so-called president always tells the truth.
It is not yet March of the first term, yet we can clearly see the rules of the past are inadequate to guide us through the next four years and to a new start. This is the time to reinterpret the Ten Commandments – and the Book of Leviticus and all of the other favorite proof texts of people who identify as “evangelical Christians.”
So what would a new Ten Commandments look like? Let’s talk about that.
Perhaps we begin: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Perhaps the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31)
Perhaps rather than keeping the Sabbath as one holy day each week, we should instead commit ourselves to walking humbly with our God every day of the week.
Perhaps we should promise to honor all people, especially the poor, the destitute, the prisoner, the refugee, the patient, the terminally ill.
Perhaps we should agree to protect all of God’s creation from the threat of unbridled pollution, hunters being allowed to kill families of bears as they hibernate, and addressing the threat of climate change.
Perhaps saying we shall not kill is insufficient in a time when self-styled Christians in Congress seek to stop feeding hungry children in schools, stop providing health insurance for those who need it, and gut the public schools we need to tie America together as a unified nation.
Perhaps our new rules should guide us away from imposing a puritanical and un-Biblical purity code on those who do not share the religious beliefs of some so-called Christians.
Perhaps we should continue this conversation here today and tomorrow in our homes and through the week in our lives. For what we need is a new way to live as Christians: one that leaves behind the tired rules of evangelicals and conservatism who claim to be Christians but who are not following Jesus.
I know if it not nice to question the religion of other Christians. For far too long we have all been too nice to those who have brought our country to the verge of ruin while proclaiming loudly that they – and only they – are the real Christians in this country. It is time for us to admit – no proclaim – that those who support this administration’s policies and programs are not following Jesus.
You cannot be a Christian and support an administration that is taking away school lunch programs from hungry children.
You cannot be a Christian and support an administration that engenders hatred aimed at Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people – anyone who objects to the current administration’s false claims.
You cannot be a Christian and support an administration that casts a free press as an enemy of the American people.
You cannot be a Christian and support an administration that gleefully handcuffs an elementary school child at an airport in the name of keeping us safe. Words have meaning, actions have consequences, we live in a real and not an ALT FACTS world.
Let us work together to find a spiritual path through commandments that form a new way of life and enable us to walk humbly with our God while doing justice and showing mercy. Let us pray.
God of every land and nation, you have created all people and you dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Listen to the cries of those who pray to you, and grant that, as we proclaim the greatness of your name, all people will know the power of love at work in the world. We ask this through Christ our Lord. May the peoples say: Amen.