If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, March 11, 2012

An Ethical Covenant: Exodus 20:1-17

*This sermon was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

Judge Roy Moore, Alabama’s former chief justice, will be forever tied to the Ten Commandments. He considered them to be the moral foundation of US law. So, he placed a wooden set of tablets of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom behind his bench. This caused quite a bit of controversy, along with his opening prayer for jurors before listening to cases. A suit was filed against him for violation of the first amendment of the Constitution.

This did not intimidate Judge Moore. He was determined to continue his practices, with the support of a large conservative constituency. In 2001, Judge Moore, installed a 5,300 pound stone monument of the Ten Commandments in the state’s judicial building in Montgomery. He was ordered to remove the stone monument by a federal judge, which he refused to do. This controversy catapulted him into the national news, caused a national discussion about religion and public life, and made him something of a folk hero among the conservative Right. Judge Moore felt he was not only fulfilling his oath of office to uphold the law, but was also defending a higher law and belief in the sovereignty of God.

Are the 10 commandments the moral foundation of US law? A universal law for all humanity? Timeless spiritual and moral truths? How do we understand the place of the Ten Commandments in our personal and corporate lives? The Constitution’s first amendment had it’s own commandment for the US government and states: Thou shalt not establish one religion or favor one religion over another or prohibit the free exercise thereof. Judge Moore understood the Ten Commandments to be the moral foundation of US law and was, in some sense, establishing that religious belief in his courtroom. Many conservative Christians would agree with Judge Moore that our national law is grounded in the law of the 10 Commandments and supported him. The problem with that view is that…it is just not true and his act was, in fact, against the law.

The first four commandments are about a corporate relationship with God. The “preamble” to the Ten Commandments states, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt…” This is a law addressed to the Jewish people and their covenant relationship with God. These first commandments particularly run counter to the fundamental Constitutional right of freedom of and from religion, which is based upon individual conscience. There is no way these four commandments could be enacted into law in the US.

The last six commandments are by no means the foundation of US law either. The fifth command, to honor father and mother, and the seventh commandment against adultery, may be moral imperatives, but hardly legal codes that could be enacted within US law. Adultery can be a legal grounds for divorce, but making adultery illegal would probably be struck down as unconstitutional. In the same manner the tenth commandment on coveting could never become US law. It has to do with an inner disposition rather than an overt act, like stealing.

That leaves us with commandments six, eight and nine----no killing, stealing, or lying. Lies may be considered perjury in some cases and illegal, while telling your wife, through a concealed grimace, that her undercooked liver was wonderful is not punishable by law.

That leaves the two commandments about killing and stealing. These two may be echoed in US law, but killing is justifiable in self-defense or if instituted against declared enemies by US government and military policy.

All this is surely shaky grounds for the Ten Commandments being the foundation of US Law. Besides, the Founding Fathers and Framers of the Constitution established a consistent and clear message against this type of state and judicial establishment of religious moral codes. Thomas Jefferson specifically railed against attempts to claim that the common law incorporated the Ten Commandments when he criticized judges for "lay[ing] the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of others by declaring that [the Ten Commandments] make a part of the law of the land." John Adams also questioned the influence of the Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount on the legal system. The Ten Commandments are not the foundation of US law.

But, aren’t the Ten Commandments timeless, universal moral truths? A closer look at just one of the Ten Commandments should be enough to counter this claim, at least in the form in which it is written. Take, as an example, the command against coveting or the desire to possess another person’s property. This is a prohibition against wanting what your neighbor possesses----wife, male and female slaves, ox and ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Coveting comes before stealing as the desire to possess another’s property and particularly that which supports his means of livelihood. What would we consider timeless and universal in this commandment?

Surely not the things the commandment uses as examples of things we might covet. Note what the commandment lists as a man’s possessions, things that belong to your male neighbor----ox, ass, slaves, and wife. Is slavery, which is the possession of another human being, part of this timeless, universal truth? Is owning other human beings as property God’s eternal truth? Some Christians once thought so.

Is it a universal and eternal truth that wives are the property of their husbands, like ox, donkey, and a nice sharp plow? That was the belief and practice in ancient patriarchal societies, including the cultures of the Bible. Unmarried women were considered the property of their fathers. When daughters were married they were property transferred over to a husband in marriage through a “bride price”---- money paid by the husband to the parents of the bride.

A ritual vestige of this understanding of women as men’s property remains a part of some marriage ceremonies up to our modern day. It is reflected in the father “giving the bride away.” This ritual act reflects its origins in a time of arranged marriages in which daughters, who were their property of fathers, were given away to their husbands for a bride price. Today the ritual has become simply a blessing of the father or both parents.

This is the cultural context of the tenth commandment. Surely understanding women as property is not a timeless, universal truth. These commandments fit a particular historical and cultural context.

Remember, the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, are not the only commandments within the Torah, or Law of Israel. Jewish tradition has 613 commandments. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments are but a small part of the Law. Although the Ten Commandments are important to both Judaism and Christianity, they are only a fragment of Israel’s Law and part of a larger covenant relationship.

The Ten Commandments are not a universal code of conduct, timeless moral truths, or the foundation of US law. The Ten Commandments are part of the Law, Torah, which is essentially an ethical covenant God has made with a particular people, the people of Israel.

This does not mean the Ten Commandments have no relevance for Christians. But, as part of Israel’s Law, their relevance and application to the church is a contested issue. If we think of the Ten Commandments in the larger context of Israel’s law, there are various views on their relevance for Christians. Most often Christians turn to the apostle Paul for our interpretation of how the Law relates to Christians. According to the traditional view, Paul rejected the Torah once he converted to Christianity. This Paul proclaimed Christ to be “the end of the law.” (Romans 10:4). This is the Paul who said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. (Galatians 3:13)

The traditional Pauline view of the law was particularly shaped by Augustine, Martin Luther, the Reformers, and their antagonistic view that Catholicism was a religion of works. This traditional Pauline view goes something like this: Before Christ came humans lived “under the law,” but were unable to meet its demands. The law’s purpose was to highlight human sinfulness and our inability to live up to the law. The law is a curse in that it simply convicts us that we are sinners. No one can be justified, that is “get to heaven,” by the works of the law, but only by faith. Christ came and we are justified by faith through grace, not by works of the law, including the Ten Commandments.

So, in this Pauline scheme of things, faith and works are in opposition to one another. In this view Judaism is a religion of law and justification is by works, not by faith. Christianity is a religion of grace and justification is by faith, not by works. Christianity superseded Judaism. Paul started out as an enemy of Christianity, then was converted to Christianity and became an enemy of Judaism. Huh? And as a good Jew Jesus practiced his Jewish faith and the law and said we would be judged by our works and all that would eventually be done away with in his name. Wait a minute, this doesn’t sound quite right. And it doesn’t sound right to an Anabaptist ear or to the book of James that considers faith and works inextricably linked.

There are some problems with this traditional view of the law and its stereotyped caricatures of Judaism and Christianity. First of all, we have these words from Paul himself, which seem to contradict the previous view of Paul concerning the law. Paul himself says: Do we render the law void? God forbid! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31). What shall we say then? Is the law sin? By no means! (Romans 7:7) This Paul says that the law is holy, just, and good. (Romans 7:12) What gives? Is Paul contradicting himself?

And if we accept Jesus’ view and practice of the law, then the traditional Lutheran and Protestant view of Paul concerning the law becomes even more problematic. Jesus was a faithful, observant Jew. He followed the laws and rituals of his Jewish faith. He said, “I have not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it.” That does not mean he came to bring it to an end, but rather that he came to fill it full, to give it teeth, to deepen its meaning.

What do we do with Matthew’s Jesus. Matthew sees Jesus is a new Moses. Herod, like pharaoh, tries to destroy the baby. Jesus flees and is called out of Egypt, like Israel. Like a new Moses, Jesus delivers a new law on the mountaintop. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus draws out the meaning of the law, including some of the Ten Commandments, not to do away with it, but to give it deeper meaning. You have heard it was said….but I say unto you. His words don’t contradict or do away with Jewish law, but rather take it to a deeper level.

So, what’s the solution to these differing views of the law, which will shape our view of the relevance of the Ten Commandments for us? One recent proposal that has gained ground is to simply understand this: The negative statements Paul makes about the law are addressed to his Gentile audience. We must keep in mind Paul’s audience when he speaks about the law. Only by reading Paul with this in mind can we understand his attitude toward the law….as it relates to Gentiles. The law is God’s ethical covenant with the Jewish people, not with us Gentiles.

Although the law is good and still has a role to play, particularly for Jews, the law is not part of God’s covenant with the Gentiles. There the law ends. The curse of the law is when it is imposed upon Gentile believers, like you and me. The Torah is for Jews. It is what sets them apart from other people. It is their ethical covenant with God. The Gentiles have been brought into a new covenant with God, that includes both Jews and Gentiles, through the grace of Christ. This does not destroy the law as Israel’s ethical covenant with God. Paul never speaks against Jewish observance of the law. He is emphasizing that Gentiles have a different covenantal relationship with God than do the Jewish people. The law is God’s ethical covenant with the Jewish people. With this understanding the law still has relevance as part of God’s covenant with a particular people, the Jews.

When it comes to ethical covenants that are particular to a people, what might one look like for Zion? Of course, we, as Gentiles, follow the new covenant of Christ Jesus apart from the law. We have a new ethical covenant shaped by following in the way of Jesus. But, speaking to our own context, what particular ethical agreements might help shape us as a community where we are at right now? Let me offer Ten Suggestions for our own ethical covenant.

Some would say that because of our modern attitude toward the Ten Commandments we should rename them the Ten Suggestions. I have called mine the Ten Suggestions, first, because probably nobody at Zion likes being told what they should do. And secondly, because these are mine and not God’s. They are suggestions about how Zion can covenant to live together as God’s people here and now. Here they are:

The Lord your God, brought you out of land of Goshen, which is also a place in Egypt, and other Mennonite places, out of the house of the Amish Mennonites, along with some of you Gentiles from other places and religious backgrounds, therefore:

1. Thou shalt not have any other gods before you----that includes the elephant and donkey gods of the Republicans and Democrats, or even the music gods of classical, traditional, or contemporary. Neither worship the Evangelical or Mennonite gods as if they were a different or superior than the one God of the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, and Pentecostals.

2. Thou shalt not make for yourself any idol or bow down to them. Serve no national ideology, whether it is conservative Right or Liberal left or simply the good ole US of A, as absolute. Neither shalt thou make idols of flags, anthems, or even the Constitution. Thou shalt not construct any image of a pastor or church to bow down to; images that no real pastor or church could stand up to.

3. Thou shalt not use the name of Lord your God in vain by claiming your own limited viewpoint as God’s or swearing to God that you will do something for God if God does something for you.

4. Remember Sunday is a holy day to gather for corporate worship. Let not kids sports, trips to the coast, your garden, or general laziness keep you from consistently gathering for worship on this blessed day.

5. Honor your fathers and mothers; those elders of the church who have great wisdom to offer. Honor your church leaders, and pastoral staff. Thou shalt not take them for granted. Treat everyone with the respect you would offer to your own family members, for they are brothers and sisters in Christ.

6. Thou shalt work out your differences with others before you desire to murder them. First, go to that person and try to work out your differences in private. Second, if that doesn’t resolve the conflict add a third party, potentially a mediator. Third, if you are not reconciled after that, bring your conflict to a body of church leaders, like the elders. Fourth, then they may need to bring it before the whole church, which would be kind of embarrassing. Hopefully, your relationship will be reconciled before then or you will be so tired of talking about it with others that you will want to say to your brother or sister, “I’m tired of this. Let’s just drop this nonsense and be friends.”

7. Thou shalt not commit adulthood, if that means forgetting the spontaneity, playfulness, freedom, creativity, innocence, and hospitality of your inner child.

8. Thou shalt not steal the joy of serving God from others.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not pass on false rumors, no, more than that, pass on no gossip that is negative or hurtful to a fellow Zion member or any of your church leaders. Or God, who knows you like the back of her hand, will be your witness on the day of judgment.

10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s property; his new car, house, farm, barn, vacation home, flat screen TV, ipod, ipad, iphone, i-yi-yi, because they are all going to end up as rust or as obsolete as 8 track tapes by next year.

To put it simply: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the law and the prophets.

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