I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of slaves.Judge Roy Moore is often known as the “10 Commandments Judge.” He’s become known as a devout Christian who relies on biblical scripture in his rulings. Judge Moore began his judicial career as an Alabama circuit court judge in the 1990s. He placed a hand-carved tablet of the 10 Commandments behind his courtroom bench and began jury selection with prayer. Soon enough, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Moore for violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In 1996, an Alabama circuit judge ruled that prayer in the courtroom was unconstitutional and later ordered that the 10 Commandments display either be removed or placed alongside secular documents like the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Moore responded, saying: “I will not surround the 10 Commandments with other items to secularize them. That’s putting man above God.” Moore eventually won out. In 1998, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuits, and the commandments stayed. Judge Moore’s popularity, thanks to his defiance, skyrocketed. Two years later, he was elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
No other gods, only me.
No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God. I hold parents responsible for any sins they pass on to their children to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation. But I’m lovingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.
No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.
No working on the Sabbath; keep it holy just as God, your God, commanded you. Work six days, doing everything you have to do, but the seventh day is a Sabbath, a Rest Day—no work: not you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey (or any of your animals), and not even the foreigner visiting your town. That way your servants and maids will get the same rest as you. Don’t ever forget that you were slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there in a powerful show of strength. That’s why God, your God, commands you to observe the day of Sabbath rest.
Respect your father and mother—God, your God, commands it! You’ll have a long life; the land that God is giving you will treat you well.
No lies about your neighbor.
No coveting your neighbor’s wife. And no lusting for his house, field, servant, maid, ox, or donkey either—nothing that belongs to your neighbor! ~ Deuteronomy 5:6-21
Moore resurrected the debate when he commissioned a 5,200-lb. granite 10 Commandments monument and placed it inside the Alabama State Judicial Building. By August 2003, a federal judge ordered the monument removed. Again, Moore refused, forcing his fellow justices to remove it instead and sparking thousands of protesters to rally in support of Moore outside the state judicial building. But they weren’t able to save his job. Later that year, a state judicial panel removed Moore from his post as chief justice. In 2012, Moore won election back to the office of Alabama Chief Justice.
In the latest round of debate over the 10 Commandments, just last week, a granite monument of the 10 Commandments installed on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds was removed and transported to a private conservative think tank for storage. The Oklahoma Supreme ruled that the display violates a state constitutional prohibition on the use of public property to support, "any sect, church, denomination or system of religion." In other cases, the City of Bloomfield, NM has been ordered to remove a 10 Commandments statue in front of City Hall. Meanwhile, a circuit court agreed that a 10 Commandments monument on the Civic Plaza in Fargo, ND could remain.
Some would think that 10 Commandments would not create such a storm. Telling people not to kill and steal seems like a moral code that almost all civilized people can embrace. To some, the 10 Commandments seem to be as much a part of America as baseball and apple pie. Disputes over the 10 Commandments are nothing new. Today, the challenges to posting them government facilities and public schools focus on the church-state issue. However, our Christian and Jewish family trees had their own challenges with the 10 Commandments over many hundreds of years. In the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the 10 Commandments were always proclaimed in worship. However, outside the Temple, the recitation was banned. Some ancient Rabbis taught that too much emphasis on just 10 statements might lead people to believe that these were the only commandments, or the most important commandments of the 613 commandments that were given to Moses. Christians debate their use in worship, too. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both insisted on the public reading of the 10 Commandments. They thought that keeping God’s commandments showed gratitude for our salvation. Other Christians claim there’s no need for the commandments anymore, because if we are in Christ we have a new law to follow.
Let’s think about the 10 Commandments as Ancient Israel’s mission statement. God and Moses both knew that the people of Israel needed a document pointed them toward their destiny. It had to be a statement broad enough to encompass a variety of interpretations, yet compelling enough to be shared by everyone. The 10 Commandments formed the Israelite people into a unified nation with a shared purpose.
I’ve been reminding us, as we work our way through the book of Deuteronomy, that it wasn’t actually written by Moses. Let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, many centuries after the death of Moses, a group of wise teachers face a fractured political system in which the rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor, worship of God has been forgotten, and Israel is about to be evicted from the Promised Land. The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel, calling on a fractured nation to remember their history, to remember the promises of God, and to remember what God has done for them. The writers are saying, “Like Israel of old, disobedience to God will bring calamity. The only way to find renewal is through the commandment.” In other words, they remind the people of their mission, their covenant, their reason for existence.
Having a shared purpose defines community. In today’s reading, Moses reminds generations of Israelites, bonded together over centuries, of their shared mission: to learn and to do God’s will. As they stand on the brink of the Promised Land, they need to be review of their shared purpose so that they become one nation.
In Hebrew, the 10 commandments are not actually called commandments at all. They are called the 10 Sayings, the 10 Statements, the 10 Words, even the 10 Things, but not the 10 Commandments. I like that. What if we thought of the 10 commandments more as 10 sayings? Instead of trying to get us to walk in line to receive God’s favor, what if the Sayings are really teaching people how to live in covenantal relationship with God and community? What if, instead of prohibitions, these 10 Words convey positive aspirations about how to respect one another deeply? What if instead of laws of the court, they become laws of the heart, intended to lead to fullness of life and freedom within the bounds of faithfulness to a liberating God?
I agree with Luther and Calvin on this point: simply obeying commandments will not save you or make God love you more. God already loves you. But what impoverished people we would be if we never took the opportunities to behave in ways which are intended to please our beloved. The enjoyment of our relationships would be tragically weakened if we had no idea how to express your love in return. And for that, these 10 Words are a precious and positive gift. Israel sustains one side of the covenant by loving God and by not putting any other value in place of God.
It takes a lot of trust, doesn’t it? The fundamental condition that Israel had to meet in order to enjoy God's blessing was trust in God’s best intentions for the people. The only way to receive forgiveness is by trusting the forgiver. And the only way to benefit from the promises is to trust the promiser.
The act of placing trust in someone or something else is a basic human experience. Without trust, fear rules. Every day we make choices about whom and how much to trust, and sometimes we are more willing to trust than at other times. That’s a good thing; a total lack of mistrust would indicate a serious psychological problem. Judgments about when and whom to trust help keep us safe and alive!
During the 1930s, 250 men were holding the ropes to a dirigible (an airship similar to a blimp) to keep it from floating away. Suddenly a gust of wind caught one end of the dirigible, lifting it high off the ground. Some of the men immediately let go of their ropes and fell safely to the ground. Others panicked, clinging firmly to the end of their ropes as the nose of the dirigible rose to greater heights. Several men who couldn’t keep holding on fell and were seriously injured. One man, however, continued to dangle high in the air for forty-five minutes until he was rescued. Reporters later asked him how he was able to hold on to the rope for so long. “I didn’t hold on to the rope,” he replied. “I just tied it around my waist, and the rope held on to me.”
Some people think that commandments tie them down or put them in a bind. But, what if the ropes of God’s Words are there to hold on to us when life is tough, and dangerous, and scary? Trust means seeing, and hearing, and feeling sure signs of God’s presence during life’s pain.
What would it means for Christ Congregational Church to cultivate a place of trust in a perilous world?
What would it mean for us to encourage a place of faith where we are reminded that God can be trusted?
What would it mean for us to foster a place of refuge where we feel safe with each other?
What would it mean for us to support an open place where we freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength?
What would it mean for us to sustain a forbearing place where we recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys?
What would it mean for us to nurture a responsible place where we hold one another accountable for our individual acts while we promote justice, inclusion and peace as a community?
What would it mean for us to provide an honest place where we deal with disagreements constructively, and communicate with others in direct, caring, supportive, and responsible ways?
What would it mean for us to continue on as an inspiring place where the quality of our worship and the deepness of our caring renew our trust?
At CCC, we’ve been talking about reconciliation over the past few months. Our Congregational Support Team reminded us that there are times when we all fail one another, often unintentionally. We all have shortcomings and failures, and nowhere is that more apparent than when we disappoint each other in our church home. Each and every one of us is called to repentance and forgiveness – to support each other with open minds and loving hearts.
Churches use the reconciliation a lot. I don’t think you can have reconciliation without two ingredients: covenant and trust. First, the community has to establish some new norms. Like Moses and the people of Israel on the brink of the promise, we review the covenant expectations that brought it together in the first place. After times of conflict, sometimes we move to quickly to the forgive-and-make-up phase, but we skip a step. As a conflict ends, we need structures in place that can help those who feel wounded to deal with the new realities of living together. We rehearse and review our covenant all the time. It helps remind us of the values and visions that nurture our community and form our identity.
We also learn to trust those structures. Good structures are like the rope on that blimp – they hold us safely when we need help. We need to live with our structures for a while, we talk about how they are working for us, and we make sure they are not oppressive or manipulative. We learn to trust the good intentions of others. We remember that most people want peace and forgiveness. We trust that life together in God can give us a sense of newness, a strengthened mission, and the assurance that we can heal together.
In this spirit, we are trying something new here at CCC. All church-sponsored events that happen off site will have an opportunity to rehearse our covenant together. At each event, like Beach Weekend, or the Homecoming Day at the Retreat House, we are carving out intentional time to review who we are and who God calls us to be. We remind ourselves that we are all valuable, worthy, loveable people. We remind ourselves that our love and care for one another is made known in how we treat each other. We remind ourselves that we are committed to following community rules in order to make a safe, nurturing space for people of all races, colors, ages, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities. We review the values and visions that nurture the community and give it identity. And we commit to holding each other accountable. It’s OK to let people know when we are not meeting the expectations we agreed to. It’s OK to have conversations about how we can propel each other to behave better. It’s hard, but it’s OK.
I believe this is our time. It is time for us at CCC to reclaim our place as the church known for its compassionate, prayerful response to the world around us. It’s time to move forward with trust and faithfulness, humility and hope, engaging in the urgent tasks of support and transformation, both within our own lives and in the life of our congregation. It’s time to review the covenant the brought us together and, again, be pointed towards our destiny.