03/07/2021 ~ Third Sunday in Lent ~ Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22 ~ The Elijah Kellogg Church
God the Teacher
“Then God spoke these words and said, / ‘I am Yahweh, God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; / do not worship any gods except me.’” — Exodus 20:1-3. ~ VIDEO: https://vimeo.com/522911582>
I have no doubt about this. My late father was very smart, brilliant really. He graduated from High School and College first in his class. He graduated from college in 1943, when most others his age were fighting WW II.
Why was he not in uniform? He was born with a birth defect. His left arm could not be raised even to the height of the shoulder. If you can’t lift your arm you can’t lift a rifle to the right level to fire it. Hence, he was classified as 4F. So he stayed in school.
In that scholastic career he was very proud to have been the editor of both his High School and College year books. He loved writing and editing. But his first job out of college was not in writing or editing.
He took a job as an English Teacher at Regis High School in New York City, a school run by the Jesuits. Fun fact— Dr. Anthony Fauci is a Regis graduate so it is 100% likely my Dad was one of his teachers. Indeed, Dad’s entire working career was spent at Regis. And his colleagues thought of him as a master teacher. (Slight pause.)
Now, as I think many of you know, my ordained standing is with the United Church of Christ. First Parish in Brunswick sponsored me at Seminary. The United Church of Christ ordains people with a specific title— not Pastor but Pastor and Teacher.
And people sometimes tell me I’m a good teacher. A colleague once said of me that I did not know how to write a sermon without some teaching in it.
I say I simply inherited the teaching gene; I got it from my Father. But also and as some of you know, I had a career before ministry as a professional writer for theater. I had material performed Off-Broadway and Off-off-Broadway.
Becoming a pastor did not stop my writing. Pastors write sermons, newsletter articles, recommendations, etc. Which is to say maybe I also inherited a writing gene.
And Dad really wanted to be a writer, not a teacher. But the truth is not many people earn a living exclusively as a professional writer.
Indeed, many writers do not work at it full time. Even most TV writers don’t just write but produce the programs. Many writers also work teaching at colleges.
Which is to say people who only write for a living are freelance workers. Stephen King, despite his success, works freelance! Writers are, effectively, in business for themselves, by themselves. It’s a hard, dangerous, risk-taking way to make a living.
So here’s a final truth about my Father. Not long after college he got married and soon after there were children who had to be fed. In short, his situation did not line up well with the risk-taking the life style required of a professional writer.
Now I think my parents were happy and proud when I embarked on a writing career and had some success. They supported me in any way they could. I was, you see, fulfilling my Father’s dreams about being a writer. (Slight pause.)
I want to pass on something my Dad, the master teacher, said. He said he never gave any student a grade; they gave it to themselves. (Slight pause.)
If a student decides to participate or to not participate in the work— either way— the results will be obvious. Dad said all he ever did was record the results. (Slight pause.) He never gave any student a grade; they gave it to themselves. (Slight pause.)
We hear this in the work known as Exodus: “Then God spoke these words and said, / ‘I am Yahweh, God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; / do not worship any gods except me.’” (Slight pause.)
The words from this passage are commonly known as the Ten Commandments. However, among Jewish scholars, in Jewish tradition, this passage is not known as the Ten Commandments. This passage is known as the Ten Words.
That being said, rumor has it a good teacher understands repetition can be quite annoying but sometimes necessary. Repetitio Est Mater Studiorum— repetition is the mother of learning— was one of my Father’s favorite Latin aphorisms.
So please, do me a favor. Wherever you are— in your car, at home, please repeat this with me. The Ten Commandments are not commandments but are ten words. Say it with me now— The Ten Commandments are not commandments but are ten words.
Here’s another interesting point. In Biblical Hebrew the command tense does not exist, at least not in the same sense as in English— an order. In Hebrew the command tense does not exist. (Slight pause.)
Rumor has it a good teacher provides some basic information. Then it’s up to the student to decide what the information means, what to do with it, how to understand it, absorb it. I’ve just provided some basic information which questions if there are actually commands in the Commandments.
However and as you probably know, there is a cultural tendency, an imperative, to think of this passage as something strict and immovable. Given this basic information, let me suggest that image of the Ten Commandments as being imperatives etched in stone needs to be seen as a secular, even irreligious, concept. (Slight pause.)
Now let me offer some more information. There are range of faith traditions. These traditions cannot even agree on how to number the commandments.
The Jewish tradition, the Reformed tradition, the Eastern tradition and the Catholic tradition— four different groups— each number the ten in four different ways. One wonders why our society erects monuments with ten numbers. After all— whose version of the numbers should take precedence? (Slight pause.)
Further, Scripture, itself, has three different versions of “Ten Commandments.” Two of them, composed by different authors in different eras, are in Exodus, Exodus 20:1-17 which we just heard and Exodus 34:6-26. Another is Deuteronomy 5:6-21. As I said, why do we put up monuments which make these words seem so specific? Which version found in Scripture should take precedence? (Slight pause.)
Rumor has it a good teacher gives homework. There are numerous translations of today’s passage and the other passages which contain the so-called commandments.
Just for fun and when you have time, please look up multiple translations of each of these— maybe half a dozen or so translations. Compare them. Ponder the differences you see. What does it mean that translations render the words in different ways?
As I said, why do we put up monuments, pretending these words are static? Which translation, which words should take precedence? (Slight pause.)
This leads to an obvious question. I have just suggested the “Ten Commandments” are not what our culture makes them out to be, not strictures etched in stone. So what are the words of this passage about? (Slight pause.)
I think these words primarily make a claim about who God is. God is the One Who loved the Israelites, guided their rescue from bondage, led them toward freedom.
These words start with the love of God which means they start with an action of God, not a command. My claim is even the words which follow are not commands. Rather, they record a result, a result of participation in the work of God. These words are or should be a result of a relationship with God, a result of the love of God for humanity and a result of humanity participating in the love God offers.
Hence— especially when it comes to phrases like “No murdering! No giving false testimony…!” — these words are about the result of relationships, loving one another. These words speak of God’s love and invite us to participate with each other in the love God offers. These words should be looked at as the result of that love. (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest if we respect and love one another then we will be enabled to live out from rather than live within the “Ten Commandments,” live out from them in ways which will amaze us, empower us to see the world as God sees the world.
Indeed, I think the world sees the “Ten Commandments” as restrictions on behavior. I think God sees these words as a result of our participation in the work of God called love.
And I also think God sees the first words in the passage as a homework assignment, if you would. Our assignment is to participate in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God. And, if we participate in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, then respect and love are sure to be a result. God is the great teacher. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “People need to remember something very simple about the Ten Commandments. When Jesus, the Christ, was asked what are the greatest commandments the answer referenced Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, not the so called ‘The Commandments.’ So the question for us is simple. When will we follow the example of Jesus? When will we stop worshiping what the culture tells us is a god, indeed stop worshiping cultural idols? That carved image reference we heard in today’s reading tells us what we would be doing if we truly lived out from the commandments. We need to be worshiping something other than idols. Indeed, we need to worship the One Triune God, the God of relationship, the God of love.”
BENEDICTION: This is the message of Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness, there is power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God, the Creator, the Peace of Christ, the presence of the Christ, something which surpasses all understanding, and companionship of the Holy Spirit Who is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.