The Ten Commandments: Words to Live By?

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20


A sermon by Meighan Pritchard

Prospect United Church of Christ

Seattle, WA October 8, 2017


Launching Wisdom & Justice series for Oct-Nov


Here’s the Seattle Times headline yesterday: “Trump says faith comes first.” Well, for once we agree. For me, faith does come first. It frames everything I do. At least, that’s the goal.


It is clear that this article is not about just any faith coming first. It says nothing about Islam, Judaism, or our own Progressive Christianity. So when I say I agree that faith comes first, the devil’s in the details. It’s all about how we frame words such as “faith,” “Christian,” and “church.” Trump is allowing some people’s conservative Christian faith to be imposed on others in a way that limits people’s health care options, access to and funding of contraceptives and abortions, opens the door to lesser-than treatment of LGBTQ people, and on and on.


Kurt Vonnegut wrote,

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!


When we think about the Ten Commandments, what may come to mind is all the “Thou shalt nots” from the King James Version, or Judge Roy Moore in Alabama in 1990 refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from the courthouse. It may seem impossible to consider that these same Ten Commandments could speak a life-giving word to us.


It’s all about framing. The Social and Environmental Justice Team is reading George Lakoff’s book The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, which talks about framing. We are in the midst of a profound discussion about the frame through which we take action on social and environmental justice, and we have to get that figured out before we can decide how to prioritize our work for this year. If you ever thought that church and theology happened only in the sanctuary, come check out one of these meetings.


So how do we frame the Ten Commandments? Because if we are going to take them at all seriously, we have to know what they say—for us.  In the way we understand Christianity, are the Ten Commandments words to live by? Or do we set them aside as old, outdated, judgmental, superseded? Let’s unpack them briefly.


No other gods, no idols

What are some of the gods we worship today? Money, fame, success, power, technology. Maybe we have gods of addiction we worship, where we will sacrifice job, relationships, health, even life in order to feed that addiction.


In an op-ed in the Seattle Times on Friday, James K. Wellman, Jr., suggested that we worship the gun. Worship requires silence, distance, sacrifice. So our leaders are silent on gun control, keep their distance from that topic, saying “Now is not the time” even when we just sacrificed another 58 innocent victims and forever altered the lives of the hundreds of wounded in Las Vegas and the thousands of others who surround them. Our culture worships the gun. [James K. Wellman, Jr., “More blood at the altar of the gun,” Seattle Times, October 6, 2017.]


So to say that we worship God and not all these other things is radical.


How do we prioritize worship of God? What does that mean?

Prioritize activities that fill our spirits: Sunday worship together, time in nature

Organize our lives around the things that we understand matter to God: love of God, love of neighbor, love of self, care for creation, justice for the oppressed, generosity, forgiveness, acceptance, abundance, radical welcome.


Don’t take God’s name in vain.

It is not okay to say that God wants such and such, when really you are the one who wants it. It is not okay to oppress people, kill them, remove children from their families, hit people upside the head with the Bible and tell them they’re going to hell because you have appointed yourself God’s spokesperson. When really the overarching message throughout the Bible is about God’s overwhelming love. God created the world—and called it good. God created you, and you are good. And God invites us to be even better and to take care of God’s good creation. Not to take it upon ourselves to inform people, as the song title goes, “Jesus loves me, but he can’t stand you.”


Keep the Sabbath.

This is about prioritizing worship, which we already discussed, but it’s also about taking time off. Not just you, but your whole family, your staff, your animals. Back in the mid-19th century when thousands of people were streaming west on the Overland Trail, one cluster of families determined that they would rest on the Sabbath. As much as they wanted to reach the end of their journey, and as hard as it was to watch others stream past them all Sunday long, they pitched camp on Saturday nights near the best grass and water they could find, and they stayed put. What they observed after some weeks on the trail was that they had fewer health and injury issues with the animals pulling their wagons, and they themselves had the stamina to keep going when others around them were falling apart.


We need breaks. We need vacations. Yes! Magazine notes that many of us say vacation time is important, but we also don’t use it all. Nowadays even when we’re supposedly on vacation, many of us will add, “But I’ve got my cell phone with me—call if something comes up.” That is not a vacation, people. That is not what unplugging looks like.


Imagine unplugging the computer and the phone and the TV one day a week. Imagine one day a week when you withdrew from our consumer buy-buy-buy culture and did other things instead—had a home-cooked dinner with neighbors, read a book, went on a walk. Keeping the Sabbath is about taking breaks so that we can rest and recharge. And if anyone tries to make you feel guilty for taking care of yourself, you can just say, it’s a commandment.


Honor your parents.

I have to say, the commandment to honor your parents has to come from someone who has had teenagers. Honor your parents if you want to live long: in other words, so help me, if you roll your eyes at me one more time, I’m gonna throttle you. Which of course violates the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment, which we’ll get to in a minute.


But the Ten Commandments wasn’t written just for teenagers. Adults honor their parents who are aging and perhaps less able to meet all their own needs. Many of you have dealt with this as your own parents aged. Some of you are the parents. We honor our parents by making sure they can live independently for as long as possible, pitching in to help here and there with tasks that have become too onerous for them. And how better to honor our parents than to make sure they have decent health care that is actually affordable?


Thou shalt not kill.

Not from the 32nd floor of a hotel overlooking a country western concert.

Not by pushing a red button to drop nuclear bombs on countries across the globe.

Not by driving a vehicle into a crowd of people and running them down.

Not by pulling over Black men and shooting them when they reach for their driver’s licenses.

Not by torching Rohingya villages and sending people fleeing for their lives across the border to Bangladesh.

Not by pushing entire species to extinction through climate change.

Not by—again—denying affordable health care to people who desperately need it.

Not by denying refugee status to people from Central America who fled the gangs.


What would be a positive frame for this commandment? Instead of saying “Thou shalt not kill,” maybe we could think about ways in which we support what is life-giving. Here are just a few:

  • Maybe we could learn to live more in balance with nature and the countless other species that have a right to live here.
  • If we want to decrease the death toll for Black men, we could examine the role of White privilege and the ongoing racism that runs often unquestioned throughout every aspect of our society.
  • If we want the death toll from gun violence to go down, we have to dare to take on the NRA’s stranglehold on our legislators at both the state and national levels.


In the same paper that starts with “Faith comes first,” we also find this op-ed by the Rev. Kelle Brown, who is the lead pastor at Plymouth UCC downtown. As people were calling for prayers for Las Vegas, she wrote in response,

Let us [pray differently than before] knowing that massacres by way of assault rifles are absolutely preventable. Let us pray to become agents of change. It is disingenuous to keep praying to God to fix a monstrous horror that humans created, a horror we have the power to transform.

May we rise up and create a nation that values life.  May we resolve to end such tragedies today. May we look to cultures that choose differently, and may we elect leaders who prioritize people over gun profits.

May we be unified in our dismay that we have not yet discovered sensible weapon-law reform. May we call domestic terrorism by its name. We must resist allowing racism and Islamophobia to limit our dialogue on this issue. … Let us believe that we are empowered and capable to impact change for the better.


Thou shalt not commit adultery. Show up for your relationships. Commit to them fully. If they’re not working, have some honest communication about that. But don’t start cheating on anyone. We’ve seen too many times how that story plays out. Pain all around, reputations ruined. Live your life honestly. Be who you say you are. Which leads us to….


Thou shalt not bear false witness.

Tobacco companies claimed for years that smoking was not a health risk, even when they knew it was.

Exxon has known for decades that fossil fuels were causing the planet to heat up, but they kept on with business as usual and have actively worked against efforts to transition away from fossil fuels.

Monsanto would have us believe that the weed-killer Round Up is perfectly safe. They have developed genetically modified crops that can withstand multiple doses of Round Up. Meanwhile the Mississippi River is filling up with all the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers washing off our farms throughout the Midwest. The Mississippi dumps all these deadly toxins into the Gulf of Mexico, where they create a dead zone that is sometimes the size of New Jersey—an area where no marine life can survive. Monsanto is bearing false witness.


Thou shalt not steal. Not by cheating on our taxes or embezzling from the company. We’ve seen companies in recent years that reneged on paying pensions to their retirees—pensions to which the retirees had contributed with their wages for years. The companies mismanaged those funds, and the money is gone. The company stole from its employees.


We shall not steal more than our share of the earth’s resources from the generations that will follow us. There is a lawsuit currently in the Ninth Circuit, which includes Washington State, brought by a group called Our Children’s Trust. This lawsuit argues that the Fifth Amendment protects our right to life, liberty, and living on property. But the young people bringing this case state that their rights to these things in the future are being stolen. They cannot live on property that is blown away in hurricanes, swept away in floods, eroded by rising seas, or burned out in wildfires. If we as a society are going to stop stealing from future generations, we have to change how we do business, how we fuel our homes and cars, how we think about the impact of our carbon footprint on the generations to come.


Thou shalt not covet

Be content with what you have. Practice gratitude. Success is not about how much stuff you have but how you live your life before God. The marketeers would have us believe that we need more stuff in order to be cool, popular, valuable. Mink coats, diamond rings, a Mercedes. God tells us that we are more loved than we can even begin to comprehend. We are loved as we are. We don’t need all the stuff to convince ourselves—or anyone else—that we are loved and valued. Stuff can get in our way, get between us and God. If we have lots of stuff, we need to spend time and money protecting it, worrying about it, maintaining it. Less stuff, less to worry about, smaller carbon footprint.

You can never have too much of what you don’t really need. If at heart you perceive yourself as a worthless person, then no amount of gold or fancy cars or adoring fans will change that. Coveting stuff can be a symptom of an inner emptiness.


How we frame the Ten Commandments and understand their meaning for us in today’s world matters. It impacts how we understand ourselves as Christians—as followers of Christ. It matters not only for our time together here in this sanctuary on Sundays, but also for how we live our lives all the other days of the week.


The Israelites had over 600 rules to follow. The Ten Commandments gave them a basic frame of the essentials. Jesus later distilled all the rules down to three: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. If we apply these teachings to our own lives and how we live in the broader world today, these rules are still vibrant and life-giving tools for helping us to define our values and figure out how to be honest, good people in our families and communities. Faith comes first. Absolutely. Not in judging others, but in relationship to God and neighbor and self. Faith as a frame through which we create our moral compass. Faith as life-giving, relationship-building, hopeful, loving, caring, accepting.


People are hungry to know about this faith. They are dying without it. Let’s let them in on the secret by claiming our own faith values. We love our God, not other idols. We make time for Sabbath. We do not take God’s name in vain. We honor our parents. We do not kill. We do not commit adultery. We do not steal. We do not bear false witness. We do not covet more than our share of anything. That’s the good news that we can take out to the world. Amen.



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