Wednesday, October 8, 2014

God's Ten Words for Us

This sermon was given by the Rev. Luther Zeigler at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, October 5th.

“Then God spoke all these words. . . .” Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Yul Brenner (who played Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments)
and Cecile B. DeMille unveil a monument.
As a child of the 1950s, I have a rather distinct memory of going to the movie theatre with my parents to see Cecile B. DeMille’s epic film, The Ten Commandments.  Although the movie seems almost comically campy to me now, to a young boy of that generation it was magisterial, intense, awe-inspiring.  To be sure, I had learned the Decalogue in Sunday School directly out of my grandfather’s copy of Luther’s Small Catechism, handed down to me by my father, but it was Hollywood that, for better or worse, etched this piece of biblical narrative in my imagination, at least until my reading of Scripture matured over the ensuing years.

What is less well known about DeMille’s production of that film is that in the years following its 1956 release, he joined forces with a state court judge by the name of E.J. Ruegemer to promote the film by erecting granite monuments of the Ten Commandments all over the country.  Judge Ruegemer had founded an organization called the Fraternal Order of Eagles whose initial aim was to combat juvenile delinquency by doing religious education around the Ten Commandments.  DeMille, however, saw a marketing opportunity.  And so he bankrolled the Fraternal Order of Eagles to manufacture dozens of gigantic monuments; enlisted the likes of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Martha Scott to do promotional photo-shoots at monuments’ installations; and thus transformed a sincere, if naïve, program of religious education into a Hollywood public relations campaign.

The story doesn’t end there.  In the decades since, these granite monuments themselves have become the focus of intense public controversy, as many of them were installed in quite public places, like state capitols.  Just as DeMille saw a marketing opportunity for his film, politicians around the country jumped on the bandwagon, endorsing the erection of these monuments in governmental spaces for their own political purposes.  And so, one such monument, erected in Austin, Texas, became the subject of one of the leading Supreme Court cases on the Establishment Clause, Van Orden v. Perry, in which a sharply divided Court, in a muddled collection of separate opinions, held that the monument’s placement on the capitol grounds did not encroach upon a constitutionally appropriate separation of church and state.

When you examine these monuments closely, however, as my Harvard colleague Michael Coogan has done in his recent, little book on the Ten Commandments, you see just how far we have come from the text of Exodus and its underlying story.  The language of the commandments on the monuments is carefully edited and sanitized, freed from any theological complexity or nuance.  Gone is any reference to the Hebrew people or to God’s self-identification as the one who brought them “out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.”  Instead, the commandments are presented as abstract, moral principles, and are positioned under a very prominent image of an American bald eagle, holding in its talons an equally prominent American flag. 

I don’t need to tell you that there is considerable irony here.  Words from a compassionate God to the Hebrew people about the dangers of chasing after idols and making graven images of false gods, and about the life-giving possibilities of living in right relationship with God and neighbor, have somehow been hijacked by Hollywood movie moguls and Texas politicians and made into its own pernicious idol, only to be used as one more blunt instrument in ongoing culture wars about national and religious identity.

Lest we require proof of this, we need merely consider recent polls that show that while 76% of Americans strongly believe that our Constitution ought to allow for the Ten Commandments to be displayed publicly, less than 25% of them can name even four of the commandments.  We want the power to assert our views against others, even when we’re not sure exactly what they are, much less what they mean.

One of the challenges for us as a church is to take on the hard work of re-directing this cultural conversation and re-telling our foundational stories in fresh and compelling ways; and perhaps even more importantly, of embodying these stories authentically in our own communities.

As we know, when we place the Ten Commandments back in the broader context of the Exodus wilderness narrative, we begin to see that these “ten holy words” are not abstract moral principles, but rather an invitation from God to identity and purpose, a framework for living in relationship as community.

The fact, elided by DeMille’s monuments, that the Decalogue begins with God reminding His people of their deliverance from captivity is crucial, not least because it demonstrates that these commandments are rooted not just in God's power to enunciate them, but in the redemptive and merciful experience of salvation that speaks to His nature.  God has heard a people’s cries.  Sensitive to their suffering, he has freed them from captivity in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, fed them, raised up for them prophetic leaders, and now He assures this once-bereft group of slaves that they are indeed his treasured possession, who will find life if only they embrace and embody these covenantal words.

Seen this way, the commandments are a way of forming and nurturing an alternative community, one that chooses to organize itself not around the idols of wealth, power, and prestige, but around right relationships with God and neighbor.  Indeed, the Ten Commandments’ very architecture reflects these commitments.  The text literally begins with “God” and ends with “neighbor,” and it is in the space between these poles – between a radical commitment to God and compassion for the neighbor – that we are invited to live.  But the order is important.  We start with God.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “It is important to ‘get it right’ about Yahweh, in order to ‘get it right’ about neighbor.”

And just as the Commandments fall neatly into tablets about God-relationship (the first four commandments) and human-relationship (the last six), so too at the center of the text is the hinge of the Sabbath commandment, with its insistence on rest and restoration for every person, animal, and field, revealing that life is more than productivity and work.

The commandments, as a whole, thus present an alternative vision to life in Egypt, a land where there had been little interest in relationship, regeneration, or rest.  In contrast to that life of bondage, this new community refuses to define itself in terms of violence or human power.  With these carefully structured commandments, God makes it possible for His people to view their new lives, not as chaotic and terrifying, but as meaningful and potentially fruitful. 

My first call as an ordained priest was to serve as chaplain to an Episcopal elementary school.  Among my duties was to teach the Hebrew Bible to young children, including, of course, the Ten Commandments.  When I first started out, I naively thought that the best way to teach them was to require my students to memorize the Commandments and repeat them back to me.  The next year I learned how important it was to embed the commandments in their larger narrative, as well as to discuss some of the simple theological values that they express. 

But it wasn’t until my third year of teaching that I came upon the idea of also engaging my students in the exercise of writing their own covenant to shape our classroom life together.  And so, we sat down as a class at the beginning of the year and, with the Ten Commandments in mind as a backdrop, we wrote out our own community covenant.  The students decided that it was important to start each class with prayer, to develop norms of respect and care that would guide our interactions with one another, and in the midst of our learning, to foster a culture of support rather than competition.  The students were then charged with living into the covenant over the course of the year.

What I discovered along the way is that the best way to teach the Ten Commandments is not to objectify them into hollow words to be remembered and regurgitated, but to look for opportunities to embody these holy words in a shared community life.  Rather than writing the commandments up on a blackboard, or etching them into a monument, or litigating our ‘right’ to do either, perhaps our time and energy would be better devoted to looking for creative and faithful ways to model these holy words in our homes, our churches, and our communities.

As most you know, over the past year the Chaplaincy’s home at Two Garden Street has been transformed into, among other things, an intentional religious community for seven Life Together fellows, our friend, Zach, here, among them.  These fellows live on the top two floors of our house and organize their lives in a consciously countercultural way.  Instead of allowing the rhythm of their days and weeks to be driven primarily by patterns of consumption, or the pursuit of wealth and prestige, or daily television listings, they are bound together by a covenant of community life that is very much anchored in love of God and love of neighbor.  They share the household chores of shopping, cooking and cleaning; they allow for prayer and worship each day, both in common and alone; they have regular times set aside for community time; and their work is in serving various nonprofits and churches whose mission is to meet the needs of others.

Their community is one small, but important example of how covenantal living can be embodied.  Precisely how each one of us reflects covenantal patterns of living in our own lives will always, of course, be contextual, dependent upon where we are in the cycle of life – single, married, with families, or not.  But it is in living of this kind – grounded in relationship to God and neighbor – where we ultimately find meaning and purpose and life itself.  Covenantal communities of this sort, I would submit, are a much more compelling monument to the Ten Commandments than any granite statue.


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