Sermon - 8th October 2017
The 10 Commandments
Scripture - Exodus 20:1-17
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Let us imagine that we are going on a journey. For example, let us say that we will be in Trafalgar Square in London next Saturday 14 October at 11am. For some of us, that is enough information: we will make our way there by whichever route and mode of transport. For others of us, they will need some help and guidance, advice on how to get there, specific information about train times etc.
Another example: have you ever bought any self-assembly furniture? You bring it home in its box, unpack it and before you are an array of parts, screws and other fixings. For some of us, we will instinctively know how to put the furniture together without much effort; meanwhile, for others of us, careful reference to the instructions at each step will be needed.
These two examples serve the same purpose to make that point that while for some of us, certain matters can be straightforward; for others of us, we require additional support, direction and guidance.
You may be familiar with the occasion when Jesus was asked by one of the Pharisees: “Which is the greatest commandment?” You can read this in Matthew 22:36-40, where Jesus answers:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’”
Just like my examples about the journey and the furniture, for some of us, living out the Christian life with these two commandments to love is relatively straightforward; but for others of us, we may require more specific direction to live out a godly life. For over 2000 years, Christians have taken The Ten Commandments as a more specific guide, giving instruction in what is both right and wrong. Indeed, the legal system in the UK (and many other countries) is based on these Ten Commandments.
We find The Ten Commandments twice in the Old Testament: firstly, in Exodus 20 (1-17); secondly, almost the same word for word in Deuteronomy 5 (6-21). Because of their significance in our cultural and religious history, their words are often lifted out of the context of the surrounding chapters. It also does not help that the film, The Ten Commandments – the one by director Cecil B DeMille and starring Charlton Heston as Moses – also strays from the context.
The following significant point seems to have become overlooked: in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts, the verses that come before the Commandments describe the nation of Israel assembling before God at Mount Sinai [or Horeb in Deuteronomy] and God speaking the Commandments directly to the people. Deuteronomy 5:24:
“The Lord our God showed us his greatness and his glory when we heard him speak from the fire! Today we have seen that it is possible for people to continue to live, even though God has spoken to them.”
It is only afterwards that the people are so afraid that they pleaded with Moses that he become God’s intermediary.
Let us more closely at the Commandments, beginning by hearing them read to us.
If you were following our reading in French, you may have noticed something which is not clear in the English translation: God addresses the people of Israel in the singular – in French, “tu”, “toi” and “ton”. While it could be said that this is God talking to each individual, it is more likely that God is addressing the people of Israel as one, single community and provide direction for a healthy society; however, for a community to achieve this wholeness, it requires each member to respect and live out the Commandments. This is the basis on which these Commandments became the legal cornerstone of Christian nations.
The Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, reflecting on the role of God in morality and law in society, wrote: “Without God, all things are permissible.”
The Commandments begin with God’s declaration of identity: “I am the Lord.” The Hebrew word YHWH, which Jewish people will never say out-loud, as it is considered too holy, gives a name to God. Remember that the historical context was the Jewish nation’s tribes occupying the land of Canaan with its many gods and goddesses with very different cultural and religious practices which even included human sacrifice. Having escaped slavery in Egypt, Israel was a new nation, and these Commandments formed the cornerstone of their new common life together.
We are going to look very briefly at each Commandment, in reverse order, with some thoughts for each, sometimes with an LGBT perspective…
10 - Do not desire another’s property:
How can we be happy in life if we are not satisfied with what we have? There is nothing wrong in desiring things for our own lives, but we need to create these things for ourselves. What suits someone else might appeal to us, but as the saying goes… the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
As LGBT people, we have desired the same rights as straight people; while equality legislation has come a long way, society is still learning, as the shocking upward trend of LGBT hate-crime demonstrates.
9 – Do not accuse anyone falsely:
If you have ever been on the wrong side of being falsely accused of something, you will know how destructive this can be. It can ruin one’s good name, career and health. It is a wound that may never heal. As a magistrate, I have sometimes sat on cases where the lies and false accusations of another have been exposed, and they are the most difficult of all cases to manage.
As LGBT people, we may have experienced times before we were ready to come out (even to ourselves), times when we have been accused of being “gay” and that caused fear and panic within.
8 – Do not steal:
The larger context of the Ten Commandments is the best interests of the community. You may know the French writer, Victor Hugo’s, novel “Les Misérables” – or the musical of the same name. At the beginning, the hero, Jean Valjean, is released after serving 19 years for stealing bread for his starving sister. While there may sometimes be desperate reasons for theft, the Commandment in its simplicity renders the destructive power of theft. If you have ever been the victim of a burglary, robbery or had anything stolen, you will know the sense of violation it brings and the loss in the trust of others it brings.
As LGBT people, being outed is a form of theft. It steals from the individual their control and their choice to live openly or not about themselves.
7 – Do not commit adultery:
If you have ever been in a relationship where the other person has been unfaithful or has behaved in a way that breaks the trust in the relationship – or maybe you were the one that went astray - you will know only too well the pain and hurt that has brought to all concerned and the way in which that experience had changed you. In these painful matters, LGBT people share total equality with our heterosexual brothers and sisters!
6 – Do not commit murder:
Looking at this Commandment and the way in which it has been interpreted by Jewish and Christian scholars, the context is the same as the others: the society in which we live, and the taking of a life at another’s hand.
In the UK, we live in historically unprecedented times: for most of our history, society has executed individuals for certain crimes (even to 1965); and the last conscription to fight in wars was in 1945. Historically, many Christians chose to fight and their names can be found on the walls of almost every church, even this one.
As LGBT people we should not forget that in the law and society of around a dozen countries, including Nigeria (from where some in our congregation originate), gay sex can result in the death penalty; and in many other countries, the persecution of gay people is so vicious, that it is tantamount to a death sentence to remain there.
5 – Respect your father and mother:
God spoke these words to the adults of ancient Israel. Some scholars interpret this Commandment as each generation staying true to God’s way of living in the same way as their parents did. This fits with the words that follows: “…that all may go well with you…” (Exodus 20:16)
As LGBT people, this Commandment can sit uncomfortably, particularly if it is our parents who have rejected us because of who we are.
4 – Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy:
Since the UK passed the Sunday Trading Act in 1994, the country has changed: Sunday is very much a day like any other. But let us not lose sight of the central message of the Commandment – rest. God made the point: God rested; therefore, we should rest.
3 – Do not use my name for evil purposes:
Scholars believe this refers to God’s name being used in the pagan rituals of ancient Canaan. As Christians, we are sometimes uncomfortable when people use our Lord and Saviour’s name as a swear word. I tend to challenge them, saying that I would not use their beloved’s name as a swear word, and I would appreciate them not doing the same to mine!
Sadly, some Christians and institutional churches use God’s name for evil purposes, when they choose to spread a message of LGBT-hatred rather than God’s message of all-inclusive love.
2 – Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven:
While we are unlikely to put clay figures statues in our homes – the house-hold gods - which was common place in the ancient world, the essence of the Commandment is this: do not down-size God. The greatest idol for us in the 21st century is our rational minds. For example, if we box-off Jesus merely as a moral teacher with a passion for social justice and exclude His divinity and mystery, we create an idol of Jesus.
1 – Worship no god but Me:
The LGBT community has reason to distrust the church, do you speak of God or remain a closet-Christian? Jesus told of the poor widow who gave her two last coins – how poor would you need to be before you gave nothing? If you get a phone-call or message while you are praying at home or at church, do you stop to answer it? What walls do you build up for yourself to keep from getting closer to God? Who is the most important person in your life? Where does God fit in importance in your life?