On the Religion News Service website, there is a blog by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin called “Martini Judaism: For those who want to be shaken and stirred.” This is what he had to say this week:
“I am usually not great at predicting things. But I can predict the sermon topic that will be on the lips of just about every rabbi, minister, and imam this weekend. The horror in Las Vegas. Many of those sermons will include some reference to ‘our thoughts and prayers…’OK, sure. Where else can you express thoughts and prayers, if not in the sanctuaries of our faiths? But, many of those sermons will go further than that. Many religious leaders will exhort their congregations to go deeper — straight into action. They will ask their congregations to work to change our laws in order to make it harder to obtain [those kinds of] weapons.” He goes on to predict that in those congregations, someone in the pews is going to get upset about the rabbi or minister or imam “getting political.”
He says that in his experience, those who get upset about a rabbi speaking about political matters is saying one of two things. Either they are saying, “I come here to escape the world; don’t bother me with reality.” Or they are saying “I disagree with you, and I don’t want to hear anything I disagree with because I don’t come here to be challenged.”
I do not agree with the good rabbi that these are the only two reasons people resist discussing political issues in church, and some of them are valid. For example, one very good reason is if someone is in particular need of comfort. In a perfect world, church would provide both comfort and conviction, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time. Another reason is fear of conflict. This is particularly true in churches where there have been splits, or where social or justice issues have caused conflict in the past.
So although I disagree with the rabbi’s view that there are only two reasons that people want to avoid talking about political issues in the church, I do like what he suggests as better alternatives. He writes:
“In a better synagogue world, this is what we would hear:
‘Wow, I disagree with what the rabbi said! She’s so wrong! I am going to make an appointment to discuss this with her.’ . . .
‘Wow, I disagree with what the rabbi said! He’s so wrong! But, it’s good to have a rabbi who makes me think, even if we have come to very different conclusions.’
‘Wow, I disagree with what the rabbi said! She is so wrong! But, it could be worse, I guess. This synagogue could be boring.’
[Rabbi Salkind said] How great that would be. A synagogue that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
I like that last option. That’s the kind of church we strive to be—a church that makes a difference in people’s lives. We do this in a wide variety of ways:
through charitable giving and gifts of our time,
by offering care and support in difficult times,
through worship and education here within our building,
and through our justice and advocacy work, amplifying voices that call for equality and confronting our own participation in corrupt systems.
All of this was in my mind as I approached today’s lectionary passage, the Ten Commandments. I had already decided that I would break this lesson into two weeks, as it would be far too difficult to preach on all ten at once. So of course I decided to take them in order, but that means that “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t until next week. Wouldn’t that be the perfect scripture for me to focus on this Sunday, after 59 people lost their lives in that horrific shooting in Las Vegas? Then I remembered what my colleague Matt Crebbin always says. Matt pastors the UCC congregation in Newtown, Connecticut, so he knows firsthand the destruction that mass murder brings to an entire community. Matt says that in the United States we don’t have a second amendment problem; we have a second commandment problem. We ignore the commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Matt says that we have made guns into our gods, trusting in weapons to keep us safe. “In guns we trust.”
I think he has a valid point. But I wonder if the idol worship goes deeper. Perhaps what is at the heart of our country’s demand for weapons is the belief that my rights, as an individual, are more important than the common good. It is my right to own as many guns as I want, and any kind that I want, regardless of whether they serve any purpose other than killing other humans. It goes beyond guns, of course.
We think, “My right to low taxes is more important than your need for Medicare.” “My right to say whatever I want is more important than your desire for a harassment-free workplace.” “My religion is more important than yours.” “My right to pleasure takes precedent over your right to your own body.” We do, indeed, have a second commandment problem. We have made things into gods by giving them priority. We have made our own desires into idols. We have worshipped at the altar of self. And that is the exact opposite of the point of the Ten Commandments.
We call them commandments, but in the Hebrew it’s really just “words.” These are the words from God. And let’s look at the context in which they were given. The previous chapter says: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. . . . Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying,
‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”
Notice why God delivered the people from Egypt—not just to free them, but to bring them to God. “I brought you to myself.” And so the very first word, first agreement, is God’s: “I am the Lord your God.” Not “I am the God of all nations” or even “I am the only God.” This is personal.
“I am the Lord your God.” That’s where the covenant starts.
And then God reinforces it by reminding the people “you know, the one who brought you out of Egypt?” God is saying, “I am your God, and I have already rescued you,” so now God can say, “Don’t have any gods before me.” It starts with relationship and only then is any requests or expectations put upon us. Don’t have any Gods before me. Don’t make any idols. Don’t bow down to anything or worship anything other than me.
But we do it time and time again.
We worship at the altar of our own desires.
We bow down to expectations and perfectionism.
We serve our political views instead of letting them guide us.
We make idols all the time.
BUT . . .
I may have skipped something. Listen again.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol….You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
You shall not bow down to what, exactly? These idols we did not make? I don’t know how it’s worded in the original Hebrew, but in English it sounds like God is saying, “Don’t make any idols…but if you do, at least don’t worship them.” It’s like us telling our teenagers, “Sex should be saved for when you’re older, in a committed relationship, and are more capable of making good choices. . . .But in case you don’t follow my advice, use protection.” Until this week, I had never thought of the Ten Commandments as prophylactics! But this passage is one of protection. It is how the people are to be faithful to God, and how they are to relate to one another. That is protective.
But it sounds as if God knew, even then, that we were gonna’ break ‘em. I used to think that the Ten Commandments were the minimum, the “at the very least don’t do this” kind of thing. But one scholar I read this week writes, “I imagine it is fair to say that every single member of your congregation, including you of course, has broken, is breaking, or surely will break one or more of the Ten before the day is out, if not before we make it to the cafeteria for lunch. Because one certain thing may be said about the Ten Commandments: they are a very high bar.”
Apparently they are—this whole issue of idols and worship is far more complicated than just not making golden calves. And then there’s the next commandment—to not make wrongful use of the name of God. But what does that mean? Is that only about swearing? Or do we use the name of God wrongly when we claim to stand for “religious freedom” when what we really intend is to impose our religious beliefs on others? Do we use the name of God wrongly when we exclude in the name of God? Do we use the name of God wrongly when we pray for someone’s downfall? Yeah, the ten commandments are a high bar.
But they are not a heavy weight. God’s intention was never to lay a burdensome weight upon us.
Dr. Tom Long says, “Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order—‘Here are ten rules. Obey them!’—but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). We will probably always refer to the declarations that follow as the “Ten Commandments,” but we can also think of them as descriptions of the life that prevails in the zone of God’s liberation. ‘Because the Lord is your God,’ the Decalogue affirms, ‘you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness….’ The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results….The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.”
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery.”
And that is both comfort and conviction.