A sermon for Proper 22: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Last Sunday night Stephen Paddock shot and killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 others. Monday Morning President Trump spoke to the nation. He thanked Homeland Security, the Las Vegas Police and first responders honoring their courage. Quoting from Psalms 34:18 the President said: “To the families of the victims, we are praying for you and we are here for you. And we ask God to help see you through this very dark period. Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Nilsen).”
It is not unusual for elected officials to invoke the name of God, directly or by extending “thoughts and prayers.” Since January 1995, “thoughts and prayers” have been pronounced by national political leaders 4,139 times. Since 2001 it is about 1 per day when Congress is in session (Rowen). This morning we heard the Ten Commandments as written in Exodus. Having President Trump’s words in my mind as I read them, preparing for this morning, my immediate response was “What does it mean to Invoke the name of God?” Curiously enough there are ten points.
The commandments begin with a prohibition against having any other god before you. As there always have been there are lots of alternatives. Then it was Pharaoh or any of the gods from surrounding cultures. We continue to be surrounded by alternatives that draw our attention; there are a variety of sports leagues, political and or economic philosophies, all sorts of entertainment, lots of material possessions; the list is long, and ever growing. The question is “Who has our undivided loyalty?” “Who is our moral compass?” (Gaventa and Petersen; (Harrelson; Brueggemann)
Next is a prohibition against any image of God. It is not an artistic restriction (Keener and Walton). It bans anything that tries to domesticate God so God can be controlled (Brueggemann).
We know that we are not to use God’s name in vain. We know better than to say ‘God’ before any curse; we might even blush or react apologetically when we reactively do so. But that is the not the hardest constraint here. God’s name invokes power and purpose. So, to use it trivially demeans God, and it is a kind domesticating God, and surely diminishes our loyalty. Perhaps most challenging of all are those times we use God’s name for our own purposes, to aggrandize, empower, or enrich ourselves, especially at the expense of another, including God (Keener and Walton; Brueggemann)
Keeping Sabbath is far more elusive then we think. To begin with keeping Sabbath does not include worship. We all know worship requires our active participation, it is a form of work; at our best, it is sacred / sacramental work, but it is work. Sabbath is the prohibition of any kind of work. Its roots are the manna provided in the wilderness (Harrelson). It stands dramatically against the bread of Egypt gotten only by being subjected to oppressive, exploitive ways. Sabbath is totally inclusive. Everyone, you, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your employees, even your working animals publicly take a day away from labor and away from economic activity (Keener and Walton; Harrelson; Brueggemann).
Keeping Sabbath is a transition from the definition of our covenantal relationship with God to our covenantal relationship with each other (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). That relationship begins with honoring our fathers and mothers. The word ‘honor’ also means ‘to be heavy’, i.e. to feed our parents. A broader covenantal implication is generational; we are not to deprive our parents or elders out of their homes when they are no longer economically productive. For Israel, post-slavery social, and economic security is built on strong intergeneration covenantal relationships between generations who for now have power and those who are now vulnerable (Brueggemann). The same is true for us.
Everyone agrees murder is wrong. However, provisions of Sabbath and honor lead us to see that there is more here. The prohibition against killing reminds us that all life belongs to God and therefore all life must be respected. On a social scale, life that is diminished by unbridled greed, and the slow draining of another’s life which is often obscured by policy and ideology or willful blindness is equally offensive as Sunday night’s mass killing (Brueggemann).
Adultery concerns the most intimate of human relationships, which is to be highly honored. Such honor depends on covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing, and respectful (Brueggemann).
Like murder, we all know it is wrong to steal. And like murder, there is more here than the prohibition against taking stuff that is not yours. There is a material component to life; there are certain material goods that are necessary to live in dignity. Theft includes the restriction or taking away any material goods necessary to sustain ourselves, our families, or our communities. Such thievery is not limited to actions of individuals; it is enabled by social, political, and economic powers that favor one group of people over another robbing them and their descendants of their futures (Brueggemann).
As even a young child I knew it was wrong to lie. I remember the threatened punishment of having our mouths washed with soap for lying. Bearing false witness includes lies. More importantly, it’s focus is specifically testimony given in court (Brueggemann). Covenant community life is not possible without public confidence that there is a place where all else is set aside and the truth is spoken without regard to social standings. Clever manipulation and ideological perversion that hides the truth is a lie (Brueggemann). And to the extent that it allows someone or some group of people to be robbed of their future, it can also be theft, and in extreme situations murder.
The last commandment prohibits coveting or lusting after that which belongs to another. Its concern is the destructive power of and governing our inward desires (Harrelson). The ideal desire of Israel is to do the will and purpose of Yahweh (Brueggemann). The commandment’s primary concern is economic and constraining the impulse to endlessly acquire more and more. Coveting draws power from the illusion of scarcity, which is an expression of doubt; the same doubt expressed by Israel in the desert wondering if God would provide them bread. Scarcity driven lust expresses doubt about God’s generosity. And as it
- it drives us to endless pursuit of more and more
- it drives us to ignore Sabbath’s rest (Brueggemann);
- it drives us to invoke God’s name for our selfish purposes,
- it drives us to try and constrain God,
- it drives us to honor whatever seduces us into believing only ‘I’ can secure your deepest desire;
it can tempt us to be like God.
It is a good thing to invoke the name of God. It is a righteous thing to remind those who are sick or injured, or in any way diminished that God sees their circumstances, that God hears their cry, that God is present, even as they traverse the shadows of death, anguish, and fear. However, offering “our prayers and our thoughts” is not enough. When we invoke the name of God, we commit / recommit ourselves to the covenant life. In the Episcopal tradition that commitment is a part of our baptismal covenant. When we invoke the name of God
- we commit /recommit ourselves to keep God first in our lives all the time
- to invoke God’s name for good of all creation
- to keep Sabbath, for ourselves and others
- to care for of all generations, those who came before us, and those who will follow
- to respect all life as belonging to and reflecting the image of God
- to live in mutual, nurturing, respectful covenantal relationships
- to give, not take, that which promotes life for others
- to respect the truth, especially at the gates of justice
- to discipline our self-desires, and
- to live from the abundance of manna God provides every day
When we invoke the name of God we commit /recommit ourselves to living God’s plan for our lives; which is what we’ve have been exploring this morning. The details of how we live into the divine plan for our lives is entrusted to us (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).
How your, how our commitment to Houston, Texas, Florida, Mexico, The US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the western states fighting wildfires, and the victims and families of the Las Vegas shootings and the people of Las Vegas, and those in Nate’s path will manifest themselves is for each of us, and for us as a church to study and discern. I trust, dare I pray, they reflect the abundance of God’s grace and mercy, now and always.
Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 8 10 20017.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Nilsen, Ella. Read Trump’s Full Speech on the Las Vegas Shooting. 2 10 2017. <https://www.vox.com/search?q=Read+Trump%E2%80%99s+full+speech+on+the+Las+Vegas+shooting>.
Rowen, Ben. What Science Says About Thoughts and Prayers vs Policy. 5 10 2017. <theatlantic.com /health/archive/2017/10/thoughts-and-prayers-vs-policy/542076/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.