Thursday, April 18, 2019

No Other Gods - The Ten Commandments


I was inspired to write this service after reading the book “No Other Gods” by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons.  I highly recommend you read the book. This upcoming week is the start of the Jewish Holiday Passover. It is the story of the Jewish people escape from slavery and their journey through the wilderness to find their way home. And whether or not you believe that God personally gave these commandments  such as written in the Bible or just a way leaders of the community set the laws for their community, there is no doubt the 10 commandments have impacted our culture.

I look at the 10 commandments as a sort of mission statement for their community. Just as we have a mission and vision statement and principles that we aspire to and look to when we make our decisions. We all discern as a community what rules we will follow, what vision we point ourselves towards, what is acceptable to us.
But I think it is important as with everything to look back and see what meaning this ancient wisdom may still hold for us today. We see the commandments as static and unmoving but even in the Jewish Tradition that is not so. Interestingly in the Book of Deuteronomy which was written at least a couple of hundreds years after the book of exodus there was a second list of Ten commandments with some subtle changes that indicate the community felt it needed to adjust due to its changing circumstances.

And as our lives are very different then the lives 2,500 years ago, so to should we make new meaning and find new understanding in these commandments.
I think in general we tend to even shy away from the word commandment.
But to me this speaks to what calls to us.
What is the most important values that we claim to shape our lives around.   
The very first commandment, for me is the touchstone.
“I the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods beside me.”
This is a reminder that this story is the story of liberation.
Even after you have made it though the difficult desert of your life.
After enduring tragedy, and you are settled, living in a nice house, with two cars, cable tv, etc. we should never forget that we are a people of liberation.
That as long as there are others in bondage our work for the liberation of all people is not done. As Ralph Waldo Emerson Said.
“Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming .”
So what do we worship?
Do we worship ourselves?
Do we worship consumerism?
What the commandments ask us to do is to worship liberation for all people, every day, always.

Commandment two  tells us
“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below in  the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon fourth generations of those who reject Me. But showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments”
Of course in olden days they were talking about competing religions that made statues of their Gods. But the Jewish God was a God with no name, and no face. What most people do not focus on though is the word yourself.
Do not make for yourself a sculptured image of something else. This is telling us we should be our unique selves. We are often so busy keeping up with an image that our society expects of us, because we have heard it from the day we were born. But we need to be and to act based on who authentic self. When I grew up with this text I thought the part about guilt of the parent to the third or fourth generation was a little harsh, to punish a child for their parent’s sins.
But it is not punishment. We know that trauma is multi generational.
That what we do impacts our family and our community and in doing so, it will take generations to rectify the challenges we create when our are actions are in contradiction with our values.

I think this ties into the third commandment
“You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God for the lord will not clear one who swears falsely by God’s name”
Yes, if your vision of God is an angry old white man in the sky, this really does not make sense. But if we look at God as the theologian Paul Tillich does as the ground of all being, or ultimate reality, what it is saying is that when we deny reality, we take Gods name in vain. When we deny that someone else’s suffering is important we are denying reality.
When we deny that the climate is changing we are denying reality.
Every day, All day long, we hear people lying and manipulating the truth for their own personal self interest, and this is what is meant by swearing falsely. What we say matters Words matter. Truth matters.   In Genesis, the first six days of creation God spoke creation into existence. If you remember your Genesis it is God said let there be light, God said Let the water below the sky be gathered…etc. etc. and on the sixth day God Said let us create humans in our image.Very much like the Buddhist practice of right speech, being as impeccable as we can be with our words, speaking truth, is an important value for a community to healthy. This commandment tells us there is a holiness to truth, there is a holiness to reality

The fourth commandment is “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the lord your God.  you shall not do any work you,  your children, or your slaves, or your cattle or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day therefore the lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”
To remember to take time for yourself,
To remember who you are,
to remember that you are a free person.
To stop from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives to take time to think about our values and how we want to live our lives
to think about what it is that we worship.
I admit, I thought about editing out slavery when reading the commandment but that would be manipulating the truth.
Let it be a reminder to us today how even oppressed people who become free can often become oppressors themselves. 
Let us take time in our lives to be introspective about how we can build a more just community for all people.

The fifth commandment “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you”
This is of course a heteronormative view of families and I recognize that is not who we are today. I also want to point out it does not say we must obey our parents. Just honor them.
I would argue its meaning is deeper then even to our biological or adoptive family.
The meaning to me is to honor our existence here.
To honor what got us to where we are today. Even congregationally to honor our ancestors who started this congregation, who built this building people probably very different from us, with different values then we have,  but without them we would not be here in this building together.
And to go a step further to honor existence itself by taking care of the planet that nourishes and feeds us.

And now we ask  you to nourish and feed the congregation as we take the offering so that Unitarian Universalism shall be here for our descendants who we  cannot even imagine today but know, will be very different from us.  Once you have had the chance to donate we invite you to come to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
The second five commandments are much more about how we live in the world.
Commandment #6 You shall not murder seems pretty straightforward right. Or does it. You may have heard of the ethical experiment of the trolley conductor. There are 5 people in the way of the trolley, and if the conductor pulls a switch it will change tracks and only kill one person. The experiment goes on to ask what if the one person was a relative or known to you or was a doctor who could save lives.
What would you do. Ethicist Peter Singer asked the question what if your new fancy shiny luxury car was on the other track.
Would we allow the trolley to kill the five people to save our car? 
We instinctively say no.
But we do that every day, as people in extreme poverty in the world even here in the Quad Cities are dying every day as we live with what they would consider luxurious lifestyles.  That is a conscious 
choice we make based on how we spend our money and taxes. This commandment asks us not only to actively not kill someone, but to not stand by when we know others are in danger.

Commandment #7 - You shall not commit Adultery.  This speaks to commitment and loyalty. It speaks against the commercialization of our relationships and recognizing and living with imperfection. This commandment reminds me of the 14th mindfulness training From Buddhist Monk Thich Naht Hanh which goes even further including.   
“Aware that sexual desire is not love and that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a deep long-term commitment made known to our family and friends.”
Commandment #8 You should not steal. Stealing can take many forms. Of course in its most basic form we should not take something we do not own. But let us go a little further.  Downloading music for free or cheating on ones taxes seems victimless because we are disconnected from the individual affected. We can think how can my little act really impact anyone. If something is wrong, it is wrong. But let us go a bit further with this. If someone donates to politicians and gets laws changed to be able to shield their tax, is that just as much an afront as outright stealing.  When people stack the deck in their favor and reduce funds to help those in need, then we have broken this commandment.
What this commandment tells us that we must all do our fair share to help each other.

Commandment #9 – “You shall not you bear false witness against your neighbor.” 
And who is your neighbor. Everybody is.
This is again about manipulating the truth which I spoke of before. Bearing false witness is also about not giving full information.
When the tobacco industry hid information about the danger of smoking they broke this commandment.
When the fossil fuel company hides information about the danger of climate change they are breaking this commandment.
On an individual level it is again about the authenticity of relationships.
So when someone asks you how do I look in this dress or does this tie match my shirt, you are obligated to tell them the truth. (although if you really love them, they will always look good in that 
dress).
And yet I would argue there is a time and place to bear false witness.
If it would save lives.
I think of Christians who hid Jews during world war II in Europe.
They bore false witness to save lives. That cannot be wrong.
So all commandments have to be judged in their context. Yet on the whole we should face the truth, hard truths and deal with them.

And Lastly #10 “Do not covet your neighbor’s. house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or your neighbors slaves, their ox, their donkey or anything that is your neighbors.
So it is not enough to not commit adultery or steal or lie, you should not even think about doing it. For before action comes the thought. As the Emerson quote I read earlier said, “what we imagine will determine our lives.”   Know and understand your thoughts and you can see what is real and you can choose your actions according to what is real.
Really what this is asking us is how much is enough.
To end our desire to keep up with the Jones. (We have no members with the last name Jones in the Congregation) To reduce our desires in general. Again we see the similarity with Buddhist Mindfulness trainings that state that we need to consume mindfully and that we use excess consumption as a way to cover up the suffering in our lives.   

As I have gone through these, I am trying to make something old into something new.
To make it meaningful to us in our day and in our context.
To help us see the winding road in front of us more clearly.
To see these laws as much of Jewish history did  a call to a countercultural way of being in relationship with our consumer driven results oriented world we live in today.
I invite you to see how these 10 rules could impact our lives. I say this not ironically at all, these laws are not written in stone.
To make these laws real in the world requires a certain discipline and commitment.
There is a price to paid for worshiping liberation, truth and justice.
What price would you pay to be free?
What moves your life, your spirit to change yourself and change the world for the better.
May we each find it.