Sermon – March 4, 2018

Categories: Church,Sermons

What Really Counts

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Then God spoke these words and said, / ‘I am Yahweh, God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; / do not worship any gods except me.’” — Exodus 20:1-3.

I have no doubt about this. My late father was very smart, brilliant really. He graduated from Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn in 1939, first in his class. He was the editor of his class High School Year Book.

He worked for a year and then entered Manhattan College. His GPA in the first semester was 4.0— all ‘A’s. I do no know if this is true but family legend has it he was the first Manhattan College student in history to accomplish that feat.

Dad was born with a birth defect, a twist in his left arm. That arm could not be raised above the height of the shoulder. Thereby, the selective service classified him as 4F during World War II. His brother, my uncle, served. Dad could not.

But as a consequence of that he stayed in school, graduated from Manhattan— again first in his class— Magna Cum Laude, in 1943. And once again he was the editor of his class year book— this time the college version.

Dad’s first job out of college was as an English Teacher at Regis High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a school run by the Jesuits. Around 1953 or 54 he became the Registrar of the School. He never left. His entire working career was spent there. (Slight pause.)

Now, when we ordain someone in the United Church of Christ the title bestowed is Pastor and Teacher. People sometimes tell me I’m a good teacher. A colleague once said of me that I did not know how to write a sermon without some teaching in it.

I say I simply inherited the teaching gene; I got it from my Father. But, as you know, I was and in a real sense still am a professional writer. After all, I write one or two sermons a week. And I think that writing stuff is inherited also.

You see, I mentioned my Dad was the editor of his High School and College yearbooks. I know for a fact he wanted to be a writer, not a teacher. (A youngster, two years old, has entered the church, sees his father sitting in a pew and calls out to him. The pastor ad-libs:) See Daddy works into this everywhere!

But the truth is not many people actually earn a living as a professional writer exclusively unless they are employed by an institution like a newspaper. Another truth is even those institutional jobs are few and far between. Yet another truth is those institutions which employ writers are often not, themselves, places of stable employment.

One more truth is, if you do not work for an institution as a writer, freelancing is what you do. Effectively you are in business for yourself, by yourself. It is a hard, dangerous, risk taking way to make a living.

Still another truth— a corollary— freelance writing, therefore, requires a life style which includes risk taking and it often is a hand to mouth existence. A final truth, for my Father at least, is being married with three children— his situation— did not line up well with the life style required if you are a professional writer. (Slight pause.)

Now my parents never said this straight out but I think they were happy and proud when I embarked on my writing career. They supported me in any way they could.

I think they were even happier and prouder when I had some success. You see, I was fulfilling my Father’s dreams— dreams he knew were less than practical given the circumstances of his life. (Slight pause.)

Since my father was, for his entire career, a teacher for a moment I want to come back to that since I know his colleagues considered him to be a master teacher. In that role— master teacher— he once said he never gave any student a grade. They gave it to themselves.

Good grades have a cause, said he. If a student decides to participate in the work they will be successful. If they do not, the results will be obvious. Dad said all he did was record the result, the effect, the outcome. (Slight pause.) He never gave any student a grade; they gave it to themselves. (Slight pause.)

These words are from the work known as Exodus: “Then God spoke these words and said, / ‘I am Yahweh, God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; / do not worship any gods except me.’” (Slight pause.)

Rumor has it a good teacher knows repetition is necessary. Repetitio Est Mater Studiorum— repetition is the mother of knowledge or the mother of learning— was one of my Father’s favorite Latin Sayings.

So, you have heard me say this before. I am repeating myself. In the Jewish tradition these words from Exodus are not known as the “Ten Commandments.” These are known as the Ten Words.

You have heard me say this before. I am repeating myself. In the Hebrew language the command tense does not exist. Hence, given these two statements about Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Language, these words can, in no way, be thought of as commandments. (Slight pause.)

Rumor has it a good teacher provides some basic information. You have two inserts in the bulletin today which refer to this passage. I invite you to turn to them. I shall wait a moment for you to get them out. (Slight pause.) They are on the large paper.

There is, in this country, a tendency to think of this passage as a monolith— something sacred and immovable. That is a totally secular, even irreligious, concept. Let me say that again. That is a totally secular, even irreligious, concept.

The first insert I invite you to look at is the one with four faith traditions listed— Jewish; Anglican/Reformed; Orthodox; Roman Catholic/Lutheran. (The pastor holds up this sheet.) That’s what it looks like. As you can see on that chart, different traditions cannot even agree on how to number the so called “Ten Commandments.” [1]

Hence, one wonders why our society puts up monuments with two tablets and ten numbers— a totally secular, even irreligious, concept. After all— which ten, whose ten is this society talking about? Whose version should take precedence? (Slight pause.)

The next chart I want you to look has three different versions of the so called “Ten Commandments.” (The pastor holds it up.) This is what it looks like— three different versions of the “Ten Commandments” found in the Hebrew Scriptures— Exodus, Deuteronomy and again Exodus. [2]

This is the insert, by the way, with two pages, page one and page two, so you have to flip to see it all— three different versions of the “Ten Commandments.” You have to wonder, since we put up monuments depicting two tablets and ten numbers— a totally secular, even irreligious, concept— which set of the so called “Ten Commandments” takes precedence? Choose one— go ahead! (Slight pause.)

Rumor has it a good teacher gives homework. That’s the remaining page. Someone who tells you any translation can be taken literally does not know the first thing about either language or translating.

That remaining page has six translations of this passage on it. [3] Please take it home and compare them. Each translation is different and each has its own validity.

So one does wonder why we put up monuments depicting two tablets and ten numbers— a totally secular, even irreligious, concept— as if these words are etched in stone. They are not. There are many ways to translate them. [4] (Slight pause.)

That leads me to what I think is an obvious question. If I have just destroyed our cultural image of the so called “Ten Commandments”— and I think I have— what are they about? (Slight pause.)

These words make a claim about who God is. God is the One Who loved the Israelites. God loved the Israelites so much God guided their rescue from bondage. God led them to freedom.

These words start with God’s love which is an action. Therefore, these words are not commands. These words, the so called “Ten Commandments,” are a result. These words which some call the “Ten Commandments” are a result of participating in the work of God.

Which is also to say these words are a result of a relationship with God. These words are a result of God’s love for humanity and humanity participating in the love God offers.

Hence— especially when these words get to phrases like “No murdering! No giving false testimony…!” — these words are also about our relationship with one another, loving one another. God loves us and we are to participate with each other in the love God offers. (Slight pause.)

A short time ago we shared bread and cup at the table. The symbolism of this is meaningful. Its symbolism says something about God’s love for us. Its symbolism, embodied by the tactile, real experience of the bread and cup, says something about how we are to love one another through sharing, respect and love.

I want to suggest if we share, respect and love then we will be enabled to live out the so called “Ten Commandments” and live them out in ways which will amaze us, guide us to places we did not know possible and empower us to see the word as God sees the world. We will live out a result.

You see, I think the world sees the so called “Ten Commandments” as the cause of and the cause for our behavior. But I think God sees the so called “Ten Commandments” not as the world sees them— as a cause. I think God sees these words as a result— a result of our participating in the work of God.

And I also think God sees these words as an assignment, a homework assignment if you would. It is our assignment to participate in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God. And, if we participate in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, sharing, respect and love are sure to be a result. And again, that is the symbolism embodied by the table. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “In my comments I said (quote:) ‘we put up monuments depicting two tablets and ten numbers— a totally secular, even irreligious, concept…’ several times. The elevation of the ‘Ten Commandments’ to an exalted status is about the culture, our culture. It is not about faith, not about our relationship with God. After all, when Jesus was asked what are the great commandments the answer Christ gave referenced Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, not the so called ‘The Commandments.’ So the question for us is simple. When will we stop worshiping the culture as a god and worship the One Triune God, the God of relationship?”

BENEDICTION: This is the message of Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness, there is power to redeem, power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God the Creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] These 4 traditions do, indeed, use different numbers for different phrases. The four were listed on this chart with numbers assigned to specific “commands.” using abbreviated phrases for each.

[2] This sheet had Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21 and Exodus 34:6-26 listed side by side to allow for comparison.

[3] The six translations lined up side by side are: The New Revised Standard Version; The Inclusive Language Version; The King James Version; The English Standard Version (British); The Message; The New International Version.

[4] When the passage was read the Inclusive Language Translation of Exodus 20:1-17 was read. This is it:

[1] Then God spoke these words and said, [2] “I am Yahweh, God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;
[3] “do not worship any gods except me.
[4] “Do not make for yourselves any carved images or likenesses or anything in heaven above or on earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth [5] and do not bow down or serve them! For I, Yahweh, am a jealous God, and for the parents fault I punish the children, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren of those who turn from me; [6] but I show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and heed my commandments.
[7] “Do not utter the name Yahweh or misuse it, for Yahweh will not acquit anyone who utters God’s Name to misuse it.
[8] “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy! [9] Six days you will labor and do all your work. [10] But the seventh day is a Sabbath for Yahweh. Do not work on that day— neither you, nor your son nor your daughter, nor your workers women or men, nor you animals, nor the foreigner who lives among you. [11] For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth and the sea and all that they hold, but rested the seventh day; that is why Yahweh has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.
[12] “Honor your mother and your father, so that you may have a long life in the land that Yahweh, your God, has given to you.
[13] “No murdering!
[14] “No adultery!
[15] “No stealing!
[16] “No giving false testimony against your neighbor!
[17] “No desiring your neighbor’s house! No desiring your neighbor’s spouse or worker— female or male— or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor!”

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