Sermon from Lent V: Commandments 9 & 10
Lent V; March 29, 2020
Here’s a situation you may have found yourself in. You’re with a group of people, telling jokes. Then someone starts to tell a blatantly racist joke. You’re uncomfortable; you don’t want to hear this, and you don’t like that this person is telling it. What do you do? It’s easy to say, “I would speak up! ‘Hey, you shouldn’t say that!’” But when we’re actually in such a situation, more often than not we just stand there uncomfortably and make a point of not laughing. It’s easy to say that I would speak up; it’s harder to speak up.
But our Catechism says that to speak up in such a situation is one of the duties of those who wish to keep the Ninth Commandment (Book of Confessions 7.254). It would be easy to keep the Commandment if we limit it to the courtroom – which is probably the original intent – because if you’re a witness in a trial, you’re likely to tell the truth. But it’s harder if we think of everything implied by not bearing false witness, as our Catechism does. It means that people of God not only refrain from telling lies about other people, but we also do not tolerate defaming and slandering others and we do whatever we can to show appreciation for the gifts of others.
You know, folks, I’m a little tired of this recitation of Commandments, so I’m going to just say a little bit about the Tenth Commandment and then go to a “big picture” conversation. I think God is trying to tell us something important about ourselves if we look at the big picture, and maybe we should go there.
But first, to do my duty: the Tenth Commandment is one that goes to the heart. “Do not covet.” That means not only don’t take things that belong to other people, but don’t want them either. Be content with who you are and what you have; don’t wish you were somebody else or wish you had somebody else’s stuff or lifestyle. This is real hard: envy is that green seven-headed monster that rises up out of the water of your subconscious and makes you unhappy. It makes you wish for a tree to fall on your neighbor’s beautiful house, for the COVID-19 restrictions to force your classmate’s successful company to go out of business.
Okay, maybe none of you has ever wished something bad would happen to somebody else. Actually, I’ll bet you have. I know that I have, and I suspect you have as well. And maybe that will take us to the big picture that I mentioned. What are we to say at the end of this look at the Ten Commandments? What do they do for us? They tell us that God wants better from us. How nice. But here’s the kicker: God wants better from us because God thinks so highly of us as to think we have it in us to do better.
We have it in us to do better. Governor Ricketts said this week that he thought we probably would not have to have a “shelter-in-place” order in Nebraska because people have been complying with the restrictions currently in place. The State was expecting about a 30% compliance rate, but it’s been more like 90%. They should have expected better of us. Now, whether we can keep this up for another month is a good question, but we’ve done well so far.
There are people organizing events to “Pray Against COVID-19.” Well, that’s nice, and I’m all for prayer. But I don’t think God is likely to zap the virus away, just like that. I think God has more respect for us than that, and is giving us space to control its spread, to look for treatment and possibly prevention, and to do the research necessary to limit this sort of thing happening again. It isn’t simply up to our political leaders and our scientists; this time all of us have a part to play and we are doing it, just as we’ve been asked.
Let me pull in something from the reading from Matthew (5:38-48). There’s a lot here for a whole Bible lesson, but I’ll zero in on one thing: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How can you be perfect? Nobody’s perfect! But there is one thing that you can do better than anyone else can do: be who God made you to be. I could go into the relevant Greek words and provide more theology for you, and I will if you ask me to, but let’s boil it down to this: nobody can be God except God; nobody can be you except you.
You have it in you to be generous as Jesus instructs. You have it in you to love your enemies. You have it in you to stand up for people who are being ridiculed. Our sin gets in the way; laziness, anger, greed and all the evil heads on the monster would destroy all the good God gives us to do. And perhaps most insidious is envy, which makes us discontented with our own life, unhappy to be who we are, willing to say to God, “You goofed when you made me.”
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Pay attention to the voice in your head that encourages you to do better, the voice that enjoys the way you sing, your ease when you dance, that reminds you of the reasons people do in fact like you. You shall not covet your neighbor’s singing voice, your neighbor’s business success, your neighbor’s perfect children. Because Jesus’ call to be perfect is the call for you to be perfectly you.
Let’s summarize the Commandments as a call to integrity. Let your relationship with God be one of integrity, your relationship with other people demonstrate integrity, your relationship with yourself have integrity. Now, if I could give you a magic formula to get there instantly, I would give it to you. I’ll tell you that I’m working at it, and these things help: I study the Scriptures, I pray, I listen for the guidance of Jesus, and when the voices in my head get into a debate I pay more attention to the voices that say, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” than to the ones that say, “You’re no good and you’ve never been any good.”
Today’s message has wandered a bit, I know. I always have more to say to you than I know how to say in a few minutes. Perhaps this story will finish all this suitably. Last Sunday I kept “drop-in hours” at the Church, as I’ll continue to do until we’re all able to be together again. When they were done, I locked the doors, and then I walked into the Sanctuary and stood, looking at our beautiful window and thinking. Then I said to the Lord, “We’re all doing the best we can.” And I heard the voice of God say to me, “So am I.”
“So am I.” God respects us so much as to leave a lot up to us. Worship the one God. Don’t make idols. Treat God’s name with respect. Remember the Sabbath. Honor your father and your mother. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lie and don’t tolerate lies. Don’t wish to have something or be something other than what you have and who you are. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Thanks to the love and grace of Jesus, you have it in you.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master