Sermon: Deceptively Simple

October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-20
Access Sunday

In Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, a fictionalized look at the rash of public arrests, trials, and executions for witchcraft which occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693, a visiting minister asks the main character, John Proctor, to name the Ten Commandments. He does pretty well, getting nine of them quickly. The one he forgets, of course, is the one that he’s actually committed. His wife, who knows that he’s done it, fills it in for him: adultery.

He turns to the minister and says, “Between the two of us, we know all our commandments.”

The minister asks the question because for him, the Ten Commandments were a foundation for Christian life. Indeed, they were a foundation for Christian life for centuries, and Jewish life for centuries before that. In and of themselves, the Ten Commandments are not properly laws. They lack the specificity and most importantly the defined consequences of enforceable laws. The sixth commandment, for example, bans murder. But the definition of murder does not appear until the 35th chapter of Numbers, which also requires testimony of more than one witness before the death penalty for murder can be applied.

That’s a considerable expansion, and a necessary one to have enforceable laws, over, “You shall not murder.”

The Ten Commandments are the direction, the vision, the idea. The legal codes provided the day-to-day structure.

Scott Hoezee writes: “What the people encountered – and what blew back not just their hair but their very sensibilities – was God’s vision for life as it should be and could be. The people encountered goodness, holiness, shalom.”

Since last Sunday night, I confess, I have been thinking about the Sixth Commandment, since a man started raining death upon concert-goers from a hotel window in Las Vegas. It doesn’t help that those fifty-nine were not the only ones to die violently this week. The Gun Violence Archive lists ten more deaths by gunfire: yesterday.

My friend and colleague the Rev. Matthew Crebbin is pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church UCC, the town in Connecticut where a young man took the lives of twenty-eight people, twenty of them schoolchildren, nearly five years ago. When he talks about approaches to violence, he says that we don’t have a second amendment problem, we have a second commandment problem. We have made firearms into an idol. We worship guns rather than God.

I just want to know: Are there ways we can make it easier to keep the commandments?

That’s an honest question. I’m not precisely stumped, but I’m at a loss. We have laws and social pressures that do, in fact, prevent us from being awash in interpersonal crime. Despite the political rhetoric, violent crime has been falling in the United States since the days of my youth. Some crimes are creeping up again, but we are living pretty safely. In Hawaii, we commit far fewer violent crimes than the national average.

Can we prevent more of them?

I’m pretty convinced that addiction treatment would have enormous benefit. The dollars stolen to obtain addictive substances is a significant portion of property crime. We spend relatively little on treatment, and far more on incarceration. Treatment could prevent these crimes.

I’m pretty convinced that social connection would have enormous benefit. It’s certainly not impossible to steal from your loved ones – I’m afraid it happens frequently – but it is harder.

I’m pretty convinced that an economy that rewarded work would have enormous benefit. As I’ve said before, I don’t understand how we justify paying anybody a wage that they can’t live on. That invites theft and fraud. How do we encourage someone to work hard when their take-home pay doesn’t cover the rent?

And I’m pretty convinced that there’s enormous wisdom in the Tenth Commandment which speaks against coveting. It’s the only commandment to go into our thoughts – and it’s a commandment that is, I’d note, entirely unenforceable. Yet it could be the guardian of our behavior. If you and I can recognize those times of envy, and turn our thoughts to something else, we are less likely to commit theft, or adultery, or fraud, or murder.

The man who killed so many in Las Vegas – I don’t know his motive, or understand his thinking. But it’s clear he planned this over time. Whatever it was he coveted, he fed that covetousness for months, until it surfaced in tragedy.

How can we make it easier to keep the Ten Commandments? They are deceptively simple, aren’t they, just simple enough to grasp and pretty difficult to live by each and every day. How do we make it easier?

How do we make it easier to live with one another, and with God, in peace?

Let’s take some time in silence, and I invite you to send me a note or call me this week with some ideas. We’ll share them on our website.

Let us think: how do we make it easier to live with one another, and with God, in peace?


Listen to the Recorded Sermon here:

The image is of a 17th century Russian icon probably created by Terentiy Fomin from Vologda – photo by shakko, Public Domain,


Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on October 8, 2017

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