A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on August 31, 2003.
Based on Deuteronomy 4:1-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (Proper17, Year B).
“Give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe…keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. You must observe them diligently…make them known to your children and your children’s children.” We just heard these words from the Book of Deuteronomy. They are strong words; words that remind us in no uncertain terms that a life of faith is not without obligation. God has given us commandments and he expects us to adhere to them. The most famous ones, of course, are the Ten Commandments. The story of Moses is familiar. After leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea, Moses goes up Mount Sinai and comes down with the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
This is a dramatic moment as we all know from Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” But I can never think about this central story of our faith without recalling another movie. In Mel Brooks’ “History of the World,” Moses comes down the mountain juggling three stone tablets. He looks at the people of Israel and announces, “God has given me these fifteen…” (dramatic pause as one of the tablets comes crashing to the ground) “these ten, ten commandments, for all to obey!”
This is great humor but it’s also telling of a deeper truth. Not all of what God expects of us comes in the form of a top ten list. God’s law is not written solely upon two stone tablets. There’s more to it than that. God’s law is not written solely on the pages of Scripture. There’s more to it than even that. Jesus tells us that the law of God is also written upon our hearts. But it’s much harder to read our hearts than it is to read a list of commandments. So people often shy away from the subtleties of the Jesus in our hearts in favor of the more concrete words of the tablet. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. God speaks to us in subtle and nuanced ways as well as in obvious and dramatic ways. We can’t put our faith in one and ignore the other.
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore doesn’t seem to get this. You’ve probably heard the story by now. Judge Moore vowed to defy a court-order to remove a monument inscribed with the 10 Commandments that sits in the rotunda of the state judicial building. It was finally removed this past Wednesday but not without mass protests.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Judge Moore’s faith but I do question its emphasis. Because he seems to have placed his faith less into the hands of God than into his own 5,300-pound granite monument. And it makes me want to, literally, refer him to the weight of his own convictions. Specifically the one that reads “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Because this slab of stone has become an idol in itself. A false idol that commands all of our focus but draws us away from the Jesus who speaks to our hearts.
It is not that we “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” as Jesus warns us not to do in our gospel passage from Mark. But the reality is that this is complicated. Much more complicated than an “us-against-them” debate over the Ten Commandments. Our lives are greater than ten commandments; indeed life itself is a commandment. And that commandment is to love God and love neighbor. This is the all-pervasive commandment. It cannot be contained on a piece of stone because it must be greater than that. This commandment must be how we live out our lives, how we worship God, how we serve one another.
The Ten Commandments are important. They are an integral part of our faith tradition. But they are not the end of the conversation. They merely point to the end, and that end is Jesus Christ. The Ten Commandments are building blocks, they are foundational to the Christian faith, but it doesn’t end there. Separation of church and state issues aside, this is why the idolization of the Ten Commandments strikes me as so bizarre. It is an important piece of our spiritual armor, but not the exclusive one. What about the rest of Scripture, what about the tradition of the church, what about the sacraments, what about Jesus himself?
It takes more to protect and arm ourselves against evil in this world, to extend Paul’s metaphor from his letter to the Ephesians. The Ten Commandments are undoubtedly a piece of our spiritual coat of armor. But there’s more to it than this. Paul urges us to “put on the whole armor of God.” He bids us to “fasten the belt of truth, put on the breastplate of righteousness, take the shield of faith, and don the helmet of salvation.” I’d rather not go into battle with partial protection. I’d prefer the whole tank not just the tank treads. I’d prefer to “put on the whole armor of God,” not just the breastplate.
So, I cringe at the misuse and, yes, idolatry, of these self-proclaimed defenders of the faith. This monument engraved with the Ten Commandments is being used as a giant weight to knock down those of other faiths traditions. The argument to keep it, though dressed in the vocabulary of religion, is anything but faithful. Behind the carefully crafted words denouncing the loss of our nation’s moral foundation, I hear hate and intolerance. Behind 5,300-pounds of granite, I see fear. And I can’t help but picture a wealthy, white judge sitting in judgment high above a young black man in the Alabama Supreme Court. The implication being that the one sitting in the judgment seat has the authority to command, and to pass judgment, and to condemn. And this saddens me. Because, once again, I see the religious-right giving Christianity a bad name.
Christ is everywhere. Christ is just as present in a Montgomery, Alabama courthouse as he is right here, right now. But Christ doesn’t live trapped inside of a huge hunk of granite. He doesn’t need a big monument to assert his presence. Because Christ is already there. He lives within our hearts. That’s the first place he can be found. Our faith is ultimately not about external laws and regulations or stone temples but about the Christ that resides within. The Christ that is revealed to us through Scripture, through the sacraments of the church, and through prayer. It’s that simple, but it’s also that subtle. May we come to hear and know and live out the commandments of God in their entirety, keeping in mind that regardless of what is written in stone, Jesus is written indelibly on our hearts.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003