Commands, Obedience, Relationship: A Sermon on the 10 Commandments

This sermon was originally preached at a hybrid online and in person service at St. John’s in Wilmette on Sunday, October 9, 2022.

St. John’s is on the Narrative Lectionary. Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

The process to become an ordained pastor in the ELCA is complicated and confusing. So you may not know that part of the process includes a very thorough psychological evaluation with a whole battery of tests…everything from IQ tests, personality tests, and tests meant to flag certain psychological tendencies or disorders. St. John’s, you have heard me preach a handful of times by now and many of you have also read my book, so even if you are surprised about this part of the candidacy process within our church, what may not be surprising to you is that my initial psychological evaluation flagged me with, quote, “a problem with authority.” 

I pushed back. Against the authority of that psychologist. And I said, “I only have problems with people who abuse their authority.”

I think…he remained unconvinced.

I name this because I am not the sort of person who like easily takes to rules. My arrest record of civil disobedience will tell you that I am not someone who has unquestioning obedience to laws. In fact, when I hear words like “obedience,” it usually gives me the creeps. I have real issues with the ways that obedience has been used to reinforce systems of oppression.

I take issue with the ways pro-slavery Christians emphasized verses like, “Slaves, OBEY your Masters.”

I take issue with wedding vows that require women to pledge to “love, honor and obey” their husbands when men vow to “love and honor” their wives.

I take issue with narratives that blame Black people murdered by police for their own deaths, saying, “well…he should’ve just complied.”  

That a lack of obedience to the state is a death sentence.

So when I see a long list of commandments or rules laid out in scripture with the expectation that I should be obedient…it makes me cringe.

If you remember in regards to my psych evaluation, I claim not to have an issue with authority. My problem is with unjust or abusive use of authority. And what is really sad, and what makes me really angry, is that the systems of this world and the abuse in my own life has made me so accustomed to authority being used to violently dominate, repress, and oppress people that I have developed an aversion to it.

But God is not an unjust authority.

God is not a man in a wedding ring limiting his wife’s access to a bank account.

God is not an armed agent of the state dressed in blue, pummeling people while shouting, “STOP RESISTING.”

God is not a slave master. 

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. God’s authority is TRUSTWORTHY. And we know that because rules like the Ten Commandments are not something that are demanded uncritically but offered within the context of a relationship.

Before the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses and to the people, there had already been generations of relationship between God and God’s people. This was the God of Abraham and Sarah. This was the God of Isaac and Rebekah. Of Jacob and Leah and Rachel. The God of Joseph. The God who – in every generation – has kept Their promises to Their people. And even in this generation, the generation of Moses and Miriam and Aaron, the generation who received the Ten Commandments, God had just made a MAJOR SHOW of God’s character as a liberator by bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

This God is not someone who uses unjust authority to oppress and repress people or demand unquestioning obedience without having earned that trust.

This God is a liberator.

Even the way that God introduces these Ten Commandments is a reminder of that.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

God is saying, “Remember. You can trust me. We have been through some real stuff together. We’ve been through it together. We have been through it and I have come through for you. I care about your freedom. I am a Freedom God. I am a Liberator. That’s what I do.”

God is saying, “Beloved, I am not like the abusive authority you have experienced in the past. I am not like Pharaoh. I am not a slave master. I have proven to be the exact opposite of that. And because I am a Liberator, you can trust me. And because we have this relationship, you can trust me. And so I am going to hand down to you these ways for you to live into that relationship.”

Covenants are mutual agreements. Even in cases like this where there are clear, obvious power imbalances between both parties like – God and not-God – this covenant is happening in the context of relationship where there is give and take. There’s mutuality. There’s trust. There’s history. This is not a situation here of an unjust authority demanding compliance or obedience. This is a God who has proven Themselves to care about our liberation and to care about us both individually and communally.

And because of that mutuality, because of that push-and-pull, because of that relationship, you might note that the Ten Commandments are not rules that are written in a legal language that includes punishments for breaking them. They are actually in some ways up for discussion and reinterpretation within the bounds of relationship. If you read the story of the Ten Commandments in the book of Deuteronomy, you will notice small ways in which the commandments changed and evolved. And the way we talk about these commandments today has continued to evolve. Because here in Exodus and in Deuteronomy the commandments are addressed specifically to men (particularly middle or upper class men able to own property). And today we sort of instinctively know to reinterpret these commandments more universally for people of all genders.

In every relationship there are spoken and unspoken boundaries and rules about how to relate to one another. In healthy relationships, those expectations are named and discussed and renegotiated often. 

In my family – and we definitely do not do this perfectly – we have the conviction that people should not be subjected to rules that they have no say in. And so when I bring up a boundary with my children, I want to create the kind of space and relationship where my children can push back and question and that in that push and pull, in that relationship, we can renegotiate the boundaries in a way that feels good for everyone. 

So I might say, “As your mom, this is why I am coming up with this boundary.”  And my children can say, “This is why that boundary feels unfair.” And I can respond, saying things like, “Well here is my fear in doing it your way.” And my children can say, “Well. What about this other solution?” And we can come to something together.

We see something similar in the evolution of the Ten Commandments from Exodus to Deuteronmy and the framing of the Ten Commandments in the Second Testament. We see God working with us in this relationship that is full of care and trust and mutuality.

There is an element of consent. God is inviting us in the Ten Commandments into this covenantal relationship in which God says, “If you want to be my people, this is how that works.”  And we can choose not to be God’s people in that way, we can choose not to live out of that covenant, we can choose not to behave as if we are God’s people.

And we often do. And yet even though we often breach the terms of this covenant, we have the kind of generations-long relationship where God is willing to work it out with us. And we can trust that.

With that in mind, I want to close by reading to you a re-interpretation of the Ten Commandments written by Enfleshed, that has made this covenantal relationship come alive to me in new ways. 

I invite you to take a few deep breaths.

1. practice loyalty to the Sacred.

2. remember every image of God is only a glimpse.

3. do not use God’s name to do harm.

4. do not allow productivity to dominate life.

5. care for those who have cared for you

and honor those who have paved your way.

6. do not be unnecessarily destructive.

7. be faithful to the commitments you make.

8. do not take what does not belong to you.

9. do not hinder justice from coming to fruition.

10. do not use power over others to get what you want.

This.. God says…”This is what you were made for. You were not made for slavery but for freedom. You were not made to wander, to hunger, to thirst, to fight, to be lonely. You were made to live this way. In this kind of community of justice. You were made to be in right-relationship with your God and with one another. Hold fast, beloveds, to these things and that is where you will remain.”

Thanks be to God. 

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