Sunday, 4 March 2018

Turning the World Right-side Up (Exodus 20:1-17)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on March 4, 2018, Lent III)

A New World

Today we pick up from where we left off last week.  If you’ll remember, God responded to humanity’s history of violence with blessing.  God blessed Abraham that he might become not only the father of a particular people but also the father of a new humanity.  A humanity that lived not by grasping or clawing but by leaving its own heart and home to seek the blessing of others.

The story in today’s scripture is no different than the story of Abraham’s blessing last week.  This remains the tale of a new humanity.  A new world.  That is what the Ten Commandments are about.

The Way of Life and Goodness

Simply because of the word “commandment,” though, it’s hard for me not to think of the Ten Commandments as a set of rules along the lines of, “Do this—or else!”  When I read them, I sometimes imagine a disciplinarian God with a ruler ready to whack against misbehaving Israel.

While some ancient Israelites certainly shared this perception—for we do occasionally get pictures in the Bible of a petty and vengeful God—that is not the picture that we get in the story of the Ten Commandments.

In fact, let’s just drop the title “The Ten Commandments” altogether.  Because that’s not what the original text calls them.  A more literal translation from the Hebrew would give us more simply “the ten words,” or “the ten sayings.” 

Here’s how Moses will describe the ten sayings and all the law later, when he addresses the Israelites for the last time before his death: “See, I have set before you today life and what is good, and death and what is bad….Choose life” (30:15, 19).  In other words, these ten sayings are not the peculiar rules and regulations of a controlling and vengeful deity.  They are, rather, the way of life and goodness.  Live like this, and life will be good.  Don’t, and what life you have won’t be worthy of that name.  It will be bad.

What I see

It’s a little bit curious to me how these ten sayings have become such a mark of religious identity.  People who display them in their lawns or at their courthouses often want to say, “We’re a Judeo-Christian nation.”  But if that’s the case, I have little interest in being called Christian (or Jewish).  Because much of what I see around me does not look like the life and goodness described in these ten sayings.  I see a world that serves the gods of riches and power and neglects the poor and the hungry in its midst.  I see a world that runs on greed and envy, one where stealing is sanctioned if it’s done with contracts and business suits, one where infidelity is just another commodity that people can purchase online at the click of a button.  I see a world where life is cheap.  Much of what I see around me does not look like the life and goodness that Moses described.

Personally, I think the ten sayings have less to do with our religious identity and more to do with how we live as human beings.  I think the ten sayings are like the physics of the spiritual world.  If we don’t live in their way, then we’re bound to fall—as surely as gravity will pull you or me down from a high place, if we don’t watch our step.

Overturning Tables, Overturning the World

Which is why, I think, Jesus had no problem charging into the religious and national capitol building of his day—the Temple—and overturning tables.  Because he was not only turning over tables.  He was overturning a world that had lost its sense of up and down; a world that become disoriented by greed and selfishness and neglect for one’s neighbors; a world that had chosen death and what is bad.

In other words, he was trying to turn the world right-side up.  He only ever wanted what God had wanted: life and what is good.  His story is the same as the story of Abraham and the story of Moses.  It is the story of a new humanity.  A new world.  A world turned right-side up.  Jesus would call it the kingdom of God.  But it had an ancient foundation, one that we hear in the ten sayings.  Listen beyond the “Thou shalt not” and we might be surprised at what we hear:


For imagine a world where people were not enslaved by possessions, power, or prestige.

A world where there was no Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood, because people found the holy image of God not in idols far away but in their neighbor and in the stranger in their midst and in the person who is different.

Imagine a world where social media was not divisive, because words were not for persuasion but only for praise and prayer.

A world where the bottom line didn’t matter as much as sometimes sitting on your bottom and enjoying a meaningful moment of rest, where you could just be—be with, be grateful, be happy.

A world where a person’s name was infinite, including the names of all their ancestors—a humbling reminder that we all come from somewhere; no one is self-made.

Imagine a world where there were no police and no corporal punishment because people did not resolve their difficulties through threat or force.

A world without pornography because people were never reduced to objects.

A world where doors never had locks because people shared all things in common.

A world where conversation never ended in polarized standoffs, because people never gave a bad name to others but instead tried to understand them. 

Imagine a world without glossy billboards, commercials, or advertising, because people were immune to envy.

Being Overturned

The ten sayings are not dusty old decrees for a day long gone.  They are God charging into the religious and political centers of our world and overturning the tables, turning us right-side up.  They are life-changing.  And like any meaningful change of life, they are difficult.  But as Moses put it so bluntly, they are also what makes life good.

If you’ve ever made a real change in your life—and by the way, change is what that fancy Christian word “repentance” means—you know that changes like the ones demanded by these ten sayings involve more than good intentions.  They involve commitment.  They start with small things, things as small as a mustard seed.  Maybe a little habit here, like blessing an enemy rather than cursing—maybe a little habit there, like seeing the image of God in strangers.  These changes are especially nurtured in community, where two or three or more are gathered.  They flourish at the Table, which is where we catch a glimpse of the world right-side up, in the love and sharing and self-giving of our Lord.

The ten sayings, which dream of a new humanity and a new world, can easily be written off as impractical.  Remember what we did the last time God overturned the tables of our world?  We wrote God off, crossed God out.  But thank God, God does not write us off.  The ten sayings echo still in our world today, and in them Christ is tipping our tables and turning things over, insisting on a new humanity, a new world.  This Lent, as we practice letting go of what we do not need, let us also practice being overturned.  Let us welcome the tipping grace of Christ and seek out the world right-side up, a world that God has dreamed of for quite some time.


Creator God,
Whose words wove goodness
Out of the material of creation,
Whose ten sayings can weave goodness
Out of our world today;
Grant us the grace
To welcome you
When you charge into the Temple of our hearts
And turn us upside down
And our world right-side up.  

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