- Parish House
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Roy Moore, the recently defeated candidate for Senate, first developed a national reputation by placing a 5,280 pound monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama state judicial building. The placement of the monument was quickly challenged by the ACLU and other groups and eventually Moore was ordered to remove it. Not to be deterred, Moore began to take the monument with him to rallies and speaking events around the country, carried on the back of a flatbed truck. When it would return to Alabama, a 57 foot I-beam crane would bend as it removed the granite monument for storage. Though Moore intended his grandiose defense of the 10 commandments to be an embodiment of the moral underpinnings of the law, his monument actually captured how many people feel about the ten commandments–that they are a heavy burden, ready to crush us for any misstep. As the preacher Thomas Long puts it, “Most people cannot name all ten [commandments], but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not.’”
I was struck, then, by the actions of Michael T. Reed, the man who crashed his Dodge Dart into the 6,000 pound 10 Commandments monument on our own State Capitol grounds less than 24 hours after it had been installed. In a video posted on his Facebook page, he drove his car toward the stone tablets while exclaiming: “freedom!”
Reed, it has been found, is mentally ill, but I think we can find in his action and proclamation something of the wisdom of folly that Paul speaks of in I Corinthians. His yell of “freedom” as he crashed into the monument gets at a truth that the promoters of these monuments from Roy Moore to Jason Rapert, seem to have missed.
Both Alabama and Arkansas, and most of the other monuments of this sort from what I can tell, actually leave out a good deal of what we find in the ten commandments as represented both in our reading from Exodus and the version in the book of Deuteronomy. In the granate tablets of these state monuments, the ten commandments begin with “I am the Lord Your God.” A period follows and then the list of commandments begin. I hate to call out my fundamentalist brothers and sisters on this, but it appears that they have deleted some important material from their quotation of the scriptures and in so doing they have made these monuments in a vein of just the sort of idolatrous religion the ten commandments are meant to counter.
What we now call the Ten Commandments, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, begins not with “I am the Lord Your God (period)” as it does on the state monuments, but rather with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This qualifying phrase makes all the difference between a God who licenses the demagoguery of empire and a God whose love moves toward the liberation of all people.
Freedom is the aim of the ten commandments and the forms of life the commandments embody are a life of liberation. As Long puts it, “If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.”
To begin to hear that music, we must first understand the ten commandments, not as a list of laws deposited from some alien landscape, but as instructions that come in the midst of a freedom struggle.
The people of Israel, just a few chapters before this one, had been enslaved by the Egyptian Empire. Every day they were forced to make bricks, endlessly working for Pharoah, a man who claimed to be a god. The people of Israel were freed from this Empire, brought out of the Land of Egypt and its slavery, but as the political philosopher Michael Walzer has commented, it took far longer for Egypt to get out of the people than the people out of Egypt. The laws handed down to moses are a sort of “deprograming” for slaves. It is a way of teaching people captive to the patterns of Empire to live into a new kind of freedom.
This Freedom was not simply an “unbridled, unqualified, unfocused freedom that had no projection into the future,” as Water Bruggeman puts it. The Exodus story moves from the bondage of Egypt to a bonding with the life of God. The liberation God offers comes in the context of a new form of relationship with God and neighbor that provides the grounding for God’s alternative community to Empire. The bonding freedom God offers is the only form of freedom that will keep us, ultimately, from ending up in slavery once again.
We do not have time to go through the commandments in detail, working through the ins and outs of the liberating aspect of each one. Half have to do with our relationship with God and the other half concern our relationship with our neighbors. One, however, marks the intersection of the two. It is in the commandment to keep the Sabbath that we see the center of Jewish ethical life.
When the people of Israel were in slavery, every day, they had to make bricks and their work was unrelenting because though Pharaoh said that he was a god, he had none of the powers of a god. In order to make the world as he wanted it, he had to keep the work moving endlessly. Pharoah couldn’t rule without slaves. A reality that has accompanied all imperial economies and a question we must ask of our own. Can our economy exist without the exploitation of free or cheap labor?
In the Sabbath commandment, we find an alternative to the hubris of Pharoah and the economy of Empire. The God of Israel rests. As Brueggeman puts it, “Yahweh (unlike imperial gods) is so well-established, so surely in charge…that God’s governance is not one of anxiety or franticness.” In fact, relentless work and constant activity are markers of a world that has stepped out of the rhythms of God’s governance and grace–a reality we can see whenever we turn check our Facebook feed or turn on the television.
The commandment to practice Sabbath, to cease from working and striving and doing the “one more thing,” is also a commandment that changes our relationships with our neighbors. The Sabbath is a stay against the constant achievement of our goals and the pressure to meet the idolatrous expections of our society. It is a time in which we can practice delight and savor the abundance God continues to cultivate in the world, abundance we did nothing to make and delight receive quite apart from our merits. The sabbath saves us from viewing our neighbors as commodities and, in the words of Bruggeman, offers “an important sacramental protest against the busy profanation of our common life.”
The law of God, embodied in the ten commandments, is a means of liberation from bondage through the bonded, connected life of loving God and neighbor. As Jesus illustrated in his own ministry, it is this freedom in loving relationship that is the heart of the commandments and whenever they are co-opted for ends of empire and oppression, just as they were in the Temple system of Jesus’ day, just as they often are in ours, they should be challenged.
And so I can imagine Jesus as depicted in our gospel reading, entering the temple after a pre-Passover press conference, overturning those tables in the temple courtyard in direct opposition to the legal and religious leaders of his day. If not with his lips, at least in his heart, I can hear him yelling: “Freedom!”