Updated: Oct 16
Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 8, 2023
Many of you have probably remember the controversy surrounding the display of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama State courthouse. That particular monument weighed 5,280 pounds, or just over 500 pounds per commandment.
When the display had to be removed from the courthouse, it was hauled around on a flatbed truck and the monument had to be raised and lowered with a heavy duty construction crane.
One commentator quipped that while it is true that Jesus once chided the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, surely, a two-and-a-half ton statue was overkill. (Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p. 17).
But the real problem with the monument was not its ostentatious size.
The real problem with the monument was that it did not include the most important part of the commandments. It omitted the part that says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
In Jewish tradition that part is so vital that it is actually considered the first commandment, while in our Reformed Protestant tradition, it is usually considered the preface. But calling it a preface does NOT make it an optional preface. Without that powerful affirmation that I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, the Ten Commandments is nothing but a list, or a prop for a Mel Brooks movie on the History of the World.
Preacher and writer Tom Long points out that many people think of the Ten Commandments as weighty burdens or encumbrances placed on our personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are convinced that at the heart of each commandment is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.”
For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be placed on the necks of a rebellious society. As Tom Long points out, for such an understanding of the Decalogue, a two-and-a-half ton rock sitting on a flatbed truck is a perfect symbol. We forget that the prophet Isaiah once chided the Babylonians for hauling their heavy idols on the backs of weary animals. If Isaiah had seen the two and a half ton monument being hauled around on a truck, he’d no doubt be worried about the springs and shocks. (Long, “Dancing the Decalogue”).
The Ten Commandments are not meant to be heavy burdens.
They are instead a breathtaking announcement of freedom.
Instead of thinking of them as ten burdensome commandments, we can think of them as a description of a life that is truly free.
Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. That’s the first rule.
The second—you are free from dehumanizing idols, and you are free to worship and adore the God who can never be reduced to a manageable size!
#3—You are free from those who would try to use God’s name to manipulate you.
#4—You are free to rest on the 7th Day. Did you hear that? You are free to rest!
#5—You are free from the prison of self-centeredness and you are free to honor your parents and your ancestors in the faith.
#6—You are free from the murderous cycle of violence, and you are free to live in God’s shalom (peace).
#7—You are free from the destructive path of adultery and you are free to live a life of faithfulness in commitment.
#8—You are free from the constant worry that someone is trying to take your stuff, and you are free to live off what God provides you.
#9—You are free from gossip and lies about your character, and you, in turn, are free to speak the truth in love.
And finally, #10—You are free from the never-ending cycle of always wanting more. (these paraphrases of the Commandments are suggested by Brian McLaren in his book We Make the Road by Walking)
Do we live up to these freedoms perfectly?
But these are the freedoms we are called to embrace.
The old slavery of the past—to cherished idols, to destructive patterns of gossip--may be familiar, but we are called instead to embrace the road to true freedom.
The late Fred Craddock,
who was a wonderful preacher and storyteller,
told the story of an elderly man whose only close friend was his dog.
The love between them had deepened through the years.
Now both had begun to feel the pain and burden of age.
The dog, 12 years old, could hardly walk and was covered with an irritating rash.
The elderly man lifted the dog into his arms and carried it to the car where it lay on the seat beside him on the way to see the veterinarian. From the parking lot the old man carried the dog gently inside.
“Can I help you?” asked the veterinarian.
The old man, still holding his dog said, “First, I must ask you a question. Do you love animals above everything else?”
The veterinarian replied, “Well, I love God first. Jesus says in Mark 12:30, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
And of course a second command is to love thy neighbor as oneself. We must put these things first, and then we can think about the animals.”
“Then, I must go elsewhere,” said the old man as he moved to the door.
“Why? What is wrong” asked the vet.
“This dog is my friend,” explained the elderly man, “and I feel I can trust him only to the care of a veterinarian who practices what he preaches.” (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, pp. 16-17).
The commandments are not meant to be burdensome constrictions, as in, first we love God, then we love neighbor, and then we can think about the animals. A true love of God and neighbor would have freed the veterinarian to reach out to the man and his dog with empathy and compassion. That’s what true freedom looks like.
Let us think of the Ten Commandments as the Ten Great Freedoms.
As we’ve said, if we think of them as weighty and cumbersome, we are likely to feel suffocated and crushed with guilt.
If we think of them as taboos, we might get a secret pleasure from breaking taboos. But if we think of them as freedoms, we will feel free to love God and all of our neighbors (without exception).
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.