Text: Exodus 20:1-17
If I stopped you in the hallway after church, and in my most authoritative pastoral voice said: “Recite for me the 23rd Psalm,” what level of panic would set in for you? Or, what if I said, “Tell me the Lord’s Prayer without thinking about it.” I’m guessing a little anxiety might be created in that moment. I know it would for me. I have read the 23rd Psalm hundreds of times, most often at the graveside of some departed soul, but if you asked me to say it this very moment I’m sure I couldn’t do it without missing a line or two.
But if I pulled this same stunt after church, and asked you to tell me the Ten Commandments, I imagine you would feel a bit more confident. Especially since you just heard them read. But even if you hadn’t, you would probably launch right into answering the question because the Ten Commandments lend themselves to memorization. After all, there are ten of them so you don’t have to worry if you got them all. Plus, most of the commandments are common sense. Even if you had never heard of the Ten Commandments you could probably get four or five.
Even so, I suspect if I asked you to tell me the preamble to the Ten Commandments, that would be hard. Though you have just heard this text read, and been reminded of what the Big Ten are, the verse that introduces the commandments is a bit less famous. That verse tells us who the God is that the Israelites are to have no gods before, and are not to take this God’s name in vain. But who is this God? Exodus 20:2 says simply this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Ah yes, this is the God of the Ten Commandments; the One who brought them out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. This deliverance from generation after generation of indentured service is such a seminal part of Jewish history that to this day when Jews gather for the Passover Seder meal they re-tell the story. And why wouldn’t they? What could be more important than being liberated from slavery?
With all of that said, I think we could agree we are not talking about some fringe passage in the Bible this morning. This isn’t a text dealing with the proper method of milking a she-goat on the fourth Tuesday of the fifth month of the year. This is big stuff-maybe the most memorable passage in the Hebrew Bible introduced by a reference to the God who did the most important thing in their history. But at the risk of redundancy and wearing out your patience, let me just make sure we all get it: These are the biggest, most memorable commandments God is telling the people to live by introduced by a reminder that this God is the One who delivered the people from slavery.
So with that backdrop, tell me if you find these words in the Ten Commandments as surprising as I do: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave…” Or what about this one? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave…” Is it just me, or does this seem a bit odd? The children of Israel were once slaves themselves; their God’s self-designation is the One who brought them out of the house of slavery; and yet they are completely comfortable owning slaves. Do these people have no sense of irony?
Irony is the absurd difference between what actually happens and what we would expect to happen. People whose primary self-identity is that of freed slaves would not be the first candidates on our list to be slave owners. Yet, clearly, our faith ancestors were guilty of just such a cruel irony. Religious faith is often the terrain upon which strange ironies proceed unchecked. After all, religion leads us to make dramatic statements about appropriate choices and lifestyles. And once we have walked out on the limb of righteous declarations, it isn’t long before we start chopping it off behind us.
These ironies, or hypocrisies if you wish to use another hard word, are all around us. And in us. I was reminded of that truth last November. On the very day that this country elected its first African-American president, marriage equality was defeated in California. The infamous Proposition 8 was passed that not only denied same-sex couples the right to marry, but put thousands of gay marriages in a strange legal limbo.
Three groups were credited with the passage of Proposition 8. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is purported to have spent twenty million dollars to pass this pompous proposition. This strikes me as a bit odd, ironic if you will, that a religious group who migrated West so that they could find the religious liberty to practice polygamy would work so hard to deny others marriage equality. And while the Mormon Church no longer supports polygamy, one would think that their own history would at least make them sensitive to the desire of others to have the freedom to marry.
The second group that turned out big to pass Proposition 8 was the African-American community. On the very day that President Obama was elected, and a deep wound was delivered to the evil of racism that has haunted our country, a large percentage of African Americans in California voted to deny same-sex couples one of our most basic freedoms. Strange if you ask me.
The final group that has trumpeted its role in passing Prop 8 is the Evangelical Christian community. The very group that for the last decade has believed so strongly in the importance of marriage that it created the abstinence until marriage sex education policies, said don’t let these gay people get married. The very group that has asked the government to change the laws so that divorces are more difficult to attain and marriages will be forced to remain intact, said don’t let these gay people get married. The very group that has argued persuasively that stable families lead to healthy homes and kids, and that marriage is the bedrock of those stable families, said don’t let these gay people get married. The absurdity of it is so painful it will make you weep.
And what was the connecting thread that united these three groups in pushing Proposition 8? Religious conviction, of course. Our faith can be a wonderful source of hope and healing, but there is no question that the more adamantly we state our beliefs the more likely we are to fall into the tar pit of irony. Which means the people most likely to end up covered in sticky ironies are the people who spend the most time declaring their convictions; namely, preachers.
A good member of this church asked me a question recently that in hindsight I think is one of the best questions I have ever received from a parishioner. She asked if I believed everything I preached. Immediately, she felt awkward about the way she phrased it, but I think it is the perfect question for any person with the audacity to stand up high and tell others how to live. My answer was that I try very hard not to say something I don’t truly believe. But that is the easy part. The hard part is for a preacher to do all the things she or he says others should be doing. And in that regard I am, ironically, a consistent failure.
By now many of you know this about me. How many times have I encouraged you to be gentle and loving with one another? Even so, on occasion I get so worked up in a committee meeting that the words gentle and loving are about the last ones that come to mind. How many times have I encouraged you to avoid judging others? Even so, I spend a fair amount of time in this pulpit judging other groups who do things that irritate me, like, for instance, passing Proposition 8 in California. How many times have I encouraged you to show up for your loved ones and be present to them? Even so, those closest to me are more familiar with my absence than my presence. My faith and my profession make me the chief of all sinners when it comes to ironic activity.
So, finally, we have discovered the one thing that can unite the ancient Israelites, Mormons, people of color, Evangelicals, and liberal Baptist preachers. We are all susceptible to, if not consistently guilty of, behaving in ways that belie our stated beliefs. None of this is shocking, though the particular instances we have noted do stand out because of just how blatant they are. The bigger question is why and what can we do about it. What is it about faith that makes us prone to ironic pratfalls? And, is there something inherent in our faith that can help us avoid them?
The chief problem for religious folk has always been talking about something and thinking that is the same as doing it. Faith is not a series of statements that we make or affirm; it is a way of living rooted in specific convictions. I can tell you that I believe generosity is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life, but that means nothing until I am put in a situation where generosity will cost me something. Faith is not words or propositions or stories. Faith is something we demonstrate in relationships and connections to all of creation. The Apostle Peter did not show great faith when he said he would go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die with him. We all know what happened when the moment of truth came and Peter denied knowing Jesus. Peter’s great moment of faith came later when he made the unprecedented move of welcoming non-Jews into the early church. Such a risky move could have cost him complete rejection from the other apostles, but his faith drove him to do it. Martin Luther King’s faith was not proven when he talked and wrote about non-violence as a means to societal transformation. He showed his faith when his home was bombed, and he was jailed, and ultimately assassinated without ever resorting to violent retaliation. As James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)
But if people of faith are especially vulnerable to hypocrisy because of our penchant for thinking words are the same as deeds, what in our religious tradition can help us avoid such ironic traps? Simply this: The life motivated by faith in Christ is a life of inner examination. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We could adopt that philosophy and say the unexamined Christian life is not worth proclaiming. Our faith gives us ample opportunity to go deep inside and see if our actions match our rhetoric. Especially now, in Lent, we are encouraged to do this kind of soulful housecleaning where we clear out the contradictions and hypocrisies and start doing the things we say we believe. It doesn’t have to be huge stuff. We don’t have to change the world. But by living the simple truths we say we affirm we will restore our souls to a place of balance and harmony.
There are ridiculous ironies everywhere we look, even in the most famous texts in the Bible. Finding these absurdities in others is easy, sometimes even humorous, but rarely helpful. Finding them in ourselves, and doing the hard work to fix them, can help us become the people our words suggest we already are.