Sunday 17 June - Pentecost 4 - Evensong - Markus Duenzkofer

First Reading: Exodus 20:17

Second Reading: Matthew 22:34-40

Here is a question for you:

How do the Ten Commandments start? Think about it just for a second…

The Ten Commandments are one of the most ancient and one of the best-known texts in human history. In recent years they have also become one of the most contested texts, as religious fanatics of the Christian persuasion have tried to use them as a weapon in the cultural wars raging in the Western world. Yes, I am talking about those white Evangelicals, who erected in public spaces monuments with the text of the Ten Commandments to slap more inclusive people in the face and who then turn around to elect a president, who has violated many of those very commandments. #hypocracy

But then, the Ten Commandments are not a weapon. In fact, the Bible as a whole is not a weapon. And I have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of countering the use of the Bible as a weapon by using it as a weapon too…

And this is where the question from the beginning of this homily becomes important. How do the Ten Commandments start? If your answer was “Thou shalt not have any other gods beside me” – you will get some points for knowing that that is indeed the first commandment. However, you will not get full marks, because the First Commandment is actually not the beginning. The first line of the Ten Commandments is no commandment at all. It says, “I am the Lord your God, who has led you out of Egypt.”

The first line of the Ten Commandments is like an introduction, a preamble that sets the scene. It talks about something concrete, which then shapes what follows. It might look like just an event in the past, but it is more than that: It is the liberation of the children of Israel, who had been held captive by Egypt and been turned into slaves to expand the power of the Pharaoh, the power of the elites, the power of those on the top. Leading God’s people out of Egypt, therefore, speaks of liberation, speaks of providence, and above all speaks of relationship. It reminds the people of God that God is a God, who overcomes obstacles and tears down barriers. God is a God, who leads out of captivity, whatever that captivity might be – and many are indeed held captive in body, mind, and soul. God is also a God, who will not tolerate oppression, injustice, and violence; who has not left creation stage left, but remains intrinsically involved with all life, human and non-human; who will not abandon us even as we journey through a self-inflicted desert. God is indeed a God, who will consistently reach out to us, forming a covenant to commit to us: to you, to me, to each and every one of us. God is a God, who is intimately involved in all of our lives.

And this is the preamble that sets the stage for what we have termed the Ten Commandments –

or at least it should.

But I do wonder if we have quite grasped the immense and profound depth of all of this. Haven’t we turned it around instead? For us the Commandments shape the preamble, as we look at the Ten Commandments as a means to form relationships: For many, the Ten Commandments are either a text of good living that establishes our relationship with one another. They are a moral code, even a universal moral code that makes human flourishing possible. And many religious types believe that if we keep the Ten Commandments, we will then please and establish a relationship with God.

But this is putting things upside down. God establishes a relationship first. God offers himself to become fully part of our lives. God reaches out to all that we are and all that we have with all that God is and all that God has. God consistently comes our way, offers to lead us out of our personal Egypt, whatever that Egypt might be. And then, when we let ourselves be led by God without holding back, when we let ourselves completely fall into God’s providence, and when we fully embrace the relationship God offers, then not only will liberation come, but we will then also not be able to help ourselves but to keep the commandments. The commandments are a result of a relationship, they flow from an intimate bond with God. It is not the other way around. As our intimacy with God grows deeper, so will our lives reflect more and more what is set out in the Ten Commandments. It is a process that grows deeper, more profound, and more recognisable for ourselves and for the world as a whole.

And the Hebrew text actually supports this.

Take the tenth commandment, for example, which is the text for today. The problem about coveting what is not ours, is that by the time we get there we have already given room for our own desires without regard for anybody and anything else. It is pure selfishness. And when we set our gaze on something that belongs to another, sin has already had a field day: King David lusting after a married woman. Or King Ahab and Queen Jezebel moving heaven and hell to get their hands on a piece of land owned by somebody else, leading to a landgrab not unlike that by international mining-companies in the rainforest. Or the greed of the blinded, who speak of Britain first, Germany first, China first, India first, or America first. Or the violence of men who think they have power and control over the lives of women, disrespected women’s right of self-determination and of saying “no!” Or we ourselves, as we have to admit that far too often we only care for our self-interest and the interests of our nationality, our peer group, or our particular ministry. It’s all like the gulls in the movie “Finding Nemo:” Mine, mine, mine… 

But God goes another way. It is not about God with God, it is about you and me. God reaches out to us, wants to lead us out of our Egypt, even when Egypt’s fleshpots have seduced us into ignoring God and one another. God offers us liberation from the desires of our hearts that disrespect God and disrespect our neighbours. God instead offers love: deep, abiding, sacrificial, vulnerable, eternal love. And this is the grace at the heart today’s texts, both the text from Matthew as much as the text from the Ten Commandments. It is the grace that makes it clear that it is not about rules and regulations, not about selfish greed and narrow interests, but it is about relationship. And it is this grace, this grace of God’s love, that will allow us to claim the beauty that God intends for each and every one of us.