The 10 Commandments are a gracious gift from God to bring order out of chaos and build community.
Over the years, I have forgotten many things….
I have forgotten phone numbers.
At one point, I probably had forty or fifty phone numbers memorized,
back in the day when we only needed seven digits to dial instead of ten.
Now, I just pick up the phone and say, “Hey Siri, call Melanie”.
I have forgotten the names of many teachers, though certainly not all of them.
The names of those who made deep impressions upon me,
from elementary through graduate school, are still fresh within my brain.
But sadly, I have forgotten many of the names of my school teachers.
I have forgotten old shortcuts around Atlanta and Cobb County.
When I was a teenager, I drove for a pool company in the summer and a flower shop in December,
and I drove all over the city. I would occasionally use a map, but mostly just my memory.
Today, I just say “Hey siri, map directions to Legacy Theater,”
and then I hardly need to pay attention to where I am going.
What have you forgotten?
If we keep up this quarantine for a while longer, who knows what all we will forget?
We might forget how to dress up for a fancy occasion.
With all the social distancing and masks,
we might forget how to shake hands and greet strangers with a smile.
Decatur High School students might forget how to make their way to class
through that confusing maze of hallways and staircases.
When the Hebrews found themselves wandering in an unfamiliar wilderness,
they had forgotten how to live as free people. They had just escaped slavery in Egypt.
They had left behind the strict schedules and structures of Egyptian servanthood.
All their settled ways had been disrupted, and they were learning to care for children and elderly
in less than ideal circumstances.
These newly freed people needed direction. And they needed hope.
The people were beginning to lose perspective, to argue amongst themselves,
to argue amongst the diverse tribes, and things were beginning to spin out of control.
They began to complain to Moses, time and again,
and they even formed a “Go back to Egypt Committee”, which cried out
that they would all be better off in the shackles of slavery than dying as free people in the wilderness.
As the book of Exodus claims – God heard their pleas.
God saw their chaos and confusion, and once again, God responded.
God spoke to Moses high on the mountain and gave him simple, yet profound community expectations
that, if the people would follow them, it would go well with them in the wilderness.
And God made it clear that if the people forgot these commandments, and failed to follow them,
that it would not go well for them, either in the wilderness or later, in the land of promise.
And the truth is that it will not go well for us if we forget the Ten Commandments,
if we fail to follow the way of life as described in these ancient instructions.
These 10 Commandments, taught by Moses over 3000 years ago, are still relevant to this day.
For centuries, they have been the foundation for stable and healthy community life.
But how many of us have forgotten them?
How many of our children are learning them in our homes?
How many of our elected leaders could recite all Ten Commandments? Or even a few of them?
How many of today’s active church members are intentional about following them on a daily basis?
In recent decades, it seems that many have come to think of the 10 Commandments
as a set of out-dated rules which fence them in and limit their freedom.
Others simply regard them not as “commandments” at all,
but more like “suggestions” that are “nice…if you’re into that kind of thing”.
In the worthy pursuit of separation of church and state,
and the important inclusion of persons of all faiths at the public table,
far too many Christians have never learned the Ten Commandments or simply forgotten them.
Far too many persons, of whatever faith or of no faith background, have no familiarity whatsoever
with this foundational aspect of Western culture and the Judeo-Christian ethic.
The 10 Commandments should at least remain part of the conversation
as our world adapts to ever new and broadening realities.
If you have the suspicion that something has gone awry in our country,
if you feel as though we should not be so angry with each other or divided from each other,
if you feel as though we could and should be better as a people,
if you feel as though we may be wandering in a wilderness with no clear way forward,
then listen carefully for the Word of God from Exodus 20:1-17.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them
or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity
of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love
to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,
for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
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, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
This list of instructions from the wilderness of Sinai is one of the greatest, most succinct gifts of wisdom
which humankind has ever received.
The only more succinct gift of wisdom may be Jesus’ summary of God’s laws –
that is, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Throughout the history of the Christian Church,
these Ten Commandments, along with the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed
formed a trident of belief which was passed from generation to generation to generation.
As early as the first century, catechumenates, or confirmands, as we call them today,
those who would join the Church, before their first communion, would memorize these three –
the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed.
For centuries, people of faith memorized these basic aspects of Christian faith.
While never perfectly lived, of course, the Ten Commandments as part of a larger Judeo-Christian ethic
that has formed a community ideal toward which we, as a people, have strived for generations.
This ideal is worth Christian study and reflection,
and worth discussion in the public sphere with people of all faith backgrounds,
and especially with people of no faith background who have inherited the moral milieu
in which they have been raised. We are always just one generation away
from losing foundational moral and ethical principles, like honesty or the sacredness of marriage.
The first four commandments relate to our love for God, the last six to our love for neighbor.
You shall have no other gods before me, for as Jesus said,
the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
You shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not worship anyone or anything that is created.
You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
Far beyond the use of certain curse words;
this commandment requires a return to reverence for God and for the things of God,
like worship, and communities of faith, and Holy Scripture.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Far beyond the strict limitations imposed on Sundays,
God knows that strength for our bodies and minds comes not from constant striving but from rest,
and that strength for our hearts and our souls comes from worship.
Regarding the last six commandments, if we get the first four right,
we are more likely and more able to follow the last six.
If these simple, yet profound instructions about how to live rightly with neighbor were taken seriously
and followed more closely, the world would be transformed in short order.
Imagine the improved conditions of the elderly in our nation if everyone truly sought to honor
their parents and grandparents.
Imagine our cities with no murder; imagine a world without constant threat of war and violence.
Imagine marriages and families without the confusion and pain of adultery or the scourge of pornography.
Imagine your neighborhood with no theft nor fear of theft.
What if we felt entirely comfortable leaving our doors and our cars unlocked?
What if every person and every company paid their fair share of income taxes?
What if every classroom teacher had no worries over cheating,
over students stealing the work of their classmates?
Can you even imagine an election season without candidates or their supporters bearing false witness?
Imagine how much more healthy our community relationships would be with no lying, no gossiping,
no talking behind each other’s backs.
Imagine your neighborhood or your friend group with no coveting,
no envy of others or their homes or their cars or possessions.
Are these things so hard to imagine?
Have become so accustomed to sin, so familiar with the absence of the commandments?
Have we become like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water,
so complacent in our forgetfulness as a people that we do not even realize that the temperature is rising?
These commandments were presented a long time ago in a place far away,
but human nature has not changed all that much.
Our basic human need for order out of chaos has not changed.
We still need instruction on how to live together so that we do not live as slaves to sin,
so that we do not turn against one another and harm each other in times of crisis.
By his words and deeds, Jesus of Nazareth embodied the Ten Commandments.
He told us that he came not to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them.
When Jesus taught us to “Love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, ”
he also taught us “to love our neighbor as ourselves,”
and to do so by “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
Our modern, complex lives will be more livable, more peaceable,
when we seek to love God and aim to love our neighbor.
If we are feeling any brokenness, any disunity among us,
then there are commandments that have been forgotten, life instructions that have been ignored.
Whenever anyone, of any level or stations, breaks even one of these commandments,
community life is affected, the well-being of society is threatened, consequences follow.
The good news is that we are not left to our own devices.
We have been given instructions for surviving, even thriving, during wilderness crises and beyond.
We know the One who embodied for us the commandments.
We are aware of the One from Nazareth who came that all may have life, and have it abundantly.
We have heard the story of the One who opened his arms and laid down his life,
so that every human being might know the loving grace of God that is far more powerful than hate,
more powerful even than death itself.
Therefore, as we gather at his table, let us remember.
Let us remember to worship God, allowing nothing else in our lives to take priority,
and let us remember to follow the pathway of neighborly love that Jesus has shown us.
It can still go well with us in this fine land.
We can still seek together the ideal of “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
We can still hope and pray that this nation could, by God’s grace,
in light of our diversity of race and faith and background, serve as a light to every nation,
to every bruised and battered people who find themselves in a chaotic wilderness.
These commandments are a gift, a gift of divine wisdom,
a gift to bring order out of chaos among diverse tribes,
a gift to instruct us how to live together on this good earth.
Beginning here today, at this Table, let us pray that we will not forget.
Let us all pray that we will remember the commandments of God
and pray that God will guide us and all people through our every wilderness.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church