Acting Out--a sermon on the 10 Commandments

Rev. Teri Peterson
Acting Out
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17
5 October 2014, World Communion, NL1-5
Harvest 1-5


Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

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.


We have a thing for rules, don’t we. Our society almost has an obsession when it comes to making rules, following rules, breaking rules, punishing people for breaking rules, and sometimes punishing people who do play by the rules. I get it, I do—rules give us something concrete to do or not do, something to measure ourselves against and to feel good about when we do well, or to feel guilty about when we don’t. Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” is harder—it feels vague and maybe even a little wishy-washy. How exactly do we do it? is what we really want to know. Tell us what to do so we can live up to God’s expectations, so we can be good enough, so we can go to heaven, so we can earn grace.

Because that’s what we’re really talking about in our rule obsession—earning grace. And no matter how many times we hear and say and sing that grace is free, that God gives it to everyone, that grace falls like rain, that grace is enough, that grace is God’s to give and not ours to earn, we still want to do something. Our Protestant work ethic kicks into high gear, as does our American “no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch” sensibility. 

Except, where God is concerned, there is a free lunch. We are reminded of it every time we come to this table—a feast is offered to us with no strings attached, no rule-following as a prerequisite, no way we can earn it. At God’s table, Christ is the host and invites whomever he pleases—and that just happens to be every single one of us. When we come to this table, we take a place in the vision God has for community—a vision full of good news, a vision of freedom from overwork, from idols who control us, from violence and loneliness and deception. A vision of a community, gathered around a table to break bread, to share stories, to love one another both with words and actions. 

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said "I cannot answer the question "What ought I to do?" unless I first answer the question "Of which story am I a part?"" The story of the Exodus and the commandments help us to answer that question. Yet even more so, the feast of communion with God and all the saints helps us answer the question. We are part of a story that stretches throughout history and around the world, that encompasses the worthy and unworthy, and ends up with enough for everyone, no matter their status or power or wealth or righteousness. We are part of a story that begins with God bearing us on the wings of eagles and bringing us into God’s presence. We are part of a story where the rules come after the grace, after the salvation, after the action.

Because the action is always God’s. At the beginning of today’s reading we heard the reminder: God was the one who brought us out of slavery, long before asking anything in return. We saw how God dealt with the false god of political power and monetary wealth. We saw how God dealt with oppression and injustice. Now we are free, and the commandments are a vision for how we can act out our part in this story God is already telling in and through us—how we can be God’s treasured possession. The ten commandments are not a ticket to heaven, not about earning God’s favor—that is already done for us. Instead, they are a description of what life in God’s community is like. They are a pathway to further freedom—from deception, from overwork, from violence and loneliness and despair, from the idols that so desperately want to control us.

This is the story of which we are a part: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it. And we who have been called to live by these commandments are a holy priesthood—people given a specific task, to show the world what a life lived with God looks like, and to bring the world’s needs and joys to God. That’s what priests do, after all—they interpret the people to God, and God to the people. And here we are told that is what it means to be God’s treasured possession—to be a holy priesthood, to be living good news in a world that really believes we must earn everything and that force is power and money is speech.

Because we are part of this story, the commandments are our framework for community. This is why they are such a great text for World Communion Sunday—because we are reminded of what brings us together as God’s treasured possession and holy priesthood. The commandments are like the tent-poles holding up our communal house, the boundaries that make it possible for us to live together in peace and work toward the kingdom. God has freed us, so we do not need to be enslaved to greed—ours or others. God has brought us into relationship, so we set aside all those things we have used as a poor substitute for God’s companionship. God has given us life, so we protect the lives of others. God is faithful, so we too can be faithful. God created all things, so we who are called to be co-creators can step down from being the center of attention and take time to simply rest and enjoy what God has provided. God calls, so we don’t need to spend our energy keeping people out. God found us and fed us, so we follow.

This is our story. And whenever we sit at table together, we remind each other that we are a part of a bigger story God is still telling—a story of justice and equality, a story filled with the good news that we are not in control, a story of peace that passes all understanding. Around the table, we are family—not just with the people we choose to sit next to in the pew, but with everyone in God’s big community of grace. The center of family life is the kitchen table, and God’s family is no different. We have been brought out of slavery and into the presence of God, we are fed with the bread of heaven, and so we act out our gratitude with our lives as well as our words, telling of God’s goodness and mercy, God’s generosity and grace, God’s providing and love.

May it be so.


Posted on October 5, 2014 and filed under 2014.