A Mental Health Day: Thoughts on Sabbath Keeping

Exodus 20: 1; 8-11

20Then God spoke all these words:

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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.

Back in the day, there was a DJ named John Anthony on WAMO, then an upbeat AM urban music station in Pittsburgh.

On Monday morning at 6am he would open his show with these words:

“It’s Monday morning and time to get ready for the weekend!”

Then he’d play Disco Inferno.

There was a time when folks looked forward to the weekends because it was time to relax, unwind, and re-energize.

There was even a song that went, “Everybody’s working for the weekend…”

We worked to live.

We didn’t live to work.

But no more.

Now its “Everybody’s working on the weekend…”

Like I did.

When I started practicing law in 1983, I worked for a firm that billed by the hour.

That was our “stock in trade” – the billable hour.

A billable hour was time we spent working on client files.

If we were not working on client files, the hour was not billable, and so unproductive.

Unproductive time was wasted time.

Time with no value.

Our value as lawyers, at least to the firm, was based entirely on how many hours we billed.

We wanted to be valuable members of the firm, so, we never rested.

We worked late into the evening.

We worked on weekends.

I often went to the office on Sunday evenings after dinner to get a head start on the coming week.

The dread of “unproductive” time has stuck with me.

The thought of “wasted time” drives me to be busy and productive all the time.

And when I am not busy and productive, I feel guilty and anxious.

I am not alone.

This from the American Psychology Association:

Americans are known for placing great emphasis on work and career. Working hard, however, should not be confused with overworking at the expense of relationships and physical health. According to a 2007 nationwide poll by the American Psychological Association, three-quarters of Americans list work as a significant source of stress …. [Yet], almost half stated that they did not use their allotted vacation time ….

… The APA survey found three quarters of people have experienced physical symptoms as a result of stress, such as headache, fatigue, and an upset stomach in combination with feelings of irritability, anger, nervousness, and lack of motivation.

[Moreover][b]ecause of e-mail, cell phones and the Internet, Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to switch off from the stresses of the workplace and concentrate on their personal priorities ….

Increased stress can lead to using unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, comfort eating, poor diet choices, inactivity and drinking alcohol to manage their stress.

That article was from 2007.

Today we have other more healthy ways to manage the stress while still being “productive”.

It’s called exercise.

That’s what I do.

But even the fitness industry points out that we need a rest from exercise as well.

Listen to this from Fitbit.

Step count, active minutes, calories burned… These are all important pieces of data that help us live healthier, more active lives. But we often don’t stress the importance of rest and why your body needs days off. … But that’s just part of the equation. Your tracker can also be extremely helpful in keeping tabs on your down days and limiting your activity so your body can fully recover in between your more active days of the week.

But if you’re like me, you find that advice difficult to follow.

Gotta work.

Gotta get those steps.

Gotta burn those calories.

Gotta be productive.

Good thing there are weekends, right?

We work long hours all week, then TGIF.

But …

Friday night is high school athletics.

Saturday morning is Betsy’s soccer game.

After that we need to mow the lawn and do the yard work.

Billy has his baseball game in the afternoon.

We have to stop at the store on the way home to get food for the week.

Now we have to clean the house.

Drive the kids all over town.

Saturday is gone and we are not particularly rested.

But that’s OK.

Tomorrow is Sunday.

Sunday is church, right?

Not always.

More games and activities.

Then we have to do the laundry, pay the bills, and call or visit our parents.

Maybe a few random hours to relax before we get ready to go back to work.

Sometimes there are emergency chores, visits out of town, people visiting.

Goodbye weekend …

Time to go back to work.

There is no rest.

We work our bodies to exhaustion, and never let up.

We consume pots of coffee, 5 Hour Energy or Red Bull.

We think it’s funny when we go to Caribou Coffee and see the t-shirt the staff wears.

“There will be plenty of time to sleep when you are dead.”

We brag about being “crazy busy”.

That is not the way it is supposed to be.

That is not what God Commands.

God commands that every 7th day, we are to give ourselves a break.

9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…

What is interesting about the fourth commandment is that it is a bridge between the “love God” commandments and the “love neighbor and self” commandments.

It includes both.

First, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

Second, we shall not work (and, by implication, not make anyone else work).

Let’s first look at making the seventh day a “sabbath to the Lord”.

How is taking a day off “loving God”?

There are several ways, but I highlight these.

First, it is a day where we have time to worship and consider all God has done for us.

Second, it is a day where we observe the cosmic order as described by Patrick Miller and Jon Levinson:

[B]iblical law … is of the same order as the laws of nature, the inner mechanism of creation. … The keeper of the Sabbath thus brings one’s life into harmony with the intrinsic rhythm of the cosmos, instituted by divine fiat and observed [first] by God.

The rhythm of the cosmos.

I like that one.

God rests on the seventh day.

So should we.

But why is this a commandment?

Maybe because when we work 24/7/365 we aren’t acting like people who follow God’s rhythm.

That was one of the problems for Israel in Egypt.

In Egypt, Israel was given no rest.

There was only, as Walter Brueggemann calls it, “feverish productivity”.

God freed Israel from this and said, “now you are to be like me, which is appropriate because you are made in my image.”

“People will know you are mine because you will have a sabbath day every week.”

We in 2018 need to be freed as well.

According to the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:

… [S]abbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion. The disengagement refers also to culture produced expectations for frantic leisure, frantic consumptions or frantic exercise.

The fourth commandment, if followed, frees us from these things.

It allows us to be God’ image bearers.

It illustrates our devotion to God.

It is a sabbath to the Lord.

But it is also a sabbath to us.

And so, we will do not “work”.

But what does that mean?

The Rabbis of Jesus time spent a good deal of time on that.

It is one of the most frequent criticisms of and accusations against Jesus.

Jesus “works” on the sabbath.

What does Jesus do that creates this conflict?

He heals.

He preaches and teaches.

What does Jesus condone ass a response to the accusations and criticisms?

Caring for God.

Caring for ourselves.

Caring for others.

Caring for creation.

I like the way Miller summarizes the distinction Jesus makes when responding to his critics.

… “[Jesus said] [T]he sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath (Mark 2: 27). That has been the point all along. “To sanctify the Sabbath means to save lives and do good, not just to rest and give rest to others” [citation omitted]. Human need is not all the Sabbath is about, but it is at the heart of the matter. In Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath Day, the commandment becomes an embodiment of the love of neighbor.

Sabbath is a day of meeting need.

For God.

For us.

For our neighbors.

For creation.

It is truly about loving God, ourselves and each other.

One question I get asked a lot when talking about sabbath is this:

Does it have to be Sunday?

Well, Sunday is the day we set aside to just sit for an hour or so for worship and to think about what God has done for us.

But that is not always possible.

Here is what some are doing.

What we call Mental Health Days.

Listen to this statement from ComPsych Corp:

82 percent of Americans admit to taking mental health days. “Taking a mental health day is responding to a crisis. We’re running at 120 mph with work and family, and […] you need to re-energize and re-focus. If you don’t, you’re going to get burnt out.” So take the day if you need it!

A day without the responsibilities of life.

Sounds like sabbath.

You can pick your own day for that.

But there is more to sabbath than just sleeping in, staying in your jammies all day binge watching some trendy Netflix series or reading that entertaining thriller.

We are to spend time with the Lord on the sabbath.

The sabbath day is that day where we glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Since the dawn of the church, it has been recognized that gathering with other disciples of Jesus is the preferred way to spend the sabbath.

In addition, the gathering of disciples offers a place where the disciples can encourage each other and provide mutual care.

You know, fellowship!

When I was in Malaysia and Vietnam and New Zealand, church was always followed by food and social interaction.

No one and I mean no one, left right after worship.

People stood around and talked to each other for an hour or more.

It was during those times that the needs of the community were shared, discussed and met.

It was during those times that the children played with each other.

It was during those times when people got a chance to catch up on the news, share stories and jokes and relax.

One of the interesting things about Jesus is that he did those kinds of things on the sabbath.

But he was not doing those things to teach that the 4th Commandment was no longer applicable or necessary.

He was teaching that while the rule was not to work, sabbath was also a time for glorifying God, providing mutual care and ministering to the community.

They went hand in hand in hand.

Loving God.

Loving each other.

Loving our neighbor.

Loving ourselves.

The cosmic rhythm.

The divine rhythm.

And part of that rhythm and balance is church.

The 4th Commandment should drive us to church, where we can have a day where we live into God’s plan for us.

So, what does that mean for us here?

Is JMPC a 4th Commandment community?

Is this a place where we can make space in our lives for rest and for worship and for fellowship?

It certainly is on Sunday mornings.

Two worship services, a Bible study and Children’s church.

That is what our between services coffee hours offer.

It can also be when we gather for Bible study two Tuesday evenings and two Wednesday afternoons a month.

We have music ministries that begin with prayer and practice music that glorifies God.

And while I am not sure how worshipful Pickleball is, it certainly is a good opportunity to disengage from the world and have fun with folks at church.

Maybe we need more sabbath opportunities here.

It is what the 4th Commandment is all about.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…

That is time with value.

To us individually.

To us as a community.

And to God.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

This is from an article by Tim Kreider called The Busy Trap, published in The New York Times (6-30-12):

If you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Have you heard such things? Said such things? Are these good things? What about rest? What about relaxation? What about giving ourselves a break? We are not so good at that as a culture. Even on our off days, we fill our schedule with things to do. Activities take the place of rest and are a poor excuse for it, because it does not reboot or refresh us the way down time does.

Down time is not something I am very good at.  When I was suffering from patellar tendinitis last year, my knees hurt all the time. It was making my daily workouts hard and painful. I went to a couple doctors and a couple physical therapists with one thing in mind. Fix this. And when I heard their collective prescription, I did not like it. RICE: Rest, ice, compression and elevation. In other words, take some time off at the gym. Grrrrrr.

So, rest is the antidote when we are injured, sick, stressed, right? Rest. Take a day off. Give yourself a break. What is interesting, though, is that rest is also a preventive measure. If you incorporate a rest day into your week, and actually rest on that day, your body and mind will be strengthened and become more resistant to the stresses of life.

Maybe that is why God gave us the 4th Commandment. Come and hear about it on Sunday September 30 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches “A Mental Health Day” based on Exodus 20: 1; 8-11. Come and give yourself a break.

What’s in a Name? Thoughts on the Third Commandment — and its not a trivial matter!

Exodus 20: 1; 7

1Then God spoke all these words:

7 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.

Today we take up the third commandment.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

What exactly is prohibited?

Here is one interpretation.

This past week, Karen and I went with 13 friends to play tennis at Sea Colony in Bethany Beach, Delaware.

We played a lot of tennis.

But not necessarily good tennis.

There was, from time to time after an errant shot, the use of, shall we say “colorful language”.

Someone asked me what I would be preaching on this week and I said the third commandment.

Most people think it means as my mother’s “Country Commandments” plaque puts it “Don’t use bad words”.

Someone said that if our colorful language violated the third commandment, we were all doomed.

Maybe not.

The third commandment is not about words – it’s about how we use the Lord’s name.

As most of you know, I am someone who has a great deal of difficulty with remembering names.

I often struggle to come up with the name of someone I know pretty well.

I also know that I am not alone.

I am also aware of what it is like to know someone for years and have that person not remember my name.

When I was a boy, I spent many summers with my grandparents in Edinboro, PA.

They had a boat on the lake that my brother, Tom, and I would use.

The marina owner, Frank, knew us both for years, but could not remember our names.

He called us both “Timmy”.

He would even say to folks at the marina when we came in for gas, “Look, here comes Timmy and Timmy.”

People in Edinboro still call me Timmy.

It makes me think of my favorite passage from Rev. Peter Gomes, “The Good Book” where he describes such situations.

One of the most embarrassing social situations, upon which even Miss Manners and other arbiters of social etiquette have failed to provide a useful strategy, is the one in which you have more than a nodding acquaintance with someone. At the point of introduction, you got the person’s name, forgot it, asked it again, and forgot it again. Meanwhile, you go on meeting this person, chatting and being chatted with, but you have clearly passed beyond the point where you can ask for the name again. It is easy enough to maintain the façade of friendship until that awful moment comes when you are required to introduce your nameless friend to a third party.

Clearly, we are supposed to learn and remember the names of those who inhabit our social circle.

If we know someone’s name, we know that person, right?

We have a relationship with that person.

But as I re-read this Gomes quote, I started to think of the third commandment.

First, does God have a name?

Apparently, because the third commandment prohibits its wrongful use.

So, if God has a name, do we know it?

If we ever knew it, have we forgotten it?

Have we gotten to the point where we cannot actually introduce our nameless God to a third party?

And if we can’t remember the name, how do we keep from misusing it?

So, first things first.

We need to know the name of God, so we can be sure not to misuse it, right?

So, what is God’s name?

We see many names in the Old Testament for God, right?

Names we have come up with to describe who God is and what God does.

Descriptions of how we experience God.

Here are some descriptions God has been given in the Old Testament:

In the New Testament we have the same thing.

  • Father
  • Son
  • Spirit
  • Redeemer
  • Savior
  • Anointed one
  • Christ
  • Messiah
  • Comforter
  • Advocate
  • Counselor
  • Might God
  • Everlasting father
  • Prince of peace

Even the name Jesus Christ is a description.

It means “God Saves by the Anointed One”.

You get the idea.

Dr. J. Hampton Keathley, III puts it this way:

… [T]o many the names God or Lord convey little more than designations of a supreme being. It says little to them about God’s character, His ways, and what God means to each of us as human beings. But in Scripture, the names of God are like miniature portraits and promises. …

So, these are not really God’s names.

Because neither Israel, nor us for that matter, is allowed to name God.

Why?

… Naming [in the time of Exodus] carried special significance. It was a sign of authority and power. This is evident in the fact that God revealed His names to His people rather than allowing them to choose their names for Him.

To name someone is to imply ownership of, authority over, possession, or control.

We have neither ownership of, or authority over, God.

Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, connects the third commandment with the first two when he says:

… [T]he prohibition of images [and names][is] an assertion of the unfettered character of Yahweh, who will not be captured, assigned, or managed by anyone or anything, for any purpose.

OK then, what is God’s name?

It turns out that is not an easy question to answer.

In his book, Theology in Exodus, Professor Donald Gowan uses an entire chapter on this subject.

He says that the first time God is asked God’s name is when Moses wants to know what to say to the Israelites when they ask Moses, “Who sent you and gave you this authority?”

God’s response was, “I am who I am.”

OK, who is that?

I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I am the one intervening here.

But you can call me “Yahweh”.

Now we have a name.

What do we do with it?

Or better yet, what don’t we do with it?

How do we not misuse it?

What does the 3d Commandment prohibit?

And why is it such a big deal that God put it in his top 10.

The name of God is thought to have tremendous significance and meaning.

One author puts it this way:

The foundational character of the Exodus story only serves to underscore the significance of the name of God. It is by this name that God is revealed. It is by all the words and deeds associated with the name YHWH that one shall know who and what God is, what God is like and what God does. Through this name, human beings have access to the knowledge of God. By this name God is present, and through this name God is worshipped.

Through that name we worship.

Jesus teaches us to hallow God’s name.

When we invoke God’s name, we imply God’s presence.

For what things we invoke God’s name determines how others will perceive God.

They will see God through our eyes and in our words.

So we must be very careful when we appeal to God.

It looks a little like this, I think.

Have you noticed that the most common place we observe people praying outside of a church service is at a sporting event?

It starts with folks who are regular church attenders, but whose regular attendance coincidently coincides with important Steeler and Penguin games.

Next up is the pre-game player huddle prayer.

Then there is the sign of the cross before an at bat or an important in game event.

And finally, the sky directed finger pointing after a goal, touchdown, or home run.

Here is a story from sports reporter John Blake of CNN.

Rich Franklin cornered the man who challenged him and launched a looping kick that caught him on his jaw.

The man’s face flushed red, and his knees wobbled. Franklin moved in, pounding his opponent with haymakers until he collapsed, grimacing.

Franklin, an Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight, had just scored another victory. The chiseled fighter took the ringside microphone and faced the roaring crowd.

“I want to say thanks to God, all praise to him,” he said. Then he bowed and folded his hands in prayer as his groggy opponent was led outside the ring.

Was it Franklin’s right hand or was it the hand of God that helped him smite his opponent? Ringside viewers may disagree, but God seems to be standing in the corner of a lot of victorious athletes these days. …

Thanking God from the winner’s circle has become so common that one British newspaper published a letter to the editor entitled: “Leave me out of your petty games –Love, God.”

I admit I prayed before wrestling matches and soccer games.

Sure, the words I used asked for God to help me do my best and make sure no one got hurt.

But my best would surely bring home a win, right?

If I did win … well does God really care about such things?

Which, interestingly enough, brings us to the third commandment.

Are these folks asking God to be a part of a trivial matter?

Maybe.

The invocation of his name as some sort of ally in a cause, or a reference of credibility, or some judgmental hit-man, trivializes God.

And the 3d Commandment really says we are not to trivialize God.

We are not to invoke the presence of God for trivial things because to do so implies a trivial God.

How do we know when we are doing that?

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary it is this:

To make “wrongful use of the name”, … means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh’s own person. That is, the ultimate violation is to make Yahweh (who is an ultimate end) into a means for some other end. …

Yahweh will not “acquit” those who seek to use God for their own purposes …

Why such a sever pronouncement?

Because if we invoke God for our “mischievous” trivialities, we treat God like an idol.

And God is not the divine wish granter.

Nor is God our personal assistant.

So, what does invoking God as a means to an end rather than as the ultimate destination look like today.

Let’s take a moment to think about where and when God is invoked?

We certainly see a good deal of this in American politics today.

And this is nothing new.

Abraham Lincoln illustrates it in his second inaugural address.

He talks about the war and then says this.

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered–that of neither has been answered fully.

I think Lincoln had it right.

Old Testament Scholar, Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

… Yahweh … has no utilitarian value and … cannot be recruited or used for any social or human agenda. The God who commands Israel is an end to be honored and obeyed, and not a means to be used or exploited.

Like athletes praying for victory in a game, politicians claiming God is on their side, to opponents in a war, the invocation of God’s name is an effort to coerce God to take a side.

When we do that, we use God’s name as a means to achieve the end of our personal or political or national or even our athletic desires.

That is a violation of the third commandment.

What we are called to do in the third commandment is to invoke God’s name only to achieve God as an end.

What is that?

Loving God and loving our neighbor.

To have a relationship with God.

What does that look like?

You know what I am going to say.

Feeding the hungry.

Clothing the naked.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Welcoming the strangers.

Caring for the sick.

Visiting the oppressed.

When we do these things for each other, we do them for God.

So if we want to have folks see God through our eyes and our words and our actions, maybe these would be names they use to describe God.

Feeder of the hungry.

Clothier of the naked.

Giver of water to the thirsty.

Caregiver to the sick.

Visitor to the oppressed.

The one who intervenes here.

These are the things of God.

And they are not trivial.

Amen

This week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church (OK, I know this is late — I was out of town)

My niece just had a baby. I had some advice for her while she was pregnant. “Don’t tell anyone the names you are considering, because someone will invariably tell you a story about someone they know with that name who did something awful. They will always associate that name with that event. And while you were not a witness to that event, your affection for the name might be colored.” OK, so maybe that is a stretch, but names are important. Here is a story I remember from my lawyering days. Gary Matthews petitioned the court to have his name legally changed to “Boomer the Dog.” In his petition, Mr. Matthews stated, “I’ve been known as Boomer the Dog by my friends in the community for more than 20 years. I want to bring my legal name in line with that.” Judge Ronald Folino denied Mr. Matthew’s name-change request, arguing that it would cause too much confusion. Folino observed, “Although the petitioner apparently wishes it were otherwise, the simple fact remains that he is not a dog.” The third commandment is about the name of God. Do we know what God’s name is? We are prohibited from misusing that name. What does that look like? And what does it have to do with Boomer the Dog? Come and hear about it on Sunday, September 23 at 8:30 and 11 at John McMillan Presbyterian Church when Pastor Jeff preaches “What’s in a name? Based on Exodus 20: 7.

Who’s Your Daddy? Thoughts on the first and second commandments … and they are not what you think.

Exodus 20: 1-6

20Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4 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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Last Sunday I asked a question:

Can any of us list all the Ten Commandments?

My purpose in asking that question was not to embarrass anyone, because I have to confess, whenever I try to list them, even when I have Exodus 20 in front of me, I have trouble.

What is the first, second third, etc. …?

Apparently, Catholics and Jews list them differently than we Presbyterians do.

Jews split Exodus 20: 1-6 into two.

God’s proclamation that God is the Lord God alone as the first commandment and a demand that only God, and no idols, be worshipped is the second.

Catholics list all of Exodus 20: 1-6 as the first commandment.

We Presbyterians note that these are “commandments”, and so look for “commands”.

We might be tempted to just list the commandments as those statements that contain the word “shall”.

But we can’t do that because two commandments have two “shalls” in them, while two commandments have none.

This is all very confusing to me at times and maybe to you.

So, you will be happy to hear that I will use the list of commandments we find in our Book of Common Worship:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. 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.
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

You will fine this list in the bulletin this morning after the Order of Worship.

You might put it on your refrigerator as a means of a reminder and for encouragement.

Today we start with the first two, basically because they are so interconnected.

We are to worship only God, and nothing, and no one, else.

Number one and number two.

They are so interconnected because they follow right after what is called the “Prologue”:

God spoke all these words saying, I am the Lord your God.

God’s first words to Israel.

I am the Lord your God.

God seems to anticipate a question.

Which God is that?

(Because Israel had many in Egypt.)

God said, “The one that brought you out of Egypt, so you are obliged to me because that makes me your God.”

So, here’s what you have to do:

First, you shall have no other gods before me.

No other gods before me.

The Hebrew word translated as “before” can be translated in different ways:

Before (in front of) me.

Beside (alongside of) me.

Besides (instead of) me.

Against (opposed to) me.

No other gods, period!

So, when we put the first commandment together with the Prologue, we have the essence of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

Israel is God’s only chosen people.

God brought it out of Egypt.

Israel’s only God is the one who took it out of Egyptian slavery.

God will continue to bless Israel.

And Israel is to worship that God.

Does this imply that there are other gods?

Not real ones.

That is what the second commandment is about.

We are not to make and worship idols.

What is an idol?

It is anything we put before, beside, besides or against God.

Those are the “other” gods.

Idols.

And we are not to worship them.

For two reasons.

The first commandment, obviously.

You shall have no other gods before me.

But the second reason contains some logic.

Idols are things we create ourselves.

We create them.

They are not really gods, but inventions of our minds, and they have no power.

Worshiping or praying to them accomplishes nothing.

Even if we say we are praying to our God, that we are actually speaking to an something we created disrespects God.

We are prohibited from creating images of God because to do so allows us to put God in a box.

There is a little children’s song that is kind of cute.

If I had a little bitty box, to put my savior in.

I’d take him out and kiss- kiss- kiss and share him with my friends

If I had a little bitty box to put that Satan in

I’d take him out and smash his face and put him right back in.

Good song, because that is what we are supposed to do.

Love God.

Share the Good News.

Reject evil.

Making an idol to represent God makes it a different song.

If I had a little bitty box, to put my savior in

I’d take him out and kiss- kiss- kiss and put him right back in.

That is what happens when we create an idol of God.

We want to keep God in the box, our box.

We let God out when it suits us.

Then we put God back when it doesn’t.

We try to be the one in charge.

That is idolatry.

That is prohibited.

The reality is this.

God is in no place.

God is in no form.

God cannot be owned or controlled.

Giving allegiance or credit to anything or anyone else puts that thing before, beside, besides and against God.

It might look a bit like this.

This scene from the movie, Remember the Titans.

Coach Herman Boone is the first African American coach of the first integrated football team in Virginia.

Boone is challenged by Gary Bertier, the captain of the previously all white team.

Bertier approaches Boone as the team is boarding the busses that will take them to pre-season training camp.

Bertier demands a particular racial make-up of the team.

In effect, he is saying to Boone, you are not in charge here, I am.

Boone responds.

Everyone who gets on the bus becomes a member of a family.

The Titans.

And the Titans have a “daddy”.

Boone asks Bertier: “Who’s your daddy?”

Bertier hesitates but finally says to Boone: “You are.”

Boone smiles and tells Bertier, then put on your coat and get on the bus.

Why does Bertier backed down?

Because Bertier and Boone both knew the same thing.

When a community seeks to succeed in something never done before, there must be someone in charge.

On a football team, that is the head coach.

And there is only one head coach.

Only one.

And that coach is the “daddy”.

The one who cares.

The one with the team’s best interests at heart.

The one who leads.

If you want to be on the team, that is who you owe your allegiance to.

Want to be on the team?

Put on your coat and get on the bus.

I saw something like that in real life once.

When my daughter was playing summer travel softball, I heard a coach from another team tell us why his best pitcher was no longer with his team.

It seems that when she pitched, she ignored the signs he gave for her pitches and instead would glance at her father who sat behind the team.

He was calling the pitches.

Problem?

The catcher did not know what was coming and so there were several passed balls, advancing base runners.

More importantly, the coach was just better at it.

When the coach found out, he confronted the father and told him that there was only one coach, and if the girl was to pitch, she had to do what the coach wanted.

Put on her coat and get on the bus.

When the father refused, well, she was no longer on the bus.

That is what is happening between God and Israel.

You want to be on God’s team, Israel?

Who’s your daddy?

That’s right.

Me.

There is only one and I am that one.

I am YHWH.

I am the one who freed you from Egyptian slavery.

I have your best interest at heart.

I have the power to save you.

If you want to be my people, I am your “daddy”.

You will have no other.

You will have no other person or thing in charge but me.

If you want to be on my team, put on your coat and get on the bus.

Follow someone else and you are off the bus.

What does this have to do with us today?

I mean, we were never slaves in Egypt, right?

We are slaves to different masters.

Our idols.

What are our idols today?

To what do we give our allegiance and worship?

Fame.

Power.

Money.

Nations.

Political parties.

Ourselves.

We put these things before, beside, besides and against God.

And God does not hide God’s feelings on this point.

God is a jealous God.

God will not tolerate any competition.

In some ways, it is like marriage.

When two people get married, there is an understanding that there will be no competition for their mutual commitments.

The loyalty and love of each for the other is reserved for the spouse and the spouse alone.

In this respect, we, like God, are allowed to be jealous for that love and loyalty.

To give love and loyalty to another is a breach of the covenant and will lead to unpleasant consequences.

When Israel did these things, there were expressed consequence.

Unpleasant consequences.

Under the old covenant, to do this (and the Old Testament is the story of how Israel could not it either) was punished to the third and fourth generation.

Only those who followed the commandments were received God’s steadfast love.

The problem for Israel and us is that none of us qualify for the thousand generation of steadfast love that is earned only by strict compliance with the commandments.

We simply cannot comply.

That is why Thomas Aquinas, and Paul for that matter, believed the commandments to be accusations of infidelity to God and proof that we needed a savior.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Jesus is the divine commandment follower – for us.

Jesus is the new covenant.

The New Testament.

The incarnate God who continues to free us from slavery and demonstrates God’s steadfast love by living the life we are called to live and forgiving us when we do not.

All we need to do is accept this great gift.

Proclaim God to be our “daddy”.

Then we put on our coats and get on the bus.

So, what does that mean for our daily lives?

How are we to live?

Jesus tells us in Mark 12: 29-31 in response to being asked what the greatest commandment is.

‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Those are the terms of the covenant.

Loving God.

Loving each other.

Living the Jesus way.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

Back when Chuck Noll was the coach of the Steelers, the players knew who the boss was. The Emperor Chuck as Myron Cope would call him. When Noll arrived in 1969, he took charge of everything. It truly was his team that won all those Super Bowls in the 70s. At his first team meeting, he told the players that the reason they were losing is because they weren’t any good. To be on his team, Noll told them, they were going to have to learn to play, and behave, his way if they wanted to stay on his team. If they listened to Noll, they would be winners. If they were unwilling to listen to Noll, they were to “get on with their life’s work”, Noll’s famous line he would use to tell a player it was time for him to go. In a way, Noll was telling his team that he, and no one or else, was in charge. That nothing was to distract them from the fact that Noll was the only one who could provide success. We might say Noll was a “my way or the highway” kind of leader. That is kind of what the first and second commandments are all about. Who’s in charge? Who do we look to for our security? Come Sunday for our continuing series on the Ten Commandments. Hear more about putting God first and avoiding idolatry when Pastor Jeff preaches “Who’s your daddy?” based on Exodus 20: 1-6. We look forward to seeing you.

A Mountaintop Experience: Thoughts why the Ten Commandments are a big deal (and it’s not why you think).

Exodus 20:1-17

20Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4 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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 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.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 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.

In an old segment of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he asked people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments.

The most common response was:

“God helps those who help themselves.”

A phrase which is not in the Bible anywhere, let alone in the Ten Commandments.

We don’t want that to be us, right?

But is that us?

We are happy to fight about whether facsimiles of the two tablets should be posted on public property, but can we list them?

If we read them on those public displays, would we know if they were accurate?

In the right order?

Even if we do, do we know what each of the Ten Commandments mean?

Do we know how to follow any of them?

If you have not figured it out, today we start the fall sermon series on the Ten Commandments.

Reading them is a good start.

That was our scripture reading.

Now let me offer a few interesting facts about these immortal words.

The Ten Commandments are the only words of instruction in the Old Testament given twice!

Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

They are the only instructions given directly by God to Israel.

Everything else comes through Moses and the prophets.

They are the first statement of laws given by God and everything that follows is based on these Commandments.

The rest of the “law” is interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

Which means they are subject to interpretation, and have been, based on the circumstances.

What do they have to do with Christianity?

Jesus references the Commandments more often than any other Old Testament text.

When he says he came to fulfill the law, Jesus was talking about the Commandments.

When Jesus describes the “Greatest Commandment” loving God, he is summarizing the first 5.

When Jesus talks about the second greatest as love of neighbor, he is talking about the second 5.

So, that all being the case, as Christians, we need to pay attention to them.

They apply to us.

The Ten Commandments have always been a big deal.

They start out as a pronouncement of God from the mountaintop.

A terrifying theophany.

To the Jews this meant that these “ten words”, called the “Decalogue”, were eternal.

They described the nature of God’s vision for creation.

Not just rules, but the foundation for everything.

They hold it all together.

They are a way of life.

Jews were told to wear little boxes on their arms or heads that contain the Ten Commandments to remind them of the law and encourage them to follow it.

The early Christian church used the Ten Commandments part of its liturgical outline.

The Catholic church teaches in its catechism that the Commandments are words of both conscience and accusation.

Luther and Calvin understood the Ten Commandments to be a kind of natural, universal law, to be used as instruction on faithful living in the world.

Many of the Confessions in our own Book of Confessions use the Commandments as a guide.

The Anglican Church requires the Commandments be hung on the eastern wall of the sanctuary so that people see them every time they enter.

And finally, for many years, in the Presbyterian Church, the Ten Commandments were recited either right before or right after the prayer of confession during worship.

The “Law” was considered as important as the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed.

It’s still in our Book of Common Worship as part of the Order of Worship.

But I have been going to church as long as I can remember, and I have never seen that done!

I wonder why?

Maybe we need to give the Commandments back some prominence here at JMPC.

Maybe this series will get us started.

So, what exactly are these commandments?

A few years ago, I read a sermon preached by Dr. Craig Barnes, then pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

In the sermon, Dr. Barnes told the story of his adopted brother Roger.

Dr. Barnes’ father was a pastor in an inner-city church.

Roger was a boy whose family attended that church.

Roger’s parents were both drug addicts and tragically died of overdoses on the same evening.

Roger called Rev. Barnes.

Rev. Barnes took Roger home with him and decided to adopt Roger.

That was it.

As Dr. Barnes put it, his father simply said that Roger was now part of the Barnes family, and was to be treated as such.

But that act of charity was not the end of the process.

Roger, having been raised in the home of addicts, was an unruly child.

Roger had to learn to live as a member of the Barnes family.

Most of those lessons came from Dr. Barnes’ mother, and generally were taught at the dinner table.

Roger would grab at food.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We ask and wait our turn.”

Roger would run from the table after eating.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We clear the table and do the dishes.”

Roger would throw tantrums sometimes when the rules lessons were not to his liking.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We don’t yell or raise our voices.”

Roger would use colorful language.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We never use those kinds of words.”

It took time, but ultimately Roger managed to learn what it meant to be part of the Barnes family.

I have always liked that story.

Why?

Because it is a good example of the way God deals with us!

We are adopted into God’s family, but we have to learn what that means.

We have to learn how to act like we are part of God’s family.

Which brings us to the 10 Commandments.

God’s version of Mother Barnes lessons.

“No folks, we don’t do that in this family. We do this instead!”

We don’t have a bunch of gods, we have one.

We don’t worship things, we worship God.

We don’t disrespect God, we revere him.

We don’t push God out of our lives with busyness, we take time to rest and reflect of what God has done for us.

We don’t disrespect our parents, we honor them.

We don’t hurt other people, we help them.

We don’t destroy other families, we respect family boundaries.

We don’t take stuff that is not ours, we respect the property of others.

We don’t lie, we tell the truth.

We don’t compare ourselves to others, we are content with what we have.

Mother Barnes’ lessons might not be the Ten Commandments, but they are a good illustration of the relationship between Israel and God.

Don’t think so?

Let’s looks the Biblical story.

Israel is enslaved by Egypt.

They are the children of Abraham.

Abraham had been promised that his descendants would be a great nation and a blessing to all the world.

But Israel is stuck in Egypt.

God calls Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt.

Moses is to take Israel to the promised land where it can fulfil God’s promise to Abraham.

Moses does just that, and along the way, Israel acts like an unruly child.

Like Roger.

Then, Moses and Israel arrive at the “Mountain of God”.

Moses climbs the mountain and is told by God to gather Israel at the foot of the mountain.

Moses does, and God speaks.

Please note there are no tablets.

They come later.

God tells Israel directly that God has chosen Israel to be God’s people.

They are now adopted as God’s family.

In return for this divine act of charity, Israel must enter into a covenant with God.

Part of that covenant is that Israel must stop acting like unruly children.

Israel must become holy – separated from the rest of the world – as an example to the rest of the world.

To be holy, Israel must follow God’s rules.

The Ten Commandments.

The people are terrified that God is speaking to them like this.

They tell Moses that they want no more of this.

So, they tell Moses to be an intermediary, which is what he does from that point on.

He goes up the mountain and stays there for many days getting instructions from God about many things.

It is during this time that God creates the tablets, what are sort of a memorialization of the covenant God now has with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel is making the golden calf.

Truly a stiff necked and unruly people.

Like Roger.

Like us?

You know the rest of the story.

You’ve seen the movie with Charlton Heston.

Moses comes down, sees the calf, and smashes the tablets.

Moses is basically saying, “We don’t do that in this family!”

We might say this: “The ink was not dry on the covenant before Israel broke it.”

And why would we not expect that?

Israel was still learning what the rules meant and did not understand how to follow them.

Which brings us back to our opening question:

What do we know about the 10 Commandments?

What do they require of us and why?

What is God trying to teach us?

And then we need to incorporate them into our lives.

Because they are still a big deal!

But more than that, they are good news.

If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments, and Jesus brings good news, we need to understand that the commandments are good news, too.

If Jesus fulfills them, we need to make them our way of life, too.

Foundational guiding principles to our lives.

The Jesus way.

That’s what this series is about.

Now it’s our turn to have a mountaintop experience with God.

Learning to live the divine vision proclaimed in a mountaintop experience so many years ago.

This Week at John McMillan Presbyterian Church

One TV show that I have followed for many years is NCIS. One of the continuing details that fans of the show pay attention to are the “Gibbs Rules”. Leroy Jethro Gibbs is the team leader for a group of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agents. If you want to be on Gibbs’ team, you need to know the rules. Problem is, there are at least 51 of them. (I will not debate the actual number because there are a variety of views on that, though I have never heard one higher than 51.) These rules range from “Always wear gloves at a crime scene” to “Always be reachable” to “Always carry a knife” to “Never say you are sorry” and finally, Rule 51, “Sometimes you are wrong”. Gibbs Rules are fun and sometimes a bit profound. Why do we like Gibbs Rules? Because we like rules. We really do. Following a particular set of rules defines whose tribe you are in. If someone cites a Gibbs Rule – I always carry a knife – for instance, your fellow tribe mates (NCIS fans) will know you are one of them. Also, we like the discipline rules give us. If we follow a certain set of rules, we will accomplish certain goals. We will lose weight, make friends, advance in our careers, make more money – if we follow this set of rules. Interestingly enough, the Ten Commandments are such a set of rules. They were given to the Israelites by God and if followed, the Israelites would be a tribe of “God’s chosen”, distinguishable from the rest of humanity, and would prosper as a people. But you have to follow the rules! So, if we want to be part of that same tribe and prosper as a people of God, we need to understand what those rules require, right? You bet. That is why Pastor Jeff is starting a sermons series on the Ten Commandments. What do they say? What do they mean? Is it possible to follow them? You might be surprised at the answers to these questions. It all starts this Sunday at John McMillan Presbyterian Church at 8:30 and 11 when Pastor Jeff Preaches “A Mountaintop Experience” based on Exodus 20: 1-17. Come and join us. We will look forward to seeing you.