On July 31, 2001, the new chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court had a monument placed in the rotunda of the court building: a two-and-a-half ton block of granite—three feet wide and three feet deep and four feet tall—covered with quotes from the Declaration of Independence, and the national anthem, and some of the founding fathers.
And, on the top, two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, more or less, carved right into them.
And on August 1, 2001, that new chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court stood by that monument and declared:
Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.
Obviously, it couldn’t stay.
The Constitution of the United States says—right there, in the First Amendment, as the first thing in the First Amendment—that there can be no establishment of religion in this country.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Constitution of the State of Alabama says that the state cannot give preference to any religion.
And a monument to the Ten Commandments reeks of religious establishment and religious preference.
So the monument came down. And the chief justice was relieved of his office. And while he has tried to run for things a few times since, his political career has mostly gone down in flames, and now he lives on the fringes.
Our reading today is about those ten commandments.
About three months after God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gave the people a covenant: a way to be a priestly nation and a holy people.
And it started with those ten commandments… that say, more or less:
You shall know the Lord your God, and you shall know what they have done for you, and you shall have no other gods before them.
You shall not make idols for yourselves; and you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
You shall remember the sabbath day and keep it holy: you shall do all of your work on six days, but you shall not do any work on the seventh.
You shall honor your father and your mother. 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 anything that belongs to your neighbor.
For generations, Jews and Christians have revered these commandments. We include them in our Torah Portions and in our lectionaries. We have posters of them in synagogues and in churches. Sometimes, we even memorize them. Sometimes, we even try to put up monuments to them.
For different reasons, of course.
For Jewish people, these are not simply the ten commandments. They are the first ten commandments; they are just the beginning.
There is a tradition that says that there are six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments in this covenant: things to do and things not to do, things for men and things for women, things for holy days and things for every day, and more.
You shall put the one who kidnaps another person to death. You shall not wrong the resident alien. You shall be a priestly people and a holy nation.
And I need to be careful here, because there is a stereotype of Judaism that says that Judaism is all about following these six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments… and creating extra commandments so that no one gets too close to breaking the real commandments… and finding ways to get around the commandments. There is a stereotype of Judaism that says that Judaism is legalistic.
And that’s wrong.
Judaism includes these commandments, but it cannot be reduced to these commandments. And Jewish people have spent millennia reading these commandments, and meditating on these commandments, and arguing about these commandments, and living with these commandments, and understanding these commandments.
And Jewish people have spent millennia putting these commandments in a context that prioritizes life… and love… and grace. So that—and I am oversimplifying here—Judaism is not about rigidly following these commandments or about finding a way to skirt around these commandments, but about using these commandments to be a priestly people and a holy nation.
And nothing that I am about to say is meant to run counter to how Jewish people understand and practice and care for these commandments.
We are not Jewish. We are Christians.
Our entire thing is rooted in the idea that, through the life and death and resurrection of Christ, we who have no part in these commandments and who are not bound by this covenant have been grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation like a branch is grafted onto an olive tree.
We were not brought here by these commandments. We were not brought here by this covenant. We were brought here by… we were only brought here by… we were brought here only by… the grace of God, who we encounter in Jesus Christ, who brought us into a new covenant.
And yet… we still like these commandments. We still include them in our lectionaries. We still have posters of them in our churches. Sometimes, we still even memorize them. Sometimes, we still even try to put up monuments to them.
These ten commandments are good commandments.
We should know the Lord our God, and we should know what they have done for us, and we should have no other gods before them.
And we should not make idols for ourselves; and we should not bow down to them or serve them.
And we should not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord our God.
As we should remember the sabbath day and keep it holy: you should do all of our work on six days, and we should not do any work on the seventh.
We should honor our fathers and our mothers. We should not murder. We should not commit adultery. We should not steal. We should not bear false witness against our neighbors. We should not covet anything that belongs to our neighbors.
The problem with commandments, even good ones…
…especially when we include them our lectionaries and only half listen… especially when we put them on posters and never quite read them… especially them we memories them and do not ruminate them… especially when we carve. them. in. granite…
…is that they can become idols.
And we can find ourselves genuflecting before them without even understanding what they are or what they demand from us.
There was this thing floating around the socials a while ago. I don’t remember the letters. But I remember the spirit.
People ask me why I left the church.
I left because the people who were there told me good news: they told me that God had come into the world as one of us to bring good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim release to the captives and set free the oppressed, to declare a time of the Lord’s favor.
I left because the people who were there introduced me to a gospel: that God loved me and that I was called to imitate that love for friends and for neighbors, for strangers and for enemies, for the outcast and for the marginalized, and for the whole wide world.
I left because the people who were there gave me good commandments: to know God, and to know what God has done for me, and to put no other gods before God.
And then, when I tried to live a life rooted in those things, the people who were there got mad.
Bring good news, but not that good news. Recover your sight, but don’t see what is blinding you. Proclaim release to the captives, but not those captives. Free the oppressed, but not those oppressed. Love and love and love, but not those people and not that way.
People ask why I left the church. It was because the people who were there loved the monument that they had built more than the one who they had built it to.
And it is true that I think that the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court all of those years ago—and, honestly, most of the people who want to put up monuments to the ten commandments—do exactly that. It is true that I think that they love the monument more than the one who the monument is supposed to point them to.
But it is also true that I think that we… even we… even I… do that, too.
Look, this is hard to put into words, but I know how easy it is to think that the-things-that-we-do-in-worship are the same as worship. And I know how easy it is to think that being a church-shaped-organization is the same as being the church. And I know how easy to think that encountering the things that are supposed to point us to God is the same as actually encountering God.
But that’s not how it works.
We can go through the most high church smells-and-bells liturgy and still not worship.
We can have all of the right programs and all of the right ministries and a building filled to the rafters and still not be the church.
We can have the hymns and the organ… and the candles and the crosses… and the prayers and the sermons… … … we can even have these ten commandments carved into a two-and-a-half ton block of granite… … …and still not encounter the divine.
And… we can share a simple meal with someone who is hungry… or sit silently with someone who is lonely… or get loud at a demonstration… and find ourselves wrapped up in the God who led the Israelites out of slavery to Egypt and led us out of slavery to sin.
Because the thing is…
Being the church—being the body of Christ—is not about memorizing the commandments. It’s not about saying the words or performing the rites. It’s not about having an altar or wearing the vestments. It’s not about running the programs or putting on the events. And it really isn’t about building monuments. Even if those are all nice things; even if the monuments are big and impressive.
It is about life… and love… and grace. For ourselves. For friends and neighbors. For strangers and enemies. For the whole wide world.
Especially for those who live in a world that does not give them life… that does not show them love… that does not offer them grace: the least of us all.
And all of the rest of it—the words and the rites, the altar and the vestments, the programs and the events… even the monuments… even the commandments—are there for us to wrestle with, and argue about, and live with, and understand, and mess with… to understand and to reclaim… to use… to find more life and more love and more grace… until we are a holy people.
Until the whole world is holy.