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First Things First

San Williams

June 19, 2011
Deuteronomy 5:6/Exodus 20:3

06-19-2011 SermonOn Wednesday of this week, a Louisiana State Senate committee rejected legislation that would have allowed a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on the state Capitol grounds in Baton Rouge.  The bill was defeated because the legislators were not willing to embroil the state in expensive and prolonged law suits which the monument would have set in motion. Texas, you may recall, had our own Ten Commandments controversy.  In 2005, lawsuits filed against the Ten Commandments monument on our capital grounds went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Unfortunately, these recent controversies may well have colored our attitude about the Ten Commandments.  They may be linked in our minds to court battles, church and state separation controversies, and ideological clashes.

 So this summer, we’re inviting the congregation to a fresh engagement with the Ten commandments—one not based on legal, political or ideological controversies—but on the commandments’ place in the life of faith.  We hope to hear the commandments in a new key, one that gives fresh vitality to our relationship with God and guidance for our relationships with others.  Let’s start at the beginning, with the First Commandment:  “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.”     

 It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this commandment for Jewish and Christian faith. In his new book on the Ten Commandments, which our Tuesday evening Bible Study read this spring, author Patrick Miller makes the following sweeping statement:  “One might say the whole of Scripture is, in some sense, a commentary on the story of the First Commandment.”  Martin Luther made a similar claim, asking, “What is the whole book of the Psalms but meditation and exercises based on the First Commandment?”  The positive formulation of the first commandment, called the Shema, is the very centerpiece of Jewish prayer that encapsulates the essence of Judaism: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”

Jesus, the gospels show, lived his whole life in obedience to the first commandment. At the very beginning of his ministry, he resisted the temptations in the wilderness by reaffirming his complete trust in God, and God alone. Jesus taught that we could not serve two masters. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus recited the Shema. Even as he faced his own death, Jesus remained faithful to God.  “Not my will,” he cried out, “but thy will be done.” So even a quick glance at scripture reminds us that all of scripture is in some sense an illustration of, or a commentary on, the first commandment.

 But as we think about the first commandment in today’s context, a question immediately arises:  Is the crisis of faith for us today an issue of “other gods” or “no” god?  I recently heard religious historian Diane Butler Bass lecture on developments in religion in North America.  She made the statement that American religion has changed more in a negative way in the last decade than any other time in our history.  Citing a recent survey by the Public Opinion Quarterly, she noted that fifty years ago, 98% of Americans declared a strong belief in God. Today, that number has dropped to 65% of Americans who believe in God, with the percentage for those under thirty years of age dropping to 40%.  This means that if you are under thirty and believe in God, you are now in the minority.  These alarming statistics make us wonder if the crisis of faith today is not so much “other gods” as it is “no god at all.” 

Yet on further reflection, maybe the issue today is more complex than that. In his larger catechism, Martin Luther invites us to consider what it means to have a god:   “To have a god,” Luther writes, “is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart…A god is the term for that to which we look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need.” In other words, a god by Luther’s definition is whatever gives our life meaning and that to which we give our time and energy.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann contends that “the issue for God’s people is characteristically wrong God and not no God.”  Today we have a pantheon of attractive–even addictive–values, technologies and sources of amusement that clamor for our attention and commitment.

C. Ellis Nelson’s memorial service was this week at the seminary chapel. Ellis was an esteemed theologian and educator who began his ministry as an associate pastor in this very congregation. In his book on the Ten Commandments, titled Love and the Law, Nelson suggests that we tend to have two kinds of gods:  inside gods and outside gods. 

For example, an inside god for many people is the all-out drive for personal success. Personal success can take many forms–reaching a certain income level, making the highest grade in a class, reaching the pinnacle of a career, and so on. If everything else, and everyone else, becomes secondary to achieving our personal goal, then the goal itself has become our god. 

Outside gods, Nelson suggests, are anything outside ourselves to which we give our total allegiance. What are the outside gods that demand attention today?  Well, there are too many to name, but one god I’ve been wondering about is the god of social media, which has a way of taking over our attention, captivating our interest, and monopolizing our time and energy.  Here at UPC we’re going to attempt to tap in to social media for good purpose this summer. But already we can all see how easy it is to become obsessed with the state of continual communication. If you find it difficult to walk down the street, sit still, drive a car, listen to a sermon or sit through a movie without talking, texting or tweeting, you may be holding an outside god in your pocket or purse.

Or consider the pervasive use of drugs in our society. Like all things, drugs properly used are beneficial, but they can very easily graduate from an aid to a god.  We have drugs–both legal and illicit–that help us sleep and others to wake us up. Drugs to calm us down, and drugs to speed us up…and these are just the legal ones. We have to wonder if our dependence on pharmaceuticals identifies them as a man-made god.  In any case, the First Commandment acknowledges that there are always other gods, other powers at work in our world that take priority in our lives, but always at the expense of genuine well-being and peace.

So we can begin to hear the 10 Commandments in a new key when we realize that these laws are in essence an expression of God’s love.  The prologue of the Ten Commandments is key to all that follows: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” In other words, God has been revealed to us as the God who comes to us to deliver us form all forms of human bondage. God alone is always faithful, always good, always acting for our well-being.

Friends, in truth we will have a god, or perhaps many gods. So how shall we keep our lives from being chaotic, divided and self-destructive?  How will we find peace within and healthy relationships without?  We start by getting our priorities straight.  We have to put first things first.  We have to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.”  That, said Jesus, is the first and the greatest commandment of all.