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Live and Let Live

John Leedy

July 24, 2011
Exodus 20:13

07-24-2011 SermonCain is ready. His brow perspires from the sweltering heat of the midday sun as he awaits the arrival of his brother.  The golden sheaves of wheat rattle softly in field around him.  He takes a shallow breath, huffing as he overlooks the family home a few miles away.  “Hmph. Family…” he snorts.  “What a joke.”  Just days earlier, he would have believed that the people that he lived with, his blood relatives, were just that… family.

But God had favored his brother, Abel, and his sacrifice over his.  Anger and frustration boil within Cain.  His embarrassment and jealousy had shattered his relationship with his brother and they had not spoken in days.  It was in the darkness of last night that Cain realized that he could not go on living like this.  He could not bear to look at his smug brother’s face any longer.  Every time he so much as glanced at Abel, an uncontrollable rage roared within his gut.  “Tomorrow,” he told himself, “tomorrow will change everything.”

A distant cloak flutters in the wind and Cain snaps back to the present.  His brother walks along the edge of the field, brushing his hand over the waving heads of wheat.  Cain’s heart begins to pound in his chest.  His palms begin to sweat as he clutches his staff in his hand.  He closes his eyes and grits his teeth. “In a few minutes, this will all be over,” he tells himself.  Cain opens his eyes and sees the face of his brother as he walks up to him.  Abel smiles.  “Hello Brother.”

The story of Cain and Abel is one that is all too familiar to us.  As the first recorded story in the Old Testament of the violent taking of life, it is one that has repeated itself throughout the entirety of human history.  We do not have to flip through too many channels on the television before we encounter stories of random violence, domestic abuse, or systematic torture.  In the past few weeks, our nation has been captivated by the court proceedings of the Casey Anthony Trial.  We are transfixed by the horror of the taking of life.

There are few things that send a greater collective shiver through our bones than when we are faced with such violence.  As a society, we clearly understand that the intentional and malicious taking of life is wrong.  Life is a gift governed by God.  It is not something that we create ourselves and by the same token is not something we are meant to destroy.  What is it within a person that drives them to harm or take the life of another?

“You shall not kill.”  Upon first reading the sixth commandment, the prohibition seems clear.  Humans are not to be takers of life.  However, as we start to probe the meanings of the word “to kill” used in the Old Testament, our confidence in the simplicity of this commandment fades quickly.  The act of taking life in itself is filled with nuance.  Think for a moment of all the words our society attributes to this action.  Kill.  Murder. Manslaughter.  Execution.  War.  Abortion.  Suicide. Euthanasia, and the list goes on. So what exactly does this commandment prohibit?  Does it forbid all forms of killing?

Does it forbid only the taking of human life? What about the lives of animals? Fish and plants? Criminals? Enemies and terrorists? What about the life of insects, the self, or of the unborn or the terminally ill?  This, like many of our other commandments has been interpreted six ways to Sunday.

There are those that would say that abortion is included in the prohibition but are ready to go to war at the drop of the hat at even the slightest threat to our national security.  There are those who are horrified by homicide and would want to see all perpetrators executed.  There are those that go camping with me at Enchanted Rock that would never dream of shooting a deer but will go chicken killer on an ant hill with a can of bug spray.  (Yes boys, I am talking to you.) The moment we begin to interact with other living things, the commandment becomes less and less clear.

A closer look at the text however, provides us some insight into the heart of this command.  The word used for kill here implies that the action of taking life is done intentionally.  We know this because a different word is used throughout the Old Testament to describe accidental killing or killing that is done legally.  Furthermore, the word found in the sixth commandment opens up a deeper meaning and points us to the root of our human inclination to intentionally take life.  Anger.

It is pointless to address the prohibition against the willful taking of life without delving to a discussion on anger.  Anger and malice are found throughout scripture and throughout our society as the root of murder.  Cain is angry at Abel.  Nation is angry against nation.  King is angry against the prophet.  The people are angry at the adulteress.  The Christians are angry at the heathen.  The gang is angry at the rival gang.  The parent is angry at the family or the neighbor.  The jilted spouse is angry at the new love in their partner’s life.  The child is angry at her friend.  The teenager is angry at himself.  We see time and time again that anger spurs a person to consider the unthinkable.

We live in a culture saturated with anger.  Don’t believe me?  Watch 5 minutes of the commentary on the national debt crisis and see for yourself.  Still don’t believe me? In 2010, The Southern Poverty Law Center released a statement that for the first time in our nation’s history, the number of active and organized hate groups in the United States topped over 1,000.  Still need more? Get in your car and drive down I-35 during rush hour.

We witness anger everywhere.  Sometimes it manifests in large-scale explosions like the one that rocked the Norwegian city of Oslo this past Friday.  Sometimes is simmers quietly under the surface of our everyday lives, waiting for just the right tipping point to boil over onto those we love.  At times, it seems as though anger is the very ether in which we live and move and have our being.

Now let me take this moment to clarify my point about anger.  Anger is a fundamental human emotion that we find inherited from the imago dei, the image of God.  Scripture recounts several instances where God becomes angry with God’s children.  In fact, even as Moses was at the top of Sinai receiving the ten commandments, the newly liberated children of God were constructing and worshipping the golden calf.  In Exodus 32:10, God exclaims to Moses,  “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”  Anger is an emotion that must be put in perspective.  After all, many of the greatest civil rights and social reforms throughout history have occurred due to the righteous anger of the people.  The most recent of which occurred during the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East where scores of Egyptians rose up against their dictator in an effort to gain the most basic of human rights and representation.

Anger gets things done. Anger moves people to passion.  Anger speaks justice and love into broken systems.  When used in righteous and responsible ways, anger can be a holy instrument of peacemaking.  Imagine a pot that is placed on a stove to cook.  As heat is applied, the food is cooked.  Once the food is finished cooking, the pot is removed from the heat.  However, if the pot is left on the stove to boil over, then the dish is ruined.  So it is with anger.  Anger that is left unresolved and un-reconciled will eventually boil over into destruction.  Anger within ourselves will over time eat away at our relationships and our very health and happiness.  Anger within our societies will over time lead to division, fear, hatred, and eventually, violence.  Anger even leads us, at times, to killing our brother Abel.

Jesus is ready.  His brow perspires from the sweltering heat of the midday sun as he watches the people gather by the thousands.  The gentle breeze blowing across the Sea of Galilee plays in tall green grass at his feet.   He takes a deep breath, overlooking the crowds of people who struggle day in and day out under the heavy hand of foreign Roman rulers.  He imagines the struggle within their homes as they labor endlessly to make ends meet.  They are a people who have a reason to be angry.  But they are here now, and are awaiting a word from their rabbi.  Jesus raises his arms and the people are silenced.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The people listen, captivated by their teacher as he unfolds the Word of God.  Jesus continues, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘you idiot,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”

In his Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus preaches on many of the 10 commandments that the people gathered know by heart.  It is fascinating though, that the first commandment Jesus chooses to address is the 6th commandment.  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder.”  The 6th commandment is first out of the gate.  But like most of us, Jesus knows that the majority of his listeners do not make it a habit of taking the lives of their neighbors.

So why start with a commandment like this?  Why not start with a more common problem?  Why not lying or lust?  Why not theft or taking the name of God in vain?  No.  Jesus begins with the sixth commandment because he knows that murder is but the by-product of a much deeper issue.  Jesus knows that it is not simply good enough to refrain from taking another’s life.  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Jesus quickly switches the focus of the prohibition against murder to its source, anger.

Jesus cuts right to the core of their understanding of the commandment to address an issue that faces us all in our everyday lives.  It is important to note that Jesus acknowledges that people get angry and is a natural part of interacting with our community and our family.  It is what we do with that anger that indicates whether or not we are in keeping with the Word of God.  Do we allow our anger to seethe and destroy our relationships?  Or do we channel our anger into confronting our wrongdoers in an effort to build bridges and make peace?  The church took this teaching of Christ seriously and we practice this commandment every Sunday.  Embedded within our liturgy is a time when we pass the peace with one another.

At the very beginning of our worship, we confess our shortcomings before God, and after being reconciled with God, we then turn to one another and express signs of love and peace.  Originally, this liturgical moment was given as an opportunity for people to approach those with whom they had a conflict in order to seek or offer forgiveness and to be reconciled before approaching the Word of God proclaimed and the Table of Jesus Christ.  We continue this tradition in our churches today, sharing signs of peace and fellowship with one another before we approach the sermon or take communion.

There is a wisdom here.  How easy is it for us to listen to a Word of love while we sit eye balling the person who stole our pew or offered a differing perspective in the Sunday school class we just got out of?  Jesus knows that in order for us to proclaim love, we must first act in love.  How many of you have heard the phrase “Never go to bed angry,” or “Never let the sun set on your anger?”  We are taught that the longer anger simmers within us, the harder it will be to reconcile with our neighbor and the more damage will be done.

Some of us might be angry at ourselves.  Anger is like a fire that hollows us out until we become a shell of a person.  Instead of allowing our anger to consume all that is good and life giving within us, why not talk about it with someone in order to defuse that which destroys us?  How many of us find ourselves angry at another political party, ideological group, or Christian organization and never taking the time to listen and engage them in conversation and fellowship?

The 6th commandment offers us a new reality – a counter cultural reality.  We empowered to use our anger to promote justice, reconciliation, peacemaking, and most importantly, love for ourselves, our neighbor, and our enemy.

It was Christmas day in 1996 when I received my first BB gun.  It was like a dream come true.  My awkward 13 year old hands grasped the daisy repeating action air rifle like I had just received the golden ticket into my entrance into adolescence.  It wasn’t long until I had filled the chamber with hundreds of little brass BBs and donned my safety glasses that I set off into my suburban Houston backyard to take my first shots at the little paper target that was set up against the fence.  After the all the expected “You’ll shot your eye out” jokes were made, my mother hollered one last warning to me as I bolted outside.  “Remember son, if you kill it, you eat it.”

Perhaps it was the thought of having to barbeque a squirrel or figure out a way to make a mockingbird taco that made me think twice before I took a crack at one of God’s little critters, but to this day I remember that piece of advise.  Interacting with other living things comes with responsibility – a responsibility to treat life with care and respect.  As we engage this 6th commandment, we learn that it is not simply enough to refrain from taking the life of another, but to actively work to enhance the lives of those around us.

Our Reformed Confessions speak to this as well.  In the Westminster Larger Catechism, the question is posed: What duties are required by the 6th commandment?  The answer fleshes out the teaching of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.  We are to preserve the life of ourselves and others, by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any.

According to the confession, we are to accomplish this by defending against violence; quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit, a sober use of meat, drink, our bodies, sleep, labor, and recreation; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior, forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

The 6th commandment opens before us a new reality – a new way of channeling our anger toward the reconciliation of all people – a new hope for justice for all those who are oppressed – and a new gospel of love toward our enemies.  In this commandment we are instructed to actively work toward a life abundant, not just for ourselves, but for all around us.  Imagine with me a table where the entire family is seated, reconciled with one another and feasting on the bread of life.  Innocents and enemies talking and eating, sharing signs of peace and forgiveness.  It is here we see Cain pulling up a chair for Abel and passing him the bread.  In Christ we are taught to live and let live in the goodness and love of God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, the Lord and giver of life, Amen.