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Sticks and Stones….

Krystal Leedy

August 14, 2011
Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20

08-14-2011 SermonTheir eyes are wide at this point. After all, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal,” have a crescendo to them. A quickening of pace that comes to a screeching halt as the people of God hear, “You shall not give false witness against your neighbor.” Moses, with thunder and lightening behind him, with the voice of God heard through these words, the people tremble as the commands about how they are to treat their neighbors, their loved ones, their acquaintances come like a rushing list of “You shall not’s.” Can you not see Charlton Heston playing Moses standing before us all holding those tablets that look like tombstones, engraved with these Hebrew Scriptures. And, as these words come spewing out of the mouth of Moses, the people are left with stunned faces, as they begin to ask the question, how have I messed up? Images of moments where the Israelites had already disobeyed the Lord God who brought them out of Egypt being rolled forth, rendering them speechless. The moments where they stole an ox from their neighbor because it wandered into their camp… again. The moments where they forgot about Mom and Dad who needed assistance fleeing from Egyptians. The moments where they grabbed a shovel on the Sabbath instead of a breath of fresh air. These accusing word-pictures reminding them of how they had already committed sin against their community and against God Almighty. Scared and terrified, they become increasingly guilty as the words of the ninth commandment ring out, “You shall not give false witness against your neighbor.”

With it, a new word-picture, a new scene: a worship space. The place that serves as the center of this nomadic community. When they are on the move, they still stop to worship. As they wander, the stability is found not in business or family, but in worship. This is the one stable and secure place, where truth is found and where people are reconciled between one another and God. And the reconciliation process, they know, is more than a handshake and a “Peace be with you.” It is before the worship of God that the court is in session. The reconciliation between humans happens in the midst of the worshipping body, in the midst of the people of God. These people that now listen to Moses, who is speaking for God, reminding them not to bear false witness against their neighbor is simply reiterating a fact that the people of Israel already know. They have seen these trials. They have seen the witnesses declare before all the people: “I have seen it with my own eyes.” Witness testimony leaves the people breathless as they gasp at the horrors and crimes others commit against God and neighbor. And though the people are shocked at these powerful words, one is rendered more speechless than the crowd that listens to the words of witnesses: the defendant. Unable to speak unless spoken to, the defendant stands silently bound as the witness recalls the scene of the crime. The defendant is at the mercy of the court, and frankly, the defendant is at the mercy of the witness. To hold someone’s life in your hands is one of the most powerful positions to be in, and in these courts, the witness holds a lot of the power. And, some witnesses have allowed themselves to take advantage of the power. Instead of their words become words of life that shed light on a dark situation, the words of witness become murderous words. In that vulnerable moment, our defendants can do nothing but sit and listen to these violent words, slandering her and rendering her helpless and hopeless.

We have sat in that defendant’s chair, being rendered helpless and hopeless because of murderous words, scathing accusations, those daggers of lies piercing us to the core. Someone says something that is simply not true, and we are too vulnerable to do anything about such things. We know what it is like to hear about gossip as well, the words coming from beneath a cloak of secrecy. When people gossip about us, those words can cut to the core. We know what it is like to hear criticism about our appearance, our personality, how we walk, how we talk, how approach that business model, how we approach that session meeting, how we approach our friendships. What we say and what we do is always on display and can be subject to witness at any moment. And at any moment, we can be in that defendant’s chair, just listening to how we look to other people. And when true words of witness hit us like a ton of bricks and we are able to look in the mirror and say, “Yep, he was right. I am too  (fill in the blank),” we figure out that constructive criticism helps us become better people, more honest with who we are. But, that’s not what this commandment is talking about. We are talking about lies, and not only that, but lies from people who are powerful wielding their weapons against the vulnerable. This is more than those little white lies. This is more than trying to hide a surprise party. This more than stealing a cookie and lying about it. This is about a direct abuse of power. A direct abuse of power in the midst of the people of God.

Sometimes we are victim of that abuse of power, and we need to remember what it is like to be that victim because there are also times, in everyone’s life, when we are on the other side of the court. We are the victims of false witness, and we are also false witnesses. We speak untrue words about others. We speak about things we know little about. We lie to get ahead, or we lie to get noticed. We lie in order to feel better about ourselves in the midst of vulnerable people. We don’t ask good questions, and we give half-true answers. But this church, this conglomeration of people cannot run without honesty and justice. This Kingdom of God cannot exist without truth being spoken from the pulpit and from our mouths. We cannot lie to get one leg up on someone else because the first will be last. Don’t even bother bearing false witness to get ahead, because justice will take off her blindfold, stare you down, and remind you that you will be last.

Moses reminds the people of Israel that they are last. And with thunder raging behind him and the wind sweeping across the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses reads these guilt-inducing words, reminding us of our ability to twist words into sticks, stones, swords, and shivs, ready to strike the most vulnerable in our community. And perhaps by the ninth commandment, the people of God stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and probably forgot commandment 1, 3, or 8, and probably forgot what God said even before the commandments were read, “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.’” (Exodus 19:4-6) You have seen, God claims, and you will speak these words. The Israelites had seen how God brought them from oppression to life, and now the Israelites are called to bear these words to one another. And isn’t all that a witness is? A person who sees something and talks about it? The Israelites saw the power of God rising up like eagles’ wings, bringing them all, first and last, second, and ninth, all of the people who have messed up time and time again, out of oppression and into a community, and they are called a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

We are the people of God, who witness not falsely but truthfully to the power of God at work here and now in this place. And it is this true witness that brings life to even the most vulnerable among us. The defendants in our church courtroom hear words of life spoken about them, and the defendants are given voice to speak the words of witness to God and Jesus Christ. The words of life grow inside of us. The simplest of compliments, the kindness of gratitude, the witness to the work of God in each of our lives is a beautiful blessing that we share in. The church is a place not of condemnation, but of hope, and we live into what it means to be a holy nation and a priestly kingdom by honoring each person that we come in contact with. This worship space serves as a slowing down space in our nomadic lives. When chaos reigns in our schedules as we feel as though we must defend ourselves in the world, this is a place where we learn how to stop for a moment and offer a word of witness to another person. Justice and honesty reign in the Kingdom of God, and the people of God share in that honesty and justice. Oh holy nation, by the words of these nine commandments, with the tenth to come, learn what it means to be a covenant people, a treasured possession. And may God continue to give us reason to witness to God’s great works among us.