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Utterly Profane

Kaci Porter

July 3, 2011
Exodus 20:7

07-03-2011 SermonMy dad, who’s here today, in fact, will occasionally tell a story involving his great uncles teaching him how to cuss.  When he was barely old enough to walk, much less talk, his uncles would say to him, “Morgan, I’ll give you a nickel if you go tell your grandma she’s an ole S.O.B.” And so my dad would toddle into the kitchen, pull on the hem of his grand mother’s dress and say, “Mama Payne, you’re an old son of…biscuit.” Only he didn’t say “biscuit.” And she’d exclaim, yelling into the next room, “Son, Burt, stop teaching that boy to cuss!”

I’ve always liked that story because it strikes me as rather innocent. Considering that he didn’t know any better at the time, no one could really fault my father for cussing out his grandmother.  And, besides, it’s not as if his uncles were teaching him to do something dangerous or truly hurtful.

In fact, one might argue, if you had to break one commandment, the third commandment might just be the safest one to break.  I mean, using profanity surely isn’t as serious of an offense as idol worship, covetousness, murder, or adultery, right?

Nearly everyone curses occasionally or uses distasteful language to either make a point or to express outrage.  Hell, some people just cuss to cuss!

In today’s world, saying, “Oh, my god” is so customary that we’ve shortened it to an acronym: “OMG.” And, to be honest, no one really thinks much of it. Our ears don’t prickle when we hear God’s name spoken aloud.  In fact, our ears do just the opposite: we have become so desensitized to hearing god-talk that we’re no longer phased by it.

With an election year coming up, if you don’t hear a presidential candidate say “God bless America” at least three times a day then you’re not paying close enough attention.

You see, the function of this commandment for Christians living in the 21st century isn’t simply to warn us against the use of profanity, it’s a warning against the temptation to co-op God for our own purposes…to use faith as a means to a personal end.

Last week, when Judy was talking about idol worship, she mentioned that we sometimes–in spite of our best intentions–make idols of our own theology.  We claim to somehow know why, when, and how God is active in the world; what God’s stance on health care and foreign policy is; and whether God would approve or disapprove of someone’s behavior.

A couple of weeks ago, when San was kicking off our sermon series on the Ten Commandments, he raised a very interesting question: “Is the crisis of faith for Christians today a matter of ‘other gods’ or ‘no god at all’?”

One might argue that the reason why God is becoming increasingly more irrelevant is because we are constantly bombarded with god-talk.  It’s everywhere.  It’s on tv, on the lips of street preachers and politicians, it’s on the Internet, our favorite news programs, and countless other places.

Everyone has an opinion about god these days.

God is losing value because God is being trivialized by the masses.

Gone are the days when the name of God was so revered that only a select number of priests on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, were allowed to utter the name of God.

In the Hebrew scriptures the name of God is written using four hebrew letters, none of them vowels. Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey. This four-letter sequence is known as the tetragrammaton, which in Greek literally means “a word with four letters.”

A close, albeit not entirely correct, pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is “Yahweh.” This word in Hebrew means “I am that I am” or “I will be that which I am now.”

Orthodox Jews commonly do not attempt to pronounce God’s name, even in prayer. Instead they may substitute the name “Adonai” which means “Lord” or “HaShem” which means simply “the name.”

We do not revere the name of God in the same way.  We do not feel unworthy after hearing it, nor do we tremble at the thought of someone saying it. 

To be quite honest, one might argue that the characters in Harry Potter had more reverence for the name of Lord Voldermort than we do, today, for the name of our God.

Shakespeare famously asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

And most of the time I’d say that’s true.  More often than not, a name matters less than the thing it represents.  We could call a rose a tulip and a tulip a rose and the flowers themselves would remain the same.

But God’s name, on the other hand, tells us something about who God is. God’s character is revealed in God’s name.

Scholars believe that the three letter root of the word “Yahweh” closely translates as “one who breathes.”

We talk constantly. We text.  We tweet. We update our status. We chit chat. We small talk. We say so much, but so much of what we say doesn’t really matter.  Most of us speak around 20,000 words a day and most of it is meaningless, vain, superfluous filler.

And that’s ok.

I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Life’s too important to be taken seriously.”

But the same God we gather to worship on Sunday mornings surely should not be the same God we lump vainly into the superfluous wasteland of ordinary conversation, right?

We’ve become so accustomed to hearing religious language thrown thoughtlessly about, we’ve made it easier and easier to trivialize our faith; and without batting an eye, we make profane that which is holy.

So often we think of God as an objective reality, “out there”, a being with moral opinions about how we live our lives; a being that weighs the good we do and the wrong we do on a set of cosmic scales.

We think of God as the giver of commandments rather than the giver of life. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” in other words, I am the God who gave you your freedom. 

This is how the commandments begin. They begin with freedom.

I think perhaps we’ve misunderstood the role these commandments play in our faith.  We’ve seen them as restrictive rules that inhibit our freedom rather than as guides to help us live faithfully into the freedom God has given us.

On this holiday weekend many of us will pause to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. We’ll sing patriotic songs like the choir sang this morning, we’ll celebrate with family and friends over BBQ and potato chips, and we’ll watch fireworks tomorrow evening over Town Lake. But even though our spirits will be high and our national pride strengthened, we’ll know ultimately that freedom is a gift; and in order for us to continue to enjoy our freedoms certain rules must be followed.

The ability to speak is a gift, but often it is one we take for granted. In an age where it is nearly effortless to communicate with the whole world, most of what we have say is devoid of any real meaning.

I read a quote the other day that said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Have you ever been struck dumb or rendered speechless? Have you ever been so awe-struck that you couldn’t find adequate words to express what you’re feeling? Have you ever been so in love with someone that the way you feel about them inside is truly ineffable? Have you ever been so grateful to receive help that all you can do in response is cry?

It seems to me that our most profound moments in life are those that leave us speechless: those times when words simply won’t do.

At the time the third commandment was recorded, the Hebrew people believed that the fundamental meaning of God’s name was “to breath.”

“Yahweh”

To breathe, and therefore to live.

Perhaps the third commandment’s ultimate message to us is this: God is worthy of our honor.  Honor God with your lips, but in those rare and reverent moments when words simply won’t do, honor God with your actions. Honor God with your life.

Give thanks to God, the giver of life, for your every breath, for your every moment–both those which are sacred and those that are utterly profane.

Amen.