Reading: Exodus, Chapter 20.
“And God spoke all these words, saying: ‘I am the LORD your God…
ONE: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.‘
TWO: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.‘
THREE: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.‘
FOUR: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.‘
FIVE: ‘Honor your father and your mother.‘
SIX: ‘You shall not murder.‘
SEVEN: ‘You shall not commit adultery.‘
EIGHT: ‘You shall not steal.‘
NINE: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.‘
Let’s look again at the story about the Ten Commandments that Moses carried down from the mountain on two stone tablets, not so much to examine those particular ten, but to see if we can make sense out of the old story and the new story that is unfolding before our eyes – the story of the economic crisis, and other stories, like the landing of flight 1549 in the Hudson River.
Sermon: The Ten Commandments, Redux
We begin with the story of Moses: the short version of the Moses story starts with his mother saving her infant, Moses, by putting him in a basket and floating it down the river toward the Pharaoh’s house. The Pharaoh was nervous about the growth of the Jewish population in Egypt, so he was killing all the newborn boys. The name Moses means ‘he who was drawn from the water.’
Moses grew up in the Pharaoh’s house, believing himself to be Egyptian. As a grown man, he sees a soldier abusing a Hebrew slave, so he intervenes, killing the abuser and running for his life.
He helps a woman at a well where she is being prevented from watering her flock; she tells her father and he invites Moses to marry his daughter.
Later, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock and a voice calls to him, out of a bush that is burning, but is not consumed by the burning…most unusual, indeed.
The voice tells him to go and free the Hebrew people, of which he now knows he is one.
With great reluctance, (a prophet is supposed to be reluctant to answer a call, just like clergy are supposed to be reluctant: who, me?!) Moses goes back into Egypt and liberate the captive Israelites, with the help of God, of course, who visits ten plagues on the Egyptians, the last of which is sending the angel of death to kill the first-born sons of the Egyptians, saving the Hebrew children by instructing the Israelites to kill a sheep or goat and spread some blood on the doorpost so the angel of death will know to pass over that house.
Moses leads the children of Israel across the Red Sea which parts for them, but drowns the pursuing Egyptians.
Moses and his people wander in the wilderness. Moses goes off by himself to think things over; he arrives at Mt. Sinai, where he is given two stone tablets carved with commandments.
The Israelites had escaped from bondage but they were not truly free until they had the Ten Commandments, their constitution, which was followed by an additional 603 commandments, making a total of 613.
We’re reminded that our forebears were liberated from English domination and wrote a Constitution, followed by Ten Amendments, and lots of other amendments as we evolved as a nation.
One month ago today, US Airways Flight 1549, with a modern Moses, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, saved 155 passengers and crew by going into the river, into the water.
He used the commandments of flying, a lifetime of training, skill and practice, and some would say, the help of God, or good fortune.
Echoing words from Moses, the captain said, “Yes, I know it was a very challenging situation.” Asked if he prayed, he said, “No, I was concentrating intensely,” and added, “I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane.”
Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.”
Captain Sullenberger was contemplating the facts of life from a pretty high point of view! In Emerson’s view, that was a real prayer!
The landing in the Hudson, like Moses floating down the river in a basket, had to be perfect. The captain said, “I knew I had to touch down with the wings exactly level, the nose slightly up, at a descent rate that was survivable—just above the minimum flying speed but not below it. And I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.”
He did it, but he wasn’t satisfied until he was told, several hours after the perfect landing, that all 155 were safe. Then, he said, “I felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my heart.”
Some called it a miracle, like the parting of the Red Sea. He learned the rules of flying. One wrong decision and the landing in the Hudson would have been another disaster.
They called him a hero, but he said he was just doing his job. “My whole life was one long preparation for that landing,” he explained. Later he said that so many people had been calling him a hero that he realized that ‘people need a hero,’ so, if I can be the hero they need, then so be it…if it helps…
The story of Moses, which is mythology, of course, contains the same basic Truth; his whole life was preparation for the safe landing on the other side of the Red Sea, and those commandments carved in stone. They represent the rules of human survival, individually and collectively. Every decision we make in life, even the smallest, like how to respond to a comment in a conversation, is preceded by everything; our whole life is a preparation for that moment; for this moment!
We’re always learning. We realize that without order there is chaos; the journey isn’t going anywhere, there’s just a lot of aimless wandering; without those rules they would never have made a safe landing in the Promised Land!
Our forebears invented the religions of the world for the same reason as the rules for flying one of those big planes.
For some, their religion assures them of a kind of certainty. Bertrand Russell said he wanted that same kind of certainty, but religion didn’t work for him, so he turned to mathematics.
When he was a boy his older brother knew geometry, so he asked his brother to teach him. His brother gave Russell the list of axioms and postulates of plane geometry and told him to memorize them. He said he didn’t want to memorize stuff, he wanted to do math. His brother said, “If you want to do geometry, first you have to know the axioms and postulates.”
He might have said, “These are the Ten Commandments of plane geometry.” Russell learned the rules of mathematics, and he combined those rules with the rules for living, becoming not only a mathematician, logician and historian, but also a philosopher who advocated for social reforms – he was a pacifist and prominent anti-war activist, for which he was imprisoned during WW I; he campaigned against Hitler and lived to criticize America’s involvement in Vietnam. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “…in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” (And all this because he knew geometry!)
Russell was, of course, an outspoken agnostic. The recent spate of books against traditional religion, like Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens, are just repetitions of things Russell wrote earlier and extensively.
We’re still asking the same questions, however, and one of the most important questions remains: What is the basis of morality in Western culture? Does moral behavior require a God who is ‘watching?’ One who threatens us with punishment or rewards us for good behavior?
You don’t have to read the stories in Genesis and Exodus – though they are filled with sex and violence, with lying and cheating – you can read the NY Times, or any reputable paper.
Why didn’t Tom Daschle pay his taxes when he was supposed to, and why did he finally pay up on January 2? What about Timothy Geitner’s taxes? What about A-Rod’s use of performance-enhancing drugs? What about the big bonuses for executives who were given tax- payer money to bail them out? Million dollar bonuses for business that lost money is not only an insult, it undermines the capitalist system of economics.
Now we are engaged in a great national economic crisis, indeed a world-wide crisis, and there are many factors in that equation, some known (like greed, crime and corruption) but many of the factors are unknown, the x and y factors.
Daily news reports tap into the essential questions raised in the Ten Commandments.
For example, what about the woman in Italy, like Terri Schiavo, who was just taken off life-support systems after years in a coma and allowed to die in site of the church’s opposition?
Every story in any day’s New York Times, or any other newspaper, is simply a detailed list of the reasons we need an up-to-date version of ‘commandments.’
Since our ancestors crawled out of the caves, we humans have been struggling with sexuality and violence – which are first cousins; with pride, greed, jealousy, sloth and gluttony, on the list of the seven deadly sins.
Every day we read and see ways in which the most basic commandments have been broken, or, in a few cases, how they have been kept – like the miracle landing of flight 1549 in the Hudson River, a tribute to the commandments or rules necessary for flying and landing airplanes.
Religion’s role in the modern world must be to encourage moral, ethical, spiritual growth – our survival depends on it; it’s not about getting into a heaven waiting in an imagined afterlife, it’s about our very survival, not only as the human family, but about our survival as individual persons with integrity, dignity and a sense of purpose.
And what about the original Ten Commandments? Can you recite them? If so, which set of Ten are you using? Jewish? Catholic? Protestant? Or did you know there are three versions; they don’t vary a great deal.
Do you think the Ten Commandments should be posted in the court house?
Some years ago, early in the Interfaith movement, when Jews and Christians were trying to have a conversation, trying to understand one another, a rabbi spoke to a Methodist Church women’s group somewhere in the South. During the Q & A one woman asked, “Rabbi, do you Jews have anything like our Ten Commandments?”
The word Islam means ‘submission to the will of God.’ In the Koran, Muslims have their own version of each of the Ten Commandments.
The first three commandments warn about the dangers of idolatry: you shall have no other gods before me; don’t take the name of God in vain; remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
The God of the Commandments is nameless; what we might call the great Mystery of Creation. Using the name of God to promote your political position, or your ecclesiastical status, or even to get your Boy Scout merit badge for religion, is a way of using the name of God in vain.
The Ten Commandments aren’t so clear and easy. What does it mean to ‘honor your mother and father?’ At one time, before the 401K and pension plans, social security and Medicare, it meant taking care of them in their older years.
Would you say the commandment is ‘thou shalt not kill,’ or ‘thou shalt not commit murder?’ Big difference.
Is lying, or bearing false witness, ever justified?
Where would capitalism be without a good douse of coveting our neighbor’s house and car, or flat screen television or the Rolex watch, the iPod and Blackberry, the cruise or membership in the Country Club?
What would happen if people started to want what they have instead of trying to get more, of wanting more?
The Commandments go against the grain of our human nature, and even against the grain of Nature itself, ruled by the survival of the fittest. In our time it’s more like the survival of the most clever, or of those most willing to break the rules, like Bernard Madoff, or A-Rod and his performance enhancing drugs and $250 million salary.
The role of religion is to encourage moral, ethical, spiritual growth; to understand the need for the rules, the commandments, the Constitution, just as we all understand the need for traffic rules – stopping at the red lights and going at the green, driving to the right. Failure to obey can be fatal.
We need rules to live by, the same as Captain Sullenberger needed rules to fly by, and rules to land by, and rules to evacuate by.
We need to feel a sense of direction, like we’re moving toward something, not simply moving away; like there is potential in the future, not simply a sense of loss from what has been.
This sentiment is captured in the words James Joyce gives to is alter ego, Stephen Dedalus:
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead. (Closing lines from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce.)
Closing Reading: Everything is Waiting For You ~ David Whyte
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.