Sermon – 10 Commandments Sermon Series

Commandment  5

1 John 4:7-16 and Matthew 5:21-26

Rev. Robyn Hartwig

On July 16 and 23rd, Pastor Mark preached the first two of our five sermon series on the 10 Commandments. He described the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses as a gift for the people. He said, Love of God and love of neighbor are the two classic core values in our faith tradition. The Ten Commandments articulate what it means for the people of God to live by these two core values. As the people of God, we live out these core values in response to God’s gracious love for us, especially as it has been revealed in the Exodus from Egypt and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” He offered us all a solid grounding in the nature and the purpose of all 10 Commandments. If you missed those sermons, I encourage you to read them on the St. Andrew website.

Since we initiated this sermon series, I have been thinking quite a bit about how we apply the 10 Commandments in daily life. I have remembered the people I have met over the years who, upon learning I am a pastor, confess to me that they no longer go to church but instead just focus on trying to be a good person and keep the 10 Commandments. Every time somebody has said this to me, I have found myself thinking, “Wow, I wish I could actually keep the 10 Commandments.” I suppose that is one of the many reasons why I attend worship and seek out the support of a faith community, (and have done so even before I was a pastor and you came to expect me to be here every week). I gather for weekly worship in community because I know I have never been able to keep the 10 Commandments… not in the way Jesus read them, anyway.

Contrary to the belief that some people have when they suggest that Jesus came to abolish the law and the Old Testament, it often seems to me that Jesus intensifies the commandments to the point where nobody is capable of keeping them. One example occurs in Matthew 19 where we hear about the young man who once told Jesus he had kept all of the commandments since childhood. Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ And the man “went away grieving because he had many possessions.” (I wonder why Biblical literalists never take that passage literally.)

As we focus upon the fifth commandment today, You shall not kill (also translated as murder), we see Jesus similarly intensifying the rule. During the sermon on the mount he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” What do we do with the fact that Jesus’ intensifies the commandments, even the commandment not to kill, to the point where it is impossible to keep them?

David Lose is the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and he offers a response to how we might understand what Jesus us up to here. He says,

Well, to tell you the truth, I don't think Jesus' main concern is with the law at all. Seriously. I think Jesus is talking about God, specifically, the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is coming and, indeed, is made manifest in his life, death, and resurrection. And whenever you're talking about God you're also talking about relationships. Which, of course, names the problem with the law, or at least our response to it, in the first place. You see, we think the law is about, well, being legal -- you know, it's about doing the right thing, staying in the lines, keeping your nose clean. But the law is actually concerned with relationships.

Take the Ten Commandments, for instance: the first table is about our relationship with God and the second with our relationships with each other. Understood this way, the whole law is actually a way of pointing us toward ways to honor those with whom we are in relationship. But somehow we forget that, and so get caught up in keeping the law for the law's sake. Which is why Jesus intensifies the law -- not to force us to take it more seriously or less seriously, but instead to push us to imagine what it would actually be like to live in a world where we honor each other as persons who are truly blessed and beloved of God. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder; you also have to treat each other with respect, not letting yourself fly off the handle in anger because that, too, demeans and diminishes God's children….

Law understood primarily in legal terms, you see, ends up being a moral and all-too-often self-justifying check list: No murder today; check! No adultery; check! Jesus wants more from us. Actually, Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to regard each other as God regards us and thereby to treat each other accordingly. Jesus is getting radical about the law precisely by calling us to look beyond the law and see its goal and end: the life and health of our neighbor! In this way Jesus calls us to envision life in God's kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.

What are the laws today that we need to intensify to do justice to the kind of relationships that God calls us to as children of the kingdom?[1]

In light of what unfolded in our country in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday, it would seem that intensifying our response to a rising tide of white supremacy ought to be at the top of the list if we are to do justice to the kind of relationships to which God calls us. This weekend, people were injured and even killed when white nationalists and other right-wing groups gathered for a "Unite the Right" event in Charlottesville. Before the rally was set to start, about 500 white supremacists gathered there. They were protesting the city council’s plan to move a stature of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park to a different park. Counter-protestors also gathered calling upon the main protestors to go home.  The white nationalists had marched with torches through the streets of the University of Virginia campus there the night before, clearly seeking to instill fear in people of color, Jews and others. Clashes broke out and police began to disperse crowds. About two hours later, a gray Dodge Challenger rammed into a crowd of the counterprotesters who were walking down a narrow downtown side street. The driver slammed the car in reverse at a high speed and left the site of the crash. One woman died and 19 were injured. The driver was arrested later that afternoon and charged with murder. Two police officers who were trying to keep the peace were also killed in a helicopter crash.

Many of our political leaders from across the political spectrum quickly condemned what they saw to be a moral evil of white supremacy at work. Republican Senator Cory Gardner tweeted, “Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio issued a very similar statement. Senator Orin Hatch said, “Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, & have no place in civil society.” He also said “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, "White supremacy is a scourge. This hate and its terrorism must be confronted and defeated."

According to Anthea Butler who teaches religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, “Racism and systemic injustice is the evil that the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting. If we believe that ‘all lives matter,’ we first have to consider which lives are treated as if they do not matter.” [2]     [3]

With that in mind, we might ask which lives are we killing or allowing to die disproportionately to others? According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans aged 18 to 49 are nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease, stroke and diabetes as whites.[4] According to statistics compiled by UPD Consulting, “Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer.” And an unarmed black person is 4 times more likely to be killed by the police than an unarmed white person. [5] (America is 13% black and yet 27% of people killed by police are black and 34% of unarmed people killed by police are black. The rate of black incarcerations tells a similar story: African Americans comprise 12.6% of the total population of the United States but nearly 38% of the prison population is African American. [6]) We have systems and patterns of thinking in place which do harm to black lives and the lives of other people of color, with far greater frequency than to white lives. They are supported by both invisible attitudes and policies and intentional explicit organizing like we saw in Charlotte.

In an article called, Full Humanity, Seattle Pacific theology professor, Brian Bantum, says, “White supremacy must be overcome with persistent, strategic, and concrete assertions of our mutual humanity, working against any policy or system that dehumanizes or marginalizes another. And oftentimes this refusal does not look respectable….Churches must ask themselves if they reflect an unqualified commitment to the full humanity of one another that is exhibited in Christ’s life and work…..[Black Lives Matter] describes itself as “an ideological and political intervention in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” [7]

I was encouraged to see an article on the Fox News website by Bruce Ashford who is the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He called upon white conservatives, especially white Christian conservatives to speak out against white nationalism and white supremacy. He said, “This is racism pure and simple, and it represents a frontal assault on the Christian gospel, a denial of human dignity and a subversion of our democracy.  The racist doctrine claiming that whites are superior to all others is diametrically opposed to biblical Christianity. The Bible teaches that God created the world as a dazzlingly beautiful unity-in-diversity (Genesis 1). God values that diversity and makes clear that every human being – regardless of race – is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27-28).”

Ashford goes onto say,

God sent his son – a brown Middle Eastern man – to save the whole world, including sinners of every race and ethnicity (John 3:16). Genuine Christianity overcomes social, ethnic, and gender barriers (Galatians 3:26, 28).

That is why we should fight white nationalism and other forms of racism tooth-and-nail, not only from the voting booth, but in our neighborhoods, at our churches, and on our social media. 

Throughout American history, there are many ways in which white conservatives have admirably represented Christ and his gospel. I am convinced, however, that overcoming racism is not yet one of the ways that we represent him admirably or consistently. [8]

Of course, this is not just a challenge and an opportunity for conservative Christians. Jemar Tisby is president of the Reformed African American Network who wrote an article in the Washington Post yesterday in which he challenged all white clergy like me and the predominantly white congregations we serve. His article was called “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” His article quotes Dr. King’s words from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail as being as true today as they were 50 years ago when King wrote, “I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Acknowledging there will be no easy solutions, Tisby suggests it is simply time that white people go on a spiritual offensive against white supremacy. To do this he says, churches with predominantly white membership can begin by taking the following four steps:

1.     Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.

2.     Confess and repent of past sins.

3.     Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires, and

4.     Listen to black people.[9]

As I join you in preparing to offer our gifts at the altar and receive the gift of communion, I am mindful of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel. As part of his intensification of the command not to murder he says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” How do I repent for the part I have played in allowing racism to continue to harm so many of my brothers and sisters? Fortunately, just a few days before these events unfolded in Charlottesville, the Christian Century magazine sent me a study guide for use in our congregations called “Unlearning Racism.” It has readings and discussion questions that any of us can use in our existing ministry groups or around the dinner table with our families. I will email it out to our congregational email list for use by any of you who might feel similarly motivated to better understand this politically constructed reality called “whiteness.” It can also be a resource for examining the roots of white supremacy and marshaling our faith to wage spiritual warfare against the sin of racism, even while we follow Jesus in holding love in our hearts for all, even for unrepentant white supremacists whose hatred we seek to stop.

I do not believe that God wants me to avoid approaching the altar until I have completely unlearned the racism that none of us can avoid when we grew up in a country whose constitution enabled the enslavement of African Americans and others. If that were the case, I would probably never approach the altar again. However, before I conclude this sermon, I feel that Christian faith leads me to pledge to you right now that I will work through this study guide with some of you (or another book that one of you may propose as an even better alternative). And I pledge that I will seek to more deeply integrate the work of anti-racism into my whole life. I will need your help with this. I do not believe this is work that we can do well alone. Therefore I hope you will invite me into your conversations about the problems with this concept of “whiteness” tied to a view that it is superior. Because I am ready to repent. And even though I am convinced that God hates racism and other forms of bigotry and prejudice, I also know that God always, always, always stands waiting with open arms for those of us longing to repent and find our way home.



[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1521

[2] Anthea D. Butler https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/challenge-christians

[3]Jesse Middendorf. Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Leadership, Nazarene Theological Seminary also says, “It is not enough to prohibit the killing of another. The point is the value of the other. What is required is that we not only fail to do them harm, but that we are engaged in proactively seeking their good, affirming their worth, even to the risk of our own good.” http://www.aplainaccount.org/epiphany-6a-gospel 

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/02/health/african-american-death-rates-cdc-study/index.html

[5]http://www.updconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016-08-Police-Death-Statistics.pdf

[6] “Police Death and Statistics,” http://www.updconsulting.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016-08-Police-Death-Statistics.pdf.

[7] Christian Century

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/12/after-charlottesville-will-white-pastors-finally-take-racism-seriously/?utm_term=.973c04202ac6

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/12/after-charlottesville-will-white-pastors-finally-take-racism-seriously/?utm_term=.d7a02f7462bf