I just have to tell you what I’m excited about these days. I’m very excited about the Red Letter Christians revival that will be at E.C. Glass the weekend after Easter. The headline people who will be speaking, William Barber, Tony Campolo, and Shane Claiborne, are all people I admire very much. Tony Campolo has been around for a long time, and I have always been very impressed and very appreciative of what I have heard from him by way of video and books and such. William Barber is a Disciples of Christ minister from North Carolina, and I remember meeting his father on an occasion or two, and William is one powerful speaker. Shane Claiborne is one of those people who really means it when he says he is serious about following the way of Jesus, and he lives that out in a rather unique way. I can guarantee you that you it will be worth our time to hear all three of them the weekend of April 6 and 7. Put those dates on your calendar. I can’t wait.
But there’s an even more momentous event on the horizon. Just about every day I go online and put in my entry for the King of the Bayou sweepstakes. The winner gets to take a companion to New Orleans for four days, three nights. They fly you there from wherever you live, put you up in a hotel, give you a thousand dollar spending allowance, and provide an air boat tour of the swamp. How cool is that. I love New Orleans. But I haven’t been to the World War II museum there, which I understand is amazing. I have done a swamp tour, but never in an air boat. That has to be very cool.
But here’s the real kicker. You get to meet Troy Landry. Why are your faces not lighting up? You don’t watch Swamp People on the History Channel? Swamp People is the reality tv series about the folks in Louisiana who hunt alligators. It is pretty wild. They set lines, hanging from trees or poles, with things like rotten chicken as the bait, then come back and hope an alligator has taken the bait. But the alligator is still very much alive when they get there. So someone has to pull in the alligator, just using the line that had the bait on it, while the other person in the boat waits to get a shot. It’s pretty wild.
And Troy is the king of the swamp. He’s the grandaddy of the current crop of gator hunters. I don’t know how long his family has been living in Louisiana, but his Cajun accent is so thick the History Channel puts closed captioning on the screen when he’s talking so the rest of us can understand what he’s saying. And when I win the sweepstakes, I get to take Helen Beth, or Emie Lou, or whoever might be excited about meeting Troy, with me to Houma, Louisiana to meet him face to face. I can’t wait.
The reason I’m excited about the Red Letter Christian revival is that those folks are going to be talking about their version of the rules of Christian living. We may or may not agree with all of what they have to say, but as I said, I guarantee it will be worth the listen. I guarantee they will challenge us to think about our rules for what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And it’s important that we give that topic serious consideration, at least every now and then.
The alligator hunters have to follow rules. They each have a certain number of tags, and they have to tag every alligator they get, and they cannot get more than the number of tags they have. As you might imagine, the bigger the gator the more money it’s worth, but if they fill all their tags on little bitty ones, that’s just what they have to live with. That’s the rule. They can’t hunt at night. They have only one month a year for alligator season. And so on. They have to live by the rules.
We human beings can only live together when we live by the rules. If everybody decided on their own speed limits and which side of the road to drive on, and whether or not to obey stop signs and traffic lights, we would all be lucky to get anywhere safely. We have laws and courts and jails because from the moment a few Neanderthals decided to share a cave, we humans have known that we have to have rules to live by, or we simply will not be able to live in any kind of community with one another.
God has known that as well. That’s why from the get go God has given us rules to live by. Adam and Eve have very few rules – take care of the garden, take care of each other, don’t eat from that one tree. And we know how that turned out. Today we will hear one of the most familiar sets of rules, the ten commandments. But while they are familiar, our knowledge of them probably should come with an asterisk, referring us to a footnote at the bottom of the page which says, yeah, we know about the ten commandments, but we can’t recite them all, and no, we don’t usually think about them in the context in which they were given.
And should we even think of them as rules? The great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “These commands might be taken not as a series of rules but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.” Sometimes we think God is sitting around, “up there” somewhere, watching everything we do, score sheet in hand, making black marks by our name every time we stray from the path. But I like what Brueggemann says. The ten commandments, and indeed all of the law, were seen by the Israelites as a gift from God. It is God saying, here is what it means, what it looks like, to live in covenant with me. Here’s what I expect of you in return for all that I am doing for you.
So as we keep the commandments we are doing so in response to God’s love for us. It is our part of the covenant, the agreement, God has made with us. Craig Kocher notes, “to be bound in covenant with God is to be set free to live as God’s people.” So rather than the commandments being a burden they are intended to allow us to be those who live whole, spiritually healthy lives.
You have heard me say time and again that while the new covenant God makes with us through Jesus in no way erases what comes before in scripture, Jesus does point to two other commandments as the most important: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But the same reasoning applies. Those two commandments are also intended to set us free to be the people God intends us to be. Saint Augustine is credited with saying, “Love God and do as you please,” meaning that when we put love of God first in our lives, everything else falls into place. Saint Augustine is surely on the right track, according to the ten commandments and the two great commandments.
Notice how the ten commandments are structured. The first ones all deal with our relationship with God. Don’t have any other gods. Don’t make any idols. Watch how you use God’s name. Keep the Sabbath. That’s where we start in our covenant with God. And are any of those burdensome? Are they not in fact a relief? We don’t have to worry about other gods. We need to take a holy day every week. Are not those four commandments for our benefit?
And what about the rest? Honor your parents. Don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or want what your neighbor has. Do any of those sound like they’re just impossible to keep? I would hope not. But we also know there are times when it’s hard not to be envious of what someone else has, or to always tell the full and absolute truth, as we know it, about something. And we know there are people who don’t give a second thought to disregarding one or more of the ten commandments.
Tucking them in the back of our minds can be helpful, however. They can help us remember to be the kind of people God calls us to be. We are called to be those who have no other gods or idols in our lives, and we know that can be a challenge. We are those who are called to respect even the name of God, and to set aside time to worship God. And we are those who are called to treat family and friends and neighbors with respect and care.
Lent is the season when we are especially challenged to examine our lives and try and discern how we measure up against the standards Jesus has set for us. If we are honest, we must admit that there are times when we fall short. We must admit that there is always more we can do to devote our lives to the ways of God. We need to judge ourselves by the standard of love God and love our neighbor. But the ten commandments are helpful. They give us something of a checklist to go by, some specific items to look at as we consider what it means for us to faithfully follow Jesus the Christ. So the ten commandments are helpful. Amen.