Top 10 Ways to Improve Other People

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

October 9, 2022

Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Introduction to Worship:

Today, we’ll be hearing the 10 Commandments. 

Do you know what the ten of them are? Don’t worry. It isn’t a quiz. 

Some of them are about our relationship with God. 

Worship only God and not other gods. 

No idols. 

No taking the Lord’s name in vain. 

Most of them are about our relationships with each other. 

Honor your parents. 

Honor your neighbor by not coveting their stuff, by not stealing from them,  by not committing adultery with them, and by not murdering them. 

Remember the Sabbath. 

Don’t lie. 

That’s about it. Pretty simple, really.  

We make it complicated, though, don’t we. 

But our relationships with each other are everything. They are worth the complications that arise from them. 

We begin worship with this blessing from Jan Richardson, called When We Breathe Together. 

This is the blessing
we cannot speak
by ourselves. 

This is the blessings
we cannot summon
by our own devices,
cannot shape
to our own purposes,
cannot bend
to our own will. 

This is the blessing
that comes
when we leave behind
our aloneness,
when we gather
when we turn
toward one another. 

This is the blessing
that blazes among us
when we speak
the words
strange to our ears,

when we finally listen
into the chaos,

when we breathe together
at last. 


Last week, Moses and the Hebrew people were preparing to cross the Red Sea on their way out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  We jumped over a lot of excitement, so I hope you’re reading between the preaching stories.

As the Israelites wandered in the Wilderness, God and Moses have continued to be in conversation. Often because the Israelites were complaining and grumbling—some version of “are we there yet?” and “why did you bring us to the wilderness to die?

At all of those junctures, God has heard their cries and responded to Moses’ pleas for help. Manna in the wilderness to eat, water out of a rock, etc. The people have seen God’s provision. It hasn’t yet led them to really trust God the way we think we would trust God if we could just see one miracle or sign. Even God seems to think true obedience and trust is just around the corner of one more miracle or sign.  Just before today’s passage, God says to Moses: ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’

Narrator: They will not trust him ever after.

God offers a whole laser light show extravaganza. The mountain shakes and smokes. There’s a cloud around it. Moses would speak and God would answer in thunder. Right after the verses we heard this morning, we’re told, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 

Moses stays on the mountain, talking with God, for 4 more chapters, I mean, for a total of 40 days and 40 nights.

Lots more instruction is given to Moses in those days and nights. Helpful things like:
—guidelines for a man who sells his daughter
—and punishment for children who curse or strike their parents
—what to do if someone leaves a pit open and someone falls in it
—God is opposed to female sorcerers, but there’s oddly no mention of what to do to male sorcerers.

Those chapters have a lot of “eye for an eye” style justice language.
Some of the instruction sounds odd to our ears.

Some of it sounds timely:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.”

Anyone notice what was missing in the story of the 10 commandments we heard this morning?

The famous tablets of stone. They don’t make an appearance until chapter 24. 

A friend of mine posted this picture on instagram. When I first saw the picture, I wondered who the person who made this “monument” to the 10 commandments was making it for? As a gentle reminder to themselves? As a not so subtle reminder to their neighbor?

At some point Thursday, while I wasn’t doing so well at focusing on writing this sermon, I had to look up where the picture was. I needed to know! Turns out there is an entire 10 Commandments Theme Park in North Carolina where you can see this. It’s almost 400 feet across. Nearly 400 steps to reach the top.

Ready for the best part?

……the park is open 7 days a week.

If only there were a commandment about remembering the sabbath and keeping it holy.

Narrator: There is.

As I was googling the 10 Commandments theme park, I also found one in Columbia Falls, Montana: God’s Ten Commandments Park:  

Just west of Glacier National Park, in front of a junkyard, on the south side of US-2. A drive-thru loop takes you past all the billboards. Park displays over 20 billboards about the biblical 10 Commandments, with religious quotes from Presidents. There are also three giant crosses. Offers free food and magnets if you go inside…

A few years ago, I was buying a Bible at Barnes and Noble when the salesman stopped to remove the anti-theft sticker in the Bible.

We have to add anti-theft devices to Bibles. They are our most stolen merchandise,” he told me.

Really? Bibles are stolen more than any other book? That is not a good statement about the state of American Christianity”, I said.

No, no it is not,” he replied.

You shall not steal.

We seem to enjoy using our rules to help other people live, and seem to be less interested in having them help us know how to live.

It is better for God to be the one writing in stone. We want to edit. We like to make qualifications, find exceptions.

Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy*
(*unless you have a really busy week ahead, and then it is okay to work on the Sabbath).

You shall not steal*
(*unless you really need it and they have enough and wouldn’t miss it anyway.)

You shall honor your mother and father*
(*unless they embarrass you in front of your friends or expect you to unload the dishwasher).

So, what are we to make of these commandments? They were important enough for God to make sure the Israelites really understood them. God gave the commandments to them in stone.  AND
They seem to be things that we break on a daily basis.

What are we to do with rules we are more comfortable applying to other people’s lives than to our own?

Ultimately, the 10 Commandments are not weapons, written in stone so they could be hurled at our enemies. They are a reminder of the permanence of God’s love. They are a reminder of how God wants us to live, together, in community. They are a reminder of the Covenant that God established with the people. They are a reminder of how free people, no longer enslaved people, are supposed to live.  And when we remember the Covenant, the crazy idea that God has chosen to be for us, that God has chosen to partner with us as God’s people, it should evoke in us a sense of gratitude.

God has chosen to be our God not because of our worthiness, but because of the mysterious grace of God.

Let’s pause there for a second.

God doesn’t love us, or choose to be in relationship with us because we have made ourselves great,
or because we have done big things,
or made lots of money,
or lost all that weight we said we were going to lose,
or gotten our lives organized,
or voted for the correct political party,
or because we got a big promotion at work,
or even because we were kind to that person who needed help carrying their groceries to the car.

All of those things may be wonderful attributes of ours. Or not. But they aren’t why God is in relationship with us.

God chose us before any of that.

What that evokes in me is gratitude.
It calls me to ask, “how can I respond to such a gift?”

The 10 Commandments give us an idea of our response. God spoke all those words to help us live together in Covenant before God and with each other.

It means, of course, that the 10 Commandments are better applied personally, rather than as corrective for other people. I can make fun all day of the 10 Commandments Theme Park that is open on the Sabbath.

Narrator. She will, don’t worry.

But the truth is, if I’m not attending to Sabbath in my own life, it doesn’t matter whether someone else does or not.

The 10 Commandments remind us to do our own work, to attend to our own behavior, so we can love our neighbors better, and we can love God better.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk said: 

How would our society be better if we could focus more on our own behavior and less on the behavior of others? What if we could love our neighbors as God loved us?

Ultimately, of course, the 10 Commandments are only pertinent for people who see a value in living in community, who care about people other than themselves. It has less relevance, perhaps, to people who go off and live in a cave, never interacting with, or caring about,  another person. If each of us were an island, unto ourselves, we wouldn’t have to worry about coveting our neighbors cows or porsches. We wouldn’t be stealing, committing adultery, or murdering because we’d have no neighbors from whom to steal, with whom to commit adultery, or to murder.

The 10 Commandments call us into healthier behavior in ourselves, so we can be in better relationships with each other.

Dr. Robert Waldinger leads the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult life, ever. After following a group of people, for over 75 years, they’ve discovered that good relationships are more likely to make us happier and healthier. In a TED Talk, he said:

“This message that good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being – this is wisdom that’s as old as the hills. Why is this so hard to get and so easy to ignore? Relationships are messy, and they’re complicated. And the hard work of tending to family and friends – it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.

The people in our 75-year study who were the happiest in retirement were the people who had actively worked to replace workmates with new playmates. But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community.”

This wisdom that’s as old as the hills, as he puts it,  finds its root in the 10 Commandments. And every time we choose relationship over division, over isolation, we choose our own flourishing and make space for the flourishing of others.

We are in our season of stewardship, when we discern how we can pledge our lives, our gifts, our time to deepen our faith, to support our community, and to support the mission of the church. I understand there are lots of things competing for our time, for our energy, for our resources. And many of them are good and important things. 

I’d like to challenge you with a task this week. Look at the things that get your time and energy. After family, work, and health, I suspect there are lots of other good things. Where does your faith life fit into the list? Can you commit to bumping it up a place or two in the list? 

Because the 10 Commandments were given to people called to live in community with each other, which means it isn’t something we can do by ourselves. And after the past couple of years of isolation, I know that a few things are true for me. I need community. I am thirsty for it like a person lost in the desert. AND community is hard for me now in ways it wasn’t in the before times.  

I am committed to community. And I’m thankful to have this community of people who are willing to work at it with me. Our family gives money to many charities and causes, but the biggest recipient of our giving is the church. It is one of the ways we try to reflect our values and what is important in our lives. 

Before the 10 Commandments were given, God told Moses this: ”You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now 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, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

The deliverance out of slavery and into the promised land, when God carried us on eagles’ wings, was to bring us to Godself. Ultimately, this gift of community, with the guidelines spelled out in the 10 Commandments, is about bringing us closer to God’s very self. 

May it be so. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s