We have heard the Ten Commandments twice this morning, once in liturgy and once in a lesson. That is probably more than most of us have heard them in the past year. If people did not occasionally sue one another over whether or not to post them on public property, it is unlikely we would be exposed to the commandments at all except in church during Lent. Yet they are important, providing on the one hand a pillar of our concept of law and on the other a glimpse of our God. Since this is Washington, D.C., there are probably more lawyers here than preachers so I will not try to take on how the commandments have shaped our laws. You can ask almost anyone around you for that information. What I would like to do is hold just one of these commandments up to the light and see how God shines through it and what that shining glimpse might mean to you and me.
The commandment I would like for us to consider is a little one that is rarely taken seriously. It is the third: You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain. Most people connect that with profanity but I don’t think that is what it is about. I graduated from an all male military college where profanity was practically an art form. I have been around it enough to be pretty sure that “religious language without theological content” as one of my friends delicately put it is not the point. I make no case for a foul mouth, it is ignorant and graceless, but I think God had a lot more than that in mind. To use God’s name in vain means to use it in a way that is inconsistent with what we know of God. Come with me and let me show you how it works.
One thing we know is that God is a gathering God. We can see it in the story of creation where God broods over the multi-verse of chaos and determines to bring it into the universe of ordered life. That gathering, connecting, ordering instinct of God’s is the reason we can have rational thinking, logic, and the disciplines of science. Can you imagine trying a scientific experiment in a world like the one we experience in dreams, where neither time nor space nor anything else is consistent? The universe is a unity because God is a gathering God. The gathering impulse we see in creation is experienced in our own lives. God keeps drawing people into tighter and tighter community. We are born as individuals and find our way in families. Families bind into clans, clans into tribes, tribes into cultures, cultures into nations, nations into common life. I am what is commonly called a WASP, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. What we rarely notice is that the two middle terms of that description were once competing tribes but now they make a single word. God does things like that. The gathering trend, although continually marred by human resistance, is God’s thing. Because of that I think that globalization is God’s idea. We often use the Devil’s Handbook to bring it about but the idea is God’s because God is continually drawing the pieces of life toward one another. We believe it, know it, experience it, rely on it. Our God is a gathering God whose name we are forbidden to bear and use in a manner inconsistent with that gathering instinct. Clear? Clear.
But look what we do in the name of God: judge, condemn, ostracize, divide, polarize. We who take religion—a word that literally means to put back together—seriously are responsible for more division and discord than any other group in history. We do it in the name of righteousness, orthodoxy, piety, sacred texts, worship practices, authority, discipline, revelation, and custom. We even do it in the name of the Ten Commandments. In God’s name we declare war to be holy and good when in fact it is never either one. We divide, excommunicate, exclude, denigrate, ridicule, and ignore all in the name of the Gathering God. And each time, every time, we do it we use God’s name in vain. The simple fact is that God gathers and when we divide we work against God.
To use God’s name in vain is not just about utterance, not limited to what we say. It includes the way we who bear the Name of God, the mark given to us in Baptism, live and act. When we work against the gathering instincts of our God, when we fail to ask how we are connected to others or to the rest of creation, we are bearing God’s name in vain.
I read and watch the news about riots in Afghanistan over burning copies of the Koran. My mind cannot fathom what they are doing and my gut says leave them to their chaos, but my faith says we are connected and calls me to serve that truth. To fail to seek understanding and connection with those who are angry with us is to bear God’s name in vain.
I know people whose religious convictions bring them to conclusions about gays and lesbians that are the exact opposite of my own. My instincts want to embrace the people they reject. But my faith requires me to also reach out to those who are doing the rejecting for we are all connected. To fail to reach out to those who differ from us is to violate the third commandment.
Just a mile from here at Ward Circle there is the main office of Homeland Security in which good people work hard to protect us from those who would do us harm. That Department is a proper response to the questions of national security but it is an inadequate response to the questions of faith. Homeland Security distances us from bad people. Faith connects us to all people, including bad ones. The Gathering God permits nothing less.
Over the years I have walked with people as they dealt with painful divorce, the trauma of war, the threat of deportation, and the reality of prison. In each case, we knew that those extreme forms of separation were necessary, there was nothing else to do. But necessity does not make goodness. Each divorce, war, deportation, and prison term is a failure of God’s intent for us, a failure of our best hopes for ourselves. Healthy people do not want those things to happen. Neither does God. Divorce, war, deportation, and prison are sometimes necessary but never good. Those who call them good are taking the Lord’s name in vain.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain” is just one commandment, not even one of the big ones. We want it to be about cussing but it isn’t. One slender aspect of those eleven words ushers us into the enormous historic failure of church, synagogue, mosque, and temple to bear the weight of God’s gathering instinct.
Those words and the glimpse of God they give us leave us wondering about rioting Afghans, unfathomable Christians, the tension between risk and security, necessity and goodness.
They are questions our minds can barely grasp but our lives can never avoid. That is how God shines through one piece of one commandment and that is how we look in its light. Amen.