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Las Vegas, the Ten Commandments and Staying Close to Our Moral Center

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 5:07 pm on Sunday, October 8, 2017

A sermon preached on October 8th, 2017 the week after the shootings in Las Vegas, based upon Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12 – 17


It is distressing lately the way the bad news out there in the world is providing the topics for sermons.  Such is the case once again this week, as we all find ourselves horrified by what happened in Las Vegas Sunday night when thousands of people were gathered to enjoy a good time at a country music festival – only to have horrific violence erupt that took 58 lives and injured hundreds more.

What is the appropriate way for me as a preacher of the Gospel to address such horror?

Some of us would say that the place to begin is by calling for gun control, and I simply want to say that I believe that at this point it seems undeniable that there is a need for sensible gun control legislation.  But that’s not what I want to focus on today, in part because it seems just as clear that no matter what kind of legislation might come out of this, it won’t solve the deeper issue, which has to do with the violence – the hatred – that seems so deeply rooted in the human heart.

The struggle between good and evil runs straight through the hearts of every one of us.  But what seems particularly unsettling is that the direction our society is headed appears to be one in which our violent and hateful impulses get intensified and unleashed.

Like me, you’ve probably found it deeply distressing regarding what we know — as well as what we don’t know — about the man who with such intricate planning took so many guns and so much ammunition to his hotel room in order to suddenly rain bullets down upon the innocent crowd of people beneath him.

As of now, those doing the investigation are at a total loss to explain his motive.

In so many ways he doesn’t fit the profile.  He didn’t seem to hold either extremist political or religious views.  There was no indication that he suffered from serious mental illness, and he wasn’t a young man:  he was 64 years of age.  He was a rich and privileged white guy.  He had a girl friend who reportedly viewed him as kind and claims she loved him deeply, but never had a any clue this was coming.

So we are left with a disturbing mystery regarding the origins of the evil our country witnessed this week.   As I looked over the scripture choices the lectionary offered me this morning I was drawn to the Ten Commandments – this ancient expression of morality given by God to the Hebrew people through Moses – this call to move from away from evil and towards goodness.

So what follows are some reflections of mine in the context of the horror in Las Vegas on the Ten Commandments and the basic question of how we hold onto — or lose touch with — our moral center.

Our reading this morning began this way:

“Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

There are three things I took notice of here.

First, these commandments are addressed to a community.  It assumes that the people hearing these words are living in community – indeed, a very intentional community.

Although in so many ways the man who opened fire in Las Vegas “didn’t fit the profile” of a mass murderer, in this way he did.  Like the Unabomber — he was isolated — disconnected from any larger community.  He lived quite far from his mother and brothers.  Apart from his girlfriend, he seems to have had no significant human relationships.

As God said to Adam, it is not good to be alone.  We were designed by God to live out our lives in community, with other people to rely upon and who rely on us, in the midst of an extended network of meaningful human relationships.

One of the most distressing things about our society is its steady movement away from real community.  We often don’t know our neighbors.  These days idealized life is often viewed as a life where we don’t have other people bothering us — placing demands upon us – leaving us free to do whatever we please.

People these days think they have no need for the kind of intentional spiritual community provided by a church or synagogue or temple — that it seems altogether preferable to have a morning home alone than to make the effort to go out and connect with other persons.

Although there are certainly good things about the internet and the connections it makes possible, when the kind of human relating that the internet provides is substituted for the human connection that comes from looking into the eyes of another in direct conversation, something fundamental to our humanity is lost.  Without the kind of connection with all the subtleties of communication that come from actually being in the presence of another — it becomes so much easier to view others as not being real.   Other people get reduced to mere words on a screen – not as a human being of inherent, sacred worth, with actual longings, joys and sorrows just like myself.

The absence of deep human connection in a person creates a breeding ground for evil.

My second observation regarding the opening line of the Ten Commandments is that it calls those who hear what follows to a posture of gratitude:  the God who is addressing the people with moral commandments is the same God who brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. You owe your freedom to me, says the Lord.

There is a connection often missed between a basic sense of gratitude and the ability to stay close to one’s moral center.  If I think that all I have in life is strictly a result of my own hard work – my personal achievement, with no debt of gratitude to either God or my larger community — then I will not likely feel a sense of responsibility to either God or others.

According to the brother of the man who took so many lives in Las Vegas from an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone.*

He seems to have lacked any gratitude.  It wasn’t good fortune or even good luck that brought him riches through gambling, it was his significant intellect that coolly calculated the odds.

Ungrateful people commit evil.

The third observation is tricky.  It involves the question of how morality relates to belief in God.  This is tricky because there have been countless evil things done by people of every religious tradition “in the name of God”, and for this reason a lot of people are skeptical and wary of the whole notion of believing in God.  It is quite possible for an atheist to have a stronger sense of a valid moral center than someone who claims they believe in God.

But when belief in God is altogether cast aside, then the baby can be thrown out with the bath water, and it becomes possible to view all moral judgments as nothing more than mere opinions, without roots in some deeper, eternal truth.   We end up with a situation where I can say abusing children is wrong, but if another person says it’s not, well, all we’re left with is a difference of opinion.

There are valid reasons to vigorously question the morality of many of the hundreds of laws in the Bible that over time got added on to the Ten Commandments in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  But the power of the Ten Commandments has to do with the fact that they stand up to the test of time, dealing with very basic stuff regarding how we treat one another that true-hearted people of all faith traditions would readily recognize as knit into the design of life by the Creator.

Don’t commit murder and don’t steal.

Be faithful to your basic familial commitments to your parents, your children, and your spouses.

Don’t allow yourselves to be consumed by envy.

And don’t lie — tell the truth.

There are trends abroad in our society that suggest we are moving in the wrong direction in regard to a lot of these basic commandments. Families are breaking down at an alarming rate as those basic familial commitments get cast aside.  Children and the elderly end up getting neglected. More and more our culture seems practically based on stroking the passions of envy as we are bombarded with advertisements and images of the rich and famous that encourage the sin of envy and the discontent it breeds.  We are encouraged us to value things more than we value people.

And the commandment to not bear false witness – to be dedicated to telling the truth – seems to be a major casualty of our age.  Something basic is lost in a time where facts don’t seem to matter anymore because you can find on the internet support for pretty much any point of view, no matter how disconnected from reality it may be.  It often seems in our culture that what matters isn’t whether you tell a lie but rather whether you get caught lying, with the result being the fraying of the ties that bind us together, and to our moral center.

The first commandment God gives is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The killer in Las Vegas appears to have made one of our society’s prime gods his master, that being of course, money.  The story of his life as told by his brother was about pursuing riches, which he acquired first through real estate and then gambling.  He was single-minded in his pursuit of money.  And not surprisingly, the happiness he believed his god would give him never arrived.

And finally, the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”:   It may sound to our ear as archaic and disconnected from morality – but the truth is that without regular times of Sabbath rest we lose our connection to our moral center.  God designed life with a rhythm between work and rest, and if we can’t find the balance of that rhythm, we lose our sense of gratitude and our moral center.

This doesn’t mean we have to rigidly keep Sabbath laws – Jesus himself rebelled against such rigidity – but is important that our lives regularly include times in which we set aside our agendas, and set aside our distractions, to experience the inherent goodness that we can lose sight of in all our frantic activity.

Again, we know very little about the man who killed so many in Las Vegas, but the picture conveyed in the news reports is of a man who did not have stillness in his life – a man intent on always being in control – a man who would spend hours on end obsessively video gambling, distracting himself from the stillness that might have healed his soul.

To keep the Sabbath holy means setting aside times when, as the song we sing each week puts it, we “find the quiet center in this crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed. Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see   all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.”

Without contact with our quiet center – with the goodness of God that is at the center of life, our souls become at risk to being taken over by evil.

We don’t have much control over the direction our culture as a whole is moving.  What we do have some control over is how we will live our lives.  The Jewish people were called by God to embody a different way of being in this world – to faithfully follow the will of God in such a way that they would be a blessing to the whole world – a light to the nations.

Every time something happens like what happened last Sunday in Las Vegas, it is a call for us to be the church. To witness to the world through the way we live to a better way, a more excellent way, where we love people rather than love things.

The way of humility and service and love, rather than of arrogance and self-centeredness.

The way of Jesus, as opposed to the way of hatred and violence.

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