Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon August 23, 2015
13You shall not murder.
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
One morning, about two months ago, I was walking to the church to start my workday. As I crossed 109th and Bell, I noticed two young birds, two fledglings, in the street. I suspected both had fallen out of a nest in the branches overhanging the street. Perhaps they had been trying to fly. One of them had, unfortunately, been run over by a car and was dead. The other fledgling, though, was unharmed but could not get off the street.
I pulled out my handkerchief and picked up the bird. I brought it over to the corner and placed it down on the grass under a tree. I was uncertain what to do next. I was pondering this when a young woman came by pushing her infant in a stroller.
I explained what had happened. She told me that she had worked at a zoo and that the best thing we could do would be to leave the fledgling in the shade under a tree. She also pointed out that one of the bird’s parents was overhead in a tree – watching us. And the fledgling – having feathers – was probably able to do a bit of flying.
So I left the poor thing under the tree. When I came back some nine hours later, the fledgling was gone. I don’t know if the bird got to safety or if it was the victim of a stray animal. My hope, of course, is that the bird got back to safety and is doing well as I speak.
Now, sisters and brothers, the question this story brings to us today: was the person driving the car that ran over the other bird – was that driver guilty of murder? Naturally, our answer would be a resounding “no!”
And why is such the case? Probably for two reasons: 1) the commandment about murder is about killing a person rather than an animal (although the jury is still out regarding animal consciousness); 2) the driver may not have known what transpired under the wheels of his or her car. Murder requires an intention to murder. One cannot commit murder by accident.
And the Sixth Commandment is about murder. The Hebrew word used, ratsach, is a word that is not translated “kill” – its meaning is not “kill” but clearly “murder.” There’s a big difference between these two words: kill and murder. Murder always implies a clear intentionality.
Now, sisters and brothers, we’re commanded by the sixth commandment not to murder. But when we look at this commandment – how are we to understand it? As we know, this commandment, along with the others, is given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. Given to Moses – an acknowledged murderer! This is certainly a bit strange!
Moses murders an Egyptian in Exodus chapter 2, verses 11 to 12: “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. (Listen now!) Moses looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Obviously, Moses was a murderer. Yet God choose him, a murderer, to lead his people from slavery to freedom. Hard to fully comprehend, is it not?
Do we imagine that Moses blanched when he came to the sixth commandment? I hope he did! And what about Kind David, championed as the best king of Israel. He also was a murderer as well as an adulterer. As a matter of fact, God killed the first child born to David and Bathsheba as a punishment for David’s murder of Uriah, the Hittite.
So what’s going on here? Moses and David both break the sixth commandment – yet Moses is considered the greatest person in the Old Testament. King David is considered the best king Israel ever had. It was from his lineage that the messiah would be born.
Of course, there are those who argue that God is often portrayed as a righteous executioner in the Old Testament. What are we to make of the killing of everyone on the earth except for eight people at the time of Noah? God orders the slaying of everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Of course, we rightly say God is not only a God of love – but also a God of justice. So all those millions killed by God in the Old Testament must have deserved to die.
We know God commands the Israelites to kill everyone in every village and town they conquer in the Promised Land. It was different if the town was not part of the Promised Land. Let me quote from Numbers 20: 10 – 17: “When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor (in other words – make them slaves).
“If (the town) does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you (in other words defends itself), then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil ...
“But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them (today we call this genocide) – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded.”
Let me add one further passage from 1st Samuel, chapter 15, verses 1-3: “(The prophet) Samuel said to Saul (the first king of Israel), ‘The Lord God sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord God: Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Brothers and sisters, do we see any problem here? Is this portrayal of God, the same God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What, really, are we to make of such passages in the Bible? When have we heard sermons about such passages? I’ve never heard such a sermon any time anywhere. Why do pastors and preachers avoid such troubling biblical passages? I want to avoid them as well!
Yet, sisters and brothers, these passages are the passages our children and our grandchildren bring up as evidence for disbelief in the God of the Bible. These and similar passages are, unfortunately, used to belittle faith in the God of the Bible.
In my many years of campus ministry and in my many years teaching college students, such passages have been used again and again to justify agnosticism and atheism. How might we respond to such passages? Do we just say that God’s ways are not our ways? That’s one possibility – but it’s not ultimately helpful.
As Baptists we believe deeply in the sacredness and authority of the Bible. We hold that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. But inspiration does not mean that the Bible is perfect in every way. Inspiration holds that the Holy Spirit of God kept the authors of the Bible from writing anything that is theologically false. Inspiration does not guarantee that the Bible is free of historical mistakes.
We should help our young people understand that the Bible is a human product with a divine purpose. The Bible is not the result of God’s dictation. It is the result of many human authors trying to understand who God is and how God works in our world. Most of the time the authors got it right but sometimes they didn’t.
And clearly throughout time the understanding of who God is and how God acts in our world develops and deepens especially through the mighty influence of the prophets. This reality must be acknowledged if we want our children to grow in faith.
Sisters and brothers, let me state that I fear preaching about such things. It’s too easy being misunderstood. And as Professor Marcus Borg writes in Speaking Christian: “… conflict about the meaning of the Bible – its origin, authority, and interpretation – is the single most divisive issue in American Christianity today.” To this I would say “Amen!” We Christians fight more over the Bible than over anything else.
But as Borg continues: “To be a Christian means to live within a community that accepts the Bible as its authoritative scripture. To be a Christian involves a continuing conversation with the Bible as the foundation of Christianity. If this dialogue (with the Bible) were to cease, we would cease to be Christians … (The Bible) is – divine … in its purpose and function in the Christian life. (The Bible) is (one of the) means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speak to us.”
In other words, brothers and sisters, we continue reading the Bible and we continue to be confounded by the Bible – so we can allow the Spirit of God to speak to us. And the Spirit of God will speak to us – this I state emphatically!
Sisters and brothers, I’ve studied the Bible backwards and forwards throughout seven years of graduate studies and 40 years of personal study. I’ve sat in classes with some of the most respected Scripture scholars in our country.
I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover numerous times. I can honestly say I’ve completely immersed myself in the Bible. I can honestly say I love the Bible. It challenges me each and every day. Every morning my beloved Beth and I read a passage from it. I can’t get enough of the Bible.
I hope and pray the same is true for you. Immersing oneself in the Bible is not easy. But I proclaim to you it’s clearly well worth the effort!
I end with some helpful words from Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life: “For all the human handiwork it displays, the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it … Familiar passages accumulate meaning as I return to them again and again.
“The Bible tells us stories we need and want to hear – stories to help us live, stories to help us die, and stories to help us believe we shall live again. Listening to them, we are called into relationship with the One who tells (these stories) to us. Believing them, we are changed. The living words of God heal our hurts and soften our hearts; they clear our vision and guide our feet.
“Like a lifeline strung from the beginning of time to the end, (these bible stories) show us a way through all the storms of culture, nature, and history. They show us the way to the Word beyond all words, in whose presence we shall be made eloquent at last.” (Reread last line) Amen!