"Set Free from Vanity"

September 17, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Exodus 20:17 and Luke 6:43-49
(part of a series on the Ten Commandments)

My college's concert choir was on tour in New England. At rush hour we entered Providence, R.I. amid torrential rainfall. It was my turn to drive the van which follwed the bus. Traffic on the freeway began to separate our two vehicles, and I watched helplessly as the bus edged out of view. "Just follow us to the church," was all the directions I had. In frustration, the words just flowed out. Foul words, that is. Of course, that never happens to you, does it? I don't mean to imply that, since college, profanity has not been a part of my vocabulary. I do remember, however, how ashamed I felt at the time, because Jeannie was sitting next to me. You see, Jeannie was the sort of person who would never utter such words - a motherly type, who also operated as our choir's conscience. I knew I just went down several pegs in her estimation. I mumbled some apology, to which she smiled and said, "Just keep going, damn it, we'll catch up."

Now, perhaps you just turned me off for repeating that last remark. I thought long and hard about using it. Profanity, I believe, does not belong in the pulpit, nor elsewhere really. I was raised that way. It's engrained in my being. Even when I transgress that boundary outwardly, inwardly I feel shame. It does bother me when I hear it, though not as much as it bothers some others. I don't take offense. I just feel a sadness.

Preachers are often treated with kid-gloves by people. We end up being, like Jeannie back in college, the conscience of others. Folks tend to talk different around us, as if to spare us from the dirt of daily life. "Pardon me, Reverend." Many of my colleagues go out of their way to bridge this gap, gutter talking along with the rest. There's almost a freedom to it, a liberation from past inhibitions, a comraderie in profanity. To be honest, it all seems a bit lame to me. I'm by no means perfect in this regard, but profanity rarely feels liberating to me. It only seems to cheapen a situation. I guess that's the source of my sadness, for persons are worth so much more.

Having said all that, I need to state an important truth. The third commandment of God is not about profanity in the sense in which I have just been describing it. Perhaps you knew that all along, but maybe this is news to you. By the way, for better or worse, we are part way into a series of sermons on the 10 commandments, or words of God. "Oh, no," you might respond, adding an expletive deleted of some sort, "not another series..." Well, let's see what you remember. The first commandment is? ("you shall have no other god before me," prefaced by "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery.") What is the second word/commandment? ("you shall not make for yourselves an idol/graven image.")

Now to the third. What is it? ("you shall not make wrongful use of/misuse the Lord's name" or take it "in vain" - printed at top of bulletin.) Our first thought as we hear those words may be a phrase spoken all too often around us, which I might tactfully shorten to "g.d."  However, as much as you or I may dislike that expletive, it's not really what this commandment is all about. Indirectly, perhaps, but not directly.

To explain, it might be best to journey up the mountain with Moses, the first time he encountered the Holy One. Remember, at that point he was a shepherd, working under his father-in-law. His current employment was a far cry from his training in Egypt, where he managed people rather than sheep. An on-the-job conflict, so to speak, made him rethink his profession, and he ran off to the hills to escape the pressure. Somehow, God was involved in all of this, which became disturbingly plain one day when Moses came across that burning bush. In brief, the Lord called Moses to get back to Egypt and set his people free from slavery, to which Moses reluctantly agreed.

You recall the story. Part of their discussion (Moses and God, that is) involved a name. "When I try to convince the Israelites to follow me, or Pharoah to let them go, who am I supposed to say sent me?," asked Moses. "Give me a name to drop, so I can use it to advantage." God, however, would have nothing to do with such a request. "I am who I am," replied the Eternal One, "tell them that "I am" sent you." Just try putting that down as a reference next time you search for a job and maybe you'll feel some of the frustration of Moses. "I am who I am" is not exactly a name everyone listens to as an authority. Believe it or not, that's the name we've been given.

It's generally agreed that the four letter name for God in Hebrew, YHWH, comes from this mountainside encounter and means "I am who I am.". It has variously been widened to Yahweh or Jehovah, though our Jewish friends refrain from speaking or writing it altogether. While reading a novel by a jewish author recently, I was taken back by her practice of refering to God as G-d. At first I though she was abbreviating a piece of profanity. Instead, she was holding God's name as so holy that she could not even use the title "God." It has been common practice among Jews when reading the Bible to insert the title "adonai" or "Lord" wherever the YHWH is found.

All this leads us away, a bit, from the meaning of the third commandment, however. Back on that mountain and the burning bush, the issue was control. When we seek to drop a name, we are after control. Last week, in discussing the second commandment, the issue was also control, but in a visual way - having an idol, a graven image with which to feel a little more in charge of a seemingly out-of-control world. This week we are told to avoid control in a verbal way. These two commandments assert that our God is radically free - free to be or to do what he chooses to be or do. Like I said last week, as we serve this radically free God, we are set free ourselves. That's another paradox at the heart of our faith.

Actually, the ones who transgress this third commandment are not so much those who pepper their vocabulary with profanity, but, instead, are the ones who bath their selfish desires (knowingly or naively) with God-talk. Be careful, my friends, what you profess or claim in the name of the Lord. You see, God is not under our control. God is not a conservative, nor is God a liberal, though a part of the great design is both preservation and liberation. God is not under our control. Feminists are correct is asserting that God is not male, though they can be just as guilty of misusing the name of the Lord as anyone else. God is not under our control. When we are too quick to pronounce God's judgement or, on the other hand, too easily bless what others do, right or wrong, are we not taking the Lord's name in vain? God is not under our control. Furthermore, those who say: "name what you want and claim it in Jesus' name" are also guilty of violating this commandment. Often our desires do not fit in with God's will. Jesus' words about "whatever you ask in my name I will do," fit into a wider picture, the portrait of a people whose desire as well as whose very being is baptised in the radical freedom of God.

Speaking of Jesus, remember his question: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" How vain, how empty it is to believe that Jesus is Lord, to make this profession publicly, but then not to live as if it is true. This doesn't mean being able to speak God-talk, to pray all the right ways, to say all the right words, using the little catch-phrases of the pious. A local minister challenged me recently by saying that while he is moving away from writing out his sermons beforehand, he was moving toward writing out his prayers. He noticed that people in his congregation were beginning to take on his little quirks in their public prayers, as if his ways and catch-phrases were the correct way to pray. As Ecclesiates would bluntly point out, that's vanity.

Having said all this, one might wonder, "what on earth can we say? It seems we're always in danger of misusing the Lord's name." Well, that is true. Remember, however, that these commandments were intended to free the people of God, not to tie them up. God didn't rescue them from slavery in Egypt just to make them prisoners in the promised land. It wasn't God's intention (was it?) to have us walk around on egg-shells fearful of saying something wrong.

Let's flip this commandment over to what it says to us in the positive. Every "thou shalt not" includes an affirmation. "Thou shalt not kill," for instance, is an affirmation of life. Likewise, refraining from wrongly using the name of the Lord is an encouragement, like last week's commandment, to be free of the need to use or control life. The truth is, we can't control people, any more than we can control God. Using or abusing others, like trying to do so with God, is not only harmful to them, it is counter-productive/harmful to us. In the long run it only leaves us empty, which is what "vanity" means. To use the Lord's name in vain, is to empty it of any meaning. God might as well be dead, which is how many of us feel when our prayers "in Jesus' name" seem to go unanswered. Prayer, however is not about controlling God. It is about standing before the burning bush of the One who said "I am who I am," and being motivated in directions we might not have chosen. Have you ever noticed how our prayers are often answered in ways different from how we might have anticpated them to be? The good news is that God takes our bumbling, vain, often wrong-headed desires and fashions them into something real, not false, full, not empty. That's the positive side of this negative word.

Lord God, you are who you are. Because of this, we are who we are. Free us from the need to use, abuse, and control. Deliver me from the temptation to use this prayer to clarify the points of my sermon. Whatever significance and impact these words have come not from my eloquence, but from your Spirit freely moving amid these people. You fill our emptiness in ways we cannot foresee, but only receive by faith. In you we find meaning and purpose. In a world of window dressing, you have made us, and continue to make us real. Help us, then, to be "real" in relation to you. This we pray in the name of the One who knows us by the fruit we bear, by what we treasure in our hearts. Amen.

1995Peter L. Haynes

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