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July 1, 2018

So now we move onto the last few of God’s commandments in week 5 on our sermon series. Commandments 6-8 are actually in only two words in Hebrew: “no killing, no adultery, no stealing.” Today we will focus on the sixth commandment, “no killing.” This commandment is tied to the creation story. Genesis 1:26-27 reminds us, “We were made in the image of God.” Therefore, humankind is a reflection of God and life is sacred. Life is sacred because it is a gift from God. Genesis 2:7 tells us, “The Lord God formed us from the dust of the ground and breathed into our nostrils the breath of life.” (Gen 2:7) Life is sacred because we were made by our Creator, and have been given a purpose - to be in a relationship with God, created to know God. The Sixth Commandment is meant to protect life in all its sacredness.

 

Let us then look at the specific meaning for the Hebrew word for “kill”- Rawtsach- The meaning for this word in Hebrew is, “To dash to pieces, kill, murder.”  Does “no killing” mean we must not kill or harm any living creature? If so, I have broken the commandment several times in the last week just by what I eat, by killing a couple of spiders in the bathroom and by letting Addie Thornton hunt and eventually killing the many gophers on our church grounds. If that indeed is the meaning, then it would be pretty much impossible to follow.  However, the command is specifically related to human beings, and the intent behind the command is that human beings do no wrongful killing- that is, no murdering another person out of vengeance, hatred, or violence.

 

 

Most translations of the Bible translate Rawtsach as “Murder”. But does that fully encompass God’s intent in this command? Murder certainly violates the sanctity and purpose of life, violates the image of God in the other, and usurps God’s authority to determine when life will end. 

 

What constitutes murder from a Biblical sense? Is it murder to kill an enemy in defense of one’s country, or home, or when under attack? Is it murder to have an abortion, even when the mother’s life is in danger or rape or incest are involved? Is it murder to take someone off of life support, even though they are suffering and death is inevitable? Is it murder to kill someone who has killed another?

 

 

This commandment polarizes society around a number of hot-button issues. In order to talk about the meaning of this commandment and how it applies to our lives today, we need to examine at least two of those issues: Capital punishment and abortion. As we go through today’s sermon, you might also consider how this commandment applies to assisted suicide and warfare, which we also talked about at last week’s Bible study.  I hope the scriptures we look at today will in some way provide God’s wisdom with those difficult issues.  So buckle your seatbelts. We are in for a bumpy ride as we try to figure out how the word of God (no killing) applies.

 

We begin with capital punishment, the death penalty- According to theologian Maxie Dunham,  our nation executes more people today, than at any other time in our history. (The Workbook on the Ten Commandments, Upper Room books, 2004, page 110) In light of that fact, what is God’s will regarding the death penalty according to this commandment? Well, scripture can be used for both sides of the argument for or against capital punishment. Consider Genesis 9:5-6, a commandment from God to Noah given before the Ten Commandments, “Murder is forbidden. Animals that kill people must die, and any person who murders must be killed. Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image.” (N.L.T.)This passage of scripture clearly supports the death penalty.

 

Yet many other passages in the Old Testament speak of the penalty of death for other actions in addition to murder. In fact, sixteen offenses were deemed punishable by death according to scripture, including adultery(Deut. 22:22-24), blaspheming God’s name(Lev 24:16) bestiality(Lev. 20) Cursing at and disrespecting parents(Lev 20; Ex. 21:15;17) kidnaping (Ex. 21:16) rape (Deut 22) practicing witchcraft(Ex 22:8), worshiping other gods (Deut. 13:6-13) a woman not being a virgin on her wedding night, (Deut. 22:13-22) and picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) If we were all subject to Old Testament standards, few of us would still be alive today!

 

What does the New Testament have to say about this issue? Jesus provides a radically different perspective from the Hebrew Scriptures and conveys a consistent message of mercy.  In Luke 9:55- when James and John ask Jesus to call down fire from heaven to kill those who turned their backs to him, Jesus strongly reprimanded their suggestion. When Peter lashed out with a sword in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “Put your sword away; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) When a woman was caught in adultery and the crowds surrounded her preparing to stone her to death, as was the penalty under the law, Jesus saved her life, gave the crowds a lesson in humility, and didn’t condemn her. (John 8:11) Jesus said, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye (Lev 24:20) (Fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth), But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39) Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44) Jesus, when he was being murdered upon the cross, said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”(Luke 23:34) There is no message of vengeance, violence or righteous killing in any of Jesus’ teachings. Consider also that we ourselves, who deserve death and condemnation for our sinfulness and yet who stand in righteousness before God thanks to the sacrifice of Christ approach hypocrisy when we support the death penalty without offering hope of redemption or mercy for others. We may desire retribution in response to evil, yet we, sinful as we ourselves are have received grace instead of retribution. The balance of scripture, and Jesus’ witness in particular, speak against the idea of capital punishment.

 

 

And yet, there are those moments when we hear of a story so heinous, so awful, that we ourselves desire vengeance. When a child is murdered carelessly, there have been many times when I have desired they be killed on the spot. Yet God reminds us, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.”(Deut 32:35)

 

I met someone years ago who really challenged my desire for revenge in such situations, for a person to pay with his or her life for an act of murder. On April 15, 1995, in revenge for the federal government’s attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas, Timothy Mc Veigh blew up a Ryder rental truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. 168 people were killed, 19 of them children attending a daycare program. More than 680 people were injured. After the attack, there was no doubt in my mind that Mc Veigh deserved death for his heinous and cowardly act. One rescue team which had been called in to search for survivors, Rescue team 5, wrote on one wall of the barely standing building, “We seek justice. The courts require it. The victims cry for it. God demands it.”

 

I had the chance to tour the memorial in 2000 when we took a group to Oklahoma to rebuild homes after an F-5 tornado had destroyed so many neighborhoods. It was heart-breaking to see individual empty chairs on the memorial lawn, one next to another, each chair representing a victim of the bombing, and so many small chairs representing the loss of so many innocent children. Outside the memorial is a statue of Jesus, arms open, sad look upon his face with the words, “Jesus wept.” It is a place of so much death, so much senseless tragedy. It is hard to walk away from such a place and not think Mc Veigh got exactly what he deserved. He was executed by lethal injection in 2001.

 

And yet, later that year, I was able to hear a Catholic gentleman named Bud Welch who was a parent of one of the victims speak. His daughter, Julie had just graduated from college and had gotten a job with the federal government. Her life after school was just beginning. When his daughter was first killed by the blast, he too sought revenge for his loss. He cried for Mc Veigh to be put to death. 

 

Then, he began to feel led in a different direction, along with a number of others whose loved ones had been taken in the blast. There became a group of these parents and spouses of victims who felt the death penalty went against their faith. They prayed for and worked for Mc Veigh to receive life in prison for his crimes. How did the change of heart come about for this father? He spoke about how beautiful and loving his own child was and how he missed her terribly, showing us her picture. Yet God had softened his heart, and he knew that another act of vengeance would do nothing more than continue the cycle of violence. Having Mc Veigh executed would not bring back his daughter, nor would it make him feel better. Here was a man of faith whose light of his life had been taken by one man’s barbaric act of revenge, and he, in turn, did not want him to be put to death, and prayed to God to help him forgive Timothy Mc Veigh. I wondered if I would’ve responded similarly were I in his shoes. He was a model of Christ’s mercy, and challenged my assumptions of capital punishment, and changed my beliefs.

 

 

When applied to capital punishment, we contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ and the sixth commandment when we kill someone for killing someone else.

 

That leads us to our second difficult and controversial topic for today’s sermon having to do with the sixth commandment- Abortion. Right now this is becoming a huge issue in our nation. With the retirement of moderate Supreme Court Justice Kennedy and the president’s promise to nominate someone who will challenge Roe v Wade, this issue is even more emotionally charged than the death penalty. There are Christians on both sides of this debate, families that have broken apart in disagreement, and politicians who get in a fervor regarding abortion. I truthfully navigate these troubling waters with fear and trepidation.

 

Scripture does not specifically address abortion, but God’s word does have something to say on life and the creation of children.  The psalmist in Psalm 139:13-16 addresses God, saying, “You made all the delicate inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous-and how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in Your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.”  Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you...” Both of these passages remind us of the sacredness of life and God’s role in making each of us as individuals. Many people who are against abortion in any form use these passages to justify their position.

 

That being said, in every congregation I have served, I have known of women who have chosen the difficult path of an abortion for one valid reason or another, and have lived with that decision ever since. I have also known women who have made the difficult choice of following through with an unwanted pregnancy and then giving that child up for adoption. My own family was built through this noble act. Some of you in this congregation may have similar stories. Despite attempts to make this a black and white clear cut issue, I believe it is far from that. This issue is so complex.

 

Our own denomination has had a policy in place regarding this issue since 1992 which deals with some of those complexities. It reads in part, “The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision. Possible justifying circumstances would include medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened.

 

We are disturbed by abortions that seem to be elected only as a convenience or ease embarrassment. We affirm that abortion should not be used as a method of birth control. Abortion is not morally acceptable for gender selection only or solely to obtain fetal parts for transplantation. We reject the use of violence and/or abusive language either in protest of or in support of abortion. The strong Christian presumption is that since all life is precious to God, we are to preserve and protect it. Abortion ought to be an option of last resort.

The Christian community must be concerned about and address the circumstances that bring a woman to consider abortion as the best available option. Poverty, unjust societal realities, sexism, racism, and inadequate supportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely. (Adopted by the 204th General Assembly, 1992).

In closing on this issue, let me just say I am a fan of all of life, not just a portion of it- from birth to the grave- We need to provide birth control in schools and allow for and support family planning. We need to teach that sex is not just a physical act, but a sacred moment. We need to find ways to support women who have been sexually assaulted and give them justice. We need to help families caught in the grips of poverty so that women have the power to choose, and so that life can be celebrated. We need to lift up the sacredness of all life.

We need to try to have civil conversations with folks who feel differently than we do, and that is a supremely difficult thing to ponder. Perhaps we can try reaching out to those who come and protest out on the corner every week in front of Planned Parenthood? What might we say? How might we listen? I don’t know for sure. But beginning from a place of humility and grace is a good place to start.

What about other issues related to “You shall not kill?” How then might “Do not murder” apply to those who are soldiers in the midst of war? Is war ever justified, which would mean that killing another person is somehow justified? What does it mean concerning the war our nation has been fighting without break since 2001 in Afghanistan or to unmanned drone strikes that are killing innocent families while trying to weaken the Taliban?  What about those who are suffering with disease and wanting to end their lives? How does “Do not kill” apply to them? What about the “Black lives matter” movement? African Americans are distraught and angry over the constant shootings of unarmed black men by police. How does “Do not kill” apply to that situation?

 

What does the Sixth commandment mean for you? What does it mean for you and all of the issues raised in today’s sermon? German theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote, “To believe in God means to take sides with life and to end our alliance with death. It means to stop killing and wanting to kill, and to do battle with apathy which is akin to killing.” May God separate us from our alliances with death. May God awaken us from apathy, as we pray and seek God’s guidance and wrestle with this commandment, applying it to our lives, working to have reverence for all of life. Alleluia. Amen.

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