Sermon for 01-23-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 3: Protecting God’s Name”

January 25, 2011

One of you told me that you had “never heard a sermon more on point that is more impossible to live out.” I don’t think it’s that difficult, is it? Cursing and profanity are just really bad habits, and like any bad habits can be changed through much effort (in cooperation with the Spirit, of course). Another person told me jokingly that it’s very un-Methodist to actually tell people what they ought to do and expect them to be accountable. Ha! Wesley would disagree! Enjoy. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:7

The following is my original manuscript.

Are you good with people’s names? My first boss I had out of college, I’m not even sure he knew my name—or anyone else’s for that matter. He would always say, “Hey, buddy.” You can get away with that for men, I’m not sure how that would work with women: what’s the female equivalent of “buddy”? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were a part of a Christian tradition in which it is customary to refer to one another as “brother” or “sister.” “Hey, brother. Hello, sister.” That would solve the problem of names!

But to call someone by their name! It’s a wonderful thing. I had a remarkable experience last week. I went to get takeout from a nearby Mexican restaurant. I eat at this restaurant frequently, but I don’t really know anyone there by name—lots of different servers wait on me, and I frankly don’t pay much attention to their faces and names. So I’m about to place my takeout order and the server says, “Hey, Brent. What can I get for you.” I had just come from a church meeting, and I thought for a moment I was still wearing my name tag. But I wasn’t. And when he gave me my order, he thanked me—by name.

I can only assume that at some point in the past he saw my name on my debit card and remembered it. That’s a good waiter right there! Unless he also wrote down the numbers and expiration date and is using it to but things of the internet! No, I’m not worried. His calling me by name made such an impression on me that I left him a small tip, which I don’t usually do on a takeout order.

Names are powerful and important. Dale Carnegie, in his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, understood this when he said that everyone’s favorite word is his or her name. We just never get tired of hearing it, and we will be more favorably disposed toward people when they call us by name.

Lisa and I saw a wonderful movie called The King’s Speech over the weekend. I’d recommend it to anyone 13 or older. The movie is about Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, and is set in the 1930s. Albert would soon become king, after his father dies and his older brother abdicates. The only problem is that the prince cannot speak in public; he can barely speak in private. He has a speech impediment. He stammers… Not in an endearing, Bob Newhart kind of way, but in a debilitating way. He can hardly get a sentence out. And in these early days of radio, a prince or king must not only be seen and read about, but also heard by his subjects.

He finally gets help from an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue. When they first meet, the Logue explains that if the therapy is going to be successful, the prince is going to have to play by Logue’s rules. He asks, “What do you want me to call you?” Albert responds: “The first time, you may address me as ‘your royal highness.’ After that, call me ‘sir.’” Logue says, “I’ll call you Bertie.” Bertie is nickname that only Albert’s closest family called him. When Logue calls him this, you can see the look of horror on the prince’s face. He reluctantly agrees to let Logue call him Bertie, but does so in a way that communicates, “You are encroaching on sacred ground: Don’t abuse the privilege. Tread lightly. Proceed with caution.”

My point is this: When we use God’s name, should we not be at least as reverent as a royal subject is to his king? This is what the third commandment is warning us about.

Do we modern people ever abuse the privilege?

Think of how we often pray. We Christians pray “in Jesus’ name,” which is good: we are, in a sense, able to enter into the heavenly throne-room and make our petitions directly to God our King, because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Through faith and baptism, our lives become part of Jesus, and we have the privilege of sharing in his divine relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. When we pray in Jesus’ name we recognize that this privilege comes through Jesus. We’re also affirming that what we pray is consistent with what Jesus himself would pray, that it accords with the will of God.

Prayer ought to be a humbling encounter. By contrast, I often pray presumptuously, as if I already know what God wants for me and from me. I pray too often as if I’ve already figured out God’s will, so prayer is not so much a matter of humbly seeking God’s will as asking God to bless whatever course of action I’ve already decided on in advance. Why do I do this? I think it’s because I believe that God is a lot like me: just a bigger, more perfect, more powerful version of myself, so whatever I want to do is what God wants me to do. That’s making God in my image. That’s trying to cut God down to my size. That’s violating the third commandment.

Pastors face a special challenge in this regard: Our job in part is to speak of God and for God. Are we ever tempted to use this power to enrich ourselves, to manipulate people, to get others to do what we want? You bet! Nearly every scandal involving preachers, priests, churches, and televangelism empires—whether the scandal involves sex or money—includes, among other sins, violating the third commandment.

Politicians who invoke God’s name not out of religious conviction but in order to help get them elected or support some political cause break the third commandment. Not that politicians ever do that, right? At the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt opposed putting the words “In God We Trust” on coins, not because he was worried about separation of church and state, but because he was worried about breaking the third commandment. Maybe he was onto something. Given how prevalent greed and materialism is in our country, saying “In God We Trust” seems more than a little disingenuous.

Stephanie Newton tells me that there are people in the Christian music industry who count the number of times the name “Jesus” is used in contemporary Christian songs, because if it’s not used often enough, a song won’t get airplay. Using the name “Jesus” in order to enrich ourselves in any way is wrong.

Some of these billboards that attribute sarcastic, angry, judgmental, even hateful words directly to God, which God doesn’t say, break the third commandment. If, in the name of God, you’re using billboards or bumper stickers as a way of sticking it to people you don’t like, you’re breaking the third commandment.

The point of all these examples is to say that the third commandment prohibits a kind of casual, thoughtless, indifferent, showy, or self-aggrandizing approach to the way we speak of God and the things of God.

I hope you see that the third commandment is much bigger than just cursing… But it does prohibit  cursing—empty or angry words or expressions involving God, Jesus, or Lord. Or maybe calling things holy that that aren’t holy. It also prohibits trickier expressions that aren’t exactly cursing: “Oh my God!” What do you think? Is this not a vain and empty use of God’s name? We need to stop saying it! That falls under the third commandment. Someone asked me, “Does OMG count?” Yes! Stop using OMG in texts, Twitter, emails, and Facebook. What about Thank God? The way we normally use it violates the third commandment.

I remember one time years ago, my pastor, who was a big movie buff, told me that the movie Good Will Hunting was, in so many ways, a great movie, but… he couldn’t recommend it to me. Why? He said there was too much cursing. I looked at him like he was crazy! C’mon! Really? I can handle that. That doesn’t bother me.

But not so fast… Maybe my pastor was onto something. Maybe it should bother me. Maybe this constant, casual, thoughtless breaking of the third commandment is bad for us, spiritually. Maybe the fact that we so easily brush it aside or minimize it is just another example of making God in our image. We’re no longer bothered by profanity, after all, so why should God be bothered by it? What’s the harm? Isn’t getting hung up on “bad language” sort of quaint and  old-fashioned. Words are just sound coming out of our mouths. Isn’t profanity trivial and superficial? After all, isn’t it about what’s in our hearts?

You know what? Maybe it is. But what exactly is in our hearts when we use profanity?

I am not trying to be a hypocrite. I curse sometimes… Way too often, in fact. Mostly under my breath. Often in my car in traffic, or I’m running late. And often when I’m angry in general. There’s a part of me that wants to excuse myself and say, “These are just empty words; they’re just sounds that come out of my mouth; I don’t literally want God to condemn this person driving 25 in a 45 zone when I’m running late to an eternity in hell. These words don’t mean anything.”

But that’s just a lie I’m telling myself! Profanity and cursing is usually an indicator that I’m not in a good place, spiritually. It indicates that there is often some underlying spiritual problem that I need to deal with. Maybe it indicates that I have lost patience; that I have let my anger get out of control; that I am failing to love with Christ-like love. If my profanity weren’t a symptom of that underlying problem, then maybe it would just be words. But I know better, and I need to change. And I know I can change.

Cursing is learned behavior! It takes effort, but we can un-learn it, and learn a different behavior. Ask yourself, “What’s going on in here [point to heart] when I curse? What needs to change in here? Why am I angry? Why am I afraid? What problem am I dealing with? Can I bring it Jesus? Can I pray about it?”

The third commandment is as concerned with protecting God’s reputation in this world as the ninth commandment is concerned about protecting a person’s reputation. Nothing we say about God, or actions we take in God’s name, diminishes or demeans God; nothing changes who God is. But what we say and what we do in God’s name does affect what other people think about God. It has a direct bearing on our Christian witness.

Think about those Christian people in our lives who inspire us. People who are holier than we are—not holier than thou, but people who have made more progress on this journey of faith. People who are better people—kinder, more compassionate, more patient, more joyful. People who make us want to be better people. Do you know any of those people? My mother-in-law is one of those people, which of course she needs to be because she’s married to my father-in-law! I know parishioners who never fail to make me feel better when I visit them.

Although I don’t know him personally, Billy Graham is someone who, when I see him in interviews or hear him speak, seems so authentic and loving. His faith is very compelling. I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart one time a few years ago. Stewart had Archbishop Desmond Tutu on. Tutu is Christian hero who peacefully led South Africa out of the bondage of Apartheid into a true democracy, and he did so by being faithful to Jesus. Tutu’s personality is effervescent—bubbling over with joy, good humor, and peacefulness. In the course of the interview, Stewart interrupted him to say, “You know, you are the nicest person I have ever met!” And I’m sure he wasn’t kidding!

I bet all of these examples share something in common: They don’t speak about God in an empty way. In fact, when they speak of God, they have credibility because you know that they know what they’re talking about. Needless to say, they probably don’t curse very often. Their lives are characterized by great respect and reverence for God and the things of God.

These are people whose love for Jesus is infectious; whose Christ-like example is inspiring; whose faith is contagious.

I want to be one of them. So help me, God.

What about you?

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