COMMIT TO COMMIT, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

Note: The sermon that follows was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.”

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 7,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.” I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.

St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.

And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.

[Originally preached August 3, 2014 at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio]

Steve Harsh, Ph.D., M.Div.
Writer, Teacher, Pastor
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I was inspired again by the quilt making of my daughter and another friend to post this story which is included in my book, Building Peace from the Inside Out.

“One generation shall laud thy works to the next.” Psalms 145:4

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation.” Micah 4:7

I was teaching a Jr. High Sunday School class one Sunday morning during Lent a few years ago. In one of those rare moments of quiet in such a class, I heard a familiar voice from across the hall say, “we still need a volunteer for the crucifixion.” I was worried because I knew the voice belonged to a Sunday School teacher who could be a bit off the wall sometimes. I wondered what in the world Vince was up to. I couldn’t leave my class unattended, but I worried the whole hour about what was going on in that class. When that Sunday school hour was over, I hurried across the hall to the 4th and 5th grade class, praying that I would not have to explain to some irate parents why their child was hanging on the old rugged cross. Much to my relief, I discovered that the class project for that day was to make a mural of the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. The teacher had not been asking for a volunteer to be crucified, but for someone to paint the crucifixion.

The tendency for peacemakers to end up getting crucified got me to wondering how it is we always seem to find people willing to continue the faith, even at great risks to themselves. My mother used to say that “Christianity is only one generation from extinction.” While I don’t believe that, because I know God will find a way with or without our help to keep God’s reign moving forward, it does give me pause. How do we pass on the word of God from one generation to the next against all kinds of odds that the forces of evil can muster?

The Hebrew Bible has 82 references to the word ‘remnant.” A remnant is a leftover, a scrap, an unlikely item to be of any useful purpose, and yet, time after time, in spite of unbelievable unfaithfulness, God finds a faithful remnant to carry on God’s work – thru flood, pestilence, famine, greed, stupidity, violence, exodus, exile, and dispersion.

That concept of the remnant reminds me of an old family quilt my grandmother seemed to be working on throughout my entire childhood. I don’t remember much about the quilt when I was really young, except Grandma always seemed to have it on her lap working on it while she and the other adults sat around in the living room and “visited.” It always sounded a lot like gossiping to me, but they called it visiting.

When I was 6 or 7, I was at Grandma’s, outside playing with my cousin, Dave, who was a couple years older than I, and the grownups were talking in the living room while Grandma was quilting away. Dave found a garter snake under the woodpile and was chasing me around the barn yard with it. I know they say snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them, but I find that very hard to believe.

Well, after making several laps around the house, my little legs were giving out, and I made a tactical decision to cut through the house to try and get away from Dave, and that darn snake. It wasn’t a bad plan, but as I ran through the living room I accidentally stepped on the corner of the quilt and got some of the mud (or something worse from the barnyard) on the quilt. That was when I learned how important that darn quilt was to my grandma, and to my mother.

A couple of years later, when I was staying overnight at Grandma’s, she was working on the quilt late at night. I knew it was almost my bedtime, and I thought, “hmmm, maybe if I can get Grandma talking about the quilt she’ll let me stay up longer.” So I said to her, “Grandma, why are you sewing all those little scraps of material together? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to go out and buy a piece of new material?”

She got a knowing smile on her face, like she had been asked that question before—or maybe even asked it herself. “Yes, it would be a lot easier, Steve, but then I wouldn’t be able to sew all the memories into the quilt.”

Well, of course, I saw my opening, and immediately asked her about the memories. She put me up on her lap and began to tell me the stories represented in the quilt.

She showed me first a square of tattered muslin. It was from the original family quilt that came over the Alleghenies in a covered wagon when our ancestors first came to Ohio to homestead.

I noticed a piece of material next to the muslin that I recognized. It was from the apron Grandma always wore when she had the whole clan over for Thanksgiving dinner. Just seeing that material made me smell the turkey and dressing cooking. I could almost taste the pumpkin pie and see the homemade noodles spread out to dry on Grandma’s bed.

Next to the muslin there was a yellowed piece of once-white satin, and Grandma ran her hand gently over it. It was a piece of her wedding dress.

And close to the satin was a square of taffeta. She told me it was from the material she made the baptismal gown from that all seven of her children wore when they were baptized.

Down in that part of the quilt there was a faded beige square of cotton. It looked pretty old and was warn almost thread-bare when I touched it. “Oh my, those were exciting days,” she said. She explained to me that when she was young women weren’t allowed to vote, and that wasn”t right. So she and lots of other women marched and carried signs till the men in Washington changed the rules. Even as a young mother with several kids, Grandma found time to be involved in community affairs because it was important. I realized later that my grandma was a feminist before we even had that word. Oh, she let Grandpa think he was in charge, but we all knew she was the glue that held the whole extended family together.

I asked her about a bright blue piece of wool. She got kind of a tired look in her eyes. She told me that my uncle Frank had rheumatic fever when he was a little boy, and he was very, very sick. She sat up with him all night, praying and putting wet compresses on his forehead – hoping he’d be OK. When he got well, the doctor told her that everything should be burned – pajamas, bed clothes, toys, anything he had with him in the bed. She said she burned almost all of it, but she cut out a corner of the blue blanket that was on his bed. She washed it really well several times, and kept it for the family quilt.

Catty-cornered from the blue wool was what looked like a plain white sheet, only it had a hole in it, like maybe for an eye in a ghost costume for Halloween. But when I asked her if that was what it was, she shook her head sadly. She told me when uncle Frank was older she found out he was about to be initiated into the local KKK. Well grandma put a stop to that right now. She told him that in our family we treat all of God’s children like our sisters and brothers, no matter what color their skin or how much money they have.

I spied a khaki colored piece next and asked her if it was from my Boy Scout uniform. A big tear ran down her cheek and she got very far away and quiet. I’d never seen Grandma like that before. She told me, “No, I wish it was. That’s a piece of the uniform your Uncle John was wearing when he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.”

She was quiet again, and I tried to think of someway to cheer her up. There was a red and white polka-dotted square over on the far side of the quilt; so I asked her about it, hoping it would have a happier story. And it did. I learned for the first time that Grandma used to dress up like a clown for all her kids’ birthday parties, and that polka dot material was from her baggy clown pants.

Close by was a multicolored tie-died piece. Grandma said it was from a shirt my cousin Bob wore to some place called Woodstock. He was our family’s hippie, and when he went to Canada to stay out of Viet Nam, everyone was real upset with him, but not grandma. She missed him like crazy, but she supported his decision to be a conscientious objector and reminded anyone who would listen that Jesus was a pacifist too.

Well, it was really getting late by now. I was even beginning to feel sleepy, and I saw Grandma glance at the clock. But before she could tell me it was way past my bedtime, I asked her one more question. There was a big green and white star right in the middle of the quilt; so I asked her why it was there. She said, “Oh, that star is from the hospital gown your Aunt Ruth wore when she was in the hospital with polio. I prayed so hard that God would let us keep Ruthie. Don’t tell anyone, but she’s always been my favorite. (We all knew that anyway.)

“That polio is the reason she still walks with that terrible limp – but I’d sure rather have her with a limp than not at all. So when God let us keep her, I decided to put that star right in the middle of the quilt to say thank you.”

When Grannie was getting ready to tuck me in for the night I asked her if I could sleep under the quilt. She started to say, “no, it was only for very special occasions….” But then she changed her mind and said she guessed it would be OK. But she’d have to take the pins out first. Which was fine with me. It gave me more time to stay up, and I’ve never had a great desire to be a pin cushion anyway.

Then as she put me to bed, Grandma told me one more story about the quilt. She said during the big blizzard of 1950 she and the kids were home and Grandpa was stranded at the gravel pit where he worked for three days. They ran low on coal and fire wood to keep the stove going, and one of the things they did to keep warm was to huddle up and wrap that old family quilt around them.

I asked her, “Grandma, you’ve been through a lot of hard times. How do you keep going?”

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. I just ask God to give me strength to do whatever’s necessary; and so far he’s never let me down.”

I had trouble going to sleep that night. I kept thinking about my uncle John and the war. I don’t know if I was more afraid of having to go to war and getting killed – or of having to kill someone else. But the thought of war really bothered me — still does.

But then, I wondered if it would help if I thought about some of the happy memories in the quilt. And sure enough, the next thing I knew I smelled bacon and eggs on the stove for breakfast.

While we ate our eggs, I asked Grandma, “How long do you think it will take you to finish the quilt?”

“Oh,” she said, “the quilt isn’t something you really ever finish. You just keep patching it up and adding to it, and then you pass it on to someone else.”

“And one generation shall laud thy works to another.” (Ps. 145:4) From remnants of insignificant and unknown saints, God weaves together a tapestry of truth that is from everlasting to everlasting. In the face of all odds, faithful peace seekers and peacemakers continue to pass on the good news.