Trivializing the Name of God
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - October 8th, 2023
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (NRSVue)
Then God spoke all these words,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
As a pastor, I am aware that my preaching style and subjects are not everyone’s cup of tea. One of my critics suggested that my sermon topics were a little too current, and what I really should do is deliver sermons on the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. As I do with every criticism, I considered it carefully to see if there was some truth to it, and I reflected on how does one preach fifty sermons a year about the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments? I have to confess, I am not talented enough to do that. However, that is not to say that I should never preach about the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. I am pretty sure that none of you need a sermon that tells you that murder, stealing, and adultery are wrong. But there are things addressed in the Ten Commandments that one does not think about right away. In this camp is the commandment to refrain from using the Lord’s name in vain.
We know that using God’s name as part of a profane statement is not right. But there is more to this commandment than simply avoiding gutter talk. There is a dimension to this commandment that applies even to very faithful people. In fact, the unnecessary and inappropriate use of the Lord’s name is far more likely to happen by otherwise good and faithful people. There is an aspect of this commandment that you may have never considered before: trivializing God’s name. What is that? That is attributing to God things of little or no substance, or putting words in God’s mouth that God never said. For example, who hasn’t said something akin to thanking God for getting a good parking spot or for your good fortune for finding a $20 bill (which ignores the simple fact that your benevolence comes at the suffering of the person who lost the $20 bill)? God’s power and majesty does far greater things than playing a version of three card monte with our pocket change, or parting the red sea of parking lots to render you a prime parking spot. God does majestic things, and invoking the name of God as the source of trivial things makes a mockery of God.
These seem to be silly and maybe obvious. Let’s try some harder examples. Do you think God cares who wins the Super Bowl? The Presidential Election? Maybe, but I do not think so. If God cared about sports, wouldn’t God make Notre Dame or Oral Roberts University undefeated every year? Do we blame God for Donald Trump? Joe Biden? Even a bit more difficult to see is the belief that God favors our religious traditions, and the traditions of other faiths are not as favored by God. I am pretty sure God shakes God’s head all the time at how we constantly put words in God’s mouth that God never intended, and certainly would not approve. When we start tearing down the beliefs of others, we imply that God endorses what we believe, and dismisses the faith expressions of people who are different from us. God has not made any such endorsements. Now there are times to condemn what religious leaders say (such as when religion is used as a thin veneer to disguise racism or discrimination), but one must be careful to check the impulse we have as humans to speak for God. Making God the spokesperson for ungodly human constructs trivializes the majesty, power, and holiness of God.
This week is Disability Awareness week. Churches do a pretty good job of making churches accessible to persons with disabilities. But what they need help with is seeing people who are disabled as otherly abled. That people who are disabled are not in need of healing as much as they are in need of our understanding. Jesus healed the lepers and the blind, not because their condition troubled God, but because society saw such people as lesser and disfavored by God. Seeing disabled people as people in need of fixing does a great disservice to those who are disabled and made that way in the image of God.
This week also celebrates indigenous persons. American history is replete with chapters where native people were considered simpletons in need of rescue by modern Christian society. Believing that tribal people are lesser justifies colonialism and exploitation of people. We should remember that God sides with the oppressed, and viewing tribal people as second class citizens trivializes God’s creation, and makes distinctions that God did not make. God sees the value of all people, able bodied or not, modern city dwellers or third world citizens, Bankers on Wall Street, or jungle dwellers who walk dirt roads to draw water from a well. When we trivialize God’s creation, we assume that God’s love and care for humanity is measured by our scale, not God’s measuring system. God asks that we be humble and reverent towards God, not because God loves sycophants, but because understanding our precarious place in this world makes us kinder to others. God loves those who are real. Those who are flawed. Those who care and love generously. Judging God’s creation through human eyes is foolish.