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Start with Why

Deuteronomy 5:1-21; Mark 12:28-31


Good morning! This has been a really busy, productive summer for me. Besides the mission trip, I’ve been working on a couple of big projects. I borrowed the title of my sermon from a book by a management consultant named Simon Sinek. The full title of the book is Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

I’ve also been working through a companion book, Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team. I’m not doing this by myself; I’m working through that book with several other pastors from Monmouth Presbytery. One of the goals is to develop a greater sense of clarity within our congregations so that we are more effective at communicating who we are as a congregation. I believe this will equip us to be a more faithful witness to the love of God in the world. And if we do that well, people outside of these walls will want to know more about what we do.

Also, this summer, I launched a podcast with my dear friend, Charissa Howe. Many of you will remember her from my installation service. For those of you who weren’t there, Charissa is my best friend from seminary and we’ve been looking to collaborate on a creative project for quite a while. Those plans were put on hold once it became clear that I was moving to New Jersey, but now that I’m settled in, we decided it was time to launch.

The title of our podcast is Soft Idolatry. If you want to know the idea behind the title and listen to our podcasts, our website is called I’ll post links on our Facebook page. We decided that we wanted to start with a series on the Ten Commandments, because that’s one of the foundational scriptures that explains who we are as Christians and how we are called to engage with the world.

This is the first in a series of six sermons on the Ten Commandments.

Why only six sermons? Honestly, I think you might all get bored by the time I got to the Seventh Commandment—and I’m sure you’re all dying to hear a sermon on adultery. From a guy who’s never been married and never had the challenges of maintaining a marital relationship. Sure! That’ll preach!

No. It won’t.

I think that a lot of us have this view of the Ten Commandments as a sort of checklist of behaviors—do this, but don’t to that—and if you follow all ten, you get into heaven, or something. That’s kinda what I absorbed from Sunday school and from the broader culture, but it’s a poor understanding of the Commandments. If I preached ten separate sermons, I would reinforce that poor understanding.

The Ten Commandments are a unified whole; they form a covenant between God and humanity and we can’t separate one commandment from another. They all function together. What’s more, we can’t separate any single commandment, such as, “you will not steal,” or “you will not commit murder,” from the Prologue of the commandments, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today….” The Prologue culminates with God reminding the people, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery….”

The Prologue explains the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. We can’t separate that context from any single commandment, because that context explains why we observe the rules that God has made. This is why Jesus doesn’t name one of the Ten Commandments when the scribe asks him which is the greatest—he names them all! Jesus gives a summary of the commandments: love God and love your neighbor. Commandments One through Four explain how we are to remain in a covenant relationship with God.

Commandments Five through Ten describe how we are to remain in relationship with the rest of humanity, which is also a part of remaining in the covenant relationship with God. In other words, the individual commandments describe what we’re supposed to do, while the Prologue explains why we do those things.

Did you notice the beginning of the Prologue? It starts with, “Hear, O Israel.” In Hebrew that’s Shema y’Israel. It’s a command, and God is telling everyone to listen. It’s also the beginning of a prayer that many faithful Jews pray every day: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. This is found in the next chapter of Deuteronomy and it’s precisely the verse that Jesus quotes when the scribe asks him which commandment is the greatest.

God is commanding us to pay attention to all of the covenant.

But we’re not so good at that. We’re no better at it than the Israelites, who, shortly after receiving the Ten Commandments, proceeded to make an image of a golden calf, and then they worshiped that idol! They threw out the First and Second Commandments in record time!

For a long time, I’ve had an urge to preach a great, thundering, fire-and-brimstone sermon on idolatry. I think it’s one of our great sins as a culture, but we don’t see it. We don’t see that sin because we’re not aware that we’ve made idols. We think there are no other gods, because no one worships Zeus or Apollo, Asherah or Ba’al, or any other ancient deity. Yet we still make idols—without even realizing it.

An idol can be anything to which we devote a great deal of our talents, time, or treasure. An idol can be anything which occupies your attention or changes your patterns of relationship. For instance, I spend a lot of time playing Words with Friends. It seems like a harmless vice, but if I chose to sit at home and play Words, rather than go out with friends, and the game took the place of relationships in my life, it might be an idol.

An idol can even be something that was originally a tool for worship, but has become an object of worship. The obvious example is our church building, and that’s true for almost every church. When you add up the cost of our mortgage, our maintenance, and our utilities, we spend more on this building than we do on my salary and benefits. And we spend waaaaaay more money both of those items—the church building and my compensation—than we do on missions. I’m not saying that we’re all guilty of idolatry, though we may be flirting with it.

But this isn’t a fire-and-brimstone sermon. I rarely preach judgment. Also, I don’t want to use the Ten Commandments as a weapon, though it’s really easy to do so. It’s easy to name someone else’s sins while we explain away our own. Maybe it’s easier to articulate WHAT the sins are, rather than investigating WHY, or HOW we participate in them, ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working through a book called Start with Why. The author, Simon Sinek, is a management consultant, and his WHY in life, his reason for going to work in the morning, “is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them,” and his vision is, “to have every person and every organization know their WHY and use it to benefit all they do.”[1]

The problem, or the challenge, is organizations and individuals often forget their sense of WHY, if they even had that sense in the first place. Instead, they focus their time and energy on WHAT they do, and in the process, they fail to inspire customers or followers. Their messages are muddled.

Sinek argues that more people buy a product or service when they understand WHY a company makes what it makes. He offers Apple Computer as an example of a company that really understands its WHY and is able to communicate that to its customers.

According to Sinek, most companies market their products by telling consumers WHAT their products do. If Apple were a typical company, their message might say:

We make great computers.

They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.

Wanna buy one?[2]

Instead, an actual message from Apple begins with WHY they make the products they make; an ad might say:

Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.

The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly.

And we happen to make computers.

Wanna buy one?[3]

Even if that’s not an actual message that Apple has used, that sentiment is what lies beneath every commercial they’ve ever run.

So why am I talking about Apple and marketing and what does that have to do with the Ten Commandments? I believe we’ve lost some of our sense of WHY and that’s reflected in the number of people who participate in the life of the church. We’re great at talking about WHAT, but we tend to drop the ball when the question is WHY.

If someone asks you WHY you love this church, you’re probably going to respond with WHAT you love about it: I love the music program. I love the handbell choir. I love the youth mission trips. Those are examples of WHAT we do as a congregation, not reasons WHY.

When I preach, it’s my job to point out the grace in the text, that part of the story where God reaches out to us. The grace in the Ten Commandments isn’t found in the individual commandments. That’s the WHAT of the contract between God and humanity. The grace is found in the Prologue; the grace is in the covenantal relationship. This enables us to be in a right relationship with God and with our neighbors at the same time.

This is the grace that we are called to practice. The grace is in relationship. This is our WHY. This is the message that we need to share with the people outside of our walls. We need to become more effective at communicating our WHY, and then invite more people into relationship and into God’s grace and mercy. Will you join me? Thanks be to God. Amen.


Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that love is at the heart of God’s law, and the rules flow from our relationship with God! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Simon Sinek. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio/Penguin (2009), p. 220.

[2] Sinek, p. 40.

[3] Sinek, p. 41.

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