June 17, 2018
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June 17 Sermon – Exodus 19.1-6, 20.1-17 and Matthew 22. 34-40
So, I decided I would follow the assigned lectionary text for the sermon today. Then I found out the assigned text was the 10 commandments. Probably the best known Bible passage in the world, the one most of us have heard just about a billion times. I suddenly became very unsure about my decision to follow the lectionary.
Then a couple weeks ago I found a little encouragement from an interview I heard on NPR. The host was talking to an author who had just written a book about how it is good for adults to be more playful and light, to not be so serious all the time. And one way the author recommended doing that was by cultivating Wonder.
So I attempted to take the author’s advice and look at this big serious thing, The 10 Commandments, with wonder, curiosity, as if I was seeing it for the first time. I also read some commentariesJ and this is what spoke to me.
First, the Ten Commandments come to the Hebrew people, and to us, and to the world for that matter, as part of a story. They don’t stand alone. Contrary to what many of us were taught, God does not come out of nowhere drop the 10 commandments down and leave. The 10 commandments are part of a narrative that involves plot, drama, characters, and relationships.
And in the Exodus story the Law is given to the people AFTER they are free. So let’s first have a look at a few highlights from the story.
The book of Exodus picks up where the book of Genesis leaves of, with Joseph in Egypt. This is the Joseph of the coat of many colors, whose brothers leave in a pit; sell as a slave and who eventually ends up in Egypt. In Genesis, Joseph got along very well with the Egyptian Pharaoh and was able to bring all his brothers and their families to live in Egypt and so save them from famine and starvation. The book of Exodus continues the story, but after some time has passed. Joseph and his brothers have all died but their offspring have become prolific. Well that is putting it mildly; the Israelite’s have recently had a population explosion in Egypt.
The new Pharaoh, who doesn’t remember anything about Joseph, comes into power and sounds the alarm, “There are way too many Israelites for us to handle they have overpopulated our land. We’ve got to do something: Let’s devise a plan to contain them! If we don’t, they could join our enemies and take over Egypt or just leave us and then what would we do for cheap labor?”
The Pharaoh convinces the Egyptians to keep the Israelites in check by forcing them to do hard labor, back breaking work. Still the Israelite population grows, so Pharaoh takes more drastic measures, and announces a general order to all his people, “Every Hebrew boy that is born, drown him in the Nile.” Thanks to some women, at least one Hebrew boy lives under this order, Moses.
Moses grows up and God appears to him at the burning bush and says. “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” After a lot of back and forth, God leads the people through the parting Red Sea and so to freedom.
Even after they are free God provides for them in the wilderness with drinking water, manna, fresh game, and his presence in a thick misty cloud during the day and a cloud of fire by night. Exodus brings us through this drama, BEFORE the law. Before we hear anything about the 10 commandments, God rescues and frees the people.
That is how the Hebrew narrative saw God working in people’s lives thousands of years ago and that is how God works today and has worked throughout time for all people and communities. First, God, full of Grace comes, rescues us from whatever is keeping us in bondage and sets us free. God first frees the people then gives them the Law.
This is what God says before giving the 10 commandments in Exodus 19. 4, 5 “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” In other words, because of my grace and love for you, I am taking care of you. God continues “now therefore if you obey my voice” which is also translated “ if you listen, if you listen closely to me, if you are receptive to me” and “keep my covenant” as in “keep it close, take care of it, this relationship this covenant we share,” you will be my special treasure. And the Israelite people respond with a unanimous “yes.”
The Law is not a burden; it is a gift of grace that helps the people stay close to God. It brings richness and treasure.
So now we have made it to the law.
In the Jewish tradition the first commandment is 1. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of Slavery. Period. The first law is, I am your God a God of grace who carries people out of bondage and sets them free. Even the first commandment, in effect, is saying the commandments are for those freed by God.
The next few commandments continue to deal with the people’s relationship with God. No other gods, no idols, no irreverent use of my name. There are a lot of “no’s” and we’ll get to that in a moment. But these first commands are saying, my freed and saved people; continue to put your trust in me. Call on me in good times and bad, in times of scarcity and plenty. Don’t look to money, don’t look to beauty. Don’t look to other things to save you. Look to me and what I do. Love me and my ways. Be in tune with me. Let me take care of you.
And Rest, give yourselves time to rest and restore. Not just yourselves, make sure your sons and daughters, your servants and maids, foreign guests in your town also have time to rest and restore, (very different from the Israelite experience in Egypt.) And honor your father and mother so you’ll live a long time in the land I’ve given you. These last two commands start to focus the attention on the people’s relationship with family and neighbor. Now we’ll get into no’s and neighbors more.
No murder, no adultery, no lies about your neighbor, no lusting after what your neighbor has.
This is quite different from how we do things now. The emphasis in our culture is individual rights and independence from neighbor. The 10 commandments frame it differently.
The 10 commandments are not about “me” per se and my right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The 10 commandments are about “my neighbor”. They are not so much about me having everything I want or pursuing my family’s best life. They are about looking out for the well-being of others. The 10 commandments are not about me they are about us and our interdependence. They are about how all people in the community can thrive.
So it works for the 10 commandments to be in the negative because it takes the focus off me, and puts it on my neighbor. My individual promotion and personal pleasure, does not come at someone else’s expense. The Law points to a rich abundant life that happens when we are responsible, respective, in relationship with, and dependent on our neighbor. Parker Palmer talks about this in his book Let Your Life Speak
Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn’t just create abundance—community is abundance. We might cease our anxious (scheming) and give ourselves to the abiding and abundant grace of common life. P.108-109
The focus of the 10 commandments is the wholeness of the community where interdependence creates abundance. When my neighbors are thriving, that means I thrive.
We live in a really complex and complicated system. Throw in politics, culture, and differences and it becomes downright overwhelming.
“Listen closely to me,” God says, let me take care of you; I create worlds out of chaos, remember. I freed you from the Egyptians.
Those who are free, who know God’s grace, honor your neighbors differences. Be meticulous about belonging to your neighbor. That is what saved and free people do.
Build walls? Keep people out? Deny service? Tear children away from their parents when they cross a border?
Or be the face of love and the lights of home?
People of the land of the free, keep God close, treasure your neighbor, live richly. Write a story of a world where we can all belong to each other.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus puts it this way for us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. There is a second to go along side it. Love others as well as you love yourself. All of God’s Law and the Prophets hangs on these two commands.”
All of life hangs on these two commands. Love. All of life hangs on Love; and Love is bigger than anything in its way. Amen.
on summer hiatus