Exodus 19:1-17; 20:1-17
When I packed my bags and trotted off to college I felt like I had been shot out of a canon. I was charged, energetic, and most definitely ready for an adventure. Now my home life was not bad, not bad at all. In fact it was nurturing and loving. But when you go to a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod grade school and high school, you know the rules. And you follow them because that’s just what you did.
So when I went off it was a new horizon, uncharted territory, the wild, wild west. All bets were off, all rules banished and I had to figure out what it meant to be on my own without Mother and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church to guide my life.
Needless to say, I explored this newfound freedom to its fullest extent. Party invitation? Yes, I’m free, I can go. Cigarettes and beer? Sure, I’ll have one, or two. Church on Sunday morning? Uh, gee, I’ve got an exam I have to study for, I’ll pass. It was a new day and I was developing as a young woman at the tail end of the 60’s and early 70’s.
Good thing I had those 10 Commandments under my belt to keep me afloat. Good thing I had to memorize from Luther’s Small Catechism the 10 C’s and their meaning. Especially number one. The First Commandment. Thou shalt have no other gods above Me. What does this mean? (The Catechism also told you exactly what the commandment meant.) We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
And so I did love and trust in God as I enthusiastically and sometimes recklessly carved out a new existence and identity for myself all of which made me the person I am today, for good or for ill! I’m sure we all have had to do that for ourselves at different times in our lives. So did the Israelites!
Last week we reflected on Moses leading the Israelites out of the hands of Pharaoh. They went from an existence of slavery to being free men and women. Let us now hear their continued story from the 19th & 20th chapters of the Book of Exodus.
At Mount Sinai
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Well there you have it! The Decalogue. Ten Words. The Ten Commandments. Except for maybe number one, ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before Me’, they are all of equal value and importance, probably not listed in any particular order except to say that the first four commands speak of relationship with God and the remaining six commands help us relate to one another. It’s where the vertical – God’s presence – and the horizontal – our living - and meet.
There is nothing abstract about them. Love God. Spend some quality time with God. And then don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Don’t crave. Don’t murder. Honor your elders. Right? You have to admit there is nothing remotely vague about these ten words.
And yet it is these ten words that are probably the most difficult to understand because if we are honest with ourselves, and I hope that we are, we like to make exceptions to these words or, at the very least reinterpret them so that there is some wiggle room.
I mean really, does do not murder mean that I can’t eat the meat of a cow that has been slaughtered by someone else’s hands or swat at and kill a fly? Does excusing yourself from an invitation by saying you have a family commitment while you sit home on the couch watching ESPN or the Food Network by yourself really constitute a falsehood?
I suppose that’s how the law and the spirit of the law came to be. But rather than debate the nature and boundaries of each commandment the larger question for consideration today is what did God intend for us by imparting these ten commandments, these specific ten words? Why was it important for Moses to trek up Sinai in the blistering heat to receive some newfound wisdom for the free people left below?
It was important because these ten words were to help the Israelites form a new identity, a new nation based upon ethical monotheism. They were now a free people who had to define an identity with fresh norms in place. No more would Pharaoh tell them what to do, what to think, or how to act. They now had the right and liberty to self-determination and governance. It was up to them to decide who they will become and how they will get there and in whom they would place their trust. In very simple words, they needed to know how to relate to one another, they needed guidelines for behavior if they were ever going to find their way out of the wilderness.
Forming new identities is never an easy thing to do. So it is with the Church as we are challenged to find our place, or our new face in this fast paced world. We know that the Church universal is on the move, that God is breathing a new Spirit within us and it is also true of OCC.
As we live into redeveloping, repositioning, rejuvenating, and rejoicing we might also want to look at the way we gather ourselves together and for what purpose. We will be asking soul-searching questions of ourselves as a gathered community of faith.
· Do we really yearn for the good old days or is it an excuse to not work hard at developing a strong progressive Christian identity that will encompass the cultural change of religious life within our community?
· Do we want to develop leaders within who will lead with faith and courage trusting that the past has given us a firm foundation from which we begin the journey into the future?
· Is our present form of governance the best current practice that will allow for busy lives in this 21st century landscape of technology and yet keep us fresh, innovative and connected?
· Are we really going to take steps that will position us for the future diverse church even though we don’t know yet what that is or what it might look like?
These are hard questions and we will need guidelines to steer our dialogue and live into the community that God called us to be and who God is calling us to become. We will need to renew our covenant with our Beloved first and foremost and then with one another as we walk forward. I believe that the Ten Commandments are a good place to start, as stodgy as they may seem, as we build a new identity together. When framed in another way they are a wonderful affirmation of life giving grace.
The Rev. Bill Lyons has looked at the Ten Commandments, not as a list of ‘shall nots’ but a list of ‘shalls’: 1. God first 2. Only God 3. Respect God 4. Enjoy God 5. Care for the vulnerable 6. Value life 7. Keep your commitments 8. Live honestly 9. Speak truthfully 10. Be content. It is paying attention to the vertical, our relationship with God and the horizontal, our relationship with each other based on integrity and mutual trust.
After all, Christ very simply has put it for us in the greatest commandment that encompasses all ten, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37-39)
We can do it. We can love God deeply and dearly. We can also love each other carefully, respectfully, and reverently into the congregation that we are meant to become.