Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Living Words for a Peculiar People
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Exodus 20:1-20, 22:20-27
A few weeks back, we remembered the story of the call of Moses from Exodus 3. We recalled that when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush near Mount Horeb, Moses said, “Who am I to go to Pharoah?” Moses also said, “And who are you, God? When the people ask me who you are, what shall I tell them?”
Moses wanted some reassurance from God. He didn’t get very much. But God did say this one interesting thing. God said, “When you have done what I’m telling you to do, when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship on this mountain and then you’ll know it was me.”
The Israelites left Egypt three months ago. They have made their way back to where it all started for Moses. They are at the base of Mt. Horeb, which is also called Mt. Sinai. What God said would happen has happened.
In chapter 19, God invites Moses and the people into a covenantal relationship. God says that they will be a “treasured possession” or, in the King James Version, a “peculiar treasure.” What is going to set them apart and make them peculiar is their obedience to God. The requirements of that obedience can be summed up in what we call the Ten Commandments, although the entire law is much longer and more specific.
The commandments often get separated from their context. There are Ten Commandment posters and Ten Commandment pendants and Ten Commandment bracelets with individual charms for each commandment and Ten Commandment yard signs. Perhaps these items help with memorization which is a good thing, but the commandments are more than a good list of do’s and don’ts. To really appreciate that, we need to understand their relationship to the story from which they come.
When Jack Casey was a child, he had to have five teeth extracted under general anesthesia. His father’s alcoholism had created a home that did not feel safe to him and he did not find security in either of his parents. He was terrified of the surgery, but his surgical nurse said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him. That experience of being reliably cared for by the nurse made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Some twenty years later, Jack was a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant. He was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver. The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere,” recalling what the nurse had said so many years before. Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot,” he said to Jack. “You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up!” Jack’s only response was that he felt he just couldn’t leave him.
Jack learned how to care for others because of that one profound incident of care from his nurse. There is a similar logic to the commandments. God did not tell Moses “Go give these rules to my people in Egypt. If they can keep the rules for a while, then I will deliver them.” No, it is after the people are set free from bondage, after they have safely crossed the sea, after God has provided water in the desert and manna and quail to sustain them . . . only after all that does God explain God’s expectations.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” That action, that event, that liberation, is the basis for all the follows. God’s people are to live in ways shaped by the freedom which God has created. After that liberation, we are free to rest, free to live in peace with our neighbors and with creation, free to resist every kind of exploitative social relationship.
This God speaks from a mountain surrounded by fire and smoke, thunder and lightning. Thousands of years later, the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament described the experience around Mt. Sinai this way, “something that cannot be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” All of life is to be organized around one single loyalty to this dangerous and holy God. This God is not to be taken lightly, which is the point of the first three commandments. “You shall have no other gods” does not deny the existence of other entities which one might adore or worship or pursue. It just asserts that none shall receive Israel’s allegiance.
We might want to believe that we have outgrown the idea of multiple gods competing for our worship. Walter Brueggeman suggests that we still live in a world of options. He writes, “It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus [the Roman god of unrestrained consumption and fertility]; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars [the god of war]; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros [the god of lust and sexual desire].”
If it is still hard to conceive that we modern people might worship or rely on something other than the Creator of heaven and earth, consider our country’s dependence on violence, the abiding myth that good guys with guns will deliver us from bad guys with guns. Consider the sound and fury that results when citizens refuse to bow to the god of patriotism, to pay homage to Caesar, by which I mean, the nation’s flag and song. The God of the Exodus, the God of Resurrection, calls us out of that kind of bondage into liberation
The commandments continue: It is forbidden to make idols, visible representations of God, which are attempts to reduce God to manageable size and shape, to trivialize or domesticate God. And you shall not misuse God’s name.
God is not at our beck and call to be summoned to bless our ideologies, to support our pet projects. It is a misuse of God’s name to claim that calamities like hurricanes or earthquakes are divine retribution on our perceived enemies. It is likewise blasphemy to claim God’s blessing of health and wealth will rest on those who truly follow God. This is particularly sobering for those of us who attempt to speak meaningful about God. God is not ours to manage or use.
The law given by God on Mt. Sinai was not just religious law. It guided the nation of Israel for their next 40 years in the wilderness and when they settled into the Promised Land. It was not the first legal code of the ancient Near East. There were earlier ones and others developed about the same time. But this one is for a peculiar people, God’s treasured possession.
We read from Exodus 22, a part of the law beyond the Ten Commandments, verses 21-23 “you shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry;” The people of Israel are to protect resident aliens who have no rights of citizenship, because that was their status in Egypt. And they are to remember that God will hear the cry of the oppressed, as God heard their cries and delivered them.
God has delivered them into freedom. Paradoxically, these rules, these commandments are the way to maintain that freedom.
A few of the commandments seem fairly standard. Surely “do not murder, do not steal and tell the truth in court” would be common to most civilized nations. But others are profoundly counter-cultural. They all flow from this experience and understanding of who God is.
Look at the final commandment. “Thou shalt not covet.” Unlike other laws, this one is not about behavior, but about attitude. It is about a mindset that would keep us in bondage to possessions. It is counter-cultural. It goes against the conviction that there is no limit to what we need or want or should have. God is saying “Do not give up your freedom for the sake of stuff. Do not trade your liberation for the rat race of keeping up with the Joneses.”
The most counter-cultural commandment of all is probably the fourth, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The topic of Sabbath comes up often in the Wednesday Bible study. Today’s parents and grandparents are frustrated by children’s sports and school events being scheduled on Sundays. That didn’t happen a few decades ago when blue laws legislated Sabbath keeping. But now, we are more like our Jewish ancestors, faced with the task of marking time differently than the culture around us. And we are faced with the task of doing it in the presence of so many devices and means of communication which might distract us from the true freedom of unstructured, unencumbered time.
The Sabbath commandment deserves an entire sermon of its own, but let me offer just a taste of its freedom. Wayne Muller is a nationally known spiritual director and therapist. In his book on Sabbath, he writes, “The Sabbath commandment comes from a kind, wise teacher who does not like to see us suffer. Let me make it easier for you, God says. Some things at first may seem expedient, or important, or profitable—but in the end, they will bring you suffering. If you work all week and forget to rest, you will become brittle and hard, and lose precious nourishment and joy. . . . If we forget to rest, we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies, forget those we love, forget our children and our natural wonder. God says: Please, don’t. It is a waste of your life, you would not waste a single breath. So I give you this commandment: Remember to rest. This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment – as important as not stealing, not murdering, or not lying. Remember to play and bless and make love and eat with those you love, and take comfort, easy and long, in this gift of sacred rest.”
Bondage takes so many forms – political, religious, economic, social, psychological. God’s desire is to set us free from all of them. We can choose to see the commandments as just another set of rules set by a cranky taskmaster, or we can understand them as the loving gift of a liberating God. As the apostle Paul wrote, “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 A story from Robert Wuthnow as told by Tom Long in “Dancing the Decalogue”, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006.
 Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994). p. 843.
 Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives,(New York: Bantam Books, 1999) p. 32