Friday, October 9, 2015

“The Ten Commandments: A Gift for a Free People” - October 11, 2015

Text: Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9

The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  We can all resonate with that.  We don’t want to be boxed in or walled off.  We don’t like being told what we can and cannot do.  It’s a free country, we say.

There is something in us that chafes at rules.  We don’t like to be told that we have to conform.  There is a rebellious toddler or maybe teenager in all of us that wants to rebel.  High school students dream about going to college and gaining their freedom.

And so you go to college, and all of these rules you may have had at home are gone.  You can come and go as you like - you don’t have to get it OK’d or tell anybody.  You can stay up as late as you want and you can study as much or as little as you like.  You decide which classes to take.  You can indulge in whatever pursuits or activities you want. 

But freedom comes with a price.  You have to make choices.  You have to make decisions.  Navigating the dangers and temptations and complications of life on campus can be hard.  And then, you have to pay bills.  You have to keep your grades up.  The decisions and choices and responsibilities keep coming, and as we move through life they only get bigger. 

We all want freedom, but unlimited freedom with no constraints at all can feel like chaos.  There are those intersections, sometimes in rural areas and sometimes in subdivisions, where there are no stop signs.  You’re never quite sure who has the right of way, and it can be dangerous.  It can literally be an accident waiting to happen.

Some guidelines for living, some basic rules for behavior, can be very helpful.  They can be a real gift.  We all need boundaries, for our own sakes.  Fair and just rules, rather than being a straitjacket, can be a real gift.  They can be very freeing.

Living in community demands that there be certain boundaries, that we practice a way of living that gives freedom and at the same time nurtures and protects all of the members of the community.  Written or unwritten, the rules that we live by are important, and we do well to reflect on these rules from time to time.

This is what is going on in our scripture for today.  It is one of the most familiar parts of the Bible – the Ten Commandments.  But this is not the first time Moses has given the Law to the people.  This is the second time the commandments appear in the scriptures.

Last week we were with Moses on Holy Ground, as God spoke to him from the burning bush.  Moses went on to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  It wasn’t easy; it took ten plagues sent by God including locusts and frogs and flies and the Nile turning to blood and finally the Passover, before Pharaoh relented and allowed the people to go.  Even then, Pharaoh had a change of heart at the last minute and sent his army after the Israelites.  But the waters of the Red Sea were parted and the children of Israel crossed into freedom.

Freedom, they found, was not all that it was cracked up to be.  When you have been in slavery for 400 years, freedom can be hard.  Facing the challenges of life in the wilderness, they looked longingly on their days in Egypt when at least they had food to eat.  But God provided manna from heaven and saw them through their time in the wilderness.  And God gave them the Law, a way of living for a free people.  Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery.  Through the ten commands, God got the slavery out of the people.”    

Our dog Rudy had surgery recently and had to spend a considerable amount of time wearing a cone – the cone of shame, as they call it, a plastic cone around the neck that keeps a dog from biting at stitches.  Finally, we were able to take the cone off for short periods of time while he went for a walk or ate his meal.  When it came time to put the cone back on, he seemed happy to get it on – as though he was undressed without it.  For a few weeks, I had to hold his bowl of food off the floor so he could get at it with the cone on.  When the cone came off, at first he wanted me to hold his bowl for him while he ate.  He had gotten used to life with a cone, just like the Israelites had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh.

For centuries the people had lived under the demands of a harsh taskmaster.  If you didn’t follow Pharaoh’s rules, you didn’t live long, and so the Israelites learned to obey the rules and live in fear.

But the God who led the Israelites to freedom is a God who longs for us to live in the freedom of love and grace, not in the bondage of fear.  And so like parents who provide guidance and encouragement for their daughter as she goes off to college, God provided guidance for God’s people as they prepared to start a new life in the Promised Land.

Moses gave the Law to the people.  This was reported back in Exodus.  Since then, the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness and finally made their way to where they are almost ready to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  It is nearly the end of Moses’ life.  Moses himself will not make it into the Promised Land.  But before they enter this land that God will give them, Moses reminds the people of the commandments, of God’s ways of living for a free people.  So here in Deuteronomy, which functions almost as a really long farewell address from Moses, he again reminds the people of the Law of God.

With the Israelites’ history as people who have just emerged from slavery in the background, Brian McLaren paraphrases the commandments in this way:

1.  Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.

2.  Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words, either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanized, or killed!

3.  Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name. 

4. Honor the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.

5. Turn from self-centeredness by honoring your parents.  (After all, honor is the basis of freedom.)

6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:

7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,

8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and

9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviors or characters.

10.  In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire.  Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.

I like McLaren’s version of the commandments because they remind us that these are rules for living in community.  This is the way the God’s people are to live together.  This is a way of living that will allow a community to flourish.

A couple of things about the Ten Commandments.  First, the Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran, and the other Protestant traditions number them a bit differently.  “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol” is all one commandment by some counts; others have this as two commandments, and those who count two divide it up in different ways.  And then, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor” is number 10 for most groups but it is divided into 9 and 10 for Catholics and Lutherans.

This is not a big deal, everybody has the same commandments but just number them a little differently.  If you count the various numbering systems we could easily have 12 commandments.  It could be the 12 commandments, but we’re sticking with 10.  Kind of like the Big 12 Conference. 

A couple of other things to note, maybe more important than that.  Some of the wording of the commandments, especially in regard to motivation and the effects of observing the commandments, sounds strange and maybe even troubling.  “Do not worship idols ‘for I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.’”

It is troubling to think that God would punish children for the sins of their parents, but I’m not sure that you have to read it that way.  This may simply be a statement of fact about the way life is.  In that day, three or four generations might live together all under the same roof.  The adversity a person might suffer for breaking the law really would affect several generations.  That is just reality.  And so this statement about children being punished for the iniquity of parents serves to illustrate all the more that the law represents a way of living in community and that it is not just for us, it is for the sake of others as well.

A further illustration of this is found in the commandment regarding Sabbath keeping.  We live in a crazy-hectic world.  With all of our devices and smart phones, we are available and we are plugged in 24/7.  We can work around the clock if we want.  Hard work is highly valued and some of us can feel guilty if we are not doing something.  In this kind of world, keeping the Sabbath is not an arbitrary rule from a God who doesn’t want us to have fun; it is a great gift.

I grew up in an era in which you didn’t mow the lawn on Sunday.  You just didn’t.  Now I live in a neighborhood where it seems like everybody mows the lawn on Sunday.  We might get a big rain and you can’t mow on Saturday, so everybody is out there mowing on Sunday.  Every yard will be nice and neat, except for ours.  Now, I don’t think it is a mortal sin or anything; on rare occasions, maybe if I’m going out of town, I’ll get out the mower on a Sunday - but I try not to.  It doesn’t mean that I think my neighbors are being heathen, it is just that for me, permission to take the day off from that kind of work is a real gift. 

The command regarding Sabbath says that nobody is to work.  Not you, not your children, not your slaves, who were part of life in that day; not resident aliens living in your land, not even animals.  The people are told, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”  This command is for the sake of everyone; it has within it a measure of mercy, especially for those who have to toil at hard labor.

And then, honor your father and mother so that your days may be long.  By honoring parents, by honoring elders, we create a culture in which we will be honored as we grow older (which to be honest sounds more important all the time).

Our reading this morning included what is known as the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and might.”  It is called the Shema because it is the first word of this verse in Hebrew.  Hear O Israel, Shema Yishrael. 

In Mark chapter 12, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?”  His answer is from Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema, combined with Leviticus 19:18.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  This is a summary of all the law.  If you love God and love your neighbor, that pretty well covers it.

All of the commandments fall under the categories of loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  The first three have to do with our relationship with God.  Sabbath is about relationships with both God and others, because we not only observe a day for rest and worship, we also are to provide it for others.  The remainder have to do with relationships with our neighbor.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

We live in a world that is exponentially more complex than the world of the Israelites as they waited to enter the Promised Land.  But these same rules for living, this same law, can free us.  It can provide the boundaries that will allow us to thrive and prosper and grow.

Norman Neaves tells of traveling at Christmas break from North Carolina to his home in Oklahoma City.  The drive was uneventful until he got to the mountainous part of western Arkansas, in the Ozarks.  By then, a heavy snowfall threatened to close the roads.  It was near-whiteout conditions and the roads had not been plowed.  The highway patrol recommended that everyone stay off the roads until the plows had a chance to at least plow a single lane of traffic.

But Neaves and his wife were determined to make it home for Christmas.  They kept going at about 25 mph on twisting mountain roads, and it was often impossible to tell exactly where the road was.  The deep snow had covered all the markings.  He was only able to stay on the road by using the reflectors on the side of the road as guideposts.  By driving between the reflectors he was able to determine the course of the road.

The Ten Commandments are like that.  They help us to get our bearings in the storms of life and they show us where it is unsafe to travel.  They lead us on the path to freedom. 

God is in the business of setting people free.  And far from throwing cold water on our party, the Ten Commandments are meant to allow us to live joyfully and fully and freely.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

“Holy Ground” - October 4, 2015

Text: Exodus 1:8-14, 3:1-15

You get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed, eat your bowl of Wheaties and drink your orange juice and coffee.  You glance at the newspaper and see that the Cardinals are in the playoffs, another presidential debate is coming up, and road construction in Ames is way behind schedule.

You head on to work, or to class, or to Water Aerobics, or to the morning coffee group.  You remember that you have a dentist appointment in the afternoon and that you need to take a book back to the library before it is overdue.  And dealing with the broken garbage disposal is on your to-do list.

In other words, it is an ordinary day, pretty much like every other day.  Our lives are filled with such ordinary days.

It was that kind of day for Moses – just another day.  He was out tending the sheep, an ordinary day.  Now, Moses had had his fair share of not so ordinary days.

Last week, we were with Jacob as he wrestled with God and was given the name Israel.  Several generations have passed before today’s scripture.  In the time since, Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold in to slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but God has used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled in Egypt.  But generations go by, and our scripture begins, “There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  The Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt, but because they had become so numerous, they were feared.  They were made slaves and treated ruthlessly, but they only became more numerous, and Pharaoh feared the Israelites. 

Pharaoh was so fearful, in fact, that he ordered the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah to kill the male Hebrew babies when they were born.  They ignored this directive, however – they were in the business of life, not death - and when Pharaoh learned the babies were living, he called the midwives in.  They had an explanation and even managed to insult the Egyptian women in the process – they told him that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptians – they were strong and vigorous, and by the time the midwives arrived the baby had already been born.

So Pharaoh took the next step of ordering that every boy born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile River.  This was at the time when Moses was born.  In an act of desperation, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the bulrushes along the river.  Pharaoh’s own daughter found the child, took pity, and took him in and raised him as her own.  So rather than be thrown into the Nile, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace.  Moses’ mother was hired as a nurse for him.

That was definitely an out of the ordinary day, and so was the day when in a fit of anger, he killed an Egyptian who had dealt overly harshly with a Hebrew slave.  Moses wound up having to flee the country.

He wound up in the country of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  She was from an important family – her father, Jethro, was the local high priest.  Moses had settled into life as a shepherd.  That morning, he got up and had his eggs and bacon - turkey bacon, of course – read the Midian Tribune,  saw the kids off to school and headed out to the fields.  It was just a regular day. 

Moses led a relaxed, comfortable life.  Sure, he remembered his people back in Egypt and wondered about them from time to time.  But he took a certain satisfaction in being a shepherd – an occupation that was detested by the Egyptians.

And now, on what was an ordinary day for Moses, he was tending the flocks.  He led them over towards Horeb, when there was a most curious sight.  A bush was on fire but was not burning up.  Moses drew closer.  The bush drew him like a magnet.  And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken out of the bush.  He knew that it was God, his God.  No Egyptian god would be caught dead out in a field.   

God said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”  Moses does as he is asked.  It was no small thing to stand in bare feet on the hot sandy ground in the heat of the day, but this was a sign of reverence and respect.  God had a message for him, and Moses heard these words as both good news and bad news.  The good news was, God would deliver the Israelites from bondage, out of Egypt.  The bad news was, God wanted Moses to be the one to lead them.

Our Nominating Committee will be meeting this month, and it occurs to me that this is a great text for Nominating Committees.  Moses says, “Gee, it sounds like a great opportunity and all, but I’m just not sure that I’m qualified.”  God says, “I know what I’m doing and I will be with you.  And the sign will be, after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

Now what kind of sign is that?  You are supposed to get the sign first, not after the fact.  It’s not really a sign at all.  But Moses has other questions.

“If I go to the Israelites and say that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Moses wants to know God’s name.

Week after week, the importance of names has come up in our scriptures.  The man naming the animals.  Abraham and Sarah receiving new names.  Jacob’s name being changed to Israel.  To know another’s name is to know something about them, to have a handle on them.  The Hebrews believed that by knowing another’s name, you knew what another was about and had some measure control over them.  But then again, names are connected with intimacy.  We know the names of those who are close to us, important to us.

In our text today, let’s think about how Moses came to this place.  His life was saved because of Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah.  It was saved because of his mother Jochebed who hid him in the bulrushes and his sister Miriam who stood watch and who offered to find a nurse for this Hebrew child.  His life is saved because of Pharaoh’s daughter who is not named here but whose name is later in scripture suggested to be Bithia.  And then we have Pharaoh – who is unnamed.  These five women act subversively to save the life of Hebrew children and specifically of Moses.  And we know their names.  Pharaoh, the most powerful man around, is fearful and his name unknown.

Names tell us something important.  And Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be domesticated.  God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I will be.  I am who I am, I will be what I will be, I am up to what I am up to.  I am in charge, I am in control, I am God.

And this actually becomes God’s name.  The proper name of God is “I am who I am.”  In Hebrew it is the consonant letters YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh – and this is where Jehovah comes from - but this name was considered so sacred that the Hebrews did not utter the name itself.  And so throughout the Old Testament, when we have these letters YHWH, or Yahweh, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

There are other words for God in the Hebrew scriptures, such as elohim and adonai, but when in English we read LORD, it is this sacred name of God, “I am who I am.”

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He had other excuses.  He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But from here on, things would never be the same.  There would be plenty more memorable days, plenty more out of the ordinary days, but this burning bush would always stand out.  Moses would never be the same again.

It happened on an ordinary day, while in the midst of his ordinary, everyday routine.  Eat breakfast, water the flock, and oh yeah, talk to God in a burning bush.  Moses did not plan on this or expect this or make this happen in any way.

I think that is significant.  This did not happen at the temple.  It did not happen at the weekly Bible study.  It just happened in the midst of life, out in the field, out with the sheep.

Where do we meet God?  Where do we experience the Holy?  Where do we find our burning bushes?  Where is our Holy Ground?

We may all have places that are special, even holy, sacred to us.  It may be the family farm, where you feel such a strong attachment to the land and sense God’s goodness and care.  It may be a church building, maybe this place, or maybe a church you grew up in where there are powerful memories, memories of baptisms and weddings and funerals, a place that evokes a sense of God’s presence and reminds us of commitments we have made.  For some, holy ground may be at the lake, or in the mountains, or the ocean, some place of natural beauty where there is a great sense of awe and wonder, a sense of the power and majesty of God as shown in God’s handiwork.  It may be the place where your friends or family gather together, a place packed with memory and meaning.

But our encounters with God do not always happen in those sorts of settings.  Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.

Moses found God in a bush, out in the field.  It was Holy Ground, and the possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

The poet Elizabet Barrett Browning wrote, 
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…
There are burning bushes all around, if we will but notice.  Rita Nakashima Brock told about visiting an ancient church in the Mideast.  High over the altar was a mosaic of Moses kneeling in front of the burning bush.  Behind Moses’ back, where he couldn’t seem them, the mosaic was filled with bushes, every one of them on fire.

What if, on this very ordinary day, Moses had not noticed what stood out?  What is he had not noticed the bush on fire?  Part of finding Holy Ground is being open to the possibility that God might speak to us.  It is being open to potential and possibility.  It is being open to life.

Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado contains the remains of the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people.  Park rangers lead walking tours to some of the less accessible sites.  Just before an arduous trek a ranger sat the group down for an explanation of what they were in for.  “Folks,” she bellowed, “in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with at least 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passageways on your hands and knees.  If any of you have any history of heart disease, I do not recommend you coming.  Now, are there any questions?”

The group was silent, intimidated.  Many were wondering whether they would be able to make it.  Finally, up popped the hand of a twelve-year-old girl who was just breathless with excitement.  “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl on our hands and knees through the rocks?  Is it true?  Do we really get to?”

The ranger smiled, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And so off the group went.

God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, but it took Moses being open and curious and interested for it to work.  I wonder how many times God may be speaking to us but we are too preoccupied or disinterested or unengaged to notice.

Woody Guthrie, the great folk singer, had a song titled “Holy Ground.”  Some of the words go like this:
Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I traipse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Every spot it’s holy ground
Every little inch it’s holy ground
Every grain of dirt it’s holy ground
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground
Whenever we stand in the presence of God, we’re on holy ground.  We follow Jesus, known as Immanuel – God is with us.  And since God is with us, even here, since God is all around us, even now, that makes every inch of this planet holy ground.  Amen.