Saturday, October 15, 2022

“Words of Freedom” - October 16, 2022

Text: Exodus 19:1-8, 20:1-17

How many times have we heard it?  “You can’t dwell on the past.”  Past hurts, past failures, past disappointments.  Sometimes it is best just to let it go.  Forget about it and move on.

I have known folks who served in the Second World War and Korea and later Viet Nam who very rarely spoke about it.  They had seen and experienced terrible things, and I suppose they just wanted to forget.

There are people who had really tough childhoods, with anger, violence, abuse in the home.  Maybe some of you did.  

And there are people who grew up surrounded by wealth, in big houses, showered with everything they wanted except for the only thing they really wanted, which was love.

Sometimes we think the answer is to just forget about it.  Forget about it and move on.  Sometimes this strategy can serve us well, like the placekicker who has missed a couple of extra point attempts.   You just have to forget about it, like it never happened.  It can be hard to move forward otherwise.

So we have to wonder, a little bit, about the way God goes about relating to the Israelites.  Because it is all about remembering.  Before getting to the first commandment, God says, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, who brought you out of slavery.  You weren’t citizens, you had no land, you were strangers and aliens in a foreign land.  You broke your backs to fill other people’s pockets.  You were living, but just barely.  And I brought you out of slavery.  I brought you out of Egypt.  Remember that.”

The Ten Commandments are often seen as moralistic rules devised by a God who is just waiting for us to mess up.  But that is not what they are at all.  The commandments were an act of love.  Instead of saying, “forget about it,” God says, “Remember.”  Remember that you were slaves, and so when you are in your own land and a stranger comes along, remember that you were once a stranger.  When there is opportunity to take advantage of others, remember how you were treated.  And when you start to think that everything you have accomplished is by your own doing, remember that I have brought you out of slavery.

The Israelites had not known freedom for 400 years.  They did not know what it was to live as free people.  And without some guidance, freedom 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, especially out in the country when the corn is high.  Those intersections can literally be accidents waiting to happen.

Some guidelines for living, some basic rules for behavior, can be a real gift.  Fair and just rules, rather than being a straitjacket, can be very freeing.  Living in community demands 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.  

When you have been enslaved for 400 years, freedom can be really hard.  Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery.  Through the ten commandments, God got the slavery out of the people.”     

After surgery a few years ago, our dog Rudy had to wear a cone - the cone of shame, as they call it, that goes around the neck to keep a dog from messing with the stitches.  It was kind of a pain to take the cone off and put it back on, so early on, I held 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.

The Israelites had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh.  They had learned to 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.  God gives the Law, the Ten Commandments, as a way of living for a free people.  They are a way of living that will allow us to flourish.

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 God’s people are to live together and a way of living that will allow a community to thrive in freedom, to live hopefully and joyfully.

Now as we read the commandments, some of the wording, 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 you don’t have to read it that way.  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 – right there and then.   That was 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.  It is easy to be plugged in and available 24/7.  More and more people have the chance to work from home, which can be great, but it can also make it harder and harder to really stop working.  Hard work is highly valued and some of us can feel guilty if we are not doing something.  Whether or not it is attached to our job, there can be this feeling that we always need to be productive.

I heard about a company that requires fathers to take paternity leave.  They don’t allow it; they require it.  We live in such a work-oriented culture that when a woman takes maternity leave, it can sometimes hurt her chances for advancement.  At the same times, there are a lot of companies that offer paternity leave to men, but few fathers will take it because they don’t want to be seen as slackers or as not being serious or responsible employees.  

So, this company is now requiring everybody to take maternity or paternity leave.  They say they wish requiring it wasn’t necessary, but at this point it seems the best course to take.

There is no doubt that rest and family time and our lives beyond our work lives are not necessarily valued.  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.  It is freeing.

The command regarding Sabbath says that nobody is to work.  Not you, not your children, not hired hands, not even animals.  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 the Israelites were told to remember – they knew all about that.

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 real honest sounds more important all the time).

In Mark chapter 12, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?”  Do you remember that?  He answers “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.

The Ten Commandments, in a sense, help us to remember.  To remember who we are, to remember what is important, and to remember the God who frees us.  The commandments help us to get our bearings in the storms of life and lead us on the path to freedom.  

The Ten Commandments certainly provide rules for living.  But Biblical scholar Eric Barreto, a Baptist who teaches at Princeton Seminary, says that “Ultimately, the story of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is less about proper behavior than it is about identity.  Who are we?  What is our relationship to God?  What is our relationship to one another?  We tend to separate these foundational questions, compartmentalizing each to a separate realm of reflection, but the [commandments in Exodus tell us these are all connected.]

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, with God and with one another.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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