Narrative Lectionary, Year 4
Summer Sermon Series: Ten Commandments
Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-2
This Sunday, we leave behind the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD. We leave behind the pagan streets of Greece, where Christianity was just beginning to gain a foothold, and we leave behind the dusty streets of Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit fell upon all of Jesus’ disciples. We are now going centuries back in time, where a group of Hebrew people have just been led out of slavery in Egypt by God, through his servants, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and have arrived at a mountain in the wilderness named Sinai. Here Moses will receive what would come to be known as the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone: those laws that would become foundational for not only the Jewish people, but for Christians—whose faith sprang out of the Jewish faith—and the foundation of laws for much of Western civilization. We wrestle with different aspects of these commandments all of the time; the most public dispute is whether or not they should be on display at government facilities like courthouses. As we begin this first of our summer series on the Ten Commandments, we’re going to go back to the basics and try to understand the context in which these commandments arose. And today, we begin with the storyteller of Exodus setting the scene in which Moses begins to speak with God and will receive the Ten Commandments. This setting of the scene begins with the reason why God is giving this covenant to the people, and that can be summarized with one word: relationship.
The Israelites have just come out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God has protected them the entire way. God has split the waters of the Red Sea, and the Israelites have passed through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians try to pursue them, the waters come back and drown them. Now these people, who do not know life outside of Egypt, begin to flounder in the wilderness. They encounter water that is not drinkable because it is bitter, and through Moses, God makes the water sweet. When they realize that they have nothing to eat, God rains down bread from heaven, which the Israelites call “manna,” meaning literally, “What is it?” Again, they have no water to drink, and through Moses, God provides water from a rock. The Amalekites come to battle against the Israelites, and God protects them and enables them to win against their enemies. God has done all of this and more for God’s people, the Israelites. Based on this relationship, God tells the Israelites that it is time to make a covenant, and that, if they obey the covenant, they will be God’s treasured people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
But one thing that the text is clear about, and the one thing that I want to make certain that we understand is this: these commandments that God gives the Israelites are not some arbitrary set of rules that God made up to take all of the fun out of life. Rather, I want to have us try and approach these commandments as things that make our life with God and our life with one another run more smoothly. I once heard Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt University, say that the Jewish people look at the Law as a married couple would look at household rules. A married couple would have rules to make living together easier, such as this: When one spouse comes home from work, she needs time to herself to decompress and read a portion of a book for fun before she is able to talk about her day with her husband. When that rule isn’t followed, there could be the potential for more friction between the couple, and so the husband, out of love for his wife, finds it joyful and not burdensome to follow that rule and to make life for his wife a little easier. Just so, as we look at the Ten Commandments, we should see these laws not as a burden for us to carry, but as a joy for us to follow, so that our relationship with God and our relationships with one another can be easier and more joyful.
Therefore, the first thing that God does before God even utters the actual laws is to establish that God does have a relationship with the Israelites. God states that God brought the Israelites out of the house of slavery in Egypt, and because God has freed them from slavery, therefore this is how the Israelites should behave. I want you to notice how God frames this: because I have done this, therefore you do this. It is the language, first of all, of ancient covenant treaties. But second, and more importantly, these laws are not to be obeyed so that God will love the Israelites. God already loves the people; if God didn’t love them, then God wouldn’t have freed them from slavery. The Israelite people, and today the Jewish people, rest securely in God’s love. But because they are God’s people, and because they want this relationship with God to work well, and because they love God, therefore they strive to honor God by following the commandments that God gives them. It’s all about relationship.
And this means that the Law is actually good news for us. God loves you so much that God tells me not to murder you, because God loves you. And God loves me so much that God tells you not to steal something from me, because that would hurt me and God does not want to see me hurting. Once again, these commandments are not to be burdensome obligations for us, but they are, rather, to be a testament to how much God loves us, a testament to how much God wants to be in a good relationship with us, and how much God wants us to be in a good relationship with one another and with everything that God has created.
Now that you’ve heard the ideal, though, here is the reality. We are sinful human beings. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s what sin is. The sin that keeps us turned in on ourselves rears its ugly head and breaks relationships: both with God and with one another. We may not actually be worshiping other gods, but, for example, if every decision we make in life thinks about money and about our survival before anything else, then we are putting money above God. We may find it difficult to honor our father and our mother if they suffer from dementia and don’t recognize us anymore. I may not actually murder someone, but if I call that person an idiot, then I am destroying a piece of their soul. The law shows us our sins, as a mirror shows us what we truly look like, and it shows us our need for Jesus.
And just as God showed his love for the Israelites in freeing them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (to quote St. Paul in Romans 5). Just as God established his relationship with the Israelites before giving them the Law on Mount Sinai, reminding them that God had freed them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us by sending God’s Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins. All of those times that we miss the mark, that we sin—Jesus has died for those sins, and he sets us free from our slavery to those sins. So now, just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, we are freed from slavery to sin, and we are now set free to love God and to love our neighbor, as Jesus summarizes the law for us.
But here’s the problem: the word “love” in English too often means “to have warm, fuzzy feelings for someone”. But in the Greek, love means more than that. Love is an action word. In English we have the phrase, “to put your money where your mouth is”. To love as Jesus commands us to do is not simply to have that warm, fuzzy feeling for someone. It means putting our money where our mouth is. It means that, when there is yet another school shooting, we do more than simply say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” True love for these children would mean working for sensible gun control laws and working to improve both the ways we talk about mental health, as well as improving access to mental health care. True love for our neighbors would mean standing up to our government and saying, “We know that these immigrants came here illegally, but it is not acceptable to separate mothers from their children, no matter who they are.” True love for our neighbor means doing things that put our neighbor’s interests above our own, advocating for them even when whatever the issue is does not seem to affect us. Because if our neighbor is hurting, then it means that we are hurting, too.
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the mystery of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one God. Many people have tried to explain the Trinity over thousands of years and have fallen short. And I think that’s natural: God is much bigger than the human mind can comprehend, and no one explanation of God is going to get everything right. But one explanation that helps me, and makes sense to me at this point in my spiritual journey, is that God is a God of relationships. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, as the Athanasian Creed says, “equal in glory, coequal in majesty”. That’s hard for us humans to understand, because in every society, even a democracy, there are still hierarchies. But whatever else this Three-in-One God is, it is a God who is in relationship with God-self, and it is a loving relationship. And God gives us the Ten Commandments to help us to understand how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another. So, come, let us joyfully live into all of these relationships that God invites us into. Amen.