Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Promised Land: Commandments
For the next four weeks we’re continuing our journey in the book of Exodus, but we’re shifting our focus a little bit. We’ve been journeying out of Egypt, but now we’re heading to the Promised Land. The different might not sound like much, but I think with study we’ll find that while initially, the Israelites can only think about where they’ve come from, and can only demand sign after sign from God that they haven’t been led into the wilderness simply to die, now God is pushing them, encouraging them to look forward, to the life that will become theirs. They are no longer going to be simply people who are on the run from slavery in Egypt. No, now they are going to be the Israelites who are seeking the Promised Land. A nation unto themselves. And they need a more compelling identity than “formerly slaves in Egypt.” Instead of knowing who they aren’t, they really need to start worrying about who they are now.
I think this is a transition we all need to make at times in our lives, and sometimes, like the Israelites, we need continual reminders and encouragements that we aren’t in the same place we started anymore. I remember during my first years of ministry, it was hard for me to stop thinking of myself as someone just out of seminary. For a long time when I started in my first parish, I would explain my ignorance about a particular situation by saying, “well, I’m pretty new at this.” But now I’m in my twelfth year of ministry. I’m no longer just out of seminary. In fact, the last time I visited Drew, where I attended school, I realized that perhaps more than 50% of the faculty I studied with at Drew are now retired or moved on to new places. The Drew I attended isn’t there anymore, even if I wanted to go back and make that my context again. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences in your own lives, and I know this congregation has had that experience. You’ve been through the process of creating a new congregation where once there were four different communities. And no doubt for a while in that transition, you were defined mostly by where you came from. How you did things at Cardiff or Navarino or South Onondaga or Cedarvale. But now, these many years in, even though you still cherish the memories of where you’ve come from, you are Apple Valley United Methodist Church. A new family, forged by your new shared experiences.
And so now, our scripture texts focus not so much on what is being left behind, but on what kind of future the Israelites want in the land to which they’re headed. So today we find ourselves with a familiar text – the giving of the ten commandments. Sometimes I think familiar bible passages are the trickiest for us, because we assume we already know what the text says. Oh, the ten commandments – I know what those are already. Just don’t ask me to recite them on the spot, right? The first four commandments, as I mentioned with the children, talk about our relationship with God. I am God, no one else, and no other gods are before me. Make no idols of any kind. Don’t wrongfully use my name. And remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a day of rest. And then the other six commandments are reaching outward, emphasizing how we are to live as neighbors, a community, a people. Honor your parents. Do not murder, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet what belongs to another. Eventually, the laws that will govern the Israelites are much expanded, but these are the building blocks, caring for the relationship with God and neighbor.
David Lose writes that biologists would tell you that we’re hard-wired to look out for our own wants and needs over all others, and that this is where the concept of the strongest – and presumably most selfish – surviving comes from. Theologians, he said, would tell you that this is what human sin is: selfishness that puts our needs above the needs of others, but actually limits “human flourishing” and contradicts God’s desire for us to love one another. The law, then, at its most basic level, is something that God gives us to curb us from our tendency to put ourselves first. The law creates boundaries that enable us to flourish as a whole, that “create room in which we can live with each other.” Lose concludes, “That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.” (1) For the Israelites, the ten commandments are a starting point of the new community that they’re building. A way that they will agree to live together, so that all people in the community have the chance to flourish. Of course, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, their journey to the promised land is not all smooth sailing. But now they have a framework for their lives together.
Last week, I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee to do some of our work in preparation for Charge Conference in November. One of the tasks that we must complete is creating a covenant between the pastors and the congregation. The covenant, especially when you have new pastors leading you, can be pretty simple. But the basic purpose is something like the purpose of the commandments: it’s setting out some priorities and a way of living together as a church that will create the space for God to help us flourish. That’s what we want, right? For this community of faith to flourish. And if we want that, what do we need to decide about how we will live together? What things are most important to us? What are the core values at the center or what we do, and how we treat each other, and how we reach out in love and service? We’re working on that, and I encourage you all to think about that, whether you are part of SPRC or not. What principles do you think should guide our life and work together? Love? Forgiveness? Hope? Joy? What ways of being together will help us create space so that here at Apple Valley, we can, together, seek to follow Jesus?
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when Christians from many traditions make the effort to celebrate communion to remind ourselves of our common purpose and identity as members of the body of Christ. The table is a space Christ creates where all are invited. There’s room for everyone. And there’s one bread, one body, so that everyone can take part, and everyone can flourish. As Christ invites us, makes space for us at the table, let us strive to live in a way that we are always making room for others, so that together, we might live into all that God hopes and dreams for us. Amen.
(1) Lose, David. “Law, the First Use.” http://www.davidlose.net/2013/10/law-the-first-use/