Even if you didn't grow up in church, our text for this morning is going to be very familiar to you. It's the 10 Commandments. These are the guidelines for life given to the Ancient Hebrews, after they have been liberated from bondage in Egypt. These descendants of Abraham are blessed to be a blessing, but currently find themselves wandering in the wilderness. For four hundred years they have been living outside of the land of their ancestors, trying to keep their traditions alive in a culture determined to squash them. There is no one in their community who knows what it's like to be free, but suddenly, they are. No Pharaoh to fear, no masters to obey, just the God of their ancestors speaking through the prophet Moses and doing miracles, sometimes right at the last minute. The question for these people now is who are they going to be? Who will God be to them in this new phase of life? How are they going to live into their blessed blessing heritage?
Scripture Reading Exodus 19:3-7 & 20:1-17 (New International Version)
Narrator: Then Moses went up to God, who called from the mountain and said,
God: “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Narrator: So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
And God spoke all these words:
God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
- “You shall have no other gods before me.
- “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, accounting the sins of the parents to the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
- “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses God's name.
- “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
- “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
- “You shall not murder.
- “You shall not commit adultery.
- “You shall not steal.
- “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
So I've been thinking a lot about weddings recently. And I think that I have done an exceptionally good job of not making all of my examples about weddings or turning everything into a marriage metaphor. But this morning friends, with this text, you're getting a marriage metaphor! And it's not even a stretch because what we are talking about in this text is commitment. These are not rules; this is a covenant; and there's a big difference.
A covenant, like the one we all made together a few weeks ago at my installation, and like the one Sam and I made together yesterday, is a promise about how we are going to be in relationship with one another. It's about identity and belonging. In this covenant, God's is "the one who brought you out of bondage" and the people are "a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, a holy nation." Priests are the ones who help people connect to the divine, so again this is a reiteration that the people are blessed to be a blessing.
Rob Bell, a Christian author and pastor that I really appreciate has this great saying: "Sometimes one yes means a thousand no's." When we enter into a commitment, we are setting boundaries. This is what we will do and this is what we will not do. This boundaries are not motivated by an arbitrary sense of obligation; they are motivated by love. We choose these boundaries because we know they are good for us individually and corporately. Because we love each other and we want to live our best lives together, we set limits on ourselves.
Bondage is imposed on us by an outside force, against our will, and not for our own good. Boundaries are limits we set for ourselves to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn't. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. In this covenant, God and the people make an unwavering commitment to one another. And within that commitment, there is great freedom. These "commandments" are not another form of bondage to another powerful ruler. They are the boundaries of what life looks like in the freedom of an unwavering commitment.
In the Old Testament, the most popular metaphor for the Hebrew people's relationship with God is that of a marriage. This is because they have a covenant with one another. Ancient people made covenants in many different types of situations, like if they were trying to set a boundary to determine whose land was whose. Or if they were making an agreement to stop fighting one another. But this covenant between God and the people is one of intimate relationship and long-term loyalty, renewing a bond that is generations old, and designed to last far into the future. Because of a nuance of language at the beginning of chapter 20, Jews traditionally imagine this giving of the commandments not as a monologue but as a dialogue. As God and the people form this covenant, they make vows. God offers a boundary and the people say, "I do."
And these boundaries aren't just for the people of God. Remember that the point of this is freedom. Can you imagine how free you would feel in a community where you trusted the commitment that everyone else had made? Every single person takes an honest-to-God full day off every single week. Children honor parents and parents cherish children. No one dares to take the life of another person. All spouses are faithful to their commitments. No one takes anything that doesn't belong to them; no one is operating in a scarcity mentality; everyone has enough and is satisfied with what they have. No one lies about anyone else. Imagine how free and how SAFE we would be.
THAT is the kind of community that God desires for the world and that God calls us to model. Freedom within the boundaries of unwavering commitment to God and one another. Like a good marriage.
Now sometimes people make it sound like those who choose to live without limits are having more fun. Usually this is related to things like drugs and alcohol and sex and money. It's important to remember that, especially as people of faith, it is not our job to impose the bondage of our boundaries on anyone else. Everyone chooses for themselves. But the principle remains that life without boundaries is not more fun. Life without boundaries, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual is not amusing; it's EXHAUSTING. We choose boundaries, so that THANK GOD, we know when to stop.
God never forces us into a relationship. God woos and invites us to something beautiful and redemptive and we always get to choose whether we want to say yes. When we say yes, these are the basic boundaries for a life of freedom, the mold that shapes us into the kind of people who are blessed to be a blessing.
Which brings us to the table this morning on World Communion Sunday, when we remember that it's not just US here at Zion that are blessed to be a blessing. We are one small branch of a worldwide tribe that is thousands of years old. As we come to this table, we come in solidarity with our siblings in Zimbabwe and New Zealand and Stockholm and São Paolo. Our image of the white Jesus in that stained glass window up there is for us. Our fellow believers in South Africa and China see Jesus in their skin. On this day especially we remember our unity, that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one.
Because friends, as our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years THIS is the joyful feast of the people of God ...