By Rev. Heather Blais View the worship and sermon here.
In Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Grateful, she suggests that “Politics is about the way we structure life together.”*
Every year we are asked to vote for the candidates who we believe are prepared to carry out the public policy that will best serve our common life together. Yet in the lead up to election day, politics can feel more like a vicious battle, than a civic opportunity to elect candidates that embrace the guidelines we want to live by. Yet the scriptures have something to offer us about politics, particularly today’s lesson from Exodus.
Thousands of years ago, God navigated the Israelites out of bondage and into a transitory season in the wilderness that would last a very long time. God gave the Israelites the ten commandments, which are often interpreted as rules that must be followed at all costs.
Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Truth & Hope, challenges us to look at this event somewhat differently.**
It helps if we remember what life God had just liberated the Israelites from in Egypt. Brueggemann observes,
“Israel arrives at Sinai with the scars, scabs, and echoes of Egypt still in its body. The Israelites could still hear the primal command of Pharaoh to ‘make more bricks’, to give [their lives] over to the imperial enterprise of gratification and self sufficiency. And when the Israelites arrived at Sinai, the first thing they said to Moses was, ‘Whatever the commands of Sinai, we will obey them’. We will take them as alternative to Pharaoh’s brick quota.”**
The Israelites were weary and vulnerable, yet they also knew that our liberating God was offering them a new way of life.
If the ten commandments are truly guidelines for how we structure our common life together, both then and now, how might we interpret them? Here are a few thoughts, and I invite you to join me in wrestling with these ideas in your own time of reflection this week.
The first commandment is about putting God first.
The Israelites have just been liberated from a toxic relationship with a Pharaoh-God who kept them tirelessly working to ‘make more bricks’. This Pharaoh-God did not care about the quality of the Israelites' life, or even the greater good of the Egyptian community. Pharaoh-God cared about Pharaoh-God. Yet this liberating God, YHWH, cared about the people who mattered the least in Egyptian society. This God seemed to value the ones society shoved furthest to the margins and took the most advantage of. Which makes this a guideline not about God’s ego, but about worshiping the God who cared the most about all types of people--no matter their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. This God was all-in with the Israelites, and God asked the Israelites to go all-in in return. The same is asked of us today.
The second commandment is about not worshiping other Gods. We tend to elevate ordinary people, or people with extraordinary egos, to God-like status. We also tend to turn our individual ambitions and desires into golden calves that we worship above all else. This was true for the Israelites, and it is true for us today. Whenever we long more for the latest iPhone or that our church has more virtual butts in the pews, we are distracting ourselves with gods of our own making, instead of the dream God has for our world.
The third commandment is about respecting God’s name.
Brueggemann suggests that this commandment is, “...not a prohibition against bad language. It is a warning that the name and presence of YHWH cannot be preempted to serve as a legitimating support for pet projects-not war, not stewardship, not church programs-because the Holy God stands apart from and over against our best enterprises.”**
In other words, it is not about stopping children from saying “Oh my God” but rather stopping ourselves from using God’s name to get what we want. God’s dream is God’s dream, not yours or mine. Our job is to set aside our own temptations to use God’s name towards our own ends.
The fourth commandment is about keeping a day to rest and pray.
This particular guideline was in such stark contrast from Pharaoh's endless command to ‘make more bricks’. YHWH asked the Israelites to intentionally carve out time to rest, pray, and be. Brueggemann suggests that it, “...is a curb on defining life in terms of productivity...The public act of Sabbath is a declaration to our children that the rat race of getting ahead is not the story of our life. [We] must regularly and visibly disengage from the brick quota of the consumer economy to give evidence that life consists in being and not in getting or having or eating.”**
We are incredibly resistant to keeping sabbath. We so fear what thoughts and feelings might be revealed if we slow down to pray, rest, and be that we stay endlessly busy, consuming as much time and resources as possible to get us closer to the American dream--both for ourselves and our churches--, while at the same time furthering us from God’s dream.
What might happen in our own individual or communal lives if we actually all practiced sabbath?
What healing would we experience?
Who might we be able to forgive?
What peace and calm might we know when we lay in bed at night?
This guideline might be the most terrifying, and it is the one that might actually do the most to save us.
The next six commandments are all about how we engage in relationships as a community:
Listen to your parents
Do not hurt anyone
Couples are to love each other
Do not take anything without asking
Tell the truth
Be thankful for what you have
For the Israelites, their season in the wilderness was the first time in generations that they have been allowed the time and space to cultivate healthy relationships within marriages, parents and children, neighbors, and the wider community. Up until their liberation, their entire life was spent on Pharaoh-God’s command to ‘make more bricks’. Now, they would need to learn what it means to be in a relationship, to live together in community, through all the joys and the challenges. We know firsthand, this can be difficult and painful. And more importantly, it can be humbling, beautiful, and powerful. The Israelites had just been liberated from a punitive culture that saw the worst in each of them, and now God was inviting them to see the best in one another, while also giving them guidelines on how to set up appropriate boundaries with one another.
So what if the ten commandments were guidelines to inform our public policy?
How might it change our perspective?
Particularly when we consider the life the Israelites knew under Pharaoh, and the new way of being God was inviting them into?
Which of these guidelines makes us the most uncomfortable?
What might it look like for us to wrestle with that discomfort? Amen.
*Butler Bass, Diana, Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks, p.161, Harper One, 2018.
**Brueggemann, Walter, Truth & Hope: Essays for a Perilous Age, p.79, Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.
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