Promises, Promises: I Will Be Your God
In 2003, Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. The judicial ethics panel voted unanimously to remove Chief Justice Moore from his seat because he had refused repeated orders to move a 2.6 ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building. Moorefelt that the monument of the Ten Commandments was an appropriate way to acknowledge God in society, and that it was especially appropriate for the state Supreme Court building. After hearing the unanimous decision of his colleagues to remove him from his seat on the Supreme Court,Mooresaid; “God has chosen this time and this place so we can save our country and save our courts for our children.”
Since his removal,Moorehas begun a nonprofit called The Foundation for Moral Law. He travels all over to speak about his convictions, and has been known to cart the monument with him on the bed of a truck—all 5,280 pounds of it, which, as you can easily figure out, comes to a little over 500 pounds per commandment.
The Ten Commandments. Isn’t this granite monument a great metaphor for the way we often think about them: a list of heavy requirements, put down in stone, enforced by God, and whose compliance is required of all of us? I don’t know about you, but I had to learn them all from memory inVacationBibleSchool. I remember my parents especially liking the honor your father and mother part. We learned them then and we often understand them now as a list of heavy rules we dare not break or else.
But for the Israelites, the Ten Commandments could not have been further from a list of legalistic mandates meant to keep people in compliance of the rules. Instead, they were a covenant of life-giving relationship, with God and with each other. Remember where the Israelites were when they received the Ten Commandments?
It had been only three months since the great Exodus fromEgypt. After crossing theRed Seato escape from lives of forced labor and slavery, the people suddenly found themselves in the middle of the Sinai desert. The three months of travel had been full of drama, which you will remember included a lot of worrying and wondering if they would have good water to drink or anything with which to feed their children. God provided with manna and quail and sweet water, but by three months in you have to know the people were struggling.
After leaving the oppressive society of Egypt, they suddenly found themselves in a brand new society, a way of living that found them freed from Egyptian constructs but still, of course, in need of some rules, some standards by which they lived life together. They were free, it’s true, but free doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want…that would be chaos for all involved, for sure.
And so it was that the Israelites found themselves in the desert at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and Moses climbed the mountain to chat with God, a chat in which he received God’s direction for the people…in the form of ten “words” the Hebrew says—the Ten Commandments—a law that fully encapsulated the whole levitical system of law that came to be as the people learned to live together.
In the ancient world the purpose of law was to place limits on human behavior so that equity and justice would be the order of the day and so that peace would prevail in society. Always, in the ancient world, law was given by a divine being; it was seen as divine will sent to order human life and, by extension, the whole world. One commentator explains that the giving of the law in the ancient world was actually an extension of the understanding of creation: just as the world was created with natural limits, so a law given by God sets limits on human behavior…and as creation was a source of life, so the law is a life-giving instrument for people. With the law, people can enjoy long lives in harmonious relationship with each other.
In other words, the Ten Commandments were not meant to be heavy rules by which God could catch us being bad. No, they are meant to free us to live in healthy relationship with God and with each other, to give us guidelines for living in community governed by a covenant of care for each other and for our world. A divine law like the Ten Commandments makes us live more intentionally and more healthily together.
I had the occasion this week to visit with a friend who is an Orthodox Jew. I mentioned that I was studying the Ten Commandments passage this week and asked her to tell me about her community—a community built and maintained with a strict list of rules and guidelines. When I asked her to tell me why she lives in a community with such strict guidelines, she explained that the rules are not meant just for the sake of having rules. Instead, they are meant to bind the community together in mutual dependence, to teach them how to live together. For example, she explained, since they observe strict kosher rules related to food, they must cook for each other. Imagine what happens when a member of their community gets sick or is unable to cook? They must take care of that member, because they share the certain standards about their food.
And nobody in their community drives on Shabbat, or uses electronics, or even talks on the telephone. What results? Time—lots of time spent together, building relationships, learning how to live in community. The rules of their community bring them together.
And so it is with the Ten Commandments. A divine rule given by God, they give us guidelines for life together, a way to make our relationships with each other deep and interdependent, life-giving and life-maintaining.We’ve been learning these past weeks about covenants: about Noah and about Abraham and Sarah. In these covenantal relationships, it’s God who does the covenanting. God promises never to destroy the earth with a flood. God promises descendants for Abraham and Sarah. It’s God who makes and keeps the promises. In today’s covenant, we’re invited into the story. It’s almost as if God is saying: I’ve shown you by now how I will treat you. Now, I want you to live in relationship with each other in the same way I live in relationship with you. The covenant today, framing the Ten Commandments, is God’s declaration: I will be your God. I will give you what you need to live together. I will offer you a divine standard. I will show you how to live and to love each other. Not rules you have to follow or else, but life-giving, covenantal guidelines to help you live healthy lives and build lasting community.
I have to say that I am a pretty good bowler. This is due largely to sixth grade PE class, during which our whole class would walk to the bowling alley and spend the afternoon learning to bowl. You can imagine the chaos of a bowling alley filled with sixth graders learning to bowl.
Thank goodness, then, for the gutters.
Learning to bowl, for our group anyway, involved the flinging of heavy bowling balls in many various directions as we tried to perfect a strategy that would result in pins down and high scores. As you might imagine, especially at the beginning of the year, many bowling balls ended up veering off to the sides, rolling down the gutters into the ball return machines. The gutters kept our balls in our lanes, gave us parameters as we learned strategies for bowling, and kept us all safe from each other’s errant pitches.
And so it is with the Ten Commandments. They are a covenant that reflects God’s way with us so that God’s way with us might be our way with each other. I will be your God, God says. Now you…be my people.
The Rev. Abby Thornton, pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis, Maryland, has rewritten the Ten Commandments in a way that she imagines God hopes that we hear them. I’d like to share her version of the covenant of the commandments with you today.
God says: “I am the one who has set you free. I have done it. Now work with me to remain in this place of freedom, and to spread this good news of liberation from earthly powers that oppress to all of your neighbors. Here’s how it can be done: Have one single loyalty: me. I am the only God who is for this community—others will only hurt you.
Know that I am a God beyond your imagination, so don’t try to craft images of me that limit me– you cannot figure me out; freedom is known in the mystery.
Know that I am not the means to some better end, but the beginning and the end in itself—so don’t use my name for your own purposes and take me lightly, as peripheral rather than central.
Pattern your life after mine—work and then rest, every one of you, on the seventh day. Your work should look like mine—not relentless, not unceasingly driven, but remembering your freedom from that endless grind!
Show respect to all generations—honor those who came before you, because if you lose them and their stories—the ways they have seen me act–you lose your own story, and your place in it.
Honor human life—power over it belongs to me, not you.
Be faithful to one another—as you stick with one god, stick with one person–your connections to one another are sacred.
Though life is not fair, you must be—do not try to take hold of that which does not belong to you, to profit at another’s expense.
And know that your community depends on truth-telling—speak what is real and do not distort reality to one another, no matter what.
And after all of this, let not just your actions towards one another but even your desires be for the common good—if I am the God who liberates you and provides you manna, you don’t need to want what anyone else has. You don’t need to desire more, to live shackled fear and competition.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out ofEgypt, out of a life of slavery. I am your God.”
It was thousands of years later that Jesus Christ walked the dusty roads ofGalilee. He was surrounded by many people who had forgotten this covenant their ancestors made with God and had become preoccupied with rule-keeping for the sake of rule-keeping. Some of these ardent religious types tried to trick Jesus into breaking the rules; they understood the rules to be methods of hurt and exclusion. Jesus would have none of it, though. He knew that the covenant of the commandments—that the rules—were meant to bring us together, not keep us apart. They were not meant to hang like heavy weights around our necks (or in our Supreme Court buildings). Instead, they were meant to help us live in covenantal community, in healthy loving relationship, with each other and the world. The way Jesus said it was this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”