written and preached by Rev. Natalie Shiras
March 11, 2012 Exodus 20:1-17
God has made covenants with the people ever since the world began. The sign of the covenant for Noah was the rainbow. The sign of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah was the promise of a great and populous people, and the sign of the covenant with Moses was the Ten Commandments. God is still calling us into covenant, a mutual relationship in which God claims us, loves, us and empowers us for transformation.
Today we focus on the Ten Commandments. They may seem like a burdensome set of rules that restrict our freedom. These commandments are actually the way to human freedom into the embrace of God. In the Hebrew they are called “the ten words” or Decalogue. The first four describe how the people are to live with God and the second six describe how the people are to live with one another. One cannot love God without also loving neighbor. The God who gives these words to the people is the God who frees the people.
They are not burdensome. They are light.
Thomas Long, a regular contributor to the Christian Century magazine, wrote about Judge Roy Moore of Alabama who advocated the prominent placement of the Ten Commandments in every courtroom and classroom in the country. Judge Moore rigged up a huge stone monolith on a trailer, a stone containing the Ten Commandments, to take all over the country. Tom Long says of Judge Moore’s project, “What slipped past me is just how much this monument of his weighs: 5,280 pounds or just over 500 pounds per commandment. Judge Moore has been lugging this hefty monster around from one public appearance to another on the back of a flatbed truck….Whenever the truck returns to Alabama, a 57 foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one—a five ton crane!—buckles visibly under the weight.”
Tom Long’s description of these Ten Commandments as burdensome weights seems to symbolize a heavy obligation on our personal behavior. That’s the way many people view the Ten Commandments, as heavy obligations. Tom Long writes that we forget that God was announcing freedom: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) That is, I am the God who loves you so much that I want to free you. These are guidelines for freedom, a way of living out our God-given freedom from slavery. These commandments are not limiting and weighty. They are the pathway to God’s freedom.
God loves us passionately. God gives to us everything we need as God gave the wandering Israelites bread from heaven. The way we love God is the way we will love people. Having “no other gods before me” means that lying and stealing and coveting will not creep into our lives. “Not bearing false witness” means that we speak truthfully about our neighbor.
This is not a back breaking burdensome demand. This is God’s gracious gift to us. God has not left us alone, wandering aimlessly. God has come near to us and given us guidance. Jesus said to his disciples that when they were weary, he promised them that his yoke was easy and his burden was light. Fidelity to the words of God are meant to be light. Fidelity brings happiness. Fidelity brings freedom.
A few weeks ago as I was contemplating all that was on my plate in the first month of being part time, I was feeling burdened. As I was speaking to a member of the church outreach group, I told her I felt like I was being pulled this way and that by a team of 28 galloping horses! She said to me, “Natalie, I beg to differ. You do not have a team of 28 galloping horses pulling on you. That is only in your mind. The church wants you to be our spiritual leader. Prance, Natalie, prance, and it will be easier.”
Her words were like bread from heaven. All the idols of believing I had too much to do, fell away. Everything became easier as I remembered what God’s purpose is. I was no longer enslaved to my thinking. My burden became light.
Those who know God’s purpose naturally want to serve God, without burden, without effort. When our church youth group spent a week inNew York Cityvolunteering in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, there working at one of the soup kitchens was the former chef of Windows on the World that used to be at the top of theWorldTradeCenter. Though I didn’t know his former profession, I could see he loved what he was doing, delegating to our youth group the chopping of potatoes and leeks for vichyssoise, the vegetables and chicken for stir fry, the lettuces for salad, and the institutional cans of vanilla pudding and fruit for fruit parfait. He was showing us how to create each plate beautifully, how to serve as if in a good restaurant, and how to treat each homeless person as a precious guest.
When I talked to him about his passion for his work, he told me that he came here as a stopgap until he could find another job as a chef. When he learned that soup kitchen cooks were hard to find because it was a scary neighborhood with little pay, he decided to stay. He said God had given him such a rich life already and he wanted to share that with others. He wanted to be free to give to people whose lives had not been as pleasant or easy as his.
I realized I was in the presence of someone who was truly free, who saw what God’s purpose was for him and put God first. There was no obligation, no burden, no effort about his decision. God claimed him, loved him, and empowered him to make a difference in the world.
The covenant God made with Moses is for all of us—ten teachings that are here to guide us toward freedom:
to worship and love the Lord your God;
to respect and honor God’s name;
to keep holy the Lord’s Day;
to honor your mother and your father;
to respect life;
to be faithful;
to respect all property;
to respect and honor truth in your words and deeds;
to keep your heart pure;
to live humbly thanking God for all things.
May we put into practice these holy words for the mending of God’s holy world. Amen.