Scripture: Exodus 19:1–9
Last week, Pastor Cristina delivered a beautiful message about the embodied joy of the Israelites. For the first time in generations, they tasted a freedom from the Egyptian Empire and they couldn’t help themselves…they erupted into singing and dancing and laughing and fully-embodied joy!
That joy lasted…at least six minutes. On the far side of the sea, they found themselves thirsty and hungry and lost, physically and emotionally. The honeymoon was over pretty quickly! They were at each others’ throats, shaking their fists at Moses and Aaron, ready to turn around and go back to Egypt.
But slowly, a day at a time, God began to earn their trust. God gave them water to drink, and manna and quails to eat, and reminded them over and over again that he wouldn’t have brought them into the wilderness just to die of starvation. They still were pretty skeptical, and ready to go back to the only home that they knew. But that’s when God stepped in and offered a word…
1On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 7So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
9Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
The Ghosts of Egypt still haunted the Israelites. They had lived their entire lives under the thumb of the Egyptian Empire. They had eaten Egyptian food, and quenched their thirst with Egyptian drink. They wore Egyptian clothes, lived in Egyptian houses, and learned the history and faiths of the Egyptians. They looked and sounded and thought like Egyptians. They were fully indoctrinated adherents to the practices and values of Empire. In fact, let us examine what I would call the Obligations of Empire:
1. The only true faith is trust in political power.
- This is Rule #1 of Empire. The only true deity is whomever is currently in charge.
2. Morality and values are like changes of clothing; they can be taken up and used when convenient, or discarded when no longer needed. When in doubt, see Rule #1.
- We see this with the Pharaoh, vacillating back and forth between granting the Israelites their freedom, and then turning around and demanding they remain as slaves. Morality was a matter of convenience. Meanwhile, that trickled down to the rest of Egypt, as the Egyptians would care for their slaves one day, and then turn around and be complicit in their oppression the next. Needless to say, the Israelites operating out of this mindset were lost by the time they got to the desert. They had no idea what to believe. Whom or how to worship.
3. Some people are inherently more valuable than others.
- This value is the only way that a society can justify race-based slavery. Egyptians enslaved Joseph’s family and descendants because they thought they were inherently worth less. Meanwhile, even the Israelites bought into the racist idea that they were fundamentally less valuable than their Egyptian counterparts. Egyptian children were simply born superior. Even the most powerful Israelites were inferior to the weakest and lowest Egyptian.
4. A person’s worth is dependent on how they help those at the top of the value structure.
- The Israelites’ value came from the work that they could do for those in charge. Those who were not working were worthless. Imagine the ontological guilt, then, that the Israelites felt as they got to the other side of the sea and had nothing to do. They had bought into this caste system that was now out of place, and they didn’t know how respond. Without that hierarchy of value, who was inferior and who was superior? What are the new rules of relating to one another?
5. You should want things. You should take things. Possessions are things, but so are people.
- You should get all the stuff you can, by whatever means you can. Not only is it OK to take these things by force, but it is actually expected. Possession and power go hand in hand, and the more that you have, the more valuable you are. The Egyptians lived by this mantra, and it wasn’t until their actual children began dying that they began to realize how hollow and empty their wanting of things was. Now, the Israelites in the desert, who had been raised on the myth that possession brings joy, didn’t know what to think or believe. They had nothing. They were nothing.
By the way, I am picking on the Egyptians here, but please understand that I am not talking about current citizens of the nation of Egypt. If there is any country that seems to live by these values today, to be honest it is probably the United States. Look again at the Obligations of Empire…
- #1 and #2: We are just about a month away from the November election, so watch this one come to play. Rich Democrats will complain about Trump and the Republicans, and then quietly support them in the hope that they will lower their taxes. Republicans will pitch themselves as “pro-life” but in the end will enact policies that deal in death and put up a million roadblocks to citizens trying to live healthy lives. Rev. William Barber several years ago now began promoting what he called “Moral Mondays,” speaking truth to power about the upside down morality of this country. Instead of one or two emotional political issues, he preaches the need for hard conversations about morality: race, poverty, and political and military power.
- #3: Just like Egypt, we began our nation on the backs of race-based slavery. And just like that Empire, we still find ourselves beholden to the power of this commandment. Isabelle Wilkerson writes in her book Caste that we as Americans continue to see some people as more valuable than others. White supremacy assumes an inferiority to all those not-white, and it impacts all of us, white and people of color. And it is a big lie that we all continue to believe in some pretty deep psychological and structural ways.
- #4: This is a universal value of Empire. If you are going to be worthwhile, you must give your life to the protection and up-building of Empire. Terrell Carter writes about the fallacy of “bootstrap theology.” Lift yourself up by your bootstraps and go the extra mile. If you ask for help, or need help, it’s because you haven’t lifted hard enough. You are lazy. You are fundamentally immoral. It is a lie of Empire: promoted by those who benefit from the unblinking working and living and dying of the subjects of Empire.
- #5: Finally, this is not just a value for the Egyptian Empire, but for our Empire today as well. We stand today on the land stolen from native peoples, because we wanted it. Our young men are taught that if they see a woman they are attracted to, it is their manly duty to take what they want. I think our current culture of gun violence is based on this arms race of wanting and taking and defending and protecting. Possession and power and acquisition are still the overwhelming values of Empire.
These are the values of our Empire…of any age and any time. The Obligations and Commandments and Rules of how we are to live. And, just like the Israelites, I would offer that we continue to be a people lost and wandering in the wilderness.
But then a shift takes place. God gifts the Israelites freedom on the backs of eagles’ wings, across the sea. And then God gifts them water and food. Their immediate needs are met. However, I would suggest that they are still a possessed people. They are still beholden to the value and identity of Empire. Therefore, perhaps the biggest gift that God gives them comes in Chapter 19 and 20. God gifts them a new way to live. An alternative identity from the life and lie of Empire. In the gifting of the covenant, God provides a new identity, free from the indoctrination and obligations of empire.
I wanted to wait to read the next chapter, because usually when I read Exodus 20, our brains shut off because we have heard it so many times before. But I want you to hear with new ears today. Listen with the ears of an indoctrinated people. An enslaved people. A people who has come to believe these commandments. Listen to the promise of freedom that God gives:
1Then God spoke all these words:
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid…
See how God is granting freedom to their hearts and minds? Granting release to a people who only know themselves as possession? Look at the alternative vision for identity that God gives them.
- Morality and values are not based on political winds. They are based on the eternal and everlasting promises of the Creator. They are not fleeting and based on convenience. The God that we worship…the way we talk about that God…the way we represent and symbolize that God…must be grounded in a reality unlike our own. God gifted to the people the opportunity to worship in a way that is not dependent on national structure, or political history, or culture-specific systems. God is outside of Empire, not beholden to it. God gifts the people freedom from Empire, physically and psychologically.
- The invitation to Sabbath must have blown the minds of the enslaved Israelites. Everything they did, 24-7, was meant to raise up their imperial oppressors. They would have not been able to comprehend the concept of taking a day without work. Value comes from work. But then God shows up and tells them “No. Your value comes from me.” Not from castes defined by society. There is no hierarchy of worth. All are God’s children and must be treated that way. God gifts them freedom from simply being a cog in the machine. They have value, regardless of what they do.
- Finally, God is dismantling their assumptions of possession and want. In the last six commandments, God gives people freedom from acquisition. In a world that assumed the importance of wanting and taking things, God tells the people that they simply don’t have to want. Their needs are met, so they don’t need to take other peoples’ lives and possessions and spouses. God gifts them freedom from acquisition and want.
Sisters and brothers and siblings who yearn for the freedom of God, there is good news today! Exodus 20 outlines how we, too, can be freed from the Rules and Obligations of Empire! We, too, are given opportunity…permission…freedom to live in these ways!
1. God gives us freedom from the Rules of the Empire that surrounds us. As the election looms, we don’t have to be beholden the anxiety or anger that will envelop it. Our God is above and beyond such political machinations. I am not saying we should be anti-political. But knowing our morality comes from the God we worship beyond this world, we can look at the candidates, consider the issues, say some prayers for wisdom, and act without fear.
2. God gives us freedom from the theology of Caste. We don’t have to put ourselves or others into categories or hierarchy based on race or gender or class. For those that Empire has deemed inferior, or even for those who have been deemed superior, none of it matters! It is all about God’s grace!
3. God gives us freedom from bootstrap theology, having to earn or work for our value. You are already valued. You are already worthy. We don’t have to buy into the hierarchical rules of caste that our country lives by. We are God’s children. All are valued.
4. Finally, God gives us freedom from the theology of want. From the need to overpower and overtake and steal and possess. Every billboard we pass, every “sponsored content” on our social media feed, every ad on TV, all trying to tell us what to want, is powerless over us. We are free from the need to define ourselves by the possessions that we have.
Last week, Pastor Cristina told us about Exodus 15 and the dance of freedom. The Israelites embodied the joy in their hearts, with singing and dancing and laughter and praise. It was a blessing to represent you last weekend at Cody Knapik’s wedding in Illinois, a weekend full of laughter and celebration and dancing! But I was out when they started the line dancing. Where everyone does the same motions and turns the same direction at the same time. I always fail at that, and can appreciate those who know what they are supposed to do!
Tom Long suggests that this is the story of Exodus! Not only in Exodus 15 and embodied joy, but in Exodus 19 and 20 as well. He suggests that what we often call the 10 commandments are really the dance steps of freedom. Ways to live that keep us from stepping on each other! They are God teaching the Israelites how to dance. Where to turn. When to clap. How to move around each other. These were not dreary obligations, threats from God to the Israelites that they better obey, if they want God to keep loving them. Long reminds us that these are the dance steps of love. The dance steps of freedom. This is God reminding us that we aren’t beholden to the ways of this dreary and angry world. We are a people made to dance. To sing. To live as free dancers of embodied joy!