1 Peter 2:9
Do you think our scripture from the book of Exodus, the Ten Commandments (which is sometimes called the Decalogue) is a “pledge-of-allegiance” sort of text? A place your right hand over your heart kind of text?
It might be. It doesn’t seem to countenance much in the way of dialogue or conversation. You shall not – those three words don’t leave a lot of room for situational ethics. You don’t question a text like this and it would seem you wouldn’t protest it either – you obey it, or else risk the consequences. It’s the kind of text that gets carved into a massive piece of granite and set in the dead center of the town square, like a message dropped from the sky.
Obey. Or risk absolute consequences. Throw that so and so off the field, said our president when NFL players took the knee during the national anthem. Like the anthem, perhaps we sense this text is absolute in its imperiousness. It seems like a zero-sum game. Obey or else. . . .
Absolutist reactions to this text –or to the national anthem or the flag — seem wrong to me. This morning, I want to try to recover some space for reflection – to lower the temperature of this text (and perhaps other national texts) if possible. To name how the Decalogue properly functions in a proportionate way to the journey of faith itself. I also want to see if we cannot grasp the Decalogue as standing for what one theologian calls a “critical principle of protest against every kind of [exploitation]” (Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus” in New Interpretation Bible, volume 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 840). This posture, of protest, seems far removed from our experience of today’s text. But that’s our agenda.
Let’s begin at the beginning. . . .
“These are the words God said. . . .”
It’s pretty direct. In fact, I don’t think you will see quite this level of God-speech very often in scripture. Most of our texts to this point have been to do with God-events. Manna, water, deliverance out of captivity – events. Today it’s not event, but speech: “These are the words God said . . .” (Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 201).
As if to make up for the wordiness of the text, the narrator does make the mountain shake and thunder. It sounds like a mountain exploding with a volcanic indigestion. Yet even with all that theo-thermic indigestion, it’s still wordy.
You might suspect it’s a bit of staging by our narrator – God just isn’t this wordy. If God has something to say, add a dash of fire and smoke, earthquake and lightnings. In scripture, though, it’s not just staging. It’s a reminder: Despite the wordiness of today’s text, we should remember that the One who speaks is more mystery than explanation. Don’t get too attached to the clarity of these rules – never lose sight of the fire.
Maybe that earthquake also recalls God’s decisive action. Which is to say, God’s command is grounded in God’s deliverance of the oppressed. God jams the wheels of Egypt’s chariots so that they turn with difficulty. God parts the waters. God rains bread down from heaven. And when God hears the people of Israel groaning under the lash of Pharaoh, God does not declare a moratorium on legislative action, instead God initiates political revolution. God delivers. And the same God commands (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), 184).
Usually, we think of command as indifferent to the commanded. But that’s not the God we find in scripture. God speaks in the language of affectional relationship, even maternal care: I bore you, brought you to myself, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of captivity. Chapter 19 portrays God as a mother eagle. She nudges her eaglets out of the nest, in order to form them. If they should fall, she catches them. She aims to make us soar. Formation not condemnation is the principal goal of today’s text (Fretheim, Exodus, 208-10).
Our second reading this morning sums up the intent of the ten commandments – God’s covenant with Israel – to make us a peculiar people, visibly different people, related to God through God’s electing love. Given the absence of penalties within these commands, one must conclude that these commands function at a formational level – not at the level of threat. It’s not about crime and punishment, that’s case law and it shows up in the next chapter, but here it’s about the formation of a society governed – politically and economically – by the radical vision of social liberation (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20” in Working Preacher (October 8, 2017)). It’s aspirational but not merely inspiration. It’s got content.
In our adult forum, we’re studying the Gospel of Mark. Mark portrays Jesus primarily as a teacher. “Jesus teaches the crowd from a boat” – his students are amazed, they say he teaches like one with authority, and so on. He gets great reviews on RateMyProfessor.com. But you seldom hear his lectures. Instead, Jesus heals. Jesus raises people from the dead. Jesus walks on water. The actions of Jesus imply the teaching but don’t state it.
Jesus proclaims the reign of God – the rule of God – but doesn’t give us a constitution, a manifesto, but rather the fruit of that reign.
This is the way we’ve experienced the command of God in Exodus. The event included a command, but we were swept away by the event itself. Awe, not a thick sheaf of class notes, was our primary take away from that experience.
Today, however, we get the notes. It’s almost secondhand. There isn’t as much fire in these words. So we perhaps we read them differently than we might an event.
Perhaps, from time to time, we ask, “Who is this God who acts decisively?” Thunder often startles us. But you also want to think about it. We feel something. Awe or quiet wonder. We say, “That was God! or “Was that what I think it was?”
And then it – or God – vanishes.
You’re left to puzzle it out on your own. I enjoy that sort of thing, puzzling things out. But today, we get the character of God, in print, as a set of commands. And God’s character implies not only something about God but something about us.
It’s a shared identity. Something like the rules of the road. A red light means “stop” – neither you nor I shall proceed against a red light. I love a good story as much as anyone else. I love contingency, ambiguity, irony, internal contradiction. But I hope your story also includes yielding to pedestrians. You shall not bear false testimony. You shall not steal. You shall not covet. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not proceed against a red light. These are not just good moral ideas – they make life livable. You need to stop . . . you will stop. I know you will. And because of this, we are related to a common character that promotes the greater good. It might be boring, but it’s important.
Here’s another thing that may commend this text to us. Our text is not primarily the experience of God, but a directional apparatus for following God correctly – it’s God’s command made explicit. But don’t turn it into an unimpeachable thing, which is beyond question or critique. God gave a non-sedentary people a non-sedentary law. It’s a compass. It floats, so to speak, in the circle of life. It has within it a kind of nervousness for our true north (Fretheim, Exodus, 201-07).
Or, as some would have it, directions for living. But I prefer the way a needle on an old compass exhibits a kind of “nervousness for north” – that’s the way it feels to me.
God’s commands will never be a substitute for living – that’s always the danger with texts like this. The beauty, of course, is that it’s in black and white. And the terror, of course, is that it’s in black and white. I fear that we will love the compass more than the journey; the print more than the passion of God’s love.
For one of our long-distance walks in England, my father-in-law gave me his father’s compass, probably from World War II. I was touched. And also a little bit wary of carrying it with me, fearing that I would lose it and that all I’d remember about the walk was how I lost my father-in-law’s compass. I tried to imagine the walks he had taken with it – but mostly, it was a quiet companion on my walk. It felt comforting to know that it had helped generations before complete their journeys. But mostly, it stayed in my shirt pocket. I could feel it, but I was mostly walking, mostly living, mostly sure of the path . . . until I wasn’t.
I didn’t pull it out in alarm. It wasn’t a “gasping” for God kind of moment. It wasn’t an “awe” of the living God kind of moment. It was a, “Let’s see here, I’m not sure where I am” kind of moment, as I arranged my map on a nearby rock, orienting myself to the north, looking for landmarks that would yield a clue to my actual location. And mostly, it confirmed that I was where I was supposed to be.
That’s the way we might think about the commandments. The Decalogue is not the journey, it doesn’t substitute for God’s actions, and it can’t be absolutized – it becomes dangerously inhuman when we do that – but the commands of God do show their value, a nervous but reliable needle for the true north of our faith journey.
So maybe it’s like traffic rules, or a compass with a needle nervous for our true north, or it’s a covenant (a contract) between us and our God in which God’s character implies not only something about God but something about what it means to be a good neighbor: do not covet, do not steal, do not bear false testimony, do not commit adultery.
By the way, that business of do not covet someone else’s property has nothing to do with the way we view private property. That’s a middle-class conceit. We will understand the ethics of these commandments only if we view them from the perspective of the once upon a time slave, or oppressed community. Remember these words represent God’s speech to form freedom vision for the oppressed – God delivered this people out of captivity, who were viewed as property. This law is not about protecting private property for the middle class. It is about protecting the poor from the greed of the rich.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me” – and it rushes like a mighty stream through the entirety of this text.
The First Commandment is a manifesto that declares that we will never return to Egyptian captivity. And because this is a covenant, a form of social contract with God and our neighbor, we are obligated to reject, defy, resist any system that promotes death as the new normal. Mass shootings in Vegas. New normal in America. Extrajudicial killings of black people. The new normal in America. Productivity goals and consumerist addictions and the demonic speed of the global financial system. The new normal in America. The once upon a time slave will reject this system – because it is unfaithful to the freedom for which we have been set free.
Down in Texas, a coach informed his high school football team that if they took the knee during the playing of the national anthem, they’d be kicked out of the game. Ignoring his warning, two boys, young black men, took the knee. And the coach, a white man, who is also a Baptist pastor, told them to get off the field, and leave their uniforms in the locker room. Football, not protest, was the primary game, or the principal god commanding the loyalty of the coach. Black lives don’t matter as much as sports matter.
You will have no other gods before me, our First Commandment. Notice, our text assumes that we have other gods. And we do. We are henotheists. Which is to say, we believe in competing gods, gods of consumerism, productivity goals, the demonic speed of finance – and the domesticated god of church on Sunday.
The coach, a former U.S. Marine, said he wouldn’t tolerate that kind of disrespect for our national symbols. A nationalistic god, perhaps rules his heart, along with or as a rival to the saving love of Jesus.
He cares about national symbols. So do we. But perhaps he was less incensed by the indiscriminate killing of black people in America – which is why those young men took the knee to begin with. Even so, for the coach, and perhaps for many others, the actual and indiscriminate killings black people by a systemically racist police force was less offensive than taking the knee during the national anthem.
We’ve got a divided loyalty, but we don’t know it or we’re not prepared to acknowledge it. Other gods do not deliver. God delivers. But God does so by becoming as we are, even to the point of death on a Roman cross.
And defies that death in resurrection promise
God takes the knee . . . so that we might stand together.
Wendell Berry, poet and novelist, writes that we should give our approval, our allegiance, to things that do not compute: “Love the Lord, love the world, work for nothing. Take all that you have, and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. And hope to live in that free republic for which it stands” (Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973).
Those young men had it right. They saluted a higher law than the law of the herd, of the mob, of the unthinking. Taking a knee required candor about where we are, who we are in danger of becoming, and even more, a conviction of our high calling as a nation. And they testified to the God who would never return them to slavery. They may have lost their uniforms, but perhaps, by God’s grace, they have won something more than mere rags.
May it be so for our nation.
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017