The Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue, or the Ten Words, remember, is a biblical text – a biblical text containing part of the renewed covenant between God and God's people in a certain part of the world over a certain period of time. I say, part of the covenant, because the Ten Commandments are NOT the entire covenant.
When asked the most important commandment of all, which of these ten did Jesus choose? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Which, by my reading, is both none of them AND all of them! He drove his legalistic colleagues crazy – and at the same time teaches us something about the flexibility of the text and its usefulness for discipleship in every context.
So, the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, the Ten Words – yes, they are not the entire covenant and yet the entire covenant is summed up in them. Good faith is not limited to them, yet good faith excludes none of them.
Neither is their introduction in the 20th chapter of Exodus the introduction of the covenant. This is the same covenant God first made covenant with Eve and Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and now Moses (of course I skipped a few stories), restated again; restated again for another generation of God's people in yet another time and place.
What God wants from humans has not changed: fidelity, holiness and justice. They aren't only Sunday School words. They are ways of life. Chosen lifestyles. Just like healthy eating or fitness. Thoughtful, willful, studied decisions maintained by time, energy and resource-consuming behavior.
As the second book of the Bible opens, the people of God are beginning the fifth great migration of their history; each migration was both geographic and spiritual. The first: Eve and Adam, out of the garden onto the farm. The second: Noah, onto the boat and then off of the boat. The third: Abraham, leaving the oil-rich lands of modern Iraq to the only spot in the Middle East without a drop – because, apparently, God loves a good joke as much as anyone.
The fourth: into Egypt during the famine in the days of Joseph and his brothers.
And now, out of Egypt, to this mysterious place they have come to call “promised land." For the previous 400 years, as the story goes, they were slaves. Cogs in what Walter Brueggemann calls the first great Military Industrial Economic Complex. The first recorded age of anxiety, led by a ruler driven first by greed and then by fear. So that by the first chapter of Exodus, the human cry against the misery suffered by those bred and enslaved for the greed and fear of the Empire reached the ears of God.
The new version of covenant born of God's response to their cries introduces not the first biblical economy but another rendering of biblical economy. The biblical configuration of economic ways and means – policy, if you prefer that term – presented to the people of God in complete contrast to the economics of Empire, economics that we read about over and over again in the prophets, in the words of Jesus, and in the ministry of Paul.
Empire economics are what the Hebrews knew as slaves in Egypt. Empire economics are what anyone trying to feed oneself and one's family knows today. Empire economics also drive the great migrations happening in our world today. People who live in peace and plenty feel overwhelmed and threatened by the waves of people fleeing terror and desperation, invading our way of life.
And whatever political or economic theory we choose to explain this global migration crisis, as disciples of Jesus – if that is what we choose to call ourselves – this is still the primary text for our response. For the people of God, those gathered at Mt. Sinai and those gathered in rooms like this around the world today.
That great migration is not from one geographic spot on the globe to another, but from the economy of the Empires of this world to the economy of the Kingdom of God. Just like those free men and women begging Moses to go back to Egypt, we too are a people who claim one faith but are so drawn to the perceived security of Empire. Back in Egypt, the value of a Hebrew man or woman was calculated in calories: the most energy extracted with the least fuel (food) invested meant greater value. But free, out in the wilderness of being dependent only on the grace of God, how was their value calculated there?
A Vox news story I watched this week described the migration of people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador through Mexico to the U.S. border. I shared it on my Facebook wall, if you'd like to watch it. It will also be linked to this sermon once posted on the website.
The sliver of it I want to pull out here has to do with the value of a human being in Empire economics. Mexican border police get paid 200 pesos for every immigrant they catch and bring into custody. This is in Mexico, far from the U.S. border. How much American money is 200 pesos? Just under $10. Immigrants with 220 pesos ($11) can buy their way past some officers. But on the three-week journey from Mexico’s southern border to Mexico’s northern border, there will be dozens of $11 police officers. Is that corruption? Let's remember we are talking about $9.64 per human being.
And who is paying that $10 to those Mexican border police agencies? Mexico and you and me, tax-paying Americans. We’ve offloaded the dirty work, well back from the border, so the White House could brag about reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the border since 2015. This was the last administration, not the current one.
Before we get too snooty about how disgracefully corrupt other countries are, we might consider our collective culpability. And our personal corruptibility? How is the work you do for money actually monetized? For what, exactly, are you being paid? How is your worth to your employer calculated? Professors? Teachers? Healthcare providers? Social workers? Bankers? Administrators? Every one of us who takes a paycheck has, to some degree, conceded to the monetization of human-ness. We are each of us, each and every day, deciding what parts of our lives are for sale and at what price: our energy, our time, our resources.
And, my friends, how easily and how quickly does our own self-value, our sense of worth in the world, become attached to the job or to the benefits or to the possessions those benefits provide us? So much so that the language we use for them takes a spiritual tone? A promotion, a new car, a new house – they become “blessings."
Blessings, rather than choices we made when we might have made entirely different ones. Choices we made that are rooted in the values of Empire, when we might have made choices rooted in the values set forth in the text of biblical economy. You know how your value is measured in the Empire. How about in the wilderness, the place to which God has called you out to set you free?
Ourselves, our very being, we are valuable for being God's. God made us. God loves us. Therefore we, ALL OF US, are of incalculable value. I would offer this morning that the great migration we see in the book of Exodus, which has replayed again and again in the history of humanity, which is playing out now on the borders between the world’s Haves and the Have-Nots, the migration of desperate people on the move, hoping against hope to be somewhere safe, is one major effect of the failure of humanity to root our lives and our life together in the biblical economy sketched out in the Ten Words of Exodus, chapter 20.
And that our task, as the people of God – the great migration of the spiritual life – is the same: to move ourselves – to move mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, theologically, behaviorally – out of life as citizens of Empire into life as citizens of the kingdom of the God we already claim to worship.
In the empires of this world, human beings are not valued for their existence. Period. Not just a Latino kid trying to cross the border. You either. You think if you died tomorrow your workplace would cease to function? Of course not. They'd “take a moment.” But if you work for IU, I guarantee you won’t be in the ground before one of your colleagues will email your department chair asking who’s going to get your office.
Two weeks ago I said the Ten Commandments are for knowing how to live as free people. I said they are good news, especially for our neighbors. Even if our neighbors still operate by Empire economics, when the people of God take the Ten Commandments as our marching orders, our neighbors have AT LEAST some people in their midst they've no cause to fear: people they can trust with their spouses, houses and donkeys (next week's sermon title). People who won't abuse them for their labor or their political and social weakness, for their skin color, for their nationality.
But getting that right, becoming those people to our neighbors, begins with bringing ourselves into the economy of God, valuing what God values. And to do that, we must get right with God.
The God of this text must be the God of our lives and our life together. The first four words (commandments) help us with this. I AM the God who brought you out of slavery. We must get this right. I AM saved you; I AM keeps you. No one else. Nothing else. You tried Egypt. You believed its promises. You ended up enslaved. This is an everyday decision in a world that is always promising to save us from everything.
A TV commercial promises to rescue 70-year-old women from 70-year-old women’s skin (crepey) and give them back 60-year-old women’s crepey skin. I AM freed you from the disgrace of crepey skin and the fear of old age. You are mine. Choose to remain free. Choose to remain mine.
Here are the terms: Commandments two, three, and four are the words, deeds, and dollars commandments. These three declare our personal value, whatever our values.
In this covenant economics, words, deeds and dollars go this way:
2. Do not make things into gods over you.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me, I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
“Graven images” is how I grew up hearing the second commandment. That sounded very religious to me. When I was older I realized mostly it was Baptist code for anything Catholic – their rosaries and statues and pictures of saints. But none of the Catholics I know believe those things save them any more than we believe the paper and ink of our Bibles save us.
Nothing people can do or make saved us or keeps us saved. Freed us or keeps us free. Only God. And to our own demise and disappointment do we confuse the difference. Treating things, or other people, like God in turn regards God as a thing.
We expect too much from the people and things and too little from God. Everything gets mixed up, like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. It's possible to get through the day, but life is crippled in the process. We all live wanting what we don’t have yet: that body, that car, that house, that trinket; kids, no kids, marriage, divorce; a different town, a different government, a different job, a different church, a different preacher; some thing just out of reach or something impossible.
Our fantasies give it power foreign to its own nature, hoping against hope that once we have it, we will be satisfied. What if we gave that up? Gave up pretending that life this side of heaven will include that kind of satisfaction? What if we read our Bible deeply and often enough to realize that this satisfaction we long for does not exist this side of heaven? There is peace and joy in the longing. Contentment in the longing. Faith and courage in the longing. But satisfaction? That's the stuff of heaven, friends, that's the stuff of resurrection.
Do not use my name for anything but me. Or, don’t take the God’s name in vain. I learned this was about certain cusswords. So decent people said “dadgummit,” instead of you-know-what. And invented a dozen more just like it. What if it also has to do with putting God's name on stuff that goes against the things God insists on, in the text?
Ever been to a Christian craft store? God’s name is on everything there. Christian kitsch, it’s called. Kitsch made overseas, by millions of those have-nots in an Empire that denies a billion people the right to worship, that forces its people into the exact same birth control methods the Christian craft company calls an abomination, an Empire that declines to maintain even basic workplace standards. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that might be taking God's name in vain.
How about how Empire always likes to offer up thoughts and prayers and "God bless the victims" of this or that tragedy that could easily enough have been prevented with policy and funding? Is that not taking God’s name in vain? Think God wants God’s name on that? Or how about just plain old sloppy church work? Lazy, half-baked ministry. You know how many internet sites there are to buy this week's sermons? Me either, but I know that it's a lot. The ministers I have known who are lazy, who plagiarize, who are always looking for the better gig, but always “give God all the glory” – it makes me sad and it makes me sick.
A builder I know can't stand it when Christian business people put the word Christian in their name. "Folks ought to know by the way you do business. If you have to tell them, there's probably a problem," he says. By his thinking, “Christian church” is redundant. What we put God's name on had better reflect God's ways or the name has been misused and the third commandment violated.
Keep the Sabbath. Brueggemann calls #4 the first fair labor law. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But 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 your female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns."
Carve out a seventh of your life and remove it from the Empire altogether. Don't earn or spend money. Don't force others to earn or spend either. One day of seven, don't work; one year of seven, don't plant; every seventh forgive all debts and free all slaves. By biblical economics, generation poverty is eradicated. And every seven sets of seven years, the whole economy starts over. The weekly sabbath establishes a rhythm for reminding ourselves that we do not keep ourselves; God keeps us. We act out our dependence on the grace of God by resting and allowing others to rest.
Brueggemann has written extensively on how the modern economy drives modern wars. The wealthiest 10% of people in the world want lots of things and we want them cheaply. This high standard of living demands the protection of our economic and, thus, political interests. Those interests are protected politically and often militarily. Remember the bumper stickers in 2005 that said, "What's our oil doing under their country?"
Sabbath may mean learning to live poorer, as this world thinks of rich and poor, because this high standard of living is hurting other people, it's hurting us, and it is hurting the planet. Will keeping Sabbath fix all that? It's a really, really good start. Sabbath is not only about what we do NOT do, which is work, but what we do, which is worship. Turn heart, mind, soul and strength (body, that is) to the source of our existence and stay there for a bit.
Stay there to renew fidelity. Stay there to be wholly present to the holy presence of God, who made and keeps us, whose name belongs only on the things God values – so that we might be reminded again of what qualifies as justice, in this world and the next as we, the people of God in this time and place, do our best to make our way from a land where people matter less than things, to a way of life where all people know that we are the beloved, set free children of God. Would you pray with me?
I'm already changing the plan – the Ten Commandments plan. I want to work from Galatians this week, then pick up in Exodus again the next.
Galatians 5:1 – For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. If only it were as easily done, as said.
I meant to spell it that way: holey. This plan of God to make us free. Sounds really good. But at least in my experience, it’s also really hard. And scary.
See, I like plans. I like plans in binders, organized with colored tabs for different sections. The more detailed the plan, the better I like it, the less anxious I am. God's plans are not big on binders. God’s plans go something like: Do justice; show kindness; love mercy; walk humbly. I'd call that a “holey plan,” as in a “plan full of holes.” Do justice. Are you kidding me? That's all we get, in THIS world? in THIS country, the only country in the world that treats our refugees by taking kids from their parents and putting them in cages?
Remember what baby Mariah said about her pacifier: "I love my passy. It makes me feel better." I love my binders and my plans – they make me feel better. Plans are not our certainty. Faith is our certainty. Confidence in the saving power of Jesus is our certainty. And in the absence of much faith, we get anxious.
And when we get anxious, what do we do? The same as the Hebrews did, a month into their freedom: dream of slavery. Because, as we know, slavery is as detailed a plan as anyone could ask for. You aren't free, but you don't have to figure anything out. And some days, it's a tempting trade. But it is not a faithful one.
And if that doesn't complicate the business of faith enough, sometimes church itself can get anxious, and then tempted, to hunger for the slavery of laws and rules, instead of holding faith in the unknowable space of spirit and grace. What a difficult instruction of faith: For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not return to the yoke of slavery.
It's lovelier than I can say to be in church with you all. I've had more church Wednesday, Thursday, Friday this week than most people have in three months. And, as Baptist meetings go, it was okay. Okay is the mean point between wonderful and pure aggravation.
This part was wonderful [pictures of Pastor Annette with three different individuals] – two professors and one of the first people to call me a pastor. Both professors were fired, in the purge at my seminary, for being heretics. Dr. Marshall is now president of Central Theological Seminary in Kansas City. She preached here, at my ordination. She's everything to me.
Dr. Tupper wasn't a heretic, but he was an agitator. Once in seminary chapel when a guest preacher said, “God has not, does not and will not ever call women to preach,” Dr. Tupper stood up from his pew, dramatically closed his Bible and stared the man down for the rest of his sermon. He also wrote a big fat theology book on the Providence of God that is regarded as seminal. Almost two years ago he fell and broke his neck. He's now quadriplegic.
I thought I'd never see him again, so this was a tearful time. When I went to speak to him he was so gracious, for a minute. Then he told me he needed to speak to the seminary student who had just preached, regarding her parsing of the text in Amos. “I've never been big on Amos anyway,” he said, “but she still missed a couple of things.”
Yani was one of my students when I was a campus minister at IU. Hers was my first wedding. Yani was also a member here, before graduating from Baylor and then Southern Seminary. She does amazing ministry in South Carolina now.
The other really wonderful stuff included all the field reports. Ministries and missionaries all over the world doing amazing work – work that is respectful to the people and places served. Work done by invitation and in partnership with the people involved. Not band-aid work. It is long-term investment, structure-changing work on the deepest problems facing humanity: poverty, human migration, trafficking and refugees, and race.
We are doing this work in Europe, Asia, Africa, on our southern border and all over our country. All things that our little church could never do by ourselves, that the biggest church in this world could not do by herself, that each of us has a hand in because we are doing it together. Another shape life together takes.
And as good as all that good news was, all the news wasn't good. There's this other thing. Members of this particular set of Baptists aren't getting along with each other. Shocking, I know. The particular fuss is over the fact that the churches involved can't agree about whether or not LGBTQ people are fit to serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizational leaders and missionary personnel. Some say yes. Some say no. And no one can figure out what to do about the fact that we can't agree.
Now, great is the temptation to tune out here. There was an 18-month information gathering process, followed by a two-part report. The governing board of the organization adopted both parts. But churches aren't part of the organization proper, we just support the organization so they can get all this combined ministry done. None of the report affects how we do our life together. But they need us to do all that ministry and mission. Are ya with me?
The report: Part 1 was a new hiring policy for CBF leadership and missionaries, which says nothing about LGBTQ people at all. Just CBF employee things like, "CBF staff and missionaries must be Christian." That makes sense, I think. And pretty much everybody is happy with Part One, The Policy. Part 2 is called an implementation plan. Summed up, it says LGBTQ people will not be hired for CBF leadership and missions. Some folks are much relieved by this. Others are stressed. I am stressed. I consider this blatant discrimination. It would be illegal, were it not in a religious context.
Then came the meetings this week, where we learned two things from the leadership that adopted the policy and the plan: (1) the implementation plan is not binding; (2) LGBTQ brothers and sisters will not be hired as leadership or missionary personnel. Confused yet? Multiply that by fifty. The only thing I can compare it to is the sound of a Dr. Seuss book being read in slow motion.
What it means for us as a church is a larger discussion than we’ll have today. I love what CBF does, as much as I hate what it’s doing now. That must be reconciled somehow. I don’t see how we can in good faith preach “justice everywhere, except at home." And church, life together, is home.
To the Galatians, Paul insists that the solution to the problem of the anxiety of not agreeing about something that makes us so anxious, is NOT to make new rules and then say the rules aren't binding but we are still going to go by the rules. Friends, if this story, not yet three days old, isn't proof that the church hasn't learned anything in 2000 years, I don't know what is. Remembering the story I just told you, let's pull the text apart too.
Galatia wasn't A church; it was a network of churches. Where? Modern Turkey. The Apostle Paul started several churches in Galatia. This letter is to all of them. The terribly abbreviated version of the story goes like this: Jewish Christians in the church thought it best that Gentile Christians be circumcised. No doubt they thought they were being helpful. Since the first Christians were Jews, these newcomers would get along better by being more Jew-like. Not all-out-Jewish, just a little “Jew-ish.”
It probably matters to remember that outside Christian life, except to do business, Jews didn't mix with Gentiles. The law, the same law that prescribed circumcision, forbade that. Circumcision was just a tiny surgical procedure performed by a rabbi, normally done when a Jewish boy was eight days old. This would require a new plan, of course, since these believers are grown men.
I did the math. I've attended something like 275 church business meetings, and I've heard some unpopular ideas brought to the floor to be voted on. But can you imagine how this went down in a Galatian church council meeting?
I have so many questions about this. Honestly, how did they present it? Was it going to be a new rule? Or maybe it came from the fellowship committee. We’re going to have a father-son campout and, oh, by the way, the guest speaker is a rabbi. Apparently a plan was made, and Paul got wind of it before they went through with it. He's livid. For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery! Doesn't that sound just like Exodus 20, verse 1? And if you think the way I talk about this feels awkward, Paul's language will burn your ears.
If you go ahead and let yourselves be cut around, he says (the word “circumcise” means to cut around), Christ will be of no value to you. If you cut around yourselves, you cut yourself off. – Know that word? It’s castrate! – You castrate yourself from Christ and fall away from grace. You cut yourself from the body, from Christ. The opposite of “cut off” is – what? To bind yourself to the other.
If you go through with this circumcision, you bind yourself to the whole law and simultaneously cut yourselves off from the grace of God. You cast off the very freedom Jesus lived and died and rose to give you. In Christ Jesus, Paul says, circumcision or uncircumcision counts for nothing. The only thing that counts is – what? Faith acted out as love.
And forcing others to look or act the same as you, so that you will be more comfortable being around them, is NOT love. Jews don't get to make Gentiles look like Jews in order for everyone to be Christians. Even Jews know circumcision doesn't make one a Jew. Following the whole law makes one a Jew. And the ones suggesting circumcision don't even do that anymore! Or they wouldn't be trying to figure out how to worship with Gentiles in the first place. It's maddening!
You could not have found a person at the Baptist meeting who doesn't think that LGBTQ people should be welcome and included in CBF life. EVERYBODY is sensitive to their presence and their feelings, which I suppose is commendable. Because what is the baseline morality of our life together? It’s “Don’t be a jerk!”
But being sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not equal faith acted out as love. Sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not require the other to change his or her essential self to make me more comfortable in his, her, or their presence. And sensitive to another's presence and feelings certainly does not qualify as freedom, for me or for the other person. That is, in the words of Paul, a yoke of slavery.
Remember what Paul says in Romans 3. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. To be in Christ is not to be THE SAME; to be in Christ is to be ONE. Because there is just one Christian body. It is Christ’s body. And if we are going to bind ourselves to the fearful ways of this world, we cut ourselves off from that one body. We cannot be one in Christ without being one with each other.
This makes being gathered with other Baptists who drive me crazy very complicated – for them as much as for me. As much as I cannot stand this fight we are pretending is not a fight, that much – OR MORE – I am proud of the mission and ministry we are doing together. And I wish it could be either/or. But it's not. And as it has to do with Galatians, the real hypocrisy at work is that the people pushing this circumcision plan, they don't really want the Gentiles to actually BE Jews. Just “Jew-ish." (Kathleen Norris wrote that she considers herself Christian-ish, as she's not very good at it.)
If you all could be okay about this one thing – you know, just this one little thing – everything else will stay just the same. We'll keep on loving each other and pretending we all agree that this is no big deal, and we can get on with doing the important work of ministry and mission for the least of these in our world. It will be just easier for everyone.
But will it really? Will it be easier for the ones who are literally being cut from the body? Whose biology is more relevant than their spirit and their faith and their calling? Maybe it will be easier for them, because people will do almost anything to fit in, won't they? Because Paul is talking to the Gentiles, not to the Jews. “Listen,” he says, “if you allow yourselves to be circumcised…." Those aren’t words spoken to Jews.
You are Gentiles! Jesus did not set you free to enslave yourself or to erase yourself. God loves YOU! You! as God made you. And God loves you as God finds you. You don't become someone else or something else in order to become God's. You are God's, here, now, as you are. Not someday, when other people decide they are ready to be comfortable around you.
Because this is the plan God made: that we be free and trust what he has done for us in Christ Jesus; that we not get so afraid in the spaces where life isn't clear that we decide to force clarity into some sort of written-down, detailed plan that only makes everything worse.
I really don't know if most people are doing the best they can most of the time. But I know I sleep better and work better and enjoy this life more, when I live as if they are, when I treat them as if they are – including the people I disagree with, the ones who drive me crazy, and I them. The world is mean. The work is hard. And we are weak. That's what God has to work with.
If God made a detailed plan, what's the chance we'd be happy with it? That we'd do it as written? Instead, in Christ Jesus, God did the work: absorbing the hatefulness; relieving us of our weakness; freeing us to simply live; doing the best we can, as much as we can, to love others as Jesus loved us, just as they are, here and now. Thanks be to God.
By way of introduction to this series on the Ten Commandments, I've a video clip to show, then I have three questions to consider. The video clip is from an old late-night show called The Colbert Report – an interview of a congressman who has been out of office more than ten years. I'm not sharing his name or state – so if you know, please don't. My point isn't to poke fun at him, but rather to see in him a near-perfect example of how Empire and scripture so often intersect. Video Clip
Question One: What are the other seven commandments? Our trusty congressman gave us three. (Extra points if you know where they go in order.) You’ll notice I massaged the language a bit. Black preaching has a saying: If you ain’t heard something and you ain’t seen something, you ain’t got nothing. This massaged language is based on thirty years of seeing and hearing the Ten Words used abusively in church.
1. I AM the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery. Don't make other beings into gods.
2. Don’t make things into gods.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me – I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
5. Respect the elders.
6. Don't murder.
7. Don't do adultery.
8. Don't steal.
9. Don't lie.
10. Don't covet your neighbor's house or spouse.
The Ten Commandments are also called Decalogue. Do you know the word “Decalogue”? Deca- means “ten”; logue means “words.” Ten words. For too many people – people like our friend the congressman and many of our brothers and sisters INSIDE church – Ten Commandments is a billboard. Something posted and large enough to hide behind, but never read. Never carved into our hearts and minds.
But not for the people of God. They are God’s gift for life as free people. Where they hang is irrelevant, if they do not hang on the walls of our life together; if they are not written on our hearts, as the Apostle Paul said. The Ten Words are the words of life for free people.
Question Two: If the Ten Words are not for decorating public buildings, what are they for? Spoiling your fun? In 1992 Mariah was 18 months old and about to poke her tiny fingers into an electric outlet. One of my campus ministry students – now a chemistry professor at Mississippi State – said, "Oh, it's fine. She'll get a little buzz and it will teach her not to do it again.”
"Or, she will die," I responded – and then bought lots of these outlet covers. Dr. Gwaltney has two sons, both of whom, thankfully, have lived to graduate high school. I suspect their mom bought these outlet covers for their house too. Because good parents don't bring babies home from the hospital, set them down, and turn them loose, do they? That isn't freedom. That's neglect.
The Lord our God did not bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of that houseful of horror and trauma and bondage of slavery, to leave them to fend for themselves in the wilderness of their own memories, terrors, cravings and imagination. What are the Ten Words for? For knowing how to live as free people. They are good news: from God, to the people of God and – even more so – to their neighbors.
I AM is starting over – AGAIN. The garden. The flood. Abraham. Now Moses. And these Hebrews. A new kingdom unlike any that the living or their ancestors have ever known. Unlike, that is, the empires of this world. Pharaoh embodies, in this section of scripture, the political and economic system built from an infrastructure of false scarcity.
The allegiance, the faith, demanded by empire and gladly kept by citizens and slaves is to the trinity of wisdom, wealth, and power. Empire wisdom, Empire wealth, Empire power – that elusive tease of some future trickle-down effect: trust the empire, enrich and empower the empire, and you too will prosper. The devil’s lie from Eden, to the desert, to here and now.
I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of THAT house, the scripture says. You belong to me and to my kingdom: a kingdom with an infrastructure of abundance; a kingdom that keeps faith in the faithfulness of I AM, faith that the One who set you free means to keep you free as well.
What does Pharaoh (Empire) value? Wisdom, Wealth, Power. What does God who brought us out to set and keep us free value? Faith. Justice. The common good. Again, the Ten Words are not just good news for us only. They are good news for our neighbors: I'll never steal your wife or husband; I don't want your house or land or goats; I won't steal your food or tell lies about you and your family. Those are empire ways, and we've had enough of empire to last ten thousand lifetimes.
We choose freedom. Freedom inside a very, very big fence built not to spoil our fun but to keep us ALL safe – us and our neighbors – whom God also loves like a good parent loves her children; where God is trustworthy – trustworthy to provide all we need to live. Manna, remember? Bread from heaven. Only that's not what the word manna means, do you remember? Manna means “what is it?”
Martin Luther wrote (this is Martin Luther the German Lutheran from 500 years ago, not Martin Luther King Jr. the Georgia Baptist from 50 years ago) that whoever has the Decalogue has the whole Bible. Everything else is the story of God raising the people of God to be free. They fail. Repeatedly. Empire is a tricky devil and so very, very, very seductive.
Which brings us to the third and final question: Why do we need the Ten Words at all? The answer is in your homework – all forty-seven chapters of it (Genesis 37 through Exodus 20) – which I know you have read, so I can blow through it quickly.
Once upon a time, long before the time of Moses, the Hebrews were free. But they were also few. There was Jacob, his four baby mamas and his thirteen kids, all living in Canaan. Of his twelve boys, Joseph was his favorite. So much so that Jacob dressed him in extra-expensive, fancy, tailor-made clothes, while the other boys worked out of a pile of Target t-shirts and shorts. As you would expect, Joseph was a terrible brat. He'd gather his brothers and tell them about his dreams in which he was a king and they were all his servants, bowing down to him and obeying his every command.
Naturally, being brothers – and this being the Bible – they decided to kill him. As they contemplated his means of death, a better offer came along. They sold him, naked, to slave traders. They pocketed the money, dipped his fancy pants in goat's blood and told their father his precious Joseph had been eaten by a beast. One tale says that Jacob went blind from weeping over Joseph all those years. After many adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt – not as king, but almost. He's right-hand man to the Pharaoh, in charge of food security for the entire Egyptian Empire.
"Pharaoh" is the Bible's first archetype of Empire. All the wealth and power necessary to thrive, Pharaoh already has. Only he doesn't believe it. No matter how rich he gets, he dreams of starving to death; he dreams of scarcity. He needs more. Joseph helps him make a plan to get more. With Joseph's help, Pharaoh – Empire, remember – buys, stores, and hoards food over years and years until he possesses a food monopoly for the entire region, including Canaan. Food = power. Always. The Hebrews end up coming to Egypt to buy food.
Joseph is still a jerk to his brothers, like when you know you are going to start being good (go on a diet or stop drinking, etc.) on Monday – so what do you do all weekend? How do you act on the weekend? That's Joseph in Genesis chapters 42, 43, 44 and 45. He's horrible, because he knows that in chapter 50 he's going to forgive them for everything they did. But not yet. So in chapter 50, Joseph acts right to his brothers. The family is restored.
But politically, socially, economically, biblically, the deed is done, isn't it? The Hebrews are in Egypt now, under the thumb of the Pharaoh. And for the next 400 years, the Hebrews do what? They have babies. Thousands and thousands of babies. All the while, the Pharaoh’s dreams of scarcity also increase. He strangles the people by starving them, so that all the people are forced to use all their money to buy food.
When their money runs out, Pharaoh says, Okay. You can pay with your livestock. When the money and livestock are gone, they have only one asset left: their land. What choice do they have? They pay for food with their land. They sell themselves into slavery in order to eat.
Joseph is long dead – see Exodus, chapter 1. Memories are always short (for everyone in the scriptures, except the prophets), and the Pharaoh is richer than ever, but no less anxious; and he is no longer driven by greed, but rather by fear. By fear of the very people he owns. Why? Because there are too many of them.
The twenty members of Jacob's family have become a population of thousands. The age of anxiety, Dr. Brueggemann calls it. Where politics and economics no longer make sense because they aren't driven by policy or economics at all, but rather by anxiety and fear. Anxiety at the top of the Empire always means misery and suffering at the bottom.
The Hebrew workers are literally being tortured – treated as machines, disregarded as human beings, serving only to increase profits for the Pharaoh, to pacify the anxiety of the Empire. It's a circular, impossible strategy that inevitably explodes in violence. The workers cry out. The Empire cracks down harder. They cry to the heavens – and God hears. Finally. After so, so long.
It's tempting to think God wasn't listening. But eighty years earlier, what happened? You remember. A little girl put her baby brother in a basket in a river. God planted a Hebrew asset in the Pharaoh's own house. He was long gone from the Pharaoh's house when God sent him back.
God's purposes ALWAYS require human agency. And Moses gets them out. God leads him and he leads them from Egypt to the wilderness up to Mt. Sinai. They are not as happy as you might think – it is the Bible after all; someone's always fussing. Their bodies may be free from making bricks, but freedom of the heart and mind is a much longer journey. They sold themselves into Egypt, remember. And all they know is slavery.
Being free isn't the same as knowing how to live free. Free from anxiety; free from greed; free from the never-ending craving for certitude. And you don’t have to be the Pharaoh to crave certitude, to want to know for sure what tomorrow will bring. It's a long, long, long way from slavery to freedom. A long, long education, learning to live free.
Ten Words, the scriptures offer to the ones who believe we belong to God, beginning with I AM the God who brought you out of Empire, the God who will keep bringing you out day after day after day, out of a world that will enslave you to anxiety and fear and promises it can never keep. You belong to me, and if you will let yourself belong to me, let my words guide you, my words can be all the words you ever need – and more than you can ever fully know.
May this be a word of the Lord for today.
To this relationship between God and the human which we call Christian, each brings their own part. God brings the Christ event and all the accoutrements therein: the grace, most of all; the everlasting life; the capacity for contentment and fearlessness; and, for today's purposes, the Holy Spirit – also called Advocate or Counselor. Which both have the ring of lawyer. I like to think if the word had existed then, Bible translators might have called the Holy Spirit “coach." Anyway, God brings the Christ event, including the Holy Spirit. And we bring faith.
Now I want to tell you a story. About how my brother-in-law Guy Briggs used to take us out for dinner. Except we called it supper, of course. Guy was 18 months younger than Carl. He had Down syndrome and lived at home with his parents his whole life. He died when he was 33. His whole adult life he was 4'11" and weighed 285 pounds. Proudly! He had about a hundred quirks, habits, hobbies and collections – and a bank account, because he worked full-time after graduating high school, which he was not shy to gloat about to his forever-in-school brother.
In Guy’s closet was a briefcase, and in the briefcase were years-and-years’ worth of birthday cards, all with money in them, because Guy had no use for birthday cards without money in them. $1's and $5's and his favorite, $10 bills. About once a month Guy would get the case from the closet, the cards from the case, and the money from the cards, and put it in his wallet. The kind of wallet with a chain that attached to his belt. Like a Harley man, he said. He'd take his wallet in the living room and say, "I wan’ take Mama and Daddy out for supper." Always to either Shoney's or Bonanza.
Except, at Bonanza or Shoney's the money never came back out of the Harley wallet. Everybody ate. Daddy, Cecil, paid. We’d go home. Guy put all the money back in all the cards, put the cards back in the briefcase, put the briefcase back in the closet. And no one said a word... until next month when they, or we, would all go to supper again on that same $87.
Which is a silly way of saying: this faith we carry in our pockets, this faith we think makes us Christian, this faith we think we spend to feed ourselves and others – it may seem like something we did, or something we earned, or something we spend to gain whatever blessings we claim. And maybe the Lord watches us and thinks the same generous, kindly thoughts we think about the hobbies and habits of a mildly mentally handicapped man, when it’s his daddy covering him the whole time. Just like Cecil Briggs at the Bonanza.
The Lord just plays along, letting us think that we are doing something grand, when the faith we claim is itself a gift of God. God has bankrolled both partners in the deal, and all that is ours to do is trust. For Pentecost, the lectionary circles back around to John 15 and 16, Jesus's promise of the Holy Spirit: the promise delivered now, these 50 days after Easter – a promise made deep into the farewell discourse. Your hearts are filled with sorrow, Jesus says, so much so you cannot listen to me now, when there is so much left to say.
Anxiety blocks learning. We know that, so surely Jesus did. Anxiety + grief = emotional paralysis, at a minimum – and even more pervasive results, depending on the trauma. Without Him, Jesus knew the disciples would fail. Fail hard. Jesus isn’t about to leave them alone. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We live in the great meantime between the resurrection and his return. We’ll never make it on our own.
I was up for children's sermon this week. I was going to bring my suitcase in, since it's in the car already. Mine is green and Carl's is blue. When the blue suitcase comes out at home, no one cares. But when the green one comes upstairs and is laid out on the bedroom floor, it's a different story. Golden Retriever Number 1, Rosie Cotton, lies beside it and sighs. Golden Retriever Number 2, Scout, paces the house and cries.
Here she is [picture] on the driveway this morning when I put the suitcase in the car. If you could hear her, you’d think her leg was in a trap. Now, I realize what is altogether wrong with this image, since in it I am Jesus Christ and Carl Briggs is the Holy Spirit. But what is altogether right about this image is that we all get to be golden retrievers! We are all invited to trust Jesus in his promise that the Holy Spirit is coming and will be as real and as trustworthy as Carl Briggs always turns out to be when I leave town. Bringing me to the question I want to consider today: Is the Holy Spirit real?
You know those words people say that you don't really know the meaning of, but too much time went by and you didn’t ask, so you just go along? Holy Spirit was one of those words for me, for a long time – something I thought everyone else had a better, clearer grasp of, than I did. Pneuma and Ruah – all the $3 seminary words and biblical scholar- ship had lots to say to my brain, but not to my heart or my life. Does that make sense?
But when I poked at it a little, do you know what I discovered? Lots of folks were faking it, right along with me! Especially folks in our non-pentecostal, mainline protestant tradition. Still, the Holy Spirit is either real or it isn't. How do we know? By faith. Not by proof. Not by publication. By faith. We believe by faith, not proof. We can no more prove the Holy Spirit isn’t real than that it is.
So, for me and you, if it’s useful, here is my understanding of the Holy Spirit, after twenty- some years of thinking hard about it. I say thinking, but it’s a work of life and heart and brain. I grew up around churchy people, so I heard about the Holy Spirit early and often. I got the idea he was like Jesus’ spy, only nice – and very helpful so long as I behaved. If I didn’t, HE (of course the Holy Spirit was he, though the Bible does not say so) would tell Jesus and I’d be in trouble. I almost NEVER got in trouble.
Later, like after I had been to seminary and had a baby and had seen a bit of the wideness of this world, I began to see that every person in this world is leaning on something, is guided by something: knowingly, unknowingly; a voice, a force, a philosophy, a memory; some perspective upon existence, some frame of reference to which they have tuned their heart and mind.
People steeped in church and in scripture, especially if we have applied ourselves, learn a culture of spiritual life. Mine was rooted in the scripture, its stories, poetry, teaching and laws, and in the particular light by which the people I knew read it. All for better and for worse. All the scripture I know comes through the lens and work of imperfect human beings. It is smudged with their prejudice, fear, weakness, and good intentions.
The ways of God – justice, righteousness, grace – those ways became the ways of life the folks on the same path as me learned to want for ourselves. And for the world. The more we not only learn but actually feed on the ways of God in the scriptures, the more these ways become embedded in our thinking, in our feeling, in our view of the world, our judgments. They become the framework for how we make meaning of everything. Other people with other experience are sure to have entirely other perspective, to create entirely other culture. Or maybe, a very similar culture which they call by a different name than Christian.
Simultaneously as these ways embed in our thinking and feeling, we behave accordingly, as well – or intend to. Desire to. We call it living by faith, trusting in this system of God’s ways without the kind of verification available to prove gravity. Over years and years of living by faith, of tuning one’s whole self to what our tradition and culture has named the Holy Spirit, a life of stories is built that becomes a living, breathing REAL version of all that I believe, that we believe, that this life together has believed and pursued in faith.
Is it a mind game? Some think so. I don't. Or if it is, everyone is doing it. And we have a name for ours: life in Christ. Two things make it so difficult. One, our propensity for discontentment, always fearing we are missing something better. Second, it’s really, really hard. It’s really, really hard because all this time we are being raised in faith, we are also being raised in the world. If ALL I could hear in my heart and mind every waking hour and in my dreams were the voice of the Holy Spirit, my goodness, what a truckload of anxiety and grief could be saved!
But there are LOTS of voices in this head of mine. There's the "You've worked so hard, you deserve a treat" voice; and the “Let’s go buy something” voice; and the “You are a terrible preacher/mother/wife/friend” voice; and the “None of what you’re doing matters, so why try harder?" voice; and the “Why aren't you a high school history teacher?" voice; and the “What if none of this stuff called faith means anything at all, and this really is just a game?" voice. And on any given day all those voices can wear a person out. They can overwhelm the voice I mean to listen to.
Hearing, of course, demands listening. Which, again, is why Jesus couldn’t say everything he wanted to. They were too upset to listen. And he didn’t push them very much – extra hard – which I appreciate.
Anyway, my honest answer to the question is, “Yes. Yes, the Holy Spirit is real." The Holy Spirit is one name for the mysterious force in the universe by which I experience the goodness and the grace of God in this world. It comes to me in nature; it comes to me in books; it comes to me through other people, and sometimes in ways I can’t explain at all.
Holy Spirit is the name I use for how Jesus comes to me like a real-time coach, pushing me to be braver, kinder, and freer; to be less fearful, less prideful, less greedy; to be more – more patient, more just, and more humble; to work out the mystery of this work of Christ in me called “salvation." I can't prove it. I can only tell you about it as I have tasted of it, learned it, and as I experience it.
Everybody is trusting in something, even if they call it nothing. Because nothing is still something, remember. And I have decided, at least on my best days, to trust Jesus’ promise, and my experience, that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. The Spirit of God, given once in the Christ, is within and among us here and now, taking care of our lives and our life together, leading us as we do God's will in the world today.