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?