Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses this name that way. Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.”
Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.”
I remember when I was young, spending time at my grandparents and flipping through their old photo albums. Together we’d look at fuzzy photos of people I didn’t recognize, and share stories of which I was not apart, wondering where I fit in.
The last few weeks of reading the Exodus story has been like flipping through an old photo album. Just a few weeks ago, the pictures of the birth of a new people came into focus as the Hebrews fled Egypt following a God they didn’t know nor understand. As we turned the page, the Hebrews toddled on as they threw one temper tantrum after another when their water didn’t taste good, and when they didn’t want to eat the food that was before them. Last week, the teenage-angsty-boundary-pushing cried out Are you really with us, or not, God? Have you been with us all along, even when we take you for granted? Will you be with us even in our loneliness? Will you abandon us when we push you away?
Pretending the Old Testament stories are like a photo album may seem like a relatable image, but it robs them of their reality. These stories are about us. We have taken baby steps towards an unknown end. We have felt an overwhelming rush of emotions we couldn’t control, unhappy but unsure why we’re upset. We have all doubted…and struggled with that doubt. And we have each rejected the notion of our chosen-ness, our blessedness, believing instead the voices of the despairing. We may believe our journey of faith to be fairly linear – but it’s not. The ages and stages of our faith lives can recur many times over our lifetime, sometimes experiencing all of them within a singular day.
Why then do we call it a journey of faith if we find ourselves retreading the same ground?
I think it’s because we are never the same people even if we’re entering familiar territory. Take the Ten Commandments. When we were first introduced to the words, we might have been very young. If we closed our eyes maybe we’d see those old Sunday School drawings, or maybe, you remember the Mel Brooks movie The History of the World pt1 carrying the fifteen…
Video Clip… © 20th Century Fox/Disney?
I mean, Ten Commandments…But when I was young, the Ten Commandments seemed scary. They were rules, and laws, and I remember being afraid of what happened if I broke one of them. I didn’t particularly worry about the ones that didn’t affect me – but not desiring someone else’s stuff? My friends always seemed to have better videogames than me. I couldn’t turn off that “comparison shopping” part of my brain, and I know there were plenty of times that I didn’t “honor my parents…” I couldn’t help but read commandment five as a veiled threat…honour your parents so that your life will be long, for if you don’t honour them it won’t be…
But reading those Ten Commandments now, and especially in light of the last few weeks of reading the story of Exodus, I can’t help but see them less as ‘dos and don’ts’ as the natural progression of “growing up in faith,” entrusted with the responsibility of caring for one another and the planet with God’s help. A whole sermon series could be done on the individual commandments, but taking them altogether helps us realize that this is how the story of the Hebrew liberation continues to unfold. For this is what freedom looks like.
In Egypt, the Hebrew people were under foreign rule – which meant that you worked to please your captor. You were fed, but just enough to be a worthwhile, functional, part of the “capitalistic” machine. You were disposable, because your poverty ensured that there was someone else like you, just as desperate as you, right behind you. When the people were liberated, gone was the system that both blessed and broke them, took care of them and punished them, forcing the Hebrews to grow up and take responsibility.
In this newfound relationship with God, the people are free to follow these commandments. There’s no built in punishment as there would be under the Egyptian rule. The mutual respect and understanding that treat the Hebrews as adults, free to make mistakes, free to “sin,” that is separate themselves from God is not the same as that which they left behind. In some ways, this is scarier than anything they’ve ever experienced in Egypt.
Those first few years out of the nest, as young adults find work or school are wonderfully liberating. You want to eat pizza for breakfast? Done! You want to eat pizza for every meal? Why not? But a change happens internally when you realize that the repercussions of your decisions fall on your shoulders alone.
(You know…it’s kind of like wearing a mask, and keeping social distancing, that if you choose not to follow the rules of doctors, sometimes, you end up suffering the consequences.)
It’s freeing, though we yearn for the safety of the nest just the same. It’s why many have turned these commandments into “law” or some sort of moral or ethical framework. It’s more clear-cut that way. But the difference between these commandments and laws are found in the “punishments” that follow. A punishment for breaking the law is usually directed at the individual. If I steal (this silver pitcher, I’d be sent to jail. But if you read the “punishments” that follow the commandments, their focus is on a restoration to the community. For we are called back into right relationship with God and with one another, free to make the same mistakes, to walk the same ground, knowing that we are never the same people. This is the journey of faith, often retreading the same ground in order that we might learn something new about ourselves, and about our God.
For when I read the ten commandments today, instead of outdated laws that have little to do with my reality, today I read them as ten reminders that what we have and what we are is enough. God is enough for you – you don’t need any more gods, you don’t need idols that shrink down the immense immersive presence of the Creator, you don’t need to misuse or speak on behalf of God because the divine still speaks, six days are enough to work, and the relationships you have in this life, be they with your family, those you hate (or struggle to love, or need to forgive, or show mercy towards), those you lust after, those who have shinier videogames or more toys than you, those who make you want to lie – all of these cause you to question whether or not you are aware of the presence and blessing of God in your midst.
These ten reminders call us back to God and back to God’s people in ways that are challenging – they hold us responsible to this community of which God is a part. They make us question how we relate to one another. And they do it not in the fear-based, punishment-laden ways of the world, but in the ever expansive grace and love of one who dares us to see life and love in crumbs of bread and cups of juice. For upon that mountain and still today, the presence of God invites us upon this journey of faith, knowing that we will nevermore be the same.
“All the people of Israel, woman and man, child and adult, enslaved and free, citizen and alien, behold the living God veiled in smoke, attended by lightening and thunder, no amount of androcentric, gender exclusive language can change that…
As the daughters of Israel gazed upon God on the mountain, they saw smoke and fire. Within the flames and of the flames, some saw great wings fluttering over the people, spreading over them her shelter of peace. Others saw an everlasting rock: she who gave birth, and to whom her children cling as a sure defense in time of trouble. Yet others saw a tree of life, stretching out her branches over all the earth, feeding her children from the sacred fruit of her body. Some heard thunder, and some heard bird song. Some saw lightning, and some saw rainbows. Some saw a robe of many colours, others blinding white, yet others deepest midnight spangled with the stars of heaven. Some felt the earth move, and some felt the winds blow. And all of them saw God. Yet none of their descriptions alone nor all of them together were sufficient to convey the majesty of the fire of Sinai.”
May all of you see God, in the varied hues and hopes of your life, and may this presence remind you, that what you have and what you are is enough.
 Gafney, Wilda, Womanist Midrash, p105