• Rev. Drew Stockstill

Laws of Love

Exodus 20:1-17--

20 Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You 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. 5 You 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 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 female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For 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.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

On Ash Wednesday, I mentioned that it didn’t feel so much that we were beginning Lent as renewing our subscription to last year’s Lent, a Lent that seems to have never relented. This Sunday marks one year since the last Sunday we worshipped together before the pandemic began. Our Lent was not the customary 40 days, like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Our Lent has been well over 40 weeks. Ours has been a long time in the wilderness.

The ancient Hebrews experienced their own extended Lenten journey in the wilderness. Their wanderings were not 40 days, or 40 weeks, but 40 long years – a generation in the wilderness. The Hebrew people had lived for centuries as slaves in Egypt, crying out to God for rescue, wondering why God had not come for them, doubting, and many forgetting God altogether. And then, one day, out of the blue – well out of an enflamed bush – God sent Moses to liberate the Hebrews, to lead them to the promised land; to lead them to freedom.

"Ten Commandments," from a Catholic Church in Paszyn, Poland.

We’ve just heard the 10 Commandments, God’s law to Moses for God’s people. The giving of the law is an act of love and a path to freedom. God’s story in the Bible and in history is always, wholly, a story of freedom. God releases people: from captivity, from sin, from death. God frees us for lives in loving relationship with God, with each other, and with the land God made us to inhabit.

God’s first word of the 10 Commandments is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery and into freedom.” Two great truths are reveled here: God is -- God exists -- and God chooses to make that existence about bringing people to freedom.

But freedom is complicated. The door is opened, the captor says, “You’re free to go.” But then, what about the memories lost? And all that is so hard to forget? It is frightening to enter a totally new world, where so much is unknown. Freedom after captivity is its own wilderness.

Those who have been released from prison after decades of captivity are often totally overwhelmed by freedom, by how much everything has changed. No one is there to make it easy for them either.

Folks who have suffered from years of substance use disorders have known what it is to be held captive, and freedom from substances is its own journey. Sobriety is a complicated freedom.

Individuals who have escaped modern-day slavery – human trafficking – are never far from the wounds they received in captivity.

And how about the centuries of chattel slavery in the Americas? There are racial disparities in almost every measurable category: from housing, health, education, and economic stability now over 150 years after the end of slavery in the United States.

Freedom is complicated, and is often complicated further by those who do not celebrate the freedom of others. Our society does not make the path to freedom easy for those who have known various forms of captivity, whether by downplaying the significance of that captivity, or blaming them for their captivity, or by standing in the way of recovery and reentry. The road to freedom in its many various forms is a wilderness road. The wilderness of freedom often takes years, decades, and generations before the land becomes familiar, stable, when it starts to really feel like the promised land. The Hebrews in their wilderness freedom experienced a mixture of joy and regret; fear, anger, doubt, denial, rage, and praise; song and dancing, crying and dying. That’s often how it is with new found freedom.

God spoke to the people through Moses, spoke to them in the midst of all their complex, difficult wilderness.

"Ten Commandments" from a 1907 Bible card.

And the people were a mess. It says in Exodus 19 on the day God spoke to Moses on the mountain, “there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.” They were terrified.

It says, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder” – the sounds of freedom. The state of the union of Israel was chaos, trembling, the ominous blaring of trumpets and the shaking of a mountain. They knew God was up on top of that mountain because it was a blazing fire. It’s not the kind of setting for a conversation with God many of us imagine. It’s a mercy God came to us in Jesus, that we could desire his company, rather than the smoke filled, noisy, inferno Moses entered to be alone with God.

And enter this terror Moses did, when God summoned him up the mountain and spoke the 10 Commandments. It is all this terror, this freedom, the fire, the noise, and smoke, God revealed Godself in this orderly list we call the 10 Commandments. The law comes, not as a set of restrictions, but a roadmap to freedom. The law comes as solid ground for these stricken people to finally place their feet firmly, and to lay out their mats, and rest their weary heads. The law comes as a light and the path thereon for those trying to make sense out of freedom, to take their first steps in the wilderness.

Freedom is complicated and so, out of great love, God gives the law. The law is here to help the people order the chaos, to help them begin to give their days and seasons a shape, the shape of God. The most encouraging word is that first word: “I AM.” “I am the Lord your God. I exist.” God exists. For hundreds of years of slavery, the Israelites vocally questioned whether God really did exist. And here God responds: “I do exist, I am the reason you are free.” What follows in the law is a way we never forget it.

In the chaos of captivity and wilderness freedom, it can be confusing what is up and what is down. What is right and wrong. Therefore, it is a precious gift to be reoriented with a list of concrete expectations. From this point the law unfolds a right ordering of things, just as God did in creation, each day bringing life out of chaos. These 10 Commandments are the 10 words with which God creates further order for humanity.

The first set of these laws has to do with how we are to love God. God is so vast; how do we even begin to have a personal relationship? Well, the first four commandments guide us in loving relationship with God, giving us tangible ways to show our thanksgiving to God for this life, and the freedom we have through God. Love God first, worship God only, respect God’s name, and show God respect by taking one day of rest – sabbath – each week. These are laws of love, for us to show our love for God but also God’s love for us. These first laws are a statement that we are not adrift in this world. God is here and God is at work, and God is worthy of praise.

The last six commandments guide us in loving relationship with community, with each other. Honor your mother and father, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or want what your neighbor has. These are fairly obvious rules that are good to live by, but they are often taken for granted. They seem to be harder to follow than they should be, and for those who have experienced the desperation of oppression, where all that makes sense has been turned upside down, it is necessary to lay out these ground rules. Now that we are free in our relationship with God these laws remind us that no matter how it’s done around us, here, in the body of Christ, we value life. No matter what you see the idols on TV doing, around here we don’t lie. These laws make trust among each other in the Kingdom of God, possible. And trust enhances our capacity to love each other more fully.

Balloon Girl, by Banksy

God is love and out of love God gave us the law to help us order our lives around love of God and love of each other. That is why Jesus said all the commandments of God could be summed up in this way, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and to love your neighbors as yourselves.” As God is always at work bringing us out of every form of slavery, oppression, and oppressing, the 10 commandments are a good and concrete gift on which to live out our freedom, our freedom to love God, and each other.

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