Oct 5, 2014
With all the people of Israel gathered at the base of Mount Sinai, Moses goes up to receive from God the commandments, the guidelines for life after slavery. The people have been set free — freed from bondage to Pharaoh, freed from forced labor, freed from unjust laws, freed from oppression.
But, what happens after freedom? What happens after liberation? Once all the old ways of organizing life are gone, all the old rules, all the old habits — after all of that washes away in the Red Sea, the people have figure out how to live with one another.
Last week Melissa preached about how the people have to learn that the God who set them free from Pharaoh is not like the gods of Egypt. The God of Israel is nothing like the God of Pharaoh. The wilderness becomes a kind of theological detox program, where the people unlearn all the unhelpful ways that they’ve thought about the divine, about God or the gods.
In the wilderness, all their conceptions of God are stripped away, as they get to know the God who can’t be named, the God who is cloaked in a pillar of swirling fire, hidden in a lightning storm, veiled in billowing clouds. This is not one of the gods of Egypt. In the wilderness, the people begin a lifelong journey of getting to know whatever it is, whoever she is, whoever he is — the one who has set them free, their liberator, their savior.
At Mount Sinai, they not only learn more about this God, they also learn how to live as people who belong to this God, how to live as people who belong to the God of freedom. The ten commandments are the answer to what happens after every revolution. After every revolution, whether it’s the Cuban revolution or the American revolution, the question everyone has to answer is, what happens now? After you get rid of the old rulers and their rules, what is life going to look like? After you’ve gotten your freedom, how are you going to live? What does it mean to be free, to live as freed people?
What does it mean for us to be free, for you to be free?
Here in the United States, freedom seems to be a sacred word. Do you remember that song from the 80s, “God Bless the USA”? “I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free.” It became almost a theme song during the Reagan administration, and it comes back every time there’s a war, or when there’s a need to drum up our patriotic fervor. You can track the popularity of the song on the Billboard charts. It spiked during the Gulf War in 1990 and 91, then again after September 11th, and again in 2003 during the Iraq invasion, and again in May of 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed.
A few days after bin Ladan’s death, Beyonce Knowles, who, in my mind, can do no wrong — she, to my great disappointment, announced the release of her cover of that song “God Bless the USA,” right after bin Laden’s death, I guess as a way of capturing the American spirit.
In the name of freedom, everything is justified, from dropping bombs on people in Iraq and Syria, to exploiting workers who labor in inhuman conditions, like the Bangladeshi workers who sew my Banana Republic clothes, and the Chinese workers who make the parts for my iPhone. We love our free market, the freedom of the globalized marketplace, where we’re free to buy what we want without having to see the hands and faces of workers — freedom from their lives.
The American version of freedom seems to be all about freedom from others, freedom as a way of keeping our distance, as a way of keeping us safe from them, whoever they may be this time — freedom to pursue your own happiness without having to be troubled by difficult relationships, freedom from commitments to others, commitments that would complicate our lives, relationships that would perhaps put our safety at risk. We want to be free to do what we want. We want to be free from changing our ways for the sake of someone else.
The ten commandments have everything to do with freedom — how to live together, as free people, a liberated Israel living with each other, finding a common life.
Some of the commandments are basic, like you can’t have a good relationship with your neighbor if you commit adultery with her or his spouse. That will ruin your common life.
And so will lying to your neighbor, “bearing false witness,” as it says. Life together requires a level of truthfulness, so we know we can trust each other, so we know we can depend on one another.
And you can’t live at peace with your neighbor if you are locked in a competition over who has the best stuff — not just who has more wealth, but also who knows more, who has more knowledge, who is smarter, because, knowledge easily turns into a commodity, into a way of amassing value for your self, of thinking of one person as more valuable than another. Thus the commandment against coveting.
And, of course, you can’t kill people, if you are expected to figure out how to live with them. That’s obvious. But the command gets at a little more than this. It’s not just about murder. It’s a commandment against indifference to human bloodshed. That’s the way Herbert McCabe, the Irish preacher and theologian, paraphrases the verse: he says, “You must not be indifferent to blood.”[i] People matter. Don’t kill them. Don’t let your way of life diminish anyone else’s life. They’re lives matter.
Every life matters — and not just the lives of the young, not just the ones who have lots of life left in them, but also the old. Honor the elders, it says, because our lives are more than our work, more than what we can accomplish, more than our “use-value,” as the Marxists would put it. This command goes hand in hand with the one right before it: honor the Sabbath, because they have everything to do with our temptation to think of human value in terms of work rate and productivity — who can produce the most, and how fast, quantity and quality. The old deserve just as much honor as the young, no matter who works more, no matter who is more productive, no matter who is considered more useful for the rest of society.
And all of this returns us to the beginning of the commandments, where God warns Israel, where God warns us, against idolatry. Because we have a tendency to make idols. We’re always struggling against the temptation to worship a thing, to focus our lives on the satisfaction of our desire for something — whether it’s a personal lifestyle or a grand vision for society, idols all the same.
The problem with idols is that they distract us from the life we have. They blind us from the people in front of us, from the God who is among us here and now.
Maybe one way to think of the other commandments is to say that they are antidotes to idolatry. They keep us focused on the lives of people we are tempted to ignore, when we are consumed by idols, consumed by our idolatrous desires. They focus our attention on the relationships we are tempted to forget, when we are pursuing our idols.
We have been freed from our idols, freed by God’s people, people who draw us into God’s presence, into God’s life.
Life with God means life with people. Learning to live with God means we learn how to live with God’s people.
During Communion, we are reminded that we belong to God and that we belong to a people, to the people next to us. And on World Communion Sunday, we are reminded that we belong to people near and far. We are reminded that we are part of them, and that they are part of us—God’s people, all of us.
[i] Herbert McCabe, Law, Love, & Language (Continuum, 2003), 121.