The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Texts: Exodus 19:1-19; Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:1-11
We are now heading into the last chapters of the book of Exodus, and the Israelites have come to a critical pinnacle in their journey – Mount Sinai. This is the mountain where God gives the nation of Israel the Ten Commandments and establishes the covenant for their relationship. And as we will see – it is the mountaintop that is invoked in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he establishes yet another aspect of the covenantal relationship we are to have with each other and with God.
For the Israelites, coming to Mount Sinai means that they have finally reached full-fledged freedom. When they were slaves in Egypt, they had no freedom. Their time, their choices, their work, their worship, everything was dictated by the Egyptian slave masters. All their decisions were made for them. But now they have total freedom. At first, this seems like a good thing, and it is. But God knows that in order for them to be the people and nation that is to be the model for all other nations, they will need to be prepared to handle the freedom that has been given to them. The Commandments are the foundation and pillars upon which their new nation will be built. If they abide by these sacred commands, they can be assured of God’s blessings on them.
At first, they enthusiastically agree to accepting these commandments, as we saw in our first reading. But next week we will see that as soon as Moses comes down with the tablets, they immediately violate the very first one by creating an idol to worship. While this is confounding, it is part of human nature. Because sometimes people confuse the pillars with prison bars and mistakenly think the rules are keeping them away from their freedom. It is sometimes difficult to strike the delicate balance between protecting freedoms and prohibiting them.
People naturally chafe at having rules and regulations. When teens are coming into adulthood, they sometimes complain about the rules their parents still set for them. They want the freedom to drive, the freedom to be with whomever they want, to make their own decisions, to come and go as they please. Similarly, as Americans, when it comes to our Constitutional rights, we don’t want people to infringe upon our freedoms – our freedom of speech, our freedom to bear arms, our freedom of commerce.
But with freedom comes power. And as the character Peter Parker learned from his Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comics – “with great power comes great responsibility.”
And the truth is, there is also within each human being the potential for self-centeredness, greed, and the desire to control others – all of which is called “sin” in theological language. So God knows that there must be limits and boundaries on this sinfulness, and consequently on our freedoms. This is why God is giving them the commandments – because if they will agree to them, the commandments will help to guide and order their relationships with each other and with God as they enter into the Promised Land and live into their calling as a model nation for the world.
A couple weeks ago I asked our Confirmation students, who are just starting their unit on the Ten Commandments, why we have rules. And they gave some very good answers. We have rules to avoid chaos. To protect people. To help order society. It’s about helping to preserve the relationships we have with each other. We are not reptiles that can live independently from each other. We are mammals with higher order thinking who rely on each other for survival. We need each other, and we need to be taught the value of these rules that are designed to help us live in peace in a world of conflict and chaos.
We learned that the first three commandments have to do with our relationship with God. First – love God and worship no other gods. Second, do not take God’s name in vain. Respect the name of God. And third – honor the Sabbath. Unlike the Egyptians who required you to work seven days a week, says God, I recognize the need for you to rest and to focus on your relationship with me. Those three commandments are the foundation upon which the pillars are built.
The rest of the commandments have to do with our relationships with each other. And that begins with honoring your father and mother. Notice it doesn’t say you have to always agree with them. But you must treat them with honor. And that goes both ways – parents must honor their children as well.
After that are the commandments that people often think of as the list of “no’s” – no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no cheating or lying. But it’s more correct to think of these the list of yesses. Saying yes to life, yes to the sanctity of covenantal relationships such as marriage, the sanctity of personal property, and the sanctity of one’s reputation.
And the last commandments have to do with coveting, which is wanting what someone else has. At the core of this is not being satisfied with what God has given to you. Coveting mean that you are not trusting God to provide for you and are determined to take things into your own hands to get what you want. Coveting can lead you to break any one of the other commandments. People ruin their relationship with their parents, kill, commit adultery, lie, cheat and steal in order to get what they want. It’s appropriate that this is the last commandment and that honoring God is the first commandment. Because when we put anything – or anyone – else ahead of God, we are breaking the first commandment as well.
The pastor who taught me in Confirmation class explained the commandments to me like this: love God and then do what you want. At first, we only focused on the last part of what he said: do what you want. But then he corrected us – when you love God you will want to do what pleases God.
Because here’s the paradox – you actually have more freedom when you adhere to these commandments. When your life, when our community, when our society is guided by these core values – honoring God and honoring our neighbor – we actually find an entire world of freedom open up to us. It has to do with moving away from self-centeredness, letting go of the grip on your own ego, so that your hands are open to receive what freely comes from God. Because then we are free to trust, free to live fully, free to be the people and community God has called us to be. The commandments are the foundation and pillars that enable us to build relationships of blessing.
And this brings us to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Like Moses, he is giving his disciples and followers the guidelines that can open their lives to receive God’s grace. And there are some interesting connections between these beatitudes and the Ten Commandments. Because the Beatitudes are what happens when one empties themselves of their own ego and allows God’s grace to flow.
When you are poor in spirit – in other words, when you are humble and not so full of yourself – you find the kingdom of heaven all around you.
When you are grieving and yet still open yourself to God in the midst of loss – you will find comfort that comes from a source that is so much more powerful and bigger than human understanding.
When you are meek – in other words, when you step lightly on the earth, respecting earth’s natural processes instead of insisting on the most damaging ways of extracting energy and building homes and moving from one place to another and engaging in the exchange of goods and services – when you are meek with the earth, the earth will open itself up to you in a mutually beneficial relationship.
When you hunger and thirst for righteousness – other words, when you stop insisting on what you want and seek instead the justice that is needed for the most vulnerable members of society – children, women, people of color, people who are economically oppressed – you will find your life filled with a bounty of goodwill from your neighbors.
When you are merciful – in other words, when you practice compassion toward your neighbor and willingly accept limits on your freedom of speech and freedom of bearing arms and freedom of commerce for the sake of compassion – you will receive compassion in return.
When you are pure in heart – when you try diligently to clean out all those thoughts that are polluting your mind and body and spirit – that’s when you will see God.
When you are a peacemaker – when you do the work of learning about your neighbor’s religion and heritage and experiences, and when you seek to build relationships built on common values instead of sowing seeds of fear and hatred – you will be recognized as a Child of God.
And when you are persecuted – when you suffer in any way because you are striving to live in accordance with the Ten Commandments, in accordance with the Beatitudes – this is exactly the time when you must not give up. Persevere. Because God’s strength is sustaining you, lifting you up, giving you exactly what you need to take the next step on your journey.
As we are beginning a new year and the Israelites are beginning this new relationship with God and with each other, this is the ideal time to take stock in your life and ask if the path you are on, if the decisions you are making, if the words you are posting on social media, if the money you are spending, and if the actions you are taking truly reflect the person God is calling you to be. Your assignment for next week is to look at the commandments and beatitudes and ask yourself – which is the one that is the most difficult for you to fulfill? I know which one is my Achilles heel – and I’ll tell you next week.
In the meantime, we will be talking about these commandments and beatitudes in our forum on interfaith peace this month, and in our Lenten journey starting in February, to see if our society and our lives are aligning with these core values.
I invite you over this next week, and throughout these next few months to stand at the foot of these mountains and heed the words of Moses, the words of Jesus. Love God and do what you want. Receive the blessings of God. Amen.