Listen to the entire service online, including about 30 minutes in, Rev. Dr. John C. Lentz Jr.’s sermon House Rules on Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Philippians 3: 4b-14.
The scenes from Puerto Rico and the other islands of the Caribbean that were devastated in the hurricane still leave me stunned. Likewise in many places in and around Houston – whole blocks and neighborhoods of houses completely flattened!
Deanne and I were taking a walk the other day with Leo and we passed through a neighborhood where it seemed as though one in five houses were shuttered up or almost falling in on themselves.
And of course, my heart is still breaking for the households of those grieving the loss of loved ones from the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. I simply do not fathom how in this nation we allow just anyone to buy an enhancement to turn his or her rifle into an automatic killer.
Jesus first said this, and then President Lincoln repeated it when he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” At times I feel as if we are living in that kind of a house now in America.
On a much lighter note – Deanne and I have been taking stock of our own house and wishing we could do everything we wanted to do fix it up. At times we wish that the Lord God would lead out of the bondage of mortgages and cleaning gutters.
So I have been thinking about houses and things that are falling apart and need to be rebuilt and about habitations that are built on strong foundations that can weather any storm.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Or as the Jewish Study Bible has it “out of the house of bondage.”
Back in the house of bondage the people had jobs, (although it was forced labor) and food; but slavery is slavery and they didn’t know who they were until Moses came and called and led them out.
And it was in the process of being led out, that the children of Israel pursued their identity even as the forces of oppression pursued them.
So the Lord brings the people out of the house of bondage and God sets the people in the open space of the wilderness – complete freedom – in some sense free from all constraints – to start over, to get a new identity, to build a new household upon the foundation of faith.
To build a house, first you have to lay the foundations!
The Israelites are learning that just as the river has boundaries, and paintings have frames, and music has measures, so too do people, born to be in community, need a foundation a framework.
Freedom is not anarchy – true freedom is living within the boundary lines of relationship with the God of creation, liberation, salvation and love; built upon the foundation of trust and covenant.
Cut off from God we are not even fully human. Being cut off from God and others leaves us in a kind of hellish isolated bondage that the bible calls sin.
As St. Paul said, when he was in Athens, that we “live and move and have our being” [in God]. Separated from the source we die – metaphorically and really; we just don’t know who we really are.
Sin, you see, is so much more than specific acts (our stupid acts trivialize biblical sin). Sin is separation from the source. Cut off from the source of freedom we are in bondage to self where paradoxically there is no identity.
As Jesus asked in the gospels – are you building your house upon sand or the rock?
Are you building your relationships upon truth or lies?
Moses comes down from Sinai with the foundation of community and the building blocks of life together.
I will never forget my mother telling me before I enter a public space, “Don’t forget that you are a Lentz.” Basically that meant “BEHAVE!” – but there is some sense that I get – “don’t be silly and make a fool of yourself and of me –represent!”
In a similar kind of way I think that God in giving the Ten Commandments was telling the Jews and by extension us, “Don’t forget who you are!”
Shaped by God’s love, called to be the people of God – set apart for service, called to be yeast in the loaf, and a light in the shadow land, and a mustard seed to an open field.
So God brings the people out of the household of bondage – slavery, and on this wide open plain before the mountain, God gives them the Ten Commandments.
We have a funny relationship with the Ten Commandments. Either we disdain them as old-fashioned prohibitions that keep us from having a good time; or we trivialize them with pithy sayings such as “They are called the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions.”
Actually the Hebrew word that we translate “commandments” is literally “words” – The Decalogue, ten words, or in Hebrew the “aseret hadevarim.”
I might cringe from the way that fundamentalist Christians interpret scripture but on this I agree: We would be a better people and nation if we, as Christians, paid more than lip service to these graceful norms of behavior.
The first few commandments are what is owed to God and the rest are concerned what is owed to other human beings – like within your family or your neighborhood or nation. No wonder the Rabbis and later Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments with these words: “Love God and love your neighbor.” All else is commentary.
The Ten Commandments really are full of grace. Remember God. God who created you and called you into a relationship, By going into relationship with God, you and I become part of the very order of the universe.
The laws of God are not a threat. They are invitations to life: build upon the foundation; follow these house rules; don’t forget who you are so that you can be more fully who you were called to be. A beloved child, called to serve, called to be in freedom, away from bondage, part of the new household of faith in a new kind of community.
In Galatians 5:1, a thousand years after these events occurred, St. Paul wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.”
Free to be in relationship with God and with others and therefore you don’t murder, and you don’t cheat on the one you vowed your life to, and you don’t scheme to get rich on someone else – and you don’t lie and you don’t take things that don’t belong to you.
What is so oppressive about that? But it’s so hard.
But we see those in power in the highest offices of this land break every single commandment. And some say it doesn’t really matter because ends justify the means. But living a life shaped by the gift of God’s law still does matter; it matters very much.
And the accumulation of wealth is the god we still bow down to in this nation, even after God says, “Don’t build idols out of silver and gold.”
God has delivered us from the house of bondage – but we seem to continue to like bondage rather than freedom. Because freedom takes courage, it takes risk, and it takes telling the truth; and the powers of evil don’t want us to go there.
And I believe it breaks God’s heart that we continue to turn from the source of freedom and enslave ourselves and oppress others with our own acts and our institutional acts.
Moses said, “Don’t be afraid for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
That sentence caught my attention. Don’t be afraid but … I’m going to put the feat of God in you.
I want to interpret these words in this way: Don’t be afraid of entering a relationship with God – and giving your heart and head to God. And yet at the same time, treat this relationship like a precious gift that you are afraid of misusing or breaking or losing. Make it your primary relationship!
It is like the vows of marriage or like any deep commitment to another: don’t be afraid of giving your heart but honor and be in awe of this special call and fear damaging this precious commitment.
The test that God gives is not so you will fail (because we all probably will!). The test is so you can continue to hold yourself accountable to building your life upon the foundations of what is best and most freeing; which is, for us, a relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
Paul has it right. Faith is not something to obtain – like a merit badge. It’s something to pursue. Any good relationship is not static, it grows and changes and you have to be open, and honest, and flexible and press on.
It is a heavenly call that we have been called to. So we keep moving on towards the goal: loving God, loving neighbor, building the community, the house so to speak of a beloved community on the foundation of love. Don’t forget who you are called to be – pursue it in compassion and forgiveness and justice and peace – and the foundation will endure anything.
For as Paul said, nothing separates you from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Make that your house rule!