First Word of Community Design - Deuteronomy 5:1-7
A gracious lady went to the post office to mail an old family bible to her brother in another part of the country. "Is there anything breakable in here?" asked the postal clerk.
"Yes," answered the lady "the Ten Commandments."
The Ten Commandments. Arguably one of the greatest contributions of Hebrew Culture to civilization as we know it. In the not too recent past, The Ten Commandments and the public posting of them, have been highlighted in the midst of controversy. This week, we begin a series to consider the importance of the Ten Commandments in our lives. We are not going to enter the debate of whether or not they should be displayed publically. For the people of God, for whom they are intended, the way of life they entail should be engrained in our hearts to the degree that whether or not they are on display in the courtroom is a moot point. In his book, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson suggests that what we call the Ten Commandments are truly God’s basic design for successful community living…and for ten weeks this summer and fall (and we will have breaks interspersed amongst these 10 weeks), we will consider how those two stone tablets from God through Moses to Israel, can help us live as the community that God calls us to be.
One of the first things to consider, though, is our calling them the Ten Commandments. This naming of them in this way, is a response to the common English translations found at Deuteronomy 4:13 which reads: “He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets.” I am not sure why almost every English translation translates the Hebrew in this way, other than “commandments” sounds very authoritative and maybe they wanted to put some weight behind the statement. However, the actual Hebrew would literally be translated as “the ten words” or “the ten sayings” or “the ten declarations.”[i] Considered in this light, these become less like ten rules a classroom teacher might post on his or her wall, and more like declarations of what it means to live as one of God’s people. Following Peterson’s use of “Word” we are going to consider God’s ten words of community design.
The first is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
What does this “First Word” say to us? It says a lot.
It tells us that the community we are called into is not established by us.
It tells us that the community we are called into is one in which we are important.
It tells us that the community we are called into is voluntary.
It tells us that the community we are called into is focused.
First and foremost, we do not establish the community. “I am the Lord your God.” It was established by God. This community that came into being was the fulfillment of the work began when God appeared to Abram and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[ii] The Hebrew people, the Israelites, are the fulfillment of this call upon Abram. It is a community whose roots, both through Abram and through Moses’ leadership, are not in Abram and Moses or anyone else, the creator of this community is God.
Likewise, the Church, as God’s people, was not established by human hands or human efforts, but by God’s divine Spirit: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability…Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles…Day by day, as they spent much time together…the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” It is not what Peter, James, John, Matthew, or any of the disciples do. It is God pouring out His Spirit upon the people and creating the community….it is about the people doing what God called them to do…”And day by day the Lord [adding] t their numbers those who were being saved.”
The same goes for St. Paul’s. I’m sure we could go back and look at the names of several of the charter members from 1955…and I am sure we can find out the District Superintendant and Bishop from that time…and I am sure that they were important in the forming of this congregation. Yet, they did not establish this congregation, God did. When the people of God are called together, it is through the moving of God’s divine being.
What does this mean? It means that the community established by God is about God, it is not about us. The Hebrew/Israelite communities were not about Abram or Moses. The first churches were not about Peter, Paul, John, or Andrew. Our church today is not about us. It is not about what we want. It is not about putting any of us on a pedestal (thou thy ties to idol worship and that comes next week). The community is created by God and belongs to God and is about God. It is not about us and it is not ours, it is God’s. It means that God and God’s word are the authority…not what we say, not what we want God’s word to say, but what God’s Word does say.
The second thing that this First Word says is that we are important. “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Remember, God established the community. Without God acting, none of us would be here. Just as God chose Abram, who would become Abraham…Just as God chose Moses and the Israelites…Just as Jesus chose each of His disciples and called them by name…Just as God chose to pour out His Spirit upon those gathered in that upper room and give birth to the Church…So to, God has chosen each of us…God loved each of us enough that He called us to be part of His community. He wanted us enough to place His Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, into our lives and move us from wherever we were, to be here as part of His community. We are important because we are loved and chosen by God.
The First Word also establishes that our community is voluntary. “…out of the house of slavery….” The community as it had existed in Egypt was a forced community. Sure they had voluntarily gone to Egypt to start with out of a need for food in the time of Joseph, but they had become slaves. They were forced to remain in Egypt. They were forced into that community. Remember Moses’ appeals over and over again to Pharaoh to let God’s people go, and Pharaoh refused. They had no choice but to be in community in Egypt. However, now after being brought out of Egypt, they were no longer slaves. They were free. They had the choice of whether to stay in community as the people of God, or seek life elsewhere on their own. God, in His grace freed them from slavery, but they had the option of whether to remain in His community once freed. God, through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, has freed us from slavery to sin and death. He has brought us out of bondage so that we no longer are forced to live in a sin-ruled community. Yet, because God does not make us slaves, having received the freedom, we can choose His community of life, or choose to walk back into the community of death. God through the moving of His Spirit has brought us here, to this very congregation, to this very community, but none of us are forced to be here…none of us are enslaved…all of us have voluntarily chosen to be in this place and be part of this community. God, in His love, has called us together. God, in his love, gives us the freedom to be here. This is not a coerced community, it is a covenantal community.
And, being a covenantal community brings us to the one final significance of God’s First Word of community design. “…you shall have no other gods before me.” In this covenant, God establishes what He has done for the Hebrew people, and, what he has done for us. God says, “This is my community, I love you enough to choose you to be part of it, and now if you voluntarily choose to be part of this community, this is what I expect.” The first expectation is that those living in God’s community will have no other gods before God-Himself.
In the time of Moses in which the people were brought out of Egypt, it was believed and understood that there were multiple gods. Each nation had their gods, and each of their multiple gods was in charge of a certain facet of human life. It was a polytheistic world. Into this polytheistic world, God says, “you shall have no other gods before me. You are not to let any of those other gods come between us. If you want to be part of this community, you must make me the priority of your lives.” In God’s established community, His people were to come to him above all else. There was no saying, I want to be in your community God, but when it comes harvest time, I am going to worship Osiris…and when my wife and I are trying to expand our family you can find us at Bastet’s temple.” Later on would come the notion that there was only one true God, and that it was Yahweh.
What does this mean for us in a time where we do not recognize or accept a polytheistic world? (Though there are some out there who do.) What does this mean in a time where we say that there is only One True God…and that God is Yahweh? It means that we must not let other gods get in between us and God. It means that we have to make sure that our priorities lie with God and we do not let anything else come before our relationship with God. That means that our jobs, our income, our recreation, our pleasure, or even our families cannot take priority over God. We cannot have multiple priorities. We have to choose.
Jesus addressed it in His day, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”[iii] Elsewhere we encounter Jesus in this exchange. “To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.””[iv] Jesus tells those who would follow Him and live in God’s community that to be part of the community you have to choose…either choose God or choose to chase after wealth…choose God or choose family…choose God or choose anything else…find your priority and go with it, but if we want to be in a God designed community, Scripture tells us, we have to choose God.
My brothers and sisters, hear God’s First Word of Community Design: “I am creating this community. I love you and choose to free you. I want you to be part of my community and if you choose to be part of it, I have to come first in your lives.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.