Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Known for what we’re for,
not just for what we’re against"

Message preached October 5, 2008
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Exodus 20:1-20

Order of Worship

When I first moved to this “Long Green Valley,” I started receiving the newsletter from the “Long Green Valley Association,” a coalition of people interested in “preserving our valley’s agriculture and rural character for the benefit of future generations.” Reading this publication over the last 18 years, I know what they are against. Other than their mission statement, however, I really haven’t discovered what these people are for. They have fought just about every effort to develop this valley. In many cases, I’m glad they have been vigilant. I sort of like having cows, rather than more houses, within sight of my kitchen window. It’s good that someone is saying “Thou shalt not” to unchecked development around here. “Thou shalt not” is a helpful boundary. Would that more “Thou shalt not”s had been spoken when all those subprime loans were being extended to, if not aggressively pushed upon people who really couldn’t afford them. We’re now paying the price for that mess.

Back to the “Long Green Valley Association” - as I said, it has been easier to know this organization by what they are against, than by what they are for. Over the years, it has seemed like “No” is their operating principal, even when the things they are opposing seem to fit in with “preserving our valley’s agriculture and rural character for the benefit of future generations.” I don’t wish to stir up a hornet’s nest, but it would seem the fight against the Prigel’s creamery next door to us is a case in point. { 1 }  Is it merely a pastoral view out the window that these folks are trying to preserve, or is it a farming lifestyle that helps keep those cows in that field? Because of this most recent “Thou shalt not,” on top of a perceived heavy-handed decision-making process by only a few people in that organization, there isn’t much support any more for this “Long Green Valley Association” in the surrounding community. In fact, folks are organizing a new community association, the second meeting of which is at 2pm this afternoon at the Sunshine Grille in Fork, if you are interested…

How are we known? By what we are against or by what we are for? I’ve long had a concern for this in relation to the church. We can easily be a “Thou shalt not” people without much of a sense of “Thou shalt.” We can be known more for what we are against, than what we are for. Mind you, the 10 commandments are good, but do we lose sight of what these words are for?

Let’s jump back in time to the foundational story, as we have received it, of God’s people in the wilderness following their escape from Egypt. At this point in time they were a hodge-podge collection of the descendants of a fellow named Jacob. They were a “mixed multitude of tribally affiliated families united only in their deliverance from an intolerable situation.” Basically, the only thing that held them together was what they were against. Even though the security of slavery started to look good when compared to the uncertainty of nomadic life in the Sinai desert, these folks were united in their opposition to Pharaoh. “Say ‘no’ to Egypt” was their rallying cry. Beyond that, they were somewhat clueless.

As the story goes, Moses headed up the mountain for a face-to-face with the great “I am who I am” who once spoke to him through a burning bush. Down in the valley, the children of Israel (as Jacob was also known) wrestled with their fear. Saying “no” to Egypt wasn’t going to cut it any more as a unifying purpose. They needed something more, and since Moses was on his extended business trip with you know who, they grabbed what they could to give them a sense of control in what seemed to be an out-of-control situation.

We still do that, you know, even in this day and age seemingly far removed from the parted seas and mountaintop epiphanies of the Bible’s story. We come up with our own sacred cows to help us feel more in control of a world that seems very out-of-control. That’s what an idol is, my friends. It’s something that helps us feel in control. Do you really think that golden calf the children of Israel created while Moses was away had any power? The only energy it had was what the people gave it, just like all our graven images today that don’t really help us feel any more secure or in control. Images like a bull or a bear – aren’t those the symbols we associate with Wall Street and the stock exchange that helps run the economy of this nation, if not the world?  Frantic investors begin to look a bit like all those children of Israel in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, trying to fashion gold into something that helps bring order out of a chaotic market. The Bible is more contemporary than we often think it is, my friends.

It was into this mess that the 10 commandments first entered the life of God’s people, according to the story as we have received it. Moses came down the mountain after his executive meeting with ‘you know who,’ and spoke the words from the most high. Notice, I didn’t say “commandments.” In the Bible, these are the “ten words.”  Furthermore, if anywhere I should be most cautious about tossing around the name of the One who spoke through a burning bush, who passed over the children of Israel in Egypt to set them free, who parted the sea for them to escape, and who met with Moses on Sinai, it is here.

You see, words matter, even words we use in a name. Taking the Lord’s name in vain, by the way, is not simply refraining from cursing. Like making an idol, wrongfully using the Lord’s name for our own purposes is about control. Someone cuts us off in traffic and we let fly an expletive deleted. In one instant we had the illusion we were in control – our hands are on the steering wheel, after all, and our feet have charge over the gas and brakes. The next moment someone else in another vehicle is in control. Our language is an almost unconscious effort to reassert control, is it not? Of course, if the Almighty actually did what we just asked…

Cursing is an easy target. We can get all smug in letting fly a “Thou shalt not” over the language other people use without realizing how we take the Lord’s name in vain in other ways. Hateful words and actions can easily get justified in God’s name. To be honest, we do it all the time. It makes us feel better about ourselves – putting other people down, especially if we think we have God on our side. We don’t even have to speak the Lord’s name out loud, do we? Jesus, however, connected the dots between our thoughts and our actions. Just because you don’t act on your lust, he said (remember this one?), doesn’t mean you haven’t already committed adultery in your heart. Ouch!

These words are hard. Hard then. Hard now. In some ways I wish we were as honest about it as those who first heard them. How did they respond? With fear and trembling. Of course, as I read the biblical account I’m not sure whether their reaction was in relation to the words they just heard or was over “the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” that they witnessed along with those words. “Do not let God speak to us,” they told Moses. At least they were honest. We, on the other hand, sometimes think plastering these words all over the place is evidence that we’re taking them seriously. Let’s be real, folks. The words of God reorient our lives. Our world shakes and turns rightside up. Like clay upon the potter’s wheel we get thrown and pounded and fashioned and shaped by these words. In the process, we become God’s people.

That’s right. That’s what I said. The purpose of these 10 words is to make a people. That’s what happened in the shadow of Sinai. Well, actually, it took years to do – I believe the Bible mentions 40, roughly a generation. In the wilderness.

It’s interesting how we number these commandments, or – more literally – these words. Turn in your Bibles just now to chapter 20 of Exodus, and look over the first four verses. What would you say is the first of these words or commandments? Is it “You shall have no other gods before me”? If you came from a certain Christian background, you’d say “yes, that’s the first commandment.” If you grew up in another Christian tradition, you might combine that with “You shall not make for yourself an idol” to make the first of the ten. Even more interesting is that for our Jewish neighbors, the first word or commandment is “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Thus, the first word is not a negative command. Before any “Thou shalt not” is spoken comes the statement of identity from which everything else flows: “I am your God.{ 2 }

To be honest, it really doesn’t matter how you number these 10. Without that first statement, however, (whether you call it a prologue or the first commandment), everything else is for naught. All the other words depend upon this affirmation. It was this statement above all others that made this band of tribal refugees into the people of God. Every “thou shalt not” flows out of this “yes.” That’s what it is, by the way, God’s “yes” to the children of Israel, a “yes” that precedes every “no.” “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” This is the Hebrew Bible’s equivalent of John 3:16. It is a corporate affirmation as well as a very personal one. It calls forth a people, not just a bunch of individuals. It also calls forth each of us as a man or a woman of God.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once wrote,

“Not the fact that there is a God, also not that there is only one God, but that this One, unique, true God is to be my God, that He created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads and guides me; not that my connection with Him should be through ten thousand intermediaries as a chance product of a universe that He brought into being aeons ago, but that every present breath that I draw and every coming moment of my existence is to be a direct gift of His Almightiness and Love, and that I have to live every present and future second of my life solely in His service – in a word, not the knowledge of the existence of God, but the acknowledgement of God as my God, as the exclusive One in whose hands is the disposal of all my fate, and as the exclusive One guide of all my acts, it is only with this, only with the acceptance of this Truth, that I can lay the foundation of a Jewish life” (might I amend that to read – “the foundation of a life in God”?).

Hirsh goes on to write,

“To the demand, ‘I the Lord am to be your God,’ there is but one corresponding reply, ‘You are my God!’” { 3 }

As I said, we can be known – by others or by ourselves - more for what we are against, than what we are for. It’s important, however, that we reverse that. What are we for? Well, every generation has to work that question out. I think of my mother’s lawyer, Larry Hoover, who I got to know 25 years ago when I was pastor of his church for a summer.  Larry is a Brethren lawyer who was bothered by the “thou shalt not” of his denomination when it came to war. Mind you, he clearly believed that a follower of Jesus cannot take the life of another person. War is sin. But he also felt that instead being only against something, he needed to be for something.

This led Larry, as a lawyer, to see in the court system a battleground where far too many cases were fought which should have been resolved by other means. As an alternative, in 1982 he helped to start the first community mediation center in the state of Virginia, in Harrisonburg. He has trained many people in mediation throughout Virginia as well as in Maryland with the Baltimore Mediation Center, which was started in 1993. All because he wanted to be for something more than just against something. To me, this honors the 10 words of God. After all, remembering the Sabbath is more than refraining from work, it’s reorienting your life every week to God. Honoring our parents involves what we do, not just what we don’t do. It’s not enough to be against murder. What are we doing to prevent violence? Adultery, theft, false witness, coveting – all are more than refraining from something. What are we doing to build up our relationships with one another, whereby we understand that how we treat another person is how we respond to God? They are connected. All these commandments flow from the first affirmation, God’s “yes” - “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” As Rabbi Hirsch wrote, “there is but one corresponding reply, ‘You are my God!’” 

1 - see "To preserve the farm, you also want to preserve the farmer," Baltimore Sun, September 28, 2008, as well as "The Churning Point,"  Washington Post, October 1, 2008

2 - seed for this thought received from "Decalogue Discipleship," by Brent Laytham, Blogging toward Sunday.

3 - from The Torah: A modern Commentary, by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, copyright ©1981, pp. 544-545.

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2008 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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