Boundaries for Living
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 19-20
Have you ever been in a space in your life, where absolutely everything seemed to be coming apart? Where the patterns by which you had lived your life up to that point completely changed, and you didnâ€™t have new ones?
Then you can relate to the context for our scripture today. One of the best known passages from Hebrew Scripture, usually labeled the 10 commandments, comes out of that kind of context . Other Near Eastern laws, like Greek and Roman laws, are law codes that stand on their own. These Exodus laws are about relationship between God and the people and that ongoing story. That is why they are called covenant. The God who speaks, is the Creating one who brought order out of chaos, who spoke to Abraham and Sarah. These words â€œdâ€™bvarimâ€come as part of the story of the Exodus. It is the God of call who called Moses from the bush that burned. It is the God of liberation, who had passion and compassion for the suffering of the people in slavery in Egypt and who desired freedom for them; who led them onto a journey of liberation, a journey which has become archetypal for people journeying to freedom ever since.
We meet the people at Sinai. They have dared to set out on the journey to a land of promise. They have crossed the sea of reeds, the sea of no return; but they do not go to a good and wonderful place just because they have escaped from slavery. They go into wilderness, where none of the old patterns work. There are no oppressive structures of Egypt to control them, but also no structure to keep a container around their lives. Wilderness is a place of vulnerability; where even how they find food and water is radically different. They had to learn to be a people of God in a whole new way. The the people found themselves going around in circles, unsure of the way forward, unable to turn backward.
Rather than living lives patterned for them by external power of Egypt and forced labour, they find themselves suddenly and frighteningly free. Who are they when there is no one but themselves and God, and this God-forsaken wilderness? Up to this time, their lives had been so full of oppression, that there was no space to reflect or to know themselves as they really were. There seemed more questions than answers, and the neat answers they used to have, no longer made sense.
The people complain and rebel against this change and doubt Godâ€™s presence. Some wanted to go back to Egypt, to a past that looked rosier the longer they were in wilderness. At least the rules were clear, and the food was recognizable. It is hard to step out into a new state of freedom, into an unknown future. Chaos and conflict erupted constantly. The people did not know who they were and where they were going, a sure recipe for conflict.
Moses was wearing himself out trying to settle all the individual conflicts and differences that were happening because, of course, all the frustration and blaming was directed at their leaders. (some things never change) Even after his father-in-law Jethro suggested setting up judges to help with the community organization, there was still need for something more. Moses, after deep prayer and communion with God, is given the 10 words, the 10 dbâ€™harim —– remembering that when God speaks, as God did at creation- something happens.
They give boundaries to a people coming apart in chaos. They give a container for relating to God and to others.
The language may be dated, but the core meaning is still a good measuring rod for our own lives and the life of our community. The first three are to do with priorities; getting first things first. They are about God and the rootedness of the community in relationship with God. We are to honour God, not to make some lesser element of life an ultimate value to ourselves. We are not to falsely profess faith in or to try to use God for our own ends, ( to take Godâ€™s name in vain).
We are to honour sabbathing; resting, renewing, reflecting, praising, being in the presence of God and one another.
Then come a number of words about community life, about caring about the ways we do violence to one another in community -dishonouring of elders, killing, betraying promises by lying, stealing, adultery, coveting. To be sure, some of the language e.g.. â€œcoveting your neighbourâ€™s wife or slave or slave girl or ox or ass or everything that belongs to himâ€ are a bit archaic and culture bound; but the fundamental issue of coveting has particular significance for our age with its vast organizations dedicated solely to ensuring that all of us covet, from the cradle to the grave, as we carry out our role of â€œconsumerâ€ bowing to the belief that we never have enough.
Ten Words, offering boundaries for living in relationship with the Holy and in relationship with community. They showed Godâ€™s bond, Godâ€™s promise to the community, but also created an ethical framework within which community could function.
Godâ€™s law is about living in harmony in covenant relationship. It is the core of Hebrew spirituality, the path to freedom and joy in life.
Communities of faith continue to need health boundaries within which to have the freedom and safety to be fully alive. We here at Cedar Park have been working on this and I asked Norman Jones our chair of council to speak about our local covenants.
Norman Jones, Chair of Council:
Boundaries for Healthy Communities
â€¢ You will have seen from the bulletin last week and the e-mail received on Monday, we are in the process of refreshing our understanding of our identity and values as a community, Cedar Park United Church â€“ we want to be able to communicate clearly who we are and act and make decisions with integrity to who we are.
â€¢ We had workshop to explore those values last Saturday. One of the key items valued by this community that surfaced is openness to questions and spiritual seeking. To be able to ask those important questions about the understanding of the world and the universe around us that we build our lives on, without being criticized or ashamed.
â€¢ Such openness doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and protected.
â€¢ I am involved with the Menâ€™s group here. It meets on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday every month, mostly to discuss what is going on in our lives and topics of importance to us, mostly with a spiritual perspective. We donâ€™t have many rules, but we do have some, and they are there to protect individuals and to create a safe, non-threatening environment, conducive to dialog about what is important in guyâ€™s lives.
â€¢ One of the most important is that when someone says something, that is their story. That story is their property cannot be retold by someone else without explicit permission. We also try to allow space for the quieter person to contribute to a discussion. Sometimes the quieter person has quite profound reflections on a subject that we would be poorer for not hearing.
â€¢ A year or so ago this congregation came up with something along those lines, to nurture and protect and create the type of community that we desire. It is one of the current foundational documents that we will be looking at in considering our identity and values – the covenant of harmony.
â€¢ You will find a copy in your bulletin â€“ please get it out as we are going to read it together in a few moments.
â€¢ For me, it is about building a healthy vibrant community â€“ it talks to inclusiveness, respect and valuing others. One of its most important elements for me is around what to do when conflict arises, which it will. If I donâ€™t like what some one else has done, I should talk to that person, not about them, behind their back. I might understand why they did what they did, they might get to understand my perspective and the issue might even get resolved.
â€¢ Please stand and read the Harmony Covenant with Sharon and me. We will read sentences alternately. Sharon on that side of the isle and me on this.
Back to Sharon
Boundaries are necessary for living. Without them there is chaos, and disorder, whether within an individual or in a community. We need structure to maintain our integrity and our heath. We need a shared sense of vision for how we will be together as family, as community. However we need also to make sure that the structures, rules, codes, law, are there to liberate life, to give rooting and grounding in which people can flourish; rather than becoming an instrument of control or becoming the god we serve.
Boundaries can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy boundaries are identity creating. They protect the essential nature and soul of self and community, providing a secure sense of being, a clarity of who one is. Unhealthy boundaries become rigid, barriers designed to build walls around a person, or a community. They become a way to control life, rather than launch it.