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Wisdom for Healthy Communities

Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,19-20
Psalm 19

OK, I’m a baby boomer. I hate rules! I especially hate being told Thou Shalt Not!
But I’ve also seen what happens in families and community and countries where there are no boundaries. And I don’t like that much either.

Boundaries are necessary for living. Without them there is chaos, disorder, insecurity and fear whether within an individual, family, or in a community. We need structure to maintain our integrity and our health. We need a shared sense of vision for how we will be together. However we need also to make sure that the structures, rules, codes, law, are there to liberate life, to give safety in which people can flourish; and do not become an instrument of control or become the god we serve. The Ten commandments were meant to be a way for life. But sometimes they have been used as a weapon for judgement or control.

Boundaries can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy boundaries are identity creating. They protect the essential nature and soul, of self, of community, They provide 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 set up US and THEM. They become a way to control life, rather than launch it.

Jesus’ attitude to the law was an example of healthy boundaries. He loved the law. Just as the Torah means the Book of the Way. Jesus’ movement was first called the People of the Way. But Jesus was intensely critical of those who tried to turn law into a prison, or a weapon, or a way of keeping people out. He knew the Source of the law in his heart and soul, and so lived with freedom, rooted in boundaries and ground rules, but always living them out of the Spirit of right relationship with the Holy. You heard that juxtaposition in the scripture today.

The Exodus reading, is one of the best known passages from Hebrew Scripture, and most misunderstood. When I was a child and learned the 10 commandments as we called them in Sunday School, I had an image of a harsh judge setting quite legalistic, restrictive rules that you’d be zapped if you broke. But as I grew older, knew some Jewish folk and studied theology, I realized these Exodus laws are about relationship between God and the people and are part of that ongoing Exodus story we have been following all Sept. That is why they are called covenant., The God who speaks, (Explain D’bharim) remember is the Creating one who brought order out of chaos; who spoke to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Jacob and his son Joseph. These words “d’bvarim”come as part of the story of the Exodus. It is the God who called Moses from the bush that burned, and called Miriam and Aaron through their brother’s vision. 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 the path to freedom ever since.

We meet the people at Sinai. They have dared to set out on the journey, 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, Rather than living lives patterned for them by external power of Egypt and forced labour, they find themselves suddenly and frighteningly free. And there is chaos. 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.

The people complain and rebel against this change and doubt God’s presence. Now get this! They do this despite having seen Pharaoh’s heart softened! the sea opened! manna arise on the ground each morning! and water pour out of a rock! 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. You see, the people did not know who they were and where they were going, a sure recipe for conflict. They were a people coming apart at the seams.

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). Moses hires the first management consultant in the bible, his father-in-law Jethro, who suggested he use the gifts of the people, and share power. And so they set up judges to help with community organizations, but there was still need for something more. Moses, after deep prayer and communion with God, is given the 10 words, the 10 db’harim —– remembering that when God speaks, as God did at creation- something happens.

These words, are really given in the context of relationship with a deep loving and caring God. 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 3 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,or I might add, to bless our own wars, ( in other words, not to take God’s name in vain).

What do we make our ultimate value when push comes to shove? Where are our priorities. Are they in the right place?

We are to honour sabbathing; resting, renewing, reflecting, praising, joy in being in the presence of God and one another. We are to match the rhythm of our lives to God’s own ryhthm.
How good are you at taking renewal time for soul, for relationship with the Holy and others?

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.. “coveting your neighbour’s wife or slave or slave girl or ox or ass or everything that belongs to him” 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 “consumer” bowing to the belief that we never have enough.

Ten Words, offering boundaries for living in healthy relationship with the Holy and with community. They showed God’s bond, God’s promise to the community, but also created an ethical framework within which community could function.

These words were experienced not as if they came from some Divine Cop in the Sky, but as great gift. The psalmist speaks of the Creator whose creation reveals God’s nature , and calls God’s law perfect, refreshing the soul, sure instruction, wisdom given to the simple. The psalmist calls the precepts right, causing joy in the heart, pure, giving light to the eye, clean enduring forever, true, bringing right relationships, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey. One does not sing these praises of the criminal code of Canada. So obviously we are talking here about something different.

Law, in the bible is about a way of life that links heaven and earth, summed up by Jesus in the words in his prayer “They will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is what God’s law is about , the uniting of heaven and earth; the coming to earth of the way of God, the way of universal compassion and justice.

Here at Cedar Park we developped last year our own covenant for how we will be together as community. It’s called the covenant for harmony and you were given a copy of it when you came into the church today. I invite us to read it together as a reminder of the boundaries within which we live as Christian community.

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