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  • Writer's pictureRev. Nick Reed

Protect and Flourish

Exodus 20:1-17

We believe the 10 commandments are a gift of communal direction that protect God’s children from straying, and seeks protection for those who have been marginalized and weakened by a broken and sinful world. We also believe the 10 commandments to be a gift that guides us to flourish in the ways we are able to love God and love one another.

In our reformed tradition the idea that the 10 commandments lead to a communities protection and flourishing can be seen in theologian John Calvin’s three uses of the 10 Commandments.

The first way the faithful can use of 10 commandments is to allow them to show us how we are to live our life. They show us that our life’s purpose is to be devoted to God and devoted to faithfully living in communion with our neighbor.

Calvin believed when we allow the 10 commandments to show us how we are to live a devoted life towards God and God’s created community. It is at that moment that our sinful nature is exposed, and it will make us realize that there are aspects of our lives that are not being faithfully lived like they are suppose to be. This is something we seem to remember most vividly during lent.

Calvin’s second use of the 10 commandments is to use them in a way so that they serve as an important civic function so that they restrain sin and sinful behavior; and not just individual sinful behavior, but restrains corporate, institutional, and social sinful behaviors. He believed when used they would shape and inspire other written and unwritten laws of a community. A great Biblical example of this are the holiness codes of ancient Israel found in Leviticus. It might be easy to think the 10 commandments are the only laws that matter, but we would be doing a disservice in remembering that the 10 commandments were the foundation and the beginning of a mindset of communal living and civic instructions that would lead to more detailed practices and laws that guided God’s created community to faithfully love God and love neighbor.

The Leviticus holiness codes, that were inspired by the 10 commandments, would shape ancient Israel’s society and social living in ways that would be unique from other ancient middle eastern societies; because they are the only ones that were intentional for looking out for the weak and marginalized. While other codes and laws of the land in ancient middle eastern societies were about making sure the powerful stayed powerful, the rich stayed richer, the holiness codes of Israel were based on loving God by caring for the orphan, the widow, the resident alien, the marginalized and the weak.

One well known practice that we might remember is one found in the story of Ruth. It was a holiness code making sure all the poor and hungry had food. You might remember that King David’s great grandmother and Joseph’s ancestor, Ruth, was an alien in a land and had no food, but she was able to glean the fields of Boaz during the harvest. This was made possible because of what was written in the holiness codes of Leviticus chapter 19, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

It is worth noting that after each holiness code that is proclaimed in chapter 19 of Leviticus, the phrase “I am the Lord your God” follows, the same language of that first commandment. A reminder and a connection that to love and devote ourselves to God is connected to how we love and care for the weak and marginalized.

John Calvin believed and our reformed tradition believes that the 10 Commandments should be used to inspire communal civic holiness codes in our communities, written laws and unwritten laws of the community that seek to lift up and protect the marginalized and weak, especially those who have been marginalized and made weak by individual and corporate sinful actions.

And finally John Calvin viewed that the 10 commandments had a third use. They are to be used as a vital and positive role in how we flourish in our life following Christ. They are able to be a lamp unto our feet, guiding us in our devotion towards God and guiding us in how we love and care for one another as followers of Christ.

In the end, the 10 commandments would inspire and be the foundation for 613 new laws in ancient Israel. Yet it was Jesus who reminded us once again about the purpose of their existence. When asked which one of these 613 laws are the greatest, he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and a second is like it “you shall love your neighbor as your self.”

Jesus embodied what it means to be faithful to God and love others. As Christians we believe the love of God is always connected to the love of our neighbor. If you are not loving your neighbor, then you are not loving God. Love is the light that is the lamp unto our feet. Love is the foundation of our communal living.

My big question for today is how can we allow the 10 commandments to be the foundation of our own 21st Century Holiness Codes? Communal codes that seek out those who have been marginalized and weak from sinful and broken human nature. As we remember today our calling to love God and protect all in God’s created community and help them flourish, may we remember that in the year 2021 almost 1 out of every 10 people in our nation lives in poverty. May we remember that 25% of children under the age of 6 live in poverty. In fact children make up 1/3 of the number of people in poverty. It is with these statistics in mind, and a desire to protect the marginalized and weak from our broken and sinful world that the Presbyterian Church has made eradicating systemic poverty as a focus in being a Matthew 25 church that cares for the least of these.

While there are immediate needs of those in poverty, as a Matthew 25 church we are also committing ourselves to addressing the systems that cause poverty. When you visit the PCUSA Matthew 25 website you will find this answer as to why this initiative speaks of systemic poverty and not just poverty, “As Reformed Christians, Presbyterians believe that government is God’s agent when it comes to the providential care of people. We also believe that creation is entrusted to our care. A crucial part of our worship and mission is to stand together for the common good. There are structures in our society that all but guarantee that people living in poverty will stay that way. Systemic poverty refers to the economic exploitation of people who are poor through laws, policies, practices and systems that perpetuate their impoverished status.”

What I have found encouraging as we approach the different aspects of living out what it means to be a Matthew 25 church is the fact that we have already been doing many things at First Presbyterian Church to protect and care for the marginalized and weak. We have even already begun the work of eradicating systemic poverty through ministries and organizations we support.

Our church is one of many congregations who are members of Alabama Arise. Alabama Arise is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations, and individuals united in their belief that people in poverty are suffering because of various state policy and procedures. Through Alabama Arise, congregations, groups, and individuals together promote polices and engage civic leaders to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes.

John Calvin would be proud to know that there are people faithfully seeking civic laws to help the weak and the marginalized by engaging in conversation with local government officials. A wonderful reminder that our purpose as christians is not to seek laws that are left and right, republican or democrat, but to seek holiness codes that are founded in loving God by the way we love our neighbor.

Maybe long gone is the practice of leaving the gleanings of your harvest for the poor, but that does not mean we can not reimagine new holiness codes based on sharing our resources, and providing and protecting the marginalized, the weak, and the poor. For over 60 years Presbyterian Community Ministries, a non profit in our community that was begun by faithful members of this congregation, have sought to use their resources to eradicate systemic poverty. Their holiness code of love and devotion to God and neighbor is to provide interest free loans for utility assistance, emergency home repair, and safe housing related expenses. In fact, knowing that the pandemic has led to so many to be uncertain of their employment they have even temporarily paused the loan process for the last year and provided assistance loan free. Over the years other non profits in our community have followed the same holiness code, and created other options for internet free loans. I lived in many towns where all over town there were so many pay day loan and title loan businesses that charged a ridiculous interest rates to those who are desperately seeking a little more money to pay their bills, yet in Lee County there does not seem to be as many. Maybe that is because so many faithful nonprofits and ministries have created a better alternative.

These are just a few meaningful ways we can begin to engage in the calling to eradicate systemic poverty.

In this season of lent as we examine our common life with God and common life with our neighbor, may remembering the communal gift of the 10 commandments inspire us to create new holiness codes that tend to the marginalized and weak. In our moments of self awareness may we feel God’s presence guiding us and may God’s instruction to love God and love neighbor be our lamp unto our feet, and open our eyes that we may see. May we remember God’s gift of communal direction for God’s created community, and not only may we protect one another from the brokenness of this world, but may we help each other flourish. Amen!

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