Rev. Caroline Barnett
There are No Rules
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
20:1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder.14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[b] and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Something surprising happened last March.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Lots of surprising things happened in March of 2020, but on March 13th, the 1987 hit song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” by the band REM reentered the top 100 music charts, signaling that something about this song was speaking to people again.
I don’t need to tell you what was happening around that time that likely led to the sudden increase in popularity of a song written over thirty years ago.
It felt like the world was ending, and I don’t know about you, but I did not feel fine.
And neither do the Hebrew people who are living in their own “end of the world.”
But this is not the first time their world has ended. Their world has actually ended multiple times. It ended when the Hebrew people were forced into slavery; when Pharaoh committed genocide as he ordered the death of Hebrew infants. The world ended, even if the people kept on living.
But then the world ended again, this time for the better, when they crossed the Red Sea, walked out of slavery and learned what it meant to be free. And even though a better world awaited, everything they knew was ending, and that’s a hard transition to bear. So I imagine, they didn’t feel fine.
And in today’s scripture, God speaks directly to the Israelite people, and with that God appears as thunder and lightning, the sound of trumpets, a smoking mountain.
It looked and sounded and felt like the world was ending.
And the people did not feel fine — They were afraid.
Afraid that the physical world was falling apart before their eyes. Afraid that God, a divinity powerful enough to move mountains and change the pull of the sea, was talking directly to humans. Maybe they were afraid that God had changed God’s mind, and they were going to be abandoned in the wilderness, or even sent back into slavery.
I can think of a lot of reasons why the Hebrew people were so afraid.
The world was ending. Again.
And nothing felt fine.
But often, when people in scripture are afraid, especially when they are afraid of God or messengers from God, the words of comfort are always the same:
Do not be afraid.
This time it’s Moses, who has had a lot of experience talking with God, who comforts the people. Pay no mind to the chaos swirling around you, he says, you get used to it.
Instead, listen, not to the thunder, not to the trumpets, but listen to what God is saying to us. Because in that chaos, God lays out a plan of how to not only survive what feels like the end of the world, but how to live in a new one.
And sometimes God’s word comes with a lot of theatrics, to remind us of what scripture translates as the “fear of the Lord” which is not really about being scared, or frightened, but about feeling awe and reverence about all that God can do.
Do not be afraid, Moses tells the people, because what God is saying is actually really important.
Amidst the thunder and trumpets, God lays out what we now know as the ten commandments, as Torah, as the law which will guide the Hebrew people in the wilderness and as they make a life in the Promised Land.
And in these words, God imagines a new world in which the people love God and love their neighbors. Where they worship God, and keep God’s name holy.
A world where sabbath and rest exist, and people care for those around them: their parents, their loves, their neighbors. Where the deceit and greed and violence that were regular features of their old world have no place in God’s new one.
God envisions what it means to live— not just survive— and with that, these commandments become the cornerstone of Jewish, and therefore, Christian life.
It’s an expansive understanding of who humans can be in light of who God is, but sometimes, perhaps because we have numbered the commandments to make a list, we look at these commandments not as guides for a faithful life, but as rules meant to be followed to a T.
We take all that grandeur of God’s word and turn it into ten rules for easy living.
When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of taking a class co-taught by an Episcopal priest and a Jewish rabbi who taught the class about the history of Christian-Jewish relations. And one day, the rabbi was teaching and he paused to make sure we understood the terms he was using.
He asked the class: Now do you know what I mean when I say ‘torah?’
And I knew that if I were to go search through my old study materials, I would find a stack of Hebrew-English flashcards from another class, and one of them would say Torah on one side, and “law” on the other.
Torah is this story right here, the ten commandments, the laws given to Moses for the Israelites to follow.
Someone else in the class voiced that answer, and the rabbi paused and then said: “Well, that’s one way to describe it, but I would call it a way of life.”
When the world feels like it is ending, when death and despair seem imminent, these commandments do so much more than any rule or law ever could: They offer a way toward life.
They offer hope of what a new world could look like. And not a new world for someday off in the future, but for the world right now, in the wilderness, wherever the Hebrew people are because love of God and neighbor can happen anywhere.
Because the truth is there are no rules.
There are no rules that can keep us safe from a world that is crumbling around us.
When everything is changing, the rules that might have once applied might feel obsolete or unhelpful in our new situation.
There are simply no rules that can protect us from the anxiety that arises when the world is filled with thunder and lightening and trumpets and wilderness.
Brené Brown, who is a researcher and writer on topics such as shame and vulnerability, once said that rules are “the fence around the ego.” She says that though rules are not bad, per say, and that the human desire to know what is expected of us is a good impulse, we can also use “rules” as a way to absolve ourselves of every having to confront difficult, nuanced topics where we might not see the whole picture.
When we are confronted by new information, especially if it challenging to us, we use rules as a defense mechanism. We say, “I’m just following the rules you taught me” rather than asking why our rules may no longer apply.
But there are no rules, no rules perfect or universal enough to keep us from ever having to deal with the reality that we live in an imperfect world that changes, and ends, and begins again all the time.
Even our ten commandments, our “rules,” our guide, our way of life are not perfect:
For one, they don’t reject slavery as a feature of their world. Don’t covet your neighbor’s slave, scripture says. But why is slavery still inscribed in God’s word?
And the commandments don’t offer exact guidance on every situation in every time.
Such as, what to say to someone whose parents have harmed them. What does honor look like here?
And the commandments don’t tell us what to do when one commandment comes into conflict with another.
Such as, what if saving a life means working on the sabbath?
These are questions and contradictions people of faith have grappled with since the moment they first received these commandments. It’s what much of the Jewish scriptures do, detailing how each of these commandments could work in the real world.
It’s what Jesus does in the Gospels as he tells parables and debates with other religious leaders about what the greatest commandment is.
People who take these words seriously love God and love their neighbors not because they want to follow the rules, but because God’s love compels them to do so in whatever time and place they find themselves in.
Instead of rules meant to scare us into obedience, or rules we can use to absolve ourselves from confronting new realities, our scripture for today grants us a vision of what our world could be like, a world where love of God and love of neighbor inform all that we do.
There are no rules, but there is a way of life God sets out here. A way of life we can follow everyday, even when it feels like the world is ending.
Thanks be to God. Amen.