First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Thunder and Lightning and the Word of God

Thunder and Lightning and the Word of God, Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, October 4, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer

The Ten Commandments are familiar to us, though when we start naming them, we may get stuck after the 5th or 6th one, and need a little help to carry on.  We’ve seen them displayed at different places, on plaques inside Christian schools, on great granite monuments in front of courthouses, where I think they’ve mostly been removed.  There was controversy a decade or so ago, and so in many places they were relocated in order to accommodate separation of church and state. Some argued that keeping the monuments in place was fine—they were of historical significance rather than of religious value, which is a little sad.  Kind of like wearing a cross around your neck because it’s pretty, rather than understanding it as a symbol of our faith.

Like wearing a cross, not everyone knows or understands the significance of the Ten Commandments or what they meant to the people of Israel, or what they mean to us today. Some have tried re-writing them over the years, claiming they need an update, saying they don’t pertain to us in this modern world, but that’s a sad statement, too.  Some look at the Commandments and see them as arbitrary and negative. Perhaps you’ve taken classes like I have that taught we should speak to one another in positive terms, inviting others into positive behavior rather than starting out in a stance with your hand on your hip and your finger wagging, telling the other person, “don’t do that, and don’t do that, either!”

But the Ten Commandments are so much more than a list of “don’t do thats.”  They were given to teach a people who had never been free how to live as free people. They were given to build relationship: a relationship with God, and a relationship with one another. They weren’t given to intimidate or to create fear of punishment

Fred Craddock tells of pleasant summer evenings gathering fallen stars. He and his brothers would go into a field near the house, climb up on tree stumps, and wait for stars to fall. From these perches they could see exactly where the stars fell. After filling their pockets with stars they would sneak Grandma’s clothesbasket from the back porch and harvest the remaining stars still flickering on the ground.  Sometimes dragging the heavy basket home left the boys too tired to empty it.  “We will do it in the morning” the boys would say. But in the morning Grandma was already fussing about a residue of gray ashes in her clothes basket. Well, everyone knows you can’t save stars over until the next night. Fred and his brothers denied, of course, having kindled a fire in her basket and would sneak off to play, protected from punishment by the mystery.

But during her last illness, Fred’s grandmother called him to her bedside and told him that she knew what he and his brothers had been doing with her basket. She instructed Fred to bring her a package wrapped in newspaper from the bottom of an old chest. It took her an eternity for her arthritic fingers to open the bundle. “Oh, it’s gone,” she said, showing Fred where it had been. In the bottom of the package was a little residue of gray ashes. Staring at his grandmother, Fred, asked, “You, too, Grandma? Why didn’t you tell me?” 
    “I was afraid you would laugh at me. And why didn’t you tell me?”
    “I was afraid you would scold me.”

Fear of being scolded/of being punished, had to be close to the hearts of Israel.  For 400 years, the people had languished in slavery under the tyranny of Pharaoh. Each day’s activity was ordered by a power that made certain they never forgot who they were: slaves. Now, for the first time in generations, Israel is free from Pharaoh’s rule and their daily activities will no longer be dictated.  They are free to re-invent themselves as a nation.  The Commandments aren’t given to simply transfer the tyranny and bondage from Pharaoh to God, but they are a sacred gift of what they can be as God’s people.  

God begins, basically saying—hey, remember me?  And then, God offers a reminder of who God is.   It is a breath-taking announcement of freedom: good news to a people who are desperate to hear it.  God speaks to the reality of their existence: “I am your God and you are my people.  I heard your cries and I came to you.  I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”   

What God speaks is intensely personal.  God speaks to the people individually and as a community:  God uses the word “you.”  You are my people. I came to you.  I brought you out of the land of Egypt…

And now, “Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; you are free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.”  
God is saying through the commandments, you are my people, you are a free people, and I want the very best for you.  I want you to live full and productive lives.

The commands are about relationship.  They’re about living together as a free people.  They’re about how to do that well, honoring God and honoring one another.  

Freedom.  It was important to the people then, and it’s important to us now.  

Freedom is at the heart of our United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Some 244 years later, we continue to be a people who are very concerned about our personal freedoms, which always need to be measured against/balanced in a way that we’re confident that our freedom doesn’t impose upon the freedom of others.  

The commands are about relationship.  They’re about living together as a free people.  They’re about how to do that well, honoring God and honoring one another.  

We talk about freedom as citizens of this country; we talk about freedom as we consider our faith—as disciples of Jesus Christ, as members of the church.

When we are baptized and when we join into the membership of the United Methodist church, we are asked to respond to 3 questions.

The second question asks, Do you accept the FREEDOM and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 

Do you accept the freedom God gives you?  Will you live out that freedom in a way that honors God and honors others in your community?

Freedom is important to us—in the way we live together as a people, in the way we express ourselves as individuals, in the way we live out our faith.
Before I came to Plymouth, you put together the vision statement that our congregation will be a people who “Love God, Love others, and Serve others.” It’s a good statement, one that I’ve wanted to tweak just a bit, but there’s always been something bigger to work on, so we haven’t done that.  But I realized as I’ve focused on the Ten Commandments this week, that our vision statement points us back to those commands.  Did those of you who worked on the statement realize that?  “Love God” is what the first 4 commands are about, and the way we “Love others” is spelled out in the following ones.  Serving others then, grows out of our faith as followers of Jesus Christ, and is a logical response to loving God and one another.  

The Ten Commandments aren’t thundered from heaven by an immortal, indifferent and distant deity, but by the one who heard the people cry, who came down, and who lovingly gave life where there was no life. God doesn’t save the people because they are perfect in obedience, rather, God mercifully saves them, and the commandments stretch out before them as the more long-lasting gift of life together with God and one another. They were given out of love.

May it be our honor to respond to the gift by expressing our freedom in its highest form, through acts of love for God and one another.