NO OTHER GODS
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
October 8, 2017 — 18th Sunday after Pentecost
We have been looking at Moses for many weeks now and many people have approached me to say that they are haring an echo of contemporary events in the stories we are sharing. There may be a reason for that.
We have an interesting book on our church library titled America’s Prophet. It is written by Bruce Feiler who has written many books about the history of Israel… Walking the Bible, Abraham, and Where God was Born.
But in America’s Prophet he makes the case that our American values find their roots in Israel’s story of liberation.
George Washington, he writes, believed in Providence…a deity that acted in history to free the Americans from bondage of British oppression…and you can find a litany of those acts of oppression in our Declaration of Independence that is longer and more detailed than our readings list the sins of Pharaoh.
Abraham Lincoln became the Great Emancipator and Feiler says he became a Moses not by being born into slavery but by being born in poverty and working his way out. By reading the Bible he was offered the hope that inspired his quest for transformation of the nation, and it was the Hebrew Bible that fascinated him. He writes, “It’s God who promises deliverance. And deliverance, of course, is the message of Gettysburg.”
Inscribed on one wall of the Jefferson Memorial are his words, "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
And Jefferson is the man who wrote that sentence heard round the world, that turned the ideas of power upside down…”all people are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Inalienable… They cannot give it away or sell it, and it cannot be taken from them, not even by the lash. I can hear Moses in this, standing before Pharaoh demanding, “Let my people go.”
The Statue of Liberty holds the Tables of the Law, like Moses, in her left arm while her forehead shines with light like the face of Moses as he returned to the people from receiving from God the laws on Mount Sinai.
Woodrow Wilson was hailed as ‘a new Moses’ for his efforts to covenant the world under the League of Nations. The people in Jesus’ day wondered if he was John the Baptist and on the Mount of Transfiguration it was Moses and Elijah that communed with Jesus before his great ordeal.
So Moses has been a model and a guide for America, land of the free and home of the brave, before… and since…its beginning.
Like Moses, too, our aspirations as a nation compel us to follow in his footsteps. We climb the mountain to achieve liberty, we attain our goal, and then see some way we have fallen short.
The picture I get is like Lewis & Clark crossing the Bitterroot Mountains in the fall of 1805. The mountains were steep and difficult, but when they got to the top of each ridge, there seemed to be an endless sea of ridge lines before them.
And they had to descend into the next valley to reach the next ridge. It was that Great Wheel I have seen so many other places…turning and turning. Wheels turn. That’s how they are. That’s what they do.
This is the rhythm of our history, too. Success always seems to bring a new round of challenges. From each summit we can see a new goal, and we have to roll up our sleeves, repent and get down into it in order to reach the next ridge.
Moses went up the mountain to receive the laws, but he had to carry them back down with him to give them to the God’s people. Without the descent, there would have been no point for the ascent.
Moses came to give God’s law to the people of Israel because of advice he got from his father-in-law, Jethro. One day Jethro watched as the people came to Moses with their grievances. He was holding court and ruling on a case-by-case basis.
The matters consumed his time from morning until the sunset and Jethro told him, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
He tells him to choose deputies to hear and decide the cases with him. “Let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.” So he established a system of inferior and superior courts, not altogether unlike our structure of district and appellate courts today.
Out of that system of justice a broader plan evolves. They need a code, a covenant between the people.
This lets them know ahead of time how they are to treat their neighbor and what they can expect from their neighbor. Then they would not have to take their grievances to the judge unless they think there has been a violation of one of the commandments.
God calls Moses to bring the people to Mount Sinai, and they follow him part way up the mountain. Then Moses and Aaron alone go to the mountaintop.
God then gives Moses the law to give to God’s people. The first of these is that they…we…are to have no other gods before the God who led them out of bondage in Egypt, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It’s like the day that Jesus, Moses, and an old man go golfing. Moses tees off first. He smashes the ball and it is heading right for the water hazard before the green. Moses raises his club, the water parts, and the ball makes it to the green, and rolls about ten feet from the cup.
Jesus gets up to swing, cranks it out, and it is headed for the water hazard. Jesus closes his eyes and prays. The ball skips across the water and rolls up on the green two feet from the hole.
The old man's turn comes, and he drives the ball way up in the air. The ball looks like it is going to drop directly into the water. A fish jumps from the water hazard swallowing the ball, as an eagle drops from the sky, grabbing the fish.
As the eagle flies over the green, a bolt of lightning strikes the eagle, making it drop the fish. As the fish hits the green, spits out the ball and the ball falls into the hole, making a hole in one.
Jesus looks at Moses and says, “I really think I'm leaving Dad at home next time!”
This recognition of primacy of our duty to God…a duty both Jesus and Moses understood with every breath they took…this acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God…gives the Law a cohesiveness and unity that makes it clear that no loopholes are to be read into them. You are not to say that the circumstances create an exception to any one of them.
It is also a statement that the law comes to us from a source that is greater than any human being. No one is above the law.
On the east pediment of the United States Supreme Court building, the face of the triangle above the columns Moses sits below the center of the peak of the triangle and across the base it reads, “Equal justice under law.”
That sounds pretty obvious to us today. We have lived in a land with a stable government, and we have shared a set of values all our lives. We live in a land of plenty and all the new technologies have made our lives busier and richer….but maybe not more fulfilling.
Without law…without a just and clear understanding of how others will treat us, we would not want to be their neighbors.
Without law… without a just and clear understanding of how others expect us to treat them, we would not know how to sustain ourselves in the community that we need.
And the nation of Israel needs to be in community to survive as it travels through the wilderness. Without each other they are individually vulnerable to all kinds of hazards.
‘United we stand; divided we fall’ is as true of them as it was of the American Revolution. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
That was as true for the pilgrims… for the first explorers and settlers… and for the homesteaders…as it was for the Nation of Israel in the wilderness. It is as true for us today.
We have seen the destruction in Houston and Florida, the devastation in Puerto Rico, and the carnage in Las Vegas, and they all bear witness to this truth.
In all of these situations, people have been confronted with sudden life-threatening situations and the stories we hear are of self-sacrifice and resilience.
When the call went out to doctors that gunshot wounds were inbound to the Level One Trauma Center, more doctors showed up than they had surgery suites. One witness has noted that when the danger became manifest, people were running toward the danger to help others.
Even after the initial crisis had passed, the head of surgery at the trauma center talked about people holding pressure on their own bullet wounds to stop the bleeding, telling medical staff to take care of others first, they were doing okay. In caring about others, they were upholding the sanctity of life and reaffirming the power of love.
As for the shooter, we are still looking for a motive. I speculate now, there is much in our story of the giving of the law and in our story of where civilization is headed today, we have a clue.
It is not a personal clue pointing to some trauma in the shooter’s childhood or some seething resentment at injustice today. It is a cultural clue that shows itself in every town and every life today.
Our technology empowers the individual, to be sure, but it also isolates us. We do not see ourselves so much as being a part of a larger community as being apart from the larger community.
The thing that makes us powerful makes us weak. And the things that make us weak…like mega-storms and mega-fires and mass shootings …make us strong.
The founding fathers adopted e pluribus unum as the motto of the United States…out of many, one. They did not claim e unum pluribus …out of one, many.
Jesus did not pray that those who were his disciples could be many…. He prayed that they might be one as he and God were One. We break bread as his body was broken. We pour out the grape juice as his blood was poured out so that he might be our Passover lamb, and we might be saved by the blood of the unblemished lamb he offered as his sacrifice so many Passovers ago now.
The Las Vegas shooter poured out the blood of many in a vain attempt to scatter those who would hold up love as the greatest power and highest calling of humankind.
Some people ran to safety, to be sure…but we are hearing all these stories now about how so many people ran toward the danger or shielded other with their body and their blood.
It appears to me that we have no other god before us but the God who sent Jesus into the world. He was the salvation of humankind in his day. He is the salvation of humankind today.
He held the key to hell and death, but we hold the key to love and life. In Jesus Christ, in the victims of all the tragedies that have befallen us this fall, and in the first responders and citizen rescuers…we affirm the covenant Israel made so many moons ago.
May we always become one out of many. May we be one as God and Jesus were one. May we have no other gods before the God who loves us. Amen.