"What's in a Name: I Am Love" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
September 4, 2022
Deuteronomy 5:1-21 & 6:4-9
I want to begin this morning with a question: when did “no” become a bad word?
I mean it. When did we lose our appreciation for limits and rules? At what point in our society’s development was it decided that laws only apply to some? When did truth become situational?
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that unjust, discriminatory laws are there for the breaking. The great John Lewis’s words about “getting into good trouble, necessary trouble…” strike me as just short of Gospel truth. I have no patience or respect for people who use “the law” to justify taking advantage of those who are not in a position to stand-up for themselves. And I’m very much an “ask forgiveness, not permission” type of gal.
But I was raised by parents who loved me by saying “no.” Who had rules they expected me to follow. Who set limits that were non-negotiable and clear consequences for poor choices or disobeying the rules. My parents were lavish with their love, but it took me until my adulthood to realize their strictness was an extension of that excess. Phil and Jackie are the reason I understand rules and structure - with certain exceptions - to be good, healthy things. And it’s because of them I remain convinced that the word “no” is sometimes the most loving thing we can say to each other.
In essence, this morning’s passage is God’s loving “no” to the Isrealites. Through the voice of Moses God reminds these chosen people where the limits are, what her expectations are, and how they can go about living in the community God is creating.
For context, we’ve skipped ahead 40 years from last week’s story of God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush. The first generation of Israelites who escape Pharoah are also the first to hear the 10 Commandments back in Exodus 20. But their generation doesn’t trust God; they’re disbelieving and rebellious on numerous occasions so God vows they will not enter the Promised Land.
Today’s audience is the second generation, the children born during the wandering, who reach the edge of the Promised Land at the end of the book of Numbers.
Now, standing on the cusp of the land they’ve spent their whole lives dreaming about, the people listen to Moses preach. They listen as “he brings them rhetorically to the base of Mt. Sinai (called Horeb here) and preaches to them: The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”
It seems that the now elderly Moses had gotten confused. These are not the people he led out of Egypt and to whom he first presented the two tablets. It’s been 40 years, and these are their children. But Moses is speaking to “a deeper truth.” His “concern is not history; it’s transformation. He seeks to persuade this new generation to recommit to the covenant God made with their parents at Sinai” by remind them of the Lord’s commands.
Perhaps it seems odd in this pregnant, long-awaited moment that Moses chooses to talk about laws. But as Joan Chittister points out in her series on the Ten Commandments, these are not laws as we think of them. Reflecting the mind of God, the Decalogue - Greek for “Ten Words” and a common way to refer to the 10 Commandments - is a set of “principles, not prescriptions...these laws [are] not written to be argued in a court...Most of them [are] not legally enforceable at all.”
As Sister Joan says, the Decalogue is made up of “laws of the heart, not laws of the Commonwealth.” These laws are “meant to shape attitudes and spirit. They [are] ten words that [create] a community.”
And keep in mind that this is a community based in freedom and liberation for God begins by saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” So, before any expectations are outlined, before any community-building beings, God grounds everything in the twin gifts of liberation and freedom.
What does this liberation look like? What tangible shape does freedom take? It takes the shape of not returning to idolatry - You shall have no other gods before me - for this is another form of bondage. It takes the shape of observing the Sabbath weekly for identity is no longer found in work and production, but in honoring and trusting God’s provision. It takes the shape of not having a society in which people kill each other, for that’s bondage to fear and does not treat God’s creation as sacred. It takes the shape of not desiring what you don’t have, for there is freedom in simplicity, not things.
Rather than being restrictive or only beneficial for a percentage of the community, these laws of the heart Moses is reconstituting, repeating and remembering for this second generation is their foundation. The bedrock on which to build their lives and their society, designed on a frame of liberation and freedom and grounded in relationship. For that’s the other important element of understanding this story.
The laws of the heart are an extension of the peoples’ relationship with God. Much like an attentive parent whose discipline and guidance changes as their relationship with their child evolves into adulthood, so the Decalogue develops as the Israelites relationship with God develops.
These are not the mandates of an unknown, intangible on-high deity, but rather grounding truths for beloved children. Ways for them to understand their place in the world and live within reasonable limitations. The 10 Commandments are a loving, freedom giving way for God to say “no” to a few things and “yes” to so many more.
Amanda and I have been friends since 4th grade, and as you’d expect our relationship has evolved since we were little girls. One of the best times in our friendship was right before I left for seminary. Amanda and her family had just moved back to our hometown and her son Michael was 18 months-old and just starting to talk. His repertoire included “Mama” “kitty” and, of course, “no!”
One day I arrived at Amanda’s just as she was feeding Michael dinner. During mealtimes, Michael had discovered the hilarity of feeding “kitty” by dropping his food onto the floor. His mother didn’t find this new discovery nearly as fun because Michael was not only making a mess, but he also wasn’t eating. So, the night I was there she took action. Catching Michael in the act, Amanda tapped him lightly but quickly on the knee with two fingers and said very clearly, “No Michael. That’s bad.”
And y’all if I hadn’t been there to see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe that an 18-month-old is capable of producing a face of such profound betrayal. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Michael looked down at his knee, looked back up at his mother and, with his lower lip quivering, dissolved into horrified weeping.
It was at once heartbreaking and hysterical, and Amanda managed to hold it together until we made eye-contact. Then we erupted into belly laughs and hearing us, Michael stopped crying, narrowed his eyes and said, “No Mama! That’s bad!”
My friends, “no” isn’t always a bad, negative word. When it comes from the mouth of a reproachful toddler it’s hilarious. When it comes from someone who’s protecting themselves or another person or standing up for what’s right, “no” is powerful and courageous.
And when God says “no” in the context of the 10 Commandments, we’re to understand the word in the light of the freedom and liberation God does give and relationship God pursues with us to this very day.
For you see, my friends, the Good News this morning is that God wants nothing in return for our freedom, our liberation, our life in our Promised Land, but our faithful love. And the best part of this Good News is that our God doesn’t call us into relationship with her to judge and condemn us when we make mistakes. Rather, just as God reaches out to the second generation of Israelites in today’s scripture so God reaches out to us with the same liberating laws of the heart.
God gifts us with the same liberating groundwork so that we can create a community powered by the freedom we find in our Creator. If God didn’t love us so much, she would not stretch herself to provide us with limits, with rules, with guideposts to know when we’re headed in an unhealthy or unholy direction. So, let’s understand the holy “no” as a gift. As Sister Joan says, let’s not be convicted by the Ten Commandments, let be transformed by them.
The great I AM, the God of love, the Light of the World, guides us, gives us laws to live by. As we go from this place let’s take care to pay attention to which laws are Gods and which aren’t. It might be that the latter needs breaking.