Keepin’ It Holy

(Exodus 19 & 20)

There’s a peculiar story told about a glass hotel that sits on a lake. Every room has a balcony and despite the efforts of management, they cannot get people to stop casting fishing lines off the glass balconies. You can imagine that fishing lures and glass could make for some occasional broken glass. And so the owners called in consultants to address the problem.  Everyone had ideas but nothing helped. That is until one woman said confidently that she could stop the practice virtually overnight.  Of course they were skeptical. So what is it you can do that no one else has been able to do? Because frankly, we’ve tried everything! “It’s simple” she says.  Take down the no fishing signs.”

Human beings are predictable and sometimes we act like children.  We like to do precisely what we’ve been told not to do.  Don’t eat that. Don’t run in the hall.   Keep off the grass.  Don’t covet. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. We don’t like don’t.  And so we rebel in some misguided attempt to be independent.  And being independent is often based on the dependent relationship of doing the opposite of someone who must make the first move so that you can make your move.

This entire notion of rebellion and independence are good to consider as we read about Moses delivering the Ten Commandments. Maybe we need to be open to what we don’t know. And so…

We pick  up the story of the exodus three months after the parting of the red sea.Moses  The people have arrived at Mount Sinai where God gives them the law-the ten commandments.  We all know the list: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, honor your father and your  mother,  do not steel, covet or bear false witness, etc. We know the list and we can recite which ones we’ve broken.

It’s easy to question the timing and wonder if God is enslaving them with new rules.  In reality, God gives them the law in love, so that Israel will know how to live out their relationship with God.  Not just for Israel’s but that she would be a blessing to others.

One thing I’ve learned from my Jewish friends is that they regard the law as giving them the freedom to keep life holy. They are stewards of commandments given to enhance the well-being of community.  In their paradigm, the law was not given as a new kind of bondage but a new kind of freedom!  Living inside the lines of the law has the power to show love and give life, was what one Rabbi once told me.  That is most assuredly an “eagle’s wings” perspective.

Next month one of my favorite people is flying in from Texas. His name is Russ and he is professor at Texas State University.  He’s coming to St. Paul for an educator’s conference and for his wedding.  Russ is a bit unusual, kind of a hybrid.   As a child he was baptized and raised Christian but when his parents died he was moved to an aunt’s home and the aunt’s family was Jewish.   His resulting faith is a beautiful blend of Judaism and Christianity.  To Russ I will always be Rabbi Robyn. And when he bought a new home, he invited me to bless the mezuzah that was to be affixed to his front door frame.   Mezuzah literally means door post in Hebrew. A mezuzah is a decorated cylinder (like the one printed in your service bulletin) that contains a small parchment scroll inscribed with words known as the Shema.  The Shema speaks of the commandments and says in part:

And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

The mezuzah is a visible reminder that every time you enter or exit—you are vowing that every action will be holy.

Keeping it holy (or of God) is the daily hope of every person of faith.

These well-known Ten Commandments that were given to Moses contain the foundations for faithful living, Jewish or Christian.  If we simplified them, here’s how they would read

  1. God first
  2. Only God
  3. Respect God
  4. Enjoy God
  5. Respect your roots. Be nice.
  6. Value life
  7. Keep your commitments
  8. Live honestly
  9. Speak truthfully
  10. Be content

Using the law as a lens, maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus’ life and death turned the law into gospel, an embodied truth leading to holistic salvation. What would happen if we formed our personal and communal ethics, our gospel way of living, based on… keeping God first, respect, living honestly, speaking truthfully, and regarding life as holy?

Perhaps all that has divided us will merge. And both men and women will be gentle and strong. And then all will cherish life’s creatures, living in harmony with each other and the earth.

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.+

Amen indeed.

* The final lines of the entry are inspired by Judy Chicago’s poem, “The Merger.”

Dancing With the Word*

If last Sunday’s story of Joseph in prison showed us the everyday miracles of God’s presence in our lives, today’s story of the exodus shows us a once-in-a-millennium, or even once-in-a-Testament!) miracle. In many ways it is the miracle. This story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army is the bedrock of the covenant relationship between God and Israel.

And what a story! Horses’ hooves pound the dirt, the Israelites cry out in fear, the Egyptians scream in panic, the wind howls, and the waters churn in their great vertical walls. Add to that the pyrotechnics of the pillar of fire and cloud, and Exodus 14 describes a big, chaotic mess.  It’s an R-rated for violence, popcorn throwing, edge of your seat exit and yet…given this chaos, Moses’ instructions to the terrified Israelites isn’t RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, it’s stand, see, keep still: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today— you’re never gonna see them again. All you have to do is keep still and do what?  WATCH (Exodus 14:13-14).

The mandate from God here is neither to fight, or to run, but to witness: to  grab a wall and watch God work it out. All of the agency in this story belongs to God.

This is a glorious Hollywood storytelling and it’s deeply troubling.  My spirit tears every time I hear God used to vanquish some of his people to liberate others. We have to get behind and underneath the story.  God wants all of us liberated from whatever circumstances or mental paradigms are holding us captive. What’s holding you captive?

You and I won’t likely find ourselves sold into slavery in the classic sense. But maybe its depression, illness, the effects of aging, or finances that have you imprisoned. We have Salem members whose families in Liberia are daily being held captive by the threat of Ebola.  In such times, the last thing we expect God to tell us is to stand, see, and keep still.  Cuz why? We want to seize control. We want to DO something.

Getting the word this week that one of my friends with cancer is worse while another is waiting on even a shred of good news, I’ve spent the week reminding myself that God is on the scene, that comfort is somewhere in that hope. I feel helpless and yet oddly comforted to hear the words “stand, see, and keep still.”

In heart breaking times, in incomprehensible times, the only thing we can do is fall on our knees, pray, and pour over the words of sacred scripture to see how our ancient brothers and sisters dealt with captivity.  When we go beyond the text assigned for today and pick up the story in Exodus 15 we see that a powerful thing happened between the Red Sea and the land of Marah.

There will always be Red Seas and waters of Marah and we will cry out and God will hear us and bring us through. The powerful thing that happened was that because they truly witnessed God’s action on their behalf…the next thing they did was dance!

Did you hear me? THEY DANCED.dancing mirium

We read that Miriam grabbed her tambourine, the instrument used in ancient times for worship music. When they saw her pick it up they knew the dance was on!  She took the lead in letting the people know it was time to rejoice.

Are you in need of some rejoicing?  Don’t leave me alone up here. Our world, our city, our neighborhood is polarized and off the chain. It’s only September and I’m already sick of the hateful political advertisements coming out of both parties.

It’s time for some Miriams to rise up and call forth a dance.  We have got to remind ourselves that God’s hope of liberation is for us all!  And that God wants us to, live a dancing life!  Sack cloth and ashes are for those who don’t yet know who and whose they are!  The Israelites knew it and they danced!

There are plenty of times to focus on the lament, worry, anxiety, fear, grief, anger, debate, violence, sorrow, sadness, and despair.

I wonder: do we ever listen to ourselves and the amount of energy we lend to the negative things in our lives. Something is out of balance when we permit our emotions to grieve and complain without permitting them to rejoice.  Our confident expectation of God’s deliverance should be greater than our catastrophizing.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not advocating Pollyanna blindness in the midst of real pain and real oppression. What I’m saying is that when life is off the chain, what if our first response were to be still and watch for God?  Then and only then we could get our bearings and be ready for God to work through us. We’re all going to come upon bitter waters in our lives.  By all means cry out, but then wait on God to sweeten those waters.

Jesus died to do more than save us from eternal hell. He died to free us from hell on earth. He died so we could live the dancing life. So here is the holy balancing act God is inviting.

Do the work of the ministry and… keep  dancing. (say it with me)

Speak truth to power and what?  Right. Keep dancing!

Speak peace to war, and keep dancing.

Look for a new job, and keep dancing.

Get counseling for your relationship, and keep dancing.

Work on your recovery from addictions, and keep dancing.


* This entry is an outright riff on the writing of Bishop Yvette Flunder from her book “Where the Edge Gathers” and the words of Luther Seminary’s podcast on the Exodus text. Though I’ve put my own spin on their brilliance, much of my inspiration came from thoughts beyond my own.