Who We Want in Charge: Exodus 19.3–7 and 20.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 7, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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IN CHARGE
Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

If the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from two weeks ago—the story of one person trying to wield their power and privilege to demand sex from another—was timely, today’s story of the freed Hebrew slaves receiving the Decalogue is equally so.

MAGISTRATE
When last we saw them, the slaves had safely made it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Freedom, at last! And there was much rejoicing. Then what?

The slaves have all of their family members and all of their stuff. But for generations they have been under the direction and control of their Egyptian overlords and owners. They have been, unwillingly yet totally dependent on the rules and customs of the Pharaoh they left behind. How will they organize themselves in freedom? The Hebrews did not flee with fully formed, coequal branches of government. In addition to being homeless, then, they are also lawless and unorganized.

Naturally, they keep turning to Moses. It was all Moses’s plan to leave, he’s the one who got them all stirred up, made them think the unknown would be better than the stewpots and graves of Egypt. Plus, Moses has the ear of God. So Chapter 18 (v. 13), just before our reading today, says “Moses sat as magistrate among the people…from morning to evening.”

Which Jethro objects to, strongly.

JETHRO
Jethro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest from Midian, a people distinct from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. On his arrival at the Hebrew encampment, Jethro is horrified by Moses’s failure to delegate, and so his abrogation of his special role as prophet of God. The man who has the ear of God should not be determining meal plans, tent configurations, or whose camel pooped on whose sandals.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro says, and tells Moses to divide magisterial duties by groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand. Create a chain of command and accountability, Moses. “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you,” Jethro says (v. 22b).

Moses does, and so ends the chapter. And so begins God’s own instructions.

DECALOGUE
The Hebrew people may now be organized and have sufficient judges to attend to daily concerns but what are the terms under which they judge? Maybe they were following Egyptian legal precedents or had adopted the laws of Midian, Jethro’s land. We do not know.

We do know that right after the description of implementing Jethro’s system for governance, God offers the people substance for that system.

To restate them in the terms I used when we studied the Decalogue earlier this year:

  1. Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
  2. Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
  3. Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
  4. Don’t work all day every day.
  5. Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
  6. Don’t lie.
  7. Don’t kill.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t spread false rumors about others.
  10. Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.

These are not easy laws to keep. They restrict some of our most basic drives and common habits.

They restrict our appetites, like the hunger to consume objects and bodies. They restrict our tools of avarice, like rumormongering and deceit. They restrict our tendency to avoid grace, like working on weekends and vacations and insisting on learning everything the hard way.

These laws want to teach us that it is better to sacrifice striving to prayer, hubris to integrity, and craving to neighborliness. God wants to teach us that within a society, there is no room for striving, hubris, and craving, not if you want it to stay organized.

OUR SOCIETY
Our society is in a crisis of striving, hubris, and cravings. At the local level we seem to be doing okay, but I’m not so sure about the national. No matter the place on the political spectrum, no one is happy, and everybody is yelling:

You stole the election!
You stole our jobs!
You are just voting that way to stay in power!
You are just trying to get more voters so you can get power!
You demean the “unborn”!
You demean women!
You are a liar!
No, YOU are a liar!

And now the judiciary, the magistrates on whom we depend to interpret the laws of this land with thoughtfulness and rigor, without partisanship or rancor, is being torn apart apart. Fifty senators confirm a judge whom over 2,400 law professors would not.

Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

According to this story, the consequences are suffering for generations.

GENERATIONS
This is the element of the Decalogue that I didn’t address last spring but will now: it’s that threat from God about punishment.

God says that if we make false idols and worship them, we will be punished, as will our children, and their children, and their children. But those who take on the ethic of true neighborliness that is in the remaining teachings? Thousands of generations after them shall know kindness.

Maybe that’s really what is at issue in our national rending: not partisanship, but shortsightedness. So narrow a focus on the next election cycle that we refuse the hear the solid advice of people from another party, like Jethro. That leads to the elevation of shiny idols on altars that quickly rot.

We don’t get to blame God for the suffering that will come when it all collapses.

We have to ask ourselves if in our choices today will someday lead our grandchildren to look us in the eye and say, “The thing you did was not right.”

Our goal is for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to say our names with thanksgiving because before our days were done we intentionally shared the burdens of giving up striving, hubris, and craving, so that by their day this scorching desert will have been left far behind.

Whether it is the midterms or the midweek, we do not expect one person to solve all of our problems. We look for leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, and millions. Then we ask if they are working as hard as we are to hold themselves to the standards that we hear from God but that really transcend all religions:

  1. Only use power for freedom.
  2. Let holiness, or wholeness, set our tastes.
  3. Let wholeness determine our means.
  4. Take long breaks from the talking heads and give our minds a rest.
  5. Talk to the survivors of the fights for rights.
  6. Be honest even if it costs us.
  7. Question, rather than threaten, those we disagree with.
  8. Fix the systems that are broken, but without putting in a fix.
  9. Choose the sound over the salacious.
  10. Curb our appetites so that they do not consume us or those around us.

Or, as we will sing in a moment, ask to be each others’ servants.

AMEN Continue reading