“The First Word”

Sermon: “The First Word”                                                                             June 18, 2017

Ten Commandments Sermon Series, Part 1

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15 and Deut. 5:1-7


Do you think you could name all of the Ten Commandments if you were asked to? Let’s see if we can collectively remember them! No cheating and looking at your Bibles!


The Ten Commandments – how important are they?

The thing about the Commandments is that they can only be understood when they are no longer abstract principles, but they are experienced in some way– or we feel the tension of the command in our life. Even if we can recite them, we have to interpret them. It’s not until we come to grips with the actual struggle of living out a command, that we begin to notice its importance.

Today we begin a sermon series on exploring the Ten Commandments. We will wonder, what do they mean and how important are they for our lives.

Before the commandments are given, did you notice how Moses said, “Hear O People the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today, you shall learn them and observe them, The Lord our God made a covenant with us…not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant but with us who are all of us ALIVE, TODAY”.

Moses is contextualizing the commandments. Saying, we who are alive today are now tasked with interpretation. We are now the interpretive community! We must receive these commands anew in our context – this is not for our ancestors, but for us who are alive today!

At the point in this text in Deuteronomy Israel has been on a long journey, a journey with God in the wilderness. They are -we might say- walking along the salvation road. Toward the Promised Land, away from the house of bondage. And it is along this salvation road that the people are trying to figure out how to live together, what kind of moral behavior is expected within this community in relation to Yahweh. And so the commandments are given along this salvation road, and they are intended to help the people to create a moral community. So now the people must interpret these commandments and struggle to live them out together.

Now the only part we are going to talk about this morning is the first commandment. We’re doing one at a time. But we have a problem! Because people have not agreed on what constitutes the first commandment!

So our first interpretive task is to figure out what is the first commandment?

Actually – we need to back up one step further and instead of using commandments, we must begin by using the more accurate translation from the Hebrew and use the language of  “the Ten Words”. The Ten Commandments is the popular English rendering of the Hebrew but it is inaccurate. More accurate would be to say the Ten Words. Greek speaking Jews referred to the Ten Words as The Decalogue (from deca – which means “ten” and logos – which means “word”)

Now why am I saying all this? Because this helps us understand why there has been a discrepancy in what was considered the First Word. For Catholic and Protestants the First Word is “You shall have no other gods before me” (because it’s a commandment) but in Rabbinic Judaism, the First Word is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery!” Do you see this difference? This self-identification of Yahweh does not simply serve as an introductory sentence IT IS the First of the TEN! –The First and therefore a very important word because it is God self-identifying God’s self as the one who has LIBERATED the people and brought them OUT of bondage, and so all the other words that come after that word must be understood in relation to this God and how God self-identifies as Liberator of the people! If we get this first word wrong, the rest gets skewed.

BECAUSE you see if the community was to become a moral community, they needed to first of all learn to mirror God’s self-identity: If God is the One who brought you out, and liberated you, then you are to be a people who will also be about the task of liberation! This First Word is very important!

I think Christians ought to listen up for what Jews have been teaching for centuries. We ought to consider God’s self-identification as the First of the Ten.

Before we get into any discussions about what it means to be a moral community, what it means to act as children of God, what it means to try to live out the commandments of God, we’ve got to start by asking well who is God? And how does God want us to understand God’s self?

God is mysterious and unknown, and holy, the Great I AM. There is no name we can give God that accurately reflect who God is. God is always More.

And yet, God is particular about some things. In fact if there is any kind of self-identification that God seems – according to the biblical witness -to be most concerned about us getting right it is this self-identification: I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, OUT OF THE HOUSE OF SLAVERY. Who am I? a Liberator! From what do I call you out of? Slavery! Bondage!

Think about this for a moment: God is One who stands with the people whose experience of Egypt is as a “house of bondage”. Let me say that again by using a different Empire as an example: God is One who stand with the people who experience the United States as a “house of bondage.” You know that many people would say that Egypt was a house of culture, science, mathematics, progress, and opportunity. And yes this is true on the one hand. But for the people with their backs against the wall (to use Howard Thurman’s phrase), for the Israelites their primary experience was that Egypt was a house of bondage, because they were the enslaved. And God is not neutral here. God stands with the people who have experienced Egypt and the United States as a house of bondage. Progress, scientific and cultural accomplishments don’t make up for whole groups of people being treated as less than human. And according to the First Word of God here, we better take that seriously. It is First Word that is the basis of why we proclaim Black Lives Matter in 2017 and Black Trans Lives Matter.

All of us who are alive today and are given the task of interpreting these Ten Words for our time – it is important that we get this First Word right – that God has self-identified as One who hears the cries of those who are being crushed by our American Empire.

I want to reflect on one piece of this. Think for a moment on the power of self-identification. Think about the power of this in our context today. Those of us who are alive, today. Think about our name tags. Why do we wear them? Our names are important. Being called by the name that we were either given or that we changed or adapted because we believe it more accurately reflects the truth about who we are.

Lets think further about this -our names are connected to our pronouns. Think about the importance of pronouns. Pronouns also reflect something of who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be. Some of us have always felt at home with the pronouns that were given to us at birth. In my case, female, resonates as truthful to who I am. For others, this is not the case, and Trans folk are sharing stories with people like me about the pain of being mis-identified and mis-gendered, and misunderstood.

Names are important and so are our pronouns. This is about the truth of our self-identification: The name and the pronoun that accurately reflects who I am and who I understand myself to be and how I want you to understand who I am. These are critical and important things for us to consider in our effort to become a more just and loving and moral community TODAY.

Today is Philly PRIDE and today is a day where we are asked to reflect on what it means for us to become a more radically inclusive community here at Tab, a community that takes seriously the voices of those in our culture that are so often silenced or mocked or blamed for being “difficult” and “disruptive”. We are a community that takes those voices seriously. This is what we are about at Tab! And it means that we are a learning community – a community of people willing to shift and learn and understand each other more deeply.

I wonder if God becomes frustrated when we do the same kind of thing with God as we do with our Trans siblings: we mis-identify God. God is notorious in Deuteronomy for being almost obsessively repetitive with the Israelites about getting God’s self-identification correct. It’s non stop.

It’s like God sneaks in a reminder every which way God can:

When you put your kids to bed and you’re praying with them and teaching them– remember to teach them that I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Oh also, when you are traveling into new places, and you’re making your home in that new place, living in cities that you didn’t build and you have enjoying vineyards that you didn’t plant, and eating your fill. Remember that I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

When I give you those other laws about not collect interest on the backs of the poor and making sure that your SERVANTS are not kept working for you indefinitely. Those are laws based on that thing about me that I keep telling you – I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Remember this truth about who I am. I am the God of Liberation. This is the FIRST Word. And now you can study and practice the rest of the commandments in light of this truth about who I am.

In fact now you can begin to talk about what it means to be in covenant with me, now you can talk about what it means to be my people, the children of God.

The first Word is the most important Word. God is real. God is a God of Liberation. God cares about the crushed and the broken, the profiled and the enslaved. God understands the pain of being mis-identified, mis-gendered, mis-understood.

And so lets remember the importance of this First Word. Let’s remember the importance of being known by name and by the pronouns that most accurately reflect our true name and our identity. These are not trivial matters. These are matters of great importance for learning to love and be a community of inclusion and hospitality; a learning community, willing to grow and be stretched in our understandings of what it means to love one another.

Next week we’ll look at the second commandment which I thought was the first commandment until I started listening to Jewish commentators this past week! So I’ve been learning. I’m so grateful to be challenged by voices other than my own, helping me to understand in deeper ways the kind of God we worship and the kind of people we want to become.


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