HOW THEN WILL WE LIVE?
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
A few weeks ago we had a meeting at church ahead of our 2017-2018 OOTC season. It was interesting, we heard from a representative from Dixon Hall who talked about some of the things that organization does. We heard from a social worker who talked about talking with and relating to marginalized or at-risk groups.
Then things really became interesting. We had three representatives from Toronto Police Services. Uniformed police officers right here in the sanctuary (except for the one who was from the Undercover Intelligence Unit). We heard about community relations. We heard about a unit in which an officer is paired with a Registered Nurse. We heard from the undercover cop. We heard about overdoses. We heard about how much drug addicts steal from the LCBO. We heard about informants (rats as the officer put it). We heard about how they wish informants Happy Thanksgiving via text. We heard about fentanyl and bad batches of drugs and drug busts in York Region and…
I was loving it.
My job that night was to inject a little of God into the conversation, as it often is. To be the spiritual presence or at least the visible and audible reminder of God among us. I got up to speak and told the people gathered there that normally when I get up to preach on a Sunday morning I follow the person reading the Bible. This night I was following Toronto Police Services who had been talking about all the things I just mentioned. Really dire things. Really bitter things.
I told them how fitting I thought this was, of how I was reminded that our thoughts of God, our beliefs, our faith, our words even, don’t just exist up here. We are not merely philosophizing or theologizing or theorizing when we think and believe and speak of God. What we hold to be true of God is meant to be worked out in practical ways, even and maybe most especially in the mess of life.
So it was good. I told them that we believe everyone is made in God’s image, bears God’s image. I told them that everyone is loved by God. I told them that Jesus once told a story that showed how anyone who gave a drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to those who don’t have it, healed the sick, visited the imprisoned, welcomed the stranger – whoever did this to the least of these who are members of Jesus’ family in some mysterious and wonderful and potentially frightening way does them for Christ.
Because what we believe is worked out in what we do. The end of chapter 20 to chapter 23 of Exodus is known as the Covenant Code. Laws. Ordinances as they’re called in 21:1. The words had been spoken in chapter 20 – “Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me” etc. etc. The words have been spoken. Now they’re going to be fleshed out. Someone has compared the 10 commandments to the sun and the Covenant Code as the sun’s rays. What do these things look like when they’re in effect?
How then shall we live? How shall we live as a people delivered by God?
This is always the first consideration. We’re talking about doing, so we think about verbs. Look at the verbs that start the 10 sayings – I am… I brought. I brought you out of Egypt. I have delivered you. This is the thing about this code. There were other Ancient Near East law codes. The most famous is The Code of Hammurabi, named after an 18th century BC Babylonian king. The thing is, those codes are just that. Codes. A list of laws. Do this, don’t do that. I’m never a big fan of such things. I’ve been known to loiter under a “No Loitering” sign. The Israelites are not told to follow these laws simply because someone said so (not even because God said so!), but because of what they had seen – “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven.” The Israelites had seen for themselves how God had delivered them from oppression in Egypt. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” is how John puts it in his first letter.
What we have seen. Following Christ is to be worked out in ways that are seen. All of this is based on God who has been shown to be a God who delivers. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. Be faithful to this God. Keep your eyes on this God. Seek this God and this God’s kingdom. Make this God the foundation of your life. “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” The danger, the snare that is described for Israel is not so much that they will break the laws, act in ways contrary to God’s will to bring life and blessing, but that they will seek other gods. Faithfulness to God, holding fast to God is the primary thing, but even this is based on God’s faithfulness to us. One commentator puts it this way – “God does not expect loyalty from Israel apart from declaring the divine loyalty to Israel. In fact, it is only from with the context of divine faithfulness that human faithfulness is possible. Those who are called to obedience know that the God who so speaks is a God who is for them, and for their best interests, not standing over them as a threat. The God who gives the law is the God who makes promises.”
What are we to take this morning from this code? You hear in sports from time to time someone invoking the “spirit of the rule” – particularly when a play is under question. I want us to look at the spirit of the code. Some of the things that it tells us about God and how God wants us to live. It’s been said, and I agree, that we while we take the Bible seriously we don’t always take it literally. Jesus is not an actual lamb, for example. Literal readings of Biblical texts have led to the justification of some awful things. There are those who have said up until quite recently that because the Bible doesn’t say “You shall not have slaves”, it was alright to have slaves. The Bible even gives us laws about them, after all. We must look at these laws in the context in which they’re placed – a story in which God has freed a people in slavery – and three thousand years of interpretation and practice. It’s interesting to note that the only time the mode of death is described when a death penalty is prescribed here is for the ox who gores someone to death. As someone has written, there is no record of this actually happening and how easy do you think it would be to stone a deadly animal that weighs an average of 2000 lbs?
We value human life above property. Human life above money. In this society indentured slaves were common. People who served as slaves to pay off debts. The poor who had no other choice. If you have such a slave let them go in the seventh year without debt. Deuteronomy 15 takes it further – “And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” We are to value people over things. We are not to view people as commodities. What does this mean for us? It means we don’t support industries that reduce people to commodities. Pornography. Prostitution. It’s not just because Christians are no fun or want to spoil everyone’s fun. A gift of God like human sexuality is not to be reduced to a commodity. People reduced to objects.
People over money. Getting back to that ox, the owner of that goring ox will not be permitted to butcher and sell it. We shouldn’t be profiting from the suffering of others. When people are harmed “…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The classic eye for an eye principle, cited by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “How barbaric!” we may think. The principle was to make sure that the punishment did not exceed the crime on one hand. To ensure that it wasn’t a life for a foot. A stabbing for an insult. A killing for a theft (which surely must make one rethink those “Looters will be shot” signs that crop up after natural disasters). The other side of the eye for an eye principle is to ensure that those with money could not continue to go around harming others, make monetary restitution, and continue to go around harming others. It would be like someone going around harassing and/or assaulting members of the opposite sex and being permitted to do so because they pay them off in various ways or intimidate them and everyone turns a blind eye because, after all, the person is bringing in a lot of money for the industry.
“This is not my way,” says God.
To underscore this, and speaking of how literally we are to take these things – look at the passage following the eye for an eye part – “When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.” Freedom for an eye, freedom for a tooth (which is really much much less serious). Even in a time of indentured slavery, the slave owner did not have any rights over the body of the slave. One writer puts it like this – “He is not the property of his master. He belongs to himself.” He is created in the image of and loved by God. People are not commodities. An attitude like “They’re millionaire football players – they should shut up and play and keep their views to themselves” is maybe not the one that God calls us to take.
We are all created in God’s image and loved by God. From the greatest to the least. Concern for the least is well spelled out in these chapters. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” This is what God does. God hears the shrieks of the oppressed. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbour’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down, for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as a cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
We’re not just talking about dry laws here, we’re really talking about stories. This is how this story goes. Someone newly arrived in the village needs some seed money (literally, he has no seeds and no money). He’s given a loan and his cloak is taken as collateral. It’s a conversation between the creditor and God. God – “You’ve taken that person’s cloak.” Creditor “That’s right it’s collateral.” “But he won’t have anything to cover himself with tonight.” “I know! That’s why it’s good collateral!” “He’s going to be cold.” “That’s his problem.” “Actually, it’s my problem.”
And so it should be our problem too right? “They’re addicts, that’s their problem.” “Not my problem.” This is what we say. “No one helped us when we came to this country, why should anyone help them?” Maybe that wasn’t right though. “Why can’t they just get over it?” we ask.
Why can’t they just get over it? This is the final part I want to take out of the Covenant Code. God’s interest in restorative justice. “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it, or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you should bring it back.” “When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.” Oh and look after the animals too. And take a rest once a week and give your donkey a rest too. That’s in there.
Justice is to be restorative. God’s purpose is harmonious relationships. I’ve been thinking about restorative justice lately. What might this look like for us? I became more aware of Gord Downie’s work at the end of his life to create awareness of the need for restorative justice among Canadians. We hear the stats about indigenous suicide, addiction rates, quality of life. Is more money the answer? Perhaps we need something more. If Gord Downie thought it important maybe it’s actually important (for those who thought much of him and if you don’t I invite you to become familiar with his work). What can we do? We’ve been talking at Blythwood about getting together with Jonathan Kakegamic. A residential school survivor. He’s the Principal at First Nations School of Toronto. We’ve invited him to come talk about his experiences. A conversation is a good way to start. Who knows where God may take us? What can we do? Let’s start with that.
We’ve gone from police to goring ox. From football players to residential schools. This is fitting and good I think. This is life. This is our life. This is what it looks like to make God the foundation of our lives. I said earlier that this Covenant Code gave flesh to the ten sayings we heard about last week. Someone, of course, would be coming who would enflesh them. The fulfillment of all the law and the prophets who summed them up with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” The one in whom we find the calling and the enablement to live as God would have us live. The one who brings life and blessing and love. May we hold fast to him, live for him, taking part in God’s delivering saving work wherever God calls us to take part, and however that looks, as he faithfully holds fast to us.