God gives the gift of freedom and Ten Words – three strategies – to help us resist the lies of empire. (Listen.)
Just imagine: You have been set free. Free from unreasonable expectations, casual contracts, and ever-increasing KPI’s. Free from the busywork of middle management and trivializing performance reviews. Free from the gnawing feeling that, no matter how many hours you put in, you will never know enough or do enough or be enough or have enough. Free from seeking other people’s approval; free from the need to be seen as helpful, powerful, successful, special, right, reliable, calm, happy or wise.Imagine you have been set free from worrying about the future. It’s not that things are settled: but you no longer need to worry about them. Imagine you have been set free from being defined by categories: Woman. Gay. Black. Poor. Imagine freedom from the petulant demands of work, family or Facebook to consume all your best time and energy. Free from the gnawing desire for a better house, sweeter spouse, smarter children, more stuff—or a more organic and ‘authentic’ life.
Imagine freedom from the need to be productive, from the desire to consume, from the drive to be endlessly busy. Imagine freedom to put your feet up, and gaze out the window, and do absolutely nothing at all. Just imagine.
My friends, this is the liberation which is offered to us by the god of Exodus. Freedom from the demands and desires of Pharaoh’s empire. Freedom from endless busywork and meaningless labour; freedom from being defined by work. Exodus means freedom from the insatiable drive to be bigger, better, sexier, smarter, stronger, richer and more powerful. Exodus means freedom from competing with your neighbour; freedom from seeing other people as rivals and from seeing yourself through their eyes. Exodus means freedom from alienation and anxiety; it means freedom from an exploitative economic system; it means freedom to rest and to allow others to rest also.
We are all offered this gift of freedom, but again and again we forget. And so we are also given Ten Words. These Words are not heavy commandments dropped from on high onto an already burdened people. Instead, they are Words given in relationship: from a liberating God for a liberated people. They are what Walter Brueggemann describes as strategies for remaining free.
The first group of Words form the first strategy, and that is to honour God. We are always surrounded by invitations to idolatry, that is, invitations to devote our best time and energy to something other than God. For some of us, this might be an ‘ism’: feminism, minimalism, veganism, environmentalism. For others, it might be responsible economic management or professional success. For still others, it might be an unhealthy devotion to our own ‘wellness’ or family or community group or vocation. There are many idols in our lives, many things we can be devoted to.
When they are expressions of a life lived wholeheartedly in God, these things are good; but when they become the focus, they hollow us out. Even environmentalism. Even vocation. Even family. When we devote our best time and energy to anything other than God, we wind up fearful, lonely, despairing; we forfeit the wholeness God intends for us. This is why the first group of Words tells us to honour God; and reminds us that this God is the one who liberates us from Pharaoh and calls us into a new creation of justice, mercy and peace. When this God is at the centre of our lives, we will be free from destructive idolatries; we will be made whole. So that’s the first strategy to resist Pharaoh: Honour God.
The second strategy is to honour our neighbour; and this is what the last group of Words relates to. Some of these Words are about doing no harm; others, about protecting the vulnerable: those who work for us; those who produce what we consume; those who have no rights or power. All these Words are about seeing our neighbour not as the object of our own desires, nor as the object of rivalry, but as a subject: a whole person made in God’s image, and as deserving of justice, mercy and peace as we are ourselves. When we honour our neighbour, we honour our God. And when we do this, we will be free from destructive rivalries; we will know shalom. So that’s the second strategy to resist Pharaoh: Honour people.
At the heart of these two sets of Words is the third strategy: the radical concept of Sabbath. Sabbath includes worship, rest and play, but it is much bigger that this. Sabbath tackles the big lie of Pharaoh’s empire, the lie that keeps slaves making bricks and slavedrivers pushing them harder. The lie is this: There is never enough. Because of this lie, shops never shut, oil rigs never stop pumping, emails never stop flowing, and people never truly rest: and the lie infects every area of our lives. We all know the feeling: No matter how many hours we put in, we will never know enough or do enough or be enough or have enough.
So Sabbath is a radical and prophetic challenge to this lie of scarcity. It asserts that we can rest, and we must rest; and it says we must ensure this gift of rest is enjoyed not only by ourselves but by everyone: young people, casual workers, refugees, vulnerable people. Sabbath calls out our dependency on being Very Busy, Very Important. Sabbath announces our resistance to a system which exploits people and communities and land; and it shows that we truly trust the one who sets a table in the desert and pours water from a rock; and it’s all done by this insistence on stopping. Stop work, stop shopping, stop running around like a headless chook: let things lie fallow for a while.
So there you have three strategies for resisting Pharaoh: Honour God. Honour people. Honour the Sabbath.
Everything around us tells us to work harder, aim higher, take more. Everything around us tells us: there is not enough to go around; put yourself and your family first; busy people are important people; exhaustion is normal. But these are Pharaoh’s messages, and unless we fiercely resist these messages, using all our strategies, we will end up devoting our best time and energy to all the wrong things; we will find ourselves back in Egypt.
We will wind up hollowed out and miserable, the sort of lonely people who keep Pharaoh’s labour mills running and Pharaoh’s cash registers ringing and Pharaoh’s bean counters eroding entitlements and Pharaoh’s army in constant readiness to protect this toxic shrivelled destructive way of life.
So hear now the good news: God does not seek human diminishment; nor does God seek this toxic shrivelled destructive way of life.
Instead, God desires human flourishing: and so we have been given Ten Words, three strategies, pointing to a different way: a way of liberation, a way of neighbourliness, a way of rest, in which God is our focus and we hunger and thirst no more. Ten Words: three strategies: and a never-ending flow of life as we walk into God’s new creation of justice, wholeness, and peace. Amen. Ω
This reflection on Exodus 20:1-20 was given to Sanctuary on 11 October 2020 (Year A Proper 22, one week late) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image found here: https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Moses/94548/1593500/view.
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