By Rev. Sue Whitt
Accepting God’s Rules
Purpose: To receive God’s law as a gift and commit ourselves to holy living for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
Bible Lesson: Deuteronomy 5:1-9a, 11-13, 16-21
Key Verse: “Hear, O Israel, the statute and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently.” — Deuteronomy 5:1
God had given Moses what we call the Ten Commandments on Sinai early in the Israelites’ wilderness journey, and Moses had communicated them to the people (Exodus 19-24). Beginning in Egypt and continuing through their journey, Moses has interceded for them by telling God of their complaints and by telling them what God intended for them. Now on Horeb, Moses reminds this new generation of these commands as it, without him, is preparing to enter the land that has been promised to the people.
The commandments begin “I am the Lord.” God reminds them, “You don’t need any other gods.” Pharaoh will not be in charge. And they need to acknowledge who is. Acknowledgment includes not using God’s name inappropriately.
They should keep the sabbath because God told them to, because keeping it is a reminder of what God did, and because keeping it is not something Pharaoh would have permitted. God rested, we rest. Pharaoh may have rested, but he sure wouldn’t have allowed us, too. And, by the way, the Deuteronomy version goes on to say, your servants should rest, as well. That is, Pharaoh is not your boss; nor should he be your model.
The commandments include other ways to maintain community as God’s people: Honor your parents, treat your family and neighbors honorably.
As the Ten Commandments had been good teaching for them as they prepared for their trek through the wilderness, they were good teaching for them as they prepared to cross from the wilderness into Canaan. They needed to remember this instruction as they learned to live without Pharaoh, and as they learned to form their own nation. And, at the time that the book of Deuteronomy was compiled, they still needed it.
Bible commentators tell us that the writers and compilers of Deuteronomy were addressing the threats of their own era, a time of disaster and dissolution, a time of loss of the monarchy and the temple. As Ronald E. Clemens puts it in The New Interpreter’s Bible, “Only by reclaiming the central truths concerning the Lord as God, the covenant of Horeb, and the fundamental commandments that it presented could the nation’s life be held together.”
And, that’s still true. The designers of this year’s Uniform Sunday School Lessons, by including the Ten Commandments in this summer’s schedule, have decided that we still need this instruction.
Deuteronomy tells us the story of these long-ago people living between servitude and freedom. And it continues to speak to us, the descendents of those travelers. We, too, need to recognize who is the boss of us. And, in recognizing that, we, too, need to live in a way that God has intended for us.
I read somewhere written by somebody that the Ten Commandments aren’t that hard. After all, you can keep them all while taking a nap. That seemed amusing to me until I realized that, at most, I’m asleep only one-third of the time. These instructions are helpful for the other two-thirds of my life.
Remembering and Celebrating
Purpose: To experience the power of sacred memory expressed in ritual in shaping our life together as God’s people.
Bible Lesson: Deuteronomy 16:1-8
Key Verse: “Observe the month of Abib by keeping the Passover for the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib, the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt.” — Deuteronomy 16:1
Like last week’s reading from chapter 6, this passage is set at the time when the people were about to cross into the land promised to them. Moses has been given them instruction on how they are to live in this new land. Look back at chapters 7-15 to see the promises of grace and the directions for how to live appropriately as a blessed people.
This week’s reading beginning with the command to keep the Passover. Keeping it will serve to remind them of the beginning of their journey, the evening before their escape from Egypt, but more than a sentimental memory of their ancestors. They are also re-enacting the occasion. They are leaving an unpleasant place but one that is familiar. They are moving on to a place they desire but one that is new and fraught with its own dangers and difficulties.
And they are to keep it annually. They are to continue to remember what God has done for their ancestors to help them recognize what God is doing for them in their own lives. God’s people continue to leave familiar situations for unfamiliar ones. God’s people continue to need reminders of God’s grace in the past and that God’s grace will be continuing in their future.
And they are to keep it as a community. They are to offer the Passover sacrifice, cook it and eat it together. We modern-day Christians, like our ancient ancestors, also need ways to remember what God has done and to recognize what God is continuing to do. And, like them, being in community helps us with this memory and this recognition.
Each Sunday morning, we gather in worship services in sanctuaries (or in gyms or store-fronts or in homes) to worship God together. Our worship is about memory and it is about the future. The way we conduct our worship services shapes our memory of what God has already done and it shapes our perception of what we should be doing in response.
Questions to ask yourself about your worship service this Sunday:
• What does the liturgy say about what God has done for us in the past?
• How does it help us see that we are an interdependent community rather than an unrelated group of individuals?
• Does it provide instruction that is intelligible to children? To newcomers who may never have heard the Christian story before?
• Passover reenacts the escape from Egypt. What momentous changes are evoked in your worship service?
Can you think of some that should be?
Commissioning for Service
Purpose: To explore the meaning of ordination within the ministry of the baptized.
Bible Lesson: Leviticus 8:1-13
Key Verse: “(Moses) poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” — Leviticus 8:12
The book of Leviticus opens, “The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them.’” Again and again in the recounting of the wilderness experience, the people and God meet indirectly. The people were afraid even to approach the tabernacle of the Lord (see Numbers 17:12).
Yet, they had to. They needed to tell God of their troubles and to ask for support. And they needed to express their gratitude for what they had already received.
The solution was the ordination of priests who then could approach God on the people’s behalf.
You may have attended Annual Conference this spring and been part of the ordination service there. We have modified the original procedures — no bull was sacrificed, for example, but I think the essence of the ceremony comes through. Certain individuals are set aside in recognition that the rest of the people need their service.
In Leviticus, the priests were needed to make the approach to God that everybody else could not. Today, any worshiper can address God and make offerings directly. Everybody that has been baptized is called to some form of ministry.
Yet, religious organizations still ordain. Rather than buffers, today’s clergy serve as leaders and organizers. The United Methodist Church describes those who are to be ordained as people with gifts, with the ability to lead and with the ability to equip others to carry out ministries (see Book of Discipline, section 310).
Delegates to the 2008 General Conference approved the recommendation of the study commission created in 2004 to continue the study and conversation in the denomination about the order of ministry for four more years. The commission will report to the 2012 General Conference with legislation that addresses the ordering of ministry, the separation of ordination and conference membership and the streamlining of the ordained ministry candidacy process.
You can find their report on the web at www.gbhem.org. Some of the topics covered in it are the distinctions between elders and deacons, whether local pastors may be ordained, the chronology of ordination and full conference membership.
Providing a Fresh Start
Purpose: To acknowledge that all we have, all we make and all we accumulate is really God’s — and live accordingly.
Bible Lesson: Leviticus 25:8-21, 23, 24
Key Verse: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” — Leviticus 25:10
An often useful way to begin thinking about a text is to ask, “What question does this text answer?” That is, “Why was this text considered necessary, or helpful, for us?”
One possibility is that it is intended to help us answer another question, “Who should have what and why?”
We read this ancient text the same day that our newspapers and TV broadcasts remind us that we Americans have incurred a lot of debt. Many of us have lost our homes, our jobs and, without them, our confidence in our future financial well-being.
In Leviticus, Moses is talking to the Israelites on their way to Canaan. Every tribe will get a sufficient portion of the land which will then be allocated to families. Each family will get enough; no family will get too much. We don’t have to inject a modern day sense of realism. It’s already there. Hard times or bad decisions may cause a family to lose control of its property. Leviticus assumes that, then tells what is supposed to happen to put things back to the way they were originally intended to be.
Every 50 years, forgive debts (verses 8-10). At no time are you to cheat anybody (v. 17).
Moses gives them a couple of reasons:
• The land never belonged to you, any way. It is owned by God. You are merely a tenant (v. 23).
• You’re better off if you do it (vv. 18-19). If I were trying to explain this to the generous, I might say, “Don’t take more than your share, and then there’ll be enough for everybody.”
If I were trying to convince the fearful — or that fearful part of each of us, I would remind them of what life looks like when some people don’t have enough. Then, your security and safety depend on not only what you do, but what someone else is willing to do if he thinks necessity demands it. If I were talking to the reasonable, I would suggest that they go back and read those newspapers over the last nine months or so. If a bank quits lending, people quit buying. Without enough customers, sellers fold. People lose their jobs. Less buying. And so on.
Leviticus assures us that restoring economic balance is better for us. To reinforce this notion, read what Micah warns about not restoring the balance: “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land. Assuredly, thus said the Lord, ‘I am planning such a misfortune against this clan that you will not be able to free your necks from it. You will not be able to walk erect; it will be such a time of disaster.’” (Micah 2:2-3).
From its beginnings in the Wesleyan movement, the Methodist Church has included social action as part of its call and witness. And we still do. One of the four focus areas for this quadrennium is engaging in ministry with the poor. Annual conferences and individual congregations will be discussing ways to change conditions that can cause or exacerbate poverty.
Can we hope for a modern jubilee?
Whitt is a retired elder in the Mississippi Conference. She and her husband Jerry live in Memphis where they attend St. Luke’s, enjoy being near grandsons and eat a lot of barbecue. She also authors the blog, Sunday’s Child, a daily lectionary with reflections on scripture and the world. See www.unamalachica.blogspot.com.