Transcending the Transactional
October 9, 2022

Transcending the Transactional

Passage: Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Transcending the Transactional

A Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On October 9th, 2022

Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Today our journey through the Hebrew scripture continues by picking up not far from where the text Pastor Katie on preached on last week left off.  In that passage, the people who had been enslaved in Egypt ran from Pharaoh and his armies.  When the people escaping slavery came to the Red Sea, they passed through it; but Pharaoh and his armies, in hot pursuit, were swallowed up when the waters came together again.  Now we find Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  They’ve complained about being hungry, and God has sent them manna, the flaky substance that they harvest every morning.  They’ve complained about only getting manna and not meet, and God has provided them quail to eat.  They’ve complained about being thirsty, and God has brought forth water from a rock.  They’ve battled the Amalekites, and Moses, who is starting to grow weary, has learned, through the counsel of his father in law Jethro, to delegate authority to others.  It has now been three months since they left Egypt, and they’ve come into the vicinity of Mt. Sinai, where they’ve set up camp.  As our text begins, Moses is ascending the mountain to meet with God.  Listen for the promise God makes to Moses and the people here—and for the commandments God gives them to fulfill their part of the covenant.

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’

 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

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.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.  O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer.  And may the Gospel be more to us than mere words.  May your Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction.

There is a certain way of approaching life and the Living Divine

That I think may just be the default setting in all human beings.

You might call it the deal-making impulse.

If you do this, God (or somebody else) then I’ll do that.

If you’ll only just get me out of this scrape,

If you’ll only deliver me from this foxhole,

If you’ll only provide me this service,

If you’ll only protect me and my family from hardship and harm

then I promise I will do this or that or the other.

 

We human beings are dealmakers by nature, I think,

and if we take seriously that we have

Been grafted into the family tree of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

And Moses, then we come by that honestly.

Our religious tradition seems to be about dealmaking, too—

And our stories are full of dealmakers.

Abraham bargaining God down from destroying the city of Sodom

For its lack of hospitality.  “What if I can find 50 righteous people there?  Will you relent from your anger?  Okay.  What about 40?  What about 30?  What about 20?  What about Ten?  Then Abraham finally stops.  He’s figured he’s bargained as much as he can.

Jacob telling God, just after having the dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder, “If you’ll just be with me and protect me and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, then I promise I’ll give you back a tenth of all you give me.”  Such a deal I have for you.

There are lots more examples where that came from, I promise, but I’ll spare you the litany.

And to be fair, basing a life and a society and a world on some if/then has some merit.  Consequences for actions and all of that, right?  We need rules and laws to structure communal life.  There’s a reason we have stop signs, and slow signs, and handicapped parking signs.  We need rules and laws to structure communal life.

But there is a way in which, if we’re not careful, all of that can devolve into making life itself feel like nothing more than a series of transactions,

Where we give something to get something in return.

Tit for tat.

We behave a certain way thinking that we’ll get a certain result

And if we do “good things”, we’ll get good things.

 

We don’t tend to feel that way so much about “bad things” as consequences for actions—at least when it comes to ourselves.     Those sorts of consequences are always better when they’re delivered to other people—and you bet your life we notice when they’re not.

 

The trouble with such a transactional approach to life and the Living Divine is that sooner or later, almost invariably, it breaks down.   It’s a tale as old as time.  The Psalmist noted that the righteous suffer while the wicked go unpunished.  Some people are born into privilege while others through no fault of their own are not.  Deadly illnesses and accidents come to some people, while others seem to avoid those fates.

And what about storms? What about storms?  Aside from building on high or low ground, there is not always much rhyme or reason as to why hurricanes wipe out some houses while others go basically untouched, and take some lives and spare other lives.  We can breathe a sigh of relief and voice a heartfelt thank you to God and God’s gracious providence, but we know better than to pretend that our property and our lives were saved because we were somehow better or more deserving than those other people who weren’t quite as fortunate.

Right about now you might be saying, “Okay, Aaron. I hear you, but when you are going to get to today’s scripture text?  And doesn’t that passage show God making a deal with the people through Moses? You know, ‘you have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now therefore, IF you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’”

There’s an “if and then” there, sure enough.  But in a world where some people of great faith are visited by tragic loss while others are not, and some fervent prayers result in physical healing while others do not, and all too often taking a stand for what is just and compassionate gets a person in trouble, we need to remember that the then to the if in God’s if/then covenant with the people is not if you obey my voice and keep my commandment, then everything is going to go swimmingly for you.  Then you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise.  Then you will never face sickness, hardship, or death in your own life or the lives of those whom you love.

That’s not the deal.  It’s not the deal.  It never was the deal.

The deal, if you want to call it that, is that keeping covenant with God makes us into something.  A priestly kingdom.  A holy nation.  And as I say that second part, I have to add that this passage is not talking about the United States of America.  The notion that this country is somehow God’s favorite, and that the God whose love became fully embodied in Jesus is on our side or would be if enough people voted this way or that way, is hugely problematic.  That kind of Christian nationalism is beyond dangerous—it is heretical.

No, what this text is talking about is a nation and a kin-dom without borders—a group of people who, first of all, do the work of being priests.  Being a priest is literally being an intermediary, a conduit, between the divine and the human—a person who speaks to God on behalf of humans and to humans on behalf of God—a person who serves as a conduit between the human and the divine).  As a holy nation, they go about living lives that are marked by faithfulness, and expressing compassion, and extending hospitality, and living in harmony and grace in community.  That’s a tall order, but ordering our lives by keeping the spirit of the Ten Commandments is a great start towards fulfilling it.

Whenever I think of the Ten Commandments, I go back to what one of the founding members of our Tuesday Morning Men’s Bible Study said about them once.  We were going through the Year of the Bible and we got to that particular portion of Exodus where the Ten Commandments are laid out.  Bill Harper said, “God didn’t give us the Ten Commandments to wreck our fun.”  God didn’t give the ten commandments to wreck our fun, but to set boundaries for us that would facilitate life in community.  Those thou shalts and thou shalt nots are there not to punish people, but to strengthen communal life.

To understand why, think about what happens when those guidelines are not in place.

No other gods becomes you can give your ultimate devotion to anything you want, all driven by your own ego.

You shall not make or bow down to idols or graven images becomes put your conception of the Divine into a box—a tidy one that fits just what you want, and bow down to that, or whatever other addiction or preoccupation you make more important than anything else in life.  Including your own greed.

You shall not make wrongful use of God’s name becomes go ahead and enlist God as your agent in whatever pet project you have.  If you think it’s a good idea, then surely God thinks it’s a good idea.  If there you’re enemy, then surely they are God’s enemy.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy becomes, ah, don’t bother resting—certainly not for a full day—even if God rested.  I think about that commandment and I’m reminded of the ministerial colleague I got to know in my first church.  He was pastor of another church in town.  We were in a group together talking about when we took our days off.  I said, “I take my day off on Monday.”  He said, “I don’t take a day off.  Do you want to know why?  Because the Devil never takes a day off.”  Someone else in the group said, “Maybe you’re modeling your decision on the wrong person there.”

Honor your father and mother, which was originally intended as an admonition to take care of elderly parents and not so much as a goad for good little kids and rebellious teenagers to listen to their harried mom and dad, becomes, yeah, aging, that’s just a curse.

You shall not murder becomes let your anger get the best of you, even if it means killing someone.  Yesterday evening, by the way, I went outside, and there was graffiti on the outer walls of my townhouse.  I said to Judith, “I feel enraged by this.”  It’s a good thing that we have the “You shall not kill” commandment.

You shall not commit adultery becomes you don’t need to honor your covenant with your spouse.

You shall not steal becomes take whatever your greed tells you you think you need.

You shall not bear false witness becomes whatever is expedient, go ahead and say that.

You shall not covet becomes never be satisfied.  Never be satisfied with what you have.  Always want something more.  Always want what the other guy has.

Now those rules, I wish I could say that all of us, all the time, keep all ten, but the truth is, they are not all that easy to keep.  Particularly the first three, and speaking for myself, the fourth one is hard, too.    So why is it there?  Why do we have these Ten Commandments if we know we’re not going to live into them all the time?

I think it’s to provide the guardrails for life in community.

Sixty one years ago this week, Immanuel Presbyterian Church was chartered.  Not a lot of us were here at that time.  I’ve only been here for the past seventeen and a half years.  Are Linda and Fred here today?  They were here.  But the rest of us, we came along some time later in the journey that is the history of Immanuel.

It's been a remarkable journey.  There have been many high points and some low points.  Immanuel has accomplished some really great things, particularly when it comes to service, service to others.  I think about our Dreamer Program, and our Hypothermia Shelter, and the number of organizations that got their start here.  Those are all wonderful.

But the times that stick in my heart are the times when somebody in the community had something terrible happen to them and our first impulse wasn’t to say, “I wonder what that guy did, to have that happen to him” or “I know this person had to do something to have that happen.”  No, the impulse was that we are people who live in community and we love and support each other.

That’s the deal, if there is a deal at all, when it comes to being faithful, the deal is that we live in community.  We’re a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  We’re conduits for God’s grace to flow through us and flow to us through and beyond each other.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.