Bible Text: Exodus 19:3-17; 20:1-17 | Personally, I can’t think of this scene from Exodus without Mel Brooks. In his movie, “History of the World: Part One,” Mel Brooks walks out onto a mountain dressed as Moses with the long beard and the whole get-up. In his arms he carries three stone tablets, and he shouts to Israel: “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen…” and then he accidentally drops one of the tablets and says: “…I mean, TEN commandments!” It’s great, classic slapstick. You can find it, as I did, on YouTube. But Mel Brooks makes a point. How precious do we need to be about the ten (ish) commandments? What were they for? How do they relate to this moment in our life as a church?
There are some people who naturally like rules. How many of those folks are here among us today? And then there are people who either dislike rules, like to bend rules, or have a neutral position about them. How many of those are here today? To be honest, as a category, rules don’t make my heart go a-flutter. But neither does going to the dentist. To me, rules are functional. They’re meant to serve a purpose. And at their best, they serve the needs of a relationship. Healthy relationships need rules. Or, if you don’t like that word, guidelines. Spending dedicated time together is a good guideline for a marriage. Paying your taxes is a good guideline for a citizen of a country. Going to bed the same time every night helps kids get a good night’s sleep. Now. Are there exceptions, loop holes, extenuating circumstances? Of course. But in general, good rules strengthen good relationships. And good rules can even help when relationships need to end.
Think of these commandments in those terms. And remember where we are in the story. God has just brought Israel out of Egypt’s snare, and they’re still in the wilderness, wandering around, trying to figure out what’s next. In chaos, you need some order, don’t you? So Moses receives this divine revelation of commandments, these relationship rules. There’s no promise of punishment here if Israel fails to follow them (did you notice that?). There’s just one commandment after another. I could preach a whole sermon on each of them, but we don’t have time for that. And I will say there is some Bronze Age theology here…but that’s because they’re from the Bronze Age. As a whole, though—as a whole—these commandments serve the same purpose. They serve to keep Israel in good relationship with God and in good relationship with each other. That’s their point. That point was not lost. When the Pharisees asked Jesus what he thought about the commandments, do you remember what he said? Just like Mel Brooks, Jesus was a good Jewish boy. He said that you can summarize them like this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” As usual, Jesus preferred to emphasize the spirit of the law over the rule of law.
Speaking of rules…I thought we could spend some time here exploring how our relationship will change after I leave at the end of this month. What’s in? What’s out? What rules or guidelines guide our relationship as former pastor and former congregation? This is what I understand. I understand that what is absolutely essential is that my relationship to you as your pastor will end. I am in covenant, as this congregation is, with the denomination of the United Church of Christ. If I interfere with the ministry of the next person who serves you, there could be consequences for me. And there should be. Even I was living twenty miles from here (which I won’t be), I won’t be able to officiate a funeral for you, a wedding, or a baptism. That privilege—and it is a privilege—will belong to the next pastor. So please—do us both a favor—and don’t ask. Our separation needs to be on social media, too. So in a couple of weeks, I will unfriend the church and the members of the church on Facebook, and please understand, it’s not because I don’t want to know what’s going on in your lives, it’s because I do. But knowing the in’s and out’s of your lives will make it harder for me to leave. And it’s hard enough to leave. When it comes to boundaries, the burden is on me. And it should be. But this is what you can do.
First, you can pray for the church. For its present and future. Second, you can begin praying for the person and people who will step in to lead you. Third, if you want, in a year, you can request to be my friend on Facebook. If you want my permanent email address, I’ll give it to you. You can have my new church’s address. (That’s online, anyway.) If you want to send me a Christmas card, I’ll open it. If you’re in the area and you want to connect, if I have the space in my schedule, I’ll happily meet with you. But let me be clear. I’ll never be your pastor again. After October 21st, I’ll be Stephanie. Just Stephanie. Now, I can’t stop you from listening to my sermons online. Tiny Faith—the blog I write with my friend—will, for now, continue, and I won’t unsubscribe you. But this is the point of all these rules: I can’t be your pastor after October 21st, because you’ll have a new one. I can’t be your pastor after October 21st because I’ll have a new church to care for. And I want your next pastor to walk into this place and feel welcomed. To feel welcomed to offer their own gifts, their own skills, and their own spiritual integrity to the conversation and the ministry we do here, and to have the freedom to start new things. So I hope this is clear: that the highest honor you can give me and the things God has done with us together is to welcome the next pastor.
The best rules grant a sense of freedom. Whether there are two or fifteen or ten thousand, good rules protect what needs protecting, and serve what needs served. Do we always like them? No. Do they always make us feel warm and fuzzy? No. But the good ones are worth their weight in gold. Or stone. Good rules enhance a relationship. And it is my hope and pray that good rules make room for a new relationship. Amen.