On a Covenant of Law

On a Covenant of Law

On the Covenant of Law
March 3, 2024
Traceymay Kalvaitis
John 2: 13-16

The Passover was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Exodus 20: 1-17, in which Moses receives the ten commandments
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. 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.
Today’s sermon is titled On a Covenant of Law.
As I age, I become more and more aware of how laws and agreements and norms have allowed humankind to make tremendous progress across the millennia. I did not always have such a robust respect for laws and agreements and norms. My first big lesson came in my twenties when I left all that was familiar to me and moved to Oregon for the summer to work for the Bureau of Land Management. My job was searching for and documenting the northern spotted owl. I found lots of owls and all kinds of other things in the forest that summer, like old mines, abandoned camps, ramshackled cabins, and marijuana patches. By far the most interesting thing I found was a communal farm. The farm, known as Trillium Farm, was the last piece of private land along Little Applegate Valley road and the public dirt road ran right through the farm, so we drove our government-issued trucks right through there. The farm was nestled in a side-canyon so the residents could not see us coming until we rounded the bend in the road. The men I worked with had all kinds of stories about things they had seen, but what I saw was a busy group of hippies farming, working on cars, chopping firewood and making a go of it together. I was entranced. Less than a year later, I moved there and spent the next nine years learning how to homestead.
I learned a great many things there. I arrived as an idealist and grew into a hopeful realist. What surprised me most was how difficult it was to make group decisions in a group of 18 people even though we all had so much in common. Our Council meetings would go on for 3 or 4 hours and if we did not spend enough time together working and cooking and sharing meals and conversation, it became almost impossible to agree on anything. We were in a position of governing ourselves and we were making it all up from scratch; it was really difficult and the experience provided me with an entirely new respect for what creating world peace would require of us. I came away with a profound respect for the role of rules and agreements as a means of creating and maintaining peace.
Three thousand and five hundred years ago Moses received, on behalf of the Hebrew people, the ten commandments; I imagine that these laws were something they did not welcome but the laws were something they desperately needed in order to keep their community together. No one knows how many people Moses led out of slavery in Egypt, but I am quite sure it was more than the 18 I lived in community with. Estimates range from a few thousand to 600,000. Five thousand, only counting the men, seems to be the working number and that is a lot of people on the move in the wilderness, looking for food, water and a place to call home.
Our mission for today is not to delve into exactly what the commandments instruct, although I do want to point out that the first four, that’s four out of ten, speak to our relationship with God. 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) You shall not make idols; 3) You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God; 4) Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Our mission for today is to consider why the commandments were needed, what did they offer to humanity at that time, and why does any of this matter as we approach the life, death, and resurrection of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.
For the past two Sundays in Lententide, we have considered two of the covenants, or promises, made first with Noah and all of creation, and then with Abraham and all his descendants. The first promise was life, the second promise was abundance. In both these covenants, this force of goodness we call God is pulling on the hearts of humanity in dire circumstances but it is not enough to turn the tide of in-fighting and self-centeredness that characterize human existence. Something more is needed.
Moses led thousands out of slavery in Egypt and he finds himself in the position of being judge in all the endless disputes between the people. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit him in the wilderness and he sees that Moses is exhausted with all this endless arbitrating. Jethro advises him (Exodus 18) to “represent the people before God, teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, trustworthy, and honest; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and ten. Let them sit as judges for the people and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace. Moses listened…” And so a way of governance was created, a way that we still practice today. But something more was still needed; it is the same thing my community in Oregon needed, too, a set of agreements that the people deemed sacred.
When Moses and the people reached Mount Sinai they camped at the base of the mountain. Moses instructed the people to prepare themselves to receive. They washed their clothes, they washed themselves and they waited. Moses and his son Aaron went up the mountain alone and there they were instructed. They came down with much more than the ten commandments. They came with instructions about worship, slavery, violence, property, restitution, social and religious doctrine, and justice. These teachings would evolve into the 613 laws in the Torah.
These laws had a sacred purpose. These laws shaped a culture. These laws held the possibility of peace. But these laws were not enough. Next week we will see that in times of hardship the people needed something more. We will revisit the role of the prophets and how they dedicated their lives to turning the hearts of the people to God. But the words and sacrifices of the prophets were not enough. The people needed something more.
From an unexpected place rose an underestimated man who would change the world with his teaching. He had no material possessions other than the clothes he wore and the shoes on his feet but he had a strong family, an insightful teacher, and the gift of vision for what humanity could be if we could live into the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of one another.
Not all people were ready for what Jesus had to say. Some of us still are not ready. And that is ok. Timing is everything. When Jesus stormed into the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the tables and made a real mess of things, people did not want to hear what he had to say. But what he did is still remembered today. And as we ourselves resist the influences of our materialistic culture and as we resist the temptations to think only about our own prosperity at the expense of others, we find encouragement and pride, even, in our teacher scattering the coins across the temple floor. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not create idols.
In closing, I remind us that in every age of humanity people inherit the laws of their predecessors and those laws alone are not enough to shape the world their children deserve. In every age of humanity, people inherit the beliefs of their predecessors and yet those beliefs alone are not enough to strengthen them spiritually for the challenges they face. In every age we need more than the inherited laws and inherited beliefs and we are irresistibly drawn to create a better way than we have known. With millions of years of ideas behind us, with thousands of years of evolution of the law, we are living on the leading edge that is creating something we can not yet fathom. May the teachings and life examples of Jesus of Nazareth illuminate our way. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer
Dearest Beloved, we come again to this quiet place within, where the concerns that press most heavily upon us can rise to the very surface of our awareness. With the illumination of Your Holy Light, help us to see more clearly what we need to hold onto, what we need to work through, and what we need to let go of. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, preceding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, and those who are frightened. May we be receptive to Your Holy Spirit working through us to nurture them and nurture ourselves, in ways unexpected and profound. This I ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.


I leave you with these words from the book of Thessalonians, chapter 5:

“May the God of Peace sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be sound.”