Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
First Congregational UCC
A Epiphany +6; 2/12/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin

Wilderness Rules

There are times and places when it is pretty simple and easy to follow the rules grow from necessity and  survival, as, for example, when you are camping.  

Thou shalt not leave dirty dishes out at night nor shalt thou leave thy food uncovered, lest surely vermin disturb thy sleep and abscond with thy victuals.

Thou shalt not wear thy boots in thy dwelling place, neither in tent nor camper.

And the commandments my daughters and wife faithfully observe when camping with me,

Thou shalt sleep with earplugs lest thou surely abandon all hope of rest.

Such rules are not necessary when ensconced in the comfort and safety of an abode, no longer roughing it, no longer traveling, no longer in the wilderness.

We are given the 10 Commandments from the book of Exodus, simple rules for traveling in the wilderness: imagine the throng of Hebrews traveling with livestock, whole families of grandparents, parents, and children; imagine the infirm and iron-strong youth traveling together; imagine the potential for conflicts without simple rules for travelling, check by jowl, pheromones wafting through the camp, family arguments overheard by neighbors, tempers boiling to the surface….

The 10 Commandments start with a prologue of sorts: Thou shalt not …make for yourself an idol…. make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy…Honour your father and your mother….

But then we come to what is simple-simple-simple, clear and necessary: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.  You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, spouse, ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

These are camp rules, or more precisely, traveling rules, essential for a mass of humanity traveling together through the wilderness; living in tents and in the open, without privacy, it is easy to covet; it’s easy to see and hear things going on and to spread the word about the failings of a neighbors. To follow simple rules is a matter of survival when traveling in wildernesses where we are vulnerable and exposed; breaking the rules is a danger to all; the 10 Commandments is a gift to fragile and breakable relationships where each and every person has power to set into motion predictable destruction of our tender relationships with one another and thus our ability to be in relationship with God.

Promised Land Rules

What Moses says about the law in Deuteronomy is substantively different from what he says about the law in Exodus.

In Deuteronomy,  Moses speaks to the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, just at the moment they leave the wilderness and finally and at last building homes and lives and settling down and becoming a people, a population, with resources and a sense of permanence, of privacy, of accomplishment.

Moses’ reflections on the law as the people leave the wilderness and prepare to enter the Promised Land are transformed in a way that should sound very familiar to us:  “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them….”  

This is what people need to hear as they enter the Promised Land of ease and comfort and are given the opportunity to achieve material prosperity–it is the heart that matters, the feelings and fears and emotions that drive us.  Give yourself to God; worship God alone: which is to say love your neighbors and let compassion be your guide…

When people are not forced by necessity to follows simple rules but are blessed to settle down and establish themselves, then the clarity and necessity of rules and commandments give way to a new commandment which shatters the simplicity of the former time with beguiling complications, for in the Promise Land to obey the law of God is most especially about giving up our own rights and privileges–which reminds me  of cheese.


My beloved Grandpa Paul grew up in hard times.  

He paid $100 for his family of 4 to hitch a ride from Oklahoma with another family to the Promise Land of California.  When I asked him why they settled in Arvin, California, he told me, “Well, we just fallered the baloney wrappers until they stopped.”

He lived through hard times of the Great Depression, worked the fields with the other Okies picking cotton and traying grapes; he never learned to read but could cipher numbers in his head like a natural-born engineer; he got a job in town pumping gas back when “filling stations” had “attendants,” and then finally, he landed a job as a custodian at Arvin High School, bought a home, joined a church, and built a life.

Modest though it may seem, he emerged from a wilderness of material hardship and arrived in a Promised Land:  He raised in family in a comfortable home; paid off his mortgage;  bought a boat and an Airstream trailer.

And yet I remember going with grandpa to get free government cheese at the Senior Center, Cheese given out for free for elderly people who were in need; Grandpa was not in need;  he did not need that cheese, but his experience of the Great Depression so shaped him that he behaved as if he was still traveling through hard times and had not arrived in the Promised Land.

Echoing Moses, Jesus talks of cheese, in the spiritual sense, when he speaks to the matter of laws and commandments; he is contending with religious leaders who accuse him of being soft on the law–the law is their free cheese; it is their right, they contend, because of their religious practice because they observe the law, to condemn and to dismiss those who, in their judgement,  fail to observe the law….the free cheese of self-righteousness is hard for to pass up when it is so easily gotten.

Jesus says what Moses’ says: sure, actions matter, the law is given to us as a gift to keep us in right relationship with with God and Neighbor, …BUT… it is the heart that matters, it is what is inside of us that moves us to action; what we are thinking and feeling is as important as the action we undertake, in the sense that while we may not murder someone in fact, we may think of them murderously and speak of them viciously; while we may not commitment adultery, the power of lust to control us and the potential for lust to infect human relationships is absolutely unparalleled.

The law speaks to the action AND the underlying intentions.

But then Jesus gets to the cheese of the matter, saying absurdly to lop off hands and pluck out eyes in order to fulfill the law if you really want to get down to fulfilling the law.   Thus we locate the cheese of the matter, for the discussion is not about laws and commandments or any of that; the discussion is about the cheese of self-righteousness and religiosity posing as observance of the law, laws and commandments and scripture and faith used to secure their own sense of righteousness at the expense of others, the use of laws and rules and customs to segregate, alienate, ignore, shame, and otherwise condemn neighbors and thus to excuse and to justify the righteousness of denying mercy and withholding compassion.

Self-righteousness is the free cheese of religious practice; it is hard to resist because it is so easily gotten; it seems rightfully to belong to those who make sacrifices to obey certain ways of living and who faithfully observe codes and rules essential to moral standing and good relationships; it is hard to resist the easy cheese of self-righteousness though it comes at the expense of people in need of moral support and integrity in their relationships; at the heart of all of this, my friends, at the absolute center, lies what is so exquisitely simple that it is universally complex.  The power of God revealed in Jesus Christ declares once and for all that God love the whole world and that we, filled with God’s power, disrupt religiosity and destroy self-righteousness by extending mercy to those whom others condemn, by sharing compassion with our neighbors, for we all belong to God.

The power of  God, the Holy Spirit animating our souls empowers us to imaginative compassion for suffering we have not ourselves experienced but we know grieves the heart of God; as disciples of Christ, we are called to shatter bogus and phony religiosity that excuses from doing nothing as poor, oppressed, vulnerable people suffer in our own neighborhoods and around the world.


Friends, despite the many voices saying that we are in a wilderness of threat and those who declare the righteousness of their religious convictions to justify hate, neglect, passivity, and exclusion, we have arrived in the Promised Land . . . in this church, in our comfortable homes, with our good educations and our thriving children and grandchildren. Surely what is right and pleasing to God in this Promised Land, lies within our hearts, forms our deepest longings, a seed planted within every human breast–it is simply and only to love God by loving our neighbor, to lift up those who are pressed down, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to welcome strangers and aliens.

Like Moses speaking to the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, like Jesus contending the religiosity as he begins his ministry, I have but one simply complex rule I pray we will all seek to honor: Let us give our hearts to God, and thus give up any right to condemn others, and thus take up the cause of those who are pressed down, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen and Amen.