Sunday, March 15, 2009

Redeeming Time - Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You 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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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. 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You 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.

At Cross Trails Church in Gainsboro, TN you’ll find a version of the Ten Commandments translated into Jackson County English. Now, my Hebrew isn’t all that good, so I guess God must have given these commandments in Southern Hebrew. And you know what? I love that God speaks to us in our native language. Pastor John and I have an ongoing discussion about how when God speaks to him, God says “y’all.” When God speaks to me, God says, “yous guys.” To people in middle Tennessee, God says: (1) Just one God. (2) Put nothin' before God. (3) Watch yer mouth. (4) Git yourself to Sunday meetin.' (5) Honor yer Ma & Pa. (6) No killin.' (7) No foolin' around with another fella's gal. (8) Don't take what ain't yers. (9) No tellin' tales or gossipin' – I suppose this would also include following up statements with “bless their heart” or couching gossip as a prayer request. (10) Don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff.

In our society, something about the number ten suggests completeness. For one, it’s a manageable number. You have ten fingers, so keeping something to ten keeps it in the sphere of managability. A quick search on Google will reveal lists of Ten Commandments – the Ten Commandments of Investing, the Ten Commandments of Home Ownership, the Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing, the Ten Commandments of selecting the right college, and so on.

I think everyone here today would agree that the Ten Commandments are important for Christians to know and follow. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, and that’s exactly what we’ll talk about today. May we pray.

As I say the words, “Ten Commandments,” no doubt a number of thoughts will come into your head. Perhaps you have an image of Charleton Heston coming down off the mountain in that great epic movie, or the time you accompanied your Jewish friend to synagogue. Perhaps you’re thinking “law,” or “rules.” Perhaps “guidelines” or “covenant.” Perhaps you’re thinking of Miss Kitty who taught you the Ten Commandments back in your 3rd grade Sunday School class, or perhaps you’re thinking about the Alabama Supreme Court.

This last reference reminds us of how controversial the Ten Commandments have become. On one hand, they have a universal character about them. Recent polls indicate that roughly ¾ of Americans – this number has not changed significantly in decades – affirm the Ten Commandments as an important set of moral standards with broad and far-reaching applicability. It is hard to avoid recognizing that the kinds of directions in the Ten Commandments are widely present in a variety of societies and cultural traditions throughout space or time. Within the Ten Commandments are moral guidelines found in many of the world’s major religions. In the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, the biblical narrative recognizes the wisdom of the big ten and obeying them beyond the confines of Israel.

On the other hand, the Commandments have a particular character about them. That is, they are given within a particular faith – the Hebrew faith – and passed along to the descendents of that faith, including Christianity.

You can feel the tension between those two positions – one extreme that says the Ten Commandments are universally binding, and one that says they are particular to the Hebrew faith and its descendents. I know good, faithful, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians who fall along this entire spectrum, and who have vehemently strong opinions on this matter.

So what do we do? First, I think the argument over where the Ten Commandments should be displayed is one of those issues about which faithful Christians can disagree. This is one of the things I love about being a United Methodist – we do not have to hold identical opinions about everything under the sun. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, frequently said, “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” Regarding what we believe, he said, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Whatever we think the place of the Ten Commandments is outside the synagogue and church, we are free to hold differing opinions.

Second, I’d like us to consider the context in which the Ten Commandments are given. It’s back in verse 2 of today’s reading: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, the Ten Commandments are given in the context of an existing covenant. It’s as if God says, “Just as a reminder – I am God. I’ve done some things for you that you may remember. I’ve made a covenant with you. I am your God, and you’re my people. Since you’re living in my house, I have some rules I want you to follow. Don’t think of these as restrictions, but think of these as helping you grow in your relationship with me and with each other. If you follow these things, you’ll find yourself growing in your upward relationship with me and in your outward relationships with each other.”

So, the point of the Ten Commandments is not to enforce some universal moral code, but to draw us into deeper relationship with God and each other. What if we took the time and effort that goes into the debate about where and how the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed and devoted that to inviting people into covenant with God? What if we devoted that time and energy to building our relationships with each other? It seems to me there are a whole lot of people out there vehemently arguing about the importance of the Ten Commandments, but I feel our time could be better spent internalizing and living them out than in passing legislation for or against them. I’ll bet Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland wishes he had learned this lesson before this interview. (Show clip from 2006 interview - Steven Colbert & Westmoreland

It seems that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees, doesn’t it? Before we argue with each other about the Ten Commandments, it might be a good idea to actually know what they are.

Let’s focus on what we can agree on here. The Ten Commandments are important to people of Hebrew faith and its descendents, including us Christians. Jesus told us to remove the log out of our own eye before helping our neighbor with the speck out of theirs. Whether other people are exposed to and following the Ten Commandments is an issue to be dealt with after we, ourselves, are following them completely.

While we could focus on any of the Commandments in greater detail, I want to consider this one: 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 make 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.

From the very beginning, a rhythm and pattern is established by God in the account of creation. During those proverbial days of creation, God works six days, and then says, “You know, I’m not going into the office tomorrow. I’m going to take the day off.” Perhaps God had consulted Ray’s Weather, and Ray predicted the seventh day was going to be a five-golf-ball day.

The pattern of six days of work and one day of rest is a good one to follow. God created us with a yearning to rest and enjoy what we have done, to stop working, and breathe deeply. John Calvin, who in many ways founded what we understand to be the Protestant work ethic, wrote, “Work is good, but when we work all the time work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”

And yet, particularly within our society, the tendency toward workaholism continues at a blinding pace. Particularly in this economic climate, those of us who still have adequate employment may find ourselves working all the harder, proving ourselves to be hard-working, loyal, productive members of the organization – you know, the valuable team members they wouldn’t want to let go if things got tight. No doubt many of us are putting in long hours all week, and then going in for a few hours on Saturday before starting our second job.

Not only do we work like dogs, a lot of us are proud of it! We don’t need rest! We don’t need sleep! We don’t need time for renewal or recreation! Look at how hard we work! Nevermind the fact that we’ll have a nervous breakdown at 33. Nevermind that we’ve neglected our families at the times they’ve needed us the most! Nevermind that you’ll have a massive stress-induced heart attack in your 50s! 24/7 is not just a phrase, anymore – it’s a way of life.

Many of you recall when society itself seemed to support a sabbath. Stores, restaurants, and gas stations were closed on Sundays. The nostalgic among us will yearn for a return to these simpler, more innocent times. But I also know that many you experienced those Sundays as oppressive. Oddly enough, you had to help prepare that big mid-day meal, you had to set the table, and then you had a mountain of dishes to wash. After you did all that work, odd considering that is the type of work prohibited in legalistic interpretations of the sabbath, you were confined to the living room or perhaps the front porch for the remainder of the day. Some of you weren’t allowed to play games, or invite a friend over, or head to a friend’s house, or go to the playground, or spend money on anything.

While I appreciate these attempts to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, I think they completely miss the point. First, if you want to be that legalistic, the actual sabbath is still Saturday, not Sunday. In the Jewish understanding, the seventh day, the day of rest, is the sabbath. It is significant that Christians worship on Sunday. Sunday is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, and so every Sunday, Christians celebrate a little mini-Easter. Sunday is the first day – the day associated with creation. But Sunday is also the eighth day – the day the Jews associated with redemption. So for Christians to worship on Sunday, we celebrate who we are as God’s beloved children created in God’s image, but we also celebrate our redemption in Christ. We celebrate that because of Jesus, we find our rest in him through the power and witness of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the sabbath is not about legalism or restriction. Indeed, Jesus reminds the religious leaders of his day, “The Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” In other words, a day of rest is a gift to us. The purpose of the tradition was not to add another rule to the list of religious requirements and obligations. It is about the nurture and restoration and healing of human lives. Jesus wasn’t interested in legalism, but he was interested in whole, healthy human beings. John Calvin again: “On the Sabbath we cease our work so God can do God’s work in us.”

So then we find ourselves back in a more traditional understanding of the Protestant work ethic – work hard all week, and then take a day to rest and enjoy the fruit of your labor. In the tale of creation, after all, this is what God did! However, I’d like to remind you where humanity shows up in that particular story, and perhaps reframe the discussion a bit.

Whatever you understand the days of creation to mean, notice that humankind is not created until the sixth proverbial day. Before that, God has been creating all the creatures – wild animals and creeping things (Gen 1:24) – it seems to have been a full day. But the last item on God’s agenda before he turns out the lights on that sixth day is to create humankind – male and female God creates us in God’s image, and God blesses us, and makes us stewards over the whole created order. The next day, the proverbial seventh day of creation, the sabbath God consecrated, is humankind’s first full day. I imagine them waking up, saying, “Hey God – what are we gonna do today? Name and catalog the animals, or the rivers or the oceans? Name the mountains or the stars? See how many kinds of trees you’ve planted in this garden?”
“Today, my children, we’re going to rest.”
“But God, we haven’t even done anything yet! We haven’t worked! We haven’t earned our rest yet!”

The sabbath is a gift from God before we have done a thing to deserve it. The sabbath is itself a gift from God who is gracious, who gives good gifts to God’s children before we have asked for them, before we have earned them, before we deserve them. God does not give the sabbath as reward for work completed – God gives the sabbath as a pure and simple gift before we’ve done a thing. Honor the sabbath and keep it holy, because it is a gift from God, it is a means of grace, it is how God redeems and hallows time, it is where our relationships with God and one another are nurtured.

The story is told of an American boat that docked in a small Mexican fishing village. The owner of the boat complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Not long.” “Then, why don’t you stay out and fish more?” The small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family. “What do you do with the rest of your time?” the American wondered. I sleep late, I fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village, see my friends, have a few drinks, and have a good time. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I can help! First, you should fish longer hours every day. With the extra money from all the fish you sell, you could buy a bigger boat. Then, with the extra money from the bigger boat, you could eventually buy a second, and a third, and a fourth, and eventually have a whole fleet of boats. Then, instead of selling to the middle man, you can negotiate directly with the processor and perhaps have your own plant! Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!”

“How long will that take?” “I dunno, 20, 25 years. When your business gets big, you can get into the stock market and make millions! After that, you can retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children and grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and spend the evenings enjoying your friends.”

We can spend a lifetime working to get somewhere. Many times, however, we find that we’re already there. We can work and work to earn some rest or a chance to slow down. But God invites us to recognize that rest is a gift we already have.

Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. Slow down, and enjoy the good things in your life as a gift from God. Spend time with God and with those you love. Time is both a gift from God and a precious resource. Remember the sabbath, and keep it holy.


  1. Wow. The insight that the first day Adam and Eve had was Rest Day is quite startling, and certainly reframes this command, as well as challenging the idea of earning our rest. Yet again, God is much more gracious to us than we are to ourselves.

    I love the "hey, you're in my house, here are the House Rules so you can have a good time" analogy. It reminds me of the rules that Catherine the Great made for the Hermitage (Russian Tsar Palace; now one of the largest art museums in the world) - and, of course, there are ten of them, too:

    1. All ranks shall be left behind at the doors, as well as swords and hats.
    2. Parochialism and ambitions shall also be left behind at the doors.
    3. One shall be joyful but shall not try to damage, break or gnaw at anything.
    4. One shall sit or stand as one pleases.
    5. One shall speak with moderation and quietly so that others do not get a headache.
    6. One shall not argue angrily or passionately.
    7. One shall not sigh or yawn.
    8. One shall not interfere with any entertainment suggested by others.
    9. One shall eat with pleasure, but drink with moderation so that each can leave the room unassisted.
    10. One shall not wash dirty linen in public and shall mind one’s own business until one leaves.

    You also make a good point about our spending all our time rushing around working, and missing out on contemplative time to assess our lives and dwell with God. I'll hazard a guess that we miss out on that kind of time with other people, too. How did Jesus sum up the Law and the Prophets? Oh, yeah, be in communion with God and man.

    Why do you think we do this? Why do we need to work so many hours? What fundamental assumptions are we making here that cause us to take steps against other things which would otherwise be priorities (family, friends, health, pleasure)? What does it say about my relationship with God when I work instead of spending time with Him?

    I'm certainly not one to offer answers; I'm a struggling workaholic (cutting my hours this month from 80+ down to 50 or so - a big step for me). But it seems to me that there's something warped or exaggerated that makes it seem ok to work all the time and even revel in it.

    Going back to missing out on contemplative time: it seems as if God doesn't want us just to DO all the time, but rather to be a thoughtful people, taking time to sit and think and assess and weigh. This makes Him a much bigger God than the local idols at the time, which not only didn't give days off, but also required unquestioning obedience.

    Excellent thoughts. I'm joining your congregation - as soon as I can get my hands on a teleporter to help out with the commute. ;-)

  2. You ask why we do rush around and work ourselves to death; why we don't slow down and spend contemplative time with God. A few thoughts:

    I think we're scared of silence and stillness. Watch how fidgety people get with a lull in the conversation or without the radio on in the car.

    Society also teaches us to be self-made, self-reliant, self-supporting, etc. We're in love with "self." Self is the most important and most reliable relationship any of us has. I think we work so hard because we all believe that no one can do it better than we can, including God.

    Work is a value of our society, and its opposite is laziness or sloth. Laziness and sloth are both obviously pejorative, so I think we tend toward workaholism to avoid being perceived as lazy. Really, we're insecure people, at our core.

    The corrective, of course, is re-aligning ourselves with God's priorities. The kingdom of God has a different set of values. Notice: it doesn't embrace laziness (so the values are therefore not completely opposite), but it does embrace times of rest, renewal, sabbath, and reflection.