The Big Ten

Sermon titles can be deceiving. It’s the middle of March, conference tournaments are in full swing, and the sermon title is The Big Ten – but you wouldn’t really expect me to talk about Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio or Purdue, would you?

And it’s not just sermon titles that can be deceiving – I counted the Big Ten, and there are actually eleven schools in that conference.

Today’s sermon title refers to the words spoken by God in the wilderness of Sinai and written on tablets of stone, ten commandments for the life of God’s people. They are not ten heavy, finger-wagging Thou shalt not’s that quickly add some severe restrictions to the freedom of these run-away slaves, but rather words of life that protect their freedom, words to help them live in covenant community with God and with each other – and not in the deadly systems of Egypt.

The big ten are the constitutional text of God’s people, if you will, a text that characteristically doesn’t begin with “We, the people” but with “I the Lord.”

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

It all begins with this memory of liberation and the God whose name was revealed in it.
You raise one finger, and it’s easy – even without looking at it – to say “I”, but our freedom in the land of God’s promise depends on our ability to remember the name of the One who brought us out. Who we are is forever determined not by what we make of ourselves or of each other, but by who this Holy One is for us:

I. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out.
II. You don’t need any other gods.
III. You don’t need to manufacture images or dream up ideas to capture who I am, for I am who I am, the Lord your God, who brought you out.
IV. Remember my name.

The big ten are written on two tablets; one with particular attention to our relationship with God, the other with particular attention to our relationship with one another. The two are not separate, though, because together they serve a single purpose: to help God’s people live as God’s people, to help us remember the name of our God.

To me, the fourth commandment is something like a hinge holding the two tablets together.

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.

Ed Hallowell wrote a book a couple of years ago, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, And About To Snap. Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. USA Today praised it, “Valuable advice… Too busy to read this book? Then you really need to.”

I wonder when ‘crazy-busy’ became part of our vocabulary; I suspect it wasn’t too long ago. The more time-saving devices we introduce to our daily lives, the less time we have, it seems.

“Too busy to read this book? Then you really need to.” That’s cute, isn’t it? You know what they’re going to suggest next: No time to read? Get the 3 hour audio book and listen to it while racing to get there – work, school, soccer, doctor’s appointment, whatever it is you’re racing to get to next.

Add church to that. Programs, committees, task groups, luncheons, surveys, and meeting after meeting.

Sorry, I can’t meet with you, I’m already booked on Tuesday.
No, next week I’m in Indianapolis.
Yes, Friday would work, but not before 7.
Is that am or pm?

No, I’m not kidding. We work as if the next sunrise depended on us. There’s so much to do, it seems, and so little time to do it; earn a living; get the kids ready for school and before you know it through college; take care of family members; nurture friendships; clean the house; cut the grass; paint the shutters; get some exercise – and don’t forget to become a better parent, a smarter investor, a more attentive lover, and last but not least a well-rounded human being.

We’re not just racing to get there; we’re racing to get there without knowing where “there” is anymore. We raise our finger and say “I” and what follows is usually some version of “just don’t have enough time” or “am constantly trying to catch up” or “don’t know where the years went.”

We live forgetful lives where “I” is no longer followed by “am the Lord your God who brought you out” or “am the One who created and delights in you” or “am the Lord your Redeemer.”

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Valuable advice, somebody quips at USA Today. Too busy to remember? Then you really need to.

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.

The very first story in our scriptures climaxes on the seventh day: life is complete not when the work is done on day six but when it is enjoyed on the seventh day. God rests and takes pleasure in life as it unfolds – no need to tweak this or improve that, no need to go back to Research & Development and create an even better world, Creation 2.0. - just rest and pleasure.

Of the big ten, the commandment to remember the sabbath is the longest; not because it requires lengthy explanations or sub-clauses with additional thou-shalt-not’s – it is the longest because it has to have a taste of wondrous fullness: on that day, you shall not work, you, your son or your daughter, the men and women who work for you, your livestock, or the immigrant in your towns – do your work in six days, and on the seventh day join God in taking pleasure in life as it simply and wondrously unfolds, all of you.

Working and resting, laboring and letting life be, in the rhythm of life that has been since the beginning of time, human beings are in the image of God. Crazy-busy is always racing to get there without even knowing where “there” is anymore; living with a sabbath rhythm is getting a taste of “being there,” a taste of wondrous fullness every week.

Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry, wrote a book of Sabbath poems; one of them, No. X from 1979, speaks beautifully of how the sabbath shapes our daily work.

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

In the wilderness of Sinai, God made a covenant with Israel, and remembering the sabbath is at the heart of this covenant. We know God’s name most fully through Jesus Christ, and through him we stand in spiritual and historical kinship with the Jewish people.

As Christians, we affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we share the joyful liberation from oppressive labor first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over sin and his resurrection from the dead. Every Sunday is a little Easter, that first day that is also the eigth day of creation, new beginning and fulfillment.

We need Sabbath time not just to stay sane – and we certainly need it for that – but to become fully human, to be transformed and grow into the image of Christ.

Dorothy Bass writes, “to act as if the world cannot get along without our work for one day in seven is a startling display of pride that denies the sufficiency of our generous Maker.”

For most of us, Sunday will continue to be our sabbath day when we gather in worship with fellow-Christians. We don’t do it because we can’t think of anything better to do on our day off; keeping sabbath is not about taking a day off. Keeping sabbath is about being recalled to the memory that is the source of our freedom and our humanity: not “I” but the One who says “I am the Lord your God who brought you out; I am your God who knit you together in your mother’s womb and delights in you; I am the Lord your redeemer.”

Without that memory we’re back in the crazy-busy brickyards of Egypt.

“After worship, what many of us need most,” writes Dorothy Bass, “is time with loved ones—not useful time, for planning next week’s schedules, but time ‘wasted’ on the pleasure of being together,” perhaps watching the men’s finals in basketball between Purdue and the Buckeyes.

Next Sunday, after worship, we’ll be wasting some time on the pleasure of being together by having a Wii bowling tournament in the fellowship hall. God’s people at play, young and old together. Worship and rest and play.

One day a week—not much, in a sense, but a good beginning.

One day to resist the tyranny of too much or too little.

One day to remember who we really are and what is really important.

One day that, week after week, anchors our life in the promises and purposes of God.

One day – not just for our sanity but for our very humanity.

Audio of this post is available.