Ten words of life

We celebrate today. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We celebrate that congregations around the world, gathered at the table of Christ, praise God in more languages and dialects than any of us can imagine. We celebrate that in the breaking of bread we all come to know our crucified and risen savior. We celebrate our liberation: the burden of sin removed from our shoulders, the fear of death driven from our hearts. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, for we are no longer slaves to the powers that oppress us, but free servants of God. We celebrate the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness.

They had left behind Pharaoh’s mud pits and the bosses who enforced the daily brick quotas. They had crossed the sea. They had eaten the bread of angels and drunk water from the rock. They had argued and complained, and through it all, they had begun to discover the faithfulness of God. Now they were at the mountain, and all of them heard the ten commandments, the ten commitments that from that day forward would be a kind of constitution for the covenant community of God’s people.

Ten words of life. Chances are the last time you heard them mentioned was in a news story about a court case. Either somebody, somewhere wanted to have the Ten Commandments added to a public building, or somebody, somewhere wanted to have them removed. There are approximately 4,000 public displays of the Ten Commandments in the United States, including the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Zeal for the commandments runs high, but so does ignorance. A 2004 poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, but fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the ten. Tom Long points out that “in the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not.’ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.” The Ten Commandments have become iconic symbols in battles that have little to do with the words of life the ten are. It’s easy to forget that they are not prefaced by a directive, “Here are the rules, ten of them. Obey them!” No, they open with an announcement of freedom, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). The ten words are affirmations of life after liberation, affirmations of freedom. “Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. You are free to rest on the seventh day. You are free from coveting, lying and stealing as ways to secure your life.”[1]

Martin Luther was convinced that knowing the Ten Commandments was tantamount to knowing the entire Bible. “This much is certain,” he wrote in the introduction to the Large Catechism, “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.”[2] He knew, of course, that knowing the ten perfectly doesn’t end with being able to recite them – but it certainly begins there. There are ten of them, which is very good because we can use our fingers to help us learn and remember. They are, for the most part, brief and simple, so we can take them to heart and be guided by them in our living – and living from them, living into them is the key to knowing them perfectly. Perhaps all this talk of perfection makes you nervous. Isn’t perfection just another yoke? Isn’t seeking to be perfect a heavy burden that only creates hypocrisy and self-righteousness?

That question is raised in a another catechism from the Reformation period. The Heidelberg Catechism grew on the reformed branch of the tree and it also contains a long exposition of the Ten Commandments. Question 114 asks, “But can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?” The response is refreshing in its frankness, “No, for even the holiest of them make only a small beginning in obedience in this life.” Only a small beginning in obedience, but it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s will and promise; it’s a beginning in the direction of freedom from all that keeps life from flourishing; it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s kingdom.

At the heart of the ten is the good word about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy. I won’t say that it is the one commitment we struggle the most with; we’re only beginners in all of them. But when we don’t remember the sabbath day, when we don’t remember that it is God who has set us free for freedom, we forget everything else. We forget who we are as God’s people. We open the doors to lesser gods and friendly looking idols to teach us their ways.

I want to read you a poem. It was written by Stanley Wiersma, a poet and teacher who grew up in the 30’s in a Dutch Reformed community in Iowa. He begins with a question:

Were my parents right or wrong
Not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?

I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats
and then it wouldn’t pay to keep them.
Isn’t selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?

My parents did not argue.
We went to Church. 
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual-
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:

“Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates.”

“God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea.”

Dominie’s spur-of-the-moment concession:[3]

“He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;
The lightning and wind his missions perform.”

Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:
“Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,”
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew and beat
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

Afterward we rode by our oats field,
“We still will mow it,” Dad said.
“Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before the storm.”

Later at dinner Dad said,
“God was testing us. I’m glad we went.”

“Those psalms never gave me such a lift as this morning,”
Mother said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.

The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood. (…)

“Were my parents right or wrong?” The author didn’t answer the question, but he acknowledged that his parents’ sabbath observance was at the root of his own attempts at faithfulness. He was grateful that they had bequeathed to him a “more important pattern defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage:” That pattern – and the poem’s title – is “obedience.” [4]

I’m drawn to this poem because it questions my own initial response to the harvest challenge. I probably would have mowed that field and later thanked the Lord that we got it all in safely before the storm. I would have missed the worship service and the singing in the storm; I would have missed the closing psalm’s affirmation in the dark,

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

It is difficult for us to grasp that obedience to God is at the heart of freedom. The world we live in tells us that to be free is to be able to do what we want. Then it goes on to tell us what to want. Our economy grows on the assumption that coveting is a virtue. The world we live in tells us that we are what we do; and so we do more in order to be more. And the more we do, the less we remember who we are. Without sabbath, amnesia sets in.

We celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, not as slaves to the powers that oppress us, but as free servants of God. We celebrate our liberation from the burden of sin and the fear of death. We celebrate life in God’s covenant community.


[1] See Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006) 17. 

[2] The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. by Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles P. Arand (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 382.

[3] Dominie is a term used in the U.S. for a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church

[4] “Obedience,” by Sietze Buning (Stanley Wiersma’s pen name)