The words that make us free
Every few years we come again to the Ten Commandments. And when we talk about them it feels like something we need to hear again and again, to be reminded of, which makes complete sense, because they are God’s description of how life with each other and God works best. But like many “rules,” it’s easy to lose the heart of them and think of them as something only that limits, squashes, constricts, when in reality, the Ten Commandments set us free.
I preached on the Ten Commandments when Owen was four, the day after he and I had a moment that made me realize what the Ten Commandments are all about. In a fit of frustration with his baby sister, Owen threw a Star Wars action figure at her. In our house, throwing something leads to an immediate time out, a rule we thankfully don’t have to employ much any more, but which was one of the biggies at that time. After his grueling four minutes in the torturously boring time out chair, I knelt down in front of him and asked him if he knew why he had to sit there.
This is a routine that happened, by the way, daily, and several times a day on bad days. I did not expect him to engage me, and hoped only that repetition of these consequences would cause him to figure that it wasn’t worth it, and give up on throwing things as a means to get his way. So far it hadn’t happened that way, but forge ahead I did.
So I asked him if he knew why he was on time out, and he said, “Because I threw something at Maisy. Sorry.” But something stopped me this time, and since I had his attention along with his contrition, I asked him, “Owen, do you know WHY we don’t throw things in this house?” He looked at me, big eyes and pensive stare, “Why?”
“We have that rule because we want this house to be a safe place for everyone to play, a place where everyone is protected and free to have fun. You, Maisy, Mommy and Daddy, and even people who visit us.
If people were allowed to throw things here, nobody would be safe or protected, or be able to play without being afraid. That’s why we can’t have any throwing.
Do you think that is a good rule for us to have?”
And he paused, then he nodded. Then he said, with a very concerned face, “Mommy, that’s a good rule. But I forget! I forget what to do when Maisy touches my things! So I just throw things at her!”
And I promised that next time she touched his things, I would help him remember to tell her NO, then ask me to help get her away. Because just as we don’t throw things, we also don’t take other people’s things without asking. And he left satisfied.
We’ve been bouncing through the Old Testament, watching God’s interaction with the Israelites, and last week they were delivered out Egypt, and came to the Red Sea, where the standoff between Pharaoh and God had a decisive winner. But the Israelites begged to return to slavery rather than face the terrifying unknown of the wilderness. Then they watched God defeat their oppressors, and bring them through the waters into a new way of life and a new identity.
This week God claims them as God’s people. We call this portion of scripture “The Ten Commandments,” in Hebrew they are referred to as, “The ten words” , and they are the foundation to all the laws and teaching of the prophets that follow in the Torah. More than that, these ten words are to define them.
God said these are the things that will characterize you as a people, as my people. They are not worded as suggestions or guidelines or requests or even, really, as commands - these are descriptive – they describe the way this new life they will build together will work. No contingency plan, simply the way it is. Period. In this house, we do not throw things at people, we don’t take other people’s things without asking.
The ten words are grounded first in God – who God is and what God has done for them. The first word that shapes all others is: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt – and gave you water and food and fed you and parted the red sea and destroyed the Egyptian army and led you day and night across the dessert – that is all implied here as well.
I am the God that saved you and claimed you as my own and guided and protected you. That’s me – and now, here’ s you – you wont serve other gods, you wont covet or steal or murder or commit adultery. That’s how we behave here, that’s how this relationship works.
After 400 years in slavery, these people are used to being told what to do. They are punished when they don’t obey, and their wills don’t factor into their lives much at all; they are slaves. There is no such thing as choice, they are not seen as human, they are valued only for what they provide and do, and they are basically disposable. This is life for the Israelites under Pharaoh.
And now, suddenly and quite dramatically, they are given freedom. They are given personhood, ontology, being – being in relation to each other, being in relation to God. They are valued for who they are and claimed as God’s own. They have an identity, and a purpose not tied to what they can produce for others, they have freedom.
My kids and I used to spend quite a bit of time in the summers at Como Zoo. It is only about 2 miles from my house, and admission is free, so almost once a week, we would park outside the gates and load up the stroller and spend a few hours visiting the monkeys and gorillas, lions and giraffes, zebras and sea lions.
Sparky the sea lion is not the Sparky from when I was a kid, in fact, I think we are about 4 Sparkys removed – as the offspring of the offspring of Sparky carry on the title and perform as Sparky. For decades and generations these sea lions and the other zoo animals have been raised in captivity – their parents were born into captivity and their grandparents too.
I wonder what would happen if these animals were one day, for whatever reason, released? If some benevolent billionaire animal lover loaded them all into crates and planes and brought them all back to their native habitats and released them into the wild, penguins to Antarctica, Lions and zebras to the Savannas of Africa, tigers to the jungles of southeast Asia, Sparky dropped off by helicopter on some rocky island in the Bering sea, just released them all and bid them farewell as free creatures.
What would happen to these animals? How would they find food? Where would they sleep? How would they function, outside the enclosed walls they’ve only ever known? Would any of them survive their first 48 hours?
With the move from Egypt to the Wilderness -these Israelites are dramatically and irreversibly thrust into a radically different way of life, perhaps imagined, but never experienced. Slaves for generations, now suddenly, they find themselves with no rulers, no forced labor, no mandates dictating their daily activity. They are free. How will they know how to be free? How does a free people live?
When God gives the Israelites the Ten Words, it isn’t about exchanging one set of restrictions and orders for another. It is about delivering them from slavery into freedom. The rules in freedom are rules for life, for liberation, not for enslavement and oppression. These are rules for the promised land – filled with promise.
Here is what it looks like in the Promised land, God says, what it will be like in the home I give to you. Here is what life looks like when it is done in a way that honors and respects people, all people, in a safe place where everyone can grow, and play, and not be afraid.
This is not a burden on you – taking away your freedom. This is your freedom. Freedom to live for God and one another. Where everyone matters and who you are gets to breathe, and grow and dream and thrive.
This is a description of life in my house.
Hear again the ten words God gives the people of Israel:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.
I am your deliverance and your freedom. You are not on your own, facing the elements and the enemies by yourself. I am in charge here, and I delivered you out of slavery and into freedom. You can trust me.
You will not have other gods before me.
You are not to be a slave to anything else – nothing else can dictate who you are, you’ve been freed from slavery. Not money or power, not self-promotion or personal security, not your work or your reputation. Nothing else defines you – I am your God, and I made you free.
Make no idols for yourself – and no images of me.
You cannot possess me or control me, and as soon as you try, you make yourselves slaves again, this time to an idea of your own making. I am not a political party or a stance on an issue, I am not a way of worshipping or a particular denomination.
I am not what you make me to be with your songs and your prayers and your stained glass windows and your infighting. I am always more.
No box can hold me, I am free to be mystery. I am to be encountered instead of encapsulated.
You wont take my name in vain.
I am not something to be used to back your point or vent your frustration. Just as you are free, I am free as well. Treat me with respect.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.
Freedom is harder to grasp than slavery, so you’re going to need a way to keep living the truth. You see, in this house, you are not defined by what you produce or consume, but valued for who you are. You are free, and you are all equal – there is no difference between sick and well, rich and poor, young and old – everyone matters. But if you keep working day after day without stopping, you will forget this, and you will believe that those who make more, or know more, or buy more, are worth more. This is a lie, but it is hard to resist. So here’s how we’re going to resist it: Every single week, everyone must stop working and simply be. Enjoy life and rest, as I celebrated life and rested when I created the world. Resting connects you to me and helps you to remember that I have called you out of death into life, out of slavery into freedom, out of fear into trust, out of striving and competition into gratitude and generosity. The Sabbath is a holy, special, set aside day to remember who and whose you are.
Honor your parents and your life will be long in the land I am giving to you.
Cherish those who gave you life and nurtured you, respect them and esteem them. And those you raise and love will do the same for you as well. In this home, we are in this together, grateful for those who’ve gone before and aware of those yet to come. There is a generational cycle of love and respect and honor that characterizes life here.
You will not murder.
You are human beings, persons made in my image, not a workforce, not possessions, not a number, or a credit score, or a diagnosis or a burden or a threat. Each one of you is sacred, your life is valuable - not to be tossed away or taken away, precious and irreplaceable.
You will not commit adultery.
Your relationships will never betray or trivialize someone. Within your relationships you will be safe and respected; you can trust the bonds you have, they are real.
You will not steal.
You can be assured that in this home what is yours will never be taken from you unfairly.
You will not falsely testify against another.
The truth about you, or anyone else, will never be sacrificed in order for someone to “win”. Everyone’s integrity and personhood will be upheld, and matters will be decided honestly and fairly.
You will not covet your neighbor’s house, or spouse or kids or car or job or vacation home or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Jealousy, greed and envy have no place in this home. Everyone has what they need, and we all live in awareness of our blessings, in joy and gratitude. We have not become slaves to things or to the belief that having more makes us better. We’re all different, and all valuable, and our relationships come before the things we have.
The “Ten Commandments” at first blush sound like a dry list of rules. Follow the rules so you don’t get put on time out. But fresh from slavery and newly, bewilderingly freed, maybe that is the way the Israelites needed to hear it at the time. Truthfully, it is the way we all need to hear it from time to time. You will not throw things at your sister. PERIOD.
But the Ten Words are protection and freedom, radical promise and enduring hope. They are a description of life in relationship with God and each other, life in the home God makes for us, the trust and belonging that God gives to us and calls us into, and they can be summarized like this:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. Jesus said, And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday – all over the world in congregations of all denominations, all cultures and languages, people are sharing the bread of life and the cup of salvation and speaking out the promise of God’s love and liberation for the world, and for our very own souls as well. All over the world, sisters and brothers are gathering with their own fears and failings – and all the things that enslave them, figuratively and literally, that keep them from living the trust and belonging that God gives to us and calls us into. And they’re gathering here, at the table of our Lord Jesus Christ, to remember and receive again, the Spirit of God who sets us free to live for God and each other. As members of the household of God, let us join them at the table of life.