Sermon “Sabbath as Resistance” July 16, 2017
4th Commandment in Ten Commandments Series
Texts: Exodus 5:1-9 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15
The story of creation in Genesis 2 says,“on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done and rested on the seventh day from all the work. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy”
Do you ever wonder, what God did on that 7th day when God rested? I imagine an old farmer, dusty and sweaty from the day’s work, in a rocking chair on the porch, sippin’ a mint julep on the porch as the sun goes down. “Ahh, the beginning of the Sabbath”, the farmer says, “This is all really really good. I am pleased with my work.”
I do like this image of God resting. Though I admit I don’t often think of God as a resting God, y’know what I mean? A God who relaxes and chills! I realize that I’m imagining God in a very limited way, an anthropomorphic God– very much like us, who gets tired like we do, who works hard like we do, a God who needs a nap on Sundays. I know God is bigger and different from us.
And yet it is a curious thing to me that in so many places in Scripture, God is witnessed as a God who RESTS: a God who encourages rest for God’s people.
It’s not only in Scripture that we observe this about the Creator. We witness rest as essential to all living things.
Think about how much we sleep. Did you know that if you sleep for an average of 8 hours a night, you sleep for one third of your life? If you live for 75 years, you are asleep for 25 of those years, or 9,125 days. Isn’t that wild? You cannot NOT rest and live well. We’ve heard the studies about how sleep is necessary for good health. We feel it in our bodies – how difficult it is to be awake and function in the day if we haven’t slept.
I think about how farmers over time have learned about the importance that soil lay fallow for a time. Allowing the soil to rest from human use so that it can regain its nutrients and be able to produce again.
Every living thing, every creature, every animal, every fish in the sea, the soil itself, the oceans, and human beings. It is a matter of life and death – We need rest.
Now we know this about ourselves and creation and God. What is perhaps quite stunning to think about is that though we are many many years away from the time that the Sabbath Commandment was written, we are not getting better at keeping it. We may even be getting worse… I don’t know. But I do know that we live in a world where anxiety is the norm, not the exception. And workaholism is not rare, it’s a common form of addiction. Why do we seem to struggle so much with this Commandment?
(1) Perhaps in part it’s because we’ve become so removed from the rhythms of nature – like the sunlight and the darkness that teach our bodies when they ought to lie down and get up. And that because we can turn on lights in our house, we can so easily extend our work days. And I’m not just talking about lights as in light bulbs, but I’m talking about all the other lights we live by: our computer screens, our tvs, our phones. There is always that business item you can respond to, that one last email, that one last post, that one more episode you can watch before you collapse into bed. We have a hard time knowing when to shut off the lights. And for the most part our anxious and restless patterns go unchallenged and there’s no accountability unless you work hard to create it.
(2) We also struggle with this commandment because our culture is highly individualistic. When I was in seminary, the big buzz word was “self care”. And Sabbath was often talked about in terms of self care. Caring for yourself, your body, your sleep, what you eat. We were told if you don’t find regular patterns for self care when you are in ministry – or in any other work, you will not last. You will quickly burnout. And I know this is true. Self care is vital.
But missing from most conversations about self-care while I was in seminary was how self-care relates to your neighbor and to the overall communities we are a part of – our work communities, or in our classrooms, or in our families, or with our significant others. Because we are so hyper-individualistic, we have “individualized” the commandment and then we lose this very explicit part part that the commandment that is about the “others” for whom you are also to provide rest. This commandment assumes a domino effect: that your decision to cease from your labors directly effects those around you.
Let’s reflect for a moment about all that is listed in the commandment. Keep the Sabbath holy, 6 days you shall labor, but on the 7th day “You shall not do any work, you or
your son or your daughter – think about your immediate family
your slaves – in our context, think about the people that sewed the hems on the t-shirt that you’re wearing this morning.
your ox, your donkey, your livestock – think about the cow that brought you that milk you will have in your coffee today, or that bacon that you had for brunch yesterday
or the resident alien in your town – think about the migrant worker who spent last week picking watermelon that you will cut into and enjoy this afternoon.
So that they may rest as well as you. So that they may rest as well as you.
If I don’t keep the Sabbath, the logic is that neither will others keep it – because others in my sphere of influence are directly affected. When you overwork, that has an effect on others and in many instances actually sets the standard for others. This is a challenge for us because we tend to function and think of ourselves so much as individuals rather than part of a larger system or community.
(3) A third reason I believe we struggle so much with this commandment is that we live in a Market driven economy, that values endless productivity and ceaseless striving to both produce and consume. And the market economy also works to convince us that we never have enough. It is also a Market economy that is married to White Supremacy, so that the cheap and exploitative labor of black bodies and the extinguishing of native bodies is wrapped together into the foundation of our economic system. Because we have never repented from this sin as a society, our market is still driven by this force and dependence on cheap labor and exploiting mostly black and brown bodies. Liberal, conservative or anywhere else you might fall on the political spectrum, we are all in some way swept up in this Market system that encourages endless production and consumption, always at the expense of someone else’s labor and the absence of someone’s rest.
Into this context of ours, into this culture of ours, comes the voice of Yahweh with an alternative: “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. And this God is on a collision course with systems of exploitation like our Market driven system. Lucinda read a brief story from Exodus 5 for us – the story is about Pharaoh and the economic system of Egypt that demands endless production. In Pharaoh’s system, there is no rest for anyone: neither for the slaves nor for Pharaoh as a supervisor, neither for the taskmasters or anyone else in this system of demand. And the Israelites who want to go worship on a mountain for a few days and stop working are called lazy asses! When they ask for three days to practice Sabbath Pharaoh gets mad and comes back with more punishing demands “Now you can get the straw for yourselves to make the bricks but you’ll need to produce the same amount of bricks.” The Scriptures say later on that the Israelites were so “broken in their spirit by this cruel [punishing] treatment” (Ex 6:9) that they just about gave up on YHWH and Moses altogether. Stirring up trouble just results in being beaten down even more. Demanding Sabbath means Empire will come back to get you and will hurt the ones already suffering the most. This sounds like every movement for social change and economic equality doesn’t it? Who were the people under greatest threat of being hurt or killed during the abolition movement? Black slaves. During the civil rights movement? Black and brown people. Who are the people who are most in danger of getting hurt when standing up to police brutality today? Black and brown people. If the people on the top are well fed and detached from people on the bottom, the people on the top will have little incentive to change the status quo. It worked for Pharoah. It works in the United States. In such a system there is no Sabbath rest for anyone.
Scriptures are clear that Yahweh opposes this kind of labor system. The God of Israel heard the cries of these slaves and not only brought them out of slavery in Egypt but out of the economic system of Egypt. God demands an alternative system of labor for the people who are in covenant with this God. If anyone ever tells you that God is not concerned about economics, or systems or policies, or politics– show them the 4th commandment. To be freed from slavery is to be freed from the work system that slavery demands. The Sabbath commandment is about a creation of a different kind of people, a different labor system marked by care for neighbor and creation, marked by rest and ensuring that others have that rest too.
Keeping the Sabbath is as urgent and difficult for us as ever. “Sabbath is Resistance” as theologian Walter Brueggemann says in his book that carries that title, the title I’m also using for my sermon today.
**Keeping the Sabbath is about finding practices that release you from the illusion that you are in control. It’s about acknowledging the gift that all and everything comes from God and rests in God.
**Keeping the Sabbath is in RESISTANCE to workaholism. If you’re a workaholic. This is the commandment for you! What does it mean for you to hear that God is not a workaholic? That God not only rests, but demands that of you. And that that demand is connected to all other people and living things that also need rest.
Perhaps if you can take that step of seeing yourself in the image of a God who rests, then you can begin to imagine a life of greater joy, a life that is not defined by endless production. And you can begin to find new freedom in recognizing that your worth is not tied to what you can produce and consume. But in your being beloved as part of God’s exquisite creation.
Maybe that is where all of us can begin again today.
We can begin today by making decisions to put Sabbath into practice in our lives. If we do this, we will have to practice resistance to American Empire that functions very much like Pharaohs Empire. We will be working together against the grain of our market driven racist system that demands endless consumption, endless productivity, always at the expense of someone who is not getting rest.
I want to charge you this day, to take God seriously – take God’s economic vision seriously. So that when you do practice self-care, you see the connection that is often hard to find in our culture “that they may rest as well as you”. Begin to see how your decisions to cease work, to cease striving, effect not only you but others around you.
The commandment, like all the commandments come from a place of love and are for love. The commandments are there to keep us on the path of Liberation and Life that God so desires.
The God we serve cares about the freedom and joy and flourishing of our neighbors and all of creation. We can do the hard work of keeping this commandment. We can do difficult and challenging things, because we serve a powerful God. A God who works hard. A God who rests. Thanks be to God.