A congregation of the United Church of Canada
(away from the lectionary this week!)
One of the best things about summer holidays is that there seems to be more time to do things like read books – and during my holidays in July I read one that absolutely rocked my world – and now I hope it rocks yours. The last time I stood here and preached my theme was about rest. Well, I guess that must have been an omen because the book I reached for was Walter Brueggemann’s new book about the Sabbath called: Sabbath As Resistance. Holidays are a kind of summer Sabbath, so it all connects nicely.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time that I’ve ever thought about Sabbath time, but Brueggemann’s book took me into an incredibly wonderful new insight and understanding about what Sabbath means and why it’s important. It probably won’t surprise you that the very first thing that dawned on me, as I was reading the introduction, was that out of nowhere my mind started racing about all sorts of things that I could or should be doing instead of reading. The moment I began to think about Sabbath my brain started looking for ways to avoid it. Maybe your brain is doing that right now?! Clearly, this is a challenging topic.
The United Church has never really focused on Sabbath-keeping very much. I mean, sure, there are some cultural memories that people have of not going to movies, or playing cards, or shopping, or doing all those kinds of things on Sundays – but those were, dare I say, more cultural than spiritual.
I don’t remember ever hearing or preaching a sermon about Sabbath-keeping before – I may have mentioned it, but never focused on it.
When I was looking for hymns to support this theme I did a search of our two hymn books. Guess how many times the word Sabbath appears? In Voices United it appears a grand total of 2 times, and in More Voices…0 times!
Why have we never embraced this idea? Perhaps it’s because, like me, we’ve never seen it the way Brueggemann teaches about it.
Did you notice the title of the book I’m referring to? It’s Sabbath As Resistance.
Isn’t that intriguing?
What do you think it is that we need to resist?
It’s the drive to “do”. The drive to produce. The drive to count bricks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we need to go back to the beginning – the very beginning.
The Hebrew Bible begins with the book of Genesis in which the poetic description of the creation of the universe is found. It’s poetry, not science – but that doesn’t mean it lacks truth. The point of Genesis 1 is to convey the nature of God. It’s the first book. This is what they want everyone to know about God. The first thing is that God is first – before anything else there is God. God is fundamental.
And the second thing is that God creates out of love, and that it is very good. God moves, God creates, God works. BUT – and here is the monumental, paradigm shifting, unique, mind-bending innovation – God doesn’t just work – God also rests!
God is a working God, but God is also a Resting God! God establishes the pattern for the universe – work, but then rest and savour and reflect on it all. God is not a workaholic, God is not anxious about the functioning of the world, and creation does not depend on endless work. There is a rhythm, and the rhythm is rooted in rest.
In Exodus 31 it even says that on the “day” God rested in the creation narrative that God was refreshed!
Exodus 31:16-17 – God says to Moses: “The Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”
Friends, if God needs refreshment don’t you think we might too?
But again, I’m ahead of myself, because God can’t talk to the Israelites about this until they’re out in the wilderness, and the reason why they’re out there is going to blow your mind!
It’s all about the bricks!
Stay with me here – it’s gonna be so worth it!
In the wilderness Moses receives from God the 10 Commandments, which begin like this:
Exodus 20:1-3 Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
When God explains to the Israelites who God is God reminds them that it was God who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Well, that’s not just about a simple escape from slavery into freedom – it’s about a fundamental paradigm shift in how to perceive and partake in the world. God delivers the people from Pharaoh’s paradigm to God’s paradigm – from Pharaoh’s kingdom to God’s kingdom.
Pharaoh’s kingdom was all about the bricks! The Jews were slaves to produce more and more bricks to build store houses for Pharaoh’s riches and goods, and to build monuments to Pharaoh’s self-importance.
Pharaoh was driven by the need for more and more bricks – which drove the slaves, the Jews, to have to produce more and more bricks.
There was massive anxiety about producing bricks.
There were never enough bricks.
And the slaves had to keep working harder and harder to try to satisfy an endless desire for more.
But remember what we know about God’s rhythm.
God is not a workaholic. God is not anxious. God’s rhythm is different.
So Moses says, “Let my people go!” – not just because they were being mistreated but because they were called to participate in an entirely different paradigm that God established.
Brueggemann calls it a paradigm shift from commodity to community
– from mindlessness to mindfulness
– from attainment to attunement
– from restlessness to restfulness.
The escape from Egypt is a fundamental rejection of the commodity-driven world in favour of embracing a community-drawn world.
It’s an act of absolute and utter resistance!
And the 10 Commandments can be seen as a blueprint for how to live in this new paradigm. They aren’t just about personal do’s and don’ts – they’re about a new kind of way to understand how God’s world is supposed to work.
It’s a manifesto of brick resistance!
Commandment 1 – God says, “I’ve brought you out of the commodity system and into the community system in order that you can understand that I am not an add-on, I am fundamental. You shall have no gods before me – not commodities, not attainments, not anything. Pharaoh wanted you to put bricks first – I say no. I brought you out of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”
Commandment 2 is all about not making idols. Think about that. What is an idol? It’s a thing, a commodity. It’s usually made of gold or something precious to show value or worth or esteem. But an idol is turning a subject into an object – a relationship into a commodity – a ‘thou’ into an ‘it’. So no idols, because they are prime examples of the commodification of the world.
Commandment 3 says to honour God’s holy name.
Taken together, the first three commandments are all about how we love God – God first, God as subject/thou and not an idol, an ‘it’, a commodity, and honouring God’s name and identity. Love God.
And if you look at the last 6 commandments you’re going to see that they’re all about loving your neighbour!
Honour your parents. No murder. No adultery. No theft. No lying. No coveting.
Those are all about how we treat one another with respect and thoughtfulness.
But here’s the ground-breaking insight – if you’re all about the bricks you won’t think twice about breaking those commandments because you don’t really have neighbours you have a world filled with frantic production and consumption of commodities that reduces everyone else to a threat or a competitor.
Think about the people who make tons of money.
Think about how many times we hear stories of shockingly unethical behaviour in order to attain that money.
Too often, it’s all about the bricks.
But you don’t have to have tons of money or power to be driven by the bricks!
That desire, or greed, is pervasive and tries to ensnare all of us!
If you’re really about loving your neighbour, and not being jealous of their stuff or their lives, and don’t lie, cheat, steal, or dishonour people, then you’re simply going to have fewer bricks. (Talk about an alternate paradigm!)
So. The first 3 commandments are all about loving God and the last 6 are all about loving your neighbour!
You’ve heard this before! Love God ~ Love People.
Looks like Jesus had it absolutely correct when he said these were the greatest commandments!
But how’s your math? 3+6 only equals 9. What’s missing?
Here’s where it all really happens.
There is a fourth commandment that makes all the other 9 possible.
It’s the fourth commandment that gives us the spaciousness to grow our love for God, and it’s that same fourth commandment that gives us the spiritual power to love our neighbour.
And of all the 10 commandments it is this fourth one that takes up the most real estate, the biggest number of verses, in the passage. Isn’t that awesome! It’s like they’re trying every trick in the book to make us take notice of this pivotal, crucial commandment that acts as catalyst or yeast for all the others.
Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour 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.
Sabbath simply means to rest, to cease from your usual work, to pause. But I want you to notice how radical and revolutionary this rest – this work stoppage – is.
I want you to see how it’s the antithesis of counting bricks.
On that seventh day of rest “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.”
Sabbath is the ultimate equalizer. If there is no work then no one can be a slave to another that day.
Sabbath breaks the cycle.
Sabbath levels the playing field, flattens the hierarchy.
Sabbath is a profoundly powerful act of resistance against the commodity-production-brick-counting ethos of the world.
Eventually Moses and the Jewish leaders set out a long list of requirements for being faithful and maintaining purity. But over the centuries, as the Israelites progressed and interacted with various other peoples, there was a need to relax some of the exclusiveness of the earlier times and find ways to include others in their communities. This is not to say that the requirements of Torah, of keeping the Law, were waived. Keeping Torah was an unwritten expectation.
What is remarkable is that by the time of Isaiah there was only one explicit written requirement for outsiders to gain membership in the community. Can you guess what it was? Of course you can – it was keeping Sabbath!
Brueggemann said, “That is because Sabbath represents a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rat race of the empire.” [p.54] So more than any action, or confession of faith, or adherence to a creed, or any other religious requirement the counter-cultural act of resistance that Sabbath-keeping represented was THE greatest indication that you “got it” – that you weren’t all about the bricks – that you embraced God’s kingdom.
Brueggemann characterized this as an invitation “to a new life of neighbourly freedom in which Sabbath is the cornerstone of faithful freedom.” He says this act of resistance “declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment.” [p.32]
Next week I’ll talk about “how” to practice or keep Sabbath, so don’t miss that – if you don’t have both parts today is just an interesting intellectual exercise. Next week we’ll see how we can apply it to our lives, and yes, it is very, very hard!
But today it’s just about “why” Sabbath is so profoundly important. It comes down to this.
Sabbath is about restraint, withdrawal, and divestment from a society that specializes in the anxiety of deadlines, quotas, and the need to be productive – a society more concerned with counting bricks than loving God and neighbour.
Sabbath helps us recognize that we live by gift and not by possession, that we are satisfied by relationships and not by acquisition and consumption of commodities. [p.85]
Sabbath is, quite simply, an act of resistance.
And unlike in Star Trek, here……resistance is fertile!
Tune in next week to find out how!
Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville, KY), 2014.