As many of you know, we just wrapped up our Fall series titled, “The BIG Questions” where we explored all sorts of topics that are important to the Christian faith: “Who is God, Who is Jesus, What is the Bible, Why do we need the Church?” Well since Rev. Lee isn’t here today I decided to add another BIG question to her list – I don’t think she will mind. Today I want us to explore the Judeo-Christian ritual of Sabbath, asking the BIG question, “What is Sabbath and why does it matter?” This question has been on my mind a lot this week as a result of our conversation during sermon talkback last Sunday.
Last week Rev. Lee preached on the question “How do we live?” Looking back at all of our previous discussions about the Christian faith, and then looking forward into our call as followers of Jesus, it is important that we ask ourselves this question. But as we discussed in sermon talkback, the question “how do we live” can be pretty complex, with many answers. Rev. Lee shared a message about living from a place of abundance rather than scarcity, believing there is enough for all of us if we learn to only take what we need, and give abundantly to those around us.
But for many of us, this reality of having ‘more than enough’ seems out of reach. Perhaps you would say, “that sounds great in this space and time on a Sunday morning, but when we leave these pews and enter the outside world, this message of ‘always having enough’ and ‘living abundantly’ sounds like a wishful dream.” I get that, I really do. But my hope this morning is that as we explore God’s gift of Sabbath, we discover how God’s commandments for our life can actually lead us closer to making these ideals a reality.
The story of God freeing the Israelites from Egypt is one of the most well known stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This was a defining moment in Israel’s history that they remember every year through the ritual of Passover. Before experiencing this freedom, Israel was enslaved to Egypt for several hundred years, making thousands of bricks every day. These bricks were mostly used to build storage buildings for Israel’s main commodity, grain. Actually one of the main reasons why Egypt had so much power, and had become this great empire was because of their grain. In times of famine, Egypt would sell all of their stored up grain to those who had no food. So in this system, the Israelites make the bricks, the bricks go to build the grain storage buildings, and then the grain is sold in exchange for gold or other materials, which is then used to build Egyptian idols or gods. This entire system works because of the slavery of the Israelites; they are the sole source of production. So when Moses comes to Pharaoh and says, “let my people go” – Pharaoh does not see people, but rather a labor commodity that makes his system work. As we know from the story, Moses’ request originally backfires on the Israelites – whereas the Egyptians had typically provided the straw the Israelites used to make the bricks, Pharaoh now demands that the Israelites find the straw themselves, but still make the same amount of bricks each day. Greater demands, lesser resources – the Israelites are caught in a system that never ends, always demands more, and barely meets their needs.
As some of you may know, I have two younger sisters in my family, one of whom is here today. Jessica, my middle sister is a kindergarten teacher in Mooresville right outside of Charlotte. It seems a little far-fetched to compare her experience as a teacher in 2016 to that of the Israelites, but there are definitely similarities. I think about North Carolina schoolteachers like Jessica, who work tirelessly in one of the most important fields of our society, but with little support and even less pay. Jessica works over 50 hours a week, with little to no resources for her classroom, making below a living wage, which she supplements by working a second part-time job in order to have money to save. The work of Jessica and many other North Carolina schoolteachers is foundational to our society, yet their well-being and success as teachers is rarely considered within our system. When reading this story of the Israelites, I also think of my friend Chynna, who lives in low-income housing in Charlotte. She is a 20 year old, single Mom with dreams of being a make-up artist, but is unable to complete her 1-year cosmetology program because in order to stay in her low-income apartment she has to work 30 hours a week, on top of going to school full-time. She has no car, so the bus commute adds an extra 2 hours to her day, hopping on the city bus at 6:00 a.m. to take her son to daycare, and then getting home around 8:00 p.m. after picking him up. The nights and weekends that Chynna should have to spend with her son are now spent trying to accumulate those 30 hours to stay in the only apartment in Charlotte they can afford. I know for many of you, these stories are not new. And there are probably aspects of your own life and the lives of people you love that are similar to that of Jessica and Chynna.
Much like the Israelites, we are caught in a system of anxiety, production, and accumulation. To some extent, we all feed the system with our participation, consuming more than we need, and unaware of how our purchasing decisions affect the lives of the laborers as well as the environment. Some of us enable the system with our leadership, and others like Chynna are victims of this system; pushed everyday to produce more, with our humanity rarely recognized. I often feel like I’m on this hamster wheel that never stops, always demanding more, and I’m fearful that if I step off for a small break, I will get behind, or lose my place.
Does this sound a little familiar to anyone? Perhaps if you’re honest, it resonates more than a message of abundance. Thankfully this is the reality into which God presents the gift of Sabbath. When the Israelites are freed from this system, God gives Moses the 10 commandments, which will shape their identity and set them apart as God’s chosen people. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, who has written extensively on the Sabbath, views the Sabbath command as a lynchpin for all the others. The Fourth Commandment to observe the Sabbath day looks backwards to the first three commands, which relate to our relationship to God, and forward to the final six, which govern our relationship with others. Sabbath is the piece that reconciles our relationship with God, and our relationship with the world. Let’s read this fourth commandment together from Deuteronomy 5:
12 Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labor and do all your work.14But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Sabbath as understood properly in the Biblical tradition is more than a time of rest and renewal; it is most importantly a rest that transforms. The Israelites have just come from oppression, through God’s great exodus, to freedom. They have left behind a system of exploitation and accumulation under Pharaoh, and they are trying to forge a new understanding of community. In the words of Walter Bruggemann, Sabbath can be seen as a new social measure defined by justice, mercy, and compassion, rather than competition, achievement, production, or acquisition. Whereas the Israelites lived from a place of restlessness in Egypt, God’s desire for this community is they now live from a place of restfulness.
In the book of Leviticus, this idea of Sabbath is expanded and we see God the agriculturalist making commands to care for the land. Leviticus 25 reads, “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord. 3For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord.”
The Sabbath is not a restriction placed on the Israelites, but a loving example of how to live in freedom and equality in such a way that honors all peoples, creatures, and even ecologies. In this way, Sabbath is not just a single day of rest, or even a year committed to the health of soil and livestock. Instead, Sabbath becomes a way of continually living into God’s kingdom here on earth.
In the following verses of Leviticus, God then goes on to introduce the Israelites to the “Year of Jubilee” – another ritual that is connected with Sabbath. After every 49 years (7 times 7), God declares the 50th year, the year of Jubilee. During this year, the Israelites are commanded not to grow any crops but to eat only what the field itself produces from previous harvests. Furthermore, during the year of jubilee, any property that was sold during those previous 49 years was to be returned to the original owner, and any outstanding debts were to be cancelled. In the words of Pope Francis, these laws were meant to ensure that the people of Israel valued “balance and fairness in their relationships with others and with the land” and to acknowledge, “that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst”. In this understanding, Sabbath is not simply a pause in time, but a way of reimagining life. Rather than being driven by consumerism and consumption, the Sabbath reminds us that we are called to a life of solidarity and compassion. It is through the practice of the Sabbath that we can finally experience the reality of abundance, acknowledging that there is more than enough.
For the Israelites then, and for us today, the Sabbath is a call to remember the work of God in our lives, to resist the spirit of consumption, and to reimagine our community with eyes of justice, equality, and thankfulness. My hope for us today is that this ritual of Sabbath can really connect with our lives. I realize for many of us the thought of setting aside an entire day to remember, resist, and reimagine seems unrealistic. But as Jesus reminds us in the gospel of Mark which we read earlier, Sabbath wasn’t meant to be legalistic or burdensome; in fact, Jesus broke the Sabbath laws all the time. For Jesus, the Sabbath was more about justice and tapping into abundant life than following the rules.
So I encourage you to take some time this afternoon to think of small ways you can begin to incorporate Sabbath moments into your life; it doesn’t have to be anything big as you begin. For me, I currently have two pretty unorthodox Sabbath practices – the first is that I’m off Facebook for this semester. I realized how much time I was spending on social media, how much energy I put into keeping up with my virtual self, and how much anger I was feeling at certain Facebook posts during election season. So I decided to take a break for the rest of 2016, and now I have extra time to be present with those around me, to recognize God’s spirit in my midst, and more energy to reimagine new ways of bringing about the Kingdom of God in my everyday life. My second Sabbath practice is driving in silence. Since I live in Winston-Salem while in school at Wake Divinity, I spend at least 2 hours in the car each week as I commute back and forth from First Christian. So I have set aside most of that time in the car for silence; to decompress, to pray, to reflect, and look ahead. These are moments when I am able to recalibrate my spirit, and remember the call placed on my life as a follower of Jesus. It is important that we take this time to step away from life as we know it, to remember and reimagine the life we were created for. Then when we re-enter the day-to-day, we can live with greater intention, mindful of the real abundance that surrounds our lives, being present with those we love, and bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth.
Perhaps most importantly, Sabbath is a communal act – this is something we are called to together. Living a life of faithfulness is something we cannot do on our own, but through the Sabbath we are able to reconnect with our brothers and sisters around us. We gather in this space, we gather around the table, to hold hope for one another, to remember God’s faithfulness, and to reimagine our community as we live into the Kingdom of God.
God, the liberator, the comforter, the rest-taker, invites us to the table of the Lord. Amen.