A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
August 18, 2019
The story we heard this morning from Deuteronomy is from the second telling of the 10 Commandments. The first account is in the Book of Exodus. This account presumes you’ve already heard the first account. Deuteronomy is told from the perspective of Moses, a memoir, as it were. Although in Deuteronomy, Moses also describes his own death and burial, so consider it memoir as a literary device.
Here, a few verses earlier, Moses tells the people:
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”
And then he re-tells the 10 commandments, from which the instruction about Sabbath comes.
This is a reflective, at the end of a particular journey, kind of telling. “Remember that time when….”
And not just the “remember when we ran out of gas and had to hitchhike into Jackpot” kind of story.
It is a foundational remembering. Like when I was a little girl and asked where I came from and my parents would get out the adoption paperwork when and tell me, “Remember when we told you that we were praying to God for a baby and then we got a call that you had been born and we went to pick you up on a cold day in December after 5 feet of snow had fallen? That’s how you became a part of our family. God gave you to our family.”
That is the story that has, more than any other, shaped my life. I’ve always known of God’s provision and care in my life through the act of adoption. God has never seemed an abstract concept to me. God’s care was real and tangible.
This is what the author of Deuteronomy is doing here. Sitting around a campfire with the other people who were the children of the Exodus, and reminding them of their foundational story, the story that mattered so much they couldn’t afford to see it as only History. They had to know it, to see it, to absorb it, to make it their story, not just the story of their ancestors.
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.
Not with our ancestors. But with us.
Our faith is like that too. Whatever God and our ancestors did was great, I’m sure. But what matters now is what God does with us. Sabbath is a foundational story. It’s a part of how God interacted with our ancestors. And now God wants us to be a part of that story too.
This re-telling of the 10 Commandments is inviting the Hebrew people, descendants of the Exodus, to claim and own their story.
I wonder if we’ve claimed the story of Sabbath in our lives. Yes, we take a week off from Sunday worship each month with our Sabbath Saturday night. We talk about Sabbath. But how many of you practice Sabbath, observe Sabbath?
You don’t need to confess anything right now.
How many of us really claim that time as a time of rest?
A difference between this recounting of the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy and the earlier one in Exodus is that in Exodus, the command to rest comes because God rested on the seventh day of creation. We’ll hear that passage next week.
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people: “Remember 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.”
As Rev. Kara Root, the pastor from whom I stole our Sabbath worship idea, writes: “The other commandments take the people out of slavery; the Sabbath command takes the slavery out of the people.”
In Sabbath, we are to remember that we once were slaves in Egypt and were delivered by God. We are not to treat other people as if they, too, are slaves, or are throw-away people who can work while we practice Sabbath. To participate in Sabbath is to not participate in an economy that sees the work of other people as less important than our own. Practicing the Sabbath is practicing a new way of community, where everyone gets the benefits.
Observing Sabbath makes the theological claim that we are not defined by the work we do, which is often how we define ourselves. Observing Sabbath by being obedient to God— and not to Pharaoh, or Caesar, or any national leader or government— is ultimately where we find most freedom. Without obedience to Sabbath, we are in slave to other agendas, and kept from freedom.
I confess that too often, when people ask me how I am, my easy answer is “busy”. It’s not a wrong answer. I am often busy. But it is also not the only answer I could give. I’m not always busy. I take time, each week, to not work. I binge watch tv shows with my family. I read lots of books. I journal. I sit and watch my cats, curled up in sunbeams, clearly in control of a life of sabbath rest. There are plenty of moments in my life when I’m not busy. Why do I answer as I do? Why do I wear my busy-ness a badge of honor for a game I don’t really want to win?
I confess that too often, I may ask someone I care about, “what did you do today?”, rather than “how are you today?”. I don’t really care about their productivity, nor do I need a list of what they accomplished since breakfast. I want to know how they are doing, how it is with their soul. Why do I ask about their productivity?
“While we seek meaning from our lives, forces around us seek to shape how we find that meaning. 24/7 connectivity in our pockets ensures we’re saturated with messages that strip us of our freedom and humanity, and suck us into relentless comparison and division, ranking and judging, striving and measuring. With social media, texting, email and phones ever at the ready, we’re justified in acting as though the world can’t run without us; (the average American checks their phones 80 times a day while on vacation).
80 TIMES A DAY. ON VACATION.
Let’s not even ask how bad it is when we’re not on vacation.
I wrote this sermon before I left on vacation, and so I was mindful to watch how I used my phone while I was supposed to be at rest.
In some ways, technology offers a sense of freedom. I can take your calls without being chained to my desk and the church phone. I can write sermons in coffee shops, or soccer games, or wherever else. But some days it controls me more than I control it. It doesn’t always feel like freedom.
On vacation, when you’re away from the office, and not sitting at home, thinking about the closets you were going to organize or the laundry that needs to be folded, it’s easier, perhaps, to observe Sabbath, assuming you can untether yourself from a phone, (if that’s your challenge too).
You may not be enslaved by technology. But I invite you to observe where you face your challenges. Your work. Your need to please others at the expense of your own health. Your exercise routine. Your fear. Observe your behavior as you observe Sabbath.
But to practice Sabbath every week, not just when you’re in the Grand Canyon on vacation, but when the laundry is sitting there in front of you waiting to be folded—that’s practicing a theological claim that you are more than the work you do (or need to do).
There are numerous studies that show that children learn better in school when they get breaks for recess and PE. Physical development and coordination improves. Academic learning improves. Social skills improve. And it’s fun.
Taking a break from continuous work increases concentration, creativity, and productivity. Also, it’s more fun. We see it for kids. Why do we forget it as adults?
When I’m stuck on a sermon or something I’m working on, if I stay at it, and try to power through, it might get worked out. Maybe. But if I walk away from it and go for a walk, or read a book, or make an omelette, it’s more likely to solve itself when I come back, and more creatively.
Talking about rest and play is also a function of privilege. Many people can’t afford not to work, can’t afford vacation. And that’s a Sabbath observance too—to work for a world where everyone has the ability to stop their labor. It’s written into the Sabbath command: “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.”
As we observe our Sabbath, we also observe the ways the world is not just, and is keeping people from the freedom to observe Sabbath. And so we observe our Sabbath one day a week so we can more creatively work the rest of the week to create a world that more closely reflects God’s intention for it.
Abraham Heschel has written this of Sabbath:
There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.
And more than surpassing civilization, I would add that we help civilization surpass itself.
Another change in the Deuteronomic version of the 10 Commandments is that in Exodus, we are instructed to Remember Sabbath. In this passage, we’re instructed to Observe Sabbath. We remember the past, our story that brought us out of Egypt and into freedom. We observe our participation in that story, we observe the world around us, and we seek to build a world where others can join us in the freedom of Sabbath obedience.
Listen again to the short passage from Matthew we heard earlier:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This passage is set between a difficult teaching of Jesus in chapter 11, and a story about Sabbath in chapter 12, where Jesus and his disciples were hungry, and while walking through a field on the Sabbath, they plucked some grain to eat. He then heals a man on the Sabbath. The religious leaders, always looking for ways to silence Jesus, called him on his Sabbath violation.
Jesus’ observance of Sabbath, which was at odds with some in his community, is tied to the passage we heard. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
People who are hungry, people who need healing, are people in need of rest. If our observance of Sabbath forgets the people around us, it is not very observant. Sabbath is about our rest, and about rest for our neighbors. Sabbath that doesn’t observe the needs of people around us because it cares more about observing rules—Jesus would tell us it’s not much of a Sabbath.
When I yammer on about the importance of Sabbath, it isn’t because it’s a rule we must follow. Sabbath is a gift we get to observe.
So this week, observe. Observe where the world is calling, crying, and begging for you to offer food, healing, and freedom. Observe when you need rest because your burdens are heavy and your soul needs rest. And then return to your work, restored and renewed to create a more just world. Amen