A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
Aug 25, 2019
As I mentioned last week, in one of the versions of the Ten Commandment stories, we’re instructed to Observe Sabbath because God rescued us from slavery in Egypt. Sabbath becomes a political statement against slavery, and against economies that force people to work so others can rest.
In the other telling, in Exodus, we are told to Remember the Sabbath because God created the world in six days and on the seventh, God rested.
If you’ve grown up hearing the Ten Commandments, or are familiar with this account of creation from Genesis, it may not seem like a big deal to say that God rested.
So let’s pause for a second.
It’s a big deal. It’s counter intuitive.
We talk about God being all knowing, all powerful, all present. We speak of God creating the entire universe, and the honey bee, and the blue whale, and Beyonce. For God to rest, though, is to say that God stopped. God stopped working. God stopped creating. God stopped.
The idea that God would step away from all that, to rest, to enjoy what God had already made—that’s scandalous. And yet it’s scriptural.
We now live in a world when things don’t stop. Grocery stores are open 24 hours a day. If brick and mortar stores close, we can shop online 24 hours a day. We can watch anything we want on TV, 24 hours a day. Because of technology, we can work from home, 24 hours a day. (It is possible this sermon was not written while I was sitting at my desk at church, but was written not during office hours at home.)
And when places do close, like we used to expect businesses to do, have you noticed how frustrated we now get?
If you call a customer service number and the message says to call back during office hours—how do you respond? I get a little twitchy.
If you *need* a particular food item late in the evening, but the restaurant/store is closed—admit it, we feel put out, inconvenienced. We like 24/7. When it’s convenient for us.
It’s not convenient for the workers, perhaps, who have to be there for our out of hours whims. And I know a job is a job, but one of the lessons of Sabbath is that everyone, every single one, is worthy and deserving of rest. Our economy doesn’t value that, but God does.
God stops divine work. And God calls us to follow suit.
That’s a contrast to Pharaoh, from whom the Hebrew people were delivered out of slavery. Pharaoh had lots of leisure in the palace, while he forced others to work on his behalf. That’s not how God behaves.
God calls us to rest as God rests.
Many of us may have issues with the politics of Chik fil A, but because of the owner’s faith beliefs, he honors the Sabbath, and each store is closed on Sundays. It is a rare illustration of a company that is putting their faith ahead of profits. And while I wish his homophobia didn’t taste so chicken fried delicious, I respect the way he observes Sabbath, and allows his employees to do the same.
Sabbath rest is not about convenience, maximizing profit. And companies that choose to structure themselves for Sabbath voluntarily are different than forcing companies to observe Sabbath.
Many of you remember ‘blue laws’, which took Sabbath and codified it into law, prohibiting people, whether they observed Christian Sabbath or not, from purchasing certain things on Sundays. Many stores still remain closed on Sunday, even as most blue laws have been repealed. Constantine passed the first of these in 321.
“On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.”
— Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3
In the US and Canada, these laws could be strict, and people were arrested for keeping stores open, or drinking, or traveling. This history reminds me that in the US, we have a long tradition of making one strand of Christian practice and tradition into law that everyone has to observe, in a country that has never been entirely Christian. Jewish people have been observing Sabbath far longer than we have, but their Sabbath is on Saturday, and the US never expected everyone to observe the Jewish Sabbath.
Some good things came out of those laws. The postal service hasn’t delivered mail on Sundays because of them, giving postal employees a day off. Government offices are not open 7 days a week, largely because of those laws. It is good for workers to get rest from their toil.
God gave us the invitation to rest at the beginning of creation. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
And then God felt Sabbath was important enough that it made the Ten Commandments. While people, throughout history, have tried to turn Sabbath into an enforceable law, God keeps trying to make it about joyful living.
The passage we heard from John’s gospel doesn’t mention Sabbath, but it does say this:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Keeping commandments is not to get the rules right, or to force others to get the rules the way you think they should be. Keeping commandments is about abiding in love.
When we abide in love, God’s joy is made complete in us.
Blue laws were on the way out when I was a kid, but it is hard to see abiding in love, or God’s joy complete in laws that punished people for driving their buggy to church on Sunday.
Rather, the stories of regular Sunday dinners, where family and friends would gather together around a meal, letting the concerns of work wait until tomorrow—those are the Sabbath stories that make me think of abiding in love.
We serve a God who not only rested, but who didn’t put an enforcement clause into the commandment that calls us to rest. God’s call for us to rest is invitational, it’s relational, it is about abiding in love and completing our joy.
We can’t force or compel people to abide in love. We can’t put people in jail for not making God’s joy complete. It reminds me of a parenting moment that I trust we’ve all experienced in some form or another. The parents have planned for a great day of good family fun. But things don’t go as planned. The amusement park is crowded and hot, the kids are grouchy and tired and want to go home, and you hear the parent cry out “WE’RE HAVING FUN! STOP YOUR CRYING!”
That never worked well as a parenting strategy for me. Sometimes you need to set aside your plans and go take a nap. (The kids can nap too, if they want).
God shows us how to do Sabbath because God is invitational. While we will never be perfect as God is perfect, we can seek to imitate God.
And if God could stop working one day a week, who are we to think that we cannot?
If Jesus told us to keep the commandments so we can abide in God’s love, who are we to think punitive laws and enforcement are better for bringing people to love and joy?
This week I invite you to take up God’s invitation to abide in love. If love is the place we live, perhaps we’ll better catch the rhythm of life, where work has an important place, and rest does too. Where productivity is strengthened because sometimes productivity ceases. Where abiding in love makes us want to give people the rest God wants for us all, but without forcing others to do what we feel they must do.