Why Keep Sabbath? Week Four: Because Community Matters

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
July 23, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Isaiah 56:1-8

Our scripture reading for today is coming to us from the words of the prophet Isaiah.  However, before we hear them, I'd like to take a few minutes to give some background leading up to them.  I think, unless we back up a bit, we might not fully appreciate the significance of what God is doing through Isaiah.  I also want to say up front that I relied on Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann to help me understand this myself. Some of what I'm teaching today was learned directly from his book, Sabbath as Resistance, and I hope that I can offer it in a way that is helpful.   

So, let's get started. This is week four of a five-part sermon series, Why Keep Sabbath? Thus far, the series has been rooted in the story of the Exodus where Moses brings the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt - out from under Pharaoh's domination and away from the production-driven economic system of Egypt. Keep in mind that prior to the Exodus, the Hebrew slaves were really just a bunch of outcasts whom the Egyptians scorned and treated like objects...they had no notable identity.  They were, in the words of scripture, NOT a people.  That is, until Moses led them to Mt. Sinai where they encountered God, and became God's people.

You may also recall that God provided commandments and laws by which God's people would function, interact, and live in relationship to God and to each other.  These ordinances, laws, commandments - whatever we want to call them - became identity markers for the people of God.  Those who obeyed and lived by them were identified as the people of the covenant-making, Sabbath-rest-taking, one and only God.

Once this covenant identity was proclaimed, it wasn't long until Israel began the process of setting up the boundaries of membership...defining the requirements, if you will, in order to be the people of God.  More specifically, they wanted to develop membership criteria that could be passed along to future generations in order to define who was in and who was out of the community of God's people. 

Now, in the Torah, which is the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible, there are two main interpretative traditions which define the identity of God's people.  The first is the great Priestly tradition of holiness found in Leviticus.  This tradition calls Israel to be a holy people as summarized in Leviticus 19:2, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

For those who are willing to read through the book of Leviticus, you will find that it is packed full of holiness code and a call to religious purity.  The people of God are warned that they are to stay clear of anything and everything that is profane, worldly, or common.  The idea was that if the Israelites were exposed to this kind of thing they would become contaminated and God would leave them.  So the entire book goes into great detail to provide guidelines for every aspect of life in order to make sure the Israelites remain pure.  In a sense, this tradition provides a firm hedge of purity designed to keep the Israelites in and all others out.  Anyone who did not meet this holiness code was excluded and believed to be dangerous to the community.

The second tradition, which is found in Deuteronomy, adds a different perspective.  It places an emphasis on questions of justice...implying that the people of God are those who seek justice.  Throughout Deuteronomy, there is an ongoing preoccupation with taking care of the vulnerable who need protection in the community - the poor, the widows and orphans, and the immigrants.  In this tradition, the instruction from God sounds something like this: "You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.  Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue so you may live and occupy the land the Lord your God is giving you."   (Deut. 16:19-20)  Yes, there is still an element of purity code in Deuteronomy, but justice must be the concern of God's people too.

Deuteronomy also includes lists of exclusions...specific people who, due to physical attributes, inability to procreate, or from certain tribes and areas were not to be included in the membership.   In addition, Moses also gave a list of reasons for which one would be excommunicated, or as the Hebrew word translates, purged from the community.  Keep in mind that for the ancient Israelites, as well as the first century Jews, community was EVERYTHING to them.  To be banished from the community was one of the harshest punishments that could be carried out.  Therefore, it was the go-to consequence for those whose behaviors and choices were believed to be putting the community at risk. 

So all of these laws and statements became a border wall if you will...intended to protect the people from anyone or anything that might tarnish or harm the community.  For a long time, this fence held tight, with the insiders enforcing the boundaries among themselves. That is, until the Israelites were eventually invaded and dispersed into exile by the Babylonians.    

We won't go into that part of their history, but as you might imagine, when the people were separated from their community, these unique identifiers to which they had clung became more difficult to uphold and reflect.  Not to mention, over the generations, it's quite likely that in some ways the Israelites became indistinguishable from the very people into which they had been disbanded. 

OK, NOW...this is where the reading from Isaiah picks up - just as the exile is ending and the Israelites are straggling back to together. In many ways, at this point they were like their Hebrew ancestors coming out of Egypt...a mixed bag of people..some of whom had been deported during the Exile, some who had not.  Some who had cooperated with the imperial authorities and some who had not.  Some...a very few...who would remember life before the Exile,  and many who did not.  So, as they started to regroup and re-form themselves as a community of God's people, Isaiah's job was to teach them, once again, who was in and who was out.

So listen to what God says through the prophet Isaiah:   READ  Isaiah 56:1-8

A radically different criteria, huh?   Yes, justice and righteousness are still in there...but they are specifically tied to Sabbath-keeping.  In addition, God just pretty much took the fence that had been built by those exclusions in Deuteronomy and widened it to a radius beyond their wildest imagination.   In Direct contradiction to the statements from Moses, Isaiah intentionally includes the sexually compromised eunuchs and the foreigners...not just some, but any and all foreigners...in the community...just as long as they kept the Sabbath!

Folks, this is a huge deal.  The main marker of the community of God was no longer based on lineage, physical markers, ability to procreate, purity laws or nationality.  Membership in the community was based on whether the people were faithful to the Sabbath. And not just the Sabbath as a certain day of the week...but faithful to the intention of Sabbath...the intention of rest...the intention of worship...the intention of resistance to the production/commodity mindset that had ruled Egypt and continues to be prevalent in our society even today.

Yes, I am well aware that the word "resistance" carries some political baggage right now...and I know that to say God encouraged his people to be resistors could cause some folks to be uncomfortable.  But here is the thing, Sabbath-keeping by its ancient definition and intention is about resisting the ways of the world. It is about saying no to the competitive, dog-eat-dog, hierarchical, bigger is better, he who has the most wins mindset that our society and western culture portrays as the American dream.

So yes, it is a form of resistance. To keep Sabbath is a way of saying no...and, according to this passage -that very same resistance is also a marker of God's people.  It is not to say that holiness and righteousness became unimportant...but they were no longer the entire picture.   Refusing to be sucked into the worldly ways...refusing to measure worth by wealth...refusing to serve two masters...was also part of the picture.  Honoring the Sabbath intention was, and still is, an essential part of being God's people. 

Sabbath-keeping also became, and remains, an equalizer in the community. It is the only community membership condition God requires in Isaiah...and God seems to be saying that anyone and everyone can observe Sabbath if they choose.  There are no fences around it.   Eunuchs can observe Sabbath.  Foreigners can observe Sabbath.  Rich, poor...educated, uneducated...all can observe Sabbath. The working or the unemployed.  People of all races and nationalities.  People of all skin colors.  Old, young.  Straight or gay.  We all are capable of and invited to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  We are all called to resist the worldly priority of produce, produce, produce in order to be of value.  We can all bear the markers of the people of God without condition or exclusion.  

None of these different social attributes I just define us as God's people...nor do they exclude us either.  That was, I believe, Isaiah's point.  The identifier of the community of God's people is whether we are people of Sabbath-intent...either we are seekers of justice, bearers of compassion, people of mercy...or we are not. 

And, folks, if Isaiah's words are not enough for you...if you don't want to rely on the Old Testament prophets, then go ahead and fast-forward a few hundred years and read through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount...listen to Jesus preaching...he calls for this same kind of inclusion among his followers...read the parables of the Prodigal...the Good Samaritan...the Workers in the Vineyard.   Over and again, Jesus lifts up these same kind of identity markers...where there is righteousness...and justice...and welcome...where Sabbath-intention prevails...where there is compassion for the poor...food for the hungry...care for the sick...visits to those in prison...where the faithful follow...where the broken are healed...these are markers of God's community. 

Notice, though, what is NOT there.  There's not a single mention that the community is where the people are taken to task...or manipulated...or driven by a need to prove themselves...or excluded based on some characteristic of human sexuality.  There is no mention that the accumulation of wealth or the exertion of power will admit you to the community...and nowhere does Jesus ever, ever say that the community of God is in a rat race toward some societal definition of success.   No folks, life is not a race and the people of God are not rats.

So what is it that identifies God's people?  All the things these things that Isaiah told...all the things Jesus modeled and taught.  What it does not look like is Pharaoh's Egypt.  

One of the most important statements about how to detect God's community comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his letter to the Galatians he describes the community as those who live by the Spirit of God. He says those whose lives reveal the fruit of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are the people of God.   When we live by the Spirit...these are the things the world will see in our lives...and these are the markers that say to the world that we belong to God.   

We are not identified as God's own because of what we eat or don't eat, not by male or female, not Jew or Gentile.  It's not a matter of ancestry, or our religious purity, or some other factor of accomplishment. We are recognized as the people of the Sabbath-keeping, Sabbath-giving, Sabbath-commanding God's just by how we live and how we love. 

 In other words folks,  the same things that marked God's people all those thousands of years ago, still define us now.  How we live and interact with each other is still the identifier of who is in and who is out of the community.  The difference though is that through Christ and by the grace of God, all have been given access to the Spirit of God to mark us and to bear all this good fruit from within us.   No walls  No conditions. No exclusions.

We aren't relying on a list of laws or any other kind of fence to say...only these kind of people, doing these kind of things belong to God.  In fact,  I believe we are limiting God's grace if we start building fences based on specific doctrines, attributes or criteria that are not related to living a spirit filled life.  No, the good news of our faith is that through Christ we have been adopted into the family of God...we are God's people...we are part of his community.   And the single marker that identifies us as such is God's Holy Spirit at work within us...shaping us and producing fruit.

So what has all this got to do with 21st century Sabbath-keeping?   Well, folks, the reality is that it's is not possible to live a spirit-filled life if we are not also Sabbath-keepers. We cannot have one without the other.  Maybe for a while, but eventually, without the rest and resistance of Sabbath, we are soon given over to the ways of the world, or as Paul calls them...the ways of the flesh, not the Spirit.   Without Sabbath, we start living in a way that looks a lot like a slave in Egypt...and there's no fruit in that.

I mean think about it.

We won't be loving or kind or compassionate if we view everyone as our competition.

We won't be generous if we believe we need to have more for ourselves.

We won't have time to be joyful or know peace if we are busy running the rat race.

We won't be patient if we're tired.

We won't be merciful if we feel that everything depends on us.

We won't be faithful if we our priorities are divided.

You get the picture.

Friends, Sabbath-keeping and Spirit-led living go hand  in hand.  Together, they not only indicate our membership in the community of God, they expand the kingdom of God and welcome others into it.  When we honor Sabbath, we steel ourselves against temptations such as anger, envy and competition that bear sour grapes and destroy community.  Sabbath allows us, instead, to embrace the good fruits - such as life and joy, praise and peace...which are the fruits of God's community...today and always.  Amen.

Let us now enter a spirit of Sabbath reflection as our own Meghan Farris offers us a special music about the community of God, With One Voice.