Why Keep Sabbath? Week One: Because Sabbath is a Gift From God

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
July 2, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Exodus 20:1-17

Earlier this week, a six foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments was placed on the grounds of the Arkansas state Capital building.  Less than twenty-four hours later, Michael Tate Reed rammed his car - a Dodge Dart, mind you - into the monument  in protest.  

Now, apparently, this is not the first time Mr. Reed has done this sort of thing.   Two years ago, he ran his vehicle into a similar, 4800 pound, monument erected in Oklahoma.   Interestingly enough, Mr. Reed is not an atheist.  In fact, he is a professing Christian.  He just takes issue with the placement of religious monuments on government properties. 

Personally, while I may share his concern, I do not approve of Mr. Reed's approach...for one thing violence and destruction is never the answer...and for another thing, a Dodge Dart against six feet of stone?  What was he thinking?  I'm just kidding...there is nothing about his destructive behavior that is appropriate. 

Sadly, the whole debate about the placement of Ten Commandment monuments on government property is spinning out of control nationwide; meanwhile, much of our country has lost sight of why they exist in the first place.  Our energy and focus is on displaying the commandments in stone, rather than living them in our lives. 

So, while this sermon series is not necessarily about The Ten Commandments, it does focus on one particular commandment that many Christians struggle to live well:  remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.   

At first glance it seems like a pretty straight-forward commandment, However, if we're honest with ourselves, we must admit that we have simplified this commandment to mostly mean "go to church on Sunday".  Perhaps we will even go as far as to add "slow down on Sunday afternoons" to the definition, but very few of us understand or practice Sabbath keeping in its deepest and most liberating sense.  We have forgotten why Sabbath keeping is so important that God included it in the original list of essentials for faithful living.  

So for the remaining Sundays in July, we're going to dig into scripture and try to answer the question, Why Keep Sabbath?  And hopefully along the way, we will also learn how to do it more faithfully.  

Now, let me just be upfront with you, I'm one of those American Christians who doesn't keep Sabbath well.  I know this about myself.  I can be very task-driven and there is a part of me that does not do "still and quiet" naturally.  There is a voice in my head, which has been there for decades, that tells me that to not be productive is to be lazy.  Where this warped belief came from is not important, but the fact it is there means it takes an intentional effort on my part to keep Sabbath - and lots of grace when I don't.  I suppose I want you to know this in order to dispel any illusion that somehow clergy are model Sabbath-keepers. Trust me, we struggle too. 

I also want to reassure you that this sermon series is not designed make anyone experience even more guilt about working hard...nor is it to make us feel inadequate in our spirituality.  And, folks, by all means, this is not about making Sabbath another thing on your to-do list.  "Doing" is never at the heart of Sabbath.  In fact, at the heart of Sabbath is freedom...freedom to not do and still be loved by God.

According to the scripture reading today, keeping Sabbath is a way to follow God's example of taking time away from creating and producing in order to rest. It also includes relinquishing the day-to-day routines of life for the sacred moments of gratitude and praise in worship of God. There's something very holy about slowing down and quieting ourselves in order to be open to God.  Not to mention, until we learn to honor the Sabbath - not as a day of the week, but as a way of life - we may never be able to keep the other commandments very well either.

Honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy is about uncluttering our lives -  of things, schedules, noise, expectations, whatever gets in the way -  in order to bring clarity about the nature of God, to experience the depth and fullness of God's love, and to live the life God intends for us as we love God and others.

To really appreciate Sabbath as a gift, rather than a must-do, we need to understand the context into which God proclaimed it as holy.  I mean, why do you suppose God put that commandment in the middle of the list?  We might come up with all sorts of reasons, but I think the short answer is so the Israelites would always take time to appreciate the story of their freedom. Sabbath rest was meant to be a reminder of what happened in the Exodus. 

I mean, notice how when God starts to list the commandments, the Exodus is the first thing he mentions.   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.  Clearly, there is a connection between God being their God and the Israelites being set free from slavery.   And, as we will see in a moment, the Sabbath was made sacred as way to capture the holy and exclusive relationship between God and his people.

First though, let's think back to the life of the Israelites before they were brought out of the land of Egypt. Remember how they were enslaved to the Egyptian rulers...and more specifically they were   forced into brick-making under Pharaoh?  They were part of a work system in which the demand to produce more, bigger, and better was insatiable.  Even now, as we look at some of the amazing structures in the region -- at least those that have not been destroyed - we see evidence of this mindset.  Production and amassed wealth was a measure of one's favor with the various Egyptian gods, who were, as Walter Brueggeman calls them, confiscatory gods, always demanding and taking more.

Now keep in mind that these were the gods that Pharaoh, who held the Israelites as slaves, worshipped. As such they were the kind of gods reflected in his own leadership and self- understanding.  In other words,  in order to appease the gods' demands, Pharaoh became like them - demanding.  A horrendous, hard-nosed, task-master for whom production schedules were inexhaustible and mercy was non-existent.

In fact, listen to some of Pharaoh's response when Moses and Aaron, ask him to let the Israelites observe a religious holiday. 

·         Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?

·         You want them to stop working! 

·         No longer give the people straw to make bricks; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.

·         Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.

To the people he says...

·         I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.

·         Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.

·         Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?

·         You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’

You get the picture...for Pharaoh, there are no fair labor laws, no living wages, no paid-time-off...no empathy, no grace, no mercy and certainly no concern for the people and their well being.  And as for the people under Pharaoh, there is no rest, no hope, no life...only the incessant demand for work, work and more work.

Ok, so most of haven't actually worked for Pharaoh, still, many of us have, at times, been caught up in a similar mindset, and not just in our jobs per se.  Maybe we have worked for a Pharaoh-like boss, but more often than not, we are our own worst task-master.  We live our lives to please others...we place unreasonable demands on ourselves.  Many of us regularly stress about having enough, being enough, knowing enough.  And after awhile, we can become as beaten down as a brick-making slave.

Thanks be to God, though, brick-making is not the end of the story. With God's guidance and provision Moses was, eventually, successful in getting God's people out of Egypt.  He led them to freedom...and into an whole new reality. 

You see, freedom for the Israelites was not just about being free from enslavement.

Freedom was not just about being free from Pharaoh or free from the demands he made upon their lives.

No, the freedom God gave the Israelites was freedom from the entire system and mindset of Egypt.  They were free of the need to produce in order to please some king, or god. Free from the wealth-driven hierarchy of value.  Free from the attitude of disregard for human dignity and lack of concern for the community's well-being.

The Israelites were no longer Pharaoh's slaves...instead they belonged to the God who brought them out of Egypt... the same God who created for six days and rested on the seventh. And this God wasn't asking for ego-driven production quotas of bricks or anything else...he only wanted their faithfulness.   This God gave and provided rather than consumed and demanded.  He offered them new life rather than working them to death.  This very different kind of God promised to be their God...and wanted them to be his people.  

The reason there is to be no other god for the Israelites isn't because God was insecure and needs to win a popularity contest...it is because there is no other god like God.  The God of the Israelites is revealed as a God of mercy, steadfast love, and faithfulness, who is committed to covenantal relationships. (Brueggeman, p 6) This God is interested in building relationships and community, not making bricks and monuments. 

And you know what, based on these commandments, this God insists that keeping Sabbath...resting...letting go of the production-mentality...leaving the work-work-work pace...is part of what makes relationships and community possible.  This is the gift of Sabbath and why it's an essential part of being the people of God.  It helps us stand strong against the other gods that tempt us even now, and it is conditions us for healthy relationships.

Friends, the biggest threat to the God of Christianity is not atheism or Islam or any other religion.  The biggest threat is that, despite the freedom Christ has offered us, we continually return to Egypt.  We are pressured and tempted, every single day, to believe in the message of the production quota, wealth gives meaning, keep up with the demands of others, bigger is better and more is best, kind of gods.  We buy their lies.

Now, please, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that work and accountability are not important to God.  Quite the opposite.  God expects us to work and  to produce and to create.  But God also expects us to rest and be grateful.  He makes it clear that no amount of production or work will ever define us...only God.

What I am saying though is this...when we neglect the Sabbath, when worship becomes a check-list - show up, sing the songs, listen to the message, give the offering and get to lunch, when our minds are making to-do lists rather than open to the Spirit...when there is not time in our week to rest...or to reflect...or to receive the gifts God offers...when there is no time to connect with those we love or to visit with our neighbors..when this describes our life, then whatever we are doing with our time is akin to brick-making - sometimes without straw.

Friends, when we do not keep Sabbath, we are not only wasting God's good gift to us, we are dishonor the God who gives it.  When we are too busy to rest with God, we are, by default, making something, or someone, maybe even ourselves, god.

Like I said, this isn't to make anyone feel guilty or to add something else to your plate.  It is about receiving the gift of Sabbath.  It's about learning to live a life that is free, which includes keeping Sabbath, despite what all the false gods of today want us to believe.  The ones that tell us we are not good enough...the ones that tell us that we need to have more money in the bank...or the latest gadget in our pocket....the ones that tell us that to play is to squander and to rest is to be lazy...and even the one that tells us we really need to check our watch, our phone, the news or Facebook right now.  All the gods that keep us so, so busy. 

Friends, those gods are not ours...and we are not theirs.   

Like the Israelites, we belong to God...the one and only sabbath-keeping, sabbath-giving, sabbath-commanding God there is.   To keep Sabbath is to trust in the gracious, merciful love of our God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, together, let us continuing practicing, even now.    Amen.