Why Keep Sabbath? Week Three: Because Prosperity Breeds Amnesia

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
July 16, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Deuteronomy 5:1-14

Friday my daughter and I decided to visit my parents in my hometown of Madison. Usually, it is a two-hour trip along a route that I've driven more times than I can count.   However, this week, we were forced to take a detour because there is a bridge out on State Road 7.  

Since I grew up in southern Indiana, I wasn't too worried about the detour...not to mention I had my handy-dandy map app.  That is until about mid-way through the detour when it occurred to me that given the some of the remote areas we were traveling through, there was a real possibility I could lose my cell signal...which, of course, would wreak havoc on the map app.  

Well, it turns out that the neither the detour nor the cell signal were the biggest problem on this trip. The real issue for me was the GIGANTIC and I mean GI-GAN-TIC 5th wheel camper that joined us on the detour.  Did I mention they were in front of us...going well under the speed limit and blocking my view for more than 30 miles of country roads?

It was frustrating and, a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least.  As we made our way down this unfamiliar, winding road, it bothered me to not be able to see what was up ahead.  I couldn't tell if we were going to encounter a curve, a hill, a tractor or a random stop sign.   I had to just drive the speed that the camper driver set for us...and follow along...into the great unknown. By the way did  I already mention that they were going well below the speed limit?

It was a real test of patience...not to mention a challenge to my need to be in control.

OK, so it was just for 30 miles.  And, most of us can surely survive not being able to see around a slow-moving motor home for awhile...even one going well below the speed limit.  

Still, I've come to believe that this idea of not knowing what's ahead...and learning to be OK with not knowing what is ahead...may  be one of the greatest challenges of being fully human.  We would much rather know...see...and control.

Let's face it, no one enjoys the feeling of vulnerability and helplessness that we experience when we lack control in our lives.  Yet, according to contemplative priest Richard Rohr, this is where we experience spiritual transformation.   He writes:  The spiritual journey is a journey into Mystery, requiring us to enter the "cloud of unknowing" where the left brain always fears to tread.  Precisely because we're being led into Mystery, we have to let go of our need to know and our need to keep everything under control." 

It sounds lovely in theory, right?  Think how much we would grow in our spirituality if we would just surrender to the unknowing.   However, the reality is...for most of us that is not our natural tendency.  Our internal tolerance for uncertainty is pretty low and we will usually do whatever it takes to resolve and have clarity - even if it means we are choosing the security of the known over a deeper encounter with God grace.

Turns out we are much more like the Israelites that we probably care to admit. 

We've covered some of their story these past two weeks, but for anyone who has missed, here is a quick refresher. The Israelite were slaves in Egypt. God heard their cries of suffering under Pharaoh's oppression and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery.  They ended up in the wilderness and where they were forced to depend on God who was merciful and compassionate -- everything Pharaoh was not.   

And although God was faithful in provision, the Israelites repeatedly experienced collective memory lapse about life in Egypt.  Like they time accused  Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die.  They were complaining about being hungry said they would rather go back to Egypt, because at least there they ate all the food they wanted including huge pots of meat.   Seriously...talk about selective memory.  They were slaves, folks.  They were not fed all they wanted, much less meat.   Still, for them, it was better to live in the misery they already knew than a future they did not.  I know it sounds ludicrous to our ears, but I'm telling you, a whole lot of folks still live by that philosophy, even if unintentionally.  They are just that afraid of a different future.

As for the Israelites, eventually, despite all their complaining and whining, they arrived at Mt. Sinai where God offered to be their God and have them be his people.  God spoke some clarify instructions about how to live and they promised: "Everything the Lord has said we will do."   Lots of comfort and certainty there...no cloud of unknowing.

All is well and good...until....Moses goes up on the mountain and leaves them to follow Aaron's leadership for 40 days.  Remember that part of the story?  While Moses is on the mountain with God, the people start to get agitated.  They  couldn't see Moses or hear God.  Too much uncertainty...for too many days in a row.  Anxiety sets in and they start asking among themselves, "Is he ever coming back? Are we going to be stuck here not knowing what to expect?"

The next thing you know they are collecting all their gold jewelry to melt into an idol to represent the God they could not see.   They even went as far, with Aaron's cooperation I might add, to create an altar and bring sacrifices.   The perplexing, yet so very relatable, thing about this action is that this was not a different, false god they were worshipping...at least they did not intend it to be.  The idol was their very "human" effort to take some control of an uncertain situation.

The Israelites wanted to create  something to represent the God that had brought them out of Egypt, especially since he was a god they could not see, touch or hear for themselves.  Simply put, they were uncomfortable with the ambiguity of not being able to see what was up ahead, around the bend.   So, they did what humans continue to do even today...they tried to pass on a double yellow line.  No wait, that's drivers behind motor homes.  Wrong story.  The Israelites tried to purchase certainty.

Oh, but we do that too.  We accumulate in order to try to create certainty...and ease the anxiety of not knowing. We take matters into our own hands...and we regularly revert back to the ways and teachings of the world, not those of our faith.   We prefer to settle for that which we know rather than live through that which challenges us and makes us feel vulnerable - but also brings us closer to God.  

With their golden calf, the Israelites returned to what they had always known...using visible idols to represent the divine.   In other words, they tried to resolve the mystery of God rather than embrace it. 

Of course this lack of trust upset Moses and God.  As a result Moses smashes the tablets in anger; and momentarily, God withdraws his covenant with his people. 

Thanks be to God, the story doesn't end there.  After much pleading from Moses, God shows mercy to the Israelites.  He makes yet another covenant with them and proceeds to give new instructions.  Interestingly enough, the only overlap between the first conversation that God had with Moses and the follow-up, post-tablet smashing conversation, is the commandment regarding Sabbath.   Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest. (Exodus 34:21)

Once again, Sabbath-keeping takes center stage in God's instructions to his people.  God is adamant that it is an instrumental part of being his people.   In fact, at least 15 times in the book of Exodus, there is mention of Sabbath-keeping, as well as detailed regulations about how the Israelites were to honor the sacred time of rest and worship.   If you take time to read through Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you will see what I mean when I say that Sabbath is not just something God threw in at the last minute to round out the Commandments to an even number.  It serves a holy purpose...and from God's perspective, it is not negotiable.

Eventually, God calls Moses back up on the mountain and yet again, gives another set of the Ten Commandments.  As  a side note, guess which commandment has a new variation in it?   If you said, the fourth one...you would be right.  Here, God's reason for keeping Sabbath is not tied to the creation story but is now connected to the Exodus story. Sabbath was an occasion to remember the circumstances from which they had been freed, the journey that brought them to freedom, and the One who provided for them every step of the way.    

The rest of the book of Exodus is the process of Moses preparing the people to enter the Promised Land, which  brings us to today's reading from Deuteronomy.  In Hebrew means Deuteronomy means "these are the words"...and in ancient Greek, it translates "second law".   In short, Moses offers these words as a second reminder of what it means to be God's people - beginning with the Ten Commandments...again.

You see, Moses is fully aware that the Israelites are about to enter into the land of milk and honey...a place of abundance. The pendulum was about to swing from a completely vulnerable, utter dependence on God in the wilderness mindset...to the Promised Land...a fertile, abundant, needs are met, all this and more kind of place.  It was sort of like going from behind the motor home on a country to road to cruising the highway in Corvette.  This time, it wasn't going to be uncertainty that would cause the Israelites to doubt or forget God's expectations.  It was the abundance.  When it comes to our  ability to remember God's faithfulness - times of uncertainty and times of prosperity are just two sides of the same coin.  

You see, as scholar Walter Brueggemann says, "prosperity breeds amnesia".   The more we have the more we forget what it was like to not have...and the less we remember about how we got it.    Moses was concerned, rightly so, that it would only be a matter of time before the Israelites experienced amnesia about God, again.  He worried that they would no longer remember the circumstances of their enslavement in Egypt or how they came to be free.  They could be tempted to return to the Egyptian view that abundance is a commodity to be accumulated, rather than understanding it as a blessing from God.  And, they might even begin to believe that they had somehow accomplished this great thing on their own.

Sabbath was meant to remind them.  Sabbath is meant to remind us.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that all that we are, all that we have, all that we will ever be is but by the grace of God.  Theologically we know this, but in reality, we cling to the idea that our accomplishments are our own.  We maintain that we are the ones who worked hard.  We obtained the financial success.  We have achieved the goals.  No one else did it for us.  And, the more secure we feel in these things, the less acknowledge God's part in them...and the more like Pharaoh we become.

 In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that there was ever a time of scarcity.  We just assume that there will always be more available.  We greedily consume without regard for others.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget that we were ever broken...hurting...or in need...and as result we become less compassionate toward those who are.

In times of prosperity it is all too tempting to forget what it  means to be God's people.

Sabbath was meant to remind the Israelites.  Sabbath is meant to remind us.

Be it for a weekly worship service, an entire Sunday, or just a block of time during the week as we are able to find it - we enter into Sabbath in order to remember the exact same thing that Moses wanted the Israelites to remember - who we are and whose we are. 

We are called to remember that all we have been given...the freedom...the hope...the salvation....the welcome...the grace...the faith community...the life...all these things are ours only because of the One willing to dwell among us in order to reveal them to us.

The symbols of our worship...the font...the table...the cross...they are the sacred visual reminders of the stories of our faith.   But it is our time with God...the holy moments of praise and gratitude...the quiet prayer and reflection...the living and loving the way Jesus did...these are the Sabbath times that let our hearts remember and our lives be transformed.

Friends, Sabbath is the cure for amnesia.   It helps us remember that once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God.  Once we had not received mercy,  but now we have received mercy through Christ our Lord.

Sabbath reminds us that we are created in God's image...that we have value and purpose and unlimited potential for good.

Sabbath is for remembering that are no longer slaves to sin.  Remembering that we are forgiven and loved and treasured.

Sabbath reminds us that we that we do not need to go back to Egypt - or the modern-day version of it - ever.

It helps us remember that uncertainty is not a bad thing. 

Sabbath is about remembering that we are not alone.  God is with us, even and especially, in the unknown.

Finally, Sabbath reminds us that, despite what the world would like us to believe, God's abundance of grace and mercy is not a commodity to be accumulated and counted...but is instead a gift to be shared.

May sharing be our holy intention this and every day.  Amen.