A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Prop 4-Ord 9; June 3, 2018
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 81:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
Sabbath keeping is a mindset, a perspective. Sabbath keeping is a way of life that shapes one’s attitude and outlook and approach.
No wonder the Hebrew people wandered for nearly two generations before settling in the Promised Land. The only life they knew was endless toil. Whether you read the commandments in Exodus or Deuteronomy, the commandment to keep sabbath and rest is the longest of all the commandments and the only one with an explanation. Little wonder.
The Hebrews spent generations enslaved in Egypt, generations making brick, stacking brick, building with brick in all kinds of weather. They spent generations being treated as nothing more than beasts of burden, their bodies merely a means to an end – their bodies’ conduits for Egyptian wealth and power. Generations of enslavement had become part of their DNA; it would take generations to purge their DNA of forced labor, and to learn and embrace rest. It would take generations to cultivate a new communal perspective, to get out from under the lie of “Egypt first”.
Pharaoh’s “Egypt first” policy commodified bodies – the bodies of the many for the express benefit of the few. The Hebrew people’s only value was in the labor they provided, or the ability to procreate more laborers, thus bringing wealth, status, and power to the Egyptians.
Because an “Egypt first” mentality foments endless desire, endless productivity, endless restlessness to attain more, an “Egypt first” policy does not allow for rest. An “Egypt first” mindset drives perpetual backbreaking labor of those deemed unworthy to participate in society, whose only worth was measured in the ways they provided the ruling classes with more.
Pharaoh’s “Egypt first” policy segregated society along ethnic lines between the “haves” (the Egyptians) and the “have-nots” (the Hebrews). “Egypt first” was a racist policy.
Then God liberated the Hebrew people from their enslavement and commanded, among other things, rest – communal rest. The people were commanded to rest along with their children, livestock, their own servants, and even the strangers and immigrants among them. God didn’t tell the people to rest in shifts, or that only one group or class of folks was worthy of rest. No. Rest is not a privilege reserved for the few. Sabbath keeping is a holy obligation, a holy right to which all of creation is entitled.
A sabbath perspective then is the recognition of the full humanity and equal worth of each individual. A sabbath perspective yearns for and works toward the common good. Living a sabbath perspective is the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. In other words, living a sabbath perspective ensures liberation and freedom from oppressive policies that commodify bodies. Living a sabbath perspective ensures the conditions for societal flourishing. Jefferson’s eighteenth century understanding of “the pursuit of happiness” is a communal understanding – I can only be happy when the conditions are set that ensure your well-being and flourishing. I can only flourish as much as my neighbor is able to flourish. Societal flourishing rests in each person’s welfare and well-being … A sabbath perspective is but one way we enact the command to love.
Keeping sabbath is not simply a nap or a vacation or relaxation for our personal fulfillment. It is deep rejuvenation essential for the common good for humanity and for all of creation.
Sabbath keeping exposes the lie of “Egypt first”, of consumerism, of the glorification of busy, of work until you drop, of material wealth at all costs. Living a sabbath perspective makes us aware of others, especially those who are most vulnerable and most exploited by the systems of greed and power-over. A society that truly keeps sabbath is one that cannot and does not overlook those whose lives are threatened daily, those who are stripped of their sacred worth and dignity, those whose value is measured in purely economic terms of productivity for the benefit of others. A society that keeps sabbath, keeps sabbath together and therefor does not require some to work while others rest.
Keeping sabbath, upholding and defending the holy right to rest from one’s labors, prevents our own exhaustion and defends against the exploitation of others. Sabbath keeping is liberation from enslavement and deliverance from dehumanization.
A societal sabbath perspective would also illuminate the ways in which we exploit creation, working it to death.
God rested on the seventh day after creating, not so creation would cease, but that after resting creation could continue and flourish. God liberated the people from slavery and commanded that they rest, not so they would be unproductive or perish, but that they would survive, thrive, flourish, and become a light to all nations.
As I mentioned earlier, sabbath keeping is not a quick nap or a long over-due family vacation. It is a way of life. Sabbath keeping is an enactment of God’s Love. Sabbath keeping is a call to and an act of resistance. An “Egypt first” policy asserts that some are not worthy of a living wage and are sentenced to a life of subsistence living that requires three jobs, no days off, and constant worry. An “Egypt first” policy sees creation as a commodity for the use of humans for the sole benefit of making a profit by plundering and poisoning the land and water, and decimating species. An “Egypt first” policy draws the line between those who are worthy and those who are not, those who have access to wealth and goods and health care and those whose existence is to provide that wealth at the expense of their own lives. “Egypt first” denies God’s grace, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy.
“Egypt first” is antithetical to Jesus’ declaration of abundant life. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that those who rest together are equipped to resist together – to love neighbor and to defend their sacred worth before Egypt.
So, how do we keep sabbath in this frenetic, consumer driven world of constant access and twenty-four news cycle?
Might I be so bold as to suggest that one day a week we refrain from – fast so to speak – a consumerist society and mindset? Fast from consumerism: opt out of shopping; do not engage with technology. All those social media platforms, news sites, and apps are all vehicles of commodification – and we are the ones being commodified, with our information bought and sold for the express purpose of trying to manipulate and sell us something. And while we rest from consumerism, let us be aware of those who do not have the luxury of refraining; let us be mindful that while we rest, we are not creating work for someone else.
While we keep sabbath, we also remember. We remember that we serve God and not Egypt. We serve a God who commands sabbath. We serve a God who is neither obsessed nor preoccupied with being first or wealthy. Indeed, we serve a God who incarnates as a peasant and servant of all, who forgives flagrantly, who taught that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, who was tortured and executed for preaching against “Rome first”. We serve a God who, in Christ, conquered “Egypt first” and “Rome first” through persistent Love and in whose death and resurrection shows us a love stronger than the fear Egypt can wield and more powerful than the hate Egypt can foment.
Keep sabbath. Be rejuvenated for the resistance; be rejuvenated to advocate for and bring sabbath rest to all people.
Blessed be God forever.