Come home to Calvary
Today we begin a sermon series on the rhythms of sabbath.
Rest is an important element to life, yet we often try to postpone it. We de-prioritize it. Yet it is written into the very code that makes our bodies work.
Find your pulse. Feel your heartbeat. After each beat, your heart rests. Take a deep breath. Exhale. After each breath, the lungs rest.
We cannot breathe, our hearts cannot function, we do not live, without those rests. Imagine trying to breathe in constantly without ever exhaling, ballooning up like a puffer fish. It’s absurd. Yet we often try to do that in our lives.
In his book, Sabbath, Wayne Muller writes:
“All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning. There is a rhythm in the active growth of spring and summer is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat. The lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale.
We have lost this essential rhythm. Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing.”
As we begin worship today, I invite you into a time of non-judgmental observation. Observe your thoughts and feelings, but don’t judge them. We can only change what we can see. And we can only see if we’re willing to acknowledge the truth of our lives. That is honest worship—to bring our whole selves to God and each other. That is honest community. All of who you are is always and already loved by God. You are welcome here.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Exodus 18:13-27
I had a disclaimer last WEEK and will start with another one this week. The Exodus story is about slavery, which means the 10 commandment tellings also use reference to slavery language, as does the rest of scripture. In much of scripture, the slavery described is still bad but very different from what our country practiced until the Civil War. In much of scripture, slavery was economic, and had an end period. In Egypt under Pharaoh, though, it was as bad as what we practiced here. An entire population was enslaved for generations. So I invite us to observe our language and to be careful with it.
It isn’t uncommon for people to say, “I’m a slave to my calendar.” Or to joke about being “a slave to fashion” or something like that.
I encourage us to not use that word casually. Being addicted to my cellphone is a problem, but it is not slavery. No matter the injustices we may have faced in our lives, we do not know what it is to be the property of another human being.
The story we heard this morning from Deuteronomy is from the second telling of the 10 Commandments. The first account is in the Book of Exodus. This account presumes you’ve already heard the first account. The Book of Deuteronomy is told from the perspective of Moses, a memoir, as it were. Although in Deuteronomy, Moses also describes his own death and burial, so consider it memoir as a literary device.
Here, a few verses earlier, Moses tells the people:
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”
And then he re-tells the 10 commandments, from which the instruction about Sabbath comes.
This is a reflective, at the end of a particular journey, kind of telling. “Remember that time when…”
And not just the “remember when we ran out of gas and had to hitchhike into Truckee” kind of story.
It is a foundational remembering.
Like when I was a little girl and asked where I came from and my parents would get out the adoption paperwork and tell me, “Remember when we told you that we were praying to God for a baby and then we got a call that you had been born and we went to pick you up on a cold day in December after 5 feet of snow had fallen? That’s how you became a part of our family. God gave you to our family.”
That is the story that has, more than any other, shaped my life. I’ve always known of God’s provision and care in my life through the act of adoption. God has never seemed an abstract concept to me. God’s care was real and tangible.
This is what the author of Deuteronomy is doing here. Sitting around a campfire with the other people who were the children of the Exodus, and reminding them of their foundational story, the story that mattered so much they couldn’t afford to see it as only History. They had to know it, to see it, to absorb it, to make it their story, not just the story of their ancestors.
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.
Not with our ancestors. But with us.
Our faith is like that too. Whatever God and our ancestors did was great, I’m sure. But what matters now is what God does with us. Sabbath is a foundational story. It’s a part of how God interacted with our ancestors. And God invites us to be a part of that story too.
This re-telling of the 10 Commandments is inviting the Hebrew people, descendants of the Exodus, to claim and own their story.
I wonder if we’ve claimed the story of Sabbath in our lives. How many of you practice Sabbath, observe Sabbath?
You don’t need to confess anything right now.
How many of us really claim that time as a time of rest?
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”
In Sabbath, we are to remember that we once were slaves in Egypt and were delivered by God. We are not to treat other people as if they, too, are slaves, or are throw-away people who can work while we practice Sabbath. To participate in Sabbath is to not participate in an economy that sees the work of other people as less important than our own. Practicing the Sabbath is practicing a new way of community, where everyone gets the benefits.
Observing Sabbath makes the theological claim that we are not defined by the work we do, which is often how we define ourselves. Observing Sabbath by being obedient to God—and not to Pharaoh, or Caesar, or any national leader or government—is ultimately where we find most freedom. Without obedience to Sabbath, we are at the mercy of other agendas, and kept from freedom.
I confess that too often, when people ask me how I am, my easy answer is “busy.”
It’s not a wrong answer. I am often busy. But it is also not the only answer I could give. I’m not always busy. I take time, each week, to not work. I binge watch tv shows. I read lots of books. I meditate. I sit and watch the fog move across the city from my apartment. I hang out with friends. I go to basketball games. There are plenty of moments in my life when I’m not busy. Why do I answer as I do? Why do I wear my busy-ness a badge of honor for a game I don’t really want to win?
We applaud people for being workaholics—we call them dedicated employees.
Until they have heart attacks.
I was looking for articles about burnout online and saw this headline:
How to be a workaholic and not get burned out.
I’d like to suggest that’s not the point.
A more helpful article might be:
“Don’t be a workaholic. You aren’t that important.”
Because to be frank, we wrap our value, our identity, in our work.
I was thinking it was an American problem. And I’m sure we take it to new heights because. Well. America. Hello.
Hearing our second passage from Exodus, however, I notice that Moses is as susceptible to it as we are.
His father-in-law sees him at work, a one-man-show of self-importance, and asks him, “what on earth is going on here? Why are you the only one working while people have to stand around all day and wait for you?”
Moses replies, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.”
Bless his heart.
We‘re like that too.
We think that we’re the only ones who can build the widget or create the spreadsheet or answer a question.
Ministers can be especially susceptible to overwork because there is always more ministry to do. I’ve had colleagues over the years who believe that if you’re working for God, who has time to take vacation?
Think about that for a second. If you believe you’re the only person who can mediate God to your congregation, how could you ever stop?
I hear it all the time from ministry colleagues—people who don’t take their vacation. Ever. Who work long hours. Who sacrifice time with their family to work.
And so we’re thankful for Moses’ father-in-law, showing up, seeing this over-functioning and saying, “What in the world are you doing?”
That’s a part of what Sabbath is for me—the reminder that the salvation of the world, the success of the church–none of it is dependent on me.
I can stop working and the world will go on.
It is both humbling—I’m not that important, sigh—and liberating—I’m not that important, thankyoujesus!
When I take my day off each week, when I step out of the rhythm of church work and routine, something re-sets itself for me, erases whatever had started to go off kilter, and gives me a fresh start for the new week.
“While we seek meaning from our lives, forces around us seek to shape how we find that meaning. 24/7 connectivity in our pockets ensures we’re saturated with messages that strip us of our freedom and humanity, and suck us into relentless comparison and division, ranking and judging, striving and measuring. With social media, texting, email and phones ever at the ready, we’re justified in acting as though the world can’t run without us.” (The average American checks their phones 80 times a day while on vacation).
80 TIMES A DAY. ON VACATION.
Let’s not even ask how bad it is when we’re not on vacation.
In some ways, technology offers a sense of freedom. I can take your calls without being chained to my desk and the church phone. I can write sermons in coffee shops, or wherever else. But some days it controls me more than I control it. It doesn’t always feel like freedom.
You may not be addicted to technology. But I invite you to observe where you face your challenges. Is it your work? Your need to please others at the expense of your own health? Your exercise routine? Your fear? Observe your behavior as you observe Sabbath.
But to practice Sabbath every week, even when your inbox is filling, or when the laundry is sitting there in front of you waiting to be folded—that’s practicing a theological claim that you are more than the work you do (or need to do).
There are numerous studies that show that children learn better in school when they get breaks for recess and PE. Physical development and coordination improves. Academic learning improves. Social skills improve. And it’s fun.
Taking a break from continuous work increases concentration, creativity, and productivity. Also, it’s more fun. We see it for kids. Why do we forget it as adults?
When I’m stuck on a sermon or something I’m working on, if I stay at it, and try to power through, it might get worked out. Maybe. But if I walk away from it and go for a walk, or read a book, or make an omelet, it’s more likely to solve itself when I come back, and more creatively.
Talking about rest and play is also a function of privilege.
Many people must work more than one job, just to pay the bills. And tha’ts a Sabbath observance too—we are called to work for a world where everyone has the ability to stop their labor. It’s written into the Sabbath command: “you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
When some of us, any of us, are enslaved by the Pharaoh of our high cost of living, and working jobs that don’t allow for rest, all of us fall short of Sabbath.
As we observe our Sabbath, we also observe the ways the world is not just, and is keeping people from the freedom to observe Sabbath. And so, we observe our Sabbath one day a week so we can more creatively work the rest of the week to create a world that more closely reflects God’s intention for it.
Abraham Heschel has written this of Sabbath:
“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.”
And more than surpassing civilization, I would add that we help civilization surpass itself.
When I yammer on about the importance of Sabbath, it isn’t because it’s a rule we must follow. Sabbath is a gift we get to observe.
So this week, observe. Observe where the world is calling, crying, and begging for you to offer food, healing, and freedom. Observe the moments when you act as if you’re the only one who can save the world, solve the problems, or save the day. Observe when you need rest because your burdens are heavy and your soul needs rest. And then return to your work, restored and renewed to create a more just world. Amen.
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”
15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. 16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”
24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.
27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.