June 3, 2018
2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Minnesotans know how to embrace the summer. When I first moved here, it shocked me how much things slowed down in the summer. I had always known a summer slump. But here it’s downright pathological. I know of a family that puts a tent in their back yard and says, “We don’t come inside until September.” On this Sunday when the church actually settles into its regular time (notice the green) it’s fitting that we begin with an argument about what it means to rest.
Just to give you a little background: The Sabbath was part of the Law that came on Mount Sinai. The Hebrew slaves were liberated from bondage in Egypt. They crossed the Red Sea into the wilderness where they ended up at Mount Sinai. God said, “I’d love to make you a nation that can show all the other nations what it looks like to structure your life as God intended it to be: a nation where there is mercy and justice, enough to eat and enough love for every heart to flourish and be at peace. So here is a gift: this body of law that helps you to live in that reality. The third of the great ten commandments was “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Six days you should work to take care of yourself, your family, and your entire community. But on the seventh day, you shall rest from your labors. And listen to the rest: 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.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
Do you hear that? The third commandment is certainly about our relationship to God, but it’s also the very first labor law. Everyone gets time off. This was tremendous news to people who had only known slavery. A society that never requires anyone to work all the time! Everyone works AND rests.
The Sabbath became the distinctive marker for the Jewish people. It set them apart from the empires around them. Empires require workers to work whenever the rich want them to. They don’t care about the life of their workers, only what they can produce. They pay as little as possible, provide only enough benefit to keep workers productive, and consider them to be expendable. Empires make time off something you have to earn, not something that’s your human right. Empires consider rest to be wasteful and begin to talk about certain people as lazy.
Of course, you can guess what started to happen as soon as those former slaves settled in the land and forgot about their slavery. The empire machine, which always demands more and more, turned Israel into one more nation state that demanded the least to work more and more for less and less. As wealth grew, so did the need to work. To keep the Sabbath, you see, means that you have to decide that less is good. Delayed gratification is good. Time that isn’t productive is good. You have to start saying no to the machine. No have to say no to being enslaved again!
That’s what the Sabbath is designed to do: keep us from become enslaved by our work, our possessions, and our responsibilities. This is precisely the situation in which we meet our gospel story. The struggle in Jesus’ time was how to keep the slavery machine, an entire economic, political, cultural system emanating from Rome, from taking over the Sabbath. Many of the Pharisees in the first century were only making rules around the Sabbath to help people say “no” to enslavement and “yes” to rest. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. This was a lively and relevant discussion, sometimes argument, in the first century.
We have to be careful how we interpret this gospel text. It easily becomes anti-Semitic. We assume that Judaism was just a religion of narrow rule followers; and Christianity a religion of freedom and grace. The Pharisees are critical and judgmental. Jesus is loving and kind. Think of this text, however, as a conflict between the empire machine and Jesus. Jesus isn’t angry at his own faith. He’s angry at religious people who have become the mouthpiece for the machine, conflating God and empire. He’s angry at what the machine does to human life.
Notice that Jesus does not set the Sabbath aside. He points to its essence. The Sabbath is meant to feed us; to restore us; to heal us. The healing of the withered hand shows how rest actually allows us to return to work. The man is not only healed physically. He’s able to go back to work and care for his family, taking his place in the community once again. He’s not expendable.
The Sabbath, this break from the machine, is a gift. In this space of non-production, of simply being human, we are most likely to encounter God. Luther understood Sabbath as time with the Word, time with the love of God, time with the promises of grace, time with the faithful who help us to keep good Sabbath. (Note: Sabbath is a communal practice; not an individual practice). Sabbath is about making space for God; space to be grateful; space for knowing love. God doesn’t need the Sabbath. We do. It’s not a practice to bring God to us. It’s a practice to remember that love has already found us. Peace abounds. Compassion is around us. Forgiveness is rock solid.
Richard Rohr, one of this century’s great mystics and teachers, says that our brains get wired around particular thoughts. Thoughts are like Velcro. They stick and begin to form neural pathways that make those thoughts more consistent. Negative thoughts create pathways of negativity. The more we are consumed with negativity and anger and disappointment, the more our brains structure them more deeply into our experience. On the other side, positive thoughts do the same thing. The more we create space for positive thoughts, the more we create pathways for good energy.
But, he says, you need time to develop these pathways. They don’t happen instantaneously. Negative thoughts enslave us more regularly because we obsess about what’s wrong. He says it takes fifteen minutes of focusing on something for it to rewire your brain. We may see a flower and be delighted by its beauty but if we’re right back to our obsessive thoughts a few seconds later, it doesn’t matter. We need fifteen minutes of contemplating that beauty for it to have an impact.
That’s Sabbath. Creating space to contemplate the goodness of God, the blessings of creation, or appreciating the web of people that are part of our lives every day. You have to take time out to do this. It’s not natural. It’s more natural to become enslaved. It takes intention, and usually a community of friends willing to help, to rest.
This is, of course, what we’re trying to do in Sunday worship. We carve out an hour of time to place ourselves in the grace of God. We trust that it will shape the very pattern of our brains and heal our broken hearts.
We may need summer in Minnesota because winter is coming. (That’s truly Minnesotan! We’re good at turning the summer into “the machine,” anxious about how short it is.) But, even more than summer sun and a good book, we need God. We need love. We need resurrection. We need Sabbath. We need today.
I listened to a discussion with Richard Rohr on The Liturgist podcast: http://www.theliturgists.com/podcast/2016/4/12/episode-35-the-cosmic-christ-with-richard-rohr.