Sabbath for the Body

Scripture: Exodus 5: 4- 19
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
July 3, 2016

It is Fourth of July weekend!  It is a weekend for bands, parades, barbeques, swim parties, beach outings, fireworks, and the freedom to play!  (Break out beach balls with Beach Boys music).  Yes, this next month we will be celebrating freedom in its many forms– freedom for the body, freedom for the soul, freedom for the heart, and freedom for the mind. The Hebrew word for the freedom that we will be talking about is Sabbath.  

Sabbath has its roots in the story of the Israelites breaking free from slavery.  In the opening pages of the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt.  “Pharaoh is a hard-nosed production manager for whom production schedules are inexhaustible.  Pharaoh demands more production.  The slaves are to produce more bricks that are to be used for the building of more storage units in which Pharaoh can store his endless supply of grain”  (Walter Bruggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 3).  Pharaoh says in our passage, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks.  Go let them get straw for themselves– but even with this extra task, still require of them the same quantity of bricks as they made previously — do not diminish it for they are lazy.”  Pharaoh is relentless; he is insatiable.  Can you hear it now?  “Mud.  Sand.  Water.  Straw.   Faster.  Mud.  Sand.  Water.  Straw.  Faster.”   All for the edification of Pharaoh.  

+Pharaoh was regarded as a god himself, a god with insatiable demands.

+Pharaoh’s socioeconomic society was organized like a pyramid.  The workforce produced wealth, which flowed upward to the power elite, and eventually to Pharaoh who sat on top of the pyramid.

+Pharaoh represented an endlessly anxious presence which permeated through the entire society.  Everyone was anxious — there was no rest for Pharaoh in his supervisory capacity as he monitored daily production schedules, no rest for Pharaoh’s taskmasters, no rest for the slaves who must satisfy the taskmasters in order to meet Pharaoh’s demanding quotas.

+Pharaoh had nightmares of famine — that creation would not produce sufficient food.

+Pharaoh’s nightmares led to a mentality of scarcity in which humans were exploited and turned into slaves.  No wonder the Hebrews cry “Deliver us” (Brueggemann, p. 23) as Moses demands, “Let my people go!”

Into this system of hopeless weariness emerges the God of the exodus, the God of liberation, the God of restfulness.  The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  In other words, the God of the exodus is unlike all the gods the slaves have known before.  This God called Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim is the God of mercy, steadfast love,   

faithfulness.  This God is committed to covenant rather than commodity, relationship rather than bricks.  

No wonder, after crossing the Red Sea, Miriam sings and dances in the presence of this God.  No wonder early on in their wilderness journey, Moses receives the 10 commandments.  And the fourth commandment was perhaps the most urgent of all.  “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  The divine rest on the seventh day of creation makes it clear that YHWH is not a workaholic, that this is a YHWH of freedom, that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation.  God believed creation was “very good” and had complete confidence that the world will hold, the plants will produce, the birds and the fish and the beasts of the field will prosper.  God chose to take a day off and not come into the office.  God had the assurance that all will be well.   

The god of Egypt, Pharaoh, is a god of restlessness.  The God of Israel is a God of restfulness. Sabbath is resistance to the rat race.  Sabbath is an alternative to insatiable demand.  Yahweh is a Sabbath-giving God.  And Israel is asked to choose between life or death, between Yahweh, the God of the Sabbath or Pharaoh, the god of relentless demand, endless productivity.  And we are called to choose between which God we will serve — one leads to restfulness and freedom, the other to restlessness and bondage; one leads to the way of life, the other to the way of death.  

The commandment must have been a shock to the Israelites.  For there was no Sabbath in Egypt, no work stoppage, no freedom from work, no rest for the weary.  I imagine that when the Israelites encountered the God of the Sabbath they were singing, “How Great Thou Art.”  They were declaring, “There is no god like our God.  There is no god like this one called Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim.”

Yet, over the years, the Israelites forgot that the brick quota was declared null and void.  Instead of turning the Sabbath into a time of freedom and liberation; it was turned into a time of restriction.  Human made laws were imposed on God’s good gift.  The Israelites were very specific about what was allowed and what was not allowed on the Sabbath.  For example, you could not travel more than 3000 feet from your home.  The Jews, however, considered their home to be any place where a possession was so the Jewish people would fill their pockets with items from their homes, walked 3000 feet and placed one of the items on the ground and declared that place to be home so they could walk another 3000 feet.  Taking a bath was forbidden, because water might splash on the floor, and thus, you would be washing the floor.  A person couldn’t eat an egg that was laid on the Sabbath.  Women were not allowed to look in a mirror; they might pull out a gray hair.  And even today in Jerusalem, an Orthodox Jew won’t push an elevator button on the Sabbath because that is considered work.  So every hotel has a Sabbath elevator that slowly goes from floor to floor and the door automatically opens on each floor.

And when Christians came to this country, we didn’t do any better.  Sabbath laws were replaced by the Puritans’ blue laws here in the U.S.  How many of you grew up with blue laws?  With blue laws, shopping malls and liquor stores were closed.  You may be able to wear perfume, but not lipstick.  You could square dance, but not slow dance.  You could milk cows on Sunday, but not wash your car.  In Colonial New England, there were many Sunday laws forbidding any pleasure.  There is a story about one particular Massachusetts sea captain returned home from two years at sea. He returned home on Sunday and made the mistake of kissing his wife, which was against the law on Sunday.  The poor sea captain spent the next six days in the stockade for desecrating the Sabbath!  (Story told by David Dykes from Green Hills Baptist Church)

The Sabbath is not a punishment.  It is a gift.  Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”  Sabbath is a time to sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”  

One day I was watching Jeopardy.  The double jeopardy question was, “It is rumored that on this date, King George III wrote in his journal, ‘Nothing of significance happened today.’”  The answer was “What is July 4th, 1776?”  And of course, something very significant happened that day – the United States declared its independence from England – one of the most significant events in the life of England and in our life today.  By taking a day off to rest, we may be tempted to say, “Nothing of significance happened today” — but, indeed, so much happens when we take time for the Sabbath.  For “Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes.  It is the pause that transforms” (Brueggemann, p. 45) — it transforms our way of thinking about the world — from scarcity to abundance, from fear to faith, from bondage to freedom, from restlessness to restfulness.  

I think about a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer.  She was given six months to live.  And early every morning for 6 months while it was still dark she would take her lawn chair out on her front porch with a blanket.  And when asked why she did that she said that she didn’t want miss a sunrise while she was still alive.  She wanted to see the light coming over the mountains.  The truth of the matter is that we all have limited time on earth.  We are all terminal.  And the important question for us this morning is how do we want to spend our precious days on earth?  Sometimes we need to slow down to notice that we are in the presence of the Beloved.  (Story told by Mark Yaconelli)     

We honor God, the One called Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim when we pay attention to sunrises and sunsets. We honor God when we watch the clouds float across the blue sky during the day and stargaze at night while lying on the grass.  We honor God when we take a Sunday afternoon nap in a hammock.  We honor God when we dig our toes into the warm beach sand.  We honor God when we notice the wings of a butterfly or the flight of a hummingbird.  We honor God when we indulge in a lazy July afternoon by the pool.  We honor God when we “kick back” at Sylvan Park and enjoy the band.  We honor God when we take time at this table with our brothers and sisters to share in a meal together.  On Jesus’ last night on earth, he gathered with those he called friends, broke bread…