Moral Sabbath

Jun 3, 2018 by

Communion meditation for June 3 2018 by Bob Bond.

Old Testament Reading:  Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Responsive Psalm:  Psalm 81: 1-10

A word of introduction about this Psalm in response to our Deuteronomy passage.

Did you hear, in Deuteronomy’s report, how first the commandment is given, “the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work”.  Then this commandment is given a moral purpose:  there is a listing of those in one’s household [even the oxen, donkeys and livestock!] who are to be at rest, and then comes this statement to make clear the commandment’s point – “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”  This is the Sabbath’s purpose!

The next statement anchors-in-history the commandment and its attention to enslaved ones: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” – so the people are to remember when, in Egypt, they had no rest!; and then reading on: – “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.”  This deliverance (according to the Deuteronomist) is the Sabbath’s origin and focus.

The Sabbath day, then, is a regular reminder and celebration of God’s liberation of God’s people, and a regular practice of equal privilege.

Next we turn to Psalm 81.  This Psalm is actually composed for use during the Feast of Tabernacles, which Feast — like Passover — is celebrated as a memorial (a remembering and celebrating) of the Exodus from Egypt.  That is what links it in at this juncture, because the Sabbath too (we’ve just heard!) is meant to be a memorial (a ‘remembering with gratitude’) of the deliverance from Egypt.  So we now hear verses from Psalm 81.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Communion Reflection:  Moral Sabbath

We noted, when we read this morning from the ‘giving of the Ten Commandments’ in Deuteronomy 5, how this Sabbath commandment is rooted in the Exodus from Egypt.

If you were to turn to the Exodus 20 account of ‘the giving of the Ten Commandments’, you would read the same Sabbath commandment rooted elsewise: namely, in the Creation Story of Genesis chapter 1.  The thinking there goes like this:  in the people’s rest on the seventh day is remembered God’s rest after six days of creating.

Leanne, Garry and the preaching team are working on a creation focus for next autumn, and some of us are going to be making connections along the way, to prepare the way … I am going to do so with you this morning.  [We are off-on-a-tangent!; it will turn around and come back, and it will prove to be foundational to everything else.]

The creation framing for Sabbath observance is – I would suggest – a much broader thing than humanity simply-and-regularly mimicking God’s first seventh day.

Pause with me here-and-now to dip more deeply and thoughtfully into your experience [and our shared ongoing experience] of creation.  You can do so by simply becoming present to this moment.  We sit here and breathe in each next breath, and the oxygen we need for life to go on … is here for us!  Not only chemically “right”, but also thermodynamically “right” – within the atmosphere’s blanket-of-warmth-and-resource around the whole globe, sustaining all of Life’s processes.  That warmth, of course, is because of the absorption of energy from the sun … the earth is incessantly bathed with all the energy needed now, and – also originating from the sun – all the stored energy we humans find ways to unleash.   From the sun’s provision, and within the earth’s blanket of atmosphere, plants grow and all life evolves, all creation intricately inter-connected and inter-dependent.  Every breath, attended to reflectively, opens us into this whole reality!

The abundance of resources, the constant showering of resources upon the life of the earth, is awe-inspiring.  Even more awe-inspiring – to me – is what I’d call the grace of these resources.  Consider how the earth responds when there is some significant change, like the current volcanic activity in Hawaii for instance (or forest fire, or flood):   Not just the landscape but whole climatic regions shift and animal habitation along with it; previous plant-life is gone but a whole new system grows, starting with single cell life and blossoming until whole new complex ecosystems are in place.  And these are never static:  they constantly become more diverse, more inter-woven, more amazing.  Creation – we scientifically curious humans have come to know – did not end on the mythic sixth day, but continues as a fundamental driver [or energy] of the universe.

Which awareness has a direct impact on us as we read the first creation story, because – remember – it is told, in part, to tell us our purpose, our meaning, our place in God’s creation.  In the seven-day story we are made to be stewards of the whole thing.  We are to be its care-takers.  I’d venture that, knowing what we know about the earth, and seeing how we humans have impacted and continue to impact the earth in such course-changing ways, there is wisdom in stepping up (as a succession of theologians have suggested across recent centuries) and actually calling our human selves – us “dominion-havers” and “stewards” – [calling us] “co-creators with God”, for we regularly demonstrate the capability to change things markedly on both small and global scales.  The rate of change of carbon balance earth-to-atmosphere; the rate of species extinction; the rate of climate change surely show just how far we have our fingers into the machinery of the on-going creation!

[Now the tangent turns around, to come back!]

The thing is, we humans have not just been given all the raw energy-resource and physical-resource constantly pouring upon us from Creation, and all the science-and-technology to insert ourselves and make change, we have also been given (from ancient times, and – as we people of faith tell it – from God herself/himself) [we have been given] wisdom and covenanted order about doing life as citizens and stewards on the planet.  Sophia is at work!  In some of the poetic telling, Sophia/Wisdom is the agent that does all the creating!  Wisdom surely is present, even post-modern sociologists and anthropologists and psychologists say, in seeing and setting balances and boundaries upon what we do.  It’s not good to go off murdering … what comes of that is far-reaching chaos.  It is not good to go off stealing … what comes of that, too, is chaos.  It is not good to starve, it is not good to become exhausted, it is not good to overindulge, it is not good to covet, it is not good to lie, … there’s a bunch of wisdom-driven precepts.  Perhaps the broadest, deepest, highest formulation providing guidance about sustainable practice, in all of monotheism’s history, is today’s focus: the Sabbath, and its broader sabbatical system.

Last time I preached, here, it was the sabbatical system I delved into.  I’m not going there again except to remind you it is about – yes – (a) rest on the seventh day; (b) fallowing of fields and forgiveness of debts and release of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year; and (c) the restoration of all land and resource to families and people following the seventh seventh-year (a grand re-set, so no one at all is in want!).

Every individual sabbath day, it is this fullness of activities-and-behaviours (this determination about justice and balance) that is being ‘leaned into’ by all who thoughtfully take part.

But look what happens.  Historically and currently.  Repeatedly.  Characteristically.  And not just with Sabbath but in humanity’s reception of all the grace and abundance of the universe’s ‘pouring of resource’ upon us … though today we’ll stick with the Sabbath as our ‘demonstrator of the process’:

Our Gospel reading opens up the drama so we can see the moving parts.  Humanity recognizes gifts coming our way, sees their great value, and wants to prize them appropriately, so does just like Peter wanted to do on the Mount of Transfiguration:  moves to build structures to keep and guard them in.  Regarding the Sabbath, the laws (the structure) once started went on-and-on to define how to keep Sabbath correctly/pristinely/ perfectly … how to keep from doing other-than-rest upon it:  so

  • exactly how far you could walk;
  • exactly how much you could carry;
  • exactly how much you could do in every conceivable way, yet still be at your Sabbath-rest.

But now that there are rules and regulations, the focus shifts.  It is the rules and regulations that take over centre stage.  Those who know the rules, and those who work to enforce the rules … these are people with power and privilege.  The few who can actually influence the rules, oh my!, they are lofty (practically divine!).  Anyone who doesn’t know the rules, on the other hand, is clearly not worth very much at all.  And anyone who breaks a rule is damned and ought to be treated accordingly.

I would observe and suggest that every ‘nailed down’ human institution is being described to a pretty significant degree here, be it church, or synagogue, or mosque, or temple, or city hall, or parliament, or Wall Street, or college/school/university, or marriage-and-family, or “Sabbath” (… the list goes on and on).  Each institution is prone to become the thing that is prized and worshiped instead of prizing the gift (the holy gift!) underneath-and-behind-and-within it.  [Prize “the Degree” and you’ve lost the focus on and love of learning.  Prize the Parliament or the Republic and you’ve lost democracy.  Prize a stereotypical picture of marriage and you’ve lost the business of committed love and devotion.  In today’s Gospel story, prize the Pharisaic institution of Sabbath and you’ve lost healing rest.]   With each such shift of focus to the Institution, those at the given institution’s centre gain such power and control.

Along comes Jesus.  What we get to see, in his encounter with the Pharisees, is a pretty-much picture-perfect example of the living out of his primary mission (“to bring good news to the poor; …to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”).  For who do you think was most negatively affected by the high-falluting Sabbath laws?:  the rich who had everything done for them, or the poor who would accordingly / necessarily have to go without?

There are many details we could chase in this Marcan exchange.  Jesus’ argument, in terms of scribal rules, actually would not have held up in the courts of the day.  But Jesus thereby managed to point to much more than just the element-at-hand.  He decries that the whole work of the Scribes and Pharisees is flawed because it has become detached from its intent / its origins.  Under their watch, Judaean humanity had necessarily become subservient to their (scribal & pharisaic) institutions; properly construed, it was humanity that was supposed to be served: “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath!”

Do you glimpse the magnitude of Jesus’ shake-up here?  People, both the basis and the outcome of everything under God’s heaven (by design!) is provision / the doing of good / the saving of life / “salvation”.  All of creation’s resources and all the wisdom constantly pouring out upon us, from God, is meant for the doing of good / the saving of life / “salvation”.  Jesus baldly emphasized this for those Pharisees by also pointing out the polar alternative – the perverse, evil alternative:  the doing of harm and the killing of life.  Isn’t it enough to make you cry, then, how this Gospel story ends with the Pharisees going out, still on that Sabbath day, to seek out Herodians (with whom they’d probably never consulted before) in order to conspire together, on that Sabbath day, to destroy Jesus.  This plotting of harm and killing, in their books, was appropriate and correct Sabbath activity!  Again, keep it ever-clear that Jesus’ identified crime that day was the doing of good, the saving of life, the feeding of hungry disciples and the enlivening of a withered/disabled hand.

This exchange is a fractal (for anyone who is taken by that means of theorizing).  The whole dynamic of Jesus’ ministry, and the whole reason for his crucifixion, is held in complete form here.

And for us who would follow Jesus, the revolutionary pathway is fully revealed for us to walk it.   In every way (not just regarding Sabbath but in every way) that Creation pours its providence (its bountiful, full-of-grace, ever evolving resources) onto every landscape and ecosystem, upon every race and tribe on the planet, indeed onto every individual creature and child as it comes into being, where any human institution-or-activity is then at work to legislate-and-legitimize, control, take-charge, interfere, interrupt, distort, and thereby diminish, it surely is a situation calling for light to be shined onto darkness, chains to be broken, walls to be torn down, prisoners to be set freeThat is what the Lord of the Sabbath did, yes concerning the Sabbath but also concerning every other perversion of God’s grace he bumped into, cost him what it may (and it did!).  And it is what must be done by people (like us) who ever-since would call ourselves by his name.  Praise be to God!  Amen.

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