The Sacred Art of Ceasing (no sermon recording available)
Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Luke 14:1-6
Today is the last of the sermons focused on the book by Marjorie Thompson called Soul Feast. Although the chapter I am basing my sermon on comes in the middle of the book, it seems appropriate that it concludes the series. In the same way that the Sabbath day completes the story of creation, our focus today brings this series to its end. Or, maybe, brings us to a renewed appreciation of the sacred art of ceasing.
Marjorie Thompson begins the chapter on Sabbath with reference to the “beauty of borders”. She recalls this phrase from a visiting writer to her community, who reminded them that landscapes are made beautiful by fences, hedges, and perimeters of flowerbeds.
I chose one of John’s photos for the front of the bulletin with its dignified line of autumn trees giving order and beauty to the Botanical Gardens in Albury.
Last weekend I was privileged to conduct a wedding out at Poachers Pantry just off the Barton Highway. Despite the less than perfect weather, it was still impressive entering the property through the long avenue of trees bordering the narrow driveway.
Ordered boundaries give definition to places, and also to life. The Genesis creation story has a great interest in order and boundaries. God separates – light from darkness, waters above and waters below, day and night; and God creates order out of all that is made.
There is a wonderful symmetry in the poem of creation found in Genesis 1.
On Day 1 light was created, separating day from night. On Day 4 the darkness was filled with luminaries – actually called the greater light and the lesser light and the stars – the writer of this creation story didn’t want their audience to get God’s creation confused with gods and goddesses in other creation stories whose names were sun and moon. On Day 2 the waters were divided into sea and sky, on the corresponding Day 5 those realms are filled with fish and birds. On Day 3 the land with edible vegetation was created, and creatures to make use of that space brought into being on Day 6. But in this scheme Day 7 stands apart. No previous day to prepare for it. In this way, the author of the poem presents Sabbath as the pinnacle of creation and declares it to be holy – a word that simply means to be set apart. The Sabbath is created to be different.
It is worth noticing also in this Genesis creation story that each day is marked by first mentioning sundown: “There was evening and there was morning, the first day”. Jewish tradition continues to follow this pattern, so the Sabbath day, the most important day of the week, actually begins for Jews at sundown on Friday. If you have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof you might remember the frantic rush to get everything ready by sundown so that the time of rest could begin with the commencement of the Sabbath meal. In her book Marjorie Thompson asks us to consider how it would change our attitude to God’s presence and grace in our lives if we considered that our day started with our evening meal. We would soon get ready for bed and spend up to the first third of our day in sleep. During sleep we are unproductive, unable to work, to earn money, even to commune with others. We are totally reliant on God’s care of us until we wake and are able to participate in the rest of the day.
This non-productive value in the Sabbath, in fact, turns our world on its head. Our world is obsessed with growth – growth of economy, growth of production, growth of wages. Intentional cessation from these things help us question the rightness of them. One of my favourite biblical commentators Walter Brueggemann claims that proper observation of the Sabbath would mean an end to exploitation – of each other and of the world. Instead of life being 24-7 we could be unplugged for one whole day each week! It occurred to me that if our whole city observed Sabbath as the strict Jewish community does, we would probably meet our emissions targets well ahead of time – imagine no cars on the road and no use of electricity for a full day each week!
It is this primacy of rest that gives Sabbath its unique theological quality. And unlike the other 6 days in the poetic pattern, the seventh day does not finish with the formula “there was evening and there was morning”. Of course the weekly cycle of time and days ends and begins again but theologically the Sabbath is not time bound. It could even be called prophetic – a foretelling of the goal of creation – rest and shalom for all the cosmos. The early church fathers were fond of allegorical interpretation of scripture, and I think there is something in Augustine’s reference to the sixth day of creation as the time of judgement. He goes on to say:
“After this evening there will come the morning, when the Lord himself will come in glory. Then they to whom he said ‘be perfect as your father who is in heaven is perfect’ will rest with Christ from all their works.” (On Genesis, 1.23.41)
So far I’ve been speaking about the Sabbath as it was introduced in the creation story. But there are many more references to the Sabbath in the bible, and many of them relate it to laws or commandments. We heard the Ten Commandments read to us
I just want to say a few things about this text before turning to the Sabbath law. First, in Hebrew this group of commandments is just called the Ten Words. Decalogue is actually a good translation from Hebrew to Latin. Deca – ten; Logos – word. When God’s word comes to us, as we know from John’s Gospel, it comes as grace. Second, the commandments were not given to the Israelite community until after God had freed them from slavery in Egypt. In the Old Testament, contrary to what many of us are taught, grace precedes law. And third, these commandments are not really commandments at all, but declarations of fact. They read more like family values or statements of principle than laws, like we might hear values taught in a family. Members of our family don’t lie. Notice there is no sanction for what happens if one of these ten commandments is broken – there is just the assumption that these principles will be followed.
The English translations rarely convey this because they tend to use imperative verbs, like the translation we heard. “Observe the Sabbath … keep it holy”. Listen to this translation which I think is a bit truer to the Hebrew:
“To keep the day of the Sabbath is to consecrate it / like the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you are serving and will be doing all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God / you will not be doing all your work – you or your son or your daughter or your servant or your maid or your ox or your donkey or all your animals, or your foreigner who is within your gates, so that they can rest – your servant and your maidservant like you.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-14)
This word that relates to the Sabbath is one of only two in the ten that has an explanation. Actually there are two versions of the ten commandments in the Old Testament, and the reason for keeping the Sabbath is different in each. In Exodus 20, there is a reference back to the Creation story. There we are told:
“For six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day / therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:11)
We rest because God rested. We rest because God set apart that day – perhaps to remind us that life is a gift. Jewish writer Abraham Heschel says “Sabbath is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world” (The Sabbath).
As we heard, though, in Deuteronomy 5 there is a different motivation for keeping the Sabbath:
“And you should remember that you were a servant 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.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)
Here memory is the key. And the practice of sabbath becomes a practice of social justice. If God was willing to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, then their descendants should keep that memory alive and also practice forms of non-slavery. All members of the community are to experience rest and refreshment on a regular basis: men and women, daughters and sons, male and female servants, the foreigners who live among them, even domestic animals. The wider law code also includes a Sabbath for the land! In Deuteronomy’s version of the Ten Words we allow for rest because God freed an oppressed people from slavery and allowed them to rest. The Exodus event must never be forgotten.
In order for this Sabbath principle to be taken seriously in the Jewish community, rabbis devised many restrictions to ensure sabbath would not be broken. The history of this is actually quite interesting – they drew an analogy between God’s creation of the world and the construction of the tabernacle, which they believed was God’s dwelling place and therefore a microcosm of the universe. All of the activities that went into building the tabernacle: carrying, burning, writing, sewing, knotting, weaving, and so on were deemed activities to be avoided on the Sabbath.
By the time of Jesus, at least as the gospels portray it, there was a strictness surrounding Sabbath laws upheld zealously by the Pharisees. But even they, if pressed, would have to concede that the principle of life superceded strict Sabbath law. When Jesus challenged them about how they would respond to a child or an ox in trouble, perhaps he had in mind another of those principled statements in Deuteronomy:
“You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.” (Deuteronomy 22:4)
There was also the celebrated experience of the Maccabees who had refused to fight against the Roman army on a Sabbath, and many of their company including women and children were slaughtered. The book of Maccabees tells that a decision was made that day that has remained a key aspect of Jewish thought – preservation of life is takes precedence over Sabbath law. (1 Maccabees 2:41)
I think it is not a stretch to imagine that Jesus was recalling Deuteronomy’s word on the Sabbath when he chose to heal the man with dropsy on that Sabbath day. He remembered that God had liberated the Israelites from their oppression … and he demonstrated that liberation of those captive, in this case to illness, will always be an integral part of the celebration of faith.
The early church replaced the Jewish Sabbath with a day of rest and worship that celebrated the day of resurrection – Sunday. But they kept the Sabbath principles by setting apart the day to be holy, to be a boundary in the week, a day for reflecting on the gifts of life and grace, a day to remember our freedom in Christ and God’s just will for all creation.
I also think it is fitting that the series on spiritual disciplines began with communion and is ending on a Sunday that we celebrate communion. The communion meal, based on the Last Supper, is a retelling of the Exodus tradition. In it we repeat the same words and actions each time, in order to help us remember that the God who created us is also the God who redeemed us, the God who enables us to cease all activity and just be who we are in the presence of God.
Below is my translation of the Sabbath laws in the Decalogue
- Deut 5 (12) “To keep the day of the Sabbath is to consecrate it / like the Lord your God commanded you. (13) Six days you are serving and will be doing all your work. (14) But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God / you will not be doing all your work – you or your son or your daughter or your servant or your maid or your ox or your donkey or all your animals, or your foreigner who is within your gates, so that they can rest – your servant and your maidservant like you. (15) And you should remember that you were a servant 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” (Dt 5:12-15)
- Exod 20 (8) “To remember the day of the Sabbath is to consecrate it. (9) Six days you are serving and will do all your work. (10) But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God / you will not be doing all your work – you or your son or your daughter or your servant or your maid or your animal or your foreigner who is within your gates. (11) For six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day / therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and consecrated it.” (Exod 20:8-11)