3 Pentecost B—6/3/18
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23–3:6
Pr. Scott Kramer
I’ve noticed over time that one of the most common conversations I have with you is related to work: How do I transition from a lifetime in the work world to the world of retirement? How do I find a job that matches my gifts and skills? Or, how do I simply make ends meet? How do I decide when it’s time to move on to a different job or even a whole other career? How do I manage the multiple responsibilities of work and family and maybe school or other training? And then there’s the question that today’s readings ask: What does it mean to make Sabbath? What is a Godly relationship between work and rest?
I find myself in awe of the challenges many of us face. I find myself impressed by a people who seem to have a sense of perspective and priority. No one does that perfectly, but I am deeply grateful to serve a congregation whose people tend to be less interested in success and wealth and power, and more interested in purpose, service and meaning—including, making room for relationships and rest.
This is neither easy nor popular! In a society that places highest value on achievement, material wealth and status, you may find yourself swimming upstream if you choose to follow a different way.
Questions about work and rest are a crucial part of human life and the church at its best can be a community that consciously works to discern God’s power and direction in the mist of it all.
Today’s readings take these questions to a whole new level. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; 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.
What do you notice in this passage from Deuteronomy? What I notice, and what I believe the main point of this passage is, is that it’s not about me!; at least, it’s not just about me. Sabbath rest is certainly for me but the question put to us by our God is this: As you organize your life to make Sabbath for yourselves, how are you helping others keep Sabbath? What does Sabbath look like for your son or daughter, your slaves, your ox and donkey or any livestock, or resident alien? You see? The will of the Creator is rest for the whole creation, including and maybe especially the weakest and most vulnerable—plants and animals, foreigners and slaves.
This past week at the Seattle International Film Festival I enjoyed a movie from India called Village Rockstars. It’s the story of a girl named Dhunu who lives with her mother and brother in a rural village, and the challenges she faces in a conservative society whose main concern is following tradition. She and the boys she hangs out with enjoy lip-synching popular tunes with homemade “instruments” they’ve fashioned from Styrofoam and other cheap materials. Her fondest dream is to own a real guitar.
Dhunu’s family lives hand-to-mouth so buying a guitar seems out of the question. One day in monsoon season the rains bring a flood that completely ruins the family crop. The girl turns to her mom (whose husband had died in a similar flood) and says, “We lose our farm in the flood every year. Why do you still farm?” And her mother replies, Work is religion for us. Hard work is the only thing we have.
For many people who live on the edge of survival, both at home and abroad, hard work is not a path to wealth and prosperity. For them, it is not attached to pseudo-religious cultural notions of moral rectitude and Divine favor. Instead, work is the only thing that separates them from death and despair.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; 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 we’re tempted to think of God’s commands as burdens or hardships, we remember that they are pure gift, a way of organizing human society in a way that affirms life for all its members, a way that leads to peace and deep satisfaction.
We who face our own significant challenges in claiming this Sabbath gift nevertheless are commanded to ensure that Sabbath rest is enjoyed by all God’s creation. We who have significant power in society by virtue of race or gender or educational level have a responsibility—and in fact, the great privilege—of identifying where our fellow creatures do not enjoy Sabbath rest, and to use our God-given gifts and opportunities to ensure that they do.
The word that is used in our first reading is “slave.” Make sure, friends, that not only you but your slaves enjoy Sabbath rest! The word “slave” seems to us archaic, from a different time or at least from a different place far away and irrelevant to our own lives. But with a little prayerful reflection, we can see that slavery is very much alive today. The food that you and I eat, and the clothes we wear—do you know where they come from? Do you know the human cost? Low wages, prison and sweatshop labor account for more of what all of us enjoy and take for granted than we know.
But this past week the question of Sabbath rest for slaves was brought home to me in a local and personal way. My good friend, a local Presbyterian pastor, invited me to meet Pr. Zachary Bruce, who is senior pastor of The Freedom Church just up the hill in Skyway. We met at The Freedom Church and for an hour and a half. We got to know one another and discover what we have in common.
Pr. Zachary Bruce and most of his congregation is black. To read this description of their ministries (attached) you might think that The Freedom Church is a nationally-televised megachurch of 5000 people. But they aren’t. They’re just a small congregation that is working tirelessly for the sake of brothers and sisters in need. And why? Because for its members, church is not one of many options on Sunday morning. The church for these descendants of slaves, literally, is an institution that strives to provide justice and dignity where mainstream institutions fail. The church for them may be the difference between life and death, hope and despair.
In our reading from Deuteronomy God says, 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. Do you see? Those who know the experience of being a slave—including African-Americans living in a racist society today—are invited to draw on their own experience of hardship and persecution as motivation to create Sabbath rest for others. If the laws and institutions of your nation make it likely that your son or grandson is likely to die young by gunfire, you are motivated to create your own systems of love and respect and hope to protect that young person.
I personally have no experience of racism. I don’t know the experience of prejudice and discrimination, of indifference and hostility based on the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to have laws and institutions and history stacked against me. I am not able to obey the Deuteronomy command to remember my experience in slavery…because I’ve never been a slave!
So as a child of God, what might it mean for me, for those of us who are white, and for us as a congregation to keep this Sabbath command to create Sabbath for the “slave” among us? What if our congregation’s mission is to affirm and support the slave among us? How might we support these brothers and sisters up the hill and thereby allow them to enjoy a bit of rest? I’m not talking about something completely new here. We help provide rest and refuge for two other congregations, for homeless populations, for AA and others in this place.
We who do not have the experience of slavery have more power than we think. A few weeks ago I was invited to help lead an anti-racism training at a Lutheran church in Kirkland. My role was to confront the all-white audience with the ways our society through its laws, institutions and attitudes prevents Sabbath rest for our brothers and sisters of color. Afterwards, my colleague—a woman of color who led the workshop—said, “It was so nice not to have to be the black woman teaching white people about the sins of racism!” What she meant was, I as a white male took on that role in a way that allowed her a bit of Sabbath rest.
Dear friends, our God invites us to claim the gift of Sabbath rest, but not merely for ourselves. Our God commands us to create Sabbath for all God’s creatures—for fields, for animals, and for the slave among us. How might the Holy Spirit of Pentecost be leading us to go deeper in doing just that?