|Minister's Sermon - Sunday 7th October 2018|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sunday 7th October 2018|
Every Tuesday at 1pm, between 10 and 15 people gather in the Quiet Room in Hinde Street Methodist Church, for a Meditation Group. It lasts an hour. For the first 15 minutes people gather, then there’s a short reading, followed by 25 minutes of silence and 15 minutes of sharing. A few church members come, but the majority are outsiders, from among the 800 or so people who go to anonymous groups that meet in the church each week, and people who live or work around the church. This year, until I left, I was reading pieces sections from a book called “Sabbath” by Wayne Muller. He writes about the Sabbath, that God says, is to be “kept holy.” But he doesn’t only write about the sabbath day. He also includes sabbath moments, times of rest and reflection, when we stop, look, listen, and make space for all that the sabbath is about. For God, sharing with other people, space for ourselves, the beauty of creation, rest, breathing… The book resonated deeply with some of members. It reminded us again, of just how necessary Sabbath days and moments are, in our society. So, when I heard that we’d be thinking about the ten commandments in today’s Church with Choices, I immediately thought about the fourth commandment in verses 8 to 11. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Walter Brueggemann has written a brilliant little book called “Sabbath as Resistance.” It begins with the observation that the fourth commandment is the bridge that connects the Ten Commandments. I’ve separated it out on the sheet I’ve given you with the reading on. The first three commandments are about God, and the last six, concern our neighbours. And in between come these four verses which say, that because our creating God rested from work, so should we, along with our families, our slaves, livestock and strangers. God commands the Israelites to incorporate a day of rest into their social structures. ‘Though over time, among some religious groups, this command has become more like work. So, some of you will remember a time when Sunday was a day, when nothing was allowed. A day of “nos.” Except church, Sunday school or bible reading. A day, that children (and some adults) often found dreary, or boring. A day that had become nothing like the life-giving day God intended it to be. Yet I think that the reaction against it, that’s allowed work, shopping, pubs, sports, and more, has happened in a vacuum. Because even ‘though we Christians have often said no to these things, we’ve not articulated the reasons why this “no,” matters. Not just to us. But to our whole society. And I think that’s because we’ve separated the commandments from their context. We no longer understand why God gave them. So, before I say anything about the commandments, I want to speak about two aspects of their context.
The Ten Commandments begin with God. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” I am God, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and “out of the house of slavery.” God who created and rested on the 7th day, is the God who frees the people of Israel, from slavery in Egypt. Their slavery was constant work. They were enslaved, Brueggemann says, to “Pharaoh’s system of production that is legitimated by the gods worshipped by Pharaoh.” (1) What he means is this. Pharaoh needed slaves to make the bricks to make grain stores. The grain stores were required, because Pharaoh’s agricultural system was based on farmers creating a surplus, that he would then sell for the highest price possible. The wealth created was then offered to Pharaoh’s gods. It might sound familiar… In Exodus 5, Moses goes and asks Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to take a day off so they can go and worship God, but Pharaoh refuses. Instead, he makes them work harder, by getting them to gather the straw they need to make the bricks and demanding that they produce the same number. Brueggemann comments on the chapter like this. “The rhetoric is relentless… as relentless as… the production schedule.” (1) And everyone, and everything, is caught up in the “grind of endless production,” (1) from the slaves to the gods Pharaoh worships. This is the “house of slavery” that dominates the Israelites memories of Egypt. In amazing contrast, is God who heard their cry, who sent Moses to free them, and who led them out of Egypt. And this is the first aspect of the context in which God gives them the Ten Commandments.
The second aspect of the context, is that through the Ten Commandments, God invites Israel into a new form of relationship. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, where God gives them the Ten Commandments, soon after their escape from Egypt. Brueggemann says they arrived there, “without knowing what would happen… or what would be like to meet the emancipator God of the exodus.” (1) But they came, to recognise that there had been, what he calls “a regime change.” Pharaoh – and all he stood for – “was left helpless and disabled at the bottom of the waters.” And Israel, was “so eager to trade Pharaoh’s… requirements for those of [God] that, even before they heard [them they] swore their readiness to sign on for the new regime.” (1) They were in no doubt that the God who’d freed them from Egypt and the house of slavery would be better than Pharaoh! So, instead of having a relationship that was based on the number of bricks they produce, they accepted one rooted in love and passion. Love expressed through God’s action in bringing them out of Egypt. Passion in God’s exclusiveness claim on their lives. So, they agreed to worship God alone – to have no other gods before God - and to love their neighbours in respectful ways because their slavery in Egypt had taught them what it was like to be illtreated. So, we could call the Ten Commandments, the new policies God gives them to live by. Or if we prefer, guidelines, or a rule of life. A rule of life, that invites us to worship God alone, to rest as God rests, and to treat all of humanity and creation as God does.
I’ll continue in a moment, but before we continue, I’d like you to turn to your neighbour and share one thing that has struck you in what I’ve said so far.
So, we come back to the Sabbath, which I’ve called the beginning of the Ten Commandments. The beginning, because I think it’s the starting point, for our lives, and for our witness to the world. But why? And how does this witness to God? Well, if we go back to the structure of the Ten Commandments, we see how the sabbath command is the bridge between the way we relate to God and the way we relate to our neighbours in humanity and creation. The 4th commandment is different from the others. Unlike most of the others, it’s not a prohibition, so doesn’t contain a “shall not.” It’s a positive action. In it, God invites the people to do something, that begins with remembering. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” What this means is explained in the three verses that follow. Verse 9, says it is legitimate to work, on six days. Verse 10 is a command not to work on the 7th day. Brueggemann suggests it’s addressed to someone who owns land. (‘Though this only makes sense, if we remember that the Torah wasn’t written while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, but when they’d settled in the Promised Land.) Every other day, the landowner’s family, slaves, livestock and casual labourers - the alien who lives in the town – need to work. But on the 7th day none of them should do any work. This command, Brueggemann says, is for a “complete and comprehensive work stoppage.” (2) The 7th day is separated from the other six and it is kept “holy” by being different. Free from all activity that is demanded, from productivity, from our self- grasping, or the requirement to serve other human beings. And it’s not just for people of faith. It’s for everyone and everything - including the animals. So, this is the why of the sabbath. We stop working because God did.
But how is stopping work a witness to God? Brueggemann says that stopping work and resting witnesses to the fact that, “God is not a workaholic, that God is not anxious.” That the creation won’t stop functioning if God stops working. “And that the well-being of creation doesn’t depend on endless work.” (1) God doesn’t need to work to be “more secure, more sufficient, more in control, or more noticed.” (2) God rests. God simply stops. And rests. The surprising implication of the Hebrew, is that God rests, because God is tired or “depleted and by rest may recover a full sense of self.” (2) And if that’s true of God, then it is even truer of humanity, and creation. So, Brueggemann says, the sabbath “is ordained in the very fabric of creation that the world is not a place of endless productivity, ambition, or anxiety.” (2) If this sounds too fanciful, listen to what Wayne Muller says about dormancy, in plants. “Dormancy allows plants and their seeds to develop stress-resistant annual resting periods… [It] maximises the seed’s… hardiness, making it less susceptible to climatic extremes. In… [some seasons] this may diminish the yield, but it is a rhythm designed less for quick profit, and more for an abundance over eternity.” (3) “Sabbath honours the necessary wisdom of dormancy.” However, if some plants “do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. If this continues for more than a season, the plant begins to die. If dormancy continues to be prevented, the entire species will die. A period of rest… is not simply a human psychological convenience; it is a spiritual and biological necessity.” (3) If this is the nature of God, and the nature of the creation God has created, it can’t be too far-fetched to say that we witness to God – the God who also got tired and rested - when we rest. When we make sure we have a day off, rest-time, time for recovery. For rest, enables us to be, creative and productive.
I’m going to stop again, and invite you to turn to your neighbour again, and share another thing that has struck you.
Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk. A contemplative. His writings, caught the mood of the mid-20th century, and he spoke for many who were finding it hard to maintain their faith in God, as life changed, and its pace and inequality increased. In this short piece from his journal, a prayer we might call it, he talks to God about his own life. In it he refers to the story of Israel in Pharaoh’s brick-yards. “Lord, I have not lived like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself – and that I am still afraid… Take my life into Your hands, and do whatever You want with it. I give myself to your love and mean to keep giving myself to your love – rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me… The way You have laid open before me is an easy way, compared with the hard way of my own will which leads back to Egypt, and to bricks without straw… Only save me from myself. Save me from my own, private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement’s sake, to unsettle everything you have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent.” (4) “Let me rest in your will and be silent.” Merton reminds is just how vulnerable we are to over-reaching ourselves. To forgetting that we too, like God, need rest. Not just for God’s sake. But for the sake of our neighbours as well as ourselves. So, in this last section, I want to look at what the other commandments look like, from the perspective of the fourth. I want to begin with the idea that God rests, because God is exhausted by the effort of creating everything, and God knows that by resting God “may recover a full sense of self.” (1) It maybe that the writer, was making God like human beings, but it also suggests God understands just how vulnerable we are to the ambition that leads us to overwork and not rest. So vulnerable, that we will risk losing ourselves, trusting ourselves and not God. Rather than consider what we’re doing with our lives, the lives of others, and of creation. To enable us to live fully, God gives us the other commandments, three about our relationship with God and six about how are to relate to our neighbour. And they’re all summed up in Jesus’ words. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And love your neighbour as yourself.”
The first three commandments invite us to put God in the centre of our lives. To have no other god that is more important. Whether that’s money, education or health. Job, home, or the other things we say we “need” to live. Family, church, party, religion or nation. Buildings or land. God should be at the centre of our lives. The only way to life, to really live, is to turn our backs on everything the 21st century seduces us to believe offers us life. Everything else we’re tempted to trust in. Because they’re no different from the life the Israelites had in “the land of Egypt [and] the house of slavery.” I’m not suggesting we can do without these things. We need them to live. But on one day, out of seven, we’re to remember that they are not the centre of our lives, that God is. Not because God is like Pharaoh, or Pharaoh’s gods, and demands everything for God’s-self. But because God knows it’s the only way we’ll be able to obey the other six commandments. Brueggemann says it like this. “Sabbath is a practical divestment [of all the things we’re tempted to put in the place of God] so that neighbourly engagement, rather than production and consumption, defines our lives.” (1) On the Sabbath, we let go of all of these other things, so that we might put God and our neighbour first. By turning our back on everything that can become gods - with a little “g” - we’re able to honour everyone else. Those who work alongside us. (Families in verses 10 and 12. And neighbours in verses 16 and 17.) Those who work for us. (Slaves in verses 10 and 17. And the resident alien in verse 10.) Creation that feeds, resources and sustains us (Livestock and our neighbour’s livestock in verses 10 and 17.) And we’re to honour all of them. Honouring them means not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness or being envious of what others have. God knows we’re vulnerable to all of these. The stories of the people God called and made promises to in Genesis – from Abraham to Joseph – are stories of human vulnerability and ambiguity. Yet God does not abandon us. So, in this second set of six commandments, God offers us a way of living that “guarantees [that] dignity and well-being is a [very real] possibility…” (2) for everyone and everything.
I want to end by returning to God’s command to rest. For me, and in the Jewish sabbath and sabbath moments, a central aspect of this rest, is prayer. Prayer can take many forms. For some of us it is active, with words, either spoken or sung. For others it’s silence, meditation or contemplation. I enjoy words and songs, but for me, the heart of prayer is silence. It expresses my willingness to let go of my need to be in control, to be constantly doing something, to let God work in me. James Alison is another of my favourite theologians. Writing about contemplation - in which he includes every variety of prayer and meditation - he says this. “Contemplation is a certain sort of seeing… we always learn to see through the eyes of another… The desire of another directs ours seeing… When we talk about contemplation in a Christian context we are talking about a specific sort of seeing. We are talking about learning to be given our desire through the eyes of another. The other is Jesus, the Word of God… we are being taught to be loving onlookers at what is by the One who is calling into being and loving what is.” (5) This “being taught to be loving onlookers at what is by the One who is calling us into being” is one way of describing what the Sabbath is for. Sabbath is a day or a moment, when we place God in the centre, and see everything God has created through the eyes and the desire of the Word of God – Jesus. When we make time and space to rest, in and with God, God enables us to see with Jesus’ desires and through Jesus’ eyes. The desire God expressed in the Ten Commandments. And if we take them seriously will transform everything. Our lives, the lives of our families and church, the lives of our neighbours’ near and far, and the life of the creation. So sabbath really matters!
For the last time, turn to your neighbour again, and talk about what you’ll take home from this morning’s bible study.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
Walter Brueggemann Sabbath as Resistance 2014
The New Interpreters Bible Vol I
Wayne Muller Sabbath 1999
Thomas Merton in “A Book of Hours” Kathleen Deignan, 2007: 98
James Alison On Being Liked 2003,1-2