Worship notes: Sabbath as resistance part three...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday: July 27, 2014. They are part three in a series using Walter Brueggemann's book, Sabbath as Resistance, as a foundation.

From time to time I ask myself: Does my work really matter? Don’t get me wrong, ok? I LOVE being a pastor. I love preaching and teaching, I cherish pastoral calls and I have even grown to value and celebrate that rarely seen but absolutely essential aspect of ministry called administration. I treasure my work with my colleagues – you won’t find a better group of people doing ministry together than Carlton, Becky, Crystal, Mark and David – and the creativity and commitment of Church Council and our volunteers is profound.

And yet, in the quiet and dark moments of the night, when I am all alone and reflecting in prayer on the state of the world and my own soul, I have my doubts that the work I do really matters.  And I say this out loud because some of us think that doubt is the opposite of faith. We worry than when we are uncertain of God’s presence in our lives, when we weep and cry out, “Why is this happening to me, Lord?” or just throw up our hands in exasperation and say, “I give up – none of this makes sense – I don’t know what to believe!” we tend to think that this is somehow being unfaithful.

+  And I know you grasp what I’m trying to say because over the years I’ve heard you say to me and one another things like, “I know I shouldn’t feel like this… or have these questions… or be so confused but…” 

+  You have said those things before, right? Things like “where IS God in the midst of this mess? Or how can a loving God allow such horrors to like this happen?” Are you with me?

Well listen up because I want to remind you – and myself – that doubt is NOT the polar opposite of faith. Doubt is an integral element of a vibrant, adult faith – a way of taking us deeper into the mystery of God’s grace – a way of helping us come to trust the Lord beyond our feelings. I’m not saying that feelings are bad, just that they are just incomplete – partial clues in our quest for God’s assurance in the real world.

That wise old soul, Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico, recently put it like this: “The spiritual journey is a journey into Mystery, requiring us to enter the “cloud of unknowing” where the left brain always fears to tread. Precisely because we’re being led into Mystery, we have to let go of our need to know and our need to keep everything under control. Most of us are shocked to discover how great this need is.”

He goes on to clarify this point saying:

There are three primary things that we have to let go of: First is the compulsion to be successful. Second is the compulsion to be right—even, and especially, to be theologically right. (That’s merely an ego trip, and because of this need, churches have split in half, with both parties prisoners of their own egos.) And finally there is the compulsion to be powerful, to have everything under control. I’m convinced these are the three demons Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). And until we each look these three demons in their eyes, we should presume that they are still in charge in every life. The demons have to be called by name, clearly, concretely, and practically, spelling out just how imperious, controlling, and self-righteous we all are. This is the first lesson in the spirituality of subtraction.

And this spirituality of subtraction is what I want to talk about with you today as we continue the series “Sabbath as Resistance.” Jesus spoke of it when he told his disciples that the mystery of God’s way in the world could only be discussed in parables – weird, open-ended stories – that evoke more questions than answers. Our lesson from Matthew’s gospel says:  That’s all Jesus did that day – tell stories – it became one long, story-telling afternoon. This was to fulfill the prophecy of the Lord in Isaiah: God’s servant will open his mouth and tell stories; she will bring out into the open things once hidden since the world’s first day.

+  Just think of those stories:  God’s kingdom is like a nasty weed born of a mustard seed that is both ritually unclean AND a problem to the garden? Where is the blessing in that?

+  Or God’s invitation to grace is like a woman waiting for a loaf of bread to rise? That’s like telling us to stand by the stove and watch for the water to boil. Weird!

But such is the hidden wisdom of this spirituality of subtraction – the blessings born of resting on the Sabbath rather than adding more work and so-called productivity to our days – the embrace of God’s grace in our ordinary lives that comes to pass when we no longer need to be right or successful or in control.  That’s what inspires St. Paul when he tells us to look to the Cross as an icon of God’s presence rather than the symbols of wealth or power:  “The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. And if we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter: God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.”

And just so that there is no spiritual ambiguity, Paul goes on to say: With God on our side like this, how can we lose?

If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture.

+  That’s why I carry this little cross with me most days – and wear one around my neck, too – the Cross reminds me that God’s presence is real even when I am confused.

+  When my feelings cause me to question whether what I am doing really matters – when the evidence of the world is shaped by violence and fear, brokenness and obsession – the Cross tells me a different truth.  It speaks to me of God’s way – God’s spirituality of subtraction – that I need to keep returning to over and over again.

Professor Walter Brueggemann, in his reflections on honoring and hallowing
the Sabbath, calls doing this “resistance to coercion.”  You see, he wants us to know that the ancient story of Israel can also be read as a contemporary critique on our own stories even in 21st century America. “At Sinai” he writes, where Moses and his wandering people received the 10 Commandments, they made a defining choice. “Israel decided to trust the God who made heaven and earth, to rely on the guaranteed reliabilities of creation and to eschew the anxiety that comes from loss of confidence in the sureness of the creator and the goodness of creation.”

+  He goes on to tell us, however, that just because they made that choice once doesn’t mean that everything was simple and beautiful ever after! Sure they chose to honor the Lord in Exodus 20, but by Exodus 32 – when Moses had been gone on the mountain for forty days and forty nights – “they fell back into their anxiety” and started to worship OTHER gods.

+  Do you recall the whole story? With Moses gone, the people gathered up all their gold – that’s an important clue that has legs in 2014 – melted it all down and formed what?  A golden calf – an idol of fertility for many in the Middle East – around which God’s people started to drink and dance and offer up burnt sacrifices in wild abandon.

Now let’s think about this for just a moment: one of the things the Bible tells us if we’re paying attention is that people are just people. We screw up – we repent – we become fickle and afraid – and no matter how hard we try we are likely to fall back on our old ways when we get confused. It doesn’t matter if those old ways and ideas no longer serve us; if this story tells us anything it is that human beings often give up on the way of the Lord when we are uncertain and under pressure.  The story also tells us that God doesn’t quit on us, but it is clear that we often try to find short cuts or distractions in our confusion rather than go deeper into our commitment to the spirituality of subtraction.

+  We fall off the wagon – we go on a shopping spree when we’re depressed – we have an affair – we pick a fight – we binge and purge – we look to the absurdity of war when we don’t know how to find God’s peace.

+  Ancient Israel and modern people are not all that different: rather than wait for the water to boil or the bread to rise, we want to fix things right now and so turn to idols and old, worn-out habits or addictions that give us the illusion of control.

+  Brueggemann puts it like this with penetrating clarity: Israel imagined that with a rightly honored commodity, they could purchase their security in a world that seemed devoid of the creator.”

So Moses comes down off of the mountain and sees this drunken debauchery taking place around the golden calf – and he is furious. He is heart-broken and frustrated, he is anguished and afraid, he is bewildered and sickened. So he smashes the stone tablets upon which tradition tells us God inscribed the 10 Commandments. And this too is a very human response: have you ever broken something when you became angry or hurt?

+  I have – I’m not proud of it – but I’ve smashed things in anger: punched a hole in a door, kicked-in a kitchen cabinet, torn apart books and banged my head against the wall.

+  Moses shows us what humans often look like when we have been wounded or betrayed – it isn’t pretty – but it is true.

Now here’s the deeper truth: in his anger over the people’s betrayal, Moses breaks the covenant with God. We may miss that truth given the emotions of the story, but when Moses smashes the tablets, the covenant with the Lord “was dissolved… and for a moment in time Israel was rendered hopeless and Moses was bereft.”

Did you realize that part of the story? We are told that God was so broken hearted and angry that for a moment the covenant was dissolved. And it takes a ton of prayer and posturing by Moses to get the Holy One to relent. Christians tend to gloss over this nuance, but the story tells us that for a moment in time God withdrew grace and hope from Israel – they were left to fend for themselves (which is what the wrath of God means: God’s absence) – until “the God who nullified the covenant committed an enormous act of forgiveness and shared blessings again despite Israel’s anxiety.”

+  And central again to the new covenant was Sabbath:  Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.

+  Now why do you suppose God included mention of plowing time and harvest time in this new covenant? Brueggemann suggests that it has something to do with our charge to be stewards over all the earth.

“Humans are to participate in creating and caring for all of life, but they are to trust the land – trust creation – enough to rest, even in the busy agricultural seasons of sowing and reaping; human life is to conform to the rhythms of creation and when we are in sync with that, then we can rest and be free from anxiety.”

+  What are you thinking about all of this so far?  Any thoughts or reactions

+  Before I continue I am curious to know your reactions because I think this restoration of the covenant story is really powerful and valuable for our age that is so out of balance with work and anxiety.

As the story of Moses and Israel matures, eventually – after a full 40 years of wandering – they make it to the Promised Land.  And throughout the 40 years of wandering Moses has been teaching and training the people to remember: remember how easy it is to violate the covenant – remember where we came from – remember God’s forgiveness. Over and over again in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells his people:  do not forget.  Do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  Do not forget the Lord who released you from the house of slavery. Do not forget that God forgave us and renewed our covenant and blessings.

You see, Moses was particularly afraid that after the wandering in the desert, where life was hard, once Israel reached the bounty and beauty of the Promised Land, he was worried that they would forget the spirituality of subtraction. He is deeply concerned that when life became easy, Israel would do what many people do: forget the source of their blessings. Brueggemann calls this “social amnesia” wherein we forget the Lord and start to trust just ourselves. 

“This is the core argument of the book of Deuteronomy,” he tells us. The center of covenantal teaching is that: “life is NOT a rat race in which people remain exhausted from coercive goals; it is, rather, a covenantal enterprise exercised on behalf of the whole community.” We were created in blessing for the common good, not the pursuit of individual life, liberty and happiness. That is why when the 10 Commandments are restated in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is defined by God’s act of liberation:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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 your female slave or your ox or your donkey or any of your live stock or even the resident alien in your towns, so that all may rest as well as you. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-14)

+  Did you grasp the change in this restatement of the commandment? God’s work in creation is no longer the core – there is no mention of how God was at work in the beginning of time in Deuteronomy – just God’s act of liberation from slavery in Egypt.

+  Because we are so likely to forget, God calls to remember that we were set free in order to live in balance with the way of the Lord – that includes women and men, children and animals and even the refugees and undocumented workers caring for us in our various towns and communities – we are ALL to rest as a way to remember God’s gracious forgiveness for it is so easy to forget

On Monday I was reading in the NY Times a story called “In the Battleground of Words, Hatred and Muddied Reality”- it is about how both Palestine and Israel have forgotten the common humanity of one another – especially in their wars of propaganda.  Palestine insists that whenever talking about the dead they must always be called “innocent citizens” while Israel on describing the dead as “human shields sacrificed by heartless terrorists.”

The report goes on to tell us that recently countless Israeli cell phone users “received a text message that bragged: we forced you to hide in shelters like mice.” It also notes that when slain Palestinian women and children are discussed on Israeli TV they are mostly called “the uninvolved.” Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, asks us to think about such Orwellian language.
“There’s something about this ‘uninvolved, something passive about it. You admit that he or she is not somebody who is trying to destroy you, but you don’t give them any other identification (or humanity.) It was not a child who wanted to learn how to play the piano… it was just somebody who didn’t shoot at us.” (NY Times, July 21, 2014)

We become our worst selves when we don’t remember. We fall back into our
worst habits, traditions and addictions when we don’t remember. We become agents of hatred and self-loathing when we don’t remember. To which our sacred tradition says: REMEMBER THE SABBATH AND KEEP IT HOLY AS THE LORD YOUR GOD COMMANDED YOU.

+  Sabbath breaks the cycle of coercion and lets us know that:  we do not have to do more, we do not have to sell more, we do not have to control more, we do not have to know more, we do not have to take our children to another ballet, dance or sporting event, we do not have to try to become more beautiful or younger than the latest sexy starlet or hunk on 

+  And we do not have to score more than this or that opponent. If we practice Sabbath, if we remember, we break the pattern of coercion and anxiety so that all of creation becomes like us – equals – with equal worth, equal value, equal access to resources and equal rest.

 “Sabbath,” concludes Professor Brueggemann, “in this interpretive tradition, is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for re-imaging all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity and equality.” We are always tempted or lured to forget – we are often confused to wonder if our lives have value and meaning – to which the Lord says: Remember… remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… for when you do you will know that I have already given you everything you need for life. Such is the good news for those who have ears to hear.



ddl said…
RJ-- This is wonderful. Really fine...Esp. the part about Moses breaking the covenant in anger...worth meditating on. Definitely. And an interesting juxtaposition with a "vacation" book I am reading by G. May on Will and Spirit. Heady stuff. Describes spiritual error(s). I have definitely come to the end of my wits, any illusion of control, and any comprehension of this current "chapter." Perhaps in the unknowing there is knowing and rest (Sabbath) but more of the Jubilee sort (LOL).
Next time, I think that I'll just pick a beach read. :)
RJ said…
I love Gerald May - very challenging and insightful - but you are right from time to time a good summer read is just what the Spirit ordered. I am reading a LOT of stuff on Israel and Palestine - as well as Slow Church and Brueggeman - but also Danse Macabre by Gerald Elias - who has an ongoing relationship with Tanglewood Music Festival. It is hard going when we come to realize that there is almost NOTHING we can control; but therein comes the blessing, too. You are often in my prayers.

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