Our first reading this morning is the version of the Ten Commandments taken from the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments are, of course, the cornerstone of Jewish law. Over the course of the past several weeks, our Old Testament readings have told the story of the life of oppression the Jews lived under Pharaoh in Egypt. We have heard how Moses led the people out through the Red Sea, how God gave them manna in the wilderness as they wandered, and today about God’s covenant with them on Mt. Sinai. The Ten Commandments are, in Israel’s understanding, the terms on which God will have a relationship with human beings. I will be your God and you will keep these commandments. The terms of the relationship are an ethical, rather than a monetary or political obligation.
Today I want to talk about only ONE of these ten Commandments. I want to talk about the one that nearly every contemporary person in Western culture, especially America, disobeys. Now I hear you all thinking to yourselves, which one is he talking about? Covetousness? Bearing false witness? Honoring one’s parents? Maybe even adultery? No, I think many of us do a pretty good job of trying to abide by the Ten Commandments, but there is one commandment that every one of us routinely and flagrantly disregards.
I refer, of course, to the commandment on the Sabbath. Listen again:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For 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. [Exodus 20: 8-11]
Now before you tell me that I’m being harsh, that we Americans actually do our best to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, I ask you to think about the actual culture we live in—a culture where people boast of being on duty “24/7”, a culture in which people are praised for never taking days off or vacations, a culture in which even the days off we do take are filled with feverish, frantic activity. I was once asked in a public forum what I considered the greatest threat to Christianity in the 21st century. “Soccer,” I replied.
The Sabbath, as God describes it to Moses here in Exodus 20 (and in greater depth in Deuteronomy 5) is not simply a day for a different kind of activity. It is a day of rest. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read about how God made the world in six days and on the seventh he rested. One way to understand the Sabbath is the idea of divine rest. If even GOD needed a day of rest after making the world, you and I need to step back from labor ourselves. To say that we require rest is to admit that we are finite. And if there is anything we do not like, it is the idea that even we might have limitations.
But there is more to Sabbath than that. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann makes the case that the Jewish Sabbath is directly tied to the world left behind in Egypt. As he says, “The conduct of Yahweh on the seventh day is in sharp contrast to the world of pharaoh, in which there is no rest but only feverish productivity. “ Pharaoh’s brickyards were like 21st century sweatshops, where Jewish slaves were driven mercilessly to ever more oppressive labor. The world of the Exodus, the new community to which Israel is going, will be an anti-Egypt, and the God who rules it is an anti-Pharaoh. Again, Brueggemann:
[The command on the Sabbath looks forward] to a human community, an Israelite community peaceably engaged in neighbor-respecting life that is not madly engaged in production and consumption, but one that knows a limit to such activity and so has at the center of its life an enactment of peaceableness that bespeaks the settled rule of Yahweh. [Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 185]
In other words: the community that God’s relationship with Israel creates in the Covenant on Mt. Sinai is a world radically different from the Egypt the Israelites escaped. That new Jewish world is a world of peace and wholeness and abundance and generosity. And the symbol that singly most perfectly embodies and represents God’s will for that new world is the institution of the Sabbath.
Those of us who are older than a certain age will remember a time when the world was not a 24/7 world, a time when stores were not open on Sundays, a time when they didn’t say, “If you don’t come in to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday” even as a joke. I say this not to sound like an old crank but rather to raise the theological question: in our exaltation of work over rest, in our relentless pressure to be responsive to the unending barrage of information that comes toward us, in our turning even childhood into a time of ceaseless activity and obligation, are we not turning America into Pharaoh’s brickyard? And if we live in Pharaoh’s brickyard, are we not in some sense living and acting as slaves?
I think that our willful, prideful disregard of the Sabbath commandment is a sign of our deep spiritual disease. It is one thing to disobey a commandment; it is altogether something else to take pride in doing so. Which one of us would get up publicly and say, “I’m a murderer! I’m an adulterer! I’m a thief! I’m a liar!” Yet how many of us boast of our willingness to work without rest. There are, of course, times when urgent necessity gives way to religious rules. As Jesus himself said, the Sabbath was made for human beings and not the other way around. But to the extent that our lives are lived in chaotic bondage to the demands of the 24/7 world, and to the greater extent that we are prideful about that bondage, hearing the Fourth Commandment today calls us to think again about how and why we spend our time.
The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said this about the Sabbath:
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It 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. [Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath]
In other words: take a day off! That’s not just lifestyle advice. It’s a commandment! May each of us hear in this teaching God’s call to the freedom of rest. God has sanctified a day of the week as the place where we can shut out other noise, so that we will hear God’s voice and be open to it in the deepest places of our authentic selves. May we have grace to listen to that voice, to respond in obedience, and so be truly free in the Exodus from Pharaoh’s brickyard to the promised land of milk and honey symbolized so perfectly in the idea of Sabbath. Amen.