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Sun, Aug 25, 2019

Trampling the Sabbath

Duration:19 mins 51 secs

Our Second Reading for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 9-14. God’s people have returned home from their exile in Babylon. They are seeking to rebuild their community, the temple, and their lives. As you can imagine this is not easy work, especially when they have not yet found the land of milk and honey promised to them before they left Babylon. In the midst of these great challenges, the prophet reminds the people about a delight. Let us hear this Word of God.

9b If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

What is the first thing that comes to mind for you when you hear the word, “Sabbath?” They say that lawyers should always know the answer to the questions they ask in a courtroom. Perhaps that applies to preachers who ask questions on Facebook too. Because I asked that question, what do you think of when you hear the word “Sabbath,” in the Sunday’s Coming video this week. Someone on Facebook responded, “Black Sabbath.” Now, I was not really planning to talk about the Ozzy Osborne led English Heavy Metal Rock Band from the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s this morning. I am not sure how many of you first thought about head-banging music with the word “Sabbath.” But that answer does illustrate that our understandings of “Sabbath” are all over the map.

Some of you may remember when the culture supported Sabbath observance by Christians on Sundays. Not the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, no the culture supported the Christian Sabbath. Especially here in the South, it was strictly enforced. Blue laws kept the stores closed; movie theaters sat empty; the newspaper and the comics had to wait until Monday; and having fun, especially as a child, was expressly forbidden. Many remember it as a day of restrictions and “Thou shalt nots ….” Others remember it as a day for church and family lunches and a change of pace to life.

I suspect you realize all of that the cultural props for Sabbath observance are gone. Stores are open seven days a week. Walmart is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And you can certainly buy anything on-line whenever you like. I remember when I was young there being gates across certain aisles in the grocery store on Sundays until about 1 PM. You could buy most things on Sunday mornings, but alcohol and other “temptations” were restricted until Sunday afternoon.

However, I suspect there are at least two generations present here today who have no recollection of a time when Sunday commerce was any different than any other day. So, for others Sabbath no longer means a day on which stores remain closed. Instead, the word Sabbath has become a way to talk about “me time” or “getting away from it all.” Sabbath is synonymous with leisure. It is an afternoon or maybe just a moment squeezed in when all of the other items on the to do list have been checked off. And there are always more items on the list.

We tend to forget that “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right up there with “do not murder,” “do not commit adultery” and “have no other gods before me.” Yes, keeping the Sabbath should be serious business. Christian theologian and writer Dorothy C. Bass tells about the moment when she first realized how serious this commandment is. She was sitting around a dinner table one Saturday night with several teacher friends. Together they complained of the great piles of papers that they would grade the next day because they had promised to return them to students on Monday. The complaints turned into boasts and a humorous contest about who had the most to grade, who worked the hardest, and whose job placed the greatest demands upon her time. However, in the midst of the conversation, she suddenly realized that “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” was not a suggestion. Bass writes,

This was a commandment, one of the ten laws in the basic moral codes of Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization, and here we were hatching plans to violate it. I could not imagine this group sitting around saying, ‘I’m planning to take God’s name in vain’; ‘I’m planning to commit adultery’; ‘I think I’ll steal something.’ … We had become so captivated by our work, so impressed by its demands on us and by our own indispensability, that [the Sabbath commandment] had simply vanished from our consciousness.

Yes, the answers to my question about the Sabbath are all over the map – from memories of strict laws and thou shalt nots to heavy metal rock bands to no consciousness of it at all. So, what do we do with this commandment?

In our text for today, the people of Israel know the pressure and demands of their work. They are back in Israel, but their country is in ruins. The people living there are not pleased, to put it mildly, to have folks who have been gone for four generations suddenly show up and say, “By the way - all this land belongs to us because our God said so.” So, the Israelites are trying to rebuild. They need homes. They need security. They need protection. They need crops and food. They are under threat. To say that we are busy today - and no doubt we are - is nothing like the pressure of mere survival faced by the Israelites after their return from exile.

So, what does Isaiah tell them? If you just work a little harder, you will succeed? If you manage to find a better plan, I am sure everyone will pull together? If you just take some “me time,” then all will be well?

No, Isaiah provides a word from the Lord about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The people face incredible demands on their time and their work. And Isaiah’s answer is: stop trampling on the Sabbath. They need to remember it, to keep it, to delight in it. And not just as “me time.” In fact, “me time” seems to be the very definition of trampling on the Sabbath for they are to refrain from pursuing their own interests, going their own ways, serving their own affairs.

So, what then are the people to do on this Sabbath day? I think the verses just before provide some guidance. Isaiah does not tell them to spend all day in church or just sit around twiddling their thumbs. No, Isaiah says:

9b If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Keeping the Sabbath is a community event. It is about creating conditions in which everyone can enjoy the gift of rest that the Lord provides. So, it looks like lifting the yoke of oppression from those who are suffering. It looks like stopping the blame game in which everything is someone else’s fault. It looks like holding our tongue and refusing to speak evil of others. It looks like offering food to those who are hungry. It looks like satisfying the needs of the afflicted. It looks like Jesus healing a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. On this weekend in which we remember the 400th anniversary of the first African to arrive on these shores as a slave, we confess our nation’s original sin and its lingering effects on our life today. It looks like at least asking questions about an economic system in which many people have to work two and three jobs, seven days a week, just to make ends meet. Yes, keeping the Sabbath looks like pausing from the busyness of our own important work to ensure that everyone can partake of the gift of rest.

Presbyterian Pastor Adam Borneman puts it this way:

If we are to sustain our journey along that long arc bending toward justice, we need to rest. Rest is not opposed to work, but necessary for its completion. The rhythm of rest and work structures the active life so that it is focused, purposeful, effective, and sustainable. The Sabbath is a day set aside not for escaping the harsh realities of life and its required work, but for the purpose of being more mindful of how we approach these realities as followers of Jesus. The principle of Sabbath orients our discipleship in the direction of justice and freedom, as we become obedient to the fact that everything belongs to God and that we are to be stewards for the sake of all people, not just ourselves.

During the struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s, occasionally a pause was needed. Some of you may remember that on March 7, 1965, as they attempted to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, approximately 600 African Americans beginning a march to Montgomery in support of voting rights were brutally attacked and beaten by state troopers and local lawmen. Broadcast live across the nation, “Bloody Sunday” triggered national outrage. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had not been present for the Sunday march, issued a call for religious leaders to join in a peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom to be held on Tuesday, March 9. People from across the nation descended upon Selma to join him.

Tuesday arrived and a crowd of thousands followed Dr. King from downtown Selma to the bridge. Reaching the site of the Sunday attack, Dr. King and the marchers knelt to pray. After several minutes, Dr. King stood and, much to the surprise of those who had gathered, he led the marchers back to Selma.

Many civil rights leaders and marchers were critical of Dr. King’s unexpected decision to turn the march around, to not press ahead toward confrontation on the road to the Montgomery. They had come to march, not simply to pray and return to Selma. Two weeks would pass before Dr. King finally led the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, this time with federal protection.

I think that was a Sabbath moment. A pause. A recalibration. A recognition that they needed to follow God’s direction. Not trampling the Sabbath by rushing ahead, pursuing their own interests, and going their own way. In the end, they were successful in their march. Yes, the principle of Sabbath orients our discipleship.

My friends, if we keep the Sabbath, if we delight in it, if we allow ourselves to remember that we are not in control, if we join together to ensure that everyone can receive the gift of rest, then, as Isaiah says,

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Just as in Isaiah’s day, there are many breaches to be repaired. Sins linger for generations. Do not grow weary of the important work for justice, but do not think that you must bear the burden alone. For the Sabbath is not just a list of thou shalt nots. Neither is something to be ignored. No, when we work for the freedom of all, for the conditions in which all might know the gift of rest, then the Lord will lift us up and we will soar in delight together.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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