Sermon for September 1st, 2013

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Matthew 22:-34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 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. 15 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.

A Labor-less Day

At a local church one day, the pastor saw a little boy standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at a display on the wall. He stopped and said hello to the boy, and the little boy asked him "Pastor, what are all those little American flags hanging on the wall for?" The wall was covered with dozens and dozens of flags. The pastor answered, "Each one of those American flags is a patriotic memorial to the many members of our church, who, over the years have died in the service." When he heard this, the little boy turned as white as a sheet. In a trembling, quiet voice, he said, "Pastor...was it the 9:00 or the 11:00 service?"

That joke has absolutely nothing to do with today's sermon, but since we begin our 9:00 Contemporary service today, and we now have two worship services for the first time in many years, I thought it was appropriate. We'll certainly pray that no one dies in the service today!

We're working our way through each of the Ten Commandments this fall, and today's commandment is number four: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. This commandment marks a turning point, a shift in the ten commandments--all of the previous commandments are primarily about how we relate to God (You shall have no other gods before me, don't make any idols, don't misuse the name of God), and all of the commandments after this one have to do with how we relate to each other (honor your parents, don't kill each other, don't steal each other's stuff, etc.). This split in the commandments is also reflected in our first scripture reading, in Jesus' answer to the Pharisees about the greatest commandment: Jesus says it's to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

So the big question for today's commandment is this: Which category does it fit in? Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Is this commandment about how we relate to God, or how we relate to each other? Most people tend to put it in the God category, but today I'm going to make a case that this is wrong: This is the first of the commandments that teach us how to relate to each other.

Now, the popular understanding of this commandment--that it tells us how to relate to God--hinges on the word "Holy." Keep the sabbath day holy. For us, holy means sacred, pertaining to the divine, basically having to do with God. Keep this day holy means "keep it focused on God." On our sabbath day, we should go to church, pray, think about all sorts of "holy" things.

Now don't misunderstand me--I appreciate all of you coming to church on Sunday (especially on Labor day weekend!), and I'm not about to send you home just yet. The Bible talks in plenty of other places about how important it is for God's people to gather together on a regular basis for worship and fellowship. But I don't think the fourth commandment is telling us to pick one day out of seven and make that day "God's special day." The danger with that understanding is that if we make one day "God's special day" we tend to forget that ALL of our days belong to God. If I go to church on Sunday...worship God (check), pray (check), read the bible (check) I'm done for the week. See you next Sunday, God! Can you imagine if God did that to us? Imagine standing at the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven and hearing God say, "Well, you can come in for one day each week. The other six days you might have to belong to somebody else..."

When God said, "remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy" I don't think that's what he had in mind. The word we translate as "holy" is the Hebrew word קֹדֶשׁ (kodesh). It literally means "set apart." Often in the Bible that does indeed mean set apart to be sacred, holy, belonging to God. But sometimes it just means set apart...from other things. Different. How do you know which meaning to use? Well, you look at the context.

In this case, the sabbath day is set apart from the other six days. What do we do on the other six days? Verse 13-14: "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." The sabbath day is set apart, different, because we don't work. We rest. Notice also that verse 14 says the seventh day is a sabbath TO the Lord your God, not FOR the Lord your God. There's a slight, but important difference here: The seventh day is a sabbath TO God, because God observed the sabbath also. In another version of the fourth commandment, the one found in Exodus 20:11, we read: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day." In observing the sabbath, we are following God's example. If the sabbath is a day set apart to worship God, then what are we saying God did on that first sabbath? Worship himself? No, on the sabbath, God rested. And that is what he asks us to remember in the fourth commandment.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that all the commandments can be divided into those that teach us how to relate to God, and those that teach us how to relate to others. I've said that the fourth commandment is not about how we relate to God. But if that's true, what exactly does remembering the sabbath--keeping it set apart, resting--have to do with relating to others?

Listen to the rest of the fourth commandment: Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 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.

In other words, don't just provide for your own sabbath, your own rest--you are also responsible for making sure that the people around you have a healthy balance of work and rest, too. Hopefully, none of you have male or female slaves. One or two of you may actually have some oxen and/or donkeys. But this certainly includes those who serve you, wait on you, and clean up after restaurants, shopping malls, your is not a luxury for the privileged classes--it's a gift from God to everyone, and it's our job to protect it for each other.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the ten commandments are a call to all of God's people to turn away from the prevailing empires and powers of the day, and follow God into a new way of life. I'd like to tell you three, short stories now--one from Ancient Egypt, one from the dawn of the modern era, and one from our own time. I think you'll see a pattern emerge.

The first is actually from the beginning of the book of Exodus, before Moses arrives on the scene. Exodus 1:7-14: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The Egyptian empire--the greatest power of its day, a civilization that gave us many wonderful gifts for which we remain grateful, including paper, glass, astronomy, medicine, and hydraulic engineering. You might say the Egyptians invented technology, or at least the earliest large scale construction machines in order to build giant pyramids, monuments and other buildings. But to accomplish all that building required labor. A lot of labor. And according to Exodus, a lot of labor with no rest, no sabbath in Pharoah's kingdom. Into this picture steps Moses, calling the children of Israel into a new relationship with a new King, one who says "Remember the sabbath day. No matter how hard you have to work--and you will still have to work hard--you will always have the sabbath day to look forward to, there will always be an end in sight, you will always have a day of rest.

Fast forward almost three thousand years to the 18th century, the beginning of the industrial revolution. Like Ancient Egypt, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States gave us remarkable gifts: steam and coal powered factories of mass-production that raised the income and standard of living for countless people. Rapid and affordable transportation that brought people together across the world. Gas and electric lighting, mass production of food and medicine that were previously inaccessible to most. And yet, all those machines, all that technology, all those factories of mass-production...required massive amounts of labor. Massive exploitation of labor. Unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in factories. Child labor. Long hours and once again, no sabbath, no rest. Into this picture eventually came the labor movement, which organized and fought for and end to child labor, a 40 hour workweek, and the minimum wage. Tomorrow when you celebrate Labor day, remember those for whom it was named. While you're at it, you might thank them for the whole "weekend" thing, too.

Fast forward one more time to the present day. We are at the dawn of a new revolution, a digital revolution. The internet, and wireless and mobile technology has connected us in ways we never could have imagined 10 years ago. And that's a good thing--I would be a hypocrite standing in front of you with my tablet in hand, cell phone in my pocket, telling you that digital technology is bad. Some people are starting to sing that song, however, saying that we should turn everything off and pull the plug to save ourselves from a fragmented life of cyber insanity.

I don't believe that, anymore than I believe we should have dismantled the first automobile, or ripped up the first piece of parchment. Like the technological revolutions before it, the digital revolution will ultimately bring about more good in the world than evil, more progress than decline, more connectedness than isolation, despite what the naysayers will continue to say. God is not one of those naysayers, at least not in the fourth commandment. God doesn't say: "Stop working, working is bad." He says, work six days, but rest one. I don't think it really matters too much which one--my sabbath certainly isn't on Sunday, I'm working right now! It may not even come in one 24 hour chunk. But take time to rest. Use your digital technology to do great things--but remember to see and connect with the people behind that technology too. I'm going to close with a video that says it better than I can. I think it captures the heart of the fourth commandment, and how remembering the concept of sabbath relates to loving those around us. Video: Disconnect 2 Connect

I've got one last idea to help us honor our sabbath, and to help us honor each other in the weeks to come: As often as you can, sit down across a table from another person and share a meal together. It could be with your family, with a friend, or even a complete stranger. As you eat together, talk to each other. Don't answer your phone. Don't watch TV together, watch each other. Listen to each other. Look each other in the eyes. This is what the Ancient Israelites did to remember their escape from Egypt. This is what Jesus did with his disciples at the last supper. This is what we do when we celebrate communion together.

There is something powerful in the simplicity of a shared meal. I think it's the power of sabbath, the power of shared rest, set apart from the work and weariness of the world. Come to your rest. Come to your Sabbath. Come to the table of the Lord.