Sunday, October 8, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words: 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. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
Her name was Maria Fernandes. She was the 32 year old daughter of Portuguese immigrants who had settled first in Massachusetts and later in New Jersey. Maria was trying to make a living working a minimum wage job. That’s impossible, of course, so Maria actually had three minimum wage jobs – all at Dunkin’ Donuts. Working three jobs at three different stores meant that Maria hardly ever had a full night’s sleep. Instead, she would nap a few hours here and there between shifts inside her 2001 Kia Sportage.
Early one Monday morning in 2014, Maria pulled into a gas station parking lot in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in order to sleep a little while she left her car running. There was a container of gasoline in the back of the SUV, that, unbeknownst to the sleep-deprived Maria, had tipped over. The gas fumes and the carbon monoxide killed her as she slept. But one could just as easily say that the cause of her death was exhaustion.
Friends and co-workers remembered her as a sweet person with a soft spot for animals. And, they said, she was a very hard-working person. She never missed a day of work – until that Monday.
Maria Fernandes was exhausted and distracted and overburdened. Most of us are too. We may not be working three jobs, but we also run around on too little sleep and too much anxiety.
The statistics about our frenetic pace are staggering: Americans leave 765 million vacation days a year unused. Even when we are out of the workplace, we’re still working – enough that it adds up to a day of overtime each week. 66% of us check work email while we’re on vacation. 50% of us check it in bed. And 38% of us check our email at the dinner table. Americans take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later than the rest of the world. -- And here’s the thing: we’re proud of it.
We’re proud of it, despite the fact that enshrined in the Ten Commandments, those hallowed and foundational words for Jews and Christians alike, is a commandment to take regular and methodical rest. Still, someone has called this commandment the “Rodney Dangerfield of the Decalogue” because it gets no respect. It gets no respect because we no longer respect the idea behind it. Practicing Sabbath has passed into history like rotary telephones and typewriters – outdated, inefficient, quaint.
The Ten Commandments are what biblical scholars call the "apodictic law"; that is those things that are absolutely certain or necessary. In other words, there is no debate or nuance here. And these commandments are traditionally broken down into two groupings: the commands to love and honor God; and the commands to love and honor one another.
The first four are said to be about God: don’t have any other gods; don’t worship idols; don’t use God’s name for evil purposes; and remember the Sabbath day. The final six are said to be about others: respect your parents; don’t kill; don’t cheat on love; don’t steal; don’t give false testimony in court; and be content with what you have. But not all of these Ten Commandments fit so neatly into those two categories. Some of them straddle the fence – like Commandment Number Four. Yes, Sabbath-keeping is about God, but it is also about us. And it is about others.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
Now I don’t preach this sermon today as someone who always keeps Sabbath well. I confess that I derive a great deal of my self-worth and my identity from my work. I love my Monday day off, but truth be told I often have no idea what to do with it. And so, I just find different kinds of work to do because busyness and productivity are my addictions; maybe even my gods. But Sabbath challenges that skewed view of life and seeks to restore the divine order.
Sabbath imposes a rhythm on a hectic, demanding world. Sabbath is a deep breath in a breathless world. Sabbath creates a space for God in a godless world. Therefore, says theologian Walter Brueggemann, sabbath is a form of resistance. In a world addicted to busyness as proof of our worth, Sabbath says: “that’s enough of that.” Sabbath asks the question: “Do you really trust God to be God?” Sabbath insists that we are mere mortals. Therefore, Sabbath is a form of resistance.
And Sabbath is also an act of justice. Keeping Sabbath is also about the other. In this sentimentally religious country of ours, we like the idea of the Ten Commandments. We like them on monuments in front of court houses. But if we took the commandment to rest as seriously as we took the commandment not to kill, then Maria Fernandes might still be alive. If we took the commandment to rest as seriously as we took the commandment not to steal, then there might be a living wage for everyone, so that everyone could enjoy the Sabbath.
A Sabbath observed would also mean more justice for the earth itself. Our addiction to frenetic activity actually results in a more polluted planet. Imagine if there were one day a week when we all stopped shopping and demanding the kinds of 24/7 services that force others to work and drive their cars and keep their lights on. What if once a week, the planet got to rest too? Now lest you think that this is some new-fangled, “woke” idea, it’s important to remember that ancient Jewish law required that once every seven years the fields were to lie fallow. A Sabbath rest for the earth.
So, Sabbath is about resistance and Sabbath is about justice. But Sabbath also does something deeply personal for us. It resets us. It reboots us. We are simply not made to work all of the time; to be engaged and stimulated every second. We, literally, can’t take it. This is such an important thing for us to learn that a Holy and Eternal God, not constricted by human frailty, rested on the seventh day of Creation as an example for us. Genesis 2:1-3 reads: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested…”
Sabbath is an incredible gift, because it allows us to experience again this fleeting gift called being alive. We so often miss the devastating beauty of the ordinary. We don’t even see sunsets or feel the heartbeat of a lover or taste all the notes in a wine. We eat on the run and multitask and fret and worry and fall into bed only to get up and do it all over again – until one day we never do it again.
There is an old Jewish Sabbath prayer about the fleeting nature of our lives and what we miss because we do not pause to see. And it goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”
Sabbath rest is about making time to see the miracles; to open one’s eyes to the glory of being alive. And Sabbath is also about building a world in which Maria Fernandes and child workers in Haiti and the tech slaves in China all have the same God-given right.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”