Sunday, September 7, 2014

Phil Kniss: Does God need rest?

Church matters: Keeping Sabbath
Genesis 2:1-3; Psalm 95; Luke 13:10-17; Hebrews 4:1-11

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As Barbara mentioned,
and as outlined in a half-sheet bulletin insert today,
we’re coming back to what we did earlier this year,
looking at the practices of the church,
that will help the church move faithfully
into a 21st-century, post-Christendom future.

I need to unpack what I just said.
I mean, these are challenging times for the church.
And I’m not just talking about the conflicts going on right now,
as important as they are.
Specific theological and ethical issues are important,
and we should engage them
respectfully, thoughtfully, prayerfully.

But in a way, the current conflicts are a symptom
of deeper, underlying challenges we face,
challenges that are as much social and political and cultural,
as they are theological and biblical.

In short, in this 21st-century, Western, post-Christian
social context we find ourselves in,
we in the church are confused about our identity as a people.
We’re not quite sure who we are as a body,
and how that relates to the larger culture we inhabit.
We aren’t all even clear that we want to be, as a church,
a Christ-shaped, concrete social reality in the world.
Many Christians just see the church as a place, a house of worship,
where Christians individually attend, if they so choose,
in order to worship, and fellowship,
and participate in wholesome religious programs.

Attending and participating is all good, of course,
but some of those Christians start looking a little confused,
if you start talking about the church
as a particular, local, concrete social expression of the Gospel—
as a community of the kingdom of God,
governed by kingdom politics, and loyal to kingdom values—
as a society living as a sort of an exiled community,
within the dominant culture.

You just get a blank look if you say we are like resident aliens,
that hold a green card in this culture, as it were,
a card that allows us to live and work here,
and do business here, and even invest deeply,
here and now, in this world and this culture . . .
but that we hold our citizenship in a larger, greater kingdom,
and that kingdom is what really shapes our identity.

And this confusion about our identity has ripple effects.
The more confused we are about ourselves,
the less clearly we define ourselves to the world,
and the more the world loses interest in us.
We bore them!
So they ignore us.

And we, in large part, are responsible for that.
Our tendency to cloister ourselves in our religious
structures and programs . . .
Our use of insider language . . .
Our constant infighting with each other,
while ignoring the deep and systemic problems of the world . . .
Our tendency to get more exercised and motivated
over cashiers who say “Happy holidays”
instead of “Merry Christmas,”
than we do over the breakdown of God’s shalom in creation.

Much of the modern Western world looks at the church,
and wonders what we are all about,
if it bothers to wonder at all.
Mostly, it has moved past us, and isn’t listening anymore.

That, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
is the reason we did “Part 1” earlier this year,
and the reason it’s important that we do “Part 2” now.

It’s so we get more clear about who we are,
and what makes us who we are,
in order that we might live with more intentionality in the world.
It’s that we might embody the rule and reign of God in the world,
as a concrete, social reality—
not just an idea, but a social reality—
a real community that functions, here and now,
as a living demonstration plot of God’s reign.

In two words, church matters.
Church matters to God.
Church matters to God’s reign and rule in the world.
God has invested God’s future in the church.
And I don’t mean any one singular form of the church.
God has not put the future of the Kingdom on the shoulders
of our denomination or conference or congregation.
These are all frail forms we put on,
as we fumble around trying to be faithful
as far as we know, as far as we can see.

But the church that matters to God is a real social entity.
It is a real peoplehood of believers,
in covenant with each other,
seeking God’s word and will together,
open to the Holy Spirit,
gathered around the scriptures,
expecting to find God at work in the world around them.
Even as they boldly proclaim the love and mercy of God,
they are expectant, yielded, humble,
open, hospitable, attentive,
ready to be transformed, and changed.

So the whole assumption behind this series
is that if we want to become that kind of peoplehood,
we must engage in the practices that shape us as such a people.
If we want to recover a clear identity as a people,
it won’t be by discovering just the right words to say,
and saying them often enough.
It will be by deepening our shared, communal, intentional practices.

Church renewal won’t come from some shiny new idea,
or technique, or restructuring process, or strategic plan.
It will come if we have the good sense
to hold lightly to our present cultural forms,
and to hold on for dear life, to our real treasures,
the practices that shape us for life as God’s people in the world.

In your bulletin is a list of practices we already looked at,
in January and February,
and the practices we will be looking at in the coming weeks.

So let’s jump right in, and examine this morning’s practice—
keeping Sabbath.
Today, I may not say what you expect me to say about the Sabbath,
because I’m asking how we keep Sabbath in 21st century,
Western, post-Christendom.
It will look a bit different than it did for the church 300 years ago,
and different than for the church many of us grew up in.

This is not about legislating public behavior,
like the 1695 law in the New York colony that read,
“Be it therefore enacted that there shall be no traveling, [working],
shooting, fishing, sporting, playing . . .
or frequenting of tippling houses . . .
by any of the inhabitants [of] this province,
or by any of their slaves or servants, on the Lord’s day.”
Punishment was a six-shilling fine, or three hours in the stocks.
Interesting, that slavery was fine. Fishing on Sunday was not.

In our Virginia colony,
if someone broke Virginia’s Sunday restrictions three times,
they faced the death penalty.
As late as 1897, in Connecticut,
a storekeeper was indicted, and prosecuted,
for selling a box of Daisy brand crackers
between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday.

Of course, that’s ancient history.
And we could have fun telling stories about our own history
of what we could or couldn’t do on Sundays.
But there is something more important at stake here,
for the life of the church, and for God’s mission in the world,
than rules about selling and sporting and working on Sunday.

Rules have their place,
but the kind of Sabbath keeping I’m talking about
is a powerful, counter-cultural, and communal witness
against a culture of accumulation, hoarding, individualism,
violence, mistrust, and fear of never having enough.

A more wholistic, and wholesome practice of keeping Sabbath,
does not put the accent on what we’re “not allowed to do,”
as if Sabbath were an unfortunate burden to bear,
in order to purify us.
No, far from it, Sabbath, is without a doubt,
a wonderful, miraculous gift
from a generous Creator God,
who set the example by first enjoying the gift himself,
after doing the work of Creation.

Did God rest on the Sabbath,
because after six days of working hard on creation,
God was plum tuckered out?
Did God rest because God needed it?
because it was good for God’s emotional well-being?
because if he didn’t get enough rest, he would get cranky,
and maybe destroy the world with a flood?

That’s a little bit ridiculous, I know, to talk like that.
But if God set an example for us,
that must be what we’re saying.
Because we act like the whole reason for us to keep the Sabbath,
is because we need the rest,
because it’s good for our health,
kind of like a dose of medicine.
I’m not arguing that rest isn’t good for our health.
Obviously, it is.
But here’s the problem with a “Sabbath-as-good-medicine” mindset.
If all Sabbath is to us,
is a counter-balance
for working too hard the other six days,
then we have gutted the practice of its rich meaning.
We have made it basically something,
that we take, as needed, to treat symptoms.
And if we’re doing pretty well, health-wise,
getting exercise, sleeping well, eating well,
then Sabbath isn’t really all that big a deal.

Sabbath is so much more than good medicine.
If there would be just one practice we might engage in as a church,
as a counter-cultural society,
a practice that would shape us profoundly
into a whole different kind of people,
I would vote for that being the practice of Sabbath.

Sabbath is robust enough to change the way we look at the world,
and the way we live in it.
It is powerful enough to carry the bulk of the Gospel message,
it proclaims the Gospel story in action.

You see, there is a false gospel story our world operates by,
a story that drives our economy,
that fuels our adversarial politics,
that ensures there will always be wars,
and rumors of wars.
It is the story of scarcity, that there is never enough for all.
That I must, at any cost,
get what I need before somebody else takes it.
And that story drives us crazy!
We live that story when we work, and produce, and accumulate,
or think about working, producing, and accumulating,
24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
That story is anti-gospel, and anti-Sabbath.

As Walter Brueggemann says,
the world’s narrative of scarcity leads to anxiety,
which leads to accumulation,
which leads to monopoly,
which leads to violence.

And Sabbath is saying a loud “NO!” to that story.

Sabbath is the alternative, the gift of a generous Creator God.
It is the joyous, abundant Gospel story,
that started on Day 7 of Creation.
In Sabbath, God offers us a generous bonus!
Seven days of full, abundant living for only six days of work.
It’s based on God’s economics, not ours.
God did not rest on the seventh day, because he needed the rest.
God rested, because God could.
Because what God had already done was good,
and it was enough.
Sabbath, and our concept of “enough”
are closely tied together.

By keeping Sabbath,
we are receiving the gracious word of God to us,
that who we are, is enough,
that what we have done in 6 days, is enough—
what we have earned, is enough,
what we have, is enough.
And it is good.
And it can be celebrated!

God’s rest, the rest we see in the scriptures,
the rest which God invites us into,
is a strong declaration of God’s sovereignty in creation.
God’s rest is about celebrating
the wholeness, shalom, justice, and peace
which is the gift of a loving, sovereign, creator God.
When we observe Sabbath,
we enter into God’s rest.
We enter deeply into the confidence and trust and peace
that comes from serving a God who is able to rest.
We find our rest in God’s rest.

While the world around us is running full tilt,
in anxiety and fear . . .
While our neighbors, our colleagues, the strangers on the street,
are operating on the principle that we must
grab whatever we can, whenever we can,
even if we sacrifice time to relate to each other face-to-face . . .
While we are tempted not to trust, and to join the rat race,
we hear the voice of God inviting us into rest.
“I created you. I love you. You are enough.
You have enough.
I will provide.
Trust me.”

Yesterday morning, many of us were in this space,
celebrating the life of Jon Dutcher.
As various ones of us reflected on our impressions of Jon,
and how he lived his life,
and how he related to others,
and how he moved gently and lovingly among us,
it occurred to me—Jon lived his life in Sabbath mode,
even while he was well enough to work full time,
he was a Sabbath kind of person.
He trusted in the goodness of God to provide,
he did not let anxiety about material things or finances
ever get in the way of spending time with others,
or basking in the love and beauty of God.

I don’t know how often he engaged in work or commerce on Sunday.
My guess is not that often.
But that’s not the main point.
Jon knew the definition of enough.
And he trusted God to provide it.

Rules have their place.
It’s good to reflect together on what we permit ourselves to do,
or not to do, on our Sabbath.
Imposing rules on others, or on the public,
like the colonies did,
is not the answer.
But I think it’s a worthwhile conversation
for us people of God to have with each other,
about what keeping Sabbath might look like,
in concrete practice,
and how we give account to each other,
about how we practice Sabbath.
It’s a good thing to talk specifics,
how to honor the rhythms in creation,
that include work and rest,
productivity and dormancy.
It’s healthy to consider together, how on the Sabbath,
we might prioritize people, over projects,
real talking and listening, over posting and commenting.
I know many Orthodox Jews today eagerly anticipate Sabbath,
a day when they are “not allowed”
to operate any electrical device, or drive their car,
or walk more than a certain distance.
Because suddenly they are free of anxiety-producing activity.
They get to walk down the street and visit with neighbors.
Get to sit and have long, lingering conversations.
Get to play with their children.
Get to worship and pray unhurriedly.

I think for many of us,
even a so-called “screen Sabbath”
(no computers, TV, or smart-phone use on our Sabbath)
could revolutionize the way we relate to each other
and the world around us.

So, I invite us to talk with each other.
Especially talk with those to whom you give account for your lives.
How might you, and those in your covenant community,
agree to revitalize the practice of Sabbath,
and enter more fully into the rest God has for us,
not just eternal rest,
but rest here and now.
Let’s think about it. Talk about it. And make it a practice.

And let’s sing together a song celebrating this practice,
HWB 641 – O day of rest and gladness.

—Phil Kniss, September 7, 2014

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