Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11; Luke 15:11-32
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Three weeks is not long enough
to explore all the implications of Sabbath in our lives today.
We are barely scratching the surface.
We often make the mistake of thinking about Sabbath,
purely in terms of individual rest from work.
Or we think about family Sabbath rules we grew up with.
Or about church rules or community expectations,
around doing anything on Sunday that could be construed
as non-essential work.
And that’s about the extent of what Sabbath theology we have.
What we do or don’t do on Sunday, as individuals.
But Sabbath goes infinitely deeper
than taking a personal break from work.
Yes, as I said last week, Sabbath is about work stoppage.
But that has implications far beyond personal rest.
Sabbath rest is good for us individually, of course. Very good!
It’s good for body, soul, and spirit, to get breaks from work.
Rest is a gift we should all be immensely grateful for,
and that we should all practice, individually.
But . . . if that’s where we stop in our thinking about Sabbath—
we are missing, maybe, the most important part.
For people of Jewish and Christian faith,
Sabbath is at the heart of community and social justice.
It addresses deep-seated and sinful tendencies we have,
to consolidate power and wealth toward a privileged few,
to treat certain classes of people unjustly,
to act more out of anxiety, greed, and scarcity,
than out of joy, generosity, and abundance.
That becomes obvious when we look at Sabbath commands in the Bible.
There are not only Sabbath Days,
there are Sabbath Years,
and there is even a Sabbath of Sabbath Years.
After 49 years (seven sevens) there is a Year of Jubilee.
The justice implications of Sabbath
are crystal clear when we look at the big picture—
a picture we might miss
if we only lock in on Seventh Day Sabbath rest.
But even weekly Sabbath has a communal justice orientation.
So let’s start there.
The weekly Sabbath is act of trust and freedom from bondage.
It is no accident that God introduced the Ten Commandments,
of which Sabbath is one,
with these words:
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
Therefore, God said, do these things that make for freedom.
When we worship a God who frees slaves,
we cannot simultaneously enslave or oppress others.
So, every seven days, Yahweh says,
stop work altogether,
stop producing wealth, and even
stop working your servants, or working your animals.
By doing so, you remind yourself and your community
that God’s provision is enough,
that even if you don’t lift a finger for a day,
God is faithful and will provide.
That undermines the myth of scarcity,
which in turn undermines selfish accumulation,
which undermines a wealth gap between rich and poor,
which undermines consolidation of power,
which undermines the use of violence and coercion
to maintain that power.
Practicing Sabbath is a radical act of social justice-seeking.
Let me say that again,
practicing Sabbath is a radical act of social justice-seeking.
And if you think I am making Sabbath into something it isn’t,
look with me at what a Sabbath Year meant,
and a Jubilee Year, a Sabbath of Sabbath Years.
Let me read again a few verses we heard earlier this morning,
from Deuteronomy 5.
“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.
This is how it is to be done:
Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made
to a fellow Israelite.
They shall not require payment from anyone.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites . . .
do not be hardhearted or tightfisted . . .
Rather, be openhanded
and freely lend them whatever they need.”
And then, in a pre-emptive measure,
to keep people from finding a loophole in the law,
Yahweh explicitly commanded them
not to take advantage of the system,
by refusing to lend to poor people toward the end of year six,
because they almost certainly couldn’t pay it back
before the Sabbath Year arrived.
God called that kind of thinking “wicked” in verse 9.
Instead, and I quote, “Give generously to them
and do so without a grudging heart.”
This practice of cancelling debts
was done hand-in-hand with the practice of letting the land rest,
and lie fallow.
No planting or cultivation was to be done in the Sabbath Year.
And not only that—if plants grew and produced on their own,
without your labor,
for example, grapevines and olive trees,
or vegetables and grain that came up volunteer—
that produce was never to be bought or sold.
It could be used for personal use,
and you needed to let others pick it and use it, as well.
This was, in reality, a national economic adjustment,
to mitigate against a wealth gap.
And . . . it was an act of respect for creation.
The Sabbath Year was Creation Care,
allowing the land to rest and recover on its own.
And . . . if you thought the Sabbath Year presents
challenges for land-holding farmers,
who need to make some provision for their livelihood
in the Sabbath Year
then an event greater challenge faced them in the Jubilee Year,
the Sabbath of Sabbath Years.
In that year, not only were active debts to be cancelled,
all property was to revert back to its original owner.
Maybe a poor farmer going through hard times one year,
in order to survive, had to sell their land or property
to a wealthier landowner.
Or maybe persons voluntarily sold themselves into slavery,
in order to live,
because they had no land or property remaining.
In the Jubilee Year, the Sabbath of Sabbath Years,
slaves would be freed,
and land and property would go back to the first owners,
no matter how few or many years it had been.
Now, in Judaism today,
the Jubilee Year is no longer practiced—
one might say, because it is too hard.
But the stated reason is that the biblical mandate no longer applies,
because the majority of Jews no longer live in Israel.
Be that as it may,
the principle is still here, outlined in the pages of our Bible.
The Sabbath Year, however, is still practiced, thoroughly,
in many Jewish communities, especially the Orthodox.
They have debates among themselves,
as to whether alternate arrangements are allowed,
to lessen the economic hardship.
But still today,
many Jewish winemakers, for instance,
will bottle up their Sabbath Year wine,
and give it away, instead of selling it.
My point here,
is that practicing Sabbath is hard,
because it is far more than taking a Sunday afternoon nap
instead of going to work.
It is challenging because it pushes back against our individual right
to earn the profits that come from our labor.
People like me, in the upper half of society, economically,
are never excited about any method of wealth redistribution,
because it is bound to leave our hands,
and end up in the hands of someone who did not earn it.
And who in their right mind
wants to give away a whole year of productivity?
That’s why we listened again to the parable of the Prodigal Son
It wasn’t about Sabbath, per se,
but we can look at it through a Sabbath lens.
It’s not a coincidence the story is told in Luke,
immediately after Jesus sparked several Sabbath controversies,
when he healed someone on the Sabbath.
See, the father in the parable has a joyful, generous Sabbath spirit.
The elder brother does not.
His younger prodigal brother most definitely did not earn
the cancellation of his debts,
did not deserve his original stake in the family economy.
But he received it anyway.
The family economic scales were readjusted.
The deeper justice practice of Sabbath,
the one that hits our own balance sheets,
has nearly always been met with resistance,
or an effort to find a work-around.
Sure . . . we live in very different times than the people
who were first given these laws in the Torah.
The Torah was for the community of faith.
These are not laws we can easily lift off the page of our Bible,
and paste them wholesale onto our complex,
and secular, economic system.
But I will say this.
I think it is well worth considering
both what the Sabbath Day, and Sabbath Year,
and even Jubilee,
might mean for us who care about being faithful to
the God who loves and advocates for the poor,
the oppressed, and the captive.
Sabbath is an opportunity to reflect on
how we may be acting unjustly, or
how we are participating in unjust systems,
and what we might do about that.
In our practice of Sabbath rest,
there is unjust rest, and
there is just rest.
Let us choose “just rest.”
Let us choose rest that is not self-serving,
but mindful of those who are oppressed.
I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong
to indulge in a restful and comfortable vacation;
to splurge once in a while,
with expensive food and fine wine, and deluxe accommodations.
Not saying we should never engage in recreation
that others can’t afford.
I better say that since just last Sunday
I showed you pictures of me whitewater rafting,
which didn’t come cheap.
But . . . when I do, occasionally, invest significant resources
in my own personal enjoyment and recreation,
even if it is fairly restful—
maybe I should be slow in priding myself on “taking a Sabbath.”
At least, not until I have done deeper reflection,
along the line of the justice priorities of a biblical Sabbath.
Let me repeat my main point here.
Sabbath is far more than taking a personal rest from labor.
It is about joining God’s justice agenda of
release for the captive,
freedom for the oppressed,
food for the hungry, and
good news for the poor.
If our Sabbath practices are ignoring those priorities,
we need to revisit our practice of Sabbath,
and discern what God is calling us to do, here, and now,
to keep the Sabbath and make it holy.
Right now, incidentally, is a very good time to think about that.
In our Christian tradition,
we don’t keep track of when the Sabbath year
rolls around every seven years.
But our Jewish siblings do.
And it just so happens,
that in the Jewish Calendar,
the next Sabbath Year begins a week from tomorrow.
And I didn’t realize that until I looked it up yesterday.
This Year’s Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the Sabbath Year
at sunset on Monday, September 6.
So let’s get thinking, now, about how we might
participate in God’s justice agenda in this Sabbath year.
And let’s start by confessing our faith,
in the words of a new confession in the back of Voice Together,
We are not alone;
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
—Phil Kniss, August 29, 2021
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