Sermon: Sabbath as remembrance of freedom
The Pharaoh – king of Egypt, is right not to want to let the people go. As long as they see themselves only as workers, earning their keep and justifying their lives by the work they do, everything is alright. But if he ever gives them a break – a sabbatical, to go out to the desert to worship and renew acquaintance with their God, who knows where that will lead? They’ll surely start thinking differently of themselves, start looking for a better land than Egypt is – a land of blessing for all, and Pharoah and his empire will never see them again. And then where will the empire be?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born rabbi and theologian of the last century, once wrote that sabbath and the weekly discipline of worshipping God is the world’s greatest hope for redemption and for the progress of humanity, because “in the tempestuous ocean of time and toil, [the sabbath is an island] of stillness” where men and women regain a deep knowledge of who they are, who God is, and what the world is to be. Sabbath frees us, he says, from what the world is and what it makes us to be, to live towards what the world is meant to be and how we shall live within it.
This came true in Heschel’s birthplace of Poland. In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and a 19-year-old man named Karol Wojtyla was forced into hard labour as a quarryman and blaster, and then as a worker in a chemical factory. The Soviet liberation of Poland only extended the oppression for Wojtyla and all his countrymen.
In the midst of this, though, he felt a call to know and serve God. He entered an underground seminary and began to preach, build up churches, and lead weekly worship of God. Out of that, he wrote and published poems about a Christian humanism that helped give a whole generation of Poles an alternate perspective on life. His work inspired an unemployed electrician named Lech Walesa to form the country’s only trade union – Solidarity, and Wojtyla himself rose in the church to became bishop, archbishop, and then Pope John Paul II. And between J2P2 and Walesa, between the Church and trade union, the Polish people were led to freedom and the Soviet empire began to collapse.
Same thing in Central America a generation before, when weekly Mass and community-based Bible study energized people and radicalized priests to stand up against American-backed dictatorships. It was no mere coincidence or accident that Archbishop Romero – a leading voice of the movement, was assassinated by agents of the state while he was celebrating the eucharist, because it was in that weekly rite of worship that people and priest together came to know the body of Christ and to know themselves as that body for the sake of new life in the world.
There is also Archbishop Tutu – another man whose life, politics and personality have been shaped by weekly sabbath eucharist. He led and helped shape the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and plays a role still in the work towards a just and equitable society for all after apartheid.
The sabbath, Heschel says, is a moment of liberation, a glimpse of what is to come and already coming to be, and of our capacity as children of God to be part of it.
We also know this on individual and personal levels. The first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs are to admit we are powerless to overcome our addictions and disorders, that a higher Power can restore us to sanity, and that we surrender our will and our lives to the care of God. And is this not what weekly worship is? The reason we come here? The reason we need sabbath worship for our lives to be whole and good?
There are all kinds of things that enslave us, that make our lives a misery, that make us less than our spirits really long to be. And worship of God in community helps free us.
Gary Patterson, our Moderator, recently led a workshop on the current state of the church and asked people, in the midst of concerns about our future, to identify some recent moment when church really happened for them. One of the comments was a simple testimony of a man (or woman) who came to worship one Sunday morning in a small country church, struggling with depression, in tears, and felt a hand on his (or her) shoulder from a fellow worshipper, who quietly said, “Remember, love is all around you.”
What a moment of sabbath rest and worship! What a gift of new life and strength from God!
It all depends, of course, on really opening ourselves to worship God when we come here, and whether, no matter where we are, we practice an honestly God-centred sabbath, because there always are ways of making sabbath into something else and something less.
For one thing, there is always some pharaoh to contend with – either out there in the world, or in here within our own heart. Today no less than long ago in the days of Moses there are pharaohs out there who do all they can to make us see ourselves only as workers, consumers and spectators and to be content in these roles, for the simple reason they find it much easier to control and manage us according to their agenda when that’s all we see ourselves as, and expect to be.
And there’s also a little pharaoh inside each one of us deep inside our psyche that is loath to give up control of our life to a God who is greater than our selves, that encourages us to think we know best, and that just wants us to be empowered and reassured in what we already think and do and want. It’s the part of us that always tries, and often succeeds in making God over into our own image.
We have to remember, though, that when Israel leaves Egypt to worship God at the foot of Mount Sinai, it is not just a simple hop, skip and jump to get there – not just a pleasant day’s outing. It is a hard and dangerous journey. Really getting to the presence of the Divine requires leaving our comfort zone and safety nets behind. It means being willing to journey into hard and unknown territory, and then willing beyond that to start living towards a new and better land than the one we have come out from and are familiar with. In both political and personal terms honest sabbath means being open to new vision and transformed living.
I mentioned South Africa and Archbishop Tutu’s role in its transformation. In that same situation, though, there was also the Dutch Reformed Church and Afrikaner Calvinism that saw apartheid as God’s good will and that every Sunday allowed people to worship, and sing and pray to a god who gave them what they wanted, kept them in power, and helped them feel good about it.
In Nazi Germany as well, although a minority of Christians who gathered each week in underground worship opposed the Nationalist Socialist regime and its policies, the majority of the country’s church leaders and members supported what the Hitler government was doing.
We’re always tempted to worship a god of our own design who simply gives us what we want and helps us feel good about how we are, even when it’s not right – whether in the political landscape of our time, or the landscape of our individual lives and spirits. We have to be careful and honest about the God we make the centre of our Sabbath.
And when we are – when we find our own way of regularly surrendering ourselves to the Divine Presence that is greater than us, and of allowing ourselves to be opened to and drawn towards the world, the life and the way of being that God says is really ours, then we really are freed from the misery that too often dogs both us and the world we live in.
Rabbi Heschel remembers how the people of Israel took special care to revitalize their worship life in times of national decline and degeneration. He says:
Zion is in ruins. Jerusalem lies in the dust. All week there is only hope of
redemption. But when the Sabbath comes and enters the world, men and
women [who give themselves to it] are touched by a moment of actual
redemption; it is as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moves over the
face of the earth.
The Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, puts it this way in a poem titled “God’s Grandeur.” He’s not writing specifically about the sabbath, but the poem wonderfully expresses the need we have for eyes to see what the world really is, and the openness to God’s good will and glory that honest sabbath can offer us:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck’n his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eatward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
May that brooding, warm spirit of new and holy life spring into brightness for all to see in our sabbath openness to God.