Series: Sabbath as Resistance
Sermon #3: You Are Free
By: Donnell Wyche
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space this morning. As we gather together as a church we do so in the active presence of God through our worship, community, and engagement with Scripture, which we hope will lead to transformational growth in our everyday life. As a congregation we want to experience belonging, cultivate tangible joy, activate hope, and know comfort as we learn to trust Jesus more and more, enabling us to reflect the welcome and peace of Jesus to those closest to us. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision.
A Sabbath for All
Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring the theme of Sabbath, mostly through the lens of the stories of Exodus. We have explored how we enter Sabbath rest because we are made in the image of God, valuable not because of what we produce, or how hard we work, or who we impress, but because we are beloved in the eyes of God. We have explored that we can enter Sabbath rest because it is God who provides for us. We are invited to cease from striving in order that we might lean toward trust. Pastor Donnell has been exploring how Sabbath teaches the Israelites about who God is, and their new identity as God’s people. Through God’s faithful, steady action the Israelites learn to reject the anxiety and fear of Pharaoh, who insists there is not enough, and equates the value of people with production. Pastor Donnell also highlighted something very interesting about the Ten Commandments. According to Walter Brueggemann, the first three commandments are about God, the fourth commandment about Sabbath is the “hinge,” and the remaining six commandments are about how we treat one another. Brueggemann argues that it is the Sabbath that enables us to keep the remaining commandments, and that the breakdown of the Sabbath rest can lead to the breakdown of the remaining commandments. We steal because we are anxious and afraid, trying to provide for our own security. We lie because we don’t believe our worth in God’s eyes. We kill because we believe the lie of scarcity, that we must fight for insufficient resources. And when we are relying on ourselves, our own cunning and striving, we are unlikely to pause and enter the re-orienting rest that God calls us to. It becomes a cyclical reinforcement. The less you enter into sabbath rest, the less you think you can enter the sabbath rest.
But there is more to this than just how sabbath enables us as individuals to treat each other well, something else that is interesting about the Sabbath commandments that we often overlook— that is an inherently community-oriented law. I think we tend to consider sabbath a personal choice, one that is important, but doesn’t really pertain to anyone except you. I know that this is how I have usually looked at it. If I skip a sabbath, or just fudge a little on how I keep my sabbath, I tend to think that it doesn’t really impact anyone else. But I think it’s important to remember that this is not how sabbath has always been thought of. I have a friend who is from Jerusalem. She described to me what it is like to be in the city as Friday evening approaches, how you can feel the sabbath hush sort of descend on the city. Life slows down. If you were hanging out with your friends, you would probably stay put and share in their sabbath meal. The sabbath there is something tangible. It is something communal. You feel it in the air.
Let’s read the commandment again in Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male servant or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your town. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The commandment to remember the Sabbath day is a community activity. It doesn’t just pertain to each individual separately, but also to everyone connected to you. Not just you. Not just your family. Not just those who work for you, but even your animals, even the foreigners residing in your town, who perhaps don’t know your God or follow your customs. There is a really important universality here that we tend to skip over. We tend to simply recite the first clause, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” But the commandment takes a step further. Sabbath rest— the rest that is possible because our value lies not in what we produce, but in our identity as those created in the image of the Creator God— is extended to everyone. The rest that is possible because God provides for our needs is extended to everyone. The God whose image we bear models rest to us. The God who provides for us invites us to break the cycle of anxious striving. But that same God also seeks to extend that promise, to share that rest, beyond us as individual followers of Jesus. I want to say, I don’t think this means that we need to start forcing everyone we know to take a sabbath. While there is beauty and joy in celebrating sabbath in a more communal way, I don’t think the legislative approach is what we should be aiming for. I think it is more important that we begin to understand that the sabbath isn’t just for us. It is for everyone, mirrored even in the way that the creation was formed. And our individual practices of sabbath aren’t simply for our own refreshment either. They are for the good of the entire community.
Sabbath as Testimony
I found it very fruitful and illuminating to take a look at the commandments as they are written in Deuteronomy 5. Here, Moses is sharing these commandments with a new generation of Israelites before they finally enter into the land that is promised to them. But Moses is a pretty wise man, and he knows that entering the promised land is not without dangers. He knows that he needs to shore up the lessons learned in the wilderness so that the Israelites don’t fall back into the temptations of their old ways. We talked last week about God’s provision of manna to the Israelites. Now they are about to enter an agricultural land, where they can work for a living, growing their own crops, providing for their own needs. And Moses knows that they will need to remember the lessons of the wilderness. Let’s take a look at what he says to them:
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigners residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
This version doubles down on some of the details we noticed in the Exodus passage, giving the hearers even more clarity, and less room to wiggle out of the implications. No one works! Not your donkey OR any of your other animals! Just in case you were trying to get away with something on a technicality. You can’t train your dog to work either. You can’t try to get your goats to mow your grass. And even more pertinently, this passage explains that this is “so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” Now most of us don’t have people working for us. But this passage is highlighting less the role of servant specifically and more the social stratifications and distinctions that we so often create among ourselves. Maybe for us, this akin to so that your minimum wage earner can rest, as you do. If it wasn’t clear before, this passage explicitly reminds us that the sabbath is a leveling, equality-making, liberating practice. Servants, the working class, don’t get a second class kind of rest. They don’t work a little bit so that your sabbath can be more comfortable. They are entitled to rest “as you do.” And why is that? Because you were slaves in Egypt, and now you are not. Because God has liberated you from the economy of oppression, from a system that calculates your worth by your production, an environment infected with anxiety and a belief that there will never be enough. Why keep the sabbath rest? Because you have been released from your bondage in slavery. Because you are free.
Sabbath in this framework then becomes a declaration of our freedom— but not just OUR freedom. Sabbath is supposed to be an act of justice, a reminder of equality and liberation, and an assertion of the value and belovedness of all of Creation in God’s eyes. It isn’t meant only to bring restoration to us on a personal level so that we can be reoriented to the world around us. It is meant to be shared. It is designed for all to be invited in. It is not just meant to reorient us internally, but also to disrupt and reorder our lives and our communities externally. It is a way to ensure that we are not becoming Pharaoh-like in our relationships to our neighbors. Sabbath and justice ought to go hand in hand. Sabbath ought to lead to justice. Justice ought to lead to sabbath rest. This is because sabbath was created in part to be a field-leveling proposition. Regardless of your economic status, no matter how productive or healthy you are, no matter if you are your own boss or serve another, we are all to rest the same. Sabbath is meant to disrupt our unhealthy, oppressive tendencies and reorient us to God’s love for each of us, and to be reminded of how we are all set free through Jesus. I found a beautiful clue in a story about Jesus in Luke chapter 13, starting in verse 10:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
There is so much that is wonderful in this story, but I am just going to focus on a few things this morning. Look at the words that Jesus uses: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” You are set free. And when the synagogue leader turns on him for healing her, Jesus says, “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When have we heard this before? Children of Abraham being set free from their long bondage. It reminds me of the sabbath commandment from Deuteronomy 5: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Sabbath, Jesus is saying, is the perfect time to be released from bondage. He sees her, a woman bent over by eighteen long years of suffering, and he knows that this is a sabbath task. Sabbath is a day for remembering that you have been set free, a day when set down our anxiety, set down what burdens us, and enter into rest with trust. Could Jesus have waited one more day to heal the woman, as the synagogue leader wanted? Sure. But Jesus instead has compassion, sees her burden, and says, on this sabbath day, you are set free so that you may rest.
But how on earth, especially in our society where we take sabbath in an ad hoc manner if we take it at all, can our sabbaths serve as a testimony to freedom? How can a day of rest serve a transformational goal? How can me taking one day of sacred time, one day out of the rat race, serve to resist and upset exploitation of those around me? “Celebrating Sabbath is different from running way,” writes one author. “We do no merely leave [these dimensions of our lives]… we actually cease letting them have a hold on our lives.” We do not stop our work and enter into rest simply to pick it right back up with the same level of stress we had before. Rather, we enter back into our workday lives with fresh eyes, remembering that we have been set free. [Example of the Whole 30 example— it changes how food tastes, how you respond to sugar, helps you notice how your body responds to junk]
What if by setting aside our driven, consumeristic, acquisitive postures to enter into the sabbath in trust in God’s provision, to live in to God’s freedom, we actually began to see those around us in a different way? Not as competitors. Not as enemies. Not as obstacles to our goals. What if we began to see everyone around us as those in whom God takes delight, those to whom rest, provision, and care are offered, just as they are offered to you? What if we begin to see those around us who are bent over by their burden and begin to pray and work so that they may experience God’s freedom? How would it change our communities? What if by engaging with sabbath regularly, we begin to find ourselves unable to pick back up with the same posture we had before? What if we find ourselves living out sabbath-fueled lives that trust in God’s active love and provision for each of us? What kind of freedom would that bring? There is a poem I love by Mary Oliver called Six Recognitions of the Lord. This is a little piece of it, which describes her returning from being out in the beauty of the world, connecting with God, and how it impacts her return to her daily life:
I rise. Maybe I rub my face as though I
have been asleep. But I have not been
asleep. I have been, as I say, inside
the cloud, or, perhaps, the lily floating
on the water. Then I go back to town,
to my own house, my own life, which has
now become brighter and simpler, some-
where I have never been before.
I love and am challenged by what Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about community: “We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence.” This includes our Sabbath rest. Whether we are able to join in public worship on our day of rest or not, we still join with the chorus of those who do, and our “individual” Sabbath day still has a deep impact on the life of our community. Our Sabbath—taken or not taken, embraced fully or used for utilitarian purpose—impacts the entire community. What if we became a community full of people who are so reliant on the rest of God that it permeated our church culture? What if when someone stepped in our doors, they would feel the rest of God washing over them, inviting them to trust their anxiety, their fear, their striving, to the Jesus?
Sabbath is a day of freedom a testimony not just to a spiritual reality, but to a new social reality rooted in God’s Kingdom. Jesus wants us not only to experience the rest and freedom of the gospel in sabbath, but also to extend that reality to those around us. How can our sabbaths be good news of freedom, not just for us individually, but also for the equivalents of our servants, immigrants, land, and animals? How can our weekly ceasing be a testimony to freedom?
The Freedom of Rest
A few ideas to try:
Invite/encourage others to join you in rest. Consider especially what it might look like to invite someone to rest who may not usually get the chance. Be careful to do this in ways that are empowering, not shaming.
On your sabbath day, try meditating on the freedom we have in Christ. What is it that you have been set free from? How can you embody that freedom on your sabbath day? Maybe that means you don’t look in a mirror or put on makeup. Maybe that means that you don’t check your email. Maybe you don’t drive your car. Maybe you don’t schedule any playdates or organized activities. Maybe you turn off your phone. Consider what freedom Christ is offering to those around you as well.
On your non-sabbath days, take some time considering your posture as you rest. Are you just holding your breath until you can get back to business as usual? Or are you asking the Holy Spirit to use this day to transform you and help you enter your next six days with new vision?
Consider how you spend your money on your sabbath day. What if you didn’t spend any money on your sabbath day?