15 January 2015

Sabbath: Striving to Enter into God's Rest

In tomorrow's first reading we are exhorted to try and enter into God's own rest. The basic idea is that in Christ, through his life, death and resurrection  the world has changed. Every story of Jesus' healing, exorcism, or justice-making authority witnesses to this. Heaven, which is the realm of God's sovereignty has interpenetrated this world and is accessible to us by faith.  Faith is an act of trust. It involves not only letting God grasp us but also letting go of our own grasping, controlling, and driven ways; it involves detaching ourselves from all that holds us in bondage, all that prevents us from simply being ourselves. While the Christ Event has changed reality in ways which essentially set us free from death, meaninglessness, and the fear of these which leaves us either anxious and driven or, alternately, despairing and paralyzed, we must still make choices for the new reality and for the God revealed there. In other words we must not just celebrate the victory of the past but we must let it be real in our own lives and allow God to extend God's sovereignty as we can. We focus our lives on receiving the gifts of freedom and peace which God gives us. In the paradoxical words of Hebrews we are called to strive to enter into God's rest.

One of the most powerful symbols of and means to this is an observance of Sabbath. Today we are apt to associate this practice with attending Church but we may also think of blue laws and other puritanical concerns which set unnecessary and even scrupulous constraints on the lives of many. Others will associate it with obsessive participation in professional or collegiate sports, shopping, over-scheduled playdates, etc etc. It hardly seems an important, much less a powerful symbol of freedom. But Sabbath observance grew directly out of the Hebrew's bondage to Pharaoh and the validating gods of the Egyptians. It is a central piece of the Hebrews' liberation from that and their own faith in the God who rests and gives rest.

Consider what life was like under the Pharaohs after Joseph. Fear and Greed drove the Pharaoh. The Hebrews worked under taskmasters. What they grew was stored in cities made for the purpose. The more they grew and harvested, the larger the cities had to become. The Hebrews were responsible for making the bricks out of which the cities were constructed. When Pharaoh was concerned the Hebrews might leave Egypt he required they gather the straw needed to make the bricks and he maintained the same quota of bricks. His reasoning? In this way the Hebrews would be so overwhelmed by their workload, they would not be able to consider the fundamental dishonesty or injustice (Exodus reads 'deceit') at the heart of this system.

The system fostered a demeaning mindlessness and the Hebrews were forced to define themselves mainly in terms of the dynamics of exploitation, production, etc rather than as precious individuals or even members of a family or Tribe. Especially they had neither the time nor the space to offer sacrifice to their own God nor to fully understand themselves in terms of this God. It was a life of continuous toil, not simply of the labor associated with human dignity and worth. More, it was a restless and anxious life, insecure, oppressed, subject to ever-increasing demands made not on the basis of need but on whim, pique, greed and the insecurity associated with greed. Finally, it was a life where the rich got richer on the backs of the poor who only got poorer while leisure or time to simply rest or cultivate mindfulness was associated with the oppressors, not the oppressed. It was a "Sabbathless" world.

The world created by Pharaoh should remind us of our own. Like ours it involved a market ideology of production and consumption. We live in a society where the more we have the more we want and where we are driven by peer pressure, advertising, etc to own more, use more, eat and drink more, and so forth. There are a number of symbols of this world-dynamic: workaholism, multi-tasking, mindless gaming, texting, shopping, or hoarding -- to name a few. Addiction to sport, to competition, or to always having the newest gadget are others. This dynamic even infiltrates our school system where instead of inculcating the value of wisdom or teaching to genuinely form and educate, we teach to test. Similarly we now give "advanced degrees" as a commodity. Such degrees can be bought and sold and their sole purpose in some places seems to be to make someone capable of earning more and more money and standing out from the crowd --- not being their best selves or giving back to society. In fact, this approach exacerbates the rich get richer and the poor get poorer dynamic and underscores the difference between elites and the underclass already so prominent in our contemporary culture.

Sabbath is the way members of the Judeo-Christian tradition practice standing in time as ourselves, hands and hearts open to the gift God gives. It is the way we distance ourselves from a culture that exploits, divides, and distorts us. In Judaism the Sabbath is celebrated by cultivating a host of ways of resting mind, body and spirit. No work is done, money cannot be handled without desecrating the day, families celebrate together and there is a kind of leveling in society; on the basis of Sabbath observance on the Sabbath there are no have or have nots, nor is there competition or drivenness. All stand as human beings loved by and delighted in by God. The various seductions and addictions of contemporary society are left aside as are any sources of competition, elitism, etc. Sabbath creates a society of neighbors. It is a primary way we break the chains of bondage and gain some degree of independence over the culture which pressures, defines and even alienates us from one another in every way.

Walter Brueggemann identifies it as an act of resistance to such a culture and an alternative to "the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertizing, liturgy of professional sports" and other seductions "that devour all our rest time." Sabbath is the way we regain an appropriate stewardship over our world rather than exploiting it in ways which produce ever greater dysfunction and anxiety. Above all, it is a powerful way we assert our trust in the new world Jesus has made real amongst us and in the God who is its creator and Lord. By giving ourselves over in this way we participate in God's completion of the work of new creation which has yet to be brought to fulfillment. Genuine Sabbath celebration requires tremendous commitment and discipline but it is something we need to recover. After all, it is a huge piece of what it means to trust in and praise God. It is the countercultural praxis of entering into God's rest so that his will may truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.