Sunday sermon for June 23, 2013
Text: Genesis 2:1-4a
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
When Sarah and I signed the lease on the house we are currently renting, we took on responsibility, as one often does in such leases, for the upkeep of the lawn – basically, we agreed to cut the grass. And I will admit that this task loomed somewhat large in our imagination – but not because cutting the grass was such a difficult job, but rather because we were signing on to a decently-sized lawn and we didn’t have anything like a riding mower. And so we signed our lease with the understanding that we could, as needed, walk up the street to our landlord’s house and borrow her John Deere, put some gas in it, and bring it back when we were done.
And so, along about early April, once the weather turned and the grass in our yard sprang to attention, one Sunday evening I broke in our arrangement with an inaugural cut of the grass. I filled up the tank and put the mower back in its place and considered everything to have gone about as well as it could have, all things being otherwise equal. Sunday passed and the week began and a few days later my landlord and I got to talking about the lawn and the mower and its quirks – we’re trying to hammer out the details of our little arrangement – and she said, very casually, very gently, she being a kind Christian woman who knows full well what Sarah and I do for a living, she said almost in passing, “you know, around here most folks try not to cut the grass on Sunday. It’s just kind of what we do.”
Of course my first reaction was to feel a deep sense of panic and shame. Not that I had broken some unwritten rule, but of course that I had instead broken one of the rules literally carved into stone, that the new preacher had moved to town and the first thing he did of any consequence was to go prancing about violating the fourth commandment by doing work on the Sabbath. Way to get off on the right foot. Especially when the truth is that I have no problem complying with her request. I haven’t mowed on a Sunday since. In fact I’m happy not to mow the grass on Sundays. Really I’m just happy not to mow the grass, period – that’s the real issue here, that the last thing I needed was another excuse not to get yard work done.
But of course you don’t get to casually say things like that to a preacher and not expect some reflection, and in the weeks since I’ve made a few casual observations. One is that, sure enough, try as I might to find folks on their lawnmowers as I drive up and down highway 29 on Sunday afternoon, I’m not having much luck. It does seem to be the case that around here we refrain from these Sunday afternoon public displays of labor. But the other observation is that, in the course of a typical Sunday, whether or not I cut the grass, I do a tremendous amount of work. It’s my job to be here on Sunday morning doing the work of leading us in the worship of the Lord; but this is the easy part of my Sunday workday, because I have a toddler, and any day when he is not in preschool is a day when his parents do a tremendous amount of work. Of course on top of that we are shopping for the week ahead and cooking up elaborate meals destined to be leftovers and doing all of the household chores that two working parents do in the scant hours they have together. You may not be able to see it from 29, but if you drive past our house on a Sunday evening rest assured that we are inside busily and willfully violating the 4th commandment, and more than once I have fantasized about how nice it would be instead to go and sit outside on the riding mower and lazily navigate around the lawn. It would seem that a lot rides – or not, as the case may be – on how you define work. And a lot rides on how you define Sabbath.
So, this particular Sabbath, we continue our summer discipline of reading and preaching through Genesis by reading the account of God resting on the seventh day of creation. And we will get to that text. But before we do I think we have to take something of a detour through the fourth commandment itself. It’s a necessary detour because, even though the language of Genesis 2 doesn’t contain anything like a commandment, the two texts are so closely intertwined in our imagination that if we pretend to read one without the other we’ll just end up in knots. So, the seventh day, by way of the fourth commandment, Exodus 20, vs. 8-11.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” This last clause is critical; it means that the sabbath is to be observed by the entire economic community, even including foreigners or slaves who wouldn’t necessarily believe in the God that gave these commandments to Moses in the first place. And the provision isn’t meant as an undue burden upon those outsiders, as if to restrict them from seeking their own prosperity; quite the opposite: it was meant to ensure that Israel wouldn’t simply conscript its underclass into doing the work that it wasn’t going to do for itself one day in seven. It’s meant to ensure that the Sabbath would be a just practice of the whole interconnected community.
That was the theory. But when Israel became a minority – in Babylon, or later under the heel of the Roman empire, the practice of the sabbath changed. As a minority, Israel no longer had “foreigners in its midst;” rather, they were the foreigners, and the observation of the sabbath became a way for Israel retain its sense of identity. You all go on, have your market, have your festival, have whatever you need; for us, it’s the sabbath, it’s different. And when the first Christians emerged, they shifted the Sabbath to Sunday, ostensibly in recognition of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but just as much for the same practice of self-definition, as they tried to navigate the problem of living as outsiders in a Jewish area and and Roman world. It’s no surprise that the Sabbath helped the church, as it helped Jews before and since, to define themselves up and against the world around them. The problem in both cases is this persistent gap between theory and practice: that a commandment which was in theory designed to remind a faith community of its obligation to protect those on the outside was used in practice so that our theological ancestors could protect themselves.
Even though the strict observation of the Sabbath has largely evaporated from Christian life – social norms for mowing the lawn in Nelson County notwithstanding – the difference in theory and practice of the Sabbath will hit remarkably close to home. As mainline churches and denominations have shifted from being the cultural majority to the cultural minority, and as Sunday morning attendance has begun to dwindle across the board, much ado has been made about trying to recover the holiness of the Sabbath as a way of reinstating the importance of Sunday. Numbers are down; we’re fighting with employers who demand weekends; we’re fighting with sports leagues that have tournaments and meets and scrimmages; we’re fighting with all of the self-imposed distractions of the modern age; but really I think we’re fighting the very idea that we’re not quite on the inside anymore. We claim to be distressed at our membership skipping church for the sake of lacrosse, but really we’re anxious about losing not our numbers but our sense of definition, our sense of who we are. And I imagine the hope to be that observation of the sabbath might function as the same kind of wedge issue that it did for the early church and for the Jews in exile; that is, that we might, by recovering the definition of Sabbath, by imagining a Sunday of putting down our toil and driving to church and going home and putting up our feet and instead of laboring in the kitchen just ordering take-out, that we might protect ourselves from history, that we might recover a sense of who we are.
But as we’ve seen, that’s not how the Sabbath works. The problem is that driving to church violates the fourth commandment, because driving is a interconnected behavior that assumes some policeman in Amherst County to be out on the job. The problem is that putting up our feet violates the fourth commandment, at least it does in my house where some technician at Appalachian Power has to monitor his dials for my interconnected television to work. The problem is that ordering take-out really, really, really violates the fourth commandment. Yes, worship attendance is dropping in our churches, and that’s important, but not because it’s on Sunday. It’s important because worship is important, no matter what day we have it on. And yes, we may even be losing our sense of self-definition, our sense of who we are in a world after Christendom. But the fourth commandment speaks to our responsibility to protect others, not our responsibility to protect ourselves. In the absence of us embarking on a large-scale reimagining of our commitment to social and economic justice, the fourth commandment is woefully ill-equipped to help us recover a sense of who we are.
Fortunately, the seventh day of creation is an entirely different thing. For six days God lays out the full scope of his work, and the text says that “the heavens and the earth were finished.” But God hasn’t entirely finished with creation. On the seventh day, God rests. And it’s unnecessary. It’s excessive. The heavens and the earth don’t need God to rest; the text says they’re finished. Nor is there any reason to think that God needed to rest. No, the whole thing smacks of unnecessariness. And yet the creation story is incomplete without this accounting of excess, this final day; in all of the creation story of Genesis, this is the moment that most reveals God’s character, that God has not made the world sufficient only for its own needs or even sufficient only for his, but rather that God has made the world with excess, with bounty, with pleasure, with grace. Here at the end of the creation saga, here at the dawn of the last day, here is God’s signature on the act of creation itself, with a flourish. Israel adopted the story of the seventh day into the practice of Sabbath, and as we’ve seen the practice of Sabbath became a way for all of us to try and define ourselves in a diverse and sometimes confusing world. But the real story of the Sabbath isn’t about us defining ourselves; it’s about God defining us. We are children of a creation that God has made excessively sufficient to its need. We are children that God has made excessively sufficient to our calling. In short, regardless of who we think ourselves to be, regardless of what the world thinks us to be, we are who we have always been: children of God’s grace. That’s the Gospel of the seventh day; that’s the Gospel of the Sabbath.
How to honor it? One of the members of the 1924 British Olympic track team was a Scotsman named Eric Liddell. The name may sound familiar if you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire, which was based largely on his story and that of a few of his teammates. In the movie as in real life, Liddell was the son of Scottish missionaries to China and himself a devout Christian. He rose through the ranks of the English amateur track system while attending various boarding schools prior to Oxford. But at the Olympic games he became something of a controversial figure for his refusal to run in a heat for his primary event, the 100 meters, because the heat fell on a Sunday. At least in the movie, this is cause for some social discomfort; coaches and teammates seem occasionally to imply that Liddell is more interested in protecting his personal identity than he is in making sacrifice for the sake of the team. In the movie as in real life, Liddell refused to budge, and switched into the 400 meter sprint, where he unexpectedly broke Olympic and world records. And I think this is the story of Sabbath that we like to carry around: that Liddell’s refusal to run on Sunday was a way in which he could define himself and mark the difference between his life of Christian witness and the lives of those around him.
But there’s another side to his story, at least in the film, and it’s the other side where I think Sabbath really lives. In the film, Liddell not only has to navigate the pressures of his coaches and teammates; he also has to navigate the pressures of his own family. Missionary parents and a missionary sister are waiting expectantly for Liddell to come to China and take his rightful place at their side, doing to the work of the Kingdom. Time after time they look upon his running as a distraction, as a waste, as something unnecessary to the proper story of his calling. But Liddell is just as stubborn with them as he is with his Olympic teammates. In his defining scene, after missing a church meeting because of his running schedule, Liddell explains that while he has every intention of coming to China, he also has every intention of running in the Olympics. He says “I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
And when I run, I feel his pleasure. Friends, Sabbath is about the great pleasure God feels in all creation. It’s about the great excessive love of God for things beautiful beyond their purposes. It’s about the bounty of God’s grace that flows through us beyond our calling. And so I would invite you to a Sabbath discipline, but it’s going to look quite a bit different than any Sabbath discipline you’ve ever done. I’d like to invite you to find the part of your life where you feel God’s pleasure. God’s pleasure in all creation. No matter what day of the week it is, I’d like to invite you to the find the part of your life where you feel God’s excess. No matter whether it looks like work or looks like play, I’d like to invite you to find the part of your life where you feel God’s joy, God’s delight, God’s pleasure. I’d like you to find that part of your life and just roll around in it. Soak it up. Lift it up. Rejoice in it; it is witness to the grace and beauty of all creation, and for us to delight in it is to honor our Sabbath. It can look like work. Not everything that looks like work feels like work. My father works 120 hours a week but at least 60 of them are in the garden and good luck to the poor soul who tries to pry him loose. It looks like yardwork to me but you can’t tell me he’s not honoring his Sabbath. God made him for a purpose. But he also made him a gardener. And I know that when he plows, and when he plants, and when he reaps, and even when he weeds, he feels God’s pleasure.
I can’t tell you where your Sabbath is. But I can tell you mine. Come by on a Sunday evening. The grass needs mowing but I won’t do it today. Half a dozen tasks to do around the house but I’ll get to them tomorrow. Right now I’m in the kitchen. We need to eat dinner, but this isn’t really dinner. I mean, if we just needed “dinner” we could have boiled some pasta and opened a jar of sauce and we’d be done. To me, this is something more. This is a production. You’ll find half a dozen spice canisters with the lids flung around the room. You’ll find a sink full of discarded kitchen tools and maybe some batter dripping off the countertops. I’ve made a mess quite out of proportion to the needs of the day, and the honest truth is it’s probably all just an experiment. There’s no guarantee that the final product will not make you wish that instead you had simply boiled pasta and opened a jar of sauce. Things go wrong all the time. I am not a culinary mastermind; God made me for a different purpose. But he also made me a chef. And when I cook…