Sunday, June 7, 2020 – Justice & Sabbath
God created and created and created and declared each creation “Good!”, and on the seventh day, God rested from creating so much good: The first Sabbath.
I was reminded in a blog this week of a book I read a few years ago by Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Thought-provoking and enlightening, it is not a long book and I recommend it to you if you want to broaden your concept of Sabbath.
Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian and scholar, takes Sabbath from its first instance in the Bible when God rested after 6 days of creating through several instances of God’s command to keep or observe the Sabbath. He has given me an entirely new way of thinking about Sabbath, and it connects to today’s lectionary and Peace with Justice Sunday and current events. Hah!
Most of us have heard the commandment to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” To me as a child it meant you shouldn’t do any work on Sunday–go to church and then rest or do fun things for the rest of the day. To make certain we didn’t work, we had “blue laws” that prevented many businesses from being open on Sundays.
I have many clergy friends who declare a specific day of the week as their “Sabbath,” meaning a day when they do not do any church-related work and take time for quiet-time with God or to spend time with family. Because they “work” on Sundays, this Sabbath day gives them a day of rest.
A day of individual rest is not wrong, it is very good for us especially when it is used to help us refocus on God and our reliance on God and not on our own productivity and capacity to do many things and thereby prosper. A day of worship and rest from work is critical to keeping a sense of holiness in our lives and connectedness to God and God’s creative goodness. It helps us to find rest for our restlessness and anxiety.
BUT – here’s today’s “but” – if sabbath is an individual thing, it is not truly Sabbath! Brueggemann uses scripture from the time of the exodus into Isaiah, to show that God’s intention is not that Sabbath is just for those who make time for it or those who can afford to observe it. It is not just those who have power or privilege who should be able to observe Sabbath, and it is not just people who benefit from Sabbath.
Sabbath was for the head of the household AND also for the family AND everyone including slaves in the household AND for widows and orphans and immigrants or resident aliens in the town. Sabbath by extension meant that crops were not tended and fields were not plowed and animals were not used for labor for a day, and so creation rested from human dominance. It is all inclusive and until it is so, there is no Sabbath.
Sabbath was to be observed every seven days and also every seven years when all debts were to be forgiven! Clearing all debts would make certain there was no underclass of debtors and would prevent the extremes of social and economic haves and have nots.
This is provocative as well as threatening to world order as it has come to be.
Brueggemann traces this Sabbath inclusivity back to the time of exodus when the Israelites along with “other kinds” of people left the slavery and oppression of Egypt and its pyramid-structured society with the god-like Pharaoh at the top and slaves and other people without value at the bottom.
Those at the bottom of the pyramid suffered greatly because of the anxiety of the Pharaoh who feared a famine. Pharaoh’s fear was not that the people in Egypt would suffer from starvation, but that a famine would threaten his god-status and show that he was weak and unable to prevent it. A god could not allow a famine to happen, therefore everyone else had to work, work, work to produce a surplus and build structures to hold the surplus. There was no rest because there could never be enough, and there was no regard for neighbor because the system required total focus on anxiety-driven productivity.
In the exodus, God led the people to the wilderness away from a system that knew no rest and gave them a command to observe the Sabbath. This was not anything they had experienced. Rest, come to a restful place in God? All they had known was work and it was a difficult adjustment, and one that we can relate to today.
“Remember you were once slaves in Egypt” was a frequent reminder spoken through the prophets when God commanded Sabbath observance and other socially inclusive directives. God reminded them and reminds us through scripture today that our faith-heritage is one of being victims of an unjust, oppressive system. Remember where you came from, and by extension, you must have mercy on those who also suffer from broken systems.
Do you see how justice is connected with Sabbath rest? Until all observe Sabbath, there is no justice. Until there is justice, there is no true Sabbath rest.
Brueggemann uses the term “restfulness of neighborliness.” Sabbath is a way of ceasing to engage in broken systems so that “neighborly engagement…defines our lives.” (Ibid., 18)
“Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” p.45
Brueggemann says that Sabbath is an act of worship, and “worship that does not lead to neighborly compassion and justice cannot be faithful worship of YHWH” (Ibid., 64 )– a reference to Isaiah 58: 1-7 ( “…is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice…”).
“Sabbath is the regular, disciplined, visible, concrete yes to the neighborly reality of the community beloved by God.” (Ibid., 87)
Last night after I had written the above, we watched a short program on public TV about Congressman John Lewis and his “March” graphic novels. The program was part of a recording made when Lewis had been at the Flynn Theater in Burlington last November. It concluded with Lewis saying that we all live in the same household and must learn to live as brothers and sisters — together we can create the beloved community.
I immediately heard the connection to Dr. Brueggmann’s Sabbath: On the seventh day, God rested and we as members of the household of God, God’s sons and daughters — brothers and sisters — must also rest as God’s beloved community.
And so, Peace with Justice Sunday comes on a Sunday in June that was set long ago. This year, it falls on a day when we have been witnessing the gatherings of masses of people who suffer from broken and unjust systems and those who stand in solidarity with them, many carrying signs, “Without Justice, No Peace.” People claiming neighborliness. Love thy neighbor-liness. We must claim this neighborhood of beloved community so that justice will prevail and all may find the Sabbath restfulness of God.
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
~ Evie Doyon, June 6, 2020
 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville KY:WestminsterJohn Knox Press, ©2014).