How are you doing on the sabbath rhythms we talked about a couple weeks ago?
I hope well, because it really is life changing.
But—not only for the person keeping the command.
Honor the Sabbath
This honoring of the sabbath because it’s our chance to slow down enough to remember God as our God and in charge of our lives is swings toward 1st 3 commands and Jesus’ great command—
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.”
But the second reason God gives for keeping the sabbath swings in the other direction—that of the last six command of Exodus 20.
Don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, want what others have, lie about others, dishonor elders.
It also reminds us of the other half of Jesus’ great command—
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And for that we have to look at the second reason God said to honor the Sabbath rest.
Deuteronomy 5.12-15 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 foreigner 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.
Last time, we read in Exodus that God told us to remember the Sabbath because of his acts in creation. This week, he has a completely different reason. It’s because they must remember they were once slaves in Egypt and God saved them. Did these two conflict? Not at all. One swings toward loving God and the other toward loving neighbor, and they meet in the middle perfectly.
In Deuteronomy, this command has to do with how we allow others to celebrate and honor the sabbath.
The Sabbath wasn’t created just for me or you. The Israelites were to give rest to children, servants, foreigners–animals even.
God is telling them that he is the one who brought them out of slavery; it is his hand that saved and restored them. He gave them the very opportunity to rest of which they speak. If he had not done this, they would still be slaves and there would be no rest at all. 24/7 hard labor. This chance to enter into a life with rest involved is purely a gift of a God who makes redemption his #1 business.
Because of this, he commands them to remember those not as fortunate as they. They are not to allow their freedom to make them unaware of and uncaring about the freedom of others.
REMEMBER that you were once slaves—you know how it feels.
Keeping the Sabbath is to willingly interrupt our planned out life to remember it is our job to bring others into rest and freedom.
And if we don’t see the fallout of not keeping this command to remember those around us—the centuries of frustration and anger at the injustice and oppression of breaking this command right and left throughout history—we’re not looking too hard.
You were once slaves and I freed you. Do not treat others as you’ve been treated. Treat them as I treated you.
But it gets even better. After God’s people are commanded to rest every seven days, he also establishes a celebration every seven years. They are to let the land alone and trust him that there will be enough food to carry them throughout the year without planting or harvesting. They are to leave the extra grain and grapes for the poor.
Beyond this, God gets uber extreme.
He Commands what we call the Jubilee. This is one of my favorite things in the Bible. Every seven sets of seven years, not only are they to give themselves, their servants, and the land rest for a year, but they’re told to do it again for a second year—to celebrate a 50th Jubilee year. And this special year, everything lets loose.
They set their servants free. They return their land to its original owners. They forgive debts. It all basically resets. Everything returns to an even playing field. They all get a brand new start.
Feels like what should be happening right now, no? Don’t you kind of wish for a divine reset button right about now?
Why? Same reasons. God wants to remind them that nothing they have really belongs to them, nothing they have done has been because they were in control, and they must always be thinking about those who have less. They must always be willing to relinquish what isn’t theirs for love of God and neighbor. This is the point of Sabbath.
If we don’t keep the rhythms, we forget. We start to trust ourselves. We start to forget other people and convince ourselves that if they only worked harder they would be doing better. It’s not our problem – we’ve earned what we have. That’s the opposite of what God wants when he makes this all important command.
If we don’t keep these rhythms of rest, reflection, and worship, we forget everything. Every important part of our relationship with God and neighbor.
He Doesn’t want his people entering a new land in a new community without that. He doesn’t want that for us either.
Is it funny that, in preaching on the Sabbath the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching to myself?
I started preaching in Exodus in March. Planned a couple weeks on the 10 commandments. Moving right along to other things like golden calves and waterfalls sprouting from rocks.
I spent 4 weeks on the 4th commandment—
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
I came away absolutely convinced that if we don’t get this rhythm of rest right, we get nothing right. We get nothing right in our relationship with God and with others if we miss this concept and practice.
Most people, most Americans at least, have no idea how to rest. And we’re dying for it.
The unique time in our history we find ourselves in right now could also be an opportunity to re-learn the fourth commandment. Unintentionally and certainly against our wills, we are poised to reflect on what rest really is, why we need it, and how we’re going to return to whatever is reality on the other side of a global pandemic.
What do we want normal to be, and how does sabbath rest figure into it?
Sabbath and rest are one of the most important themes in the Bible. Rest interweaves throughout all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. In exodus at the 10 Commandments, we get the first absolute mention of Sabbath rest as a command.
Exodus 20.8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work,but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
But that doesn’t mean it was unheard of before. We know this, because the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings were told to recognize the Sabbath rest by not collecting manna on the seventh day.
Let’s take this command apart a little.
Remember—zakar—means to call something to mind in such a way that we act on it in the present.
Sabbath-shabbat = Rest. Stopping. To cease activity.
Holy=set apart—given over for a special purpose, consecrated, dedicated, separate
So putting this all together, the commandment means:
Remember—in such a way that you do something about it right now—the stopping of everything and the separate, dedicated purpose for this day.
What are we remembering?
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.
It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2.3—“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
The first reason for the sabbath rest is all tied up in creation. I say first, because there is another, but we’ll get to that next week. This first reason is set right after the first three commandments—and there’s beautiful, intentional order to that.
The first three commands have to do with loving God. (Have no other gods but me, make and worship no idols, don’t take my name in vain.) These three commands and the creation—relatedness of the fourth one also neatly coincide with Jesus statement of the most important command – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. That’s what the first three are all about. And that’s what the first reason to keep the sabbath rest is about.
The reminder to rest is set there to make us focus on the fact that he keeps the world rolling on a daily basis, and we do not. God created in six days—he did it all. We had zero hands in it. The first reason to keep the Sabbath is to give us a constant reminder, because we do tend to forget, that we are not the ones in charge of the universe. He is the one who created us and gives us breath.
If we don’t stop and keep our regular rhythm of rest, we start to believe the lie that we not only can keep our agenda running smoothly but we must. If we don’t keep working, it will all fall apart. This is a lie, and it’s right there in the heart of our faith.
We tell ourselves that one day it will be done and we will get a rest. If we worked as a little bit harder and a little bit longer, we can take a break. If we create at least a Plan B, and probably a C and a D, we don’t have to keep spinning our wheels quite as much. We all know how that ends. One day never comes.
This thinking leads straight to breaking the first 3 commandments.
We have other gods before the one God. Our bank accounts, our jobs, our own daily planners end up getting our real worship in terms of time and priorities.
We create idols out of productivity and security—those are the things we really trust in.
And we attach his name, taking it in vain, to things like bigger and better and more. We decide that it’s a godly virtue to work harder and make others do the same—and that’s edging quite close breaking all 3 at once.
Every 7th day we’re reminded to:
Renounce dominion over our time and our autonomy
Step off throne we think we’re on
Recognize God’s dominion over everything
Interrupt our time, plan, agenda, and god of productivity
Intentionally be inconvenienced.
The Sabbath rest is instituted to teach us a rhythm of meditating and appreciating God’s constant, active creating and sustaining. It is intended for us to sit back and accept our own inability to sustain our world. It keeps us humble. If we allow it to.
And it truly leads to peace and joy.
Learning more about Sabbath rest has changed me. I have come to understand that a rhythm of ending my day, not only my week, with stepping back as God did, looking at my work, and saying “that was a job well done,” changes the day’s schedule from stressful to peaceful. And it doesn’t depend on how much of that agenda gets done. It depends on whether or not it was a day in which I honored God and did good work. The amount of it makes zero difference. The peace and wholeness God offers from this simple rhythm is beautiful.
The principal called me into the office to “talk.” No, I wasn’t a student in trouble. I was one of the teachers. She folded her hands across the desk, looked at me and informed me that I had a “couple” in my homeroom that I needed to do something about. They were displaying “poor judgment.”
Couples in high school and poor judgment are rarely mutually exclusive, but I didn’t see how that was something requiring my intervention. As delicately as possible, she informed me that the girl in my junior homeroom and her senior boyfriend would struggle because they came from different backgrounds. Their minds and future plans were unequal. Their family expectations completely at odds. It wouldn’t be healthy. I needed to talk to the young lady and explain to her why this relationship could not be pursued.
I may have recently graduated with honors from one of the nation’s best universities, but it took several minutes for young, naive me to grasp the clear subtext hanging above both our heads. My student was white. Her boyfriend was black.
I played innocent and wondered aloud why the students should be broken up and not allowed to come to this conclusion themselves. I defended the young man as a very nice boy that could be good for a scattered, confused, and conflicted girl. I explained that surely this job fell to her parents if they felt concern, not to me.
I did not confront what I knew I heard. I hoped that if it appeared I couldn’t imagine race as a consideration for the relationship’s demise, maybe she would realize that it shouldn’t be.
A few months later, when choosing ideas for argument in the debate class I taught, the topic of mixed race marriages came up. I let them debate it. I didn’t get called in again, but the grapevine told me of her deep displeasure. I still did not understand. It was a Christian school, right? So everyone would be considered equal in a Christian school, right? Isn’t that what Jesus taught?
I had no clue, at 22, the depths of what I was dealing with.
When the Ferguson protests erupted several years ago, I couldn’t make sense of all the things I heard. I had taught school right in the middle of the Ferguson-Florissant area. It wasn’t like that. Our black and white students got along fine. Everyone was happy. Had things changed so much in the ensuing decades?
In the last few months, I’ve revisited those days. I have thought about those black students. I’ve put on new lenses and discovered a few things I missed.
One thing I missed was that there were exactly two black students in each high school class. I’m pretty sure this is accurate, looking back. I didn’t notice it at the time. Did we have a quota? Did we have a number of students “like that” we allowed in each year to show how benevolent we were?
Now, I remember they were usually the students with the lowest grades. The young man in the dating scenario above could barely read and write above a grade school level, though he was a senior in high school. At the time, it angered me that he had come so far and no one had done anything about that. How was I supposed to catch that up as his senior English teacher? I assumed, though, it was part of his background, not part of his education.
In fact, I went along with all the assumptions about our black students—that these were underprivileged children from whom not much more could be expected and, though no one ever said it, wasn’t it good of the school to provide them with a place to be for six hours that was Christian? God knew what happened when they went home.
How is it that no one ever said these things yet no one questioned them, either? How is it that kids I remember as smart, capable students still got marked down for their “attitude” while their white peers’ equal attitude got indulgent smiles and assumptions that they would someday make good leaders?
I wonder now what happened to that very gentle, kind young man whom we failed. It never occurred to me that teaching the token students wasn’t really a priority.
The black students were also often the ones most in trouble. Not in my classes. My most troublesome students were generally sons of the church elders. Yet several black students whom I found engaging and lively in my classes told me tales of detention and punishment because they mouthed off or talked too much class. Those detentions happened a lot. They interfered a lot with my speech and theater groups. It didn’t occur to me that my white talkative, sassy students—whom I also enjoyed—didn’t view the inside of those detention rooms with such regularity.
I never noticed.
One of those church elder’s sons vandalized my car his senior year. The same principle asked me to forgive and forget. She didn’t want the boy to have a record. She didn’t want his future to be in jeopardy. Bringing in police would harm our reputation. More to the point, she didn’t want his parents to stop contributing. I conceded, not because I agreed but because his co-conspirator was already 18, and I didn’t want that young man to have a permanent police record.
I wonder now what would’ve happened if one of the black students had vandalized my car.
I wonder now if the black and white students really did get along so well. I wonder how many black students were invited to the white students’ parties or on a Friday night drive around town. I wonder what the lunch room looked like that I don’t remember ever visiting. I never heard or saw racial intimidation between students. I never noted any animosity between them. Yet I rarely saw intentional inclusion, either. I wonder now how much code-switching those kids had to endure at a young age in order to fit in.
I just never noticed.
I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith.
I’ve learned a few other things since then as well. I’ve learned how many Christian schools were founded not so that students could be kept safe in a Christian bubble but so that they could be kept safe in a white bubble. Given the location of the school, I feel certain of this heritage. Ferguson-Florissant has changed in the ensuing decades, but not that much. I simply didn’t see what was around the edges of the bubble. I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith. Or that some there conflated the two.
I couldn’t have known any of that, commuting as I did from a surprisingly more diverse area a half an hour south of it. I didn’t know it fresh out of my own university bubble where the only minority students I ever really interacted with were the Jewish ones, because at Wash U, they weren’t a minority.
I am processing all of this now. Realizing much of it just now. I haven’t thought about those years in a long time. I’m processing that the curriculum we taught has long been considered an extremely white-centered curriculum. It’s also extremely popular among Christian home and private schoolers. I knew none of this, because I knew nothing about racism other than that it was something that happened on the south side of Chicago and the north side of St. Louis. I didn’t grow up around it, so it didn’t exist.
Our school books contained such gems as a poem about Robert E Lee being a kind and gentle person who would never hurt a bunny, much less a slave. At least, that last was the implication. Our history books taught my students that most slaves were happy, cared for, and lucky that they came to America so they could hear about Jesus.
I wonder what our eight black students thought about that. I bet they never said.
I kept those books for decades, because I enjoy having anthologies of literature around. Now that I’d like to look at them again, to examine the specificities of what I taught and whether I ever saw the bias inherent in them, I finally tossed them into the recycling last fall. One of those few times decluttering has bitten me in the butt.
I taught those things. I thought them to impressionable teenagers. I want to say that my material couldn’t have covered such dubious revisionist history since I was their literature teacher. But literature has power. Words build up or tear down. Ideas in literature have fomented revolutions, brokered peace, and empowered abolitionists. Words matter, and when we choose which words and whose words to include in our children’s education, we choose the ideas they will believe. I suspect I know what words I would find in those old books.
I think about all these things now because I must. I didn’t think about any of them then because I didn’t have to. This, I suppose, is my point. As a young English teacher, grateful to have a job, any job, teaching I never saw what I didn’t see. I never knew what I didn’t know. Yet, I did participate in racism.
I rebelled at it when I saw it in school administration. I embraced the challenge of debating racial issues in class, thus knowingly thumbing my nose at said administration.
But I didn’t question the underlying assumptions of the entire school philosophy. I believed in the subtle superiority they taught me. Because of that, I know now that whatever racism those eight students in the high school experienced, I played a part in it. It wasn’t intentional. It didn’t have to be.
One of the things I’ve learned in my dive into racial inequity is the chasm between intent and effect. White people like myself usually focus on intent. Since we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies”—since we can’t imagine intentionally inflicting racism on someone—we assume we’ve built up a kind of immunity when it comes to causing racial harm.
I had the best of intentions.
If I didn’t mean it, it didn’t happen.
Problem is, what people of color experience are the effects, not the intentions. If I didn’t mean to leave the cabinet door open and my husband cracks his head on it, he’s still got a throbbing bruise.
It’s helped me a lot to realize that the excuse of “good intentions” feels good to me because it lets me off the hook, but it doesn’t feel good at all to the person who has been hurt. When the ambulance gets called, no one cares if the injury was intentional. They care if the patient will live.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it does me no injury to say I’m sorry. I lose no ground. I lose no face. I lose nothing in the act of apologizing for harm that has been inflicted, intentional or not. It is purely pride that refuses such humility, and pride has no place in the kingdom of Jesus.
So students, wherever you are, I am sorry. I didn’t know. But now I know better.