Work, rest, repeat (aka. belonging training)
I know this is going to be really hard for some of you to believe, but I can be a difficult person to live with. I am messy, and distracted, and often impatient or irritable. And my people get frustrated with me, and hurt when I am short or edgy with them. And then I have to do the work of seeing them, and my impact on them, and apologizing and forgiving and restoring our connection. Because we belong to each other.
They are mine and I am theirs. And we know that is not up for grabs. That means we have to work things out, we can’t just cut off and walk away every time things get hard. We can’t just close off in our own little world and not have to deal with one another.
We live with one another – our space, our time, our sadness, our celebrations – these things are bravely shared. We can’t throw our garbage in each other’s rooms, or claim the bathroom as our own sovereign territory and refuse to let others use it. Learning to belong to other people is a big part of being human, and learning that other people belong to you is a lifelong project as well.
The way of God for all creation and the cosmos, from the very first moment of creation and never ceasing is this: we belong to God and we belong to each other.
Last week we talked about how the Israelites, through the drills of Sabbath rest, repeated practice, over and over, developing the muscle memory of trust – began learning that we belong to God. This week we are going to talk about how they learned that we belong to each other.
Our text today comes 40 years after the first text. Two generations later, when the Israelites were poised to finally enter the Promised Land, Moses, ancient of days, tired and gave-it-all-he-had Moses, stood before them and gave three long, final sermons. We call them Deuteronomy.
The first one recounts their journey together, from Egypt until this moment, reminding them of all that happened in the wilderness and all that God taught them there. The second is a reminder of God’s laws and teachings, and their calling to live as the children of God, and the third is a promise that even if they screw it up, God will never let them go.
Imagine this is like the parents about to send their kid off to college- and they sit him down for the epic talk, Before you move into adulthood, son, here’s what we want to be sure you know: remember your story and where you came from, it’s taught you a lot so don’t forget it. And here are the life rules to follow along the way, we’ve tried to raise you with these but we’re telling you all of them again now to take with you. And finally, please know, that even if you mess up, which you certainly will, you will always be our child and our love for you will never end.
Moses wont be joining them in the Promised Land, so his final words to the people from God are - in his mind and their’s – very important.
We like to say that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, but that’s not completely accurate. For the first two years it was a pretty direct, if gradual, route. Cross the red sea, that was 3-4 weeks, give or take, hang out at the bottom of Mt. Sinai in ten commandments territory for 10 months or so, journey another 11 or so months to the place overlooking the Jordan River and the Promised Land, Canaan, beyond it, and you’re almost to your new home.
Now, once they had reached the Jordon, Moses sent 12 spies to scout the land that God said God would give to them.
But instead of just checking out the digs, assessing the possibilities for agriculture, and so on, the spies saw the enormous, strong and plentiful inhabitants of the land, in their impressive and heavily fortified cities, and got freaked out.
When they came back to report what they found, ten of them said, “The people are huge and fierce! We’re like grasshoppers compared to them! No WAY can we take this land; if we try, we will be completely crushed!” And the people listened to them, absorbed their fear, and refused to go into the land.
In his talk with them, Moses recounts this part of their story this way:
They brought back a report to us, and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’
26 But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God; 27you grumbled in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. 28Where are we heading? Our kindred have made our hearts fail by reporting, “The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! … 29
I said to you, ‘Have no dread or fear of them. 30The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.
32But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God, 33who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.’ (Dt. 1:25-33)
So because of this, they were “cursed” to wander in the desert, until that untrusting generation died off. They found themselves in a self-inflicted holding pattern, because they didn’t believe God would help them with the very thing God was calling them to do.
So the wandering – which literally means, “traveling aimlessly,” must have been all the more frustrating because they had an aim, God had already shown them where they were supposed to be! They spent the next 38 years basically meandering around near where God was bringing them, but not yet ready to go there.
38 years of drills. 38 years of trust training school.
And so, when the whole generation who had come out of Egypt was dead and gone, and now their children, who had grown up in the wilderness, stand before the promised land and receive the important last words of Moses – here we have again the Sabbath command. It’s almost the same as last week, when they received the Sabbath command for the first time. But it is not the same. The other 9 commandments are identical; this one is different.
The first time around, they were to remember the Sabbath day and rest because God rests.
We rest because our lives are centered on a non-anxious creator and lover of the whole universe who made us, and loves us, and calls us, and who gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other.
Resting teaches us to trust. It trains us to orient our being toward the one who loves us. You are a child of God. Sabbath says. Orient your being toward the one who loves you.
And for people shaped bythe empire, this drill is meant to become muscle memory, to deprogram them from a life of slavery where their lives were largely about producing things for the empire, striving to stay young and strong enough to keep producing things for the empire, and protecting me and mine over and against those who could take from them whatever they want whenever they want.
Sabbath drills move them into trusting that they belong to God who loves them no matter what and will always take care of them, so that they are finally free, and able to take up the role God has called them to – to be stewards of creation, and bearers of blessing for the world. To know God and be God’s people – caring for each other and the stranger among them, tending the world around them.
Resting is a way to remember whom they belong to.
But this time, when Moses reiterates the ten commandments, the Sabbath command changes to a command to “observe” the Sabbath, pay close attention to this day of rest, and then just as it said before, everyone rests, only it adds these words: so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Here they stand, about to enter into a new land, to form a new society. They are no longer slaves; they have been set free. And they have spent four decades learning what it means to belong to a God of freedom and love. And now, they head into a new enterprise, ready to take up, for the first time in hundreds of years, a place of power and authority. You are going to look like an empire, God says, Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are one. Stop and remember. Stop and see each other. Even amidst the broken systems of this earth, take this day to stop and rest so you don’t forget who you really are, and make sure that everyone else – regardless of their station in life, joins in that rest, so you don’t forget who they are as well.
There are new temptations to being on top that they didn’t have to face when they were making bricks for Pharoah, or aimlessly wandering, off the grid. They are entering into a world of commerce and international politics, land ownership and striving for wealth or position. For a people living basically with nothing, competition and accumulation must have been particularly dangerous enticements. God is making sure they hear this command to do this thing that deeply connects them to God and truth and reality, DO IT so you don’t forget where you came from – and DO IT because it’s not just for you, it’s for everyone.
When everybody rests, you all look the same - poor and rich, ruler and slave, weak and strong, healthy and sick, old and young disappear. Nobody is ahead or behind, nobody is better or worse. We are equal in our identity as God’s beloved children. Sabbath resting means everyone across the board stopping all together, stepping out of your roles and responsibilities, and setting down society’s labels and rankings, to see each other as human beings, side by side in life.Walter Brueggeman says, “The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is that anxious productivity is to be countered by committed neighborliness. The latter practice does not produce so much, but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project.”
So, in the second telling of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath command says essentially this: You rest, because nobody can or should be defined by what they do, not you, and not those who work for you, alongside you or against you.
This isn’t the cashier of the big box store, the head of the cardiac ward, or the gas station attendant, she is a daughter, mother, sister and friend, an observer of the world who loves to paint and draw, a creative soul, with dreams and longings for her children, someone who is tired and hopeful, and who wonders in the quiet of the night whether she is missing out.
She’s a person who belongs to others, and so belongs also to you.
This isn’t a kindergarten teacher, or a multi-million dollar business owner, or an unemployed welfare recipient, he’s a human being, who has stories of being bullied as a child, and of growing up and finding his voice. He’s the one the neighbors come to when they’re stumped on a project, or to hang out in the yard and talk under the stars.
He’s a person who belongs to others, and so belongs also to you.
When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we do not just mean that we worship sometimes on Saturdays instead of Sundays. We mean that we seek to live in the real reality, the Kingdom of God, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other.
We rest because God sets us free to be human beings alongside one another, and calls us to see each other that way too. We rest because the maker and lover of the whole universe claims us all, and gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other. Resting teaches us to trust. It trains us to recognize that every single person is precious to God and a gift to the world. We need each other. We belong to each other.
The Church is the people who see and hold to that truth on behalf of all humanity. We all are inextricably connected. What we do affects each other. This is a communal enterprise –being human, and not an individual affair.
If you believe you’re in it alone, you will see other people as a threat to your own safety or well-being, a hindrance to your own advancement. If you forget that we belong to each other you will believe that love is a limited commodity, that loving one person means hating another. You’ll think that one person succeeding means another failing, and act as though there is limited amount of good to go around, so you’d better go after it and grab it for you and yours, and if you manage to secure it for a time, you can feel relieved, if not slightly guilty, that you aren’t like “them.”
But we are like them. We are them. We are all the same: Beloved children of God. And we can’t belong to God without belonging to each other. There is no such thing.
Learning to belong to other people is a big part of being human, and learning that other people belong to you is a lifelong project as well.
When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, that means that we practice belonging to each other. We risk saying about each other, and encourage each other to say about the world around us: They are mine and I am theirs. I have to do the work of seeing them, and my impact on them, and apologizing and forgiving, and restoring our connection. And we practice remembering that no matter what the world says, this belonging is not up for grabs. As a congregation that practices Sabbath – our space, our time, our sadness, our celebrations – these things are bravely shared.
And being human alongside others can’t be done if we’re drowning in distraction and racing along without stopping. We have to stop, and set it down, and lift our heads, and link our arms, and see the world around us, really see the people that inhabit it, and really let ourselves feel the frustration and joy of being connected to others, so that we can sense the love of God, the eternal connection underneath it all that holds us together.
Jesus summed up all the commandments and the whole law of Moses with the words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, practice belonging to God and belonging to each other.
Sabbath rest returns us to reality, by giving us space to remember that we belong to God, and chances to observe, over and over again, that we belong to each other, until trusting God and living in God’s love alongside each other, becomes muscle memory.