Let My People Go!
Deuteronomy 5:1-15; Luke 6:1-5
Good morning! For those of you who weren’t here the last couple Sundays, this sermon is part three of a six-part series on the Ten Commandments. If you missed any of these sermons, you can go to the church’s website and read the written text of my sermons. And if you want an extended discussion of the Ten Commandments, please check out my podcast at softidolatry.com. Also, today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism for Autumn Marie Kelly. Autumn’s grandmother is Carol Morris; Carol is one of our newest members and I’m happy to see that we’ve pulled some of her family into our orbit here at FPC.
On its face, the Fourth Commandment, to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, is a pretty straightforward commandment. Like so many pieces of scripture, it’s easy enough to understand, but it’s really tough to live into. I say that, but honestly, I’m not sure I really understood this commandment until I went to seminary. I thought this just meant that I was supposed to go to church on Sundays. It does. And much, much more.
I did my field education in a small Presbyterian church in the West End of Pittsburgh called Crafton Heights. It’s a residential neighborhood with no real business district, and most Pittsburghers aren’t even aware that it’s a separate neighborhood—you could drive through it without noticing.
The Pastor of the church is a man named Dave. He was an incredible mentor and I learned so much from him, so much more than I learned in my classes. My first big lesson came because I really annoyed the, the stuff out of him.
It was on a Sunday morning, during the coffee hour after worship. I asked him what was going on the following week and what he wanted me to focus on. This was probably the third or fourth time I’d asked this question. The previous times I asked the question, he said, “we’ll talk about it on Tuesday,” which was when they had their weekly staff meetings.
But this time Pastor Dave said, “Al, stop asking me that question!”
Pastor Dave is a kind and gentle man, yet he gave a forceful answer.
I’d crossed a boundary and I didn’t realize it.
Pastor Dave keeps the Sabbath; he’s very serious about the Fourth Commandment.
However, he believes that worship is something different from work—even if part of this job is to lead worship on a Sunday morning. Dave also makes pastoral visits on Sundays; I think he classifies that as fellowship. He also takes Mondays off. He doesn’t go into the church on Mondays or do any church business. That’s how he practices Sabbath.
Pastor Dave refuses to do any church business on Sundays. That means no committee meetings. That means no work-related conversations with seminary interns during coffee hour. Period.
I didn’t understand this until I crossed the line. I was a member of a church in the East End of Pittsburgh. It’s located in a very cosmopolitan neighborhood. I’d call it a destination church—many of the members lived more than five to ten miles away. Every Sunday I’d make a mental list of who I needed to talk to after worship. Most committee meetings were held on Sundays because the people were already there.
That wasn’t how it worked at Crafton Heights. Nearly all of the members lived within two or three miles of the church. Probably half the people in the congregation could walk to church. And they did. So, it wasn’t difficult to schedule committee meetings on weeknights. For me and Dave, it was a culture clash.
The Fourth Commandment is all about the clash of cultures between the Egyptians and the Israelites. Remember, when Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh commanded them to make bricks. Lots and lots and lots of bricks. Sooooo many bricks!
Pharaoh had good reasons for all those bricks. He had a dream that there would be a famine in the land, so he wanted to build more granaries to store wheat and protect the people from starvation. In his anxiety, Pharaoh drove the Israelites to produce more and more bricks; he drove them to gather their own straw to make the bricks; he drove them to work seven days a week. He didn’t care if he worked them to death.
But God cared!
God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand a day off, a day of rest, a Sabbath, so that the Israelites could worship the Lord. Remember, on the seventh day of creation, God rested. God’s chosen people needed to rest, too, because God needs whole people.
Under Pharaoh, the Israelites were much less than whole. The suffered under the weight of Pharaoh’s greed and anxiety. They were simply a commodity to Pharaoh; they were only as valuable as the bricks they produced. Of course, Pharaoh refused this request, and this kicked off a series of plagues that resulted in the Exodus.
The concept of a Sabbath, a day off from all productive work, was a completely new thing in the ancient world. None of the pagan deities really cared for their people; they didn’t do relationships. If you wanted something from a god, you said prayers, then made an offering or a sacrifice, and that was it. It was a transaction be you and the god on which you called.
But our God insists upon relationship. God so valued this relationship with the Israelites—God’s chosen people—that God freed them from slavery in Egypt and commanded them to take a day off from productive work to honor that relationship. This relationship requires whole people: people who are not consumed by anxiety, people who are not spending every waking hour producing bricks for Pharaoh.
What about us? How many of us are still making bricks for Pharaoh?
In church, one of our favorite villains, our boogeyman, is youth sports. We love to blame youth sports for the decline in church attendance. We love to use that as an excuse and wag our fingers at other people: “Look at them and how they refuse to honor the Sabbath,” while we ignore all the ways that we fall short.
How many of us take work home on the weekends? Even if we don’t take our work projects home, a lot of us still answer emails from work on Sundays. Lots of people work fifty or sixty hours a week, or more. They never get any down time. Is it any wonder they’re not in church on a Sunday morning? Let’s not forget all the people who work in retail or in restaurants.
They don’t have a choice; they have to work on Sundays to make ends meet.
My goal is not to shame any of you for not coming to church every week—or to shame the people whose lives and economic realities are so challenging that they have to work on the Lord’s day. Rather, I want us all to consider the ways in which we still bow to Pharaoh and the anxieties that drive our decisions.
I think that’s part of why Pastor Dave is so zealous in his practice of Sabbath. He sees the church as a place of worship and fellowship. He refuses to see the members of the congregation as a commodity for committee work. He believes the church should model the practice of Sabbath.
The truth is, God still needs whole people. This means that we all have to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our practices of work and Sabbath. We have to look at all the things in our life that induce stress and anxiety, and then seek ways to restore the balance, particularly as it pertains to keeping the Sabbath.
But here’s the thing: this is not just an individual practice. Self-examination is also a community practice. Church is the place where we’re supposed to share these burdens with one another. This is a community in which we are called to share our fears and anxieties. We do this through worship, fellowship, and relationship with God and with one another.
Pharaoh goes by other names in our world, but God still says, “Let my people go!” Let us all come together as a community and live into that reality. Let us all come together and keep the Sabbath holy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church in the world today. Remember that we are called to practice Sabbath, and through that practice, find God’s peace. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!