Sermon: Working Like God
by John McLarty | 12 June 2018 |
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for May 26, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 14:22-29, Exodus 20:8-11, John 5:8-19
Yesterday I was at Cypress Adventist School to present a chapel talk. Since I’m freshly returned from vacation in southern Utah, I told the kids about one of my favorite vacation activities: hunting for dinosaur tracks. I showed them a picture of my latest find: tracks of a rat-sized critter that lived in ancient sand dunes in what is now eastern Nevada.
The kids were full of questions. I was full of enthusiasm. Near the end of chapel, one of the girls raised her hand. She asked the best question of all: “Can you get paid to find dinosaur tracks?”
I laughed. I didn’t know if she was curious about whether I got paid or if she was already imagining a career for herself as a dinosaur-hunting paleontologist. Either way it was a fun question.
Unfortunately, I had to acknowledge that there was no money in it for me. This was vacation. If I got paid for hunting dinosaur tracks, it wouldn’t be vacation any more. There would be deadlines and production quotas. I would be working! However, I must confess, it would be a very tempting line of work. Still, if it were work, then it wouldn’t be vacation. Vacation is a respite for the weight of responsibility of work.
The kids at school were only a few days away from the end of school. I remember the agony of waiting through the last month of school when I was a kid, desperately hungry for the arrival of summer vacation. I’m not much of a kid any more, but I still eagerly anticipate vacation.
The notion of vacation—time between our work—lives at the very center of our religion. We highlight the climax of the first creation story in Genesis:
On the seventh day God finished his creation work. He rested from all his work and blessed the seventh day. He declared it holy, because on that day he rested from all his creation work. Genesis 2
Much of Christianity is obsessed with human brokenness and guilt. Classic evangelical theology begins with the human predicament—we are sinners doomed to hell—and devotes its most intense energies to answering the question, ‘how can we escape damnation?’
In stark contrast, a religion anchored in Sabbath keeping, begins with the conviction that we are made in the image of God and devotes its best energies to answering the question, ‘how can we craft a human life that best mirrors the divine life?’ Sabbath-keeping itself brings us into an earthly rhythm that mirrors the pattern of the divine life. Creating and Sabbath. Labor and rest. Effort and celebration. Productive work and happy cessation.
Sabbath is not a remedy for sin. Sabbath is not medicine for the disease of life. Sabbath is a primordial treasure, an essential element of ideal humanity. Sabbath honors work. Sabbath-keeping assumes that the labor from which we rest is good labor, holy effort. Work is a good thing. Yes. But work is not everything. It is not the only thing. In our Sabbath keeping we celebrate and limit our work.
Sabbath is a weekly message from God: well done, good and faithful servant. God is pleased with our creating, building, care-giving, teaching, composing, fixing, marketing. This whole enterprise we call civilization would grind to a halt without our work. So work hard. Study hard. Be creative. God is pleased with our labor. We are pleased with our labor.
When Friday evening comes, let’s celebrate. Let’s congratulate ourselves on another week of work. Let’s waste no time or attention on regretting what we did not accomplish. Let’s not rehearse our failures—creative or economic or moral or spiritual. On Friday evening let’s give thanks for the work we have accomplished and trust that for this week it was enough. Let’s enter Friday evening as we would enter a party at a good friend’s house. In fact, let’s do what we can to make our Friday evenings sacred parties. Let’s Invite God to be part of our festivities because for sure he does take pleasure in our celebration.
Some have questioned this bright, shining approach to Sabbath. They argue that Sabbath should be modeled on the Day of Atonement—an occasion for soul-searching and tearful repentance. But I insist the Day of Atonement is a very poor model for Sabbath keeping. The Day of Atonement is exceptional. Sabbath keeping is routine. Routine spiritual anguish is unhealthy.
One passage that supports this vision of Sabbath as a sacred party, a holy festival full of joy and laughter, is Deuteronomy14:22-29.
Set aside a tithe of your crops—one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the LORD your God. “Now when the LORD your God blesses you with a good harvest, the place of worship he chooses for his name to be honored might be too far for you to bring the tithe. If so, you may sell the tithe portion of your crops and herds, put the money in a pouch, and go to the place the LORD your God has chosen. When you arrive, you may use the money to buy any kind of food you want–cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the LORD your God and celebrate with your household.
God wants us to celebrate, to savor the riches that come to us from the union of our labor and the blessing of God. What good is wealth that is never enjoyed? One of the sweetest realities of wealth is the ability to say, “We have enough.” God intends for people to regularly mark their “enough” by holding festivals.
God wants us to party. The party described here in the Book of Deuteronomy is a sacred party. It is held in the temple or at least in the neighborhood of the temple. The party is permeated with a lively sense of the presence and favor of God. Still, let’s be clear, it is a party. This is not a sober, somber gathering to rehearse our unworthiness or to feel the crushing weight of our imperfections. It is an occasion of laughter and thanksgiving. After the party we will return to our labor. There is always work to be done. The festivals described in the Bible are punctuation in the larger flow of work. But notice how important the punctuation is. God directs us to devote a seventh of our time to celebrating. And one tenth of our income.
One of the distinctive elements of the Sabbath passages is an emphasis on social justice. As we enter the gladness of Sabbath, we are obliged by the Sabbath commandment to consider who else should be at the table with us. Is there someone working whose labor enables my blessed rest? What is my duty to the police officer who patrols the streets on Friday evening while I feast? Do I have neighbors who are lonely? What about the people in my city who work seven days a week, juggling three jobs, just to pay the rent and buy groceries? Sabbath feasting cannot be separated from social justice concerns.
You will remember the words of the Sabbath commandment. Don’t work. And your sons and daughters, your animals, and the foreigner who is with you—make sure they have Sabbath, too. To the extent you have authority, make sure those under your authority enjoy Sabbath as much as you do. Note how this concern shows up in today’s text in connection with tithe:
And do not neglect the Levites in your town, for they will receive no allotment of land among you. “At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.
God wants us to enjoy the fruit of our work. And if in our enjoyment we turn too obsessively inward, if we imagine that our bounty is “just for us,” the text reminds us that Sabbath keeping is fundamentally a social justice issue. We do not work just to create occasion for our own personal weekly or yearly vacation. Our work creates the community that provides for a Sabbath holiday for all.
Because we are children of God, because our values flow from the character of God, we are not satisfied to merely “get ours.” When we rest and look around and see that others do not have the same opportunity for a holy vacation, we are not satisfied. We want the people who care for our children in pre-school to have happy vacations. We want the people who clean the restrooms at work and mow our lawns and deliver our pizzas and pack our Amazon boxes to enjoy the richness of life that comes from an appropriate cycle of labor AND rest, work and vacation.
Our enjoyment of Sabbath awakens us to our obligation to do what we can to extend that privilege to others. We are not comfortable to enjoy our privileges at the expense of others with less privilege. Rather our privilege imposes on us the obligations of royalty, the obligation to serve those with less.
If we go out to eat on Sabbath, we owe a very special measure of respect to those who cook and serve our meal and wash our dishes. They are working because they need the money. Our Sabbath blessing is built on the backs of their labor. So show them some respect. And the way we voice our respect is with money. Double or triple your usual tip. Be generous to those who work so you can feast.
I do not know how to remedy the enormous income disparity that characterizes American society, but I am sure of this: if we go out to eat on Sabbath, we owe a very special measure of respect to those who cook and serve our meal and wash our dishes. They are working because they need the money. And because they are working, we are able to enjoy a rich feast with our family and friends. Our Sabbath blessing is built on the backs of their labor. So show them some respect. And the way we voice our respect is with money. Double or triple your usual tip. (This assumes it is already your custom to be generous to those who wait on you.) Be generous to those who work so you can feast.
Once when Jesus was challenged about the legitimacy of easing the burdens of others on Sabbath, he replied,
My father is always working, so I’m just doing what God does.
It’s important to hear these words correctly. Jesus was not doing what God was does because Jesus was divine. Jesus was doing what God was doing because Jesus was human. And to be human is to be in the image of God. To be fully human means to act like God.
In creation, God worked for six days then took a vacation day, a Sabbath, and shared that Sabbath rest with humanity. Because we are in God’s image, this is the pattern of our lives. We work and rest. We are busy, then we Sabbath. And we do what we can to share that Sabbath experience widely.
In our working–creating, making, building, shaping, writing, composing, developing, organizing, directing—in all this activity we are keeping company with God, we are living out the divine image. Then we cap it off by keeping Sabbath. We pause and contemplate what we have done. We give thanks for the gifts that underlie our achievements and success. We remember that rest is for all, for the whole of our family, even those who are not successful, not productive, not smart and beautiful and resourceful. In our Sabbath-keeping we remember that our family is a large one—as large as all humanity.
Today, as we keep Sabbath, as we enjoy worship and meals and holy leisure, let’s bask in God’s favor and consider what we can do to extend the reach of our Sabbath blessing.
John McLarty is the senior pastor of the Green Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seattle, and a former senior editor of Adventist Today magazine.