Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22
1 Cor. 1:18-25

Remember the Sabbath
Lent 3
March 7, 2021

Grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Christ the Beloved One, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last year, from the Third Sunday of Lent through Holy Week and beyond, I participated in worship from the office area I shared with one of my roommates. As I was preparing for Holy Week, creating a sacred space in the office involved clearing any work or homework from the desk, changing the lighting, and adding things to the space like my Bible and incense. As we move through our second pandemic Lent, the question might once again surface – how do we prepare for holy days? This isn’t a new question, but it takes on different layers in our current context. Whereas before we might prepare for holy days by cooking a meal to share at a church potluck, traveling to see family, or finding a new outfit for Easter, now our preparation might be more internal, more personal, or more complicated.

In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter Jesus in the time leading up to the holy festival of Passover. Jesus is in Jerusalem, most likely preparing for his own Passover celebration. He goes to the Temple, and finds people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. He sees this, and then makes a whip of cords. Returning, he drives out the sellers, the animals, flips over the moneychanger’s tables, pours out their money, and says to “stop making God’s house a marketplace”!

This action and declaration places him in the company of the prophets who came before him, who also denounced the way the Temple system of offerings and payments held up a hierarchy, profited the elite, and put barriers on participation. Jesus, like the prophets, knew that sometimes our rituals and our systems keeps us from God, instead of drawing us closer to God. Jesus, like the prophets, knew that we like to make idols of that which is close to God, but not God. And unlike in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, where this story is near the end of Jesus’ ministry, in the Gospel of John it is one of Jesus’ first acts after transforming water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This is a framing story for the rest of Jesus’ ministry.

It is a foundational moment, because Jesus then goes on to equate his body with the Temple. To equate his body as a site of Divine dwelling. As a place where the Divine and human meet. God is not just found in the Temple, in the buildings where we worship, but God is also found in the body of Jesus Christ. And as we have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been baptized into Christ’s body – making our bodies, too, sites of Divine dwelling.

So if God is located in the body of Christ, in Creation, in our bodies, and therefore in every moment of our lives, the question isn’t “how do we prepare for holy days”? but “how do we prepare for the holiness of our lives”?

And prepare is no longer quite the right word – because we are already living our holy and sacred lives. A better word might be return, or live. How do we return to the holiness of our lives? How do we live into the holiness of our lives and our bodies? Even in the midst of grief, or trauma, or unrest.

The reading from Exodus gives us a framework to begin answering that question. These commandments from God were given to a community that was already in covenant with God, and who are developing a deeper and continued relationship with God. The communal aspect is important – while the commandments guide our individual actions, they are also intended to guide our collective actions, guiding how we live into the holiness of our lives and our bodies.

In our context, in the context of Lent, and the context of our other readings, two of the commandments stick out particularly for me this week:

“You shall not make yourself an idol”, and

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”.

I wonder if Jesus was remembering the commandment to not make idols, not in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth, when he encounters the marketplace that the Temple has been turned into.

I wonder about the idols that we hold up – idols of productivity, overwork, profit – at the expense of not only people’s material lives, but also at the expense of people’s spiritual lives. The idolatrous belief that people need to work a certain amount, and only in certain fields, to be deserving of food, shelter, care, and rest is in direct opposition to the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

This is one of the longer commandments, detailing that everyone – all creatures, all people – are to keep the Sabbath holy. It doesn’t matter your gender, your employment status, or your immigration status. If you are part of God’s Creation, you continue that pattern of Creation by taking Sabbath and resting. Not even God could work and create all the time – so why have we bought into a system that tells us we need to work and create all the time before we are worthy of rest? Or bought into a system that has historically and chronically denied rest, based on type of employment, or identity?

The Sabbath commandment is where it’s critical to remember that these commandments were given to a community. It can be all too easy, in our culture of near-idolatrous individualism, to blame ourselves if we aren’t in a position to rest. If we aren’t in a job that allows us an actual work, life, and spiritual balance. It’s not your fault if the only Sabbath time you can carve out is a few minutes, every so often. Too many people are in positions where they don’t even have paid sick time, much less a consistent day off. And that’s why it’s good news that our bodies, our lives, are sites of the Divine, even as, communally, we work towards equitable ways of being in the world, that allows people to rest. Because if God is dwelling in our bodies and in the body of Jesus Christ, we can find rest and Sabbath in our very breath.

The economic and cultural system to deny Sabbath is intentional. Earlier in the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved by Pharaoh, one of the main back-and-forth’s was a request from the Israelites to go and worship, and Pharaoh denies that again and again. Why is worshipping God so threatening to Pharaoh’s power? Why is a break from work so threatening to Pharaoh’s power? Because when we are able to take Sabbath, to worship God, to rest, to disengage from the idols we have constructed and the idols that are pushed into our lives, our bodies have the time and space to process our experience. There is space to re-think, and re-imagine, how we are living. There is space to encounter God.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only after many peoples work lives were ruptured by the pandemic, ruptured by the increase of publicity around police brutality, ruptured by the realization that so many of us are considered disposable to people in power, that new and more seeds of renewal are being planted.

The Nap Ministry, founded in 2016 by Tricia Hersey, is a ministry that “examines the liberating power of naps”. They “believe rest is a form of resistance, and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.” The Nap Ministry frames rest, and Sabbath, as revolutionary. They engage in performance art, and create spaces for people to rest together. Their work is rooted in Black Liberation Theology, Womanist Theology, Afro Futurism, Reparations Theory, Somatics, and Community Organizing (from their website: thenapministry.wordpress.com).  Currently, the Nap Ministry is engaging in a two-month Sabbath. Practicing and living into the liberation they believe in.

Practicing and living into the liberation they believe in.

Beloveds in Christ, while the commandments are communal, and it will require a collective shift to increase access to rest and Sabbath, there is one place I would challenge us to consider this commandment from an individual lens. When we carve out time for God, time for Sabbath, even if it’s just five minutes, or the hour we join together in worship on Sunday mornings – do we treat that time as sacred, and holy? Do we treat it as Sabbath? Does that time of rest honor the holiness of our bodies, and the holiness of our lives? Does that time allow us to listen more deeply to God?

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly hard to rest and actually take Sabbath time. It always feels like there’s more dishes to do, more books I should be reading, more projects that I’ve put off for too long, more people I need to call back. And that is a result of being entangled with the idol of productivity. Of being entangled with a marketplace mentality. I need to work at taking Sabbath time, to make space for God. And it sometimes feels foolish to believe that any of us can disentangle ourselves from the idols of the world, and return to the holiness of our lives in Creation.

But we worship a foolish God. A God who is so committed to us, whose creative energy pours out into the world, that we are enfolded in love. A God that provides enough manna, enough abundance, to allow us to rest, even in the midst of wandering in the wilderness of Lent. A God who flips the tables of the systems that keep us separated from God, and who continues to send prophets. A God who dies for us and transforms the tools of oppression. A God who rests with us.

The season of Lent is often bustling with preparations, new practices, new disciplines. And that’s important. I’ve preached on, and believe, that our relationship with God is just that – a relationship. And so there is labor involved – the labor of returning to God, of listening to God’s Spirit instead of the idols of the world, of practicing other ways of being in the world, and in Creation.

But we are asked to hold all of that in tension with the Sabbath commandment, with rest. God rested after creating the world. Jesus goes off to pray, to be close to God, to take a break. Even the animals are to take Sabbath. Even machines wear down.

Wendell Berry, a poet and an environmentalist, writes: “Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help. It invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.”

May these invitations shape the way we prepare for holy week, and shape how we live into the holiness of our lives and bodies. May your Sabbath time, even just five minutes, even just an hour, reorient you to God, and away from the idols in your own life. May you find glimpses of beauty, and abundance. May your hearts find moments of rest in God. Amen.

Vicar Reed Fowler,

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