Laugh



Inspired by Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

So, I was on Facebook and I was reading what other pastors were saying about our story for today. They were going on and on, as pastors do, all about Abraham. They were debating things like, “Was Abraham being authentically generous here to these travelers, or did he know that they were divine all along?” On and on they debated questions like this. Abraham this and Abraham that! I almost chimed in and then I remembered how futile it usually is to debate with someone online, especially a pastor. They’re the worst! But here’s my problem with all their arguing and debating. I think they’re focusing on all the wrong things! Or should I say, the wrong person, because I think, the real star of this story is, Sarah. Not Abraham! But before we get into all that let me catch us up a bit.

As some of you will remember from last year, the Narrative Lectionary gives us the highlights, and as such it skips a few stories along the way. This is a birds eye view of the Bible. So last week we read the second creation story and this week we’re reading about Sarah. That means that we skipped fifteen chapters worth of stories. Some of those we read last year, and some we will read in years three and four and some we will just skip altogether because again, this is a birds eye view.

But, every week I will attempt to give you a quick synopsis of how we got to this point in the story from the previous week’s story. So, since the creation story, humankind fell into sin and got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, which quickly led to The Flood and destruction of most of the Earth. Then there was the Tower of Babel story before briskly moving to the story of Sarah and Abraham.

They are basically the first First Family, our original faith ancestors that began this journey with God. And they began as outsiders of the Promised Land, from a land called Ur, until God promised them a land of their own, also known as Canaan. And not only were they promised land but they were promised descendants. This promise really hit home for Sarah, as she had been unable to have children. And this is what makes our story for today so profound, and, as you’ll see, quite comical.

They had other experiences too in between this initial promise and today’s story, like escaping a famine by moving to Egypt for a while where Abraham lied and told them Sarah was his sister causing a plague on the land, and then there was the whole Sodom and Gomorrah debacle, not to mention Abraham taking matters into his own hands and having a baby with one of their servants!

So, a lot has already happened in their life together, and by this point in the story where we jump in, not only was Sarah still unable to have a child of her own but they were both around a hundred years old! Which is partly where the humor comes into this story. They have been holding on to this promise for a long time now, so long that they had probably forgotten about it! I mean, if you were a hundred years old you would be completely justified in thinking, “Well, maybe I misunderstood the promise.” or “Maybe God was being metaphorical.” Whatever you might be thinking, no one, including God, would blame you for giving up on it. Little did they know however, that God had not forgotten the promise that God made to them so many years before. And that’s where we jump in.

I’m not going to go into who exactly these travelers were, we can talk about that in the Fireside room after worship if you’d like to join us, but Sarah and Abraham encounter a most unusual trio of travelers. It’s unclear whether Abraham recognizes who they really are but that really doesn’t matter because the way that it reads in Hebrew, God came with a message. After Sarah and Abraham finish showing them their generous hospitality, God not only tells them that the promise hasn’t been forgotten but even gives them an update on the timeline. God says that this time next year God will return and Sarah will have a baby boy. And that’s when Sarah, who was in the background this whole time, does the unthinkable…she laughs at God!

Now, over the past few millennia, theologians have shamed Sarah for this, describing her as being disrespectful, as doubtful, as unbelieving, and worse. However, in just the chapter before, God reminds Abraham of this promise and what is Abraham’s response? The author writes that he, and I quote, “fell on his face and laughed.” He literally was ROTFL! Who knows what ROTFL stands for? That’s right, rolling on the floor laughing! That’s the shorthand that you can use online when you want to share just how funny you think something is! It’s the shorthand for the emoji that you have on the cover of your bulletin. And God’s response to Abraham’s laughter was the same as God’s response to Sarah’s laughter. There was no judgement, no condemnation, no scolding, not even a slap on the wrist!

I imagine Abraham with a confused look on his face as he watches these two go back and forth, while he switches places with Sarah and moves to the background of this story. Here’s why I love this story so much. I think we have an unhealthy relationship between our faith and our humor. For Christians in particular, there seems to be this divide between laughter and playfulness, and our relationship with God, and I’m not sure where that comes from, because it’s not the case in other religions.

One of my favorite Gods, other than our own of course, is the Hindu God Krishna. Talk about some fascinating reading! Look him up online sometime and you will be in for a plethora of amazing stories, and also an insight into how that faith sees God and humans interacting. And my favorite story from their scriptures is a story about Krishna stealing the clothes from some gopikas, or the local young milkmaids.

So the story goes that Krishna was an extremely playful, outgoing young boy who caught the eye of every young girl in the land. They were infatuated by him but they also recognized his divinity as well, a fact that he was well aware of and even took advantage at times. Like this one time when he noticed that they had all took their clothes off to bathe in the river. So what does Krishna do? Takes their clothes, climbs a tree, and puts their clothes in the branches!

They notice and are horrified! They beg him to give them their clothes back but he refuses because he thinks it’s hilarious! Now, to our western ears we might think of this as sexual harassment but that’s not what this was at all as Krishna was still a young boy. So, the interpretation of this story goes something like this. Krishna knew that the gopikas suffered from a debilitating shyness. They were very spiritual but the one thing that kept them from being enlightened, a Hindu’s version of salvation, was this shyness. And so, this was Krishna’s way of getting them to come out of their shell. Of the two hundred gopikas that he stole clothes from that day, seven of them came out of the water and as soon as they did, they were instantly enlightened. That was Krishna’s gift to them. But they first had to play along with this game of his.

Now, why did I tell you this story and why is it one of my favorites? Because the Hindu religion has something that I am envious of. Their faith allows for playfulness, allows for teasing, allows for laughter with, and at, the divine. The closest thing we have come to this are those little statues of Jesus playing soccer!  I mean, come on! They have an element to their relationship with God that I find very lacking in our own.

Which is why I love this story of Sarah’s laughter so much. She had a relationship with God that allowed for laughter, that allowed for laughter of the absurd, even when that absurdity was coming out of the mouth of God; a relationship that allowed for playfulness, coyness, sass, and a bit of teasing thrown in as well; a relationship that allowed for smirks and side eyes. And all of this without threat or fear of condemnation or shame or scolding.

Fast forward a year and Sarah is nursing a new baby boy whom they name Isaac, which means, “he will laugh.” She was literally nursing laughter. Our reading ends with some very profound words from Sarah. She says, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” My friends, our God’s promises are sometimes laughable, absurd even! Maybe they’re absurd to God too!

No matter, God invites you to laugh at them. God’s promise to love you no matter what? Laughable! No matter what you’ve done or said, or what you haven’t done or said, God loves you anyway? Laughable! You go right on ahead and laugh! As long as you make others laugh at those promises too. Laugh and spread that laughter until the whole world is laughing at God’s promises! As long as those promises are getting spread. Laugh! Amen.

Almost Paradise



Inspired by Genesis 2:4b-25

Today we begin year two of four of the Narrative Lectionary, journeying once again through the great stories of the Bible, with our reading from the second chapter of Genesis. Last year we began with the story of the Flood and so you might be wondering why not just start at the beginning, with chapter one. Well, there’s a reason for that. Each year consists of readings from a different Gospel from the end of Advent through Easter, last year we read through Matthew, this year will be Mark, then Luke, then John.

And so, each year the Hebrew scripture readings in the Fall are chosen based on which ones match best with the Gospel that is going to be read that year. Why, because for Christians, particularly us Lutheran variety, see the Gospels as core to our Biblical understanding, they are the heart of the entire Biblical narrative. The Gospels are the lens by which we love the Hebrew Scriptures.

Today’s reading from Genesis may not be as familiar to you, especially because it is not found in the Revised Common Lectionary, that’s the other collection of readings that many churches have used, including Bethlehem before me, for over a quarter century now. Not only that but when you think of the Creation story, most people think of the first chapter of Genesis, the one that begins with “In the beginning.” But this story that we have before us today is a completely different story all together. It’s not a more detailed look at the first creation story, the way many Biblical literalists would have you believe. No, this is a different narrative of how creation was created.

Just take a look at a few of the details and you’ll see. For instance, rather than a blank canvas with nothing but a void and darkness, this story begins with the earth and heavens already in place. Rather than animals being created before humans, a male human is created. Rather than both the male and female humans being created together, the female is created last, after the animals. Those are just a few of the glaring differences in these two stories. What fascinates me, is that our faith ancestors were ok with that They were ok with there being two separate and contradictory creation stories in the same Bible, and there’s no reason we can’t be ok with that too. If you want to hear more about that, this is one of the many topics we will talk about at Faith & Froth this month!

But let’s dig into this story further. Like the first creation story, this one is rich with vivid imagery, giving us lots of different things to chew on and process. One of things that really stood out to me this time, even though I’ve read this story countless times, is how almost perfect creation is portrayed. You heard that right, almost perfect. When we think of those first days of creation we often think of the Earth being a veritable paradise, where no one and no thing is left wanting for anything.

Many of us have this idea that it was the closest thing to heaven that the Earth will ever see until we get to the real thing. But if you look closely, that’s not at all how this author describes those first days of creation. By the way, not only was this written by a different author than the first creation story, it was written much earlier. Scholars believe that this one was written during King David’s reign, while the first one was written much later during the Exile. But I digress.

Let’s take a look at just how imperfect this perfect creation was. First, the author mentions that there was no vegetation. Why? Because there was no one to farm the land. Whoa! Hold on a sec! God expected us to work…in paradise!? Who thought that was a good idea? Had I been that first human I would have been asking to see the manager immediately! However, that’s the way this author saw the world. Yet, another difference from that first creation story. So, the land is left wanting, without a farmer. Next, is this reference to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If creation started out as a perfect creation, why would this tree even need to exist? Next, the author mentions that there was no rain, so creation begins in a drought.

So, God finishes creating the Earth, all of its vegetation, one human being, and says something quite striking, especially for those of us who know the first creation story. God says, “It’s not good…that the human is alone.” But those first three words, “It’s not good” are what really stand out. The first creation story, in just the previous chapter, had that repeated refrain, “it was good.” God created light “and it was good.” God created dry land “and it was good.” God created vegetation “and it was good.” God created sea creatures, birds, land animals, humans, and after each one that author proclaimed that “it was good.” Not this time. This time, it was not good. Creation was lacking in some way, in many ways. And not just with the human being alone, but the land had no farmer, the animals had no names, the sky had no rain clouds!

Nothing was operating as it should be, nothing was operating at all really! Everything was there, but nothing was operating together. There’s the key word, together. You see, creation was left wanting by design. The world was created perfectly imperfect. Let me explain. And I’ll explain using a concept from the world of philosophy no less, a concept called Synchronicity. Synchronicity is when things work together in a beautiful, synchronous dance that leaves no one or no thing in want, sometimes in very obvious ways and other times in very mysterious ways.

Carl Jung called it the “togetherness principle.” I like that description the best, because that was the missing ingredient in this creation story. Everything was present but separate, rather than working together to care for each other’s needs. It was almost as if there was a switch that God just hadn’t yet flipped on. And what was that switch? A woman! God made a woman and then all was right in the world. The end. Amen! I wish it was that simple! However, it sure does read like once the female human was created, everything just started to work together, Synchronicity had been found, the Togetherness Principle began to operate.

Now, I’m not saying that women are the answer to everything, although that was the case in my life. But the point here is, creation is not operating at full efficiency, if we are not working together to care for each other’s needs. And who do I mean when I say we? I mean every one and every thing. From people of different faiths, colors, cultures, and places, to animals and plants, and even the air and the water and the earth.

Every thing and every one has been created to work with each other, to care for each other, to dance with one another—all in one great big synchronous life together. Creation was designed to need all it’s different parts needing each other to work together, in order to reach the perfection that it was created to be. It was created perfectly imperfect, almost paradise.

I invite you to ponder the many ways that our world is out of sync, and how we can help to bring that synchronicity, that togetherness principle back into reality, and as such, becoming a coworker with God in this continuing saga of creation. We will be doing just that today at two o’clock at our meal packaging event. Feeding the hungry is precisely this togetherness principle put into action. I’ll leave you to think of other ways to do so. Maybe we’ll even do it together someday. May God bless our work together, as we spread a bit of paradise wherever and whenever we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Great Ceasing



Inspired by Deuteronomy 15

This is our third and final week in our series on Sabbath. When I first saw that this topic was coming I thought to myself, “How in the world am I going to talk about Sabbath for three weeks?” Well, I was proved wrong! Now, I’m feeling like I didn’t get a chance to say enough! I had no idea there were going to be so many different ways to apply the principle of Sabbath, of ceasing, of ceasing from work, and all that it might lead to.

During week one, we talked about how Sabbath can help us to redefine who we are, and how it can remind us that we are God’s children. Week two taught us that as God’s children, we are designed to enjoy God’s creation, to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, especially as it helps us to keep from working, or even thinking about work! The first two weeks were about God and us, and now we turn our attention to what Sabbath can teach us about how we relate to others. And it’s not easy to hear.

If last week’s lesson sounded a bit over-indulgent to you, this week’s lesson is anything but! It’s quite challenging really, especially for us U.S. Americans, who idealize, romanticize might be a better description, things like independence, capitalism, and a free market, which, of course, is just a form of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy flies in the face of all of that and more. It’s so counter-cultural you’d think Jesus wrote this himself! But this was long before Jesus was a twinkle in God’s eye.

The context for today’s reading is the same as it was two weeks ago. God’s people had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had been given the Ten Commandments, of which honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy is one of them, and were then in the wilderness waiting to enter the homeland that had been promised to them.

While they’re waiting, they were given a whole lot more than just ten commandments. Remember, God was helping them to figure out who they were again, apart from slavery. First and foremost, God was helping them to remember that they were children of God. And so, they were given dozens upon dozens of laws and regulations as they relearned how to behave as children of God. And God needed them to figure this out before they entered their new homeland, otherwise, it would have been doomed to fail.

And one of those laws was the one that we have before us today—the Sabbath Year. Every seven years they were instructed to forgive all debts. How un-American is that! To be fair, this law was just as counter-cultural for them then as it would be for us now. This is just not the way humans work. So much so in fact, that there is very little historical evidence that this law was every taken very seriously.

I don’t know if you picked up on this but I love the sarcastic remark that God gives them when giving this law. God says, but “of course there won’t be any poor persons among you because God will bless you in the land that your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, but only if you carefully obey your God’s voice, by carefully doing every bit of this commandment that I’m giving you right now.” In the same breath, God then says, however “if there are some poor persons among you…”

God knew they weren’t going to be able to do this from the moment the law was given! Oh, they tried in various ways to honor this law but their human nature usually got the best of them. Which is why Jesus, centuries later, would echo this passage when he said, “The poor will always be with you.” Not just because they will be, but because we are still, to this day, thousands of years after this law of the Sabbath Year was given, still learning how to live as children of God.

Will we ever learn? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. If not, should we just give up and forget this weird law? I mean, canceling debts, how impractical is that? Surely this doesn’t apply to us, right? Well, I’m not so sure we should ignore this. I think there is a deeper wisdom here that is very applicable to us, especially if we don’t interpret this so literally, or so monetarily. Would a lot of people benefit if we actually canceled debts every seven years?

You better believe it! That would mean that I might live longer than my school debt! And then be able to use that money to pay for, oh, I don’t know, my children’s education so they wouldn’t have to go into debt! But I’m not bitter. If we’re realistic about our humanity, or lack thereof, we know that we just don’t have it in us to literally cancel all debts every seven years, but is there a way we honor this type of Sabbath?

The last two weeks we have focused more on how to honor the Sabbath for ourselves and God. We’ve focused on how and why to take a Sabbath for ourselves. Now God turns our attention on how to give a Sabbath to others. And remember, the word Sabbath doesn’t mean “rest” in Hebrew, it means to cease. So, how can we give a “cease” to others? What can we “stop” for the benefit of others?

How can we give a Sabbath to someone else to better their lives, and particularly, the things that others owe us, or, and here’s the kicker, the things that we think they owe us. This might take some imagination but bear with me. Is there a connection between God’s call for us to honor the Sabbath and things like: sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, transphobia, ableism, or any other kind of ism that you can think of?

And just so we’re clear, when I use the term Sabbath, I’m not talking about a day of the week, or a year, think bigger than that. I’m talking about God’s call to cease, to stop, and in the case of our reading for today, to cease for the benefit of another. Let’s call it The Great Sabbath, or better yet, The Great Ceasing. So what might that have to do with all those isms I mentioned? Well, let’s take sexism as an example.

For thousands of years in most countries of the world, men have assumed that women owe them a certain amount of respect, of a status above them in society, submissiveness, even to the extent of their livelihood as property. These things are what men have traditionally thought women owed them. That “debt” needs canceled, and not just for a day, or a year, but forever. Not only because it’s wrong, but because it wasn’t a debt that should have ever been owed in the first place!

Here’s another one, the same concept can be applied to racism. For as long as European countries have been colonizing the rest of the world, it quickly became common practice for white people to think that people of color somehow owed them—owed them their allegiance, servitude, livelihood, elevated status, and respect. That “debt” needs canceled, and not just for a day, or a year, but forever. And if you think these examples are debts that have already been canceled, I’d love to give you some reading recommendations, all you have to do is ask me.

Here’s the bottom line, I have a feeling that if you name an ism, we would be able to apply this concept of Sabbath, of ceasing for the betterment of others to it. A concept that began all the way back at the beginning of creation, because God knew back then, that we would not be able to figure this out on our own—and so has commanded us to take a Sabbath, and to give a Sabbath. That is the way that the world is supposed to work. I don’t think it’s too late to keep trying.

And I don’t think it only concerns the isms that I mentioned. We can practice The Great Ceasing in small ways too. We all know we have behaviors that hurt those around us rather than bring life, oftentimes those closest and dearest to us. Maybe those are what God is calling you to cease. I invite you to think of ways in which you can practice The Great Ceasing for the benefit of others. Be bold, be creative, be courageous, it’s what you were made for. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Stop and Smell the Roses



Inspired by Genesis 2:1-3

I hate roses! If I get stuck one more time by a thorn in that rose jungle of a backyard that I just bought, I might buy myself a flame thrower and be done with it! Let me back up a bit. Most of you know that I recently bought a house. With said house, came a, well, I don’t know if you can even call it a back yard. It has no yard, although it is in the back! What it does have are rose bushes, lots of them! Forty-four to be exact! You heard that right, forty-four evil rose bushes. To be clear, it’s not so much the rose that I hate it’s those nasty bushes. It astonishes me how something as beautiful as a rose can come from such an ugly plant!

My wife Sara doesn’t like them either, although she does love to get roses, which she reminds me every chance she gets. I don’t see what makes them so special and I certainly could do without the price tag. Now, you’re probably thinking, Pastor, you could save so much money on roses now! Let me refer back to my opening point: if I get stuck by one more thorn! Worse than that, our poor dog Pearl came in limping the other day with, you guessed it, a thorn stuck in her paw! That happens one more time and it’s flame-thrower time!

Ok, why am I whining about roses? Today, we continue our three week series on Sabbath. Last week we talked about how Sabbath is more than just taking a day off, that it enables us to reidentify us from our past, as well as from our work. This week our reading comes from Genesis, the end of the first creation story, the one that we are most familiar with. God created something different on each day for six days, ending with humans, and then on the seventh day, our translation that we read says that God rested, but who remembers from last week what a better translation is for the Hebrew word shabbat? That’s right! Ceased! You get an extra gold star on your permanent record! It actually reads, on the seventh day God ceased. Ceased from what? Ceased from working.

But that begs us to ask, ceased to do what? I mean, if God is God, why would God need to stop working? Does God need to take a breather? Does God need to collect God’s thoughts? Does God use this time to plan the next move? No, that would be work. So, why then? Why would God cease from working? To stop and smell the roses of course! Here’s what I’m proposing. What if, God ceased from working, to simply enjoy the creation that God had just created? Could it be that simple? And what if, God was modeling this behavior for us to follow? By commanding us to honor the Sabbath, God was commanding us to stop and smell the roses. Now, what does stopping and smelling the roses look like? I bet if I asked ten different people in here I’d get ten different images of what that looks like!

For me, it’s any kind of activity that commands my complete attention. Any activity that hinders my mind from wandering, especially to things like work! How easy is it for many of us to be thinking about work? And for fields, like being a pastor, wherein much of the work is done up here, in your head, those are the worst, because that means your mind can slip into work at any moment without notice! I catch myself doing that all the time! It’s a good thing you don’t pay me hourly because it’d cost you a fortune!

So finding activities that make it hard for my mind to slip into work is of utmost importance. Such as bike riding. I love bike riding! Not for sport but just for the pure enjoyment. And I think one of the reasons I like it so much is that it commands my full attention. You don’t want to ride a bike and get distracted otherwise you’re gonna find yourself with a flat tire, or in a ditch, or worse! However, riding a bike allows my mind to focus on other things: the road, the sounds, the people, the dogs, the trees, the roses, anything but work is the point!

Another one of my favorite activities for this is playing video games. Trust me, it’s really hard to think about work while you are protecting a farmer from a horde of trolls or trying to catch the Joker after he’s escaped Arkham Asylum yet again! Knowing many of you I imagine you might be thinking of things like woodworking, quilting, gardening, reading, restoring your car, anything that helps to bring you out of the everyday routine of life and into appreciating life’s simple pleasures. And maybe, for some of you, this comes quite naturally.

It doesn’t for me. But maybe you don’t need an activity to help you with this, maybe you just have that skill to be able to turn off work, turn off stress, like a switch, and focus on something enjoyable. For some it just comes naturally, but I’m guessing for many of us it does not. Either way, the point here is to stop working and enjoy the life you’ve been given, stop working and appreciate the world around you, stop working and spend time with loved ones, stop working. Stop and smell the roses.

But here’s the thorn in all of this. There’s always a thorn isn’t there? Why does there always have to be a thorn! Well, the thorn here is this, how hard is it for many of us, to allow ourselves time for Sabbath, time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, time to just be? It’s pretty tough for many of us isn’t it? For lots of reasons. One, many of us just feel downright guilty! We see how hard others have it, the homeless woman you’ve passed enough times to now recognize, the neighbor who works two, maybe three jobs just to feed her family, and we might think to ourselves, how can I enjoy life’s simple pleasures when so many others cannot. Or maybe it’s not guilt, maybe it’s a fear of laziness. Many of us grew up in generations that taught things like, “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.” Here’s another one for you, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

Or, maybe it’s not guilt, and maybe it’s not a fear of laziness. Maybe it’s something even worse. I think a lot of us shy away from enjoying life’s simple pleasures because we just don’t feel right doing it. And I’m talking about something different than just simple guilt. Many of us have a “I’ll take one for the team” kind of mentality to our work, whether it be our paid work or our volunteer work. Many of us have a hero complex or a martyr complex when it comes to our work.

We run ourselves ragged or we sacrifice for the sake of others leaving little for ourselves. I see this in the church all the time. Why do you think we have so many people suffering from burn out in our churches? Many of us don’t know how to say no when asked to do something because they don’t feel right doing that. I see this in parents as well, like in my own wife. She will spend every last penny she has on her kids but when it comes to her needing something she hesitates and usually goes without.

Look, clearly we have lots of reasons why we have trouble stopping and smelling the roses, more than I can mention in a single sermon. I didn’t even get to things like ego and pride. But stopping to smell the roses, taking a Sabbath, following God’s lead on that seventh day of creation to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, is essential to who we were created to be. When we don’t, we are not being fully human, we are not being fully God’s creation. It’s like buying an action figure and then not opening it because it might be worth more money someday? What?

When I bought Star Wars action figures, “for my kids”, we played with them! That’s what they were made for! I’d probably have a small fortune if I left all my childhood action figures in their packaging but I wouldn’t have the wonderful memories of playing with them, that sparked my young imagination each time, and I probably wouldn’t be a fan today. It’s what they were made for.

We were created to enjoy life. We were created to stop and smell the roses. It’s ok! There’s no need to feel guilty, or lazy, or unworthy, and there’s certainly no need to be a hero or a martyr. And if that sounds a bit self-indulgent, remember, this is part two of a three-part series on Sabbath. Next week, it’s gonna be a whole different story when it comes to Sabbath. But for now, enjoy life’s simple pleasures, stop and smell the roses, take your toys out of their packaging and play with them, that’s what they were created for. It’s what you were created for. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Cease and Desist



Inspired by Deuteronomy 5:12-15

According to Wikipedia, “a cease and desist letter is a document sent to an individual or business to stop purportedly illegal activity and not to restart it. The letter may warn that if the recipient does not discontinue specified conduct, or take certain actions, by deadlines set in the letter, that party may be sued. When issued by a public authority, a cease and desist letter, being ‘a warning of impending judicial enforcement’, is most appropriately called a ‘cease and desist order’.”

My friends, the commandment that I just read to you from Deuteronomy, is God’s cease and desist order to you. So, I guess the appropriate thing for me to say right now is, you have been served. Today we begin a three week series on the topic of Sabbath, before we begin year two of the Narrative Lectionary on September 8th. Over the course of these three weeks, we are going to read selections from Deuteronomy, and Genesis, and we may even hear what Jesus had to say about the topic.

I find the topic of Sabbath to be of increasing importance in today’s society, for reasons we will get into later. But I thought the timing of this series was odd, at the end of summer and not at the beginning. You’d think they would have selected this series as everyone was gearing up for some rest and relaxation, as we were planning our vacations, our weekend getaways, our road trips. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the wisdom in talking about this now, at this time of year. I don’t know if it was intentionally designed that way but I should probably start by telling you just a bit about the word Sabbath. Simply put it’s the proper name for a day of the week, what we know as Saturday. But like all Jewish names, it has a meaning beyond that.

The root word, shabbat, is often thought of to simply mean rest, as in relaxation. But that’s not as accurate as we’d like to think. A more accurate translation is to cease or desist, to stop, and specifically, to stop working. It doesn’t necessarily mean to rest and relax, meaning to do nothing. It can, don’t get me wrong. But there are other things that God had in mind to fill our time when ordering us to stop working. But before we can even get into all of that we need some context. So, our reading from Deuteronomy comes from the Ten Commandments. That’s right, keeping the Sabbath made the same top ten list as “Do not murder!” If that’s not enough to make us take it seriously than I don’t know what will. And in this commandment, God makes this seemingly strange connection between Sabbath and their slavery in Egypt.

The Ten Commandments were given after the Israelites were rescued from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. They were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. Many, many generations had endured life as a slave of the grand empire of Egypt. Now, just ponder the ramification of that for a moment. Generations had grown up knowing nothing but a life of slavery. That was their whole identity. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, a homeland, all but a distant memory at best, a mere footnote in their oral history. And now, they had to redefine who they were, how they related to each other and the rest of the world, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. So, God helps them out a bit, and gives them these ten commandments, guidelines, redirections, to help them do just that.

This is what makes our reading for today, which is the third commandment, so powerful. This was more than just God’s way of saying, “Take a day off.” This was God helping them to reinvent themselves. This was God’s way of saying, “You have been slaves for a long time, but I have rescued you from that life, so stop living it. Stop being slaves. You have been created for more than that. You have been made into something new.” They knew no other way to live, it was all they had been for so long! But now, they could do other things than just work. In other words, what they did for a living, slave or free, shouldn’t define who they were. “There is more to life than work!” God was trying to tell them! But even more important than that, God was saying, “Don’t allow one thing, especially something painful, like their years in slavery, to be the thing that makes you who you are.

So let’s widen our lens a bit now, because I’m sure you’re already connecting the dots in your own life. This certainly has a lesson for us too, even though we aren’t Jewish, nor have we been slaves, not the literal type anyway. There’s a lot of applications for us. The first thing that comes to mind is a council meeting at my last congregation. I’m not sure how we got on the topic of work hours but one of the council members, the vice president, said that he had never been successful in a job working less than sixty hours a week, many times it was eighty he said.

The president then chimed in and said, I can’t remember the last time I used a vacation day! And they both laughed and patted each other on the back. They were proud of these things. I sat there speechless, knowing that both these guys had a wife and children. And I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be had they been there to hear that.

Look, I love being a pastor, I love being your pastor. But when I die, I don’t want my wife and children and grandchildren, standing at a pulpit at my funeral saying how good of a pastor I was or how dedicated I was to my job. I hope, first and foremost, that I will be remembered as a good husband and a good dad, and a good grandfather, before I’m remembered as a good pastor. Because there is so much more to life than work, so much more than the uniform that you wear.

If I’m remembered for how much I worked, how many hours I put in, how little vacation I used, then I will have failed at this thing called life, especially because God called me to be a spouse and a parent long before calling me to this pulpit. Have you ever noticed how one of the first questions that two people who just met ask each other is, “What do you do for a living?” That comes from this same thing. We are so quick to identify ourselves by our work. God says, there’s more to you than that. Cease and desist.

This also applies to life experiences too. Though I’m going to tread very cautiously here because some life experiences take a long time to get through and I would never rush that process for anyone. So, I will only speak from my own experience. The pain and heartache that I have experienced in my life, the incidents that I have had to endure, could have easily been the identity that I took on. But with patience, and family support, not to mention some great therapists and pastors in my life, those painful experiences were not allowed to lay claim on my identity.

Like the Israelites who were no longer slaves and had to learn a new way of being, we too have to learn a new way of being after painful experiences. We are not called to stay back there and live as if we were still there, but to cease and desist. But again, we all travel that road of past hurts at a different pace, what I am talking about is the end goal, the end goal of giving yourself a Sabbath from it, the end goal of allowing yourself to be given a Sabbath from it.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Jesus knows! Jesus knows what you carry because Jesus carries it too. Jesus knows the burdens you bear because Jesus bears them too. Jesus knows your struggles because Jesus struggles with them too.

And Jesus wants to lighten that load for you, ease your burdens, assist with your struggles. Jesus wants to give you rest if you will but take it. Jesus wants you to take a Sabbath from them—cease and desist—even if it’s just for a day, even if it’s just for a moment. So that you can remember that you are more than what you do, you are more than what you feel, you are more than what you’ve experienced in this life. You are God’s beloved children—and nothing or no one can take that identity away from you. Thanks be to God. Amen.