Texts: Genesis 1: 1-5, 26, 31, Genesis 2: 1-3 (the first, sixth, and seventh days); Exodus 20: 8-11 (“Remember the Sabbath”)
What does keeping the Sabbath mean for us today? In a 24/7 world in which competition between corporations and nations enforces economic growth without limit, do any of us still take seriously the fourth Commandment to remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy?
This morning we heard the origins of the fourth of the Ten Commandments. It is based on the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis, the one in which God creates the heavens and earth in six days and then rests on the seventh day. YHWH refers to his role in this creation story when he commands the Hebrew people to remember the sabbath via tablets that Moses brings down from a meeting with YHWH on Mount Sinai.
Except, YHWH is not the one who creates the heavens and earth. Genesis 1 states that it is a group of gods denoted by the Hebrew word “Elohim” which creates the cosmos in six days. YHWH, who is the tribal God of Abraham and his descendants, does not appear in the Bible until Genesis Two in a completely different and more chaotic creation story — the one that involves Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden. Scholars say that Genesis 2 was written centuries before Genesis 1; and the two creation stories are as different from each other as the different gods they mention.
Despite this, in his Fourth Commandment YHWH states that he is the one who created the heavens and earth in six days and not the group of gods called Elohim.
The Fourth Commandment presents another problem for me when it refers to slaves owned by the Hebrew people. How is it possible that the followers of YHWH and Moses, who were slaves in Egypt but who were supposedly liberated by YHWH, includes slave-owners?
As I have stated on other occasions, I am not a big fan of the book of Exodus. When I first read Exodus in a Bible course for my Masters of Divinity degree, I was shocked at how it portrays YHWH as a mass murderer.
My distaste continued when I came to chapter 20 and the Ten Commandments. Not only do the commandments include vengeful words like YHWH’s statement that he is a jealous god who will punish children for the sins of parents to the third and the fourth generation. The Commandments are followed in Exodus by chapter 21, which details rules for Hebrew slave-owners.
Exodus is considered to be a paradigm of liberation. But it plainly admits that the Hebrew elite, as much as the Egyptian one, are slave-owners. Moses, his brother Aaron, and a handful of other top leaders might have been freed from slavery in Egypt. But the rest of the 400,000 Hebrew people who supposedly spend 40 years wandering the desert before YHWH allows them to conquer Canaan, are still slaves. For me, this admission makes it hard to view Exodus as a story of liberation.
Of course, just as the two different creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 are not accurate accounts of natural history, Exodus is not an accurate account of tribal history.
But regardless of the status of Genesis and Exodus, the Ten Commandments have been central to the ethics of Jewish, Christian and Muslim people for centuries.
When I was a child, the Canadian state enforced Sunday as a sabbath day whether one was Christian, Jewish, an adherent of another religion, or of none. Shopping was not allowed on Sunday; and it was not possible to go to a movie theatre, a bowling alley, or even to watch TV in some parts of Canada until after 1960.
I am glad that restrictions on commerce, entertainment, and work on Sundays have been lifted. A religion that needs state coercion to enforce its traditions is one that is not worth its salt, in my opinion.
On the other hand, I appreciate the practice of Sabbath. In a world with so much busyness and with problems caused by untrammeled economic growth, a commandment to refrain from work at least one day in seven is healthy, I believe.
One of the ironies of ministry is that Sabbath can be a difficult thing for ministers to practice. Not only do I work on Sundays, usually rising early to finish my reflection and other service materials, but I have difficulty finding another day of the week to take off.
This was not a problem when I was settled in Borderlands in southern Saskatchewan eight years ago. Other than having to preach at three sparsely attended worship services every Sunday and to preside at about one funeral per month, there was not much for me to do in that pastoral charge. The three churches had no outreach projects and virtually no committees.
After struggling to come up with a day off for myself, I arrived at the following formula. I pledged to take no days off of work, but to work on no days. Do you see the sad irony in this formulation?
Coming here five years ago was a wonderful change. I feel blessed that this is a busy and ambitious congregation. It has a lot of committees, outreach projects, justice initiatives, and fun and fund-raising projects in which I can involve myself and learn. In some ways, I feel like I began ministry when I started here in January 2014.
The busyness of Mill Woods United means that I continue to grow from working with you even as it also means that I often spend three evenings a week at the church, and that I sometimes work seven days a week, with my days away from the office often the busiest ones.
For this reason, I am grateful to the United Church of Canada for its policy of a paid sabbatical of three months after every five years in ministry and to Mill Woods United for making this policy a reality for me starting tomorrow. Thank you.
Not only will I gain from the rest. I am going to try and expand my heart and mind in the task of articulating how to preach hope, peace, joy and love in such turbulent and interesting times.
As I stated at two evenings of sharing in early 2017, the success of racist and sexist populism, alongside the challenges of Climate Change, artificial intelligence, and increasing secularization, have left me feeling off-balance. I plan to use my time away from congregational work to read and write; to talk with other spiritual leaders; and to see if I can find ways to articulate my perspectives so that others can hear me better, and to gain a better ability to listen to other people so that I can learn how they are coping and thriving in these strange times.
I understand that my preoccupations and interests are not the same as everyone else. For example, when my mind turned to Sabbath this week, I thought of the incredible rise in human productivity over my life time. When I was born in 1957, Canada had 15 million people. Today it has 35 million. In 1957, the world had fewer than 3 billion people. Today it is over 7.5 billion. In 1957, only a handful of passenger jets were manufactured. This year it will be 7,000. In 1957, fewer than 10 million barrels of oil were burned each day. Today, the figure is 100 million barrels. In 1957, only a negligible amount of plastic entered the oceans. Today, it is 8 million tons per year. One could go on.
The productivity of a world market that enforces limitless growth by the threat of competitive failure creates a society of endless wonder and ceaseless change . . . and of terrifying environmental and social problems.
This is one reason why I believe the world could use more Sabbath. If the human race is going to survive the productivity increases of the past few centuries, it needs new economic models that don’t involve competition. How this will happen, I have no idea. But I imagine it will include upholding the spiritual principles of rest, relaxation, peace, and sabbath.
Sabbath doesn’t only mean one day a week of rest, or three-months of rest every five years. We can experience Sabbath with every breath out; with every moment of mindfulness; with every prayer; and with every good night’s sleep.
Sabbath might have dubious roots in Genesis and Exodus, but I see it as a precious heirloom of our ancestors, and a gracious note to remember and to play at any time.
To close this reflection, I offer a paraphrase of the first chapter of Genesis. It came to my In Box this week from the people of Wood Lake Books in Kelowna, which is a United-Church related company that supplies the Church School curriculum we use here at Mill Woods United. Although this paraphrase from a new book Read, Wonder, Listen: Stories from the Bible for Young Readers shares with Genesis the notion that the cosmos resulted from a deity’s intelligent design and not from natural history, I like it. I hope that hearing it, particularly its last sentence, will underline the idea that all of us deserve a break today.
“In the beginning there was nothing. No up or down. No near or far. No yesterday or tomorrow. Only God. Here. Now.
Then came the idea. The idea came from God and was part of God, yet it seemed to have a life of its own.
From that idea all things came to be. Light and darkness. Time and space. Energy and matter. Everything needed to make a universe.
God gathered them together and set to work. Out of swirling gas clouds, fiery stars ignited with a whoosh. Planets and moons spun together, and galaxies danced like snowflakes on a winter night.
It must have been wonderful – dreaming, imagining, making all those things that had never been made before. God could see that it was all good.
The idea kept growing. On the edge of one galaxy – a sun. Whirling around the sun – a planet. Small. Lifeless. Covered in dark waters. Nothing special at first.
Then the breath of God came like a breeze and ruffled the surface of the waters. Something wonderful happened. Deep in the seas, there was life. Simple at first, but then more complex.
It was as if God could simply not get enough of dreaming up new forms of life. They filled the seas. They walked on the land. They flew in the air.
Flowers bloomed and insects buzzed. The little world teemed with life and colour, scent and sound. God looked at everything with delight.
You know how it is when you make something. You picture it in your mind, but sometimes your own creation can surprise you.
It was all so good – so wonderful: lovely patterns hidden everywhere, the cleverness of living things who rode on the wind and waves to make their homes in every imaginable place.
God enjoyed every bit of it. Day and night. Light and dark. Land and sea. Sky and earth. Sun and moon.
Maybe God even laughed out loud at the sight of dolphins leaping, or birds doing funny dances to attract each other.
This is too good to keep to myself, thought God.
So God made another kind of living thing, one even more like God than all the others. This living thing could love, laugh, delight in beauty, think, imagine, wonder, choose, maybe even have ideas of its own.
When God was finished working, it was time to rest. Glad to be part of such a wonderful world, the new creature rested too.”
May it be so. Amen.
Preamble to Worship on April 28, 2019
“Remember the Sabbath” said YHWH to Moses on Mount Sinai about 3000 years ago, or so the story goes. And those of us gathered this morning have remembered the Sabbath, because here we are at another Sunday service at Mill Woods United Church. I hope that all of us will feel nurtured by a time of sacrament with the baptism of two infants; a time of prayer and song; and a time of reflection about Sabbath on the eve of a three-month sabbatical break for me.
I always love gathering with groups large or small here on Sunday mornings; and so I will miss being part of the congregation’s spiritual life for the rest of the spring and summer. At the same time, I look forward to worshiping with 17 other communities of faith between now and Labour Day. This will be 17 Sundays and not just 13 because after my three-month sabbatical, I will take two weeks of vacation followed by two weeks of study leave in August. This means that I won’t be back in the office until Monday August 26, and I won’t be here at the front of this sanctuary on a Sunday morning until September 1.
I am confident that everyone will appreciate the results of the work of the Worship Committee to cover my absence. For the four Sundays in May and the four Sundays in July, a candidate for ministry out of Riverbend United, David Faber, will preach and preside here. And for the five Sundays in June, our friend the Rev. Jo-Anne Kobylka will be here.
This past Tuesday, David, Jo-Anne, Ethel, and Cathy and I met to discuss Sunday mornings during my sabbatical. We already know and love Jo-Anne, and so I am glad she will be with you in June. As for David, I am confident that his joyful presence, his energy, and his extensive experience over the past few years in pulpit supply will translate into meaningful and hope-filled Sunday mornings in May and July as well.
I wish David, Jo-Anne, and the congregation the best as you gather to pray, celebrate, and reflect with one another. Please let me know of your experiences on my return. Not only will I have gained from worshiping with other congregations during my sabbatical, so will you by having different leadership. I look forward to incorporating innovations and learnings into our ongoing life together when I return in September.
One of the things we talked about on Tuesday is music. Picking music has been one of the most challenging aspects of my ministry since I began here in January 2014. The hymns we sing and the musical offerings of the choir are a big part of what we look forward to on Sunday morning. And this is yet another area where I suspect having different leadership here will be useful for the congregation.
This morning’s service provides examples of the challenges and joys of singing at Mill Woods United. The Opening Hymn is one that we have not yet sung in my tenure here, but which was sung as the choral procession every single Sunday when I was a child at Knox United Church in Cornwall, ON. I know I am not the only one here who had this experience; and I wonder what percentage of United Church congregations back in the day sang Hymn #1 from the 1932 Blue Hymnal, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” as the start of every single Sunday.
We are singing it today because we ask baptismal families if they have a favourite hymn to sing on the morning their child is baptized. The Kincaid family didn’t have one, but the Small family asked for “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and it only seemed appropriate to me that we open with it. I hope that I am not the only one here who has a nostalgic moment as we sing a hymn that is familiar to many of us.
In contrast, our closing hymn is one that is new to us. Unlike “Holy, Holy,” which is inspired by the Nicene Creed from the Fourth Century and which was written in the 19th Century, More Voices, #82 was written just a few years ago. The choir knows it because we sang it as an anthem in February; and I trust that with memories of hearing that anthem and with the support of choir members, we will enjoy singing the beautiful hymn, “Bathe me In Your Light” near the end of the service. I chose it because its words echo baptism.
In between, we are going to sing a Children’s Song that probably has not been sung here since the late 1990s. This year, Laura Goss has been choosing Children’s songs for us to sing, for which I am grateful. I enjoyed learning this Linnea Good song at choir practice on Wednesday night, and I hope that you will also enjoy singing it. But because it is unfamiliar to most of us, we are now going to spend a few minutes learning to sing it. To do so, we will rely on today’s guest pianist, Kim Denis – and welcome Kim! And on Wendy Edey, who will now lead us in learning “Everyday Loving” by Linnea Good. Wendy . . .
This welcome here is simply free.
It’s for the world, for you and me.
We bring our smiles and cares,
Our hearts’ own prayers
and the stories of our days,
to worship God in many ways
And together we’re everyday loving!
We’re just everyday loving!
The way that God love us!
God’s love is deep, God’s love is wide.
It’s all around, and here inside.
So when we lend a hand or take a stand,
It’s love we’re sending round.
In every day, that’s where it’s found.
And together we’re everyday loving!
We’re just everyday loving!
The way that God love us!
Thank you. May we enjoy singing this song after the two baptisms. May we be fed by all the other elements of our spiritual gathering this morning. And may we Remember the Sabbath throughout the spring and summer – to the benefit of our hearts and minds, and to the benefit of the world.