Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
Christ Lutheran Community Church
March 15, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Sabbatical Journey"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
According to the creation story in Genesis, God labored for six days to create everything that exists: stars and galaxies, mountains and oceans, insects and elephants and everything in between. On the seventh day, God rested, which always struck me as strange. Does God get tired? Does God need to recharge God’s batteries? Or is rest something more than just ceasing all activity?
Genesis doesn’t tell us why God rested, but it does tell us that God created humanity in God’s image. So following God’s example, humanity is also instructed to rest one day out of seven.
We Christians tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about the sabbath. Whenever Christians propose posting the ten commandments in courtrooms and municipal buildings, I wonder if they realize that honoring the sabbath is one of the ten commandments; because, as far as I can tell, the sabbath is not something that most people bother to keep, Christians included.
But many of our Jewish brothers and sisters recognize what a tremendous gift the sabbath is. Think about what a gift unproductive time is… time when you don’t have to do anything…. time when you can play and imagine and make love and reflect on your life, even if these activities are not going to help you put food on the table. Unproductive time gives us the opportunity to do something only we humans can do: worship. With unproductive time, we can look around and say, “Wow! This world is so beautiful! My family is so precious! God is so wonderful!” The opportunity to spend this unproductive time worshipping and celebrating and rejoicing in life, that is the gift of sabbath!
The passage we just read from Leviticus tells us that not only is humanity to rest one day out of seven; the land is to rest too, one year out seven. Every seven years, farmers are supposed to let the land go fallow and just eat whatever the land produces on its own. While we don’t practice the sabbatical year as a society, good farmers do let their land go fallow every several years, because that does give the land a chance to regenerate. Land that is allowed to rest ends up being more productive because the land rejuvenates itself.
The reading from Leviticus also says that if humanity does not give the land an opportunity to rest, God will give the land the opportunity to rest. From our human perspective, the warning that we read in Leviticus sounds very severe: God says, “I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away… Your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste.” That’s harsh! But what sounds like a severe warning to humans is a liberating promise to the land: “The land shall have the rest it did not have on the sabbaths when you were living on it.”
We don’t know if ancient Israel ever practiced the sabbatical year as it is described in Leviticus. To do it as a society would be very difficult. For us, in our society, where most of us do not work the land for a living, the idea of a sabbatical year seems even more implausible.
But it does seem like these sabbatical years come along whether we plan for them or not. During my sixty years I have seen how every several years something interrupts our economy and our livelihood. There was the oil embargo of the seventies; the mini-recession at the end of the eighties; the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the nineties; September 11th in the early 2000s; and the crash of our financial markets in 2008. Perhaps, we are entering one of these sabbatical years right now as the coronavirus interrupts the routine of our daily lives. Each of the interruptions of the last several decades came to an end, just like the coronavirus will also come to an end.
It might be helpful to recognize that while the coronavirus can be a threat to us human beings, for the rest of the species on earth, it might just be the best thing that has happened in a generation. If it slows down our consumption of natural resources, if it slows down the rate at which we pump carbon into our atmosphere, if it slows down our destruction of the habitats other species live in, maybe the coronavirus will be the sabbatical our land needs.
In the meantime, we can mitigate the pain. As a society, as a congregation, and as individuals we can mitigate the pain felt by our fellow human beings. As a society, we can use our economic resources to make sure that our most vulnerable members don’t fall through the cracks. When the Bible instructs people to observe the sabbatical year, it reminds landowners to allow the landless poor to glean the produce of the land. As a society, we can find ways to make sure that those who lose their jobs don’t also lose their homes and the food on their tables. As congregation, we can continue to live out our mission of sharing God’s love for all the world. We can pick up the phone and call each other just to check in and let people know that we care about them. We can be sure that our food cabinet is supplied with emergency provisions. Right now, we have plenty of food in our cabinet, so if any of you are in need, don’t be shy about calling the church and arranging to get a couple of bags of groceries. As individuals, we can approach the coronavirus interruption as an opportunity for sabbath. If your plans have been interrupted, look for an opportunity to do something rejuvenating for yourself and your family. Go take a walk in the park. It’s free and it’s incredibly healing, especially this time of year when the landscape is coming to life. Play games with your family and friends. Write in your journal. Read that book you’ve been wanting to read. There are all kinds of ways to make this time rich in quality, even if it doesn’t feel rich in dollars and cents.
The coronavirus will come to an end, just like the sabbath year comes to an end. Until it ends, how we approach this time will make all the difference. Let it be a time when God’s grace and mercy and compassion rain upon a thirsty land.