Our Last Best Hope

Mark 2:23-3:6
February 7, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Abraham Lincoln once said, “As we keep or break the Sabbath, we nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope by which man rises.”

Lincoln tells us that if we keep the Sabbath, we can save the world and if we break the Sabbath, we take away all hope for humankind.

Makes you think twice about answering those work-related emails this afternoon, doesn’t it?

Keeping the Sabbath, Lincoln said, can save the world, and breaking it can take away all hope. That is not generally how we think about the Sabbath today. When we think about the Sabbath — when we think about the Sabbath at all these days — we usually think about it as a day of rest, a day when we are encouraged by God to set aside our work and our busy-ness to spend some time relaxing, refreshing our souls, and quieting our hands for a moment. For the Biblical people, the Sabbath fell at the end of the week on Saturday, but Christians changed the Sabbath to Sunday to recognize that just as Jesus was raised from the dead on a Sunday, so too we can experience new life on the Sabbath. Either way, we think about the Sabbath… when we think about it at all… as a day of rest that God instituted to make sure we don’t burn ourselves out completely.

And maybe it is because we think about the Sabbath as a day of rest that our generation has let the Sabbath slip away from our grasp because in today’s culture, only the weak admit that they need to rest. We, the descendants of our Puritan forefathers and mothers, believe that idle hands are the devil’s workplace. We are a nation built on grit, hard work, and perseverance. With our noses to the grindstone, we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, put our shoulders to the wheel, keep our fingers on the pulse, our eyes on the ball, and our heads above the clouds, because when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It is a badge of honor in 21st century America to be busy. Rest is for the weak and we who refuse to admit the weakness of our flesh have shunted off the Sabbath as a nice offer from our God but one that we don’t really need, thank you very much. And so the Sabbath has fallen by the wayside as we choose instead to be on call 24/7, to shop until we drop, and die with our boots on.

Now maybe you don’t need a Sabbath rest. Maybe you are good with going constantly and your nose isn’t rubbed raw from the grindstone, but whether you do or not, it turns out that the Sabbath isn’t just about you and your personal renewal.

In the lesson from Mark, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath day, and then just a few hours later, they pounce on him for healing a man with a withered hand, once again violating their understanding of Sabbath law. Now, the Jews certainly believed that Sabbath law could be set aside for health emergencies but the Pharisees were right in saying that this guy’s hand had been withered for years and he could easily have waited one more day to be healed. This was not a medical emergency. And if you understand the Sabbath as something God instituted for your personal benefit — as a law to stop working for 24 hours and refresh your soul and spend time communing with God in order to assure your personal salvation — then the Pharisees had a right to criticize Jesus’ decision.

Jesus, however,tells the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” Note that he says, “people,” plural, not person, singular. The Sabbath was made for humankind, to keep us in a right relationship not just with our own souls, not even just with God but also, especially, with one another. When God gives the people the commandments which contain this Sabbath law, God prefaces the whole thing by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God reminds the people that they were once slaves but God freed them, and everything that God is about to say is based on that new reality. When God sets out the fourth commandment telling people to keep the Sabbath holy, God says,

“The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

The Sabbath Day is a day of liberation. It was instituted by God to free us from our exploitation of one another and for one day a week to restore our relationships to balance. For one day a week, there will be no bosses and employees, no taskmasters and drudges, no 1% and 99%, no Black Friday shoppers rushing to the store as soon as the Thanksgiving pie has been eaten and no Walmart employees who couldn’t eat dinner because they had to be to the store early to open up for the shoppers.

Once you were slaves, God tells the people, and you were forced to work. Your sweat and blood paid for the status symbols of the powerful Pharaoh who cared nothing for your lives, but I freed you from that. I took a people who were no people and I made you my people, and restored your lives and gave you back your dignity. Once a week you will remember your liberation by freeing all people from the chains that bind them. Once a week, you will set aside your authority as a father or a mother and delight in your children. Once a week, you will look into the eyes of the clerks at the store and see them not as people there to serve you but as men and women with names and dignity and lives outside of their work. Once a week, you will turn off your phone and remember that you are not just a boss but a husband, a wife, a friend. Once a week, you will not think about yourself at all but about all of those around you in need of liberation and you will do what you can to see them as real people, made in God’s image just as you are, and you will free them.

Abraham Lincoln said, “As we keep or break the Sabbath, we nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope by which man rises.” He said those words in 1862 in an executive order to his military officers requiring them to give their soldiers and sailors and even the horses a Sabbath rest. Lincoln knew that in the military, generals could become dictators and foot soldiers little more than slaves, and so once a week, the men would be freed to be no longer officer and enlisted men but just men, all made in the image of God.

On the Sabbath Day, Jesus let his disciples gather grain to ease their hunger, and he healed the man with the withered hand to restore him to his community. Jesus used the Sabbath for the purpose God had intended — to liberate us from everything that enslaves us and makes us less than fully human. And God tells us to use the Sabbath to do the same for others.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent and this Lent, we are going to begin each worship with the Prayers of the People and end each worship with the Prayers of the People, literally with your prayers. At the end of each sermon, I am going to ask you to write prayers on a specific theme and leave them with me after worship and I will then use those prayers to begin the next Sunday’s worship together.

In order to begin the first Sunday of Lent with your prayers, we need to begin our Prayer project this week, and so today I invite you to write a prayer of liberation.

On the sheets of paper that I’ve given you, I would like you to write a prayer for someone, something that you believe is in need of liberation. You can write a few sentences or just a few words. You can say something specific like, “Lord, we pray for the Syrian refugees that they may find homes, and work, and freedom from all that oppresses them,” or you can be more general and write something like, “Lord, free us from anger.”

Take a minute and think about the ways in which we need to restore our relationships with others in our families, communities, and world, and then write a prayer of liberation.