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God, Our Neighbour, and the Sabbath: The Third Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 7, 2021:
Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

We all know groups that have mission statements; professions or colleges with codes of ethics; organizations (like our diocese) abiding by a constitution and canons; and if you dig through the Book of Common Prayer you’ll find that it recommends that Christians figure out and follow a ‘rule of life’ that covers things like prayer, study, and almsgiving. All of these examples are about discerning what’s important, and then having it shape the way you operate. How you will BE as you move into the new day.

I heard someone say something the other day — I think in our parish movie discussion group — about how she didn’t want things to get “back to normal,” but rather that we “move forward to better.” I think that’s a big part of what’s happening in the Exodus reading we heard a few minutes ago (and in our gospel, too). In this Old Testament story we have a people that had been impacted by trauma and dehumanizing abuse experienced in Egypt, suddenly set free — and then further formed through the experience of wandering for forty years — and now they’re coming up to the Promised Land. And it appears that God thinks it critical that they have a document at the centre of their community that articulates what’s important, and moulds their behaviour. The famous Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the Ten Commandments as “strategies for staying emancipated.”* Because the temptation, or the risk, is that you end up just recreating Egypt in this new place. New management, but same business… (We have fancy words for that, like “multi-generational trauma” and “mimetic desire.”)

Brueggemann describes Egyptian society, fittingly, as having a pyramid-shaped structure;** at the top of the pyramid, enjoying the view is Pharaoh. Pharaoh whose cushy life is made possible by the oppression of the people at bottom of the pyramid. It’s a society of unfairness and inequality. But it’s also a society marked by Pharaoh’s anxiety, and fear. Fear of running out (understandable, in a desert environment), resulting in the opposite: the excessive accumulation of stuff at the expense of human flourishing (the slavery again). And consequently, more fear, because there’s a lot more of ‘them’ — the slaves — than there are of Pharaoh… Earlier in the story Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill the Hebrew children for that very reason. (This same fear is going to reappear much later in the Jesus story, in figures like Herod and Pilate.) And all of this dehumanizing, fear-based behaviour is exactly what God in our story wants the Hebrew people to avoid doing all over again in their new life in the Promised Land.
How do the Ten Commandments begin? They begin with God. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Who is this God, and what’s God like? It’s a god who frees people.

That’s how the commandments begin. And the parts we probably know best, about not killing, stealing, and so on, that’s how they end. The commandments are about how we stand before God, and about how we stand before others — our neighbours.

But then there’s a thick chunk right in the middle. What’s it about? The Sabbath. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” This middle section bridges the section about God and the part about our neighbours. Because the Sabbath mirrors how God created in six days, and then rested. And as we seek to reflect God’s ways in our ways, it results in a more humane treatment of others: everyone is to be afforded this time of rest, even the alien — the ‘other.’

So if you want to follow God, our life should look something like this: we should be creative, and we should rest. In presenting this as the way of life — these commandments that take into account God, our neighbours, and the importance of rest — God plants the seeds of a new society. By following these laws and by observing the Sabbath, the people will show themselves to be different; different than Egypt. Which helps us understand the worry that Jesus provoked in the groups like the Pharisees. By sometimes breaking the rules around the Sabbath, they felt he was disparaging markers of Jewish identity in a situation where they were the colonized. But if we understand Sabbath as being the heart of this Law that protects relationships between neighbours, then we realize that Jesus’s breaking of the Sabbath to love his neighbour isn’t really a violation of the Law at all, but living into its very essence.

And this demonstration that Jesus makes in the Temple isn’t a statement about the Temple as being bad, or corrupt; though like any institution it was fallen, like all of creation. Jesus, like the prophets that preceded him, was reminding the people, and the institution, of its deeper purpose, and to move beyond the outer forms of religion — again, not bad in themselves — but to ensure that at the core was a living heart.

So as we hear these stories in our season of Lent, they might help us to conceive of Lent not as ‘mere religion,’ nor as rules and regulations to pile on top of our already burdensome lives. But, instead, as an overturning and driving out of some of our habits — again, some of these things not bad in themselves. And as we put a bit more focus on study and prayer; on giving alms; on simplifying and quieting down for these forty days, we might find ourselves returning to the heart of our faith; and find our hearts resting more securely in God.

So who is our God? The One who freed the Hebrews, and the One who raised Jesus. What does God want? A world that doesn’t recreate the ways of Pharaoh; a world that is conscious of the dangers of the marketplace.

So as we approach the one-year anniversary of this pandemic — if you’re experiencing it similar to me, you might find that you think you should have more time to do ‘stuff,’ but then suddenly exhaustion hits. Our inner Pharaohs want us to keep working, at the expense of our wellbeing. But that isn’t good for us, our loved ones, or our neighbours. Take this time of Lent to learn and practice something of simplicity, and allow yourself discern when to be creative, and when to put work down. The Sabbath, whether the seventh day of the week of the Jews, or the Day of Resurrection that we Christians celebrate, isn’t just about ‘rest’ in itself. It’s a reflection of, and participation in, the life of the God. It’s a glimpse into an alternative way of life. And the seemingly foolish things we do as Christians — including waking up early on Sunday mornings — model to those around us that Pharaoh’s pyramid scheme doesn’t have to be our reality.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

** Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 23.