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Every Given Sunday

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 25, 2019
Deuteronomy 5:12-15

A Reading from Deuteronomy

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But 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.

As far back as I can remember, I had to go to church on Sundays. My parents met in seminary; they both have deep roots in the church; when I was a kid, we went to church on Sundays, I had to go to church on Sundays. It was what Sundays were for. My parents were dedicated and persistent enough churchgoers that when we moved to Atlanta when I was eight years old we spent the better part of a year church-shopping, congregations of every size and denomination at the furthest reaches of that metropolitan area, every Sunday some different option off the buffet. I remember a Sunday or two in there where for whatever reason we did not want to get in the car and church nonetheless happened, in our living room, with some family hymnal and some threadbare interpretation of the word. And so I went to church because the rule was that you went to church, and because that’s just what Sundays were, and it would not have occurred to me not to.

It also got easy. In Atlanta we eventually landed in a little Presbyterian church not far from the house, and you could get there real quick, which is not something anybody normally says about getting across Atlanta. A few years later we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and immediately we started at the Presbyterian church not more than a quarter of a mile from the house. I walked past church on my way home from school. I could wake up twenty minutes before worship on Sunday morning and be there right on time. It was easy and it was natural and it was habit. It was the regular order of things. And I loved it. I had friends there. I had community there. I got involved there. I felt at home there. But I never put more than a passing thought into whether I really needed to be there. Which is not to say that the answer would have been no. It’s just, the rule was that you went to church. I had internalized it well enough not to have to ask any more questions.

In college I still had the rule, but not everybody else did, and it got harder and harder to follow. Church got further away. Sunday mornings became earlier than they used to be. I couldn’t quite find the spot that was just right for me, or maybe I just didn’t want to, and so I came and went and came and went, and by the time I graduated I had pretty much worked that rule out of my system. Sunday mornings became something else. Some weeks it was brunch with friends. Some weeks it was just a chance for my own rest and downtime. For a few years there I was really into the NFL and so Sunday mornings were just watching ESPN Sunday countdown. Later on in the middle of some campaign cycle all I wanted to do was watch Meet the Press. I never quite stopped going to church altogether, but it became the exception, rather than the rule. It became the unusual thing. It took creative thought. It took initiative. It took breaking the normal routine. It was no longer what Sundays were. It was no longer the rule.

Obviously, that time in my life has passed — I’m a pretty regular churchgoer these days. But I am also profoundly grateful for those Sundays I spent elsewhere, because it helps me remember how hard it is to get here on a Sunday morning. For some of you, it is sheer geography — we have folks in these pews who drive in from Dripping Springs and Buda and Manor and everywhere in-between. For some of you, it’s the calendar that has run out of space, that soccer practice and science homework and long hours on the job and constant travel have just made carving out this time week after week increasingly unimaginable. The even bigger truth is that whether or not it is still at work in our hearts, that rule  is no longer at work in the world around us. Coming here every Sunday, here in the fall of 2019, is increasingly an odd thing to do. The world has changed quite a bit, and that old rule about Sunday morning looks a little bit worse for the wear.

But I am not here this morning to get nostalgic about the old days. Instead I want to ask what this rule was for in the first place. What makes Sunday Sunday? Why is this day supposed to be different than any other day? Of course, Christianity draws its Sunday practice from the roots of Jewish Sabbath; Jewish theology is littered through and through with the imposition of Sabbath, and it shows up all over the Old Testament. Rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Judaism as a religion primary concerned with the holiness of time. He observes that the first holiness in all of scripture is time, that God makes the earth in six days and on the seventh day God rests and God calls that day holy, before God calls anything else holy. Later on of course, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the 10 commandments and in the Exodus version of this story the fourth commandment once again insists on the consecration of time: remember the sabbath, keep it holy, “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but rested the seventh day.” So one day a week is different because that’s how God set it up.

But I don’t think that’s quite the whole story, because as you heard in this morning’s reading, there’s another take on this commandment with a whole different why behind it, and this time it’s not about how God made the rules. It’s about what the people have been through: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy,” this time from Deuteronomy. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” This is a slight change, but with a tremendous consequence. When Israel was under slavery, there was nothing else but work. In Exodus 5, when Moses first starts to agitate with Pharaoh, the response he hears is “Moses, why are you taking the people away from their work?” They are supposed to be making bricks, bricks out of straw, bricks that will build pyramids to Pharaoh, and monuments to Pharaoh, and when Moses starts making trouble, Pharaoh takes the straw away, so it gets even worse. The Israelites can’t make their brick production quotas, because they don’t have the materials, and Pharaoh’s taskmasters beat them down: “Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?”

The only value that the Israelites have in Egypt is as cogs in a system that makes bricks. It is bricks every day. It is only bricks. Life in Egypt is making bricks over and over again. Life in Egypt is only staying alive if you make enough bricks. Life in Egypt is watching your friends suffer and die when they don’t make enough bricks. And then God comes along. And God brings them out of Egypt. And God brings them across the Red Sea. And God gathers them up underneath Mount Sinai, and God says, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me,” which, if we’re honest, sounds like the sort of thing that Pharaoh might also have said. But then God says that there will be one day when you do not work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath.” No bricks on the sabbath. No straw on the sabbath. No quotas on the sabbath. Which is very much not the sort of thing that Pharaoh would have said. Because God is very much not the sort of God that Pharaoh would like to have been. Because these Israelites now belong to God, no matter how many bricks they make. Because these Israelites now have value to God, no matter how many bricks they make. Because one day a week, they will be reminded. They are no longer just cogs in a brick-making machine. They are children of God. No matter what.

So it’s not so much that they have to take time for God. It’s that they need to take time for God. We need to take time for God to remind us who we are. It was true for me. I was perfectly content there for a while sitting on my couch and watching ESPN Sunday Countdown but I was also in grad school at the time and taking a bunch of Media Studies classes and honestly when your homework is watching TV and your sabbath is watching TV, it all begins to feel like making bricks. Or when I was spending six days a week reading about the election and sabbath watching Meet the Press, it all kinda began to feel like making bricks. Even brunch got hard. If I couldn’t pay the bills that week, but sabbath meant I was supposed to pick up the check, everything felt like making bricks. And if you will forgive me the testimony, I had spent a long time coming to church every Sunday because I had to, but it didn’t really stick, it didn’t really grab, it didn’t really mean anything to me until I figured out that I needed to. I needed some hours in my week when I was not just counting bricks. I needed some chunk of time aware that I was not just the number of bricks I could produce. I needed a day in my week to remind me of who I really was, and whose I really was, and for whose purposes I really was.

I still need reminding. And I suspect you do, too. I suspect that’s why we’re all here. I suspect we all need time in our week that isn’t about bricks. This Sunday here at UPC, we are beginning a sermon series for the fall, a worship series for the fall that is based on the parts of worship, on the Prayer of Confession, on the Passing of the Peace, on the singing of congregational song. For the next few months we are going to move through our worship service together asking what God is up to at each moment of our time on Sunday morning, beginning today, beginning with the very Call to Worship itself, and the hope for this series is that it runs to the very core of who we are. It is not some intellectual exercise about the history and theology of Presbyterian liturgy. It is, rather, an attempt to explore why this time matters, to experience together why this time matters, to proclaim together why this time matters, to take stock of how and why we gather on Sunday morning, in scripture, in song, in fellowship, in prayer, in laughter, in joy, in sorrow, in offering, in sacrament, in bounty, in scarcity, with everything and with nothing, around this table, around this font, in from this world, around this word, in from this world, here in this place, in this hour, on this day. On this one day in the week set aside to proclaim this Gospel. That we are not the bricks we make. That We are children of God.

I hope you will remember. All the teachers we just prayed into this new year, I hope you will remember that you are not the bricks you make. You are not just test scores and evaluations; you are children of God. All the students we just prayed into this new year, I hope you will remember. You are not just the bricks you make. You are not just papers and projects and presentations. You are children of God. All of you. All of you, no matter how you got here, no matter where you came from, no matter if you woke up to the north or south or east or west, no matter if you came from just down the street, all of you, no matter what, remember, you are not the bricks you make. You are not just the routine. You are not just the nine to five. You are not just the science homework. You are not just the soccer practice. You are not just the to-do list. You are not just the inbox. You are not just the calendar.  You are not just any of it, except for this, a child of God, born in the waters of creation, fed at the table of grace, called for God’s purposes and God’s purposes alone.

So remember who you are.

And if you forget. We will say it again. Every Sunday. Thanks be to God. Amen.