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Sabbath: Freedom Day, Freedom Way

Dr. Bruce Lancaster

July 3, 2016
Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

A reading from Exodus:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

A reading from Deuteronomy:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour 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.


LANCASTER, BRUCE; (Staff)49Pop quiz: Do you know what is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia? Cracked as it is, inscribed on this symbol of our nations’ freedom is a quote from Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 10: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants.”

And that verse leads into instructions for the Year of Jubilee: that every fifty years there would be a special year of sins forgiven, slaves and prisoners  freed, debts would be forgiven, land going back to the original owners.

The roots for that vision of freedom are found in verses 1 through 9, reminding the people of what the Lord said to Moses from Mt. Sinai about Sabbath and through the algebra of Sabbath the commandment is expanded to not just a day, but years and generations and a way to live free in the new land.

But maybe the Year of Jubilee was as cracked as the Liberty Bell; because as far as the biblical records show, the Year of Jubilee has never happened.

God’s people seem to be just not as generous with freedom as God was…

Maybe if Kris Kristofferson was writing songs back then, instead of “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” he would have penned something about “me and Moses McGee” that “freedom’s just another word for keeping all I can!”

So this day…what is it about Sabbath-remembering, Sabbath-observing that might repair the crack in the Liberty Bell, maybe refresh the freedom that God has described through this day, this Sabbath way of life?

At first glance, as you look at the verses in your “Pray Without Ceasing” handout, these Sabbath commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy are identical, but when you look at the motivation for each, you see the difference between the two passages.

Looking at the Exodus commandment, the motivation is that we are to remember to rest on the Sabbath because God rested on this day. God was in labor for six days and then took a deep breath or two and Sabbath was born; so we are commanded to keep this act of creation holy. Remember, all six days before Sabbath were deemed simply ‘good’; this day was the one that was ‘blessed’.

Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish scholar, in his book The Sabbath, writes: “To Jewish piety the ultimate human dichotomy is not that of mind and matter but that of the sacred and the profane. We have known profanity too long… The law of the Sabbath tries to direct the body and the mind to the dimension of the holy. It tries to teach us that [humans stand] not only in a relation to nature but in a relation also to the creator of nature, the Holy.”

Now this Exodus commandment is given at Mt. Sinai, and the Israelites had only recently escaped from Egyptian oppression. I’m sure they can’t help but to keep looking over their backs to see if anyone is coming.

But Sabbath day says, “NO MORE” – no more looking back over your shoulder, no more running on empty, no more running scared, no more running away, no more running ourselves into the ground…

This day is blessed because if God can stop and rest, so can we. We are free this day from the profanity of anxiety’s tyranny, as Eugene Peterson puts it: “The precedent to quit doing and simply be is divine.”

The Exodus commandment for Sabbath gives us this day to proclaim the liberty given us as creatures of God.

Now, looking at the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments, these were given as the Israelites looked over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The motivation in this passage is to observe the freedom of this day so that we should never be slaves again. Our ancestors in Egypt had gone four hundred years without a day off, slaves in the land of Egypt. ‘Tote that barge, lift that bail’ – they were no longer seen as humans created in the image of God, but equipment for making bricks and building pyramids.

As the Israelites stand on the banks of the Jordan River, this commandment to observe the Sabbath, and I think that word ‘observe’ opens the door to read it this way: The moment we begin to see others in terms of what they can do rather than who they are as creatures of God, we abuse their humanity and assault the human community.

The Deuteronomy commandment for Sabbath gives us a way of life that preserves the image of God in our neighbors: to proclaim liberty for others so that they are free to live as they are, not as we need them or want them to be.

As a nation, as a people of faith today, you and I are standing on the banks of tomorrow, looking out over our own river Jordan into a new land…we’ve come a long way, our own revolution, escape from tyranny…

Even though we were a nation established by white men and their property, both land and people, ours is the longest lasting revolution for freedom in the world.

But today, our understanding of freedom, our notion of democracy, our spirit of liberty seems to have widened the crack into a canyon!

William Sloane Coffin once noted that our nation’s founders were influenced by the French thinker Montesquieu who differentiated despotism, monarchy, and democracy in terms of special principles governing social life.

For despotism. Montesquieu said that principle was fear, for monarchy honor, and for democracy, virtue!

“It is this quality,” he wrote, “rather than fear or ambition that makes things work in a democracy.”

Samuel Adams, the revolutionary firebrand, agreed: “We may look to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free where virtue is not supremely honored.”

And nearly a hundred years later Abraham Lincoln understood the same in his Second Inaugural Address when he called for “a new birth of freedom.”

Today we Americans have separated freedom from virtue – because we define freedom, not in terms of the public good, but in terms of our own private interests.

In the oldest tradition of the Pentateuch, Sabbath is seen as a social institution: for everyone’s rest as God rested and for everyone’s appreciation of freedom from Egyptian slavery, any slavery. This focus on Sabbath time to appreciate rather than manipulate life offers you and me a day, a way, to celebrate the weekly re-creation to be who we are, equal in God’s sight, truly to proclaim God’s liberty for all nations.

Because this one day liberates us from the anxiety of looking back over our shoulders – have we done enough? This day challenges the tyranny of a culture that sees us as production machines.

As Walter Brueggemann writes with passion:

“Remember the exodus! Remember that the brick quota was declared null and void…
On the Sabbath: You do not have to do more.
You do not have to sell more. You do not have to control more.
You do not have to know more. You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
You do not have to be younger or more beautiful. You do not have to score more.”

And this way of Sabbath remembering and observing also challenges our cultural temptation to live as leisure machines that keeps us emptily busy – where we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.

Tilden Edward pointed a prophetic hand of the Sabbath clock years ago in his book Sabbath Time when he said, “Despots provide holiday bread and circuses to divert the people’s attention from the socio-political truth.”

Our commandment to remember and observe is a call for a Sabbath revolution – as Arthur Waskow once declared, resting on the Sabbath is a revolutionary act, a day of “revolutionary tranquility,” he says, the day and the way to remember who we are in God’s sight: ultimately equal and free to bless each other with peace.

Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms: the day to dance and sing, “Free at last, free at last,” because the Sabbath – not the 4th of July, not Bastille Day, not Canada Day, not any Independence Day from Pakistan to Paraguay – Sabbath is the great festival of freedom that leads to God’s jubilee.

In the words of the poet Alden Solovy:

Sabbath is the day
Where time and space meet,
Without questioning
How beginning began
Or how the ending ends.

Sabbath is the day
Where song and silence meet,
Blessing each other
With the gift of rest.

Sabbath is the day
Where dreams and angels meet,
Yearning together
For a world of peace.

Sabbath is the day
Where holiness and eternity meet,
Praying together
For the world to come.

Sabbath is the day. Sabbath is the way.