Sermon for Lent I

February 14, 2016

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

         It’s Valentines Day and hearts turn to love: celebrating love and partnership, remembering love lost, yearning for love yet to come. Yesterday Ellis and I celebrated a wedding anniversary, and this week I pulled from the shelf a book called “Passionate Love Letters” that I gave him early in our married life. It contains excerpts from famous love relationships throughout human history, between spouses, best friends, partners and lovers. I was especially moved by this one between two bosom bodies, as my grandmother called her best friend, written from one Lilly to Felice in 1943.

         “I will never stand before you empty handed. I will look after you, be your homeland, your home and family. I will give you everything you lack.” It struck me reading these intimate letters, how fervently God writes love letters to us across human history, desirous of a deeper and more intimate relationship with us. Like a lover scorned, God watches us turn away for more charming dalliances, ignoring wholly the only One true God who can and will be our homeland, our home, our family, giving us everything we lack.

         One of the early love letters from God to God’s people were delivered on stone tablets by Moses, to a beleaguered and exhausted people who had lived through 430 years of enslavement in Egypt before fleeing by God’s grace across the Red Sea and out into the wilderness. There the Ten Commandments were given them as gift, love letters intended to bring them home, give them joy, and create peace.

         For the next five Sundays of Lent, we will explore the fourth of God’s love letters to the Hebrew people, a letter still written in the Bible, which is among other things, a book of Passionate Love Letters from God to us.

         This particular love letter goes like this. “I am the Lord your God….

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; and then God rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.” (Exodus 20:8-11, The Message) “For you,” God said, “The Sabbath is our special Valentines Day. I won’t leave you and go off and create other worlds on the Sabbath, and you won’t go off and in service and worship to other gods.”

This first week of Lent, consider how this love letter offers us relief from the anxiety of unrelenting performance and the tyranny of production. Remember that the commandments came on the heels of release from centuries of enslavement. The economic success of the Pharaoh’s depended on the impossible and unrelenting performance standards of the Hebrew slaves, standards that could not be met. The Hebrews died of abuse and exhaustion, bitter from the Pharaoh’s increasing domination, demanding bricks made without straw, with no lessening of the demand for outcome. “Work harder for the same pay,” Pharaoh said. And for the longest time, they did, or died trying.

         Now imagine the last generation of slaves, finally freed from all that had captivated their time and attention, and now dependent upon God and God’s bread from heaven, manna in the wilderness that provided for their daily need. They were learning to trust in the faithful and loving provision of a just God, having accepted for centuries the unjust and self-serving demands of Pharaoh’s economy.

         Is it any wonder that they pledged their loyalty to this God who commanded that they have no other gods? God was shaping them into an inter-dependent relationship, whereby they learned to trust the love of their always faithful God, and out of love for God to love and care for neighbor. This was new behavior. Under Pharaoh, the oppression of always competing with neighbor for survival, it was next to impossible to love and care for neighbor, as if they were their own.

         The Hebrew people needed a long courtship with God in the wilderness, to solidify their covenant to serve God alone and to trust God to care for them. How impossible it must have been for them to trust in THEIR provision when for as long as historic memory served them, they had been safety and provision insecure.  

         This love story between God and God’s people was their story, and remains our story too. We have become captive to culture in ways we no longer see. We shrug our shoulders helplessly at the impossibility of giving our children, our grandchildren, or ourselves a break rather than living life at breakneck speak. Today, Sabbath keeping seems to many a quaint idea. It brings to mind the stories of grandmothers or great-grandmothers who insisted on quiet Sundays, my mother recalling that at Grandma North’s house, yes, my mother married the boy next door, games could not be played involving cards or dice, or running around outside. While we Protestants got a few things right, we missed the mark on the Sabbath. We Protestants received God’s good news of Sabbath renewal and transformed it into a kind of oppressive moralism.

         Recalling that 10,000 fans of Patriot’s games would have been jailed in York in Colonial times for participating in entertainments, along with any of you who hold hands in public with anyone on this Valentine’s Day, it seems clear that in our own recent history we’ve missed the intention of God’s love letter.

         What if, as theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests, the invitation to Sabbath offers us a path to freedom, saying “no” to a culture that like Pharaoh, demands ever more from us, returning ever less.

         Brueggemann writes, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.” We find ourselves feeling as helpless against the demands of Sunday soccer practice as the Hebrew people did against Pharaoh. It would take enormous communal resolve to change a system that does not serve us well.

         But hear this, if you are tired, anxious, worried, frantic, frenzied, overworked, or troubled in Spirit, your God who loves you unconditionally invites you to rest.

         “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heaven burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew11: 28-30)

         Weariness and being heavy-laden, and yoked to the demands of the world are all ways of naming our captivity to a commodity society of endless productivity. Jesus offers an alternative path to freedom, as did Moses before him. In keeping with the Sabbath love letter given to his forebears in faith through Moses, Jesus re-issued God’s invitation to rest. “Come into relationship with me and rest here,” Jesus said. “Don’t let the demands of the world own you. You belong to me and to no other. No other lover will ever satisfy you but me.”

         We become anxious when think we’re never doing enough, contributing enough, attending to the needs around us enough. Even when what we’re doing is stockpiling good will by taking care of God’s people, not just building up our storehouses for personal gain, Jesus invites us to regularly lay it down.

         I confess that I’m really bad at this. I write Pastor’s Pens and sermons and respond to emails on vacation. My terms of call with the church specify that I am supposed to take two days off every week, in my case, Friday and Saturday. I don’t.

         My grandmother would say this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As generally understood, the person accusing (the "pot") is understood to share some quality with the target of their accusation (the "kettle"). The pot is mocking the kettle for having a little soot when the pot itself is thoroughly covered with it.

         You might then wonder why I, of all people, should be preaching on Sabbath keeping as freedom from anxiety. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Among other reasons, we preach what we need to hear. Like you, I’m searching for release from the culture of never enough.  I hear the voice of Pharaoh in my head. “It was great that you called on half dozen people last week, but you missed those other three. Great job teaching Bible study and book group and presiding at counseling sessions, and supporting numerous church meetings and planning a wedding, two baptisms and a funeral, but you missed calling on that person, who is going through a hard time and is in need of prayer.” It’s not that anyone is looking over my shoulder like Pharaoh’s minions with a whip. I carry my own internal Pharaoh inside my head. I know what its like to be captive to production tyranny, laying awake at night to the noisy voice of an internal task master who is always eager to name those things yet to accomplish.

         “Enough!” God says. “Whatever you’re chasing, come the seventh day, knock it off. Do whatever gets you off the hamster wheel and refreshes your soul through faith. Once a week, stop what you’re doing and rest in God’s sufficiency instead of relying solely on your own.”

         The great paradox is that when we rest in our true beloved, the heart of God, our anxiety over never being or doing enough goes down. But in truth we’re also more productive after Sabbath keeping than if we hadn’t stopped for refreshment at all.

There’s a story of one man who challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did."

"But you didn't notice," said the winning woodsman, "that whenever I stopped to rest, someone waited there to sharpen my ax.”

(L. S. Chafer, Grace.)

         What could be more perfect that starting the season of Lent on Valentine’s Day? Lent is that season of courtship preceding Easter, forty week days and five Sundays, when we empty ourselves through spiritual practices of all those little false gods we reach for instead of our Beloved. Then on Easter, God goes all the way with us, all the way through the Cross-of sacrificing the ways of the world to new life.

          Receive God’s Valentine for you this day. “I will never stand before you empty handed. I will look after you, be your homeland, your home and family. I will give you everything you lack.”

May it be so for you AND for me.