Texts: Deuteronomy 14:22-29, John 5:8-19
Yesterday I was at Cypress Adventist School to present a chapel talk. Since I’m freshly returned from vacation in southern Utah, I told the kids about one of my favorite vacation activities: hunting for dinosaur tracks. I showed them a picture of my latest find—a rat-sized critter that lived in the ancient sand dunes that covered Utah and eastern Nevada.
The kids were full of questions. I was full of enthusiasm. Near the end of chapel, one of the girls raised her hand. She asked the best question of all: “Can you get paid to find dinosaur tracks?”
I laughed. I don’t know if she was curious about whether I got paid or if she was already imagining a career for herself of dinosaur hunting. Either way it was a fun question.
Unfortunately, I had to acknowledge that there was no pay in if for me. At least, no monetary pay. This was vacation. If I got paid for doing it, it wouldn’t be vacation any more. I must confess, it would be a very tempting line of work. But still, if it were work, then it wouldn’t be vacation. Vacation is a respite from the weight of responsibility of work.
The kids at school were only a few days away from the end of school. I remember the agony of waiting through the last month of school when I was a kid, desperately hungry for the arrival of summer vacation.
I’m not much of a kid anymore, but I still eagerly anticipate vacation.
The notion of vacation—time away from work—lives at the very center of our religion. We got back to the creation story of Genesis One and highlight the end of the story.
On the seventh day God finished his creation work. He rested from all his work and blessed the seventh day. He declared it holy, because on that day he rested from all his creation work. Genesis 2
Much of Christianity is obsessed with human brokenness and guilt. We are sinners doomed to hell—Oh no! How can we escape damnation?
A religion anchored in Sabbath keeping starts from a very different place: We are made in the image of God. We are invited into a rhythm of life that mirrors the rhythm of the divine life. Labor and rest. Effort and celebration.
Productive work and joyful, happy Sabbath keeping.
Sabbath is not a remedy for sin. Sabbath is not medicine for the disease of life. Sabbath is a treasure. Sabbath is a treat. Sabbath reminds us that work is a good thing, but it is not the only thing.
Sabbath is a weekly message from God: well done, good and faithful servant. God is pleased with our creating, building, care-giving, teaching, composing, fixing, marketing. This whole enterprise we call civilization would grind to a halt without our work. So work hard. Study hard. Be creative. God is pleased with our labor. We are pleased with our labor.
When Friday evening comes, celebrate. Let’s congratulate ourselves on another week of work. God takes pleasure in our celebration.
In the Book of Deuteronomy there is a very curious passage. We read it for our Old Testament reading this morning.
“You must set aside a tithe of your crops–one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship–the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored–and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the LORD your God. “Now when the LORD your God blesses you with a good harvest, the place of worship he chooses for his name to be honored might be too far for you to bring the tithe. If so, you may sell the tithe portion of your crops and herds, put the money in a pouch, and go to the place the LORD your God has chosen. When you arrive, you may use the money to buy any kind of food you want–cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the LORD your God and celebrate with your household.
God wants us to celebrate, to savor the riches that come to us from our labor and the blessing of God. What good is wealth that is never enjoyed? One of the sweetest realities of wealth is the ability to say, “We have enough.”
God wants us to party. After the party we will return to our labor. There is always work to be done. The festivals described in the Bible are punctuation in the larger flow of work. But notice how important the punctuation is. God directs us to devote a seventh of our time to celebrating. And one tenth of our income.
This passage in Deuteronomy continues:
And do not neglect the Levites in your town, for they will receive no allotment of land among you. “At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.
God wants us to enjoy the fruit of our work. And if in our enjoyment we turn too obsessively inward, if we imagine that our bounty is “just for us,” the text reminds us that Sabbath keeping is fundamentally a social justice issue. We do not work just to create occasion for our own personal weekly or yearly vacation. Our work creates the community that provides for a Sabbath holiday for all.
Because we are children of God, because our values flow from the character of God, we are not satisfied to merely “get ours.” When we rest and look around and see that others do not have the same opportunity for a holy vacation, we are not satisfied. We want the people who care for our children in pre-school to have happy vacations. We want the people who clean the restrooms at work and mow our lawns and deliver our pizzas and pack our Amazon boxes to enjoy the richness of life that comes from an appropriate cycle of labor AND rest, work AND vacation.
Our enjoyment of Sabbath awakens us to our obligation to do what we can to extend that privilege to others. We are not comfortable to enjoy our privileges at the expense of others with less privilege. Rather our privilege imposes on us the obligations of royalty, the obligation to serve those with less.
The same with our tithing. Our tithe supports our festivals and is to be shared with those who have less.
In our New Testament reading we heard the words of Jesus. When he was challenged about the legitimacy of easing the burdens of others on Sabbath, he replied,
My father is always working, so I’m just doing what God does.
It’s important to hear these words correctly. Jesus was not doing what God was doing because Jesus was divine. Jesus was doing what God was doing because Jesus was human. And to be human is to be in the image of God. To be fully human means to act like God.
In creation, God worked for six days then took a vacation day, a Sabbath, and shared that Sabbath rest with humanity.
Because we are in God’s image, this is the pattern of our lives. We work and rest. We are busy, then we Sabbath. And we do what we can to share that Sabbath experience widely.
In our working–creating, making, building, shaping, writing, composing, developing, organizing, directing—in all this activity we are keeping company with God, we are living out the divine image. Then we cap it off by keeping Sabbath. We pause and contemplate what we have done. We give thanks for the gifts that underlie our achievements and success. We remember that rest is for all, for the whole of our family, even those who are not successful, not productive, not smart and beautiful and resourceful. In our Sabbath-keeping we remember that our family is a large one—as large as all humanity.
Today, as we keep Sabbath, as we enjoy worship and meals and holy leisure, let’s savor God’s favor and consider how we may act as agents of the kingdom of heaven to extend ever further the reach of divine love.