One of the delicious joys about being a pastor is, more often than not, you get to choose how to allocate your time. It’s not a job that comes with a standardized set of tasks to perform. Some pastors go to every single meeting, some preach every single Sunday, some visit every single person… The joy is you get to choose. The challenge is you have to choose.
When this came up in seminary, I was hoping they’d give us some kind of formula, maybe a pie chart showing how many hours to spend in each area. Turns out, there’s no such thing! Instead, the best instruction I received came from Professor Julia Speller. Her teaching made such an impression on me that we used it for our Time and Talent theme once, so you might remember.
Here’s the trick she taught us: Whenever you say Yes, you’re saying No to something else. Whenever you say No, you’re saying Yes to something else. Notice the something else.
I encourage you to give this a try the next time someone asks you for your time. If you say Yes to a dinner invitation, what will you have to say No to? If you say No to the next Zoom invitation that appears in your inbox, what could you say Yes to instead? Maybe catching up on laundry! Maybe a quiet night at home! Maybe these things are just as worthy of our Yes…
Today we hear two scriptures. In the second one, God looked at the world, and loved the world, and God told the people No. You have six days to work, now you need to stop. Pencils down, said the LORD.
What happened was Moses found himself standing between the LORD and the people trying to bring us into right relationship, and I mean, bless his heart…
So the moment comes when Moses calls all of Israel together and he tells them: Remember what happened. The LORD came down and spoke to you, on top of the mountain, out of the fire. God was trying to talk to you face-to-face, but I had to stand in between because you were afraid. Yeah, no kidding.
With the whole crowd assembled around him, and with all the patience of a kindergarten teacher reviewing the procedure for a tornado drill, Moses gives the Israelites the commandments that make us into a people, that make God our God.
In the Bible, there are two different stories of Moses giving the Ten Commandments to the people, one in Exodus and this one in Deuteronomy. While they mostly match up, here’s one place they don’t. Both stories include the commandment to keep the sabbath, but in Exodus the reason for the sabbath is this: When God was creating the world, she rested on the seventh day. She gave this day to us so we would learn how to rest as well; it’s how we remember our condition as creatures made by God.
Now if you ever need to tell someone why keeping sabbath matters, it’s right there in the beginning, it’s the founding story of creation.
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy… Six days you shall labor and do your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD. What’s more, not only should you not work, but neither should your children, or your employees, or your slaves, or your students, or your ox, or your donkey…
Here in Deuteronomy, the commandment is the same, but the reason to keep it is different. Remember you used to be enslaved in the land of Egypt, then the LORD your God found you, and took you by the hand, and brought you out of slavery.
You ever need to tell someone why keeping sabbath matters, it’s right there in the beginning, it’s the founding story of liberation. By keeping sabbath, we practice remembering how God has taken a stand against slavery.
And the problem is, we’re still susceptible to slavery— all of us are.
Maybe we know that God is yearning for our liberation. Maybe we’ve heard the stories of the Spirit delivering the people from oppression or busting the people out of prison. But these are just stories. How do they lay a claim on your soul and on mine, especially in this world…
Because you and I have heard the dominant narrative in our world — the one that says your worth as a person is connected to what you accomplish. It’s a loud story that acts like it’s the only story in town. What matters are hard work, productivity, stellar achievement, and we hear these values affirmed all the time, and we practice them every day. Before you know it, we begin to lose our own lives.
Along comes the sabbath, and it interrupts the world’s loud story with a dare: I dare you to stop for one day, says the LORD. You think you’re not addicted? You think you can quit anytime? That’s good. Now give it a try! Go one day without working and see what happens. You might begin to remember who you are. You might remember me, says the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Kara Root describes it like this: “The other commandments take the people out of slavery. The Sabbath commandment takes the slavery out of the people.”1https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-sabbath/commentary-on-deuteronomy-512-15-matthew-1128-30
So you can see, sabbath is so much more than a day off. And practicing it is so much harder than you’d think. It’s nearly impossible for those who are struggling to make ends meet. And let’s be clear, that is not their fault! If you cannot keep the sabbath because you are being oppressed, you are not failing God, it’s our community that’s failing you.
Now if this is not your situation, if you’re retired, or if your schedule has flexibility that makes keeping sabbath more accessible, it can still be difficult to stand up against the loud story of the world. That loud story has a grip on us!
We could find ourselves believing that poor people don’t deserve free time. We could hear ourselves say: We’ve worked hard our whole lives, they should too. But hold on… When we work too hard, when we diminish our own humanity, it becomes easy to dehumanize others, it becomes easy to go along with the trend to deny workers enough pay and time off.
We know a different story, and what if it’s up to us to keep it going… Psssst! Hey! Remember when the LORD found us when we were enslaved, and God took us by the hand and got us out of that hell because, you remember God? Yeah, he wants us to live.
Can you imagine if the children heard this story coming out of our mouths? Because you know the children are paying attention. Could be your kids, or your grandchildren, or your neighbors… You know a young person who is questioning their worth as a person and who’s hearing the world tell them: You had better achieve great things! But who’s going to tell them the truth?
Who’s going to tell them their worth comes from the love of God? And God doesn’t need them to be amazing! God wants them to be alive. Who’s going to tell them that…
A couple of weeks ago, Sylvia told me about Garth Brooks. He is recently returning to his country music career after taking a fourteen year hiatus during which his main job was being a Dad. Sylvia and I wondered aloud —imagine what he could have accomplished in music if he hadn’t stepped away for fourteen years— but look what he gave us by doing so: permission.
Now of course, not everybody has the resources to step away from the their jobs in order to devote all their time to family. On the one hand, that’s a luxury most people cannot afford. On the other hand, Garth Brooks’s choice is challenging the loud story. He’s inviting us to believe that caring for your family is just as legitimate as advancing your career. These are the stories we need.
Of course we need role models who show us what it looks like to work hard, and overcome adversity, and go on to accomplish the impossible —like Simone Biles. She shattered standards in gymnastic achievement. The woman has a move named after her! And I’m telling you, that’s not even the best thing she has done.
When she got to the Olympics and the pressure was too much, Simone Biles stepped back from competing in order to care for her mental health. She also showed up and cheered on her teammates! In front of the whole world, Biles decided she would rather live than win, and our children saw her, and what if they learn this from her! That would be amazing. These are the stories we need.
I don’t know which forces have laid a claim to your soul. I don’t know which demands are threatening your life; I don’t know who thinks they own you, but I know God looks at all of that and says No. Don’t you remember when the Spirit found us in hell, and took us by the hand, and led us out of slavery because God says No to whatever it is that’s killing you.
The LORD our God looks at you, and loves you, and says Remember your life, and God says Yes to you. God says Yes to your life! Oh Yes, says the Holy Spirit. Don’t you see what I’ve been trying to tell you, says God! It’s your story that we need… Amen.