Genesis 1.31-2.3 Toil and toil…
God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.
And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.
The topic for today came to me as a simple, unadorned phrase: “The theology and value of the Sabbath”. Now, the topic of Sabbath is near to my heart but often far from my practice, so I am at once happy and a bit nervous to approach it. I’m going to take the back roads to get there
There is story that has been told around the world for as long as people have been telling stories; which is to say, for as long as people have been people. The story’s details have varied from place to place and century to century. But over all these times and places the story line has remained remarkably consistent. So whether you hear the tale in its ancient Babylonian or Greek or Roman edition—or even in its modern American version, you can easily recognize the same story is being told.
It goes something like this—
In the beginning, there was nothing but the gods. Well, the gods and a lot of water. Water everywhere; tempestuous, roiling and black. The gods were many and they were, generally speaking, a disagreeable lot.
In the beginning there was a father and a mother god—the two who always were and who got everything else started. Their many children, all lesser gods in their own right, were given control over the different parts of creation.
In an ancient Babylonian version of the story, one of the chief male gods, Marduk, does battle with Tiamat, the goddess of the black waters. Marduk wins the war.
Tiamat was not only the goddess of the waters, she was the water itself. Remember, this is a story. Don’t get hung up on details. Anyway, Marduk slays Tiamat and slices her body in half the long way. With one half he forms the dome of the sky to hold back all the waters above. With the other half he forms the dry land that floats on all the waters of Tiamat below.
Now that there is all this open land the gods realize they are hungry. So they create animals and plants to eat. They have a craving for roast lamb, so they make lots of sheep. But managing all these animals and preparing dinner every day is too much work; work that is beneath them in any event. So they create humankind to do it for them. Shepherds and farmers are born.
Here also is the birth of religion. Men and women are created to serve the gods; or more accurately, to be slaves to the gods. The gods controlled everything, remember—rain and snow, floods and drought, the fertility of your animals and wives and the health of your children. You didn’t want to upset them. So the first obligation of humankind was to make sure the gods were fed, fat and happy. This is where animal sacrifices came from. The aroma of lamb roasting on the temple altar satisfied the hunger of the gods and, most importantly, kept them on your side.
But even well fed gods were unpredictable. So you would go to the priest and ask what you could do to bring the rain and the priest would say “Sacrifice more”. So you sacrificed more and still no rain. “Get serious”, the priest might say. “Sacrifice your first born child”. So you sacrificed your first born child and still no rain.
“What’s wrong with you?” the priest would say. “What are you hiding? Why do you insist on angering the gods?”
And you, of course, had no idea what you were doing wrong or what you were hiding. All you had was the story that convinced you long ago that everything was your fault. The gods were gods and you were a slave, a peasant, a worker bee. You didn’t ask questions. Kept your head down. Did your work. Brought your offerings to the temple and went to war for the king.
This is the way it had always been; the way it would always be. Hope was an illusion. Change was impossible. You were created for this. So shut up, serve the gods and the king and give up the idea that things would ever be different. Be afraid, curse your neighbor’s good fortune, grab what you can, die young.
That, in rough outline anyway, is the story people have lived by for millennia. It’s the story millions of people live by even today. Though the gods have changed, we still have priests in temples telling us what they want us to do. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore, thank goodness, but we do write checks. And we have the Temple of Amazon, where we sacrifice the sweat of our brow, buying things to make us happy. We pay the bill—and “pay” is one letter away from “pray”, remember, and a package magically arrives at our doorstep. Almost as soon as it’s opened, however, we realize this new god, like the old god, has failed us again.
And we still give our consent to government gods telling us how much money to put in their coffers and when to sacrifice our children in their wars. We still think the world is a dangerous place. We grab and hoard whatever we can, because there’s never going to be enough for everybody and you can’t trust the neighbor next door, much less in the next country, not to take what’s yours. We still live as if hope is an illusion and fear is wisdom and the future is a dark, dark place.
All of us live this way sometimes. Many of us live this way most of the time.
It’s the way it is; the way it has always been. It’s the story we’ve been told.
And—it’s a lie.
We need a different story!
A couple of thousand years ago, a different story was offered. It begins in the book of Genesis: “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Right there, in the middle of the ancient world dominated by the story of gods violent, unpredictable and nasty, a new story was born. The story of a new God who says to Abraham, “Let’s go for a walk. Let me bless you. Let me bless the whole world through you”. This God is a giver, not a taker; generous, not greedy; offering hope, not instilling fear.
The story picks up, centuries later, when this God finds Moses in the wilderness and says, “I have heard the cries of my people in Egypt and I have come down to rescue them from slavery; to make them free in a land flowing with milk and honey”. Still a giver, not a taker; still generous, not greedy; offering hope and plenty and abundance; predictable love and care; reliable friendship that banishes fear.
All this was new.
In all of civilization’s history, no one had heard this story; had heard of a God who gives and loves and cares and provides and protects and leads and creates. Especially creates.
When the story is continued a few centuries after Moses by another storyteller, we hear that this God created everything good and beautiful and abundant—not by slicing the enemy in two, but by speaking. Out of nothing but words come light and day and night and water and land and plants and animals and finally a man and a woman.
Unlike the old Babylonian story where the gods create a meager earth to warehouse the people who will be their slaves, this God creates a verdant garden to be the home of the people God will serve. Imagine that. In the old story—and for many of us the story we still live in, we eke out a living by blood, sweat and tears in a world of scarcity—fighting and grasping and hoarding; believing there will never be enough and always, always being afraid.
In this new story—the story are still being invited in to even today, God creates a stunningly beautiful world, provisions it with an unheard of abundance and gives it to the freshly minted creatures.
And before they can do anything to earn it, before they can do anything to please or appease or serve their Creator, this God says, “Let’s take a break”.
And here we come to the experience of Sabbath.
From Genesis 1 and 2: “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation”.
This seventh day—this Sabbath, is the pinnacle of the Creation story. It may well be the high point, of this whole new story I’ve been talking about. The old Babylonian tale of scarcity, slavery and fear is undone—made irrelevant, by this new story of a God who is generous, gracious and kind. The Sabbath—this day of rest to celebrate abundance, comes to us as an illustration of how our God wants the world to be and as a weekly invitation to experience the world as God wants it to be.
Just look at what this story tells us. For God the world begins with six days of work—creating, building and populating a new world. But for us the world begins with Sabbath rest. For us life begins as a gift; the world is abundant and full from our beginning. On this last day of Creation, but our first full day of being—on this Sabbath, we find we have, as Denise Levertov has written, “floated into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort has earned this all-surrounding grace”.
Sabbath is what you feel sitting here in silence on a Sunday morning, breathing in God’s Spirit. It’s what you feel when your own spirit is carried off in song or prayer. Sabbath is what you enjoy around a table downstairs, eating and laughing with friends.
And Sabbath is what you experience at any moment of the week when you realize the Creation is sufficient; it is enough; and you are embraced by divine generosity. Sabbath is the sweet air you breathe when you accept that abundant, all surrounding grace. Sabbath rest bathes our gray dull world in rainbow, technicolor brilliance.
So think about that—enjoy it through the rest of this Sabbath day. Remember this Sabbath rest in any of those moments in the coming week when anxiety threatens to wash the color out of your world. Be attentive to the gift, the grace, the rest that is being offered to you at that very hour.
Remember the Sabbath. Remember—
Grace is sufficient.
Creation is sufficient.
You are sufficient. You are enough.
So take the day. Kneel down in the grass. Do nothing but celebrate the abundance.
“…no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours;
the field is tilled and left to grace.
That we may reap, great work is done while we’re asleep” (Berry).
on summer hiatus