Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon: Bricks, More Bricks - Sabbath and the First Commandment

Exodus 20:1-11; Matthew 6:24-29, 11:28-30
Bricks, More Bricks
Sabbath and the First Commandment
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 29, 2014

As a general rule, I’ve tried not to talk about my children in sermons. I was never a preacher’s kid, but I imagine it would be horrifying to sit in the pew while a parent stands in the pulpit and shares some personal episode with you in a starring role. But now that she is grown and married, I suppose it’s okay to share this one from my older daughter’s childhood.
When Kendrick was a toddler, she did not like to go to bed at night. We were fine with that as long as she stayed in her room and was fairly quiet, but that wasn’t acceptable to her. She was forever coming out of her room to ask for something, to get something she’d forgotten, to tell us something that couldn’t wait, and so on. It got so ridiculous that we crafted a rule meant to subvert all the new reasons she kept inventing. The rule stated. “If you are not injured and bleeding, you may not come out of your room.”
If you were a new parent thumbing through a child-rearing book and came to a chapter on guidelines for toddlers that included, “Toddlers should not come out of their rooms after bedtime unless injured and bleeding,” I suspect you would think it, at the very least, a bit odd. The rule worked fairly well in our house, but it makes little sense without a certain amount of context. This is perhaps even more so for many of the Ten Commandments.
In recent years, the Ten Commandments have become more political symbol than rules to guide people’s lives. Few Christians can list them all, yet many have strong opinions on whether or not they belong on the courthouse wall. “They’re the basis of our civil law,” some insist, which is pretty clear evidence of not actually knowing them. Many have little connection to our civil law, and there’s one on coveting that seems to undercut a driving force of our economy. Those that do show up in civil laws probably didn’t need an endorsement from God. We surely would have had laws against murder and theft regardless.
I'm no lawyer, but I can't imagine there's much reason for law schools to cover the commandments we heard today. These are sometimes referred to as the first table or tablet of the law. They deal with the divine-human relationship, although the commandment on Sabbath occupies something of a middle ground, connecting the commandments on relationship to God with those on relations with neighbor.
Notice that the commandments do not begin with a list of rules, a concise set of bullet points suitable for framing and attaching to the walls of courthouse or schoolhouse. They begin with context. “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Without remembering slavery in Egypt and the misery of Pharaoh’s oppressive, economic system, we will likely misunderstand and misapply these rules.

According to the Exodus story, the Israelites produced bricks for Pharaoh's vast economic enterprise. Egypt was the world superpower of its day, and the rich, fertile Nile River valley provided much of its wealth. Pharaoh controlled this system, along with a religious apparatus connected to it. The gods of Egypt insured the reliability of the Nile, the grain crops, and Pharaoh's economy. This economy required massive building projects. Not only did Pharaoh need vast warehouses for all that grain but also grand temples and monuments to royal power. "Bricks, more bricks," Egyptian task masters demanded of the Israelites.
If you remember the Exodus story, God hears the cries and moans of the oppressed Israelites and sends Moses to Pharaoh. When Moses first speaks with Pharaoh, the request is not to leave Egypt entirely. Rather it is to go into the wilderness for a three day festival where they will make offerings and sacrifices to Yahweh, the God of Israel. But Pharaoh has no use for this Yahweh who dares interfere in his economy. "Why are you taking the people away from their work?” Pharaoh demands. "Get to your labors!”
Pharaoh is so appalled at this threat to the economy that he oppresses the Israelites even more. He requires them to go out and obtain straw, one of raw materials needed in the production of bricks, one previously provided for them. But their production quotas will not change. "Bricks, more bricks," the cry continues.
When the Israelites can’t fulfill their quotas, the taskmasters beat them. The Israelites complain to Pharaoh about how unjust and unfair this is, but Pharaoh responds, "You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to Yahweh.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” There is no end to the demand, "Bricks, more bricks."
"You are lazy, lazy." Pharaoh's words sound remarkably like those of people today who disparage the poor, insisting their plight has nothing to do with unfairness, with a system that demands ever more bricks, ever more production. As the gap between rich and poor grows, and those at the bottom must work two jobs to survive, their cries about an unjust, unfair system are met with, "You are lazy, lazy. Go and work; bricks, more bricks."
The Egyptian gods are all for this arrangement. In fact they support and legitimate it. You can discover a great deal about gods by observing the economic system that they support and sustain. The Egyptians gods are gods of "Bricks, more bricks; back to work you lazy slaves." And so are the gods served by many of us in present day America, anxious gods who demand ever more production and ever more efficiency, anxious gods who cannot stop, who cannot rest, whose only command is more. "Bricks, more bricks."
"I am the Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me." As God gives the first commandment, it is critical to understand just who Yahweh is, a God who has rescued Israel from Pharaoh's anxious gods and anxious economic system that demands more and more. In fact, this first command may actually be a statement about Israel's rescue rather than a true "shall not." The Hebrew of this command is written differently than other "shall not" commands. Those say, "You shall not..." but this one says, "There shall not be to you other gods before me." You have been freed from them, those restless, anxious, relentless gods of "Bricks, more bricks."
The commands that follow speak to the peculiar nature of this Yahweh who frees slaves and rescues the oppressed. And perhaps no command speaks more to this peculiar nature than the command to keep sabbath, by far the longest of the commandments.  "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to Yahweh 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 Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it."
Yahweh is not an anxious God, constantly worried about what might happen if noses aren't kept to the grindstone. This is not a god of relentless demand, nor a legitimator of oppressive economic systems. This is a God who commands rest for one and all, saying, "I have freed you from the anxious gods of 'Bricks, more bricks.' Why would you turn back to them?" Oh, but we do, and in the process, we help support Pharaoh's oppressive system.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy 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 your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Put another way, "I am not a god of 'Bricks, more bricks.' Your worth is not about relentless production or about an endless quest for more. You are not defined by production or consumption. So why would you follow the gods who seek to enslave you once more?"
Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance, ends the chapter on “Sabbath and the First Commandment,” with this, and I think I will, too.
 Enlightenment-based autonomous Christians may find the Sabbath commandment the most urgent and the most difficult of all the commandments of Sinai. We are, liberals and conservatives, much inured to Pharaoh’s system. For that reason, the departure into restfulness is both urgent and difficult, for our motors are set to run at brick-making speed. To cease, even for a time, the anxious striving for more bricks is to find ourselves with a “light burden” and an “easy yoke.” It is now, as then, enough to permit dancing and singing into an alternative life.[1]

This is the first in a six-part sermon series based in Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Each sermon is inspired by one of the six chapters in that book. The first chapter is “Sabbath and the First Commandment.”

[1] Brueggemann, Walter (2014-01-31). Sabbath as Resistance: (p. 19). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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