When I was a young boy, I remember one Sunday afternoon my dad was working in his backyard garden. I walked over to him and I said, “Dad, you should not be working on the Sabbath!”
Apparently, I was a pretty obnoxious fundamentalist in my early days. I’m sure we just arrived home from church and it happened to be a particular Sunday when we learned about the importance of observing Sabbath rest. And my dad was working hard, pulling weeds and pruning trees.
And so as a young fundamentalist with all the zeal of an eight-year-old, I decided I needed to keep my dad in line by telling him he should be relaxing on the Sabbath.
But I was lucky because my dad always had a patient response to his obnoxious son. His simple and brief response began to shift my understanding of Sabbath. He said, “I am relaxing.”
Many of you know this truth far better than I do. It’s clear to me that for many, gardening is deeply connected with the spirituality of being in tune with oneself and with nature. I think gardening is a spiritual gift of the Sabbath that gives rest and renewal to many. And I envy those of you who have this gift. Because my spiritual gift of the Sabbath is an afternoon nap.
Our readings this morning may be the same readings that I heard at my childhood church on that Sunday morning many years ago when I called my dad out for all his work on the Sabbath.
Our reading from Deuteronomy is a law that stems from the Exodus experience. The Hebrews were enslaved to hard labor in Egypt for generations until God heard their cry. God led them out of Egypt and out of slavery into the Promised Land.
But God didn’t just lead them into the Promised Land. God told them to not go back to Egypt. This meant that God didn’t want them to go back to the land of Egypt, but just as important, God didn’t want them to go back to the ways of Egypt. God didn’t want them to go back to the spirit of Egypt.
Where Egypt was a nation of slavery, Israel was to be a nation of freedom.
Where Egypt was a nation of oppression, Israel was to be a nation of justice for the oppressed.
Where Egypt was a nation of conquest, Israel was to be a nation of peace.
And where Egypt was a nation of death, Israel was to be a nation of life.
To accomplish this, God gave Israel Laws, including the 10 Commandments. One of those Commandments was to observe the Sabbath. The book of Deuteronomy instructs the people to
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy … For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you or your sons or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the immigrant in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
The Sabbath commandment was a law that was to give everyone rest and renewal. It’s hard to overemphasize the huge leap forward that this law was in human history. Israel was to remember that they were once an enslaved people. Egypt dehumanized them as worthless and forced to work without rest. But Israel was to subvert the ways of Egypt. Throughout their generations, they were to empathize with all people, but especially those on the margins, and especially those who were struggling and oppressed, but especially with immigrants and slaves. Israel still practiced a form of slavery, but slaves were to be treated as fully human, given rest, and, as our reading this morning states, they were to be freed after seven years.
Why? Because they were to remember that they or their ancestors were once slaves in Egypt. They were to remember that they or their ancestors were once immigrants who sought a better life in a new land. So they were to empathize with slaves and immigrants, not dehumanize them.
The goal of Biblical law was to bring life. To bring rest. To bring renewal. To bring freedom. To bring joy. To bring empathy. To bring love.
But there are some who use the law to accuse and oppress others. Like me, when I was a young boy and accused my father of doing yard work on the Sabbath, there have always been people who use the law in negative ways of accusation against others.
This is what some Pharisees did to Jesus. Jesus and his disciples went to a synagogue on one Sabbath day. A man was there with a withered or deformed hand. The Pharisees watched to see if Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath so they could accuse him of working on this day of rest.
The Pharisees were teachers of the law. Many of them thought that if the people just kept the law better, God would bless the nation. And so they divided the world into us and them, good people and bad people, law-keepers and law-breakers. They projected all the problems of Israel on to those they accused of being law-breakers. These Pharisees who came to Jesus used the law as a weapon to determine who was in and who was out.
But Jesus had a different view of the law. He didn’t discard the law, but for him the law was meant to heal. The law, as seen in the Exodus story, was meant to liberate the oppressed. The Spirit of the law was meant to benefit all people, and not meant to harm anyone.
And so Jesus asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?”
The Pharisees were silent because they knew Jesus was right. The law was meant to do good, not to harm. It was meant to save life, not to kill. And so Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath.
Jesus subverted the religious and political rulers of his day. He resisted them by naming the way they used the law in a way that harmed people and even killed people. They used the law to divide people into good and bad, pure and impure. But for Christians who follow Jesus, the law is not meant to be a tool to divide the world into us and them. It’s meant to heal. Someone once asked Jesus, “What’s the point of the law and the prophets?” He responded by saying that the whole of the commandments boils down to two laws, love God and love your neighbor.
This is the good news that is transforming the world. The Sabbath law in Deuteronomy was meant to inspire a sense of empathy with those who are suffering. The law essentially says, “Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt, and you left Egypt in search of a better life, so treat those who are in search of a better life with compassion and respect.”
That’s the heart of the law and it’s what Jesus wanted to inspire in his followers.
As I read these ancient stories this last week, I couldn’t help but see the obvious implications for our lives today. Today we have politicians who are making the United States into a new Egypt. They are using the law as an excuse to harm and tear immigrant families apart. People who are fleeing war and violence from their countries of origin by coming to the US border for refuge and a better life.
It’s a heartbreaking story. More than 700 children, some of them babies, have been ripped from their parents as these families seek safety. And yet they come to the United States, this country that I love, where certain politicians are labeling the vast majority of immigrants as animals and rapists and drug dealers, although some of them, they assume, are good people.
Jesus looked at the Pharisees with anger and with grief because they were using the law to destroy and to harm people. And if you are like me, you have a fair bit of anger and grief within you because of the way immigrants are being treated.
Anger is a natural emotion, but it is so dangerous. I’ve noticed that I don’t have anger, anger usually has me and my anger usually gets directed against people. But Jesus didn’t use his anger to primarily be against the Pharisees. He used it as motivation to heal. He used it to resist and subvert a religious and political system with laws that dehumanized and excluded the marginalized. And he used love to construct a religious and political system called the Kingdom of God that included all people, but especially those who have been excluded.
And this is where I find hope. My friends, we are called on a divine mission to heal. That healing does not involve separating children from their parents. Our nation is a nation of immigrants, but we have become a nation like ancient Egypt. Most of us are here because our ancestors were immigrants seeking a better life in this country. We could paraphrase Deuteronomy and say, “Remember that your ancestors were once immigrants” so treat current immigrants as you would like your ancestors to have been treated.
I love this country because that spirit of welcome is woven throughout our national life. For as the Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” For all are welcome here. This is the best of America. This is the best of Christianity. And this is where we find hope.