Getting Your Life Back

October 8, 2017

Series: October 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord 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. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.13 You shall not murder.14 You shall not commit adultery.15 You shall not steal.16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.


Getting Your Life Back

We have been watching Ken Burns PBS special on the Vietnam War.  For some, undoubtedly, this has been eye opening, and, for others, it has reopened painful memories, strong feelings, or old wounds.  I am aware that my direct encounter with Vietnam outside books and the movies amounts to an 8th grade trip to “The Wall,” the memorial in DC.  For many, those names represent actual people.

We are only a few episodes in.  So far, one of the glaring messages to me is how people in powerful positions gave themselves over to something they weren’t sure about from the beginning, felt some pressure to carry out, and ultimately regretted.  In one memorable moment, a veteran reflected, saying something to the effect of, “I suppose I was part of the last generation who believed their government would never lie to them.”  There were a lot of lives lost in that war, but it seems also a measure of our innocence, and maybe even a piece of our collective soul.

Faith ought to help us find some order out of the chaos—that’s how our creation stories begin.  It’s interesting then, perhaps a holy coincidence, that the lectionary gives us The Ten Commandments today, a basis for ordering life together.  We have a strange relationship with these tenets, trying to put them on courthouse lawns or write them off as archaic.  Neither actually takes them seriously or understands them well.

These are the early foundations of collective life for a people having been given freedom from slavery in Egypt, where life was managed from above.  Notice, then, how much room these commandments make for freedom.  We hear “You shall not…” and assume repression, but they actually amount to, “Just don’t kill steal each other’s stuff!  Just don’t steal each other’s spouse!  Just don’t lie about each other!  Just don’t kill each other!!”  As we have learned in the generations since, freedom hasn’t been so easy to manage.  It requires an honoring of our connection to one another and this sacred setting we’ve been given to live in together.

Each of these commandments could warrant an entire sermon, yet there’s one that has a particular impact on ordering our lives. It is also the one commandment people routinely brag about breaking, and I feel comfortable pointing this out because some of my clergy colleagues are the worst offenders.  Does anyone know which one I’m talking about?  Remember the Sabbath.  I’m not talking to you about going to church.  Sunday, technically, isn’t the Sabbath.  Sunday’s the Lord’s Day, resurrection day.  Sabbath is Saturday, though in our tradition, I’d argue the most important thing isn’t necessarily when it is, but that it is.  

It’s easy for us to violate the Sabbath and we get constant strokes for doing so. We can shop anytime.  We can work anytime.  We can, and should, be productive at all times.  How many of you, if given free time, start making a list of all the things you’re going to “get done?”  We’ve been taught to brag about that.  I just read a wonderful book, If Nuns Ruled The World, and it includes a story about a nun confronting a congressman about the morality of a proposed budget.  The congressman, who is a professed Catholic, immediately tries to impress the nun with his work ethic by telling her how he often sleeps on a cot in his office.  She simply responds, “Is that good for you, or for your family?”  We have created, or have joined, a way of being that continually drives us to do, make, and get more, as if that’s what God wants for us.  Like an addiction, the cravings only grow, it’s a cycle that self-perpetuates with ever increasing intensity until it inevitably collapses.  Perhaps you’ve experienced these collapses in your own life.  I believe part of what is happening right now ecologically is such a collapsing on a larger scale.  As Brian McLaren reminds us, the church’s job is not to be chaplain to an extractive economy.  The church is to raise up other ways to order our life.…which is why The Ten Commandments are helpful to us; they too were born out of an exhaustive context. ‘Make bricks!’ was the cry of Pharaoh to the slaves, and if you complain, ‘Make more, and without straw!’ All to build temples to idols.  It’s an endless cycle of production and consumption, describes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemmann, and neither more production nor more consumption is the answer.  The biblical antidote is Sabbath, rest, rest as resistance, because it regularly removes us from that cycle and gives us the kind of perspective you can only get when you slow down. 

At least a couple things happen when we rest. First, we notice the world doesn’t stop or fall apart.  For some of us that is secretly disappointing.  Second, we start to get our life back, as we get reconnected to the source of vitality.  It’s like stepping off a runaway train and having the earth beneath your feet and choice, once again, of which way to go.  Brueggmann draws on the Hebrew word nephesh, which means “self,” “life,” or “soul.”  Sabbath, he says, helps us “re-nephesh,” “re-self,” “re-soul,” get our life back. 

Why, then, is taking a break so difficult for so many of us to do? I have observed in high-functioning and affluent populations a certain franticness and feverishness of activity.  I’ve come to realize some of it is an undercurrent of guilt for having so much.  It could be worse; we could see no problem with the inequalities in the world, but guilt is not God’s will, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves is.

I am the last person who will tell you to ignore your responsibility to serve neighbor, but I will be the first person to use your service simply to assuage your guilt or to make a veiled chase after your own validity. If your stuff is making you that anxious, give it away.  You’ll feel better, and you’ll be freer to discover the source of your inherent worth.  My spiritual director reminded me during our last session of one of the foundational premises of the Reformation, and she’s a Catholic nun.  She reminded me that our movement was born out of a commitment to the truth that we do nothing to earn God’s favor.  We are born with it, as Paul Tillich said it, “We are accepted.”  As Henri Nouwen put it, “We are beloved.”  All of our acts of service, of giving, are natural and joyful outgrowths of our gratitude for the miracle of being and being loved by a love we cannot outrun.

Even though many of us carry this low-grade fever of guilt, we deny ourselves the very antidote, freely available, commanded even, Sabbath, rest. With rest, what naturally follows is reflection.  Is this how I want my life to be?  Is this how I want our community to look?  Is this how we want our nation to look?  Our world?  None of it will change unless we change.  For that to happen well, we must slow down long enough to recognize the change that’s trying to become manifest in our lives.  Sometimes, I suspect we don’t slow down because subconsciously we fear what we might see, hear, or feel, but the encounter is always far less scary than the anticipation. 

Some will say we can’t afford this kind of navel-gazing in a world filled with so much suffering and injustice. I respectfully submit that unreflective high-functioning and well-resourced people have done a lot more harm to the world than have contemplatives who have been slower to act.  It’s not about being selfish, it’s about cultivating your best self to offer the world as gift.  Jesus knew this.  Pay attention to how much he went off to take a break, to reconnect, to be restored, so he could return a new person. 

If those names on that wall in Washington DC could again become people and could be given their voices back, for just one moment, what do you suppose they would say?  Would they say “Hurry up!” “We don’t have time to think!”  “Do something!”  Or, would they say, “Slow down,” “Let’s think this through.  Let’s talk this through.  Let’s listen to the wiser voices in our midst.  Let’s do everything we can so that we might not regret what we ultimately choose.”

The “shall nots” are designed to keep us from killing each other long enough for us to figure out how to live together.  Remember the Sabbath and you can have your life back, your self back, and, together, our soul back.  Amen.