The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

rest-and-recoveryBy Amy Epp, Associate Pastor for Christian Formation and Worship, Seattle Mennonite Church (you can read more of her writings here)

I have this knot in my shoulder.  It’s actually kind of dormant right now.  But when my shoulders start getting really tight, I know I’ve been working too much – or at least too much at my desk.  It’s the knot that tells me I’ve been carrying around the tension that is worry and stress and anxiety that comes from work.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who carries my work around in my body – ulcers have a kind of bad reputation for be the result of work-related stress.  Some people experience lower back strain.  Our bodies notice when we are working too much.

When Jesus says as he does in the KJV: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,”  I feel a tension in my body relax that I didn’t even know was there.  I don’t often use the Message version of the Gospels (Eugene Peterson’s interpretation can be a little cheesy for my taste), but there are times when The Message gets to center of the Word in a new way.  In this case that feeling of longing for relief.  “Are you tired?” Asks Jesus in Matthew 11, “Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Sabbath in Creation

That rhythm – the unforced rhythm of grace – began even at the moment of creation.  However you view the actual creation of the world, this Biblical version of creation is a litany.  It is worship.  It is a beautiful poem written in a rhythm that describes a God who created us 1) good and 2) for relationship (with each other and with God) and 3)in God’s own image.  If we humans are built in God’s own image, then we come with a built-in pause button.

On that seventh day in this creation poem, God rested. God had finished all the work that was done, but God was still creating.  The Jewish tradition says that it was not ‘things’ that were created over those seven days, but it was time and a rhythm of time keeping that was created.  On the seventh day, God’s creation came into fullness as a purpose for time was created.  The purpose is to dwell in and with creation.  This is ‘menucha’ or ‘delight’ which Abraham Heschel talks about in detail.  Or, as our own Wes Howard Brook says, “And then there is rest. The creation is completed.  Sabbath is not an external command, but a component of creation… All that there is to “do” is to live in it, enjoy it, gather its fruits in gratitude and celebration.” (Come Out My People)  The purpose for time and the rhythm of time-keeping culminates in God’s delight with creation – with us!

This rhythm is an affirmation both of the work – it is good! – and a call to rest in order to delight in it.  If our rest is patterned after God’s Sabbath, it will not only be a day to stop working, but a day to engage in enjoying the work of our hands and in the work of God’s hands: God’s people, God’s creation.  It is a gift.

We are not so good at opening and using this gift.  Oh, not so good at all.  Maybe especially here in America.  Have you all see that Cadillac ad that appeared during the Superbowl last year?  It begins with a handsome, self-assured white guy poolside, asking the question: “Why do we work so hard?” and going on to answer himself: ”Because we’re crazy, driven hard-working believers, that’s why!”  He disparages cultures where time and relationship are more greatly valued, and ends with, “as for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August…”  It all adds up to ‘We work so that we can live poolside with a Cadillac.’  I would not be surprised if, even on his August vacation he’s checking his email and keeping an eye on the markets. (I say that as if I know that’s a thing).

The other side of poolside dude is all the people who work under him – the people who feel the pressure to work so that they can get to where he is, or who need to meet those standards just so they won’t lose their job, or who work overtime because poolside’s factories need to meet production demands, or because they need it to pay their bills.  Poolside guy is a product of a workaholic culture that either works because of the Cadillac (or the dream of a Cadillac) or simply to keep up.  Our culture needs to be freed!  Let these people go!

Sabbath as Liberation

Sabbath is liberation.  Or at least it’s meant to be.  Sabbath is not only a reminder of our God-created-ness and that we carry God’s image (not that we are gods – which seems to be poolside’s view: ‘If we work hard enough anything is possible).  Sabbath is also “a recurring testimony against the drudgery of slavery!” (Dorothy Bass)  We heard the ten commandments this morning.  I think most of us have heard them before. We might even have a bit of a reaction against this passage because of the way Christianity has wielded them as a weapon and tried to laminated them to politics and society by erecting statues of tablets outside of court houses.  They were not meant to be keys to keeping community and remembering the Creator – the Sabbath keeper.

They begin not with command, actually but with affirmation: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery.”  And what was slavery if not unceasing, never ending work.  A tread mill of production that did not stop.  And it wasn’t only the slaves on this treadmill, either – it was the overseers and the managers and Pharaoh himself who made more and more demands on those beneath him.  If he lived in 2014 he would have a Cadillac.

Dorothy Bass reflects that there is no other commandment that people take pride in breaking.  You know it’s kind of a humble brag to talk about how busy you are or how much work you’ve got.  Isn’t it a sign of how indispensable one is to the workplace or how much our family depends on us?  In the preface to his book Sabbath as Resistance Walter Bruggemann says,

“In our anxious society, to cite a case in point, one of the great ‘seductions of Pharaoh’ is the fact that ‘soccer practice’ invade the rest day.  Families, largely contained in market ideology, think of themselves as helpless before the requirements of such commitment.  In context it requires (or ‘would require,’ subjunctive contrary to the fact’ enormous, communal resolve to resist the demand.”

He goes on:

“I have come to think that the fourth commandment on the Sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent o the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses…along with anxiety and violence.”

That is, keeping Sabbath is an act of resistance against a culture of production and consumption and the glorification of non-stop work – even  work masquerading as recreation.

Sabbath as Justice

Not only is Sabbath resistance, is enacting justice.  Last week we heard the text from Luke 4 – Jesus standing before his congregation in Nazareth and reading from Isaiah about giving sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and bringing the year of the Lord’s favor.  He is talking about the Sabbath year.  The Jubilee.  God’s imagination for what creation might be like if it was returned to its intention – the balanced rhythm of grace that is menucha.

For those who are forced to work, or who are underworked, for those whose work is simply survival, Sabbath day is an equalizer – we all rest in God’s hand.  For those who are forced to work or are underworked, or who are owing because they haven’t worked off the debt, the Sabbath year – the seventh year – is a year of release on pledge for debts.  And in the Jubilee year – the Sabbath of Sabbaths, all are made equal.  And  So all our work for more stuff – it is all in vain.  The properties are returned, the debts are forgiven.  Sabbath is a return to the plumb line of justice that the prophet Amos talks about.  Can you imagine what such a society would be like?

“Unwrapping this gift also requires supporting the underworkedAmericans as they wonder what Sabbath keeping might mean for them.  One of the cruelest things about the American economy, which expects so much of people, is that it casts numerous others aside…  A Sabbath keeping community…would be a community in which this injustice would not occur.” (Dorothy Bass, in Practicing Our Faith, p 77)

Sabbath was made for humans, Jesus told his followers, and for those of us who try to live out the justice of God, attending to a rhythm of Sabbath keeping embodies – bears witness to – God’s dream of justice for all creation.  Sabbath allows a rhythm not only to turn away from something (work) but also toward something – God and our neighbor.  A rhythm both of receiving and of offering grace.

Sabbath and God’s People

Sabbath is made for humans but the commandment is that the day is a Sabbath to the Lord.  The earliest Christians did not forget this in their continuing practice of Sabbath.  What began to happen after the resurrection of Jesus is that Christians celebrated on the ‘8th day’ – the Lord’s day – or the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the new creation and covenant.  The 8th Day practice of Sabbath rest for Christians became the embodiment and witness to true liberation and new creation through Christ.

The church continues to have an understanding of the rhythm – worship on Sundays, of course – each one a little Easter – but also the seasons of consecrated moments to the Lord.  Marked in colors to remind us of the cycle through Advent and Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentacost.  And ordinary time.  Each year we mark these consecrated days as community.  The community’s rhythms are reminders and calls – invitation to us individually to our own embodiment of rhythms of grace and justice.

Our bodies know about rhythm.  Even those of you who think you don’t have rhythm, quiet yourself and listen to your heart.  Listen to your breath.  Recently Richard Reed Parry from the indie pop group Arcade Fire (whom I recommend btw) wrote and released an album called Music for Heart and Breath in which the artists played to the rhythms of their bodies.  Just as you may have felt in your body the release of Jesus invitation to bring your heavy burden to him and take on instead the ‘unforced rhythm of grace’, our bodies know about rhythm.

We are a people called bodily and in our individual bodies to radical hospitality and spiritual discernment.  Neither of these practices is possible if we give ourselves over to the a-rythmic urge of work and production, to commerce and consumption.  Radical hospitality and spiritual discernment mean offering ourselves (and our communities and our families) regular intervals to align with God’s dream of justice that Jesus named in the synagogue.  Bass suggests that what is ‘good’ for Sabbath is not just about going to church but about ‘taking part in activity by which God is shaping a new creation.’  I hope that will be that’s through communal joyful worship but also through other non-“useful” time.  Throw away ‘useful’ for Sabbath and adopt instead grace-filled.  For some this means time with others sharing conversation, a meal (tonight at 5:30!), games, nature or art.  For some it will be solitary – reading, reflection, gardening, prayer, sleep!

Heschel has said, “The solution of [humankind’s] most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization but in attaining some degree of independence from it.” (in Practicing our Faith, 88)  Sabbath life does not eschew work, but does not ground our identity in it, as we are wont to do.  Instead, the rhythm of grace continues to offer a balance out of which we can live into our calling to be people of justice and shalom.  May it be so.

One thought on “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

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