8/25/19: A Sabbath for the Earth

Intro to Scripture

During Jesus’s ministry, he spoke a lot about the Sabbath. He was frequently criticized because his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, or for healing the ill during the Sabbath. Pharisees claimed he didn’t take the Lord’s day seriously.

But the truth is that Jesus took the practice of Sabbath more seriously than any of those legalistic religious authorities could have understood.

The Jewish practice of Sabbath, wherein one does not do any work whatsoever – whether that be cooking, driving, or in more conservative observances, even pushing a button – is a practice which celebrates the value of life. So in Luke, for example, Jesus heals a woman with a bent back on the Sabbath, and when the religious authorities question him, he responds, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

For Jesus, the Sabbath was for celebrating life and enacting justice. This is not contrary to Jewish teaching, but deeply grounded in it. We’re about to hear a text from the Prophet Isaiah, which Jesus quotes throughout the Gospels. This text shaped Jesus’s own ideas about the Sabbath, about justice, and about love; it was the context from which he understood his own acts of healing.

So today, I invite you to hear this text from Isaiah and consider how it might be relevant to us today, to where we need healing in our society. I especially invite you to consider what the Sabbath may have to do with justice and healing for the Earth.

Sermon

Last Lent, Lee and I took on a new spiritual practice, which we borrowed from our Jewish siblings in faith: we practiced the Sabbath. Every Friday night at sundown, for six weeks, we put away all our electronics and clocks, including our cellphones, and we didn’t touch them for twenty-four hours. We cooked and cleaned in advance, so that we wouldn’t participate in any work during the Sabbath whatsoever. We didn’t drive or go anywhere our legs couldn’t take us. We didn’t spend a penny. We refrained from even thinking about work and errands and to-do lists, as best we could.

And instead, we rested. We prayed. We had long conversations and took leisurely walks. We napped. We laughed together.

This short Lenten practice opened up in me a spiritual well and depth; those few Sabbath days healed me from thinking I was only my work. They freed me from measuring my life in the number of productive hours in a given day.

From this short practice, it became apparent to me why Rabbi Abraham Heschel once described the Sabbath as eternity in a moment – a kind of vision of paradise in our temporal realm.

The Sabbath offered me a new way of spending my day. Without a way to tell time – at least, our measured, nuclear time – I relied on cues from the sun and my body to cue me into when to eat, when to sleep, when to walk. Without being able to chat about work or class, Lee and I had to dig deeper for topics of conversation, and we tended to things that mattered to us more deeply than the next item on our to-do list. Without the distraction of my phone or laptop for entertainment, I found delight in books which sparked my imagination or focused more keenly on board games with people I loved.

And in this milieu of rest and focus, gratefulness bubbled up to the surface for me. Prayer seemed to flow from both of us naturally. When my world got just a little quieter, just a little slower – I felt I could see so much more clearly how it was that God was moving in my life.

It was truly a taste of paradise, and it has changed my faith, even to this day.

But, in the midst of our Sabbath practice, I found that there was one persistent distraction from the peace of God, which was otherwise so obvious: I knew that I could access this rest and bliss, when so many people so close to me could not.

While I enjoyed leisurely walks down safe streets in Hyde Park, I knew that mere miles from me, there were families who could not let their children play outside for the threat of violence. While I enjoyed the luxury of days off every week, I knew that all over Chicago, the working poor are seen as less than human to their employers, merely cogs from which they might make money.

It is an issue of justice that some of us are given safe places to rest, while the poor in our own midst are exploited and made vulnerable. In light of this, the Sabbath becomes political, reminding its practitioners that if we take this spiritual discipline seriously, we better recognize that the poor are owed nothing less.

And this is the claim of our reading from Isaiah today. The writers of Isaiah advocate for a Sabbath practice with teeth, one that has no room for exploitation. For the writers of Isaiah, part of practicing the Sabbath was feeding the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted, because God does not desire peace for some of us, but for all of us.

The Jewish practice of Sabbath is radical, even as its practice is sometimes complicated by injustice in real life. At its core, it is a radically life-affirming practice, one which makes no qualms about saying that each person is greater than her economic contribution.

And it doesn’t stop there.

When we read the Hebrew scriptures, we see that part of the radical nature of practicing the Sabbath is that it affirms all life, not just human life. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it’s not just human animals who are endowed with such high value, but all life: the life of the fields, of trees, and of animals. In the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, it is made clear again and again that even the soil is given a sabbath year, and that farmed animals have time off from their labor. The Sabbath is for the oppressed – whether it be the human poor and downtrodden, or the earth itself – not just for those of us human animals who can afford the luxury of time off.

No life, whether it be animal life, plant life, or the life of ecosystems as a whole, is valuable because it is useful; rather, life is sacred because it comes from God.  Every living thing on earth derives its value from the same source: from God. You and me and the plants emerging from the soil and every animal on earth and in the water. Each of us shares that we are created, and each of us shares a need for rest. And, always, that rest is a gift from God.

In the Sabbath, we come to know that our life is valuable because it comes from God, not because it can be used as a tool by others. But not all of us can access the promise of the Sabbath; the human poor suffer because their lives are not valued as they ought to be, and likewise, the earth suffers because we do not value the life of our planet.

It is an injustice that we treat our land and air and water as mere tools, and that we forget the lives and interests of non-human animals along the way. We degrade and devalue the life of our entire earth when we treat it as a tool.

The writers of Isaiah knew that justice for people and justice for the planet were deeply connected. Our lands are parched; our ancient ruins are our prairies and forests, our streets are unlivable because of the climate crisis. And as a result of the man-made climate crisis, we see an increase in drought, in hunger, in the afflicted the world over, especially in the global south.

Injustice against the earth and against humans goes hand-in-hand.

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve read the news recently, it seems that headlines about the climate crisis seems to always be getting scarier, more urgent, and more frequent. Climate refugees seeking homes, entire nations like South Africa and India running out of water, drought in Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan, extreme flooding in Iowa and Texas, Anchorage temperatures soaring to over 90 degrees.

I read about the burning of Amazon Rainforest, and my heart breaks to know that it is being burnt for animal agriculture and for logging – so that we might enjoy meat or fine hardwoods. Or, I think of the Endangered Species Act, which was gutted just two short weeks ago; this act, which has protected fragile ecosystems and species since 1973, and how it was gutted to give short-term monetary benefits to oil, gas, and other industries.

We, especially as Western people, as wealthy people, are sacrificing the life of the entire planet on altar of wealth and our own interests.

And let’s not parse our words: it is sinful to put our own economic interests over the life of the planet.

We have taken the Sabbath and trampled it; we have gone our own ways, served our own interests, and pursued our own affairs, instead of taking delight in God and this world which God has created in love.

And I’ve often found myself wondering where God is in all of this; where can we, as Christians, possibly find any gospel – any good news – about the climate? Frankly, the climate crisis scares me, and I have often found myself feeling hopeless whenever these headlines come across my laptop or when I see the climate extremes with my own eyes.

So this Isaiah reading came to me like a sweet gift, giving me hints of how God might be moving even as the reality of the climate crisis makes itself known to us, even as the Amazon is burning, even as we are in the midst of a mass extinction event.

Because Isaiah reminds us, even in the deepest night, even in the heaviest gloom, the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy the world in its parched places, and make us strong enough to face the challenges we see. Isaiah reminds us that God desires for us to be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.

Though our lands are parched, our bodies weakened by pollution and drought, though we find our ancient treasures in jeopardy, and our streets increasingly unlivable, God has not abandoned us.

And Isaiah suggests that the Sabbath might be one way we can learn to have a just relationship with the Earth.

The Earth needs a Sabbath. The land on which we live, the waterways on which we depend, the air we all breathe, the animals who are our neighbors – they need a Sabbath. They need a Sabbath from us using them as mere tools.

What if we took Isaiah seriously? What might happen if we give the Earth rest? What are the possibilities if we begin to treat non-human life as valuable in its own right? What would change if we begin to treat all life on Earth as being a sacred gift from God, rather than as a means to our own end?

Perhaps our parched lands would be satisfied, and our bodies made strong again. Perhaps paradise would once more resemble a watered garden, a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Perhaps our ancient forests and prairies would find growth, and animals would find their ancient homes hospitable once more.

Even amid this crisis, I believe – I have to believe – that God’s promises remain good, and I cling to the promise of resurrection – not just for humans, but for all the Earth and all its inhabitants which God has created and redeemed.

So I cling to the promises of the Sabbath, the promises to which the writers of Isaiah witnessed. We must begin to think, as Isaiah warns, beyond our own interests and to stop pursuing our own affairs at the expense of all other life on earth.

And yet, I know that the Sabbath is not a passive practice. Though it is about rest, it is not about doing nothing. When Lee and I practiced the Sabbath, it required mindful effort: it required effort in planning to cook and clean ahead of time, and it required effort to refrain from thinking about work or talking about our to-do lists, because those things were easier, they were the things we were accustomed to doing already.

That effort did reward us with blessing upon blessing, but it was indeed an effort. And sometimes it was difficult to refrain from work.

And just so, a Sabbath for the Earth will require effort and intentionality on our parts. Even as we must cling to God’s promises for renewal and trust that those promises are good, we must be willing to become active participants in those promises.

Rather than seeing the Amazon as a fertile place on which we might find good mahogany wood and raise lots of cattle, we must begin to see it as an entity with value and rights greater than the sum of its parts. Rather than seeing endangered animal species as roadblocks to our economic prospects, we must begin to truly see the animals we share this planet with as neighbors with their own interests and value.

In short – we must stop using creation as a means to our own ends, and we must begin to advocate for justice for the whole Earth. The Sabbath requires nothing less of us.

In the three short months I have been at First Congregational so far, I have already come to know the passion this congregation has for justice. I have heard so many stories of the ways this congregation has advocated for more equity and peace in Glen Ellyn and beyond.

I know y’all advocated for PADS when no one else would. I know that many members are active participants in DuPage United, and that y’all show up in force at school board meetings for trans youth in local schools. I have spoken to Sister Donna at Precious Blood Ministries, and she has told me how much this congregation has done for those dealing with the life-altering impacts of gun violence.

I know this congregation has a vision for what a more just community looks like.

But if we limit our ideas of justice to only justice for humans, then we have missed out on what true peace, true justice really looks like. Isaiah reminds us that justice is about more than human beings – peace is only peace if the whole earth receives it, and justice is only justice if every ecosystem knows it.

This passage of Isaiah speaks hope in the midst of the climate crisis, and it allows me to imagine what promises the future could hold, if we are willing to give sustained effort towards them.

I imagine a world where the Sabbath is available to all of us – human and non-human alike. I imagine a world where we put aside our money-books and our busyness, not only for our own wellbeing, but for the wellbeing of forests and prairies and water systems and airways.

And in this Sabbath, I imagine a peace which allows the whole creation to now paradise in streams of running water, here and now – heaven on earth. And in this Sabbath, I imagine a justice which takes seriously the value of life for every living being on earth.

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