4 October, 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“The solution to [our] most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it.” (Abraham Heschel, Sabbath, p. 16)
I thought I’d start with a solution today. Because we have enough problems. So there it is…according to Rabbi Abraham Heschel…the solution is not in renouncing our technical civilization but in attaining some degree of independence from it.
We need space—a thin margin—to stop and reflect…a time to attain a degree of independence from the thunder and lightning, the blaring noises, and the smoking mountains. We need a space—not to recoil in fear…or collapse in exhaustion—but a space from which to resist in community and faith. And the solution is in our scriptures.
True our readings continue to be these big, scary stories. Stories designed to shock us awake and into action—to remind us how high the stakes are. And, part of me wants to tell the lectionary to back off…we don’t need any more big scary stories right now —we all get how high the stakes are…As Tammy said last week, what we’re living through feels biblical. And it would be nice to have some respite from that…But, I’ve read ahead, and the readings aren’t going to get warm and fuzzy anytime soon, and the world we live in isn’t going to get easier to navigate…so…If we want that space…we need to carve it out. So let’s take this as an invitation to get—if not comfortable, then at least—more familiar with some biblical language…build up some of our resilience, our capacity for resistance, and claim that space…that margin from which to create an alternative to the chaos that swirls around us.
There is a central choice that gets repeated in various ways over and over again in scripture. “I have put before you,” sayeth the Lord, a choice between “life and death, blessing and curse…Choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19, Jewish Study Bible). And BTW, God always wants us to “choose life.” A choice between the way of life and the way of death sounds like a super easy choice—except we know it’s not…we know that choosing to love God with all our heart and mind and strength…and our neighbor as our selves…is complicated…we very often have to make decisions with very little information…or with wrong information…we make decisions out of fear for ourselves rather than out of concern for our neighbor. We make decisions in the moment that we regret a moment later. If the choice between life and death, blessings and curses were super easy, we wouldn’t be where we are.
Life is complex and our haphazard way of living of it gives rise to a reality, which gets described in the bible and by theologians in different ways—It is called: Egypt, Babylon, Rome, The Great Beast…it gets described in stories like the Exodus, and in parables like these wicked tenants…it can be seen in the acts of all the dreadful kings, the conniving scribes and Pharisees…in Pharaoh…none of these refer to specific historic people so much as they point to…what is sometimes called simply “Empire” or more poetically, “the principalities and powers,” or more prosaically: “the domination system.”
The domination system exists throughout history, and is characterized, according to one scholar by, “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all,” (Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, p. 39). It is a system grounded in anxiety and scarcity. It is a system where there is never enough: never enough time, never enough wealth, never enough power, and where people are driven to produce and consume…”more.”
In the words of another scholar it is a system where: “We make war on our bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; [we make} war on our [families], because we cannot find time to be with them; [we make] war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we do not take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us.” (Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, by Wayne Muller). In other words, it’s the world we live in, it makes choosing the Way of Life feel counterintuitive at best and impossible at worst, because the domination system is what gets called “normal.”
If you listen, you can hear the assumptions of the dominant system behind all of these “you shall nots.” When Pharaoh reigns and the domination system is “normal,” according to another scholar, people are, “bound to dishonor parents and all non-productive kin; to engage in […murderous] violence because others are seen as a threat; are bound to reduce [human interaction] to exploitation and commodification; will of course take from others if its something they want; will naturally lie and distort the truth in order to gain advantage; and will always, always want more…” (Breuggeman, Sabbath as Resistance)
Scripture, as I’ve said has various names for this domination system…and it always also offers an alternative. The real purpose of these Ten Words—the Decalogue—is to remind those who have been freed from Pharoah’s system…who have been called to live as people of the Way of Life, who have found some margin to resist that system of anxiety…the principalities and the powers…These Ten Words are reminders that they have no need to seek other gods, or set up idols, or dishonor parents, or murder, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Breuggeman) because they have been released…they are free of that system—we are free of that system. But we have to remember that we are free. And we have to practice that freedom. And how do we do that? What does the Decalogue tell us to remember? The Sabbath. That’s the key…that’s what enables us to continue living with a small degree of independence from the system of domination that surrounds us.
Sabbath is what Rabbi Abraham Heschel calls “The solution to [our] most vexing problems [and it] will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it.” That’s what a reliable, ongoing Sabbath practice is all about. It’s not just a day off nor is it going completely off the grid.
Sabbath is a practice for carving out a margin—a space from which to mount a resistance to the pervading values of the anxiety-driven domination system. A regular, ongoing Sabbath practice is a space from which we boldly and bodily proclaim that we will not participate in the anxiety and we will not perpetrate the domination that surrounds us.
I want to encourage you to think about a Sabbath practice that is something other than simply a day off. Lord knows we all need some rest, but I want us to think about practices that will not only refresh us, but will help us resist the anxiety of our domination system. Maybe simply turning off all the alerts on your phone, tablet, and computer. Or limiting yourself to only 2 reliable news sources, and checking them only once a day for 30 minutes or less. Is that taking a walk with a friend, instead of listening to a podcast, or calling someone on the phone instead of sending an email?
In her book on Resisting the Attention Economy, called How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes: “What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return–and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? Whether it’s a real room or a [Zoom room]… [what if we spent energy] saying the right things to the right people at the right time?”
We need to strengthen ourselves for the journey ahead…we need to bind the fabric of our communities together…we need to choose life…And in order to do that…we need space… a space not to collapse in exhaustion, or recoil in dread…but a space from which to gain perspective…and gather courage…lock arms in solidarity…and engage in what Odell calls “a manifest dismantling” of the principalities and powers.
Remember the Sabbath. Remember that you are not bound by the anxiety of the domination system. Find some space to breathe. And be. And remember who is really in charge.