Sunday, February 5, 2012

A silly Sabbath song

Formed in Christ: Anxiety and Gratitude
Exodus 16:11-30; Mark 8:1-9a

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Walter Brueggemann is not just a world-renowned biblical scholar,
who has often challenged me,
thrown me off-balance, in a good way,
made me re-examine the ways I think about God, and God’s people.
He’s also a great source for sermon material.
I’ve been quoting him as long as I’ve been preaching.
Which will soon be 30 years.

So a couple weeks ago when he was at EMU,
and I heard his three lectures, and two extended Q&A sessions,
it was hard not to be thinking about my upcoming sermons,
especially our recent focus on Christian formation.

So expect some Brueggemann quotes today.
Because I’m going to be interacting with his thoughts,
and weaving them together with my own thoughts,
modifying, rearranging,
and hopefully, creating something that hangs together,
and helps prepare us, helps form us
for the kind of life God intends for us.

One of Brueggemann’s core beliefs,
which he has long written about (and I have long quoted),
is that we are already being formed—powerfully, inescapably—
by a narrative of scarcity, anxiety, and accumulation. 
Our whole culture is deeply committed 
to this anxious narrative of accumulation.
It presses in on us at every turn.
And, perhaps, on no day of the year more, 
than on Super Bowl Sunday.

But this narrative is nothing new.
Brueggemann traces its origins to the earliest stories in the Bible—
the Garden of Eden, the patriarchs, 
and the quintessential story,
the most anxious figure of all—Pharoah of Egypt.
Pharaoh, when faced with famine, saw an opportunity to benefit,
by accumulating and storing away as much as possible,
and then, when things got bad, selling it to the needy,
who paid for it with their gold.
When the gold ran out, they paid with their flocks and herds.
When the animals ran out, they paid with their land.
When the land ran out, they paid with their bodies,
sold into slavery.
Until finally Pharaoh owned everything in Egypt.
But he was still anxious, afraid they might turn against him.
So he resorted to violent oppression of his slaves.

This narrative is played out in scripture over and over,
in different ways, in different situations.
But it is diametrically opposed to God’s narrative,
a narrative of abundance, gratitude, and generosity.
The whole Bible could be seen as a continual struggle 
between these two narratives, Brueggemann believes.

And we humans are stuck . . . hard . . . 
in a world controlled by anxiety that there will not be enough,
so we accumulate all we can for ourselves,
and defend ourselves against all who threaten what we have.
As Brueggemann says, a narrative of scarcity leads to anxiety,
which leads to accumulation, which leads to monopoly, 
which leads to violence.
In the case of Pharaoh, it led to enslaving and brutalizing 
an entire race of people—
and nearly destroying his own people.

The scriptures tell the story of God’s repeated attempts 
to get people to realize they were listening to the wrong story, or . . .
if Brueggemann will forgive me if I change the metaphor slightly,
they were singing the wrong song.
They had forgotten God’s joyous song of creation.
They had forgotten the tune, and the words.
They had forgotten that 
God’s abundance, God’s generosity, and God’s sheer delight,
are the rhythm, the melody, and the message 
of the song of Creation, as we see it in Genesis 1.

The reason I say “song” is because I think that pretty well describes
what we find there on those pages.
Genesis 1 is a song with seven verses,
with repeating rhythms,
“there was evening and there was morning”
“and God saw that it was good.”
I also say song, because a song gets inside us,
and moves us at a deep level,
much more than the words can alone.
It lives and works in us in ways we don’t always understand.

Which is kind of what Brueggemann means by narrative, I think.
A narrative is more than the sum of its words.
A narrative defines who I am, and how I enter into my world,
and how I live in it.

The song of Creation in Genesis 1 is that kind of defining song.
God wants this song to get stuck in our head,
wants it to lodge deep in our bones,
and become part of us,
so that its rhythm and music come out in how we live.

The song God is trying to get us to sing, with our lives,
is a song that God’s hand of love and abundance and generosity
was not only in the beginning of creation.
No! Creating and blessing and making fruitful,
is still who God is, and what God does.
The heart of this song is that God has only love and blessing in mind
for all of Creation.
And lest it be lost on anyone,
the seventh verse, is Sabbath.

The song tells how for six days straight,
God worked, and created, and instructed his creation how to live.
And then on day seven, God rested.
Because it was enough.
In fact, it was plenty.
In fact, it was good . . . it was very good.
So God established a pattern for all creation to imitate.
The good life consists of work, and grace.
of effort, and gift.
And God is the great giver.
The trustworthy giver.

God trusted creation to do what he had created it to do,
so God stepped back,
didn’t tinker with it, 
didn’t try to improve on it,
didn’t try to manage or control it,
just let it be good.

The Creator rested.
And thus, set an example for his whole creation.

Animals and plants alike—
nearly every created species has some kind of cycle
of activity and rest,
of feeding and hibernation,
of growth and dormancy,
of summer and winter.
The period of dormancy in the natural world,
is precisely what brings new life and growth.
If apple trees didn’t enter a dormant period every winter,
we wouldn’t have apples the next fall.

God’s rest, as we see it in scriptures,
is a declaration of God’s sovereignty in creation.
It is about celebrating the wholeness, shalom, justice, and peace
which is the gift of a loving, sovereign, creator God.
When we observe Sabbath,
we enter into God’s rest.
We enter deeply into the confidence and trust and peace
that comes from serving a God who is able to rest.
We find our rest in God’s rest.

Sabbath is central to the narrative of abundance.
But the narrative of scarcity is anti-Sabbath.
In Sabbath, God offers us a generous bonus!
Seven days of full, abundant living for only six days of work.
It’s based on God’s economics, not ours.

Two biblical stories about God’s Sabbath economics at work
were read this morning.

In Exodus 16,
the Israelites were stuck in the wilderness with no food.
God provided manna for six days. 
And everyone had enough. Exactly enough for seven days of eating.
On day six they could gather two days worth,
and have fresh manna for the Sabbath.
But they were accustomed to the narrative of scarcity. 
They were anxious about tomorrow.
Worried they wouldn’t have enough.
So they tried to hoard it on the other days,
tried to squirrel away some extra, just in case.
But by the next morning it rotted and stank.
But on the Sabbath, their free bonus day, their miracle day,
it stayed fresh.
God’s economics at work.

And in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8
Jesus is with his disciples and a crowd, in the desert, for days,
and they are all getting hungry.
It’s the second time this happened.
Last time, two chapters earlier,
Jesus fed 5,000+ with five loaves and two fish,
and plenty of leftovers.
God’s narrative of abundance was on display.

But the disciples, immobilized by anxiety, and stuck on scarcity, 
apparently had forgotten about the other day.
Because when Jesus suggested they feed bread to the hungry people,
the disciples asked, incredulously,
“How can you feed these people with bread in the desert?”

Even the recent, dramatic demonstration of abundance,
could not rescue them from their powerful, paralyzing,
anxiety-producing, narrative of scarcity.
They were not able to sing Jesus’ song of Sabbath abundance.

The song of Sabbath is precisely what we need to learn to sing,
if we want to confront the oppressive narrative of 
scarcity, anxiety, accumulation, monopoly, and violence,
to use Brueggemann’s vocabulary.

The narrative our world operates by,
the narrative that drives our economy,
the narrative that fuels our politics,
the narrative that ensures there will always be wars,
and rumors of wars,
is that, there is never enough.
That I must, at any cost, 
get what I need before somebody else does.
So, of course, this is the narrative that drives us crazy,
as we work, and produce, and accumulate 24/7,
or even better, 24/8.
The truly exemplary citizens are those who manage
to accomplish 8 days of work in 7 days time.

Sabbath is the joyous, abundant song of creation,
that God is trying to get the world to sing.
But which the world rudely dismisses, as a silly song.

From the perspective of the narrative of scarcity and anxiety,
Sabbath is nonsense.
It’s a silly song that makes no sense,
whose tune we can never learn,
whose lyrics we can never understand.

Sabbath is based on a silly, counter-cultural notion
that we don’t have to work for everything we receive.
That the abundance of God’s grace is a mighty factor in our lives.
That we don’t have to squeeze eight days of work 
into a 7-day work week, and still feel like we’re behind.
God’s Sabbath grace reassures us that with only six days of work,
we can experience seven days of abundant living.
God throws in the seventh day for free.
It’s a gift given out of God’s surplus.
It’s a bonus, pure and simple.
We haven’t earned it. We didn’t work for it. It’s a gift.
The Gospel truth here is that God has a surplus of blessings,
and God will provide.

Now, please understand something.
The theology of abundance is not prosperity theology.
Not at all.
The song of Sabbath abundance
never claims that God is going to make people rich
who have enough faith.
In fact, Christians who plan on God blessing them with riches
because of their faith,
are buying right into the narrative of scarcity.
So-called “faith” just becomes another method of
pursuing the narrative of anxious accumulation.
In fact, they are not actually trusting God,
they are using God.
They are putting their trust not in God,
but in a particular material outcome—wealth.

The biblical narrative of God’s abundance
does not deny the real and tragic impact of scarce resources.
The narrative of abundance is no magic fix for poverty.

As a matter of fact,
God is deeply concerned, and deeply pained,
by the reality of scarcity in the human family.
That’s why God rescued the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
It is precisely because God is so concerned about the suffering 
caused by real scarcity,
that God calls us away from the narrative that promotes scarcity.

The narrative of scarcity and accumulation is a self-fulfilling narrative.
The more anxious we are about scarcity,
the more we hoard and accumulate,
the more we oppress and exclude and are violent.
And the less generous we will be with each other, and our neighbors,
producing real scarcity for others.

The invitation this morning, is simply to trust in the goodness of God.
To trust that God’s song of Creation abundance
is actually not silly at all,
but a much truer song, than the song our world sings.

Practicing Sabbath is how we
pull ourselves away from the oppressive song of Pharaoh,
whose chorus goes, “Make more bricks, make more bricks.”
and enter instead into Jesus’ liberating song,
whose chorus goes, “My yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Let us soak in the life-giving music
of God’s abundant love, 
of rest, of gratitude, of generosity,
and of love for all our neighbors.

And let us sing the song we humans have almost forgotten,
but the song all creation is singing,
led by “the morning stars together.”

Let’s sing together, #34 in the blue hymnal

—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2012

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