Well, after two weeks of vacation visiting family and friends in Denver and Des Moines, it’s good to be home. But… it was also good to be away!
The two week vacation I took during the second half of August was the longest vacation I’ve taken since beginning my call here with all of you in October of 2006. At first I was so overwhelmed with the transition into full-time ministry, and the sheer amount of work to be done with our redevelopment, that I had trouble taking more than a few extended weekends every couple of months. Then, many of you will remember this, we really started to pick up – new staff and new programs and new partnerships – and it was hard to find a block of time much longer than a week to get away without missing something really exciting. Finally however, especially after the big push leading up to the Boulevard Bash, exhaustion caught up with me. Like many of you after that epic weekend of music and beer and broken arms, I needed to rest. I needed some Sabbath time.
It can be hard to remember in a culture that values productivity as much as ours does, just how important rest is to the body and the soul. But what we tend to forget, God tends to remember, and we need look no further than the Ten Commandments to notice that rest comes at the top of God’s list. The first commandment tells us that we shall have no other gods and create no idols to take God’s place. The second commandment instructs us not to take the name of the Lord in vain. The third commandment asks us to remember the Sabbath, and to keep it holy.
The Ten Commandments are found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, and are part of the story of the Israelites journey from slavery into the freedom of the promised land. Imagine how important and life-giving it would have been for a nation escaping the forced labor of Egypt to hear that God commanded them to rest. God’s commandments, though they may seem directed toward God, are always actually oriented toward our own health and salvation. For ancient Israel, the keeping of the Sabbath recalled not only God’s rest after the work of creation, but also the slavery of Egypt and the injustice of forced labor.
Martin Luther, writing in the Large Catechism on the third commandment, makes the same point – emphasizing that the Sabbath was given not only for worship of God, but for resting the body. He writes,
But to give a Christian interpretation to the simple people of what God requires of us in this commandment, not that we do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people – menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long – should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assembly to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song and prayer to God.
This vision of the priority of people over productivity, rest over labor, has always been in conflict with the greed of nobility and landowners and corporations, who have viewed human bodies and human labor as a resource to be exploited for the sake of greater profit, profit which is not usually shared equally or equitably. This is the root of the labor movement, which our nation honors this weekend with a holiday intended to remind us of the hard work, the uphill battle, and even at times the violence faced by union organizers and laborers who chose to throw their lot in with one another and to become more powerful by speaking with one voice than any could be individually. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Consider this. If you work in a setting that offers you paid vacation, paid sick days, or family leave with the guarantee of a job on your return, then you have benefitted from the labor movement. If you are fortunate enough to have a job that provides medical or other health benefits, you have benefitted from the labor movement. If you are guaranteed paid overtime, or holiday pay, then you have benefitted from the labor movement. This is true even if you don’t belong to a union. This is true for many in management or in corporate America, who cannot – or choose not to – join a union, but still benefit from the widespread culture of worker’s rights, including the right to workman’s compensation if they are injured on the job. American workers at every level of industry and commerce owe the labor movement a debt of gratitude for the protections we all enjoy by law – protections that were obtained by human beings joining hands with one another and insisting that people be valued more than profits.
We hear the same plea being made by Paul in his letter to Philemon, a slave owner, concerning his runaway slave, Onesimus. Here Paul uses the language of family to imagine that a new family has been created because of their common faith. He says,
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother…
Onesimus, once a slave and considered useless as a runaway – perhaps even marked for death for daring to assert his humanity in the face of laws that made it legal for one person to own another and to force as much work out of them as possible – is now to considered a beloved brother. People over profits, says Paul.
Jesus speaks of family as well, with provocative words intended to challenge the narrow circles of self-interest that guide most of our lives. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Does Jesus call us to hate our family because they are our family? No, but as Jesus develops this line of thought it becomes clear that he is calling us to renounce everything and anything that might get in the way of fully joining the whole family of God’s creation – including, and especially, our wealth.
Jesus knows that it is the love of wealth that calls to us and tempts us to sacrifice the needs of our neighbors for the sake of our own comforts. It was the love of wealth that led the nation of Egypt to turn the Israelites – who had been welcomed as honored immigrants – into slave labor to build Pharoah’s temples. It was the love of wealth that clouded Philemon’s eyes, so that he saw only labor when he looked at
Onesimus, and not a beloved brother. It is the love of wealth that has held this nation down for so long, as quality healthcare for all people has been held hostage to stakeholder interests. It is the love of wealth that keeps us at war in oil soaked nations, rather than confronting the energy crisis that is now upon us. It is the love of wealth that keeps us all viewing people as profit – to which Jesus says, “so therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
These are hard words. The temptation is to soften them, to explain them away, to make them more palatable to us today. Those are my temptations at least. I want to remove the radical edge from Jesus’ teaching, because I look at my life and I am convicted. I know that, relative to most of the people living upon the earth, I am wealthy beyond imagination. If you do not have to haul your own water from the well then you’re doing pretty well too. Discipleship was never meant to be palatable. We are following a man who is walking toward the cross.
As summer turns to fall, the texts we read in worship from the gospel of Luke turn as well. Throughout the long summer months we have heard stories and parables about the practice of discipleship. Now, as we progress into the later chapters of Luke, Jesus has begun his journey to the cross, and we will hear about the cost of discipleship. It may seem as though each Sunday is a covert appeal for the upcoming stewardship campaign, and at times that will be true. But Jesus call to give up our possessions wasn’t a marketing campaign intended to fund the budgets of the future church. As with the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ words are always actually oriented toward our own health and salvation.
Following Jesus will ask everything of us, and will give us even more in return. People laboring like slaves will be freed. People, once viewed as menial laborers, will become to us beloved sisters and brothers. United, we will be part of a movement for healing, wholeness and justice the world has only seen in glimpses, but is finally coming into view.