In 1927, the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson gave us a gift. Reaching back into the memories of his childhood, Johnson resurrected an art form that had almost become lost. Throughout the Black community there were the preachers, the story tellers, who would remind his congregation of this great God who despite darkness and chaos issued a promise of hope and life. These sermons were seldom heard outside the Black church. Johnson used his own words to recreate those sermons in a brilliant gem he called God’s Trombones. The best known of these sermons was titled, “The Creation”. It began like this:
God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely --- I’ll make me a world.
And as far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
Those words would be far more effective if spoken by someone with a voice like James Earl Jones but I think you get the idea. The Black preacher took what folks knew and mixed it with what he believed God did and began to paint.
So how would a white preacher today enlighten a congregation on the vast wonders of the creation story as recorded in the book of Genesis? Perhaps like this.
God stepped out into the midst of darkness and chaos and declared, “Let there be light.” God then separated the light from the darkness and a poll of 68% of the angels declared this to be a good thing.
On the second day God separated the waters from the earth. God raised his arm and created the sky. Facebook created a chat room to discuss this.
On the third day God created dry land. The dry land God called earth and the water was called the sea. MSNBC reported the phenomenon was seen by 33% of the other gods as a risk which was not sustainable.
On the fourth God placed the sun and the moon in the sky separating the night and day. Fox reported this as fake news claiming it was an illusion created in Hollywood.
On the fifth day God declared swarms of creatures would emerge from the waters and birds would occupy the air. A poll was immediately taken by Gallop to see how many angels were upset by this violation of their air space.
On the sixth day God created every kind of animal to roam the earth. Then God said, “Let us make humans in our own image.” That afternoon humans recorded their initial thoughts on newly established twitter accounts.
On the Seventh day God unplugged his phone, canceled the newspaper, turned off the TV, and rested. (stop)
The fourth commandment might be my favorite. That may seem strange because Sunday is the one day of the week I do everything but rest. Of course Doug Wood is quick to remind me I play a lot of golf the other six days.
In our tradition, Sabbath is celebrated on Sunday. Recently the faithful have been heard to grumble about those who engage in other activities on Sunday morning. Our battle cry is, “Remember the good old days when the churches were full and all of us had to suffer through a twenty five minute sermon.” But now children play baseball on Sunday morning and no one gives it a second thought. Families engage in projects around the house on Sunday morning and no one feels guilty. Today folks do anything they can on Sunday morning to forget the past six days. Maybe we Christian who have worked so hard to preserve the Sabbath we have forgotten why it was declared sacred?
In the beginning of the development of Judaism, the Sabbath was a day of rest. It was the day designated to escape the daily grind and remember that from the beginning God declared without recreation there could be no re-creation. The Hebrew’s identity was created in the midst of slavery. They were exiles in both Egypt and Babylon. They knew firsthand what it was like to be confined by a captor who cared little for their welfare. So once a week, they remembered a God who rested. They remembered a God who cared. They remembered the God who had rescued them and they remembered this God expected them to care and if necessary rescue those around them. If you are enslaved seven days a week you will never look up and notice the plight of your neighbor. But if on the seventh day you rest, and remember, and praise God, it is amazing what you will see.
History tells us that when the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem they went through centuries of creating rules and regulations concerning what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. They institutionalized their holy day. People started worrying so much about what they couldn’t do they forgot why Sabbath keeping was so important. By the time Jesus arrived he kept getting in trouble with Sabbath laws. If someone was hungry on the Sabbath he fed them. If someone was sick he wasn’t going to wait until the following day. Proper behavior on the Sabbath was to hide out at home, be miserable, and anxiously wait for the sun to set. Then they willingly put their shackles on and prepared to go back to work.
We read these stories in the New Testament and we laugh at how strict the Jewish laws had become. How quickly we forget our Blue Laws. Did you know Blue Laws were created in the 1640’s in England because Cromwell declared folks were having too much fun on Sunday? The descendents of Cromwell, many of them Presbyterians brought this tradition to the colonies where it became universal law. Blue laws existed into the 20th century until professional sports captured the imagination of a vast majority of the American public. Once professional sports began to be played on Sunday and heaven forbid, beer sales were legalized to support the games, the blue laws lost their hold on society. Then even folks who had no interest in the Boston Red Sox or the Washington Redskins wondered why folks went to church in the first place. We had set rules and regulations on how to observe the day. But we forgot why the day was so important? What about a refresher course.
Remember the Sabbath. It is no accident that this is the fourth commandment. The first three commandments declare YWHW to be God above all others. God gave us life. God gave us purpose, but we are so quick to forget all this because we are easily enslaved by our jobs, our cell phones, social media, or a hundred other things that dominate our lives. The Sabbath was created so we might pause and REMEMBER who we are and whose we are. We can only do this when we put all those other things down and purposefully rest, purposefully remember, and purposefully give thanks to the one who gave us life. Then our mind and heart is released. Our eyes recognize the folks around us and we boldly proclaim, “I care for them. I will treat them with dignity. I will protect their lives and their property. I will utter the truth to them and try not to envy their new BMW sitting next to my eight year old Toyota.
Sabbath is where memory and observance merge. We remember the goodness of God and we give thanks. We remember the sacredness of our neighbors and we vow to be better neighbor. When we remember, we rediscover the beautiful world God originally imagined.
Institutions that enslave us hate joyful communities. Think of all those things that divide and isolate us. When we were growing up nothing could destroy our world quicker than gossip. Now our kids are enslaved by social media. When we were young adults no one imagined loving going to work every day. But no we are warned if we don’t work 24/7 someone can be found who will. How healthy was that? Today we are living the good life yet we aren’t we still enslaved by worrying about what will happen tomorrow.
On the seventh day God rested. God rose above the burden of being The Creator and said, “I need to kick back and remember why I’m doing this in the first place.”
Are we so different from God? Don’t we need a day to refresh our souls? Don’t we need an hour to share a few memories from yesterday, or perhaps even 2,000 years ago. Perhaps we need to sing, “Bless the Lord O my Soul.” Perhaps we need to pray, “Thank You.” Perhaps we need to re-invite others celebrate a moment without chaos and darkness. Let’s reclaim the Sabbath. Let’s drop all the old rules. Let’s just try to keep the Sabbath……. restful. Imagine what a gift that could be. Amen.