While I love a good rollercoaster, when it comes to movies, I am no adrenaline junkie. I have no interest in chainsaw-wielding bad guys jumping out at me, find no pleasure in the manipulative thud of the music that signals that something dreadful is about to happen. I’ve certainly seen films with horror or violence, but there has to be more than a bloody version of the catharsis Aristotle describes in his “Poetics.” There is enough pain and suffering in life, enough that walks into my study and shows up in the news, so if I am going to see it on the screen, it better offer some insight into the human condition, should end with some hope, for I am a Christian not a nihilist, and you cannot be both. I’m a sucker for a happy ending, improbable things like the resurrection of the dead.
For this reason, I only made it part of the way through the first of the Purge films. Most of you will, thankfully, know nothing about this series of movies, three to date with at least one more coming out. The premise is that there is one 12-hour period every year when all laws, even the law against murder, are suspended.
In the first film, a family is targeted because they played Good Samaritan to an endangered stranger, must fight to survive attacks by a sadistic gang. Maybe there is some redeeming message in there somewhere… I just couldn’t get that far before I grabbed the remote.
The Purge series might be described as a sort of adult Hunger Games, another dystopian series, but one I like, one in which the scapegoats are not only innocent, as is true by definition, but are also triumphant. Maybe my real problem with the Purge series isn’t so much that it depicts the struggle against systemic evil as it is that I like laws, so the very premise of the movie is abhorrent. I like there to be a clear sense of right and wrong, and when society is functioning well, law protects us all, especially the most vulnerable among us. We’ve all seen corrupt prosecutors and bad rulings. Our trial system has completely failed people of color.
Even so, we should remember that it was law, and specifically judges, that made Brown vs. Board of Education a reality. If we had waited for popular opinion to desegregate schools, Arkansas and Alabama and many other places would still have “whites only” schools and water fountains, lunch counters refusing service to African-Americans. Sometimes we need to do what is right instead of what is popular.
Australia is currently wrestling with a similar question of justice and of law, wrestling with right and wrong. Religious extremists in that country, much like our own Christian Taliban in the US, has pushed for a national vote on marriage equality. The ruling party has called a postal referendum on the matter, not because they believe the majority of citizens oppose marriage equality, but because they believe that those opposing equality will respond at a higher rate than those standing on the side of love. They are gaming the system, using the pretense of democracy to undermine democracy. As the LGBTQ groups that opposed the referendum have warned, the campaign has given a platform to those Christian jihadis, sowers of lies and fear, increasing division, for division is one of the greatest tools of the wicked.
Sadly, there will always be those who manipulate the process, as they did one Thursday night in Jerusalem.
But even with activist judges, that great enemy of bigots everywhere, law and justice, especially God’s justice, are not always the same, as we were reminded by the news earlier this week. I don’t like illegal immigration because it is illegal, because I think a country should be able to control its borders, not because I believe the false propaganda of the thinly disguised “blood and soil” racists. But in the end, Jesus makes love the final measure of any human law. Compassion must always win, and I serve a God that offers a justice far wider than any my little heart could muster. So when a mother tearfully turns her child over to a child trafficker because that is safer than staying home, well… And seriously, sending dreamers back to a country they barely remember is just cruel.
Our rule of law doesn’t always work, is never better than the laws that are made, and while our guiding principles of liberty and justice for all are worth celebrating, we are justified in looking at every particular law and asking who it benefits. Increasingly, the answer is corporations and the 1%.
Earlier this year the Texas legislature passed and the governor signed a law making it harder for people to sue insurance companies they believe have wrongly denied their claims for flood damage. That law went into effect on September 1st. The timing might seem ironic if it weren’t so damned tragic.
We can ask the same question about who benefits when it comes to the Sabbath law. We know that some of the 613 strict rules called the Mosaic Law are about maintaining social order, but we also know that many are about enriching the scribes and priests who depended on the law to make a living, much in the same way modern religious charlatans use false threats of damnation and the snake-oil of the prosperity gospel to enrich themselves. I don’t need a hurricane to denounce the sins of Joel Osteen.
But there seems to be more going on with the law of sabbath than just driving the corrupt economy of the Temple.
But there is also what it is not. God as super-being creating something from nothing in six days as we know them is myth, the refreshing sabbath rest on the seventh day a projecting back onto God the human need for sabbath. We are also past the myth of a codependent God that needs human praise, so sabbath is not about humans paying God with worship or burnt offerings. As Derek reminded us last week, the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath.
A little over a week ago, I was a mile and a half above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, thinking about this text. I was at “Weird Church Camp,” a gathering of innovative faith leaders from around the country, for three nights, and it was partly cloudy with occasional showers the whole time. I got drenched on the mini-golf course after lunch one day, though I fired a respectable four under par the next. I might aspire to be the Rory McIlroy of mini-golf, but I suspect I’m more like John Daly.
The thing I noticed up there in the Rockies was this: with parts of the mountains in cloud shadow, the parts where the sun was shining were highlighted. I noticed them in ways I might have never noticed if the range had been uniformly lit. It was as if God, or at least weather patterns, was calling my attention to particular details, to a snowy crevasse here, a bare thrust of rock over there, a meadow above the treeline. The shadow showed me the mountains.
Creation celebrates sabbath as part of the natural cycle of being, interrupts the thrust of living with winter and wildfire, and we need sabbath because we are relentless. We gorge ourselves on food, sex, possessions, power, pouring more and more into the insatiable maw of our fear. We would gorge until we collapsed or exploded, like a Labrador Retriever missing the gene for satisfaction. We can’t get no satisfaction, as the Rolling Stones sang. Adam Smith, the real prophet of our economy and author of “The Wealth of Nations,” told us more than two centuries ago that the market depends on us being forever unsatisfied.
Sabbath makes us stop, brings out in sharp relief the ways we operate in non-sabbath space, and it is terrifying, worse than any horror movie.
Even when we move past the the most primal gorging and rutting, we get wrapped up in the pursuit of greatness. Richard Spencer, the leader of America’s new White Nationalist movement said, in a speech celebrating his movement’s recent political success, “We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures ever to populate the planet. We were meant to overcome – overcome all of it. Because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.”
Sentiments that would fit perfectly in “Triumph of the Will” and “Mein Kampf.”
The pursuit of greatness is bald hubris. It is not that we should aspire to mediocrity, but our gifts are gifts, and using them well is how we respond to the call of our Creator, so glory be to God, not to us. Superlatives of all kinds are unbefitting of the creature, of the Christian, who is called to be the least that we might serve others.
And then, having heard the call to humility, we rush home after church and watch sport franchises pursue glory at all costs, an Apple watch used to steal signals, deflated footballs. We must win, and we burn, not with love, but with envy and regret.
Sabbath is more than a respite from this conflagration we call daily life. It should be leaven not an island, should spill over into Monday. Faith is not a box to be checked weekly, it is a way of life, and sabbath should be a way of life.
True sabbath will be transformative. But who takes sabbath? We turn church-going into a chore if we even manage to make it, tacking on meetings and tasks.
The interruption of sabbath, the shadowy fallow time of sabbath, shows us what passes for life in the cult of consumer America.
How will we sabbath? How will we stop running when we are so terrified of what we will find if we slow down, if we stop trying to be perfect, stop trying to purchase happiness and immortality, stop trying to prove to everyone that we are smart? If we sabbath, will we find a monster in the shadows?
Maybe, but like every great story, the monster turns out to be not so powerful, not so fearsome. You are tired and a little overwhelmed and a little fearful. And there, as the wind blows and the branches move, there in the shadows, a man on his knees, tired, a little overwhelmed, a little fearful, there among the olive trees, praying to his Father. He would face monsters. Forgive them. They know not what they do.
Sabbath is not about priests and not about law, and it is no sabbath at all if you stop your busyness for the day but allow your soul to churn in hubris and rage and fear and desire.
Sabbath is stillness. It is a time to let God be God.
The law of sabbath, blue laws and enforcement, no longer fits. We honor and celebrate diversity, so which sabbath would we choose? But the law of sabbath also doesn’t work because Christianity itself has been reduced from practice to identity, a culture not a way of life. Indeed, the Alt-Right, and Spencer, the theorist behind the movement, want the name of Christian without any of the sacrificial humility. If many of our neighbors are not Christian and many of our neighbors who call themselves Christian do not practice Christianity, then there is no longer room for a law of sabbath.
But is there room for sabbath as practice, even in this age, as a spiritual discipline in the age of self-centered “spiritual but not religious”? In our non-stop age, in our feverish hunger and hubris, is there room to just stop. To let a light shine, revealing what is, to see what the shadow shows? Can sabbath be, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, an act of resistance?
The sabbath law… not about a needy God who needs praise, not about an exhausted God who must rest, though if any creature could exhaust the divine, it would be humans.
The sabbath law is a call to stop, to see, to hear, to resist, to take a break from fear and lust and to be with mystery.
May you find sabbath in your heart. May you practice sabbath in your life. Amen.