Last week’s I reflected about keeping Sabbath time as individuals. But there is another aspect to Sabbath rest that is just as important. God doesn’t only tell individuals to rest. God tells communities to keep Sabbath time. God commands Israel to let their fields have a Sabbath, to let their animals and servants have a Sabbath, and once every few years, to let the whole economic system have a Sabbath. The world needs a vacation. Lord knows, the earth needs a rest. We have been extracting her minerals, damming her rivers, pumping toxins into her atmosphere, tearing holes in her ground, and stuffing her with our trash.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a floating island made of our plastic garbage has grown to the size of a continent, reaching out long tendrils of six-pack rings and shopping bags to trap, kill, and devour fish and birds. We feel the earth reeling, staggering under its burden of our human societies. We call her Mother Earth, but we have treated her like a slave, working the world to exhaustion. The world needs a Sabbath. The world’s people need a Sabbath too. The resources we extract from the earth go to factories staffed by eight-year-olds sewing the soles onto sneakers in steaming sweatshops, working eleven- and twelve-hour days, forbidden from taking a break even to use the bathroom.
Oh, sure, it’s tough to do anything about those problems on the other side of the world; especially when Christmas rolls around and we really need to buy our children toys made by other children on the opposite side of the planet. I know people need to buy things. Money makes the world go round. People who are dirt poor cannot afford a Sabbath. But perhaps that’s the problem because the world’s people—especially the half that lives on less than a dollar a day—desperately need a Sabbath.
God declares a Sabbath for all creation. God tells us to give the world a break. God gives Moses instructions in Exodus for a radical holiday, telling him that not only should the community take a break from work for a day out of every week, but every seven years they should give the land a Sabbath. Although they may eat whatever perennials grow in their fields by themselves, they may not plant or harvest. The land itself gets a break and then God declares yet another Sabbath. Once every fifty years, the economic system gets reset. All indentured servants will be released, all debts will be forgiven, and all land will revert to the original families who owned it. They call it the jubilee year; a Sabbath for all creation.
While it is unclear if they ever actually carried it out or not, it is an idea that crops up again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures. Release for the captives, letting the debt prisoners go free. Isaiah and Jesus called it “the year of the Lord’s favour,” and it was to them a little glimpse of that final time when God is to judge the world and set it to rights. God declares a Sabbath for all creation.
Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue? Imagine going to your mailbox and tearing open your mortgage statement and reading, “Total balance due: $0.” Imagine hordes of children leaving the sweatshops to go on their first summer vacation, splashing in the river, riding squeaking bicycles down the road, playing soccer in an abandoned lot. Imagine the panic on Wall Street or at the ASX as tractor-trailer trucks stand abandoned on the freeways, their cargos of iPods and $150 distressed-denim jeans sitting idle, inventories in retail stores across the nation gathering dust. The economy would collapse!
But you’d also have no more car payments, no more student loan debt. Not only that, but the redistribution of property back to its original owners? That’s
scary language. Imagine Australian First peoples, Canadian First Nations or First Nation American peoples leaving their camps, their reservations and home areas and staking claim to George Sydney or the Sydney Opera House or maybe even Manhattan, Wall Street. It’s absurd! Our gods, the gods of the market and conquest, would never allow it. This kind of language scares us,
makes us think of socialism or terrorism or communism or some other “ism.” Just imagine the chaos that would ensue.
But nobody ever said God was practical. God stubbornly insists on a
Sabbath for all creation. However, it’s only a short step from ignoring the Sabbath yourself to imposing your work, your agenda, and your interests on the land and its people. As written in Isaiah 58:13, we tend to put the pursuit of our own interests above everything else, setting up our own businesses as petty gods that we serve and worship. We sacrifice our relationships, our children, and our health on the altar of busyness. We sacrifice justice for the poor on the altar of economic practicality. And let me tell you, I get caught up in this to as I love my comforts and my technology.
Yet could we not see our Sabbath as a kind of nonviolent resistance to the creeping tyranny of wealth and power. Nehemiah says that even if everyone around them is buying and selling on the Sabbath, God’s people will not. God calls them to be a different kind of community. Imagine a Sabbath for the world. Picture a break for God’s creation and all God’s people. Sure, it may seem impractical, but God calls us to be a different kind of community, a people set apart, and a royal priesthood.
God has a better vision of life for us and our world, a life that includes rest and enjoyment and even time for deep prayer which we call contemplation these days. Talk of prayer does connect us to the readings from the three-year lectionary for this week. But this is not the prayer of demand and asking that we have come to use most of the time. Well before I get carried away, that’s another story for another day.