And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
(Preached on Sunday, June 25, 2017)
Dog eared and tongue worn from generations of retelling; fought over, abused, despised and held in wonder, the creation story seldom gets treated for what it really is: a magnificent confession of faith by a people who have come to know God’s grace and see that grace in the creation itself. In fact some scholars have suggested that this creation story was actually a counter-culture protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors. While their oppressors described the origins of the cosmos as a violent and bloody struggle between order and chaos and much of it resulting from an actual war between the gods, the Israelites told their children a different story – a story rooted in goodness and blessing. While the Babylonian story describes the supreme god, Marduk, creating human beings for the purpose of serving all the gods as slaves so that the gods could live at ease, the Israelite story depicts the creation of human beings as an act of love by God, seeking partners for God’s creative work. It is an amazing and marvelous story. It is a story rich and full and when we stand before the whole of it one wonders just where to begin.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann suggests that the “goal and completion of every Jewish and Christian doctrine of creation must be the doctrine of the Sabbath; for on the Sabbath and through the Sabbath God ‘completed’ his creation, and on the Sabbath and through it, men and women perceive as God’s creation the reality in which they live and which they themselves are. The Sabbath opens creation for its true future. On the Sabbath the redemption of the world is celebrated in anticipation. The Sabbath is itself the presence of eternity in time, and a foretaste of the world to come.” So perhaps we ought to begin at the end, instead of at the beginning.
This is also a good place to begin for us, modern day American Christians. We are a restless people and have a true inability to play and rest. The American culture is rooted in a strong work ethic with responsibility as a key value. That sense of responsibility can easily become distorted. Overwork is frequently praised; taking time off has become associated with not being as dedicated or as committed as we should be. Recent surveys show that 54% of American workers left unused vacation days on the table in 2016. When asked about this year 43% of American workers said they won’t take a summer vacation. Also, 41% of workers don’t get paid vacation time from their employer.
Dutch priest Henri Nouwen once reflected:
What most strikes me, being back in the U.S., is the full force of the restlessness, the loneliness, and the tension that holds so many people. So many of my friends feel overwhelmed by the many demands made on them. Few feel the inner peace and joy they so much desire; i.e., to celebrate life together, to be together in community, to simply enjoy the beauty of creation, the love of people and the goodness of God. There seems to be a mountain of obstacles preventing people from being where their hearts wan to be.
We have just moved into the beginning of the summer vacation season. It is a period filled with expectations for a time of play and rest. Yet, many of us will not be able to truly do this in a way that is renewing. Our work ethic is so strong that it even pervades our play. How many times have you gone on vacation, packed so much activity into it, that you said to yourself at the end that you needed to go back to work to recover from your vacation? That is not a healthy sense of play. That is not a sense of rest that truly refreshes and renews.
It is also difficult for us to take vacation and truly rest in a way that is renewing because we live with the illusion that we must always complete our work before we rest. This illusion operates on many levels. On a superficial level, we often believe we have to complete all of our household chores, plus all the work that we would normally do during the time we are away, before we can leave. At a deeper level, we are confronted by different challenges: Will we ever be finished? Will we ever reach the heights to which we aspire? Will we ever do enough to earn our value in our employer’s eyes, the eyes of our parents or spouse, or even in God’s eyes? And just how do we prove our worth?
We consistently live with unresolved issues. In truth, we must find a rhythm of work and rest, knowing that some aspects of our life will never be finished. If we work in healthy ways, rest offers a balance that can help us experience ourselves and God more deeply. However, rest is the part of the equation that is most often overlooked and not given the respect it deserves. We easily disregard the balance of work and rest. In fact, being attentive to the rhythm of work and rest is a way to minister to ourselves and to others. We are called to enter into this rhythm if we are truly to live life to the full.
The creation story shows us that even God took rest. In fact, it suggests that God is living with unfinished working and resting even in the face of that fact. Does God Have a Big Toe? is the intriguing title of Rabbi Marc Gellman’s collection of “stories about stories in the Bible.” He begins his story about the story of creation in this way: “Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, ‘Why don’t you clean up this mess?’”
Rabbi Gellman colorfully retells each stage of the creation process, following the sequence in Genesis 1. After each step is completed the impatient angels ask, “Is the world finished now?” And God replied: “NOPE!” Finally God creates a man and a woman and asks them to “finish the world for me … really it’s almost done.” They object, pleading that they are too little and only God knows the plans. But God reassures them: “If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.” God describes partnership this way: “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” This time when the angels ask if the world is finished, God answers: “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
What a heady thought: we are created to be partners with God – co-creators of the world around us! We must be careful though, because for all the reasons I have already mentioned, we can easily hear this call and focus again on more activity, more things to do, and more responsibility. Again, we can become overwhelmed with the notion that now it is all up to us!
But it isn’t. We are “partners” in this project. Another aspect of this “partnership” is illustrated through the rhythm of the creation story. That rhythm is not only there in the notion of Sabbath rest at the end, but occurs all through the story. We hear it in the constantly repeated refrain: “And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day … and evening passed and morning came, marking the second day …” and on and on, six times. This is the Hebrew understanding of day, not ours. American days, most of them anyway, begin with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness and close, not with evening but several hours past that, when we finally turn off the electric light. But the Hebrew phrase, evening and morning, one day, conveys a different rhythm. It is the basic unit of God’s creative work, with evening the beginning. This sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins to work. As we sleep God creates. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, God’s creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work God initiated.
Also when we quit our day’s work nothing essential stops. We prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God’s genesis words are about to be spoken again. While we sleep, great and marvelous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process – the moon making the seasons, the lion roaring for its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the stars turning in their courses, the proteins repairing our muscled, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God’s work.
That is the rhythm of rest, of Sabbath. We learn that God can live with unfinished work, and so can we. For this work of creation is an ongoing process, never finished until the end of time. We learn to trust as we enter this rhythm of partnership and as we learn to trust, we learn to truly rest and be renewed.