The Hardest Commandment (A Sermon for Lent 3B)
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (Cypress, Texas)
Exodus 20:1–17
March 4, 2018

By the time we get to Exodus 20, the Israelites have come a long way. They have been liberated from slavery in Egypt. They have ventured out into the wilderness. They are no strangers to hunger and thirst, but God has provided in abundance water and bread from heaven. They have been under attack and have emerged victorious. And now they have finally reached Sinai.

There, in chapter 19, God makes a covenant with Israel: Israel will be God’s holy nation if the people keep their end of the covenant. Unlike in the covenants with Noah and with Abraham that we’ve heard over the past few weeks, this time a mutual covenant is established: Israel must be obedient to God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people. Chapter 20 begins to spell out those commands in what we know as the Ten Commandments.

If the 10 commandments were a pop quiz for your life, all of the commandments worth one point each, what score would you get? 10 out of 10? 5 out of 10? As it turns out, the quiz is a little weighted. Some commandments elicit more explanation than others. To help prepare you for that quiz, should ever the day come, we’ll spend our time together today focused on the one commandment that God really drives home; the one commandment that has far more verbiage than all the others — Sabbath.

Keeping sabbath is important all year, but perhaps especially in Lent. Lent is a time when we tend to reflect on our lives as people of faith and on our spiritual practices.

Today it is good to be mindful of the sacredness of life and the practice of keeping the sabbath. I think the sabbath is one of the hardest commandments to keep, perhaps the hardest.

Sabbath is taking time for God. It’s more than not going to work, not working at home, not sitting at the computer, not working around the house — it’s reminding ourselves of God’s central place in our lives and being grateful. It’s also reminding ourselves that we aren’t the center of the universe and that work can go on without us.

Many of us are workaholics. Sometimes we even think we are indispensable. We have to do everything ourselves. It needs to be perfect. And, you know, we’re never done. There is always another task, another report or presentation, another production goal, another meal to prepare, another Sunday, and another sermon to write. (I’m preaching to myself here.)….But God commands us to stop, no matter what the demands are.

The sabbath commandment is so important because God’s way is different from the way of the world. In the way of the world there is a boss, there is an agenda, there is a scorecard. But in God’s way there is love and freedom and gratitude…and grace.

It may seem funny to think of a commandment as something that is “freeing.” In fact, depending on your age, the way you experienced the commandment of Sabbath growing up might have been quite the opposite. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it boring” was my experience of Sunday Sabbath. The Sabbath was the day you couldn’t wear blue jeans or play ball or ride bikes or go to the movies. It was the day when you had to go to church not only in the morning but again at night.

But then there came a point in our American history when our culture gave up on its “no compete clause” with the church. Suddenly, with stores and restaurants open and sports leagues in full effect, people of faith had a choice. We were free to keep the Sabbath if we wanted to, but not because there was nothing else to do. It became up to us to make our own choices. We would have to find the strength to do something that is very, very hard for us — harder than most of these 10 commandments, I would be willing to guess.

We would have to learn to say a most difficult two-letter that might as well be a four-letter word.

The word NO.

“No, I want to stay home tonight.”

“No, I have enough work for now.”

“No, I have all the possessions I can take care of.”

“No, we are involved in enough organizations and on enough teams.”

What is it that makes this word so difficult, and at times, so seemingly unacceptable to say?

Busyness of is often how our culture measures worth. We use busyness to gauge success. It becomes a badge of honor instead of a sign that we have lost sight of ourselves as ones who are made in God’s image — the same God who said that the seventh day of creation, when God rested, was not only good or even very good. The work of creation was so wonderful that that God called it HOLY.

So what prevents you from keeping the Sabbath commandment? What is separating you from the rest that reconnects us with the God who rests?

Sunday might not be the best day for you and your family to take that time. It might be Monday nights that you set aside or Saturday afternoons. It may start with just an hour that isn’t scheduled. An hour spent with no agenda other than to reconnect with the holy and recharge our very souls.

Sabbath is in part a practical matter — setting aside the time and the space to rest. But it is also a deeply theological and spiritual matter. It is a matter of grace; a matter of acknowledging that the world does not depend on our activity, that we do not have sole responsibility for the grain growing, or the sun rising or the birds singing; that there is in and behind all things a steady, creative grace, providing for our needs, continuing the creation.

In that knowledge, we can rest in peace.