Luther College Chapel
October 7, 2011
Exodus 23:10-12 (or 31:12-17)
Within Limits: Remember the Sabbath
Our reading this morning is from the 23rd chapter of Exodus:
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12)
One of the problems that has plagued the modern era has been a self-defeating anthropocentrism. This brief passage from Exodus is remarkable for its breadth of moral concern. The injunction to let the land lay fallow every seven years reflects God’s concern for the landless poor who needed access to food, but it also reflects God’s concern for wild animals and even for the land itself. The injunction to rest from work every seven days was made to provide rest and relief for all who work the land, including domesticated animals and servants. In this passage God’s scope of moral concern extends well beyond human beings to the welfare of all that God has made.
The alternative reading for today from the 31st chapter of Exodus ties this practice of taking time to rest more directly to observation of the Sabbath:
The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’
Now, I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t remember the part about being put to death for doing work on the Sabbath. How many of you have done work on the Sabbath? If we put everyone to death who worked on the Sabbath I suspect there would not be many of us left!
More seriously, however, perhaps this text has a point. Is it possible that by never taking time to rest we are working ourselves to death? Is it possible that our own work schedules and relentless lifestyles are also working others to death? Is it possible that our industrious and industrial way of life is working our planet to death?
Wendell Berry raises these sorts of questions in his foreword to Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight by Norman Wirzba (Brazos Press, 2006). I read this book in preparation for this homily and found it very helpful. Berry writes:
We are living at the climax of industrialism. The “cheap” fossil fuels on which our world has grown dependent, are now becoming expensive in money and in lives.…. The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest…. Whatever we have, in whatever quantity, is not enough. There is no such thing as enough…. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh…. We need an eighth…. We cannot stop to eat. Thank God for cars! We dine as we drive over another paved farm. Everybody is weary and there is no rest. (11)
There is very little that is sustainable about our current industrial way of life. According to Paul Hawken in The Ecology of Commerce, every day the global economy burns an amount of fossil fuel that it took nature 10,000 days to create. Put another way, 27 years of stored solar energy in coal, oil, and natural gas are burned by utilities, cars, houses, factories, and farms every 24 hours. Think about that: Every day we consume an amount of fossil fuel energy that it took the planet 27 years to create.
Given the focus of these Exodus texts on agriculture, it is worthwhile to reflect on how our industrial way of life is affecting the land, other animals, and the people who work to produce the food we consume. While we have made some important strides in the U.S. regarding soil and water conservation, we are still losing topsoil faster than nature can replenish it and our applications of fertilizers and pesticides are polluting waterways and contributing to huge dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, our land use practices have destroyed and fragmented so many habitats that we are now experiencing an unprecedented rate of species extinction and loss of biodiversity.
Our industrial way of life has not been good for wild animals and it certainly has not been good for domesticated animals. The vast majority of the ten billion animals slaughtered in the United States last year were raised in massive confinement operations that gave them little room to move and little access to fresh air and sunlight. In Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of pork, the total swine herd of nearly 20 million pigs outnumbers the human population of Iowa by almost seven to one. An overwhelming majority of these pigs are locked in stalls that do not provide enough room for them even to turn around. Similar conditions afflict chickens in Iowa, which also leads the nation in egg production. According to Norman Wirzba:
Chickens are crammed, eight at a time, into wire crates no bigger than the drawer of a filing cabinet. The crates are stacked on top of each other in darkness, which means that chickens higher up defecate on those below. As a result, illness and anxiety run rampant, and so heavy uses of antibiotics are required to keep the fowl healthy enough till slaughter…. “(Living the Sabbath, 26)
As we know all to well from the raid in Postville, IA, the people who work in these industrial slaughterhouses are not treated much better than the animals they kill for our consumption. The meat-packing industry is one of the most dangerous in the nation and it relies on cheap and disposable labor frequently furnished by desperate immigrants to our nation. No creature should have to live like this, whether worker or animal.
Norman Wirzba argues that we will not be able to abandon our destructive, industrial way of life until we recover the discipline and practice of the Sabbath. He does not mean that it will be sufficient merely to ritually observe the Sabbath day and to refrain from work during that day. Rather “[t]he key to Sabbath observance is that we participate regularly in the delight that marked God’s own response to a creation wonderfully made.” (15) On the seventh day of creation God steps back to rest and to rejoice in a creation that is “good, very good.”
By keeping the Sabbath we stop to praise God for the goodness of creation. Ellen Davis, the Hebrew Bible scholar, reminds us, however, that “Praise does more for us that in does for God…. We praise God in order to see the world as God does.” By praising God we learn to train our desires and to value creation as gift and not possession.
A life oriented around the Sabbath should lead us to give thanks and praise for the gifts of photosynthesis, soil regeneration, clean water, and the daily supplies of sun and wind. Wirzba writes: “When we forget these gifts, or when we fail to see them as gifts and mistake them to be ours by right or by our own effort, we falsify who we are. We overlook the fact that our lives are everywhere maintained by a bewildering abundance of kindness and sacrifice.” (36)
The Sabbath tradition confronts our anthropocentrism and industrial mindset head-on. We are not independent but radically interdependent with all that God has made. We must let go of our false sense of superiority and live more humbly under the restrictions and limits God has provided so that all may flourish. To deny these limits and turn our backs on God’s creation is to deny God. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that “Any error about creation also leads to an error about God.” God invites us to turn away from our failed and frenetic ways in order to live our lives rooted in God’s delight in the goodness and wonder of creation. Only with such a Sabbath mindset will be able to live sustainably in this world.
Amen. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Revised edition., (San Francisco: Harper Paperbacks, 2010).  Iowa State University Farm Outlook, June Hog and Pig Report Summary (7/6/11), http://www.econ.iastate.edu/ifo/; U.S. Census Bureau: Iowa Quick Facts, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/19000.html  Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Boston: Cowley Press, 2001), 34. Cited in Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 28  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, cited in Wizba, Living the Sabbath, pg. 143.