Sabbath. The command to observe the Sabbath shows up in both versoins of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. The two different versions are almost identical- except in how they understand the Sabbath. One understands it as a day of rest, and day set apart to give us back to each other. Time is, after all, the only thing we actually have. It is the sole commodity of our lives.
But the second understanding is based in justice, in liberation- specifically, the liberation of God’s people
from the oppression of Egypt. And because we were no longer slaves, we were given one day each week to sit back and remember that we were indeed free.
Two different understandings of Sabbath, and both need to be heard in this world.
I was at a study for a book called Dear White Christians this week. One of the pastors was talking about how hard it was to pastor a multi-racial church, because what the African American members needed to hear was different from what the Euro-American members needed to hear.
The story of the Hebrew liberation out of Exodus is central to the black church. It forms the core of their hope: those who were slaves are now freed. The white members didn’t really resonate so much with that message. They were fed more by how much God comforts them, holds them. Liberation and comfort: it made it hard to preach and feed the hearts of both groups. But in scripture, God makes sure that both are addressed in the Sabbath.
Why is it, 150 years after the emancipation of the slaves, that this message of liberation is still so powerful, so needed by our African-American brothers and sisters? What is it in their experience that makes them keep coming back to that text like thirsty wanderers in the desert?
In this book, Dear White Christians, it tries to explain what it’s like to be a person of color in America. There is “The Talk” that every African-American parent has to have with their young children, especially their young sons. It’s the Talk where they explain what their children have to do if they are pulled over by the police:
Never react; always be very respectful and just say, “Yes, sir; No, sir.” Keep your hands in plain view at all times. Don’t run. If you’re being disrespected by them, don’t respond. Know that even if you’re young, even if you’ve never done anything wrong, you are still perceived as being a threat.
When Rev. Kenneth Lewis was 14 years old, he and a buddy had been Christmas shopping at a department store. Afterwards, they stopped for some takeout Chinese food. While they were ordering, two police officers came into the restaurant and said they were looking for a suspect in a robbery. They rifled through Lewis’ gift-filled bags until they found the receipts. They left the gifts strewn at the boys’ feet and walked out, but not before one of the officers poked Lewis in the chest and looked him straight in the eyes. Lewis asked the restaurant owner to call a cab because he was afraid to walk home. “I was terrified,” Lewis recalled. “I remember having to catch myself because I immediately thought, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ But I could not afford to feel indignant. I just had to relax and let them look through my bags. I felt violated, accosted, accused.”
His parents had given him The Talk, and so he and his friend knew what to do when they were approached. Don’t react. Keep your hands in view. Don’t say a thing except “Sir.”
Do we ever feel like we have to have this kind of talk with our children? Probably not.What must it feel like when people automatically see you as a threat? when they treat you like you’re about to hurt them? when they instinctively assume the worst about you? What must it feel like to always see that people are watching you, vigilant when you walk by?
I think, if I were a black parent, what the Sabbath might look like would be: Never having to have The Talk with my kids, because I didn’t have to worry about whether or not people automatically perceived them as an threat.
Dennis Ross, who owns a radio station in Portland, says he was 13 when he was stopped, put in the back seat of a cruiser, and taken for a ride. “They drove around for a while and questioned me,” Ross recalled. “They said I fit the description of someone they were looking for.” Ross kept quiet and eventually the police just let him go. It was an upsetting experience, but he took a lesson from it: “You mind your business. You don’t hang out with the wrong people. You don’t give them a reason to stop you. You make sure all your (car) lights are working all the time.”
You make sure your car lights are working all the time. I’ve been pulled over for not having my car lights work, but it’s always been more of a courtesy. “Your tail lights are out, ma’am. You need to get them fixed.” “Yes, officer; thank-you. I will do that right away.” I’ve never even been given a ticket for it.
A year ago in St. Paul (July 2016), Philando Castle was pulled over because his signal light was out. He was reaching for his wallet, and the policeman shot him three times, in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year old daughter. He had no police record, wasn’t a member of a gang.
I don’t think the policeman was an overt racist; I think he just automatically reacted as if this black man- any black man- was a threat. I think, if I were a black citizen, what liberation, what Sabbath would look like would be not having people react to me as if I was a threat. It would look like just being able to be seen as a regular human being.
We’ve all heard the stories; seems like there’s a new one out every week. And it’s not ‘fake news.’ It’s how life works if you’re a person of color in the United States. I’ve never had to live under the constant knowledge that I was not safe, that my children were not safe. I would think it would just be exhausting, never getting to let my guard down, always being ultra-careful to do everything right, knowing that if I don’t, I’ll be pulled over. And if I’m pulled over, bad things could happen.
I think, if I were a black person, Sabbath might look being cut some slack so I wouldn’t always be checking to see if my tail lights were out.
When Jim Wallis was a teenager in Detroit, he took a job as a janitor to earn money for college. He became friends with another young man named Butch, who was also on the janitorial staff. But Butch’s money wasn’t going to college; it was going to support his family because his father had died. They talked a lot- Jim, who was white, and Butch, who was black. One day, Butch invited Jim over to his house for dinner with his family. Jim lived in the white suburbs of Detroit; Butch lived in the black inner city.
As they talked through the evening about life in Detroit, Butch’s mom told Him about the experiences of all the men in her family had with the Detroit police: her father, her brothers, her husbands, and her sons. Then she said something that Jim never forgot. Butch’s mom said, “I tell all my children, ‘If you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home..”
Jim was reminded of what his mom had taught him: “If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.”
What is that like, to always be in a state of fear? The constant vigilance must get to you after a while. It must get exhausting, discouraging. To see this boy you’ve raised so carefully, who has done so well in school, get pulled over and treated like a criminal. It must get exhausting, discouraging to see the anger in your children rise up, knowing that they have every right to be angry, but also knowing that if they show it, they may not ever come home.
I imagine that for a black family, a Sabbath would feel like being able to not be afraid when your kids walked out the door. Maybe Sabbath would be saying to your kids that the police are their friends, because it was true.
Now, I’m not here to rag on our police. Blue lives matter just as much as black lives. And with the number of guns on the street, our police have good cause to be afraid for their own lives. Most of our police are not overt racists, but are stand-up people, moral people. But things happens so regularly to make people of color live in fear that it makes you wonder if it’s not just our culture. That if you’re black you’re seen and treated as if you’re a threat because that’s just how we automatically think.
This why the Exodus story is so central to the black church. This why their understanding of Sabbath looks like a freedom from oppression.
I will never really understand what it’s like to be an African American. I have the privilege of being born white, so I have lived with the privilege of being respected, believed. I have the privilege of being cut some slack when I go 5 miles over the speed limit. I will never really understand… But I can try. I can try to see how my life is so much different from theirs, just because I’m white. I can try to see how things that I can just take for granted- they can’t. I can try to see how the system isn’t set up for them like its set up for me.
The Ten Commandments are recorded in two different places in Scripture, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because Sabbath addresses the different needs of different people. In Exodus, the Fourth Commandment to observe the Sabbath is tied to the order of creation. Rest, because God made you to both labor and rest. And this is something Euro-Americans need to hear, because our lives can be frazzled from the stress of modern society.
And in Deuteronomy, the Fourth Commandment is seen in the light of justice, of liberation:that before people can rest, they need to be free. That’s what African American people need to hear. What does their Sabbath sound like? “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God of justice, we are free at last.”
In the name of the One who holds all of us, and will never let any of us go: even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallace, Brazos Press ©2016; Dear White Christians, Jennifer Harvey, Eerdman’s Publishing ©2014
Scripture Reading for Oct. 29, 2017
(When God rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, they didn’t know how to live together as a community of free, covenanted people. God gave them Ten Commandments-Ten Ways to be a community- so that God’s people might live together in peace, joy & holiness. The Sabbath law is the 4th of the 10 commandments.)
Observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox, or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.