Texts: John 2:13-22; Exodus 20:1-17
I want to start off this morning by telling you a story. It’s a story that happened about six years ago, and before I can tell it, I feel like I need to give a disclaimer: when you hear the story, some of you are going to laugh, some of you are going to cringe, and some of you are going to do both but feel bad about it.
Before I moved to Columbus, I spent three years as part of Mennonite Voluntary Service where I volunteered full time for the Boys and Girls Club in Hutchinson, Kansas. During my third year I was promoted (as much as a volunteer can be promoted), and I was put in charge of an entire afterschool site where I oversaw a staff of 11 adults and around 100 Kindergarten through sixth grade students every afternoon.
It was a very sink-or-swim kind of situation and I still have regular nightmares about standing in front of a gym full of unruly elementary school kids trying to get their attention. I tell you this to build sympathy about how stressful the job could be. Remember that. And if it helps, remember I wasn’t really getting paid.
Every year, the Boys and Girls Club participated in the national Lights On Afterschool celebration to raise awareness about the importance of afterschool programs. Oftentimes this meant a day filled with extra activities, special guests, and sometimes even local media might show up. So to sum up, once a year, we threw aside all our well-oiled routines and clear expectations, and, instead, all the adults spent the day trying to herd confused yet overly excited groups of children through new situations with unclear expectations; all the while there might be a photographer ready to capture a perfect moment of chaos. And did I mention there was usually candy.
And we did this on purpose. And we called it a celebration.
One of the regular parts of this celebration was a station where the children would have a set amount of time to color and decorate a cut-out in the shape of a light bulb before moving on to the next station. These light bulbs would later be strung together and hung to remember the day. It was a nice way of displaying the different creative energies that the children brought with them.
Now, I’ve talked about how stressful the job was, but let me be clear, this wasn’t my first time working with children and it wasn’t necessarily stressful because I didn’t know what I was doing. When it comes to working with children, I’m not sure anyone really knows what they’re doing, but I had learned a few things along the way.
For example, I had learned that in especially time oriented situations, it is helpful to give children periodic warnings about how much time is left and where they should be in the process of whatever it is they’re working on.
And so on the fateful afternoon while the group of 2nd and 3rd graders was working diligently on coloring their lightbulbs, I let them know when they had 10 minutes left and that they could color more than one if they had finished their design. At the 5 minute mark, I let them know that they should be finishing because we needed to leave time to clean up so that the next group had a nice space to work in. At this point, the room looked like a Crayola factory had exploded, so I was already skeptical that 5 minutes would be enough time to clean up and the pressure was rising.
It was at the 3 minute mark that I noticed one girl who was on her fourth lightbulb and didn’t look like she was anywhere near slowing down. I let the group know it was time to start cleaning up and even talked to that one individual girl, telling her she needed to stop and help the others clean up.
It wasn’t until the 1 minute mark when everyone else in the group was lining up to move on to the next rotation that I realized that that same girl had moved to the other side of the room and was still chugging away with her markers. When I walked toward her, she glanced up, saw me coming and started coloring even faster, grabbing a new coloring sheet and making a few quick scribbles before (I kid you not) grabbing another one and scribbling a little more.
So by this point, I’m feeling a little steamed that this girl hadn’t done what I asked and now I’m adding on top of that some feelings about how wasteful she is being. And then it happened. I remember feeling eerily calm as I walked over to where she was scribbling furiously. I scooped up all of the coloring sheets she had in front of her and, without any anger in my voice, looked her in the eyes and said, “This is what happens when we don’t follow the rules.” And I ripped those coloring sheets in half and threw them in the garbage.
I know; I’m a monster.
This is definitely not my proudest moment of youth worker brilliance, and not something I hope to ever repeat. Thankfully that little girl had enough spunk to brush me off before moving on to the next activity for the day. But I fully expect that when this girl grows up to be a brilliant artist, I will wind up being the bad guy in the story she tells during her TED Talk about the creative process.
I tell this story because I found myself thinking back to it while ruminating on the texts for this week and the theme of Sabbath and Creativity.
“This is what happens when we don’t follow the rules.”
Last week, Joel mentioned that what we’ve come to know as the “Ten Commandments” shows up two times in the Hebrew scriptures. The two versions are mostly the same, but one of the biggest differences is in the command about sabbath. In the version in Deuteronomy, which Joel talked about, the Sabbath is placed in the context of God’s liberating action of freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. “Remember that you were slaves...and God brought you out...therefore keep the sabbath day.”
In the Exodus version of this command, however, sabbath is placed in the context of God’s creative action “in the beginning.”
“For in six days God made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Here the sabbath command is placed alongside the creative work and seen as part of that creative process not as antithetical to it. God rested as part of God’s creative work and so should we.
What we find in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments is that these “rules” for living place creation at the center of how we are to live and see time in service of creation rather than as a limit on it. And I think back to that day with that little girl and see how I was taking this moment of creation and using “the rules” to squash it, using time to slowly close in on the creative process, and, ultimately, to destroy it.
Now, I’m not about to overly romanticize that story and push the metaphor to say that this girl should have been given the freedom to continue coloring in perpetuity because anything else would have been the death of her creative spirit. She needed to clean up, and her quick scribbles hardly seem like the makings of the next Picasso. The reason this story has stuck with me for so long is how easily those words came out of my mouth.
“This is what happens when we don’t follow the rules.”
Luckily not many people confuse me with God, but I think many of us so often adopt a view of sabbath as a command, as part of a set of rules that we experience as anything but freeing. We fear a God who hovers over us like a micromanaging boss, rejecting our work for one reason or another. We furiously scribble ourselves empty as the end of the week approaches fearing that our work will not be enough, that we are not enough, that the world we are working so hard to create will fall apart if we stop working.
But when we think about what it means to experience the Sabbath as good news, we need to realize that the good news of the seventh day is largely found in the the good news of the eighth day where we trust that God continues to show up and recreate our world in more just and peaceful ways, where we find that we can rest from all our creative work knowing that creation goes on without us.
The first few chapters of Genesis do not explicitly talk about what happened on the eighth day, but the rest of the Biblical narrative witnesses to a God who continues to show up, who continues to recreate and reorder the world in ways that bring forth new life and make order out of chaos. The eighth day symbolically becomes once again the first day as the rhythms of life and death, of creation and recreation, of tearing down and building up continue to draw us toward a God who is able to take all the broken, chaotic pieces of the world and make something beautiful.
We sabbath as a reflection of the Divine creative and recreative process. This creativity is the kind of work we are called to participate in. In both versions of the commandments, the sabbath command sits as a rhetorical center even though it’s the fourth. The first three commands reflect our relationship to God, and the last six concern our relationships with one another and with creation. Sabbath sits in the middle as a pivot.
Hebrew Bible scholar Dennis Olson writes that “Regular sabbath rest and worship reminds us that the work we do on the other days of the week should align itself in a cooperative way with God’s continuing presence and creative activity in loving service to the world and its inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike.”
Sabbath helps us mediate these relationships between us and God and us and the world around us as we use our creative energy to build a world where God’s presence is known in all places.
If we step back and take a wide angle view of the book of Exodus, we can see how the entire book is, in many ways, the story of two building projects. The first, an oppressive and dehumanizing building project with Pharoah at its center, a man who declares himself a god and uses slave labor to build himself up. The second, which takes up most of the later chapters of Exodus is the detailed instructions for the building of the tabernacle, a sign of God’s presence among the people. The creative work we are called to, in whatever way we use our energies, is work that places God at the center.
In our passage from John, we can also see a tale of two building projects. The first, the tale of the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. The text says that it had been under construction for 46 years, and during the time of Jesus it would have likely still been undergoing renovation. And we must not forget that this was the second major reconstruction after the first temple was destroyed hundreds of years before.
The building and rebuilding of the Temple, both literally and metaphorically had been an ongoing, recreative process for centuries. There is nothing inherently wrong or oppressive with the building of the Temple, and we should be careful to not paint with a broad brush that depicts all Judaism as missing the mark. The buying and selling of animals for temple sacrifices was a necessary component of Temple worship, especially as those from far off traveled to make their sacrifices.
Somewhere along the way, however, in the creation of the systems of Temple worship, God had slipped from the center. I doubt these money changers and animal sellers showed up overnight, but through incremental changes over time the Temple had become, as Jesus puts it, a house of trade, or in other versions a den or robbers, rather than a sign of God’s dwelling among the people.
And so Jesus shows up and cleanses the Temple because in this way it had missed the point. And in doing so, he points to himself in contrast as the second building project, a creative rendering of the pivot between relationship with God and relationship with humanity. In Jesus, we see the building of a movement where God’s presence is not bound by any structures, neither physical nor social nor cultural nor gendered nor any other way that we draw lines around God.
He challenges the crowd to destroy this temple because he knows that God continues to show up and bring new life where there once was only death. He knows that when things get torn down, God can build them back up. He knows that sometimes we get so entrenched in doing things the way they’ve always been done that we need a radical restructuring, a tearing down and a cleansing in order to open up space for new ways of being in the world.
Last week I was reading an article about how the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were beginning to head back to school after the shooting that killed 17 people. One student that was interviewed expressed a reluctance about being ready to go back, saying, “"I hope they take that building down because I don't want to step back in there.” The article clarified that the school district will be tearing down and replacing the freshman building where the shooting occurred. I don’t know if there is a right answer to whether tearing down the physical building was necessary, but I do think that we have become so entrenched in a culture where gun violence has become commonplace that it is far past time for some kind of radical restructuring that can make way for creating new ways of being in the world.
And the children shall lead them…
The good news of sabbath is the good news that God continues to create order out of the chaos and invites us into that creative process, including its rest. We stop and rest not because we’ve reached perfection nor because our sinfulness makes us somehow incomplete for the tasks at hand; we stop and rest not because our work is finally done nor because we recognize the immensity of the work to be done and give up our efforts.
We stop, we cease, we sabbath because God has freed us from the need to control the world, from the need to be God. Instead, we sabbath to remind ourselves to place God at the center of whatever creative work we do, knowing that God continues and will continue to show up.
And so, my wish for us my friends is:
-That in whatever work we are called to do, we would know the recreative power of sabbath.
- That we would be willing to tear down all the walls and structures and systems that need to be torn down in order to make space for God’s resurrecting presence among us.
- And finally, that when the world around us is being torn apart, we would see it not as simply what happens when we don’t follow the rules but as an opportunity to become co-creators with a God who is able to make beautiful things from even the dust.