Lesson 5: Sabbath and Servitude
Genesis 2:25, 3:17-19; Exodus 31:12-18, 35:1-29, and 36:1-7
“We worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.”
The Rev. Gordon Dahl penned this phrase in a book entitled Work, Play and Worship in a Leisure Society. I heard this quote many years ago and it stuck with me. The phrase still rings true that we worship our work, work to master our games, all while worship declines in America.
Working long hours is the norm in the United States. Our workers labor longer hours with fewer benefits than all but one of the industrialized nations of the world, South Korea. According to the Brookings Institute, “The average American worker now spends 200 to 400 more hours at work over the course of the year than the average worker in most European countries — the equivalent of an extra 4 to 8 hours per week.”
Many companies require long hours. Lawyers, upper-level bankers, cooperate managers and others are expected to work into the night and on weekends. When people are laid off, additional duties are often given to the remaining workers with no increase in pay. For professions like nursing and teaching, workers have long been expected to cover more territory with fewer resources. With cell phones and computers, some employees are expected to be available 24/7. Unceasing work is servitude that, as Carol Bechtel points out, “risks unraveling the Exodus.” Our overwork becomes a type of bondage.
There is evidence of an ongoing revolt about work. During the pandemic, some people found they were highly productive working at home and now want more flexibility about how and where they work. Many found more work and family balance. Others became sick of employers who have not taken seriously their concerns about job safety, childcare, low pay, unpaid work and family needs. According to Ashley Stahl’s article “The Last of The Great Resignation?” in Forbes, over 4 million people a month quit their jobs to gain better pay and more flexible work hours. Others are “quiet quitting,” starting work on time and ending on time, refusing to engage in unpaid work hours.
Yet, there can be wonderful blessings associated with work. Work offers the potential for creativity, learning, stimulating social interaction and worthwhile productivity. Work is God’s gift to human beings.
In the second creation story in Genesis 2, God forms a person (the adam) from the soil (the admah) and breathes into it the breath of life. The “earth person” is given the vocation to till and protect the earth. Of course, things get dicey pretty quickly when the earth people decide they can improve on God’s instructions. Adam and Eve break the one rule given to them by God and are expelled from the garden into a world where work is crushing. But good work can still be had.
Good work may be long and hard but we know that we contribute to something important. An example of good work that is not servitude is taken from Exodus 15 in the instructions about building the tabernacle. People respond with generous and willing hearts, giving their jewelry, their time and their talents. It is the generous spirit that makes the work enjoyable. The people create something beautiful for God and for their worship of God. Yet, even the good work has its limits. Above all, God’s people are to keep the Sabbath because “the Sabbath is a sign between me and you in every generation so you will know that I am the Lord who makes you holy” (Exodus 31:13). Our being “holy” means we are set apart for God’s priorities, and as we build our relationship with God we are strengthened to do God’s will. Without Sabbath worship and rest, we get frayed, worn out and dispirited.
In the first church where I served, there was a couple, whom I will call June and Jim. They worked at and owned a convenience store open seven days a week. Once in a while either June or Jim would come to worship, but never both. June told me one Sunday she missed weekly worship terribly but she and Jim were fearful they would lose customers if they closed on Sundays. Some months later, after careful prayer and conversation, they were both in church, having closed the store for that one day a week. Over time, they found their income remained the same because people came other days. June and Jim badly wanted and needed worship and rest so they made it a priority, and in doing so were spiritually fed.
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