Exodus 6:1, 6-9
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally,” said Abraham Lincoln. Of course, we were pleased to celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade a few years ago. Yet, we all know that slavery lives on in our own times, under different names. Not just people trafficking, but zero hours contracts, benefit traps, and such like. Only this week there were pictures in the new of IKEA drivers living in their lorries because they couldn’t afford accommodation. Slavery is, sadly, alive and well, living under assumed names.
We know from the Hebrew Bible that the nation of Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt. I found it hugely helpful to learn that for the Bible writers, Egypt isn’t just a place, but a metaphor for a social, economic, and political system in which there was no space for rest. No rest for the Israelite slaves. No rest for their supervisors. No rest even, for Pharaoh, who had to constantly monitor production. Nor could the Egyptian gods rest, because their insatiable demands drove the whole system.
God rested on the seventh day. God did not show up and do more. God stayed away from the office. God did not come in and check on creation, anxious to be sure it was all working. When God rests, God resists the ‘driven-ness’ of Egypt. And God places rest at the centre of the commandments for the people of Israel. God makes rest and space, Sabbath, central to the vocation, of the people of God.
I wonder if the culture of Egypt, the driven-ness, has ever been as extreme as it is now. We’re not slaves, yet many of us seem to have accepted it as normal. The other day, a news reporter said British wages aren’t increasing, because our productivity is woefully low. In the education system, children, students and teachers are driven to achieve higher and higher
grades. In the city, young workers drive themselves hard, and some to suicide, for fear of losing their jobs. In job centres there are targets to get people off benefits. In the health service there are targets for waiting times, and in the care sector, carers only have 15 minutes with elderly people. Productivity, targets, and meeting them, has become a god. And its casualties, those who cannot meet these demands, are labelled scroungers, losers, or weak. Space, for rest and sleep and time for real relationships, things central to our vocation, are sacrificed even though we know it doesn’t make sense.
Lack of sleep, constant anxiety and stress, no time for rest or exercise, for play or conversation, plays havoc with our mental and physical health. Scientists tell us that if we don’t sleep enough, if we don’t rest or play, if we don’t “forget” what we’ve learnt or what’s happened to us, what we’ve gained from the day’s activities cannot be integrated. The result is that many people are sleep-walking from one day to the next, without noticing, let alone resisting the system that drives us. Finding space, rest, time to just be, is essential if we’re to be the people God created us to be.
For people of faith, silence has a central part to play in regaining our humanity. Silence allows us just to be, while our brains and bodies, our souls and our spirits catch up with themselves. It has the same function for our spiritual health as sleep has for our physical and mental health.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his hearers that their faith is rooted in the foolishness and weakness, of a crucified saviour. This makes no sense to those whose lives are ruled by the wisdom of the world. Not only by the driven-ness of Egypt, but by those who demand simple linear thinking, who want clear answers to their questions about what is permitted and what not, who is right and who is wrong, and who’s in and who’s out. And the implication of Paul’s words is that as long as the Christians in Corinth are engaged in such arguments, they’re living according to the world’s wisdom and not God’s. Paul invites them to consider all their debates about power and wisdom in the context of the cross. The cross, Paul is saying, is is the benchmark for understanding what reality looks like, and even though the life Christ called us to lead looks like foolishness to the world, it’s God’s wisdom. And the only way to get to this place is to let go of our certainties, and embrace the uncertainty, the riskiness, and the foolishness of God.
Letting go of all that we grasp happens in the forgetfulness of silence and rest. Silence isn’t easy, and nor is it always welcome, because we may be brought up short and challenged when we pay attention to God’s longing for us, we may find ourselves letting go of our desire for worldly power and status, and having less need of certainties and answers. And as we have less and less to cling onto, we discover that the powerlessness and weakness we previously avoided at all costs, begins to seem wiser than the world’s ways.
As we become less driven, less anxious, we can become more human. Our concern can shift from ourselves to the victims of the world’s driven-ness, to those who aren’t making it, according to the world’s standards. We can learn to see them as neighbours, who might teach us about how strength is embodied in weakness. This isn’t something we do, though, it happens in God’s grace, when we put ourselves in God’s way, and keep on putting ourselves in God’s way. It happens silently, unnoticed, as we forget. None of this offers us certainty. But a crucified God offers us no security, no power, no status, and that, in the eyes of the world, is foolishness. And yet followers of Christ trust that it is the way to life for all.
We can’t be the human beings that God created us to be until we let go, to take risks, to be always speaking provisionally, to accept the unknown. In silence, the glimpses of God’s presence that we receive in worship, scripture, prayer, human actions and everyday living, are integrated into our bodies, minds and spirits, as those of us willing to embrace God’s foolishness, gradually find our lives shaped into the pattern of Christ’s.
I am sure that some of you are going to tell me, silence isn’t for you, because you prefer doing, but that doesn’t mean that what I’ve been saying isn’t for you as well. On this Sunday of our Annual General meeting, we look backwards and forwards, thinking about our church life. The key purpose of our church is surely to enable people to find a space for discovery, for exploration, even of perspectives some will call heretical; a space to listen, and to be listened too, and to be listened into being. This requires a mutual giving and receiving, openness to the other, a willingness to accept that my insights are provisional. It invites those of us, who because of our roles or age are considered to have greater wisdom, to ask whether the way we use power is consistent with Christ’s foolishness. It asks us to let go of the control we often maintain when we offer care to others. It asks us not to try to solve other people’s problems, because we can’t live with their or our anxiety about the unknown, but, if they wish, to accompany them in the unknown instead. In all this, there is nothing to do, there is only faithful being and love. And the faithful being, we are called to is to allow our lives to be shaped according to Christ’s. God will do the rest as we make space for ourselves, and each other, spend time in silence, rest and Sabbath. And we can trust God will, because, these are as central to our vocation as they were to the people of Israel whom God liberated from Egypt.