On Tuesday, many of us will participate in a familiar political ritual as we go down to the Township Fire Department, or wherever your polling place is, to cast votes for a variety of positions within our national and state governments. It may not seem like much of a ritual since it’s an activity we engage in two times a year at the most, but it’s surrounded by other practices that give meaning to it. For months now, we’ve been exposed to a steady stream of political ads. For years, we’ve been engaging in debates with one another and our televisions about the interpretation of a common text, the constitution, and how it should be applied. For most of our lives, during school every day, we’ve stood at the foot of the flag and declared our supreme allegiance to the “flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands…” We’ve sung psalms, songs, and spiritual songs in service of this political system like the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.”
And so on Tuesday, when we cast our votes, we’re engaging in a biannual ritual or practice that makes sense within a system of other practices.
In many ways, these practices are a good thing. They unite us around shared concerns. They give us voice in matters of importance—we are blessed to live in a place where we do have such a voice, where we can safely and privately cast a vote based on our conscience. It’s a good thing that we care about the affairs of county, state, and community and are willing to do small things to better order our life together.
And we can engage in the practice of voting specifically in ways that are reflective of our Christian convictions. As I repeat before pretty much every election, John Wesley gave the early Methodists 3 rules for voting:
1. Vote, without fee or reward, the person you judge most worthy.
2. Speak no evil of the person you voted against.
3. Don’t sharpen your spirits against those who voted on the other side.
Those are helpful, and if we followed them, we might just change the world!
Yet, what we don’t often realize is that these practices—voting, debating, singing national songs—form us. We think that when we go into the ballot box, we’re forming political policy (and we are). We think that we’re simply voting for the one who is most worthy. But we don’t realize that all the while, this process, these rituals have been forming us, what we love, who we hate, and who we worship.
This political system, as we think about it, is supposed to be about who will serve us individually and collectively. But the problem is that in our engagement, we end up serving the ideas and people that are part of those campaigns. We attack them or defend them with religious force. We break relationship with those with whom we disagree, excommunicating them from our circle of influence. Our political loyalties become our primary identities and we wear them like a cross around our neck. We literally serve those interests as we post on social media, as we talk persuasively about politics, and as we engage with campaigns.
Whether we realize it our not, our political activities form us into who we are. They have religious significance. If your polling place is a church, then maybe you understand this more than others—but each polling place is really a temple to a national god. As James K.A. Smith points out in his work, pretty much every activity we participate in has religious significance, forming us into who we are and shaping our faith.
As a religiously significant practice, our political activities influence our religious practice.
This might be obvious to you, but research suggests that almost half of Americans consciously prefer to attend a church that shares and serves their political interests. What that means is that our political identity really becomes our primary identity because it shapes our religious identity. Let that sink in. Other research suggests that, even for those who don’t consciously affiliate with a church because of political identity, people solidify their partisan identity before they choose a place of religious worship.
What that means is that our political identities, our service of our nation, shapes our religious service. It shapes the God that we serve and the way we serve God.
Inversely, just as we don’t understand the religious nature of our politics, we don’t realize that our religious activities have political consequences. It’s just that while voting deals with the politics of our nation, our church practices deal with the politics of the heavenly city, what the Bible calls the New Jerusalem—the city of God.
Just like in earthly politics, we gather here to debate a common text and how it applies to us (it’s called the Bible), we sing hymns that declare our loyalties to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (since we don’t have earthly kings or lords, perhaps we could say Jesus is the President of Presidents?). Rather than worshipping under the waving of the flag, we worship under the political ensign of the cross. Most importantly though, just as we grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, we recite in worship, week after week, the words of a creed. Typically, it’s the Apostles’ Creed. The words aren’t an exact comparison, but what we’re really saying in the creed is that we “pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, Lord of all Creation, and to the kingdom of God which is above any earthly kingdom.”
When we come to church to observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, we do so on Sunday in declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. When we gather at the table of God’s own self given for us, we look to the day when we will enter the city of God, not made with human hands or enlivened by earthly politics, but everlasting in the heavens.
These practices, whether we realize it or not, are about choosing whom we will serve. Joshua tells us this: make up your mind—you don’t have to serve the Lord, but you do have to make a choice. And when you make that choice, it changes your outlook on everything else. With Joshua and the Israelites, we’re encouraged to reply “we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”
See, we get this backward with our earthly politics. Our earthly politics are about choosing who will serve us. Our heavenly politics are about who we will serve. Sadly, many of us choose to make earthly politics about who we will serve and heavenly politics about who will serve us. We want to tell God how God can be helpful to us, all the while bowing at the feet of a different king, a different lord.
I think has absolutely everything to do with the Sabbath, because when we observe the Sabbath, this one day of seven of rest, or work stoppage, of reflection and peace—we realize that we are not in control. That God is the only one we can trust to lead and the only one whom we should serve.
On the other hand, when we work without stop, when we give ourselves completely over to our earthly duties, we give our service and worship wholly over to the affairs of the earthly city.
Our worship, our service is shaped by how we arrange our weeks.
Look at what we heard from Genesis 1: in the beginning…
We know the story, God creates light and dark, solid land and sky above, all the animals, but at the pinnacle of God’s creative process, God creates US. Humanity. Human beings who, unlike the animals, have power of self-determination. We can order our lives and the world.
We think that the second half of day 6 of creation was the culmination of God’s creative work. We think we’re a big deal. We think we’re the greatest thing before sliced bread!
Look again at the story:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done [brought it to its completion, reached the pinnacle as], God on the seventh day rested from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Sabbath is the pinnacle of creation, not us. We’re just those creatures that were created on the second half of day six. The Lord is God and not any of us.
The Sabbath, whether we realize it or not, is a political act, it’s a ritual when we declare that the Lord is God and God will provide even when we cease working.
Like our earthly political rituals, you have to make it happen. It doesn’t happen on its own. Our ballots don’t cast themselves. Sabbath doesn’t just appear on our schedules. Like God, we have to carve it out. We have to say, “six days we will labor and do all our work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord our God.”
I’ll admit, I didn’t think much about Sabbath until somewhat recently. Sunday worship has always been a rhythm in my life—my parents took me to church week after week and there haven’t been many Sundays in my life when I wasn’t in church. But the rest of the day wasn’t as significant.
What got me to thinking about the Sabbath in more depth was seeing how our Jewish brothers and sisters remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity as part of my Hebrew class to attend a Friday night Shabbat service at the Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. As a Reform congregation, they’re not as strict on Sabbath practice as are Orthodox Jews, but Sabbath remains a central practice. As I gathered with them, I recognized many familiar elements—readings from the Scripture, chants and songs (in Hebrew and English), prayers to God “the king of the universe, who by your word brought all things into being,” and the sharing of food.
As I tried to catch some of the Hebrew words though, there were two that didn’t take much effort. The greeting “Shabbat Shalom” was shared—the peace of the Sabbath.
This is a phenomenal gift from the Jewish tradition to the world—the idea of a day off, a weekend from rest. No other ancient culture had such a day of rest from labor.
But more than that, Sabbath is a gift in a time when the world truly needs the shalom, the goodness and peace of a day apart, separate and sanctified.
When the gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue last weekend on the Sabbath, he was attacking a place of worship, he was attacking people based on their ethnicity and religion, he was attacking people based on their aid to the least among us in the world community, but he was also attacking the Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Sabbath.
In our response to that tragedy, as we support our Jewish brothers and sisters in the ways they express need, what better way is there for us to work for peace in our world than observing the peace of Sabbath—taking time off from our pontificating and self-assuredness and instead trusting and resting in the peace of God.
On the seventh day, God created a day of peace and rest, a day that sustains the world, a day that reminds us that God is God and we are not. In this world, there’s nothing we need more than the peace of Sabbath. Rest. Prayer. Silence. A reorientation of our priorities. Only when we observe this time of quiet rest, near to the heart of God, can that peace permeate everything we do. Only then can the peace of God permeate the world.
The world needs a Sabbath, and so do we.
I know, I know. We’re in the middle of Christmas in the Village. And while our Mennonite neighbors have closed up shop, we keep working and serving. We might not get our Sabbath rest today. But, for these moments at least, let’s remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
As we’re going about our civic duties this week, as we’re working, remember no matter what happens, let us remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Because it’s not the world’s leaders that we serve. It’s not our jobs that we serve. We serve the Lord of the Sabbath. We serve the God of the universe, the one who has given us rest and peace. So let’s take, even just this time, of rest and reorientation, this sabbath day, to declare “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”