Friday, February 4, 2011

Mandate to Difference - Thoughts and Reflections of Walter Brueggemann's Work

Chapter 3: What is the significance of “Sabbath” for the one who proclaims good news?
Sabbath for the one who proclaims good news is about speaking Truth. We are all victims to the pharaohs of the world. They place heavy burdens upon us. We find ourselves living under anxiety due to false expectations. We despair because we see no future or hope beyond our current situation.

Yet, it is the Sabbath that allows for re-creation. It is a wonderful sense of renewal in our lives. Moreover, it is the freedom to speak truth about those situation and circumstances that we find ourselves in, hurting and hungering for something better. We have experienced the pain of being marginalized. We know the seduction and shame of not meeting our culture’s standards. We feel the press of Pharaoh’s demands on our backs. It is from that tension that we most keenly become aware of God’s presence in the midst of death and destruction.

Sabbath is the breaking in of God on the mundane, over-bearing rigor of life. It is the “Friday” people of God living toward Sunday’s conquering of death. It is the redeemed people of God singing with one voice about the triumph and victory we receive through Jesus. It is the understanding that we have received a burden we must bear, but one that is infinitely lighter than the oppressive burdens of Pharaoh. It is the call for those who find themselves wearied by the “rat-race” finding solace in the open arms of a loving Savior and Friend. It is a simplistic trust in the Creator who sustains all things, speaking life through His Spirit into the world. It is the acknowledgement of a God who brings life, light, and structure from ex nihilo and chaos.

Chapter 4: How does the concept of “exile” function for the church?
Brueggemann writes, “The reason that Sabbath is a radical discipline is that it is a regular, disciplined, highly visible withdrawal from the acquisitive society of production and consumption that is shaped only by commodity. Work stoppage and rest are public statements that one’s existence and the existence of one’s society are not defined by the pursuit of commodity, and that human well-being is not evoked by commodity but precisely by the intentional refusal of commodity” (59).

One possible note of application, especially where the minister is concerned, is the attitude of productivity. The minister often feels a responsibility for getting everything done and prepared each week. Many times, pastors are “work-aholics.” So, in many ways, Sabbath is the understanding that our value is not wrapped up in how much we accomplish. Rather, our value ultimately comes from the One who gives us life. With that said, we then preach the Gospel through what we live out in our relationship with God. We are living for “Sunday,” in some sense. We understand that Sabbath is the shadow reality of the Kingdom of God that we will one day experience. It is from this hope that we proclaim the Good News of God’s redemptive work in the world.

Secondly, Sabbath empowers us to take the relationship God has extended to us and extend it to others. We are dispossessed people, living in the land of exile. We are foreigners in a strange land. We can identify with those who also find themselves on the outskirts and on the fringe of society. We understand the plight of the outcast. And, we become the “feet that bring good news.” We are ambassadors of Christ sent into the world to gather the people into the covenant community of God. We live with openness to others who are not like us. Furthermore, we are free to live, not according to commodity, according to the Law of Love toward our neighbor.

Finally, Sabbath frees us from the mold of the world. We understand that we were created in Imago Dei. As such, God has created us to relate freely with Him. Sabbath recognizes our dependence upon God, not the world and its systems of power and control. As such, we are empowered to live a life of prayer, not only for ourselves, but for others. In this way, we are empowered to live in the world on God’s terms, no longer controlled by the dominant culture.

With all of that said, understanding that we are living in exile drastically changes the mission of the Church in the world. As Brueggemann suggests, we are in the world to gather those that have been displaced due to exile. We are all exiles in one way or another. Whether it is those on the fringes of society or those in the dominant culture simply hoping to maintain the status quo, fearing change, everyone experiences exile. The only hope for salvation is God. God alone is able to free us from the bondage of our enslavement to our culture.

The Church, therefore, has a ministry to those who are outcasts and those who find themselves fearing about tomorrow. God has given us a future and a hope which must be shared with others. This is not an “us versus them” mentality, which the Church often characterizes. It is not shunning those who endanger the “holy seed.” Rather, it is about bringing those people into the fold, loving them, and embracing them in the community.

It is especially important to remember that we too were exiles before God saved us. Similarly, we are still exiles waiting for the final consummation of God’s redemptive plan. We are strangers in a foreign land waiting for the gift of the Promise Land, the coming of the Kingdom of God. And, God’s gifts are not ours to own… God’s gifts are always given to be given away and shared. It is especially true in light of God’s advocacy for the “least of these” in society.

Chapter 7: What does it mean to say that worship is an act of “poetic imagination”?
The poetic imagination is the ability to look beyond what is possible to a God that opens up new possibilities. It is not being consumed by the present pharaohs in our lives, seeing a life that is abundant is the goal. Life is not simply about the “brick quotas.” It is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks. Rather, it is finding life a possibility despite being surrounded by chaos and destruction.

The poetic imagination gives voice to the saving acts of God. It is the gathered community rejoicing with one voice, remembering the past events in light of God’s redemptive work. An alternative world is constructed and offered to those who find themselves in bondage to the pharaohs of the world. However, it is not an obsession about these pharaohs; rather it is a preoccupation with the Creator.

The world often constructs reality, offering it as the ultimate vision for life. However, the poetic imagination is not drawn into the deception and falsehood of popular culture. Rather, it is a “sub-version” reality that is given voice. It breaks through the façade of falsehood. Imagination de-masks the pharaohs for what they are – puppets. God is glorified as the king over creation. The unfulfilling nature of commercialism is brought to its knees. The need for genuine relationship is brought to the fore.

In all of this, we see the imagination bring forth a new reality that we can dwell in. The imagination is not something that is simply wistful and fanciful. Rather, it is the Spirit of God dwelling in the lives of His people, breathing new life into the community. The word of God speaks into the void, creating new realms of possibility in our daily lives. We find that the old has passed and the new has come. We are created as new creatures. We are given a new heart. What had once been closed off, we find being opened up through Jesus by the Spirit.

Too often, the Church finds itself merely shadowing and mirroring the current culture. The Church has become violent, greedy, manipulative, and comfortable. But, when the Church finds itself truly fulfilling its calling, it is very subversive. It is a hub for creativity and imagination. Transformation happens when people are able to move beyond what the world tells them is possible to what God reveals is possible. Within these two viewpoints is a world of difference!

Chapter 8: What does it mean to be re-nepheshed?
For six days God labored, but on the seventh day He rested. Creating requires something of the Creator, something of His life to be infused into the creation. It is a draining business to be so intimately involved and connected, breathing life into all being. It says something that God chose to rest. He is not simply a God of tasks and quotas. He is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks. God takes rest… enjoying the fruits of His labor.

We were created in the image of our Maker. We were designed to labor in creation, adding value back into the world. However, like the Master Potter, we are in need of refreshing. God created us, not simply for the accomplishment of tasks, to enjoy creation and the Creator. To simply labor would leave us broken, depleted, unoriginal, and exhausted.

However, the pharaohs of the world step in and place taskmasters over us, driving us to produce more and more. There is no Sabbath rest where the world is concerned. No, it’s about the bottom line and the fulfilling of quotas. The labor that should be used to add value becomes the method by which life is devalued. The result is devastation and oppression. Our nephesh is crushed. Our very being is denied because we deny the image in which we were made.

Sabbath is a ceasing of labor. It is a total dependency upon the God of creation. After all, Jesus reminds us that we “do not live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God.” Our productivity is not that which sustains us. God breathes life into us… and continues to do so. That is Sabbath. It is rest from our labors, finding our being in Him, and having life breathed back into us. It is the Sabbath that reminds us that we were created to relate, not simply to create.

Pastoral ministry can quite easily sink into a constant barrage of tasks to be completed. The pastor is to be available at all times and for all purposes. We are stretched to the limits and called to go beyond. At least, that’s the message that is often implicitly understood. Burn out is the inevitable result. However, ministry is not simply about the accomplishment of tasks. Sabbath reminds us of that.

We can only give away what we have received. The minister’s primary task is to be in proper relationship with God. Yes, we are called to be poured out, but you can only do so if you are in turn being filled. Sabbath provides that filling. The Spirit breathes new life back into us so that we are able to once again labor in creation. Our being is re-constituted to a proper balance.

Pastors that live under the impression that ministry is about the accomplishment of tasks become pharaohs themselves. They set taskmasters over their volunteers, badgering them to produce. Life is squelched out of the workers. The Church becomes an oppressive system in the midst of a world of oppressive systems. When Church and culture operate in visibly similar ways, such as these, people quit. Their nephesh give out because they have no resources upon which to draw. And, worst of all, they believe that is the Christian telos because that is what is being modeled in the public, in the pews, and in the pulpit.

Sabbath reminds us of our priorities. We are saved from Pharaoh. We do not have to participate in those systems of destruction, manipulation, and enslavement. Rather, we are called to live in radically counter-cultural ways. We praise God for His deliverance, we gain strength from His strength, and we discover our purpose.

Chapter 9: What cycle is broken in the threefold circle of emancipation – Sabbath – year of release – Jubilee year?
The threefold circle of emancipation is an act in juxtaposition to the use of coercion that is often exhibited within our world. Sabbath, the year of release, and Jubilee are all about forgiveness. Debts are forgiven. Debtors are released from the bondage of their burden. Life is re-constituted through the extension of forgiveness.

Deuteronomy is constantly calling Israel to remember their bondage in Egypt. The system of exploitation embodied in Egypt was the basis for Israel’s enslavement. Taskmasters were set over the Israelites to ensure productivity and cooperation. The human spirit is broken under such circumstances, rendering them weak and compliant. Coercion is the pharaoh at work among the community of such commerce.

Remembering such turmoil in the life of the Hebrews was not simply a fanciful trip down memory lane. No, it was a call to embody a different politic in the life of the community. Israel was to live on Sabbath time. Even aliens that found themselves in servitude to Israel were to be permitted rest and even sanctuary from enslavement! How does such a novel idea even get conceptualized in the midst of nations that practiced coercion and exploitation?

The idea of freedom and life find itself most eloquently vocalized in Sabbath. God rested and set apart a day of rest for humanity. Sabbath is a day for remembering who the Creator is and who provides sustenance, blessing, freedom, and life. God alone is worthy of such affirmation. As such, Sabbath calls us to live radically different lives than that of popular culture’s employment of coercion. Rather, we participate in the divine life-giving, life-blessing pronouncement over creation.

Sabbath then frees us from the violence of self-certitude and self-justification. We are freed from the need to ensure our security because we rely upon God as our provider. We remember and re-live our exodus story, praising God for His mighty arm of deliverance. And, the community is empowered to live counter-culturally to the modus operandi of culture, namely acquisitiveness.
It is in these acts of forgiveness directed toward our neighbor that we find forgiveness being granted to us. Participating in the redemption of others, finds us experiencing redemption ourselves. We are forgiven as we forgive. Does that mean that the debtor, stranger, or foreigner remain outsiders? No, rather, they are treated as one of the community: equal.

Finally, Sabbath breaks us of the need or desire to live up to the expectations of others… even ourselves. These expectations are often false and act as living pharaohs over our lives. They push us to attain or achieve more. Or, perhaps, they move us to be people pleasers. Sadly, we are more concerned about living up to everyone else’s expectations, or our own, that we neglect God’s expectations. And, unlike false expectations, God is not a taskmaster seeking to bury us, but to give us rest. We find that there is a burden, but it is light. And, despite that burden, God provides rest.

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