July 24, 2016 Sermon
“A Party Calendar”
1st Scripture Reading – Exodus 23:14-17
14 Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. 15 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.
No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
16 You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. 17 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.
2nd Scripture Reading – Esther 9:18-19
18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19 Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of food to one another.
“A Party Calendar”
Growing up, if someone would have asked me for some adjectives to describe the Church, once I got past things like God-focused and Jesus-focused, I probably would have used words like:
Keep in mind, these adjectives describe what I thought of Church, and pretty much the whole time I was growing up I was feeling called by God to become a minister and, in fact, I DID become a minister.
I’ve probably told you some of the stories that resulted in me having these impressions of Church as a child and youth:
- There’s the story of the elders at the weekly communion table looking like guards at Buckingham Palace, unable or unwilling to show any emotion beyond a serious frown.
- There’s the story of the pastor at Valley View Christian Church who regularly preached about how sinful all of us in the pews were, culminating in the sermon in which he told us that anyone who watched Hollywood movies, especially the one I had just watched the day before, was on the express train to hell.
- There were the fellowship meals we tried to attend when I was a kid – the meals at which we kids were constantly being scolded for being kids: you know, getting fidgety and wanting to get up and move about and even – gasp – talk.
- And there were the couple of years during which my brother tried everything, and I mean everything, he could to get me to laugh out loud during the worship service, and even though the most he ever succeeded in getting out of me was a silent laughter, I remember all of the stares and loud shushes I received from others around us in the sanctuary.
So there I was, growing up in the Church, getting the sense through the Church that what God wanted from us, God’s people, was to be strict and serious and not have any fun. And at the SAME time, the whole time I was growing up, I felt like I was being called to minister for God, so I read and re-read the scriptures. And what I discovered in the scriptures about being God’s people, about being Church, was in this one very critical way quite the OPPOSITE of what I had encountered in the Church.
In the words of Dr. Kandy Queen-Sutherland, whose Bible study inspired this sermon series, “It is probably fair to say that the church is known more for praying than for partying.”
Well, y’all, maybe that’s been your experience. Maybe not. But what I’d like to do for the next six Sundays is to consider whether or not the Church SHOULD be known more for praying than for partying. Or if there’s something worthwhile about the notion of faith AS a party.
Today, I’m going to spend some time looking at the way God commanded that we, God’s people, ordered time. In particular, I’m going to emphasize how God commanded that we follow what I’ll call a party calendar. If God ordered time around feasting and festivals, doesn’t that say something about how we’re supposed to live our lives as people of faith?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Did you know that God’s calendar began very early on with a day for celebration and partying, a day for celebrating and enjoying life, every single week of the year? I’m talking about the Sabbath. You know, “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy.” The only problem is, for so many Christians, we understand this Sabbath day as something OTHER than what we learn about it in scripture. And so we need to put aside everything we THINK we know about Sabbath and go back to scripture to get it right.
I can imagine I’ve unsettled you by suggesting that some within Christianity misunderstand Sabbath. So let me explain. You’ve heard me say before that God’s people in the Old Testament times added some man-made stuff to God’s law, right? I think most of us take it for granted that this is true since, through God’s prophets, God said so. And even through Jesus, God said so. But we forget that at points in history, the Church – Christianity – has done the same…with some lingering effects on the way WE practice our faith today. One example has to do with the way we think about the Sabbath – our weekly day of rest. Would it surprise you to know that in Christianity, much of our thinking about what the Sabbath is about, including what we can and should do on the Sabbath, comes from the 16th and 17th centuries, from a movement called Sabbatarianism, not from the scriptures or even from the early Church? Y’all, it’s time for us to re-discover what God says about the Sabbath in scripture instead of clinging to ideas passed down through the traditions of the past 500 years.
And if you look in the scriptures, I would suggest God instituted Sabbath as the day for us to enjoy creation as a gift and to celebrate it, as one day in seven for us to spend partying, ENJOYING, instead of working. God saw what humanity did when given seven days a week: humanity required seven days of WORK, which kept people from enjoying God’s gift of creation.
Take a look at the institution of the Sabbath Day in Exodus 20. God gives the 7th day specifically as a day to refrain from labor. Why? Even God stopped to rest and enjoy on the 7th day – to look around and call it good and enjoy the goodness. But that’s not the only reason God gives for the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy 5, there’s a second telling of the Ten Commandments. And it’s almost identical to the commandments given in Exodus 20. The really big difference comes in the reason for keeping the Sabbath. Here’s the reason given in Deuteronomy 5: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The reason is similar – it reinforces the notion that God doesn’t want people to work constantly, every single day, like they may have been forced to do while slaves in Egypt. BUT…this reason begins with the word “remember” – “remember something amazing God has done for you.” Do you know what kinds of things God told the people to do in these acts of remembrance throughout the rest of the commandments? Throw a big party; have a big celebration. Rejoice!
In fact, God gave commandments about how to do this remembering thing, and these commandments all involve big parties.
Three specific seasons of remembrance God commanded come from our Exodus reading for today. In Exodus 23, God commanded the Israelites to keep three festivals, three feasts, three giant parties, every single year as a way of celebrating and remembering God in their lives. While only one aspect of each of these festivals is given in Exodus 23, each has both an historical and agricultural significance:
- The first is the 7-8 day festival of unleavened bread, which is closely connected to the Passover. Historically, it’s a seven-day party to commemorate God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Agriculturally, it’s a celebration of the beginning of the harvest season and therefore God’s provision.
- The second is the 2-day festival of Weeks, also known as the festival of first fruits. Historically, it’s a celebration of God’s giving of the Torah, the teaching, at Mt. Sinai. Agriculturally, it’s a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest and therefore another celebration of God’s provision.
- The third is the 7-day festival of Booths, also known as the festival of ingathering at the end of the harvest year. Historically, it’s a celebration of God’s guidance during the forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land. Agriculturally, it’s a celebration of the end of the harvest and all God has provided in the harvest.
Y’all, these festivals, as commanded in the scriptures, they are BIG DEALS, BIG PARTIES. They involved a pilgrimage to the temple. You couldn’t just go through the normal work routine of your life and attend a little celebration at night. No, you had to leave your work behind and travel to Jerusalem, so there was little to do BUT party. And if you happened to live in Jerusalem, God commanded specific days during each of these celebrations on which no one was allowed to work. And just in case the people didn’t get the message that these are supposed to be non-stop joyous celebrations, God included these words about the Festival of Booths in Leviticus 23: “you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” No wonder an alternative name for this festival is “the Season of our Joy.”
I used to think these celebrations were to be joyless remembrances – what we in the Church who’ve inherited several centuries of tradition that began with the Puritans might call reverent remembrances, not celebrations or festivals in the sense of parties but in the sense of days dedicated to silent prayer before God. But y’all, after reading the descriptions of these days in the scriptures and the descriptions of God’s people celebrating these days thousands of years ago, these celebrations were not joyless, staid affairs. These were REAL parties. There WERE days commanded for quiet reflection, prayer, and penitence, for sure, but those were OTHER days in God’s commanded calendar…and I can’t find nearly as many of them as I can find days of all-out partying.
And it’s not like God was done with God’s party calendar at the end of Exodus or Leviticus. God wasn’t done with God’s party calendar. Hundreds of years later, in the time of the Israelite’s exile from the Promised Land, God instituted yet another annual party called Purim, as described in our reading from the book of Esther.
I’ll never forget the time I got to observe a brief Purim celebration when I spent a semester in seminary in a class co-led by a Christian Professor of theology and a Jewish rabbi. The rabbi told us he would show us how Purim is celebrated. A group of people from his synagogue danced through the building wearing costumes, periodically stopping to make tons of noise on giant, 6-foot-long noisemakers called Graggers, eating triangular pastries and drinking alcohol. Yes, it’s considered a mitzvah, a religious rule or even commandment, to drink alcohol as part of the party of Purim. People are SUPPOSED to party – for real.
OK – so God instituted a party calendar back in the days of the Old Testament. What are we supposed to do with that information? Am I suggesting that we start keeping the appointed festivals of Unleavened Bread, and Weeks, and Booths, and Purim?
In a word, “no”.
But I do think we’re supposed to learn something about God’s desires from God’s party calendar. God instituted a weekly day of rest as a way of reminding us to regularly, RITUALLY get our heads and our hearts out of the busy-ness of worldly work and ENJOY God’s creation. God instituted annual festivals as a way of reminding us to stop and enjoy God’s provision periodically, so we REMEMBER and CELEBRATE that God provides.
I recommend that we, First Christian Church, add some CELEBRATING into our calendar. Celebrating is FUN. Celebrating is a reminder that God wants this Church thing to be more enjoyable than JUST a bunch of hard work. And celebrating provides for evangelistic opportunities. Our guiding scripture for this sermon series, Acts 2:42-47, describes the very first Church in what sound to me a lot like partying terms, and, the description ends with the words, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” It sounds to me like coming together to have some fun and enjoyment might actually be attractive to people outside the Church. What we do here can’t be ALL partying, for sure, but it should include at least SOME partying.
So here are a few practical recommendations for how we can respond to God’s party calendar:
- Identify some of the amazing things God has done in and through and even FOR First Christian Church, Grand Junction, and establish annual celebrations to celebrate and remember God’s action on our behalf.
- Include intentional elements of celebration in our weekly worship time together.
- Create a celebration BUDGET. One of the difficulties with the way the modern Church celebrates is that it requires a lot of work on the part of some of the folks. Even when we have a potluck, some group of people is responsible for setting up and cleaning up, and some group of people is responsible for drinks. What we really NEED is a day in which NO ONE has to work and EVERYONE gets to ENJOY. Surely, we can figure out how to do that…like maybe have a few parties a year catered. And if we budget this kind of thing, we reinforce its importance.
- Use more party language when we talk about Church. The things we do in this building, we KNOW what they’re like because we have context here. But for outsiders, when you tell them you’re going to Church or Worship or Bible Study or even FELLOWSHIP, what they associate with those words has everything to do with THEIR past experience, not with what we do here. So use some different language. For example, “I’m going to FCCGJ to enjoy some coffee and donuts with my friends” sounds a whole lot more inviting than “I’m going to FCCGJ to fellowship.”
- Encourage each other to do things that make our time together feel like a party. Y’all, I really don’t want ANYONE to feel like they have to frown or look serious because they’re in God’s house or Jesus’ house or whatever you want to call this place. I don’t think the God who created a party calendar and commanded celebrations wants us to frown and be so serious in His presence or His name.
God has ordered the calendar for celebrations. How will we respond?