Counting on God, IV: Seven
This month, two journalists visited Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne was originally founded by Enrico Fermi when he was working on nuclear reactors as part of the University of Chicago’s Manhattan Project back in the 1940s. It’s right here, in Chicago’s backyard so to speak, and it’s a powerhouse of scientific exploration—the only one of its kind in the Midwest. These days, Argonne works on non-weaponized technology, using a supercomputer called MIRA that has the computational power to do in one day what your newest straight from the box home computer could only dream of doing in twenty years. MIRA has worked on projects as life-changing as finding the molecular cure for Parkinson's, and as earth-changing as figuring out how to turn the windows of our homes and cars into energy-generating solar panels.
Argonne is a hub for some of the leading scientific inquiry of our day, but what got me thinking was really an off-hand, unscripted question one of the journalists asked during the interview: “Could your supercomputer MIRA work on making it so humans don’t need to sleep anymore?” The scientist laughed it off, and the other journalists objected entirely: “Life without sleep? It wouldn’t be worth living.”
It’s an absurd thought, but it gets to the heart of things: What if a scientist could figure out the mystery of sleep—isolate why we need it, why we can’t live without it, how we could get around that need to take a break—what if scientists figured it out, and offered you a pill, a shot, an implant, that made it so you never needed to sleep again? Would you say “yes”? What would life be like without sleep?
Sometimes I’ve heard people say, “You’re a human being, not a human doing, just take a rest, slow down.” Certainly there are times when you’ve thought sleep was getting in the way: sometimes final exams creep up too fast, deadlines loom ominously, housework piles up, the to do list gets too long. Rest hampers productivity, efficiency, and your capacity to get it done.
Today’s scripture scratches at the human question of work and rest. You are familiar with the rhythm of this text, “And God said,” “And God said,” “And God said,” “And it was good,” “And it was good,” “And it was good.” I love the way this text starts with the most basic theological statement: “In the beginning, God…. And the rhythm of the text continues.” And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…the second day…the third day…the fourth day…the fifth day…the sixth day.
There is a purposeful poetry to this text. Within the rhythms, you can hear how it would have been spoken aloud, it’s cadence allowing the congregation to join in on the parts that are predictable, repeated, patterned. For those of you who have studied poetry, you know how to look between the lines, too, watching for symmetry, balance, the way words play off each other and make concentric circles of deeper and deeper meaning. Unlike Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Dickinson who each presumably penned their own poems, this is an ancient communal poem, worked and reworked as people were working out their ways of talking about God.
This poem was written by a community that understood the number seven to have a deeper meaning below the surface. The number seven meant completeness, perfection, wholeness. Listen to some of the ways this poem circles around the number seven. First, there is the obvious: seven days, which is easy to see. But what about the first verse having seven words in Hebrew, and the second verse having two times seven, or 14 words? The word earth is mentioned seven times. The name of God is mentioned five times seven, or thirty five times. The heavens or firmament is mentioned three times seven or twenty one times. The phrase “it was good” is repeated seven times. It goes on like that. A tangled web, the patterns of seven women into this text.
Even the word Sabbath sh-b-th is rooted in the Hebrew word Shavuia sh-v which means seven. The number seven, in this ancient context, means completion, perfection and so, without the seventh day, creation is incomplete. Without rest, the world is unfinished, fragmented.
The significance of seven isn’t limited to seven days of creation, either. The New Testament is littered with the number seven. Most notably the book of Revelation has seven spirits, seven lamp stands, seven stars, seven horns, seven eyes, seven seals, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven crowns, seven dragons (an intriguing invitation to look at the book of Revelation), seven angels, seven plagues (that sounds horrible), seven bowls of wrath (what an evocative turn of phrase), seven hills, seven kings.
In Acts there are seven deacons. In Romans, there are seven afflictions, seven gifts, seven affirmations. In 2 Peter there are seven virtues. In Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer, there are seven petitions. In Mark, seven loaves feed the 4,000 and there are seven baskets full afterward.
In the Old Testament, every seventh year, it is your duty to set your slave free. Imagine what the history of our country would be like if we had even begun to follow this biblical law? Every seventh year, you must also forgive all debt owed to you. Imagine our economy if every seventh year were like that—every debt forgiven. Even farmers have to give the earth a sabbath every seven years. It is forbidden to sow or reap or do any farm labor in the seventh year.
Ancient Jewish festivals, many of them last seven days. The Menorah has seven candles. There are seven days of creation, of course, but did you know that Noah was asked to bring seven pairs of every clean animal onto the ark? There were seven years of plenty and seven years of famine in Pharaoh's famous dream, King David had seven brothers. And so forth and so on.
Globally, religious traditions adopt the number seven. In Judaism, you sit Shiva for seven days, seven days of mourning. On the Sabbath, the Torah portion is divided into seven parts. At a wedding, there are seven blessings under the wedding canopy. In Islam, on the seventh day, a baby undergoes a special naming ceremony, and when you go to Mecca for the Haaj, you circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. In the Baha’i faith, there is philosophical writing called the seven Valleys which outlines the journey a person must take when seeking enlightenment and God: The Valley of Search, the Valley of Love, ...of knowledge, ...of unity, ...of contentment, ...of wonderment, ...and the seventh valley of true poverty and absolute nothingness. In Hinduism, there are seven sacred pilgrimage cities, where God’s incarnations are believed to have descended.
There are seven stars in the big dipper, and seven celestial objects visible to the naked eye: the sun, the moon, mars, mercury, jupiter, venus, saturn. Consequently our seven days of the week are named after those seven sky-wandering orbs.
Seven—and it’s sense of completeness—is baked in. We have seven seas, seven continents, seven colors in the rainbow, seven wonders of the ancient world, seven pure notes in the diatonic scale. Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti…Do.
I love this wisdom from Lisa Bond about the seventh note in a scale, also called a leading tone: she said, it’s the note that leads you home. (Shave and a haircut, two…bits). That’s the leading tone, the one you want to complete. The seventh leads you home.
Then there’s 7-11, 7-up, 007, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Did you know that in Spain, cats have seven lives, not nine? Seven is the most popular favorite number, and there are studies that have shown that if I ask you to pick a number between one and ten, most of you will pick seven.
But here’s what I go back to: Seven is the number of completion. Without the seventh day, the creation of the world remains unfinished. And yet, God does the most radical thing on the seventh day:
God takes a break.
God does nothing.
When a new skyscraper is built downtown, it’s finished as soon as construction is done. When your big year end project is over, it’s finished as soon as you hit print, hit send. But, with God, it’s not finished until there has been a day of rest. One person put it this way: it’s not as if God rested on the first day, so that God would have enough energy to get through the 6 days of creation. No, God did the work, God had everything that was needed to make it happen. But, in the end, God rested. For no other reason than just to rest.
You are a human being, not a human doing…your worth is not wrapped up in what you do, but who you are.
And the same is true for God. God is not just a mover and shaker, the busy bee who in 6 poetically beautiful days gives us light and water and land and companions. God makes rest holy, and that deepens God’s identity, God’s revelation to us, that God is bigger than accomplishment. God is bigger than what we expect God to be doing.
How would our expectations shift if we prayed to God with this idea at the core? I am always wondering what might take me beyond the Santa Clause god (little g, god) where my only way of relating to God is sending up requests for God to do. Maybe God who rests pushes us to rest in God.
We are people who are always seeking Sabbath. We know when we’ve missed it. We know what it feels like to work days and days and days on end without rest in sight. We know that tug, that yearning for rest, for renewal. We know, at our core, that we are human beings, not human doings. The journalist’s question “Can your supercomputer work on making it so humans don’t need sleep?” is absurd and inadvisable at best.
But we don’t rest. I know. I’ve talked with you. Work hard, play hard. We don’t join in the completeness that is God’s seventh day. We’re stubborn. We place our worth, not in God’s vision of ourselves, but in our productivity, our efficiency, the latest numbers. We’re addicted to that drive, that next cup of coffee, that feeling of having completed something (I’m preaching to myself here, too, yes?). But, that sleepless productivity is not the kind of completeness that the number seven points to.
I’ve been following “The Nap Ministry” on Instagram lately. Their tagline is this, “We examine the liberating power of naps. We believe that rest is a form of resistance. We install Napping Experiences” (@thenapministry, Instagram, August 18, 2018). They literally host nap-ins. Come, nap, they say. Their leader calls herself the Nap Bishop. She is a guide who makes space for naps. She says, “being overworked is a global issue.” She points out that 35 percent of the population sleeps less than seven hours a night, which the CDC calls a public health crisis. Sleep deprivation leads to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure. And, she says, “it disproportionately affects marginalized people,” people who have to string together 2 or 3 part time jobs without regular Sabbath time, with no paid time off.
Our rhythm of 6 days of work, 1 day of rest is linked to the Exodus story, where the ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and sought freedom. They worked seven days a week, day after day after day, with no end in sight. Their worth was how many bricks they could make. Their value came from their productivity. They had plenty of time to think about who God might be in this context, and they experienced God as a God who rested, who valued rest, who was not valued just for some divine productivity, but for the very act of being.
God rests, so we can rest. God rests, so we should rest. God rests, and so God calls us to rest, and calls us to help one another rest, to seek a world of justice in which all are offered rest. God desires that we rest, God commands us: rest. May it be so.
And now, let us, for even a moment, rest in God, so that we might practice and prepare for that weekly rhythm of resting in God. God, bless this time of silent meditation.
 Bobeda, Tricia and Greta Johnson, "Science Experiments to Knowhere: A Field Trip to Argonne National Lab," https://www.wbez.org/shows/nerdette/science-experiments-to-knowhere-a-field-trip-to-argonne-national-lab/ August 10, 2018.
 Parsons, Mikeal Carl, “Exegesis ‘by the numbers’: Numerology and the New Testament.” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 35 no 1 Spring 2008, p 25–43.
 Sachs, Gerardo G., “The Numerical Expression of Two Fundamental Ideas in the Torah.” Jewish Bible Quarterly, 36 no 2 April–June 2008, p 124–125.
 Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein “Time for a Nap” accessed August 18, 2018, http://www.unitedmags.com/time-for-a-nap