The Discipline of Keeping Sabbath
Sabbath is mentioned in the Bible 157 times. In 157 different locations the word Sabbath is used. And anytime something is mentioned this often, we might do well to perk up our ears and listen. The Bible is filled in minute detail with how important Sabbath is—which is very. The Bible can tell us exactly how we should celebrate and remember the Sabbath—which is by resting and turning our hearts toward God. And The Bible can tell us exactly what happened to some people who forgot, or who had no use for the Sabbath—they were struck dead. Need the scriptures be any clearer about Sabbath? Probably not. But do we listen?
On our Lenten journey we are talking about different spiritual disciplines. We have already talked about the importance of turning toward God in reverence and awe, the importance of singing our praises to God, and this morning we will be talking about the discipline of keeping Sabbath. Of course we take our cues from our Jewish ancestors here who begin their Sabbath from the time one could see three stars in the sky on Friday evening until Saturday at dusk. From dusk to dusk observant Jews do no work, including for some orthodox, even the work of tearing toilet paper off the spindle, or pushing buttons on elevators or phones. The rules of the Sabbath could be just as strict in Jesus’s day, and we 21st century Americans for the most part have grown pretty lax about what we can and cannot do on Sundays, the cultural Sabbath for Christians.
This week as I was thinking about Sabbath I was remembering a long standing argument my ex-husband and I used to have. The argument often happened in the spring, on those sunny first Sunday afternoons in late April or early May. In those days when the weather first hits the upper-60s and we realize that winter’s grip has finally and truly been broken. On those days when your fingers itch to get outside and dig in the dirt. Ken and I lived in a small town, in a small brick house right off the main street. And as any pastor of a church in a small conservative town can tell you, there are eyes on you at all times. The argument would often start like this, on that first sunny Sunday of the spring season I would wander out from the bedroom decked out in my old overalls and gardening clogs and say, “Well, I’m headed out to the yard to have a go at the first weeds of the season.” And Ken, who was raised in a more traditionally conservative faith tradition than I was, would get a pained look on his face and say, “But it’s Sunday!” And I would stare back at him, perplexed and confused, or wondering if I was supposed to be proud of him for remembering the days of the week or something. And then every season the same argument would be rehashed. He’d pause and say logically, “You can’t work in the garden on the Sabbath, because what if someone from your congregation comes by and sees you?” To which I often suggested a variety of disguises I could wear, including my Groucho Marx glasses and nose. But, if, heaven forbid they did see me, I would tell Ken, I will just wave at them. At this point in our seasonal debate he would remind me not to be duplicitious and would then explain again why he felt so strongly about this. You see, when Ken was growing up he wasn’t allowed to mow the lawn of the church or parsonage where his parents were pastors on Sunday, he couldn’t mow any lawn on Sunday, and that was incredibly difficult for him, because he had a riding lawn mower, and well, he really, really liked to fly through that grass on a sunny Sunday. But, his parents were sticklers about this, and Ken had decided that there were some Sabbath rules which were inviolable. Some things which were simply struck in stone.
I joke about that argument now, but with ten years of hindsight, I feel a deep sense of regret over that debate. Because I could not articulate my understanding of Sabbath, I could not articulate then what I have come to believe. Sabbath-keeping should draw us toward God, simply put and end of story. And if there are things that draw you into relationship with your creator, and if they rejuvenate your soul, then why could that not be a way of celebrating all of creation? There is a poem called “Welcoming Sabbath” from the New Union Prayer Book which names Sabbath in this way, “On this day we shall not do, but be.”
The word “Sabbath” derives from the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” which means, literally, to cease or desist. On Sabbath, one is called to cease from all working, to cease from all worrying, to cease from all the weekly concerns which ensnare us and keep us from focusing our energies on nurturing our souls in God’s grace. The origins of this Sabbath time are found in Genesis 2, where God stops creating and rests, where the action ceases and the blessing occurs. Old Testament scriptures tell us that there are certain things which must not be done on the Sabbath. Things like gathering food, plowing or reaping, kindling fire, or chopping wood. Preparations for most of these things must be done the previous day so that the Levitical laws could be obeyed. In the earlier times, even in the earlier times of some of you in this congregation, Sabbath meant a day when games were not played, when heavy meals were not cooked, when the house was kept in quiet. Sabbath was a day of dread for some children as they had to keep wearing their church clothes and sit quietly. As Barbara Brown Taylor said in her book, An Altar in the World, “for all practical purposes the commandment might as well have read, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.’ (p. 127). For those who follow this rigid interpretation of Sabbath, mostly it seems to mean, “obey the rules” as if we creations of God are all just timid children.
The New Testament, however, paints a very different picture for us. Jesus, rule-breaker that he was, threw the Pharisees a few curve balls about the Sabbath. Jesus colored outside the lines a bit and recreated for us what the Sabbath ought to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus used several opportunities to speak, teach, and even (gasp) heal on the Sabbath. The man with the withered hand, a demoniac, a man with an unclean spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law, the bent-over woman, and countless others all benefited from the lax laws that Jesus observed, and the grace he invited about Sabbath keeping. And when Jesus was tested by those same Pharisees and the priests of the law his answer was a jubilant “yes!” He said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath!” Jesus gave a joyful affirmation to the Sabbath as celebration, as liberation, as invitation to intimacy with God. The God who smiles down on this Sabbath is a God who is humored by our delight, a God who welcomes whatever attempt we make to connect, at whatever time we can find.
I have become convinced of the need for Sabbath, especially now, as one who uses her Sabbath to preach to you about Sabbath…hmmm…I think that we all need Sabbath in some capacity or another, whatever the day is, for however long we can carve out the space for it, because, friends, life goes by quickly. And we are so, so frenetic. Our culture goes fast. There are 24-hour-news cycles and Facebook updates and Twitter feeds and more information being transmitted to us than we can absorb. Our day-timers are penciled in to the margins and rule our existence. We judge our successfulness on how many hours we spend each week at the office, or on how many widgets we counted. Productivity is our goal. To stop or slow down is guilt-inducing. We keep running around on our little hamster wheels, running and running and running as fast as our little legs can carry us. And so perhaps, to honor the Sabbath the first thing we need to learn how to do is to just say no every once inawhile. Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “I know that saying no is a more difficult practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row—because while all of those worthy activities may involve saying no to something else so that I can do them instead, they still amount to doing more instead of less.” (125). Sabbath, the need to have times when we do less, doesn’t jive with our culture. And to tell someone that you’ve penciled in a spot on your calendar to simply come out and play with God could result in some skeptical looks.
Friends, as followers of Christ we have an obligation to say no to the chaos of our lives, and say yes to the one who invites us to rest and relationship with God. There is a purpose for it, an urgent need. And Sabbath is not meant to be some passive activity, but is an active way of reclaiming our lives and bringing ourselves back into right relationship with God. I don’t think it matters when we do it, but I think it matters that we do it.
And so my commission to you in this week is that you say no to the distractions of the world, even if only for an hour or so, and say yes to strengthening your ties with your creator. I wish I had answers for each of you for how you can best renew your spirit in Sabbath space, but I have the sense that it comes for each of us differently. For some it has more to do with digging fingers in loamy soil, and for some it means lying on backs at night watching stars. For some it is a simple as closing one’s eyes and sitting in pure silence for an hour or so, and for others it means losing oneself in a Bach cantata. For some it is feeling your feet pound on pavement as you walk or run into God’s world, and for others it is kneading dough and watching it rise. For some it is that long afternoon nap and the luxury of curling up like a cat in the sun, and for some it is the words on the page that beg to be read. I can’t be you own personal spiritual trainers recommending your Sabbath renewal exercise, but I trust that in your heart is already the answer of what deeply needs to be kindled in you in your own spiritual life.
In closing, let me offer you these words as we each contemplate what Sabbath means for us personally and corporately, words from the theologian Renita Weems. She writes, “The Lord’s day allows us to bring our souls, our emotions, our senses, our vision, and even our bodies back to God so that God might remember our tattered broken selves and put our priorities back in order.” I couldn’t have said it better. My hope for each of us, indeed, for this body of Christ which is Peace United Church of Christ, is that we can offer to God our tattered and broken selves on this particular day of rest so that we might renew our vision and dream God’s dreams. For Sabbath is not about the rules and regulations, not about the laws and restrictions, but about the call to deepen your faith, and to come out and play with the one who delights in our creation.
May it be so.