What comes to mind when I say the word Sabbath? The 3rd (TLC)/ 4th (CC) commandment? A time of rest? An outdated idea? An extremely boring Sunday afternoon?
I don’t usually ask you all a question without answering it myself. As I contemplated the question, I wondered when I first heard the word. I chuckled as I remembered that the first time I encountered the word was in the early 70’s when my sister Sherry brought an album into the house, and the cover art was so terrifying it caused me to have nightmares, so my mom made her put it somewhere that I wouldn’t see it. It was Black Sabbath’s album Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath. (I still get a little shiver when I think of that album cover.)
I doubt many of you really give the concept of Sabbath much thought, except maybe to think I’m being pretentious when I refer to Monday as my Sabbath day, instead of my day off, or remind you that keeping Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and therefore deserves some attention.
Sabbath-keeping was a core piece of a Jew’s identity. I don’t remember which one of you it is that has told me about being hired as a teenager to go into the house of an observant Jewish family on the Sabbath and turn on or off all the lights, because even that was considered “work” and could not be done between sundown on Friday night and sundown on Saturday night.
But where does this idea come from? Well, as I already mentioned, it is one of the Ten Commandments—you heard the reminder of it in today’s first lesson. What is the reasoning behind it? What is its source?
We first see the idea of a day of rest in the very first chapter of the Bible, in the first creation story. In it, God is hard at work for six days, separating day and night, waters and lands, creating sun, moon, stars, trees and plants, creatures of sky, sea and land, and finally humankind. Then after pronouncing all of it “good,” God rests on the seventh day. And because God rests, and we are created in the image of God, we are expected to rest as well.
If I asked you to point to the Biblical justification for the Sabbath, that is probably where you would go. You wouldn’t be wrong—but it is an incomplete answer. There is more to the story of Sabbath than just the first chapter of Genesis.
If you look at both the first reading and the psalm, you will see that it was also tied to the story of God liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When they were slaves, they had no control over their own schedules. They worked when they were told to work and were punished if they didn’t. When God led them out into the desert, he was freeing more than their bodies.
But as you may know, liberating the mind can be a much harder task.
So the religious leadership offered guidelines as to what was allowed on the Sabbath and what was not, and over time the list of what was forbidden overshadowed everything else, especially after they returned from Exile in Babylon, which can be seen as a second Exodus. They really didn’t want to need a third.
This is the setting of the encounters with Jesus that we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading. The religious leaders are genuinely concerned that any relaxation of the laws regarding the Sabbath could be the first step toward yet another enslavement. But what they didn’t see is that they had allowed the rules to limit the very freedom God wanted for them in the first place.
Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
Jesus is not rejecting the Sabbath. He is not saying it can be ignored or discarded as useless or irrelevant. What Jesus is doing is redefining what counts as “work.” He is making room for activity that is creative, life-giving. He is saying that the Sabbath should be infused with joy in simply being. The Sabbath is not simply for rest but for restoration. Celebrating that God has created us and continues to free us.
I believe the Sabbath is the antidote to so much of what is wrong with our society these days. I was in high school when the Sunday blue laws were eliminated here in Maine, and even then I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. I was concerned that we would lose ourselves to consumerism. Once we started thinking of time in terms of money, we lost our ability to rejoice in it as a gift. And, I believe, once we started calculating the financial value of time, we started looking at everything through that same lens—including people. It is horrifying that a jury granted a mere $4 in restitution to a family whose loved one was shot and killed by the police—but it also horrifying that we can even conceive of any dollar amount that is adequate for such a loss.
Another thing Sabbath-keeping does is put us back in proper alignment with God. We are reminded that we are made in the image of God and that is what gives us value. We are challenged to consider what we are willing to put at the center of our lives, and are confronted with the hard truth that we have made idols of other things. And we are reminded that we are not God. One of the most important reasons I keep Sabbath every Monday is to help me remember that God is charge of the universe, and is absolutely capable of running it without my help every seventh day.
So now that I’ve made a case for keeping Sabbath, the question is, how? How do we keep Sabbath without falling into the rules-based observance that turned not working into a kind of work? How do we make Sabbath something we look forward to and enjoy, rather than something we dread?
Well first, I think we need to be honest about the time commitment. I know that if I were to ask you to start observing Sabbath time by setting aside a full 24 hour period every week, you would very quickly come back to me and report total failure. You need to build up to it. What may work for you, at first, is blocking out a couple of hours every week that will be time for you to just be. Prepare yourself for feeling a little guilty, getting caught up in thinking about the things that aren’t “getting done” while you take this Sabbath time. When you find yourself getting caught up in that thinking, ask yourself what will be the consequences of taking that time out. And then ask yourself if that thing—whatever it is—is becoming a false idol, preventing you from a fuller relationship with God.
And then, once you’ve convinced yourself to take that time, is the question of what to do with it.
A former parishioner of mine up north tells about hating Sunday afternoons at her grandmother’s house, because her grandmother made Sabbath all about the things she was not allowed to do. She was not allowed to run around outside, because that was work. She was not allowed to draw, that was work. She was allowed to sit in the chair and read, but if she rocked the chair as she did so, woe to her! Rocking in the rocking chair was work!
There is a different approach, one less focused on prohibition and more on how you perceive the activity you are considering. A couple of questions you can ask yourself to figure out if this is an appropriate way to observe Sabbath-time.
Is this something I want to do or something I feel I ought to do? Will this bring me joy?
I shared with the Wednesday Eucharist group that this is a helpful discernment tool for me on Mondays. If I wake up and think, “Oh, I really want to go swimming today!” then I go swimming. If I wake up and think, “Oh, I should really go to the pool today,” then I don’t go. If I read, it’s something I want to read, not something from the ever-growing pile of books I should read to be a better priest and pastor (unless, of course, that book is something I want to read!). There are no ‘shoulds’ on the Sabbath.
Likewise, be careful about the should nots. Someone shared that they feel a little guilty when they mow the lawn on Sunday, because that’s Sabbath time and they shouldn’t do work. I asked, “When you decide to mow the lawn on a Sunday, is it something you feel you ought to do or something you want to do? Does it give you joy?” Her face lit up and she said that yes, it did actually. She likes mowing the lawn. So I suggested that it was a very appropriate way to spend her Sabbath—as long as there was no sense of obligation attached to it. She is free not to mow the lawn—but she is also free to mow it.
That’s really what it comes down to. Sabbath time is a gift to us, from God, during which we are invited to discover and rediscover ourselves as beloved children of God, made in God’s image. Remember what I said earlier—God went into God’s Sabbath Day after having observed that all of creation was good. Very good. Sabbath is a chance to take time to experience and appreciate the goodness of creation. I am not telling you that you have to go home and be Sabbath-keepers. I would be no different from the Pharisees if I tried to impose it upon you. I am, instead, inviting you to receive this gift and experience the joy of Sabbath.
I want to close with a prayer (slightly modified) for Sabbath keeping:
May God help you engage in true Sabbath rest. May you unhitch from the daily burden, the daily yoke, and the daily concerns that are yours. May you pause long enough to pray, be present enough to enjoy another’s company, and slow down enough to rest. And above all, may you worship the One who gave you the Sabbath.