“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”–Exodus 20:8-11
What do you hear when you hear the Fourth Word? Do you hear, “it’s time for a nap” or something more judgmental, like “why didn’t you go to church last week?”
I believe that it begins with our understanding of the difference between work, that fulfilling and meaningful purpose we’re given, and what the Bible calls “toil” (but which I probably would call “the grind.”) It’s clearly distinguished in the Old Testament, as early as Genesis 3:17.
Adam’s work in the Garden of Eden went from his Godgiven, blessed work, naming the animals and caring for them, to this: “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” It’s not that Adam didn’t have work before sin, but after sin, his work became hard.
It’s notable that it’s not until Exodus, when Moses receives God’s Ten Most Important Words for the people, that this idea of rest gets mentioned. But God does command it, making it important. It made it into the top ten, right? But what is God really pushing for here? We know it’s the representation of the day that the Creator God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, but it doesn’t look like it’s just about remembering the moment like a weekly birthday party…It’s about recognizing that because they are no longer slaves, they don’t have to work all the time!
Turning to Exodus 16, where the Israelites are wandering around, we see that they don’t get this differentiation about Sabbath. They are programmed to think that they should work all the time. They are programmed to a pace of life that doesn’t expect peace, doesn’t expect a break. They wish that God had killed them in Egypt, because there they had food. We’ve seen this before: better to slave away and suffer with what you know than to have faith in God’s ability to give enough, to provide what they need. God rains down manna from heaven for them, special food that appears miraculously, and still they hoard it. Their lack of contentedness keeps them from understanding Sabbath, from experiencing the peace of God’s favor.
In Exodus 31:13-16, God tells Moses again that it’s important to keep the Sabbath. “This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.” It’s by observing the Sabbath that God will know the Israelites are on board. Moses interpreted that to mean that if you didn’t observe the Sabbath, you’d be put to death because their non-Sabbath-keeping was a threat to the community. It’s a sign of the Israelites acceptance of the covenant– we don’t make vows to a proposition but a person when we get married– it’s a marriage to another person. At the same time, when we’re making a covenant or starting something new, don’t we fair better with incentives or the opposite of an incentive? That’s why we exercise more when we have a partner, why we lose weight, or fight an addiction, better when we do it in a group, with accountability.
Later, in Deuteronomy 5:14-15, Moses shares with the people of Israel an elaboration on the Fourth Word: “but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Wait. This just got REAL and really quickly. This isn’t just, stop and have a prayer, head to church and check it off your list. No, this is economic and social and somehow, about ‘loving your neighbor as yourself.’
Moses says that not only are the adults, and their children not to work, but it is literally a work stoppage for the servants and the slaves, too. It’s extended to the foreigners who are protected by the rules about hospitality, who are extended the same rights as the Israelites themselves.
In the film Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (as played by Mark Wahlberg) is outgunned, outmanned, and left to die in Afghanistan. But he discovers something that I believe is deeper than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He stumbles into an Afghan village that holds to the code of Pashtunwali: a stranger must be taken in, cared for, and even defended. [Sidebar: Can you imagine the story of the town that directed its occupants to defend a Taliban bomber because of its hospitality values? Think back to the backlash toward where Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsaernav would be buried after bombing the Boston Marathon!]
But that’s how the Sabbath as translated in Deuteronomy gets extended into hospitality. Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” That’s how Abraham and Sarah got pregnant– no pressure!
Of course, we don’t have servants; heck, most of us don’t own animals [my dog is worthless from that point of view!] So, let’s consider the Sabbath through the Jesus lens. In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus is doing his thing, preaching and teaching and drawing attention of those in need, and those with a need to criticize. At what we think was his first public preaching engagement, he stood up on the Sabbath, turned to Isaiah, and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he told those gathered to worship that he was fulfilling it.
In Mark 12, Jesus draws the attention of those critics again, when he heals a man with a crippled hand, gasp, on the Sabbath.” “[The critics] questioned Jesus, asking, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” And that’s when he healed the man.
The Sabbath, mentioned one hundred and forty-seven times in the Old and New Testaments, shares something with humanity about the way that God sees us and the way that God understands our needs for ourselves and our community. But maybe, we don’t quite get it.
Sure, with work schedules, our Sundays are not the same, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep the Sabbath. Sure, technology doesn’t allow the same boundaries of work and play, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t need Sabbath. More than fifty percent of Americans don’t take a vacation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need one!
We’ve gotten the American Work Ethic so banged into our heads that we worry more about what our boss thinks than what our spouse does. We stress over what we need to get done and whether we’ve done enough to the detriment of our health, our happiness, our wellbeing. Sure, the extreme opposite is laziness, but we’ve gotten so far past that they we hardly need to worry!
Can you imagine the AME if it included the caveat that “if you don’t observe the Sabbath, you’ll be put to death?” Wonder how many folks on Wall Street would take their first vacation, their first day off in months. But the truth is that the lifestyles we lead when it comes to work are death sentences in themselves, as we deny the truths that are at the heart of God and the Sabbath.
Can you imagine our lives if we actually lived to please God, to enjoy God? Leonard Sweet writes that “Holiness is getting better at enjoying God, and reveling in God’s pleasure.” Well, that’s really Sweet channeling Chariots of Fire, but it speaks to the sentiment that rises when we boil off the excess of what’s clung to our historical understanding of Sabbath in American Christianity. Today, hopefully we can boil the Sabbath down to the bare bones, and suck out the juice, the soul, the beauty of what’s left behind.
How many people are tired? How many people are anxious? Stressed? Emotionally drained?
What do we need rest from?
Psalm 55:22 says “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.” We shouldn’t be emotionally drained because we shouldn’t be counting on our own selves for everything we need. It’s unsustainable.
Seriously, you show me someone who doesn’t need anyone, and I’ll show you someone who’s delusional or headed for a breakdown. You show me someone who says they can get by without God, and I’ll ask what’s the toughest thing they’ve ever faced.
The Sabbath is the answer to the question, “How do we know God and come to relationship with him?”
It’s better than a three-step program. It’s a lifestyle. It’s deep and wide, and so layered that we’ve tried to make it be an hour a week, when God wants us to understand so much more.
The Sabbath recognizes God’s creative identity and redemptive history.
The Sabbath is about worship. We’re supposed to gather to thank God, to learn more about God, to be a community.
The Sabbath is about more than worship. It’s not just about going to work or not going to work. It’s also about our recognition of the welfare of our neighbor, about our lowest caste within our society. The Sabbath is about the good of ALL. The Sabbath sets us up to live in community, to not make an idol of work, and to remember that we were once slaves (the Israelites to Egypt; those post-Jesus to sin).
The Sabbath is about our good. See, there’s another Jesus reference to Sabbath. In Mark 2:27, he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God knows we need a break. God knows that while electricity and alarm clocks and technology have made us ‘more productive,’ they haven’t necessarily made us better people. We need a break. We need rest, we need reflection, we need community.
The Sabbath is about making the kingdom of God on Earth. Remember the Year of Jubilee reference that Jesus read from Isaiah? It was a time that occurred when debts were forgiven and restored their previous owners, when the ground was allowed to lie fallow, so that it would be rejuvenated. The Greek is aphesis, the forgiveness of debts, of sin, of guilt. It’s about taking the rules and saying, ‘yes, they’re important, but grace, grace is more important.’
So, great, thanks, Preacher. You’ve stressed how important Sabbath is, but how do I cut back on my work hours? How do I get to a point where I can feel Sabbath?
It seems like to embrace Sabbath, to feel it, we have to practice it first. To practice it, we need to differentiate the difference.
-Take an hour this week, and turn off your phone, unplug your computer. Be unencumbered by the people and places that make you toil. Sean Gladding highlights that you might work in your garden, or on that woodworking project, or on making dinner that will bless your family, but that’s different from toil.
-Stop multitasking. This is a hard one for me, but be fully present and fully engaged in what you’re doing. Play, says the old FCA mantra, for an Audience of One. Put to death the White Rabbit in your head that tells you that you are constantly late, with no time to stop and talk, or love, or enjoy, or minister. The world tells us that the busier we are, the better we are. If that’s true, than this is oxymoronic. That makes sense because Jesus proves to be constantly oxymoronic: he won by losing. Rather than taking up arms or performing violent miracles, he seemed to let death win, before rising triumphant.
-We need to recognize our own personalities. We sometimes talk about, okay, joke about, who is a “Mary” and who is a “Martha” from Luke 10:38-42. There’s the story of these two friends of Jesus, one who sat at Jesus’ feet and soaked up his knowledge while her sister worked to put together the meal for Jesus and his disciples. Martha complains, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” Jesus rebuts her with, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” The truth is that our families, our churches, and our communities wouldn’t survive without a healthy blend of both.
-Stop thinking the world revolves around you. You’ve heard the saying that “if you don’t do that, the world won’t stop revolving,” right? The truth is that we need downtime, refresher time, reboot time. From technology, from our careers, from our labor, from each other. But to take those breaks, to trust that our relationships, our responsibilities, and our checkbooks will all survive requires us to recognize that God has this covered and has promised to provide what we need. Sweet says we must learn how to stop gauging our lives by how hard we worked, or how efficiently we balanced all of our responsibilities. Instead, he says, we must play hard, enjoying life in a way that pleases God rather than appeasing our expectations for productivity.
-Learn to wait. In John 15:4-5, Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus got up early and prayed; he went away by himself to be refilled after all of the hours he spent healing and preaching. We need that to be who we’re supposed to be; we need that because we bless others out of our overflow not through our leftovers. Pope Francis put it this way: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.”
-Create economically and emotionally Sabbath-filled community. Jean Vanier of L’Arche: “In the midst of all the violence and corruption of the world God invites us today to create new places of belonging, places of sharing, of peace and of kindness, places where no-one needs to defend himself or herself; places where each one is loved and accepted with one’s own fragility, abilities, and disabilities. this is my vision for our churches: that they become places of belonging, places of sharing.” We need to recognize that Sabbath lifestyle means changing our spending habits, our generosity, our understanding of being missional in how we treat people.
One of my favorite stories of late comes from United Methodist pastor Phil Kenneson, whose church discovered one Christmas Eve that the building across the street was burning. A ten-story apartment building, the church had for years gone about its business without thinking much of those people or what went on there. But that Christmas Eve changed everything. Worship hymns and candle lighting stopped, and the church became the central hub of the rescue efforts by firefighters, EMTs, police, and others. The displaced found a resting place there; the dead were mourned there. The church had stopped doing church and instead, become church. It changed the way the church looked at those who lived near them, and the whole neighborhood. That night, they didn’t let the narrow definition of Sabbath as worship stop them from practicing Sabbath as a community.
I believe that we will get Sabbath when we recognize that God wants us to enjoy life, not in a claiming whatever we want and expecting that we will automatically get it, but in recognizing that God will provide us with what we need and that we have enough. When we get there, we’ll see a glimpse of heaven, not the get-out-of-hell kind or the boring-church-choir-kind that terrifies many of us, and sounds boring and oldfashioned.
See that’s the thing: Sabbath prepares us for heaven.
I believe in a heaven where God is central and provides everything. I believe Bono will be leading the choir, that sinners the likes of Shoeless Joe Jackson will come out of the cornfield to get in the ballgame. I believe that if we really understood Sabbath, and heaven, we would recognize that God wants us to take joy, to embrace the game, to measure our lives by the way they are played.
This flies in the face of what we’ve been told most of our lives… no less by church. Some of you have watched AMC’s Walking Dead but many more have experienced those people who lived for eighty years but died forty years ago. Even worse, you know zombie Christians who are too tired or too busy or too emotionally worn out to be good for anyone. I urge you to examine your own life and consider where the “fat” is, what needs cut out so that you can live fuller deeper, more ‘play-filled’ lives.
I hope today that you will stop and just breathe. I hope that you will expel the carbon dioxide that fills up in your lungs, the stuff that you’ve been carrying that you don’t need to, and breathe it out.
Breathe in God.
Take a walk, read a book, stop and talk to your neighbor. Play with your dog, teach your child something, enjoy the laughter of a good story told well. But PLAY!
Not when you retire, or you make X amount of money, but right now.
In Sabbath, we stop, we let the movement, the energy, die. It seems that we would take more work to start again, but in truth, if we don’t stop, if we don’t reflect, if we don’t recognize God’s movement in our lives, if we don’t PLAY, we die a little bit ourselves.
What could we handle if we were rested? at peace? calm? What would God show you that he has in mind for you to do if you were quiet enough to listen, if you filled your mind and heart with things that mattered?
Take a Sabbath. For an hour. For a day. For a vacation.
You may just recognize that it’s a whole new ballgame.