2nd Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 4
There are two examples in today’s gospel reading of people missing the purpose of keeping sabbath, with serious consequences— for Jesus. And perhaps ultimately for us who try to follow Jesus, which is what I hope to communicate in this sermon—the potential consequences for us if we miss the point about sabbath keeping. I learned a lot about the meaning of sabbath in preparing this sermon, and even though I’ve studied these passages before, and even preached about this, I feel like now I may finally be getting the point. But believe me, I have in no way arrived on this subject. However, the study for this sermon helped me connect some things I’d never noticed before. So, you’ve been warned: Hang on!!
Sabbath, or shabbat— literally means, to rest, to cease and desist. Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy— or set apart from the other days, as the Lord your God commanded you. Do all your work in six days, but rest one day out of seven, because that is what God did. The institution of shabbat goes all the way back to the Creation story in Genesis, when God rested on the seventh day. While we are often forced into a sabbath by virtue of sheer exhaustion, that was not the case with God. God simply rested, ceased, desisted not in exhaustion but in satisfaction for the work done, calling all that was created “very good.” How many of us even acknowledge that God is the source of the work we’ve done, or even name our work “good?” Sabbath is really an attitude of trust. Sabbath was made for our benefit. Jewish teaching says the purpose of keeping God’s commandments is for us to consciously bring every part of our lives into relationship with God—all of civil and domestic, personal and communal, all of life—intentionally surrendered and entrusted to God. God knows we tend to have trust issues, so from the outset, God created time—time with a rhythm of work and rest. One day out of every week for us to practice—ceasing and desisting in order to practice trusting and surrendering. My favorite OT scholar Walter Brueggemann says the purpose of sabbath is to establish a faith that trusts “that life does not depend on our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.”
So as people are prone to do, the Pharisees in today’s gospel were missing the point of sabbath keeping. I was going to cite several Jewish and Christian practices for sabbath keeping that look absurd and/or downright destructive, to give examples of people missing the point. But Jesus didn’t call out the Pharisees on their sabbath practices in today’s reading though he did elsewhere. Straining “out a gnat and swallowing a camel” Jesus called it when people missed the point, missed the purpose and intent of the law to bring the important aspects of life like justice and mercy and faith into their relationship with God. (Matthew 23:24)
Instead, here are two positive examples of sabbath observance that, to my mind, do not miss the point. The first is of a young couple I knew in Austin, both Episcopal priests, newlyweds, each serving different congregations. They chose Fridays as their sabbath together since they both worked on Sundays. They were intentional in their sabbath preparations by keeping their calendars clear of all meetings and appointments, by getting all the housekeeping chores done ahead, by planning the menu and shopping the day before for the food they would prepare together during their sabbath Friday. Their observance meant they didn’t go anywhere in the car, not because driving was work— though in Austin traffic it surely is— but because they didn’t want to be that far from the restful private place of home. “We turn off the phones and computers, and stay home,” they said.“We say our prayers together and make love and just enjoy being with each other.” I’d love to know what their observance is now that 1 they’ve had children, but whatever it is, I suspect they have adapted their sabbath in a healthy way that is creative and faithful.
The other example comes from a Jewish chaplain I worked with in Houston, the wife of a rabbi, so of course they observed many shabbat practices from their tradition. But the one practice she personally focused on was not spending any money on the sabbath, which also meant not shopping. Think about it. I’ve tried it. Do you know how radical that is in our consumer-driven culture? Do you know how quickly such a practice zeroes in on our efforts at self-sufficiency and lack of trust in God’s provisions? As with the young clergy couple, her practice required intentionality, active preparations, and selfaccountability for her personal behavior.
In a recent meeting with students at the Iona School for Ministry that I have served during this academic year, Bishop Greg Rickel was asked what he thinks is the biggest problem facing the Diocese of Olympia as well as the larger national Church. His answer was he they were the same problem for both our diocese and the entire Church in this country. He said the problem is this: “Thirty to forty years of dumbing down a religion that does not require anything of you, with the result that we in the church look pretty much the same as everyone else.”
I don’t remember the names of the young clergy couple, but I recall in detail their sabbath practices. They shine as examples of people of faith who don’t look like most other clergy and less than a handful of couples I know. My Jewish friend Bobby also shines as an example of faithfulness that certainly does not look like everyone else in a grasping greedy culture of injustice to the poor. They are shining examples of sabbath practice that bring significant aspects of their lives into their relationship with God.
Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy challenges us to “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.” (Deut 5:15)
While no-one in this room has been a slave in Egypt, I’m pretty sure every one in this room has been or is currently being oppressed and enslaved in some way—to things that own us and control us. To live under the rule of those things is to live in Egypt, the biblical metaphor for living under a destructive dominion that separates us from God.
Once we were slaves, burdened by the damages inflicted by family, friends, neighbors, teachers, bosses at our jobs, government leaders, other countries, the list goes on of the sources for injustice done to us and to those we love.
Once we were slaves, addicted to cultural definitions of success, in the grades we make in school, the degrees we’ve earned, in the jobs we hold, where we live, the value of our homes and cars, everything from the numbers on our bathroom scales to the numbers in our stock portfolio.
Once we were slaves, addicted to harmful substances, activities, people, and systems of belief. Once we were slaves, addicted to the affirmation and expectations of others as well as irrational expectations for ourselves.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but feel I must for my own healing: I personally have measured my self-worth by my level of productivity and what I am able to accomplish! When my 2 foolish ways carry more weight than God’s opinion of my worth, that actually qualifies me as a practicing atheist! The opportunities for slavery are legion, and we seem to spend a lifetime under the influence of several.
Once we were slaves, but wait! Stop! Cease. Desist! Rest! Remember that you were slaves, but also remember that you have been liberated! Now we are children of God and heirs to the promise of freedom from whatever makes us slaves. We may not see all our freedoms yet, but that doesn’t mean they do not exist. We may not be living into a fully liberated life yet, but we don’t have to act like slaves any longer. It’s a process and it takes practice. We don’t have to act like everyone else, like the culture around us that doesn’t know they have been set free.
I must mention one more source of enslavement, and perhaps this is the most tragic form of slavery there is: and that is the inability to believe and really trust in the forgiveness of God. This is unbelief or “hardness of heart” that prevents us from ever finding the sabbath rest that was made for our benefit. My understanding of the purpose of all the spiritual disciplines, and sabbath observance is a significant one, is coming to consciousness of God’s immediate presence in our lives. We need practice at that.
As Christians, we don’t have to observe the Sabbath, but that would run the risk of forever missing the point, and never being able to fully receive the benefits of sabbath.
As Christians, we don’t have to observe the Sabbath, but that would be to run the risk of living a dumbed down religion that requires nothing of us. Failure to remember what God has already done for us is to look and act pretty much like everyone else around us.
God knows observing Sabbath at least one day out of seven is what it takes for us to recognize the foolish ways of striving and straining we do to run the world.
God knows we need at least one day a week to become conscious that the world belongs to God world and not to us.
God knows it takes at least one day in seven for us to practice receiving the gifts God has already given.
May we be a community of faith that doesn’t look like every other church, but one whose purpose is to help each other as well as all who enter those doors to live with the humility of former slaves, slaves who know they have been liberated. I’m not sure what that would look like, but I think we could begin to have a beneficial conversation by examining together our Sabbath practices. But this I do know: That as long as we live, God keeps giving us chances to practice trusting in God’s liberating work in our behalf. And that my sisters and brothers in Christ, IS rest, sabbath rest. The Rev. Mary E. Green 6.3.18 3