Sunday Night Worship – 3/15/09, 3rd Sunday in Lent

Christian Discipline: Keeping Sabbath
Exodus 20: 1-17

Here’s what I can tell you right off the bat: In this familiar passage of 10 commandments, keeping the Sabbath is the only one that warrants four verses of its own. The most any other commandment gets is two. This one commandment about the Sabbath racks up four verses out of 17– more than killing, more than adultery, more than stealing, and even more than idols. Do you think we’re supposed to pay attention to this?

Here’s another observation about our 10 commandments: Even though we have all heard Christians finagling on the finer points of scripture, arguing about what does and does not apply to us now in modern times, keeping the Sabbath is the only commandment I’ve heard people trying to get out of. We may all struggle with faithful observance of all ten, but I have never heard anyone argue that “thou shall not murder” (Exodus 20: 13) is now outdated or that it’s now acceptable to covet or steal (v. 17, 15). I have, however, heard folks working hard to make Sabbath an outdated, anachronistic command. I’m the first to agree that we can’t always pick up the Bible, start reading, and immediately apply what we read to our lives in real and faithful ways. We often need help with the language and the context and, once we’ve investigated those things, we sometimes find that commands and stories are not as they first appear. So, I can go along with the idea that some things are not applicable to us as they may have been to early Christians or to the Hebrew people.

What I find hard to go along with is the prevalent notion that the 10 commandments are a fine list, commands straight from God for better and more faithful life….except for that one. The fact that – of all 10 – we single out only one to flagrantly disobey indicates to me that we probably ought to be paying a lot more attention to that one.

Sabbath. When I was a kid I loved reading the Little House on the Prairie books and watching the TV show. If you were a fan or have ingested some of our cultural ideas about Sabbath, then you might have the picture in your mind that I have from my Little House reading: Sunday, the Sabbath, was a day for doing nothing while wearing uncomfortable Sunday clothes and making sure not to seem like you were having fun. A lot of sitting, quiet and controlled behavior, no music or dancing or fun. A list of “don’ts.” That this is a prevalent notion of Sabbath is as much a travesty as our singling it out as the one commandment we’re allowed to break with impunity.

There have been a lot of cultural and religious changes since these commandments were introduced. Just in our recent history in this country alone, we’ve seen a huge change in the past 50 years, going from blue laws that kept most of the country closed on Sundays to our current cultural situation of being open for business 24/7. In some ways, not having the assistance of the blue laws makes keeping Sabbath harder – if everyone else has work or club meetings or soccer games or trips to the mall on Sunday, how are we supposed to behave? But in some ways I think this is our golden opportunity.

God has never called us to fit right in or to be like everyone else. God calls us to reflect now, in a harried and hurried and imperfect world, the beauty and justice of God’s reign, the kingdom of heaven. And one of the ways that shows up is in a people who refuse to be slaves to the clock or the constant and ravenous claims of work. Some Christians even use the phrase “Sabbath resistance” since trying to live this way amounts to something akin to an act of civil disobedience.

Before I go any further, let me recognize that your mind may be racing. Some of you are probably thinking, “Well, that’s nice and all but I have to graduate. I don’t have time for Sabbath.” Whatever you’re thinking, notice it. Notice where your automatic reactions come up and what those thoughts say about your priorities. What does your reaction say about how you live now?

Let me also assure you that this kind of living, Sabbath living – Christian living – is never easy. It’s often not convenient. And it’s the work of a lifetime.

One of my favorite authors is Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, college professor, and writer. I’ve mentioned her before and this Lent I’ve been reading her new book, An Altar in the World. In it she describes a lot of daily, full-bodied practices for faithful Christian living in the midst of “the real world.” In the book’s introduction she describes the effect of simple, but persistent practices, like keeping the Sabbath, by saying, “these are the same activities that changes lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone (p.xvi).” Let that image sink in.

So while you’re noticing resistance to this idea (or maybe even longing – notice that, too) and while that water-on-stone image is sinking in, let’s think about what exactly is being asked of us. What is God commanding with regard to Sabbath?

Exodus reads like this (Exodus 20: 8-11): “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” As creatures made in God’s image, we remember this fact by doing as God did, resting one full day of the week.

Of course, the Ten Commandments show up in the book of Deuteronomy, too, and you’ll find another four verses devoted to Sabbath there. But with an additional focus (Deuteronomy 5: 12-15): “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

Both versions mention that not only the person in question, but also all of his children, servants, oxen, asses, cattle, and even visitors shall have rest from work on the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy we get that last line and the link not only to creation but also to Israel’s slavery in Egypt. So Sabbath is about rest and being created in the image of God, who also rested and delighted in creation. But it is also about justice. Were you expecting that one?

On the Sabbath we rest, we refrain from buying and selling and working, and we don’t require others to work for us either. We do all this because we remember what it was like to be slaves, to have no choice about when to work and when not to. We remember what it was like to lose delight in our tired depleted bodies, in the land, and in each other. And because God saved us – because Christ saves us – we no longer live as if we have no choice. We no longer live like slaves. And we don’t require anyone else to, either.

How’s your mind doing now? What about the longing?

The truth is we still know a lot more than we ought to about slavery. We often choose bondage over freedom and depletion over delight. And the saddest part of that is that we do not recognize our own choices in the matter. I’m only a student! I’m on a fixed income! They scheduled me for Sundays! There were just too many things to get done! We fail to see that the prison door has been swung wide open but we’re choosing to finish up sweeping the cell before we leave.

When and where does God give the 10 commandments? To the Hebrew people, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness. They were nomads. Context helps sometimes – or at least it can make it harder to wiggle out of hearing God’s Word. If these nomadic, newly-freed people, griping in the wilderness and longing for the promised land were given the commandment to keep the Sabbath, exactly which loophole do we think applies to us? If these people — who had to wait and trust that manna would rain down each day from heaven to feed them in the midst of a desert – if these people trusted God to keep the manna coming and the world spinning while they rested for one day in seven, who do we think we are?

What do we think we’re (not) doing?

I’m not good at this one either but I am trying. I think it’s the hardest commandment – maybe tied with idols and coveting. But those are hard because they can sneak up on you. This one’s hard because we simply don’t want to do it. Barbara Brown Taylor advises that if you’re having a hard time with this commandment you should make a list. She writes, “Most people I know want to talk about why it is impossible for them to practice Sabbath, which is an interesting spiritual exercise in itself. If you want to try it, then make two lists on one piece of paper. On one side of the paper, list all of the things you know give you life that you never take time to do. Then, on the other side, make a list of all the reasons why you think it is impossible for you to do those things. That is all there is to it. Just make the two lists, and keep the piece of paper where you can see it. Also promise not to shush your heart when it howls for the list it wants” (Altar, pp. 137-8).

Even with the list, a whole day may seem insurmountable right now. Fine. Start where you can. Sabbath moments may begin with observing a time of quiet listening and prayer once a day, or going for a rambling walk after dinner in the evening, or even deciding to take the long way home from class and refusing to look at your watch while you stroll. You might make TV or email or Facebook or even – gulp – your cell phone off limits for a day or even for a few hours one day. You might do something “pointless” but delightful, like drawing or reading a novel. You might cook something you enjoy cooking, just because you enjoy it and the creative process puts you in touch with your Creator.

Writer and UCC pastor Donna Schaper advises the following in her book, Sabbath Keeping (pp.85-6): “The best way to keep Sabbath is to slow down…It is to be where we are now when we are there, rather than letting our time be invaded by where we are supposed to be next…We were not made to march fast. We were made to live and love and be. These things take time.”

I don’t think the particular day or practice is the important part and I think there are legitimate disagreements about what constitutes “work” and “rest.” For some folks gardening is a rejuvenating activity that makes their souls sing. For these folks, getting their hands dirty outside for a few hours is a Sabbath time. But for others, though it may be more enjoyable than some tasks, it’s still something else to get done and not at all a Sabbath experience. It takes time to know when you are “doing” Sabbath – and it may change over time for you. What is rejuvenating now may feel different in a couple of years.

In part, this may have been what Jesus was helping folks to see when he and the disciples picked grain and when he healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12: 1-13). Because they were hungry, the disciples plucked bits of grain to eat as they walk through a field. It happens to be the Sabbath and the Pharisees call them out on this and, later, on whether it’s lawful to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. I hope you’re not looking for your commandment loophole here, because I don’t think you can peg Jesus as anti-Sabbath. Jesus is frequently stepping away from the crowds and the followers to take a few minutes alone with God in silence and goes several times into the wilderness for just this reason ( Luke 4: 1-13). Jesus lets Mary lavish an entire bottle of expensive perfume on him and wipe his feet with her hair (John 12:3)! This is not an anti-Sabbath person, but One who understands the importance of rest and delight. He pauses at a well because he’s thirsty and sees a woman worth talking to, not just a person in his way or a means to his end (John 4: 5-42). Though some have tried, I don’t think you can use Jesus to get out of the Sabbath. His arguments with the Pharisees were over rules and spirit, not over the day or the practice itself.

Sabbath is about saying “no” so you can say a deeper “yes.” It’s about resting in God’s presence, rest and justice for land and people and other animals. It’s about making a commitment to regularly step outside of work and responsibilities and roles and tasks and papers and studying and laundry….so that when you step back in, even those things are carried out for the glory of God. Sabbath is about reminding yourself that you are more than your job, your year, your net worth, or the things you’re good at – and so is everyone else. Sabbath is about taking the time to see what and who is in front of you, without the need to make those things and people “useful” or “productive” but rather delighting in what and who they are for their own sakes.

I had almost a whole Sabbath day last Monday. It was my first day off since returning from our mission trip and there weren’t many groceries in the house, so I did make a quick trip to pick up some food. But that was it. The rest of the day I read and petted the cat, and took a luxurious nap. I watched the woods around the house. Pretty good Sabbath except for the shopping part. But here’s the interesting thing: I had to actively resist – several times – my own impulses to get things done around the house. Besides the groceries there was housework and a pile of bills and a few things out in the yard. Getting things like that crossed off my list can be very satisfying so sometimes I actually like doing them. But I knew that wasn’t the point. I had not been home and observing Sabbath in a long, long time and I knew I needed it. So when my mind started racing about the pile of bills on the desk, I had to talk myself down a little. And when I thought to myself about how I could just tidy up a couple of rooms, I had to remind myself that that day – the Sabbath – wasn’t about finishing off a list or impressing anyone with all I could accomplish. I wasn’t surprised to find these things present themselves but I was surprised, on that particularly tired and overdue-for-Sabbath day, at how often and persistently they did and at how hard my struggle was on a day like that. Sometimes, like last Monday, I find that when I have neglected this commandment for too long, that’s when it’s hardest to observe it. It’s like I’ve been too saturated with productivity and projects and work and tasks and it takes a long time to “come down” from all of that, just to rest in God’s presence.

Nina has mentioned recently that she’s been working on new definitions of success. This sounds like a Sabbath enterprise. We can have a “Protestant work ethic” sermon some other time – we preach these to ourselves all the time anyway. Sometimes the spiritual path leads us away from our own notions of “success.” Sometimes it leads us in a Sabbath direction, meandering by a stream and daydreaming while looking at clouds – and “with nothing to show for it” later!

Barbara Brown Taylor advises, in keeping the Sabbath, “Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight – and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth” (p. 139). May God’s persistent Spirit woo you to that truth, wearing away your resistance like dripping water wearing away stone.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2009

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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