In the first congregation I served, in Cleveland, there were these two extremely elderly gentlemen – both widowers – who would always sit together in worship on Sunday morning. I remember distinctly, in the middle pew section, just about six rows back from the chancel/pulpit. And I can see their faces but I can’t for the life of me remember their names, so let’s just call them Statler and Waldorf.
Now, Statler and Waldorf were dear friends and both very hard of hearing; and they would often chat during the service—you know, catch up on news and such. And I’m sure that they thought—based on their own perception—that they were whispering to each other and being very discrete; but for the rest of us in church, it made for some rather interesting, unintentional eavesdropping.
“What do you think of the sermon so far?” Statler would ask.
“Eh, what’s that?” Waldorf would reply.
“I said: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SERMON SO FAR?”
“I’m having kind of a hard time following it.”
These kinds of exchanges would typically go on until one, or both, of them fell asleep in the pew. Which also had some interesting effects on the rest of the congregation, particularly when one of them started to snore.
I remember one Sunday morning, though, when they both fell asleep and seemed to be trying to outdo one another in snoring. At one point in the competition, I simply paused in my sermon (which was fast becoming an exercise in futility) to ponder what – if anything – should be done in this sort of situation.
The ushers, however, were apparently well versed in this particular occurrence. One of them called from the narthex, “Do you want me to wake them up?!”
I thought about it a moment and then said, “No, no. Anyone whose conscience is clear enough to let them to sleep that soundly in worship, let them sleep.”
“The Sabbath was made for man,” Jesus instructed the Pharisees, “not man for the Sabbath.”
With those words, Jesus said something profoundly important about the cadences of God’s rhythm for life and for living. That Sabbath keeping is not something we do in order to please God, but rather something we do because God knows it will make us whole, restore our spirits, and renew our lives.”[i]
It also says something important about God and who God is as the One in whose image we are created. This is a God who, as a vital part of the process of creation, includes time for rest and enjoyment. The work is not complete until a pause is taken.
This notion of Sabbath goes all the way back to the creation story. God is busy creating for six days, separating the land from the waters, creating light, fashioning sun and moon and stars, plants, animals, creeping and crawling and flying creatures, man and woman.
And [then], Scripture tells us, on the seventh day, when God finished the work, God looked it over and said, “Not bad, not bad at all.” “And rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” [Gen. 2:2]
“Remember the Sabbath day,” God would later tell the people in Exodus, “and 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: so neither should you do any work.” [Ex. 20:8]
Quips Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann “The God of the Hebrews says—on Friday night—`I’m not going into the office tomorrow. I’m taking the day off. I’ve put in long hours every day all week and tomorrow I’m putting my feet up and enjoying all that I’ve accomplished.’”
Yet, Sabbath keeping was not only about one day of the week for the Hebrew people, “it was a principle in the ordering of time itself, extending outward to the seventh year when debts were to be to be forgiven and the land allowed to rest. It extended even further to the jubilee, or 50th year, when all people were to be freed and ancestral land holdings were to be restored.”[ii]
It’s helpful to understand that God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath is first given – by Moses – at Sinai, just after the children of Israel had escaped from their generations’ long captivity in Egypt. For them, the Sabbath was to be a hallowed reminder that they were no longer slaves; and of their blessed freedom and deliverance by God.
As Brueggemann observed: “slaves do not get a day off—free men and women do.”
The Pharisees – at least those elite Pharisees who were conspiring against Jesus – had obviously forgotten those origins and along the way lost the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath observance. Jesus looked upon those Pharisees with anger and grief because they were violating the Sabbath principle by using it as a tool to oppress and control—conspiring with the Romans to, once again, enslave the children of Israel.
Jesus was incredulous. “Which is lawful,” he probed, “to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath—to save life or to kill?”
His question was an indictment upon those who were condemning him for giving a new lease on life to an infirmed man on the Sabbath, while they – on that very same Sabbath day – were plotting another man’s death. The irony was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
It was on another, earlier, Sabbath day that Jesus declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of [jubilee] the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18, 19]
Those prophetic words were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, Lord of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is still meant to be a declaration of freedom for God’s children today; because we, too, need to be released from captivity; although our enslavement is of a different kind from that the ancient Hebrew people. We are held captive by our own attitudes, our own insecurities, our own driven-ness, our existential angst; our deluded belief that we must somehow carry the weight of the whole world on our shoulders.
Although he wrote it some twenty years ago, Lowell Streiker gives voice to this angst. The numbers in his analysis have changed, but the principle is the same: “No matter how tired you may be, your exhaustion is justified, as can be proven by simple arithmetic. The U.S. has a population of 200 million. Of these, 72 million are over sixty-five years old, leaving 128 million to do the work. When you subtract the 75 million people under age twenty-one, you get 53 million. There are also 24 million employed by the Federal Government, which leaves 29 million to do the work. The 12 million in the Armed Forces leave only 17 million to do the work. When you subtract from this the 15,765,000 who are in state and city offices and 520,000 in hospitals, mental institutions and similar places, the work force is reduced to 715,000. Fine, but—420,000 are bums and vagrants, leaving only 253,000 to do the work. There are 252,998 people in jail, leaving—you guessed it—just two people. You and me. And I’m really getting tired.”[iii]
The seminary I attended had a rather unique way of impressing upon its student body the importance of keeping Sabbath. We were expected to take a full load (18 hours) of course work, given on average about 1,000 pages of reading per week, assigned a field education job (in a church, hospital or social agency) of about 30 hours each week; along with a whole host of extracurricular activities that students were expected to participate in. But when one of us students would complain about the workload, or ask a professor, “How in the world are we supposed to get everything done?!” That professor would just shrug their shoulders and say something like, “You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.”
But one of the first things we were also told, in seminary, was that – if we were going to go into pastoral ministry – we were going to have to learn to live with the ambiguity of never being able to get everything done that we thought needed to be done on any given week.
Looking back at that seminary experience, I now believe they were training us regarding the necessity of keeping Sabbath. Teaching us about setting priorities in life.
But adhering to the Sabbath principle it isn’t just a dilemma in pastoral ministry. The culture commodifies individuals to be production-driven. Our post-modern culture is based largely on economics, and so preserving its stability is a function of the powers-that-be motivating its constituent participants to produce more and more so that they can consume more and more so that the economy can continue to grow.
The way economist Juliet Schor describes it, “work hours and stress are up and sleep and family are down for all classes of employed Americans. Wives working outside the home return to find a `second shift’ of housework waiting for them. Husbands add overtime or second jobs to their schedules. Single parents stretch in so many directions that they sometimes feel they can’t manage. Simultaneously, all are bombarded with messages that urge them to spend more (and so, ultimately, to work more), to keep their homes cleaner, and to improve themselves as investors, parents, lovers or athletes. Supposedly to make all this possible, grocery stores stay open all night, entertainment options are available around the clock and the culture offers fast food, time saving devises and exercise machines that promise to burn off fat in a few minutes per day.”[iv]
It is into that frantic cultural morass that God offers the countercultural invitation for Sabbath rest. Sabbath keeping is a divestment of the economy of the culture in order to reinvest in the restoration of God’s imminent grace.
“Our Sabbath keeping puts us more firmly in touch again with the comprehensiveness of God’s grace.”[v]
That same Spirit which brooded over the churning waters at creation still hovers over us today to restore peace and order to our world; making sense of life once more.
Writes Dorothy C. Bass: “The solution of [humankind’s] most vexing problems will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it,” (quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel). Sabbath keeping teaches that independence. Refraining from work on a regular basis is a way of setting limits on behavior that is perilous for both human welfare and the welfare of the earth itself. Overworked Americans need rest, and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things. Moreover, the planet needs a rest from human plucking and burning and buying and selling. Perhaps, as Sabbath keepers, we will come to live and know these truths more fully and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity’s problems.”[vi]
Walter Brueggemann refers to Sabbath keeping as `an act of resistance’: resistance to anxiety, resistance to coercion, resistance to exclusivism, resistance to multitasking.[vii]
It is resistance to a culture that measures time in increments of production and transaction; turning its citizens into cogs in the economic machine. By restoring Sabbath, we surrender our lives once more to the sacred rhythms/cadences by which God measures time.
But Sabbath is not only resistance. It points to an alternative way of being in the world; alternative values and priorities. It leads us out of captivity to the self and towards the other.
“Worship that does not lead to neighborly compassion and justice cannot be faithful worship of YHWH. The offer is a phony Sabbath!”[viii]
After chastising the Pharisees for their patent hypocrisy, Jesus virtually provokes them to arrest him by a radical act of civil disobedience.[ix] Before him stood a man who needed healing, and needed healing now. “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus says. And in so doing Jesus reclaims the sanctity – the true meaning and purpose – of Sabbath; which is to restore life. Even as Jesus – the Lord of the Sabbath – sacrificed his life in order that we all might be restored.
Keeping Sabbath is about much more than being faithful in coming to church for worship on Sunday morning. It’s about embracing God’s creative intentions for our lives and embodying the healing cadences of God’s restorative grace. In Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Haig, Kris, “Why do we keep Sabbath?” Presbyterians Today, March/April, 2016.
[ii] Ibid. Haig
[iii] Streiker, Lowell, An Encyclopedia of Humor, Hendrickson Pub. 1998.
[iv] Bass, Dorothy C., Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Wiley, 2010.
[v] Dawn, Marva, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
[vi] Ibid. Bass
[vii] Brueggemann, Walter, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Westminster/John Knox, 2017.
[viii] Ibid. Brueggemann.
[ix] Masters, Al, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1.