Sabbath Awakening

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

5:12 Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 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 day.

Mark 2:23–3:6

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

This is always a strange Sunday, this Sunday after Memorial Day. If, like me, you have school age children, they are either in the process of finishing up their academic year or have already finished, like Jessica’s children.  Even if you don’t have kids, summer is in the air and for many of us, that represents a time to hopefully slow down a bit.  Our schedules seem more open, somehow.

Yet, I am not sure we really slow down. For even as we embrace the less-structured season of June, July and August, we are just as likely to fill up the empty spaces with other obligations. Whatever precious free time we have, we tend to schedule with traveling or home improvements or getting things done that we didn’t have time to do in the months of cold weather.

Have you ever come home from a summer vacation saying, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation?” Instead of receiving unscheduled time as a gift, we look at the empty spaces in our calendar as something we need to fill up with activities and obligations.

So, it seems entirely fitting that on this summer Sunday, the lectionary gives us these two Scripture readings to remind us that unscheduled time is not a thing to ashamed of or avoid. Instead, time off is a gift from God and because it is from God, it is holy. Rest is essential and sacred. Rest is a gift. But it is not a gift from our employers, or from the schools, or from our filled-up calendars. Rest is a gift from God, created for all humanity by God, and in rejecting or denying that gift, we reject God’s good intention for us.

Sabbath time matters deeply to God. If you don’t believe me, believe our reading from holy Scripture. In Deuteronomy, we see the familiar contours of the fifth commandment – observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  It’s a commandment – not a self-help book or a prescription or a friendly suggestion. Holy rest is a commandment.

And this commandment to observe a day of rest extends not just to a particular group of people, but to all people, everybody – men, women, children, slaves, animals and even people not members of the Israelites’ tribe.  In God’s economy, everyone gets a day off.

But notice, in the version of this commandment, the rationale for this holy day of rest differs from the version in Exodus. Exodus connects Sabbath keeping to God’s work in creating the world. On the 7th  day God rested and so should we.

But in Deuteronomy, the connection is a remembrance of the 24/7 work week the Israelite slaves suffered in Egypt. “Remember” God says. You were slaves in Egypt. You were required to work yourself to death for Pharaoh. Now that the Lord your God has brought you out of slavery, I have given you not only freedom, but also the gift of rest.”

This commandment to keep the Sabbath, and to extend its gift to everybody without exception, is the first labor law on the books. In a bold and loving stroke, God invents the weekend. Eventually, we humans improved God’s original idea by adding another day.

But for God, Sabbath is about remembering liberation from bondage, restoring the idea that humanity can experience in the here and now a taste of God’s kingdom as it was in Garden of Eden before the curse of work was imposed. Sabbath is also a foretaste of what it will be like for creation when the garden-slash-kingdom is fully restored.

Sabbath is not something that’s earned in exchange for services rendered; it is not time off for good behavior, and it isn’t something you put off until you get everything else done.

Sabbath is sheer grace. I am sure for those first couple of generations of Israelites, the commandment to take a break sounded a lot less like an obligation, and a whole lot like the greatest idea ever. Take a break from the fields? Take a break from the back-breaking labor?  I’ll take it!  You don’t have to tell me twice, Lord God!”

When we move to this story from Mark, we can see that the Sabbath law of grace has been ritualized into what seems to be a graceless law of obligation. Even though the Pharisees must surely know that it is within the scope of the Torah to perform life-giving acts on the Sabbath, the Pharisees use a more rigid interpretation of the law to trap Jesus.

In this passage from Mark, Jesus has just returned to Capernaum after a dramatic beginning to his ministry. He has performed a series of healing miracles. And the Pharisees are already mad at him.  Jesus has been hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners. He had been casting out demons and forgiving sins. The conflicts with Jesus in our text today are pretty much the last straw for the Pharisees. And to be fair to the Pharisees, Jesus does seem to be going out of his way to create confrontation.

Jesus and his disciples pluck a few grains of wheat, and the Pharisees say, “Gotacha! You’re breaking the Sabbath!” And Jesus says, “Oh my gosh, just relax. When David was hungry, he ate bread that wasn’t his to eat, in fact he stole from the priests and gave that sacred food to other hungry people.”  And then Jesus goes on to say that the Sabbath was created out of love and compassion for people, not the other way around.

The Pharisees aren’t at all relaxed on this particular Sabbath, nor are they impressed with Jesus’ interpretation of the law.

Later, Jesus goes to a synagogue. And it almost feels like he’s being set up by the Pharisees because, surprise, surprise, there’s a man with a withered ugly hand. Jesus looks at the man and turns to ask the Pharisees, “So what do you think? Is it a good idea to heal him on the Sabbath? Is it ok to save a life on this day, or not?”  The Pharisees say nothing. And Jesus does exactly what the Pharisees expected him to do. Jesus honors the original purpose of the commandment that we saw in Deuteronomy. Jesus honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy, even as he heals the man. In doing this healing, Jesus participates in God’s work of liberation and transformation in releasing the man from his disability.  Jesus’ act of healing will allow the man to work again and have a full life. For Jesus, Sabbath was about God creating a designated space in which divine love, liberation and healing happens.

Jesus’ message to the Pharisees seems to be, “relax.”  Because Jesus didn’t have to push against the laws of Sabbath. His disciples weren’t starving, just wandering around and idly plucking up wheat. The mans’ hand could have waited to be cured after the sun went down.

What Jesus seems to be doing is trying to teach the Pharisees that Sabbath is a gift from God. It is not another obligation, but a place of freedom and transformation and relaxation.  Jesus transforms the idea of the Sabbath from this oppressive ogre which denies food for the hungry and healing to the sick, back to God’s original intention for Sabbath. It is a reminder we belong to God and not to our labor, or to the money generated by our labor. It is a time to notice the blessings of God and to extend those blessings to other.

Before we come down too hard on the Pharisees for being such jerks with Jesus, we ought to confess our own issues with Sabbath. The gift of rest is something we do not receive very well, judging from our overscheduled American culture and the ways in which commerce and work dominate our lives seven days a week/24 hours a day.

Sabbath in our time really has its work cut out for it. Because it feels like every part of our culture and economic systems work against the notion that 15% of our life should rightfully be claimed as time for holy idleness.

Think about the arguments over increasing the minimum wage. Right now, in most parts of the country, working 40 hours a week at a minimum wage doesn’t provide enough income to meet the basic necessities of life, especially for someone trying to support a family.  Many minimum wage jobs that were once filled by high school kids or other young people still primarily dependent on their parents, are increasingly the way in which people with low levels of education seek to support their own families. Some work more, much more than full time just to make ends meet.

No time for holy idleness.

Think about the arguments over retirement and social security and Medicare. Pensions that were once guaranteed are no longer guaranteed. There is talk about increasing the retirement age for Social Security. There are arguments that Medicare must be cut.  There are good reasons to think about the cost burden of such entitlements, but all of those ideas conflict with God’s intention for a life that isn’t about how hard and how long we labor.

Without the backstop of pensions or Social Security or some other form of retirement income, people will have to spend more of their lives in the labor market, and less time enjoying grandchildren or watching a sunrise, or serving on session or singing in the choir.  After all, a person who is sleeping or dreaming or singing a hymn in church is not doing anything to increase the GDP.

No time for holy idleness.

When you think about it, this command from God to devote 15% of our life to being decidedly UNproductive is expensive.It is a command to make 15% of our time about nothing else but being deeply human.

It is so costly, so expensive that from the very beginning, God had to extend the command to everyone so that the costs and the grace could be shared equally among all creation.

Yet the costs also underscore Sabbath’s audacious claim that life – all life – is its own end, and not a means of production. The Sabbath exists so that at least 15% of our lives are regularly returned to God, not out of obligation, but because God gave the gift of rest to people who were rescued from slavery in a land where no rest was allowed.

And God extends that gift to you and to me, still.

Usually, this would be the time in the sermon when a lot of preachers would get all up on their high horse and say, “Get more rest and take Sabbath seriously. Put it on your to-do list!”

But I can’t do that to you. Because whenever someone tells me to get some rest or take care of myself, I suspect it’s usually because they want me to get all that rest so I can do even more work.

I don’t know about you, but what I hear in Deuteronomy and in Jesus’ scuffle with the Pharisees is an invitation to step away from the rat race of, “Am I good enough? Am I busy enough? Am I loveable enough?”

This is why I propose that you and I need a Sabbath awakening. We need to be told again and again that the Sabbath is not just for our personal well-being but for the abundant life of the other.

We need to think why it is that we live in a culture in which holy rest has become an unattainable luxury for some people, and a thing to be scorned for others who fear that intentional idleness makes them less worthy in a culture that says what you own is who you are.

This is hard work, brothers and sisters, particularly if you grew up in a family like mine who lived and breathed the Protestant work ethic.  I have a strong childhood memory of visiting my Aunt Sally who, when I was around 5 or 6 years old, had to be at least 90.  I remember her scurrying around the living room of her simple home, serving all of us cookies and juice and coffee for the grownups.  She was a whirling dervish of activity, so much so that my grandfather at some point said, “Sally, why don’t you just sit down?!” And Aunt Sally said to him, “If I sit down, Clyde, I don’t believe I’d get back up.” And I remember on the car ride home my family saying what a hard worker Sally had been all of her life and how they admired her gumption.

When I think back on that story, I realize how that moment informed my life. And how I’ve always held Aunt Sally in my mind as an example of what it is to be a good person. I realize how hard it is for me to sit down and be still, even at the feet of Jesus.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve dealt with this stupid boot on my foot and a bad back, I have noticed how anxious I’ve been to get back up to top speed, to be productive, to keep moving.

As I thought through these texts today, particularly this story of Jesus and the Pharisees, I have been thinking that Jesus created these conflicts with the Pharisees not because he was mad at them or because he wanted to make them look bad. I think Jesus loved the Pharisees and wanted to free them from their rigid rules and dusty doctrine. I think Jesus’ message for the Pharisees really was – “Relax. God’s got this. You are loved.”

There’s another story about Jesus talking about relaxing. The Message translates Jesus’ words from the gospel of Matthew:

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

Maybe, just maybe, this is the summer you will plan a time to just get away with Jesus who will show you how to take a real rest.

Maybe it won’t be 15% of your week, but maybe you can start with 30 minutes a day to walk with Jesus and learn the unforced rhythms of Sabbath grace.

Maybe you can just sit in a space for just 30 minutes in which you are entirely still, allowing Jesus to take away all those things heavy or ill-fitting on you.

Maybe you can allow yourself to deeply rest in the strong assurance that you are beloved.

Not because of what you do. Not because of what you produce.

Just because you are God’s own. Not because you should, but because you can learn to live freely and lightly in the ways of Sabbath.

Thanks be to God. Amen.