Posted by: smstrouse | June 3, 2018

Sabbath: Rest, Remember, and Respond

sabbath-300x190A Sermon for Pentecost 2     June 3, 2018     
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

Way back in the dark ages when I was little, my family moved into a new house. I remember the day we moved in and met the kids next door: Carole Jane and Lee. Carole Jane was my age. Lee was a little older, so he was assigned to walk me to school the next day and show me where my first grade room was located. Needless to say, we all bonded pretty quickly. But I soon discovered a fact about my new neighbors that was new to me. They weren’t allowed to play on Sunday. No going to the movies either. Nothing. Their mom explained that they followed the third commandment: remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Even at that young age, and even though we went to Sunday school every week, I remember feeling a bit like we were the new heathen kids on the block.

This was in Pennsylvania, where the blue laws were still on the books. William PennWilliam_Penn himself had written Sabbath-keeping into the law in 1682: “Whoever does or performs any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day . . . works of necessity and charity only exempted, or uses or practices any game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day not authorized by law is considered to be a law breaker.” This was serious business. Not only were you breaking God’s law, but state law, too. Of course, blue laws have largely been done away with. Even the neighbor kids were eventually allowed to play with the heathens next door on Sunday afternoons.

For good or bad – maybe a combination of both – keeping Sabbath is no longer a civic responsibility. But it is still a commandment, although one that I would contend has become increasingly more challenging to keep – at least in the way my former neighbors did. But that’s no reason to toss it aside. Even though the commandments may indeed have been written in stone,the spiritual task of every age is to discern what it means to keep the Sabbath today. Jesus himself was challenged to do so. His critics tried to turn the law against him, but he was able to rightly defend his actions according to the spirit of the law. So what are we to make of Sabbath-keeping today? I’d like to suggest three parts to the commandment: rest, remember, and respond.

A day of rest; now who could argue with that? But in this age of decreased leisure time, increased driving time, continual bombardment by multimedia, and high expectations for getting things done – it is often hard to get a really, truly good rest. I’m not talking about plopping down on the couch after work and watching TV or sitting in the yard with your phone catching up on email. Our culture doesn’t encourage quality down time. If we’re lucky, we might get to get away for a week or two of vacation – although if you’re like me, I usually say that I need another vacation to rest up after traveling. And if I stay at home, there are too many neglected projects calling my name.

The fact is, we’re rewarded for doing. Just being is not considered a worthy activity. Our identities are often intricately entangled with the work we do. I went to visit a family once and wondered why the man of the house wasn’t there. His wife told me later that he stayed hidden in another room because he was embarrassed about losing his job. Which is sad, because you’d think that he would have known that his pastor would certainly affirm his identity as a beloved child of God – no matter what his employment status.

But I get it. Retirement has brought this home to me. Not doing the things I’m used to doing, not being on a particular schedule, having the freedom to do things I want to do and not do things I don’t want to do is a new experience. Having time to rest is a new experience. Friday used to be my day off: I called it my Sabbath. Now, every day is my day off – so what is Sabbath? I had to think about this.

And what I believe Sabbath rest is – for all of us – is not simply stopping doing for a little while. It’s paying attention to being in the presence of God. I’ve always been a fan of Brother Lawrence’s little book, Practicing the Presence of God, in which he advocates that in every moment, even in the mundane chores of daily life, we remember that  Presence is within us and around us. But, in practicality, that doesn’t always work – especially when I’m in traffic. We need to cultivate times of holy rest, when we allow ourselves to rest in the arms of God – completely and with no to-do list in the back of our minds. Breaking through the urge to be human doings and allow ourselves to sink into human and Divine being is the call to Sabbath rest.

A second part of this call is to remember. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The Exodus story is part of our history. Even though most of us can’t claim to be of Hebrew descendant, we certainly claim our spiritual heritage. Even though we can’t look back to a time of slavery in Egypt, we can examine ourselves for other ways we have been enslaved.

“Ex,” as in Exodus, means “out.” “Hodos” is Greek for “a way.” Exodus is a way out. It’s no coincident that the early Jesus movement was called “the Way.” Jesus, who many saw as a new Moses, sets us free from bondage. Bondage to what? We often say in our confession, “we confess we are in bondage to sin . . .” And that’s true. But what if we look at sin in a broader sense than just the things we do wrong? What if we look at the ways we are broken – maybe because we are addicted to something that keeps us from living a full life. Maybe it’s work. As a recovering workaholic, I can attest to the power of that addiction. Maybe it’s a substance problem. That is certainly bondage. Maybe it’s an abusive relationship; when it seems that there is no way out.

Maybe it’s not anything so drastic or dramatic. Still, for you, it’s a problem or concern. And it causes brokenness, bondage to a way that’s not life-giving. Yet God has declared that there is a way out. Remember. Remember that I’ve done this before. Remember that time in Egypt? Remember that time in Palestine when you thought Jesus – and all of your hope – was dead. Remember that? If I could do that, then I can make a way out for you.

Sabbath time is remembering time – not just of the times throughout history when God made a way through the wilderness, but also the times when God made a way through your wilderness. And if you don’t have one of those stories of your own yet, read the Bible stories and the stories of others, tell your stories to one another – and then remember. Rest and remember.

Now I know you’re remembering that I had three parts of the commandment about Sabbath-keeping. The third one is respond. Sabbath is not just about me and my private spiritual practice – although it is a big part of it. But the other big part is our response to the Sabbath needs of others. “You shall not do any work: you, your children, your animals, immigrants living in your country, or your slaves.

I know we’re offended by the word slaves here, as we should be. But it was a part of life in that time and reading about it in our sacred texts doesn’t mean we condone it. Actually, it makes the commandment that much more extraordinary, in that it includes everyone – from the most powerful down to the very least. What it conveys is compassion. Compassion God has for us, and we in turn should have for everyone, including animals.

In another version of the law in Exodus, there is even Sabbath for the land: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” Reading that reminded me of what a young woman from Nepal told me several years ago about Mt. Everest. She said that it’s known as the highest garbage dump in the world. The severe environmental impact of too many climbers has led scientists to say that access should be closed and the mountain allowed to rest for a few years.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this commandment. We all need Sabbath: Mother Earth and all her creatures. Sabbath is communal; if compassion were the law of the land, then we’d live in God’s shalom. Is that a pie-in-the-sky fantasy? If so, it’s God’s fantasy. Everyone, from the greatest to the least, would be recipients of our compassion. Everything, from mount-ains to seas and sky, would be recipients of our compassion – not just a “feeling sorry for” kind of compassion, but a “do something about” kind. In other words, we are to not only take Sabbath, but to give it – to respond to our own liberation by offering love to the world

And no, that is not an easy thing to do. Jesus knew that his response to the religious authorities would fuel their opposition to him. Still, he continued to live out the greatest commandment: that of love. The law was important; it was given for our good, to live in right relationship with God and with one another. But mercy, empathy, and compassion outweigh the law.

I can’t help thinking about the story from Oakland back in April when a woman who is white called the police on a black family at Lake Merritt. Their crime was grilling in one of the park’s designated barbecue zones using a charcoal grill, instead of a “non-charcoal” grill. So, OK, the rule was no charcoal grills in that part of the park. According to the law, she was right. But what about according to the law of compassion?

Maybe that’s an extreme example. It’s contingent on each of us to look at those places and times in our lives when we allow other considerations to get in the way of acting out of the commandment to love ourselves, to love others, and to love our planet home.

So our take-away for this Sabbath day (or maybe our thoughts to ponder during the coming week) is three-fold:

  1. How / where do you find Sabbath rest? How might you cultivate a practice of holy rest?
  2. What remembrance do you have of a time when you experienced “exodus” – a way out of a difficult situation? What prayer do you have now to be shown a new “way”?
  3. How do you carry Sabbath out into the world? Where have you found it easy to show compassion? Where have you found it difficult? How might you expand your capacity for mercy in the future?

The Sabbath was made for you and for me. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in his book, The Sabbath:
To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air which we inhale when we ‘call it a delight.’ Call the Sabbath a delight: a delight to the soul and to the body. ‘You might think I have given you the Sabbath for your displeasure; I have surely given you the Sabbath for your pleasure.‘

Have a delightful Sabbath!
Amen. May it be so.

abstract nature illustration


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