Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2: 23-28
September 2, 2012
It’s been an interesting three weeks so far for me in this sermon series on the book The Year of Living Biblically. Interesting in the sense that there’s always a tension, I’d guess you’d call it, with preaching on biblical commandments that we may or may not always follow. Take today, for instance. Today’s commandment puts me as a preacher on precariously thin ice. Because if there is one commandment that I struggle with on a weekly, daily, hourly basis, it is the commandment to observe Sabbath. And it’s more than just the fact that Sunday happens to be a workday for me, as it is for Shasta and every other church professional. I’m notorious for taking a perfectly good Friday off and filling it full of stuff – non-church stuff – so that, at the end of the day, it looks like anything but a day of rest.
And the thing of it is, I’m not alone in doing this. Not by a long shot! The inability to rest and give ourselves a break every now and then is rampant in our day and time. Just consider some of the data:
- Americans work hundreds of hours a year more than their counterparts in other developed countries: 137 more than Japanese workers, 260 more than the British, and 499 more than the French.
- Americans also have fewer days off than Europeans, who typically take four to six weeks of paid vacation a year.
- At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S., of course, does not.
- In the United States, 85% of men and 66% of women work more than 40 hours a week.
- Some 88% of Americans carry electronic devices while on vacation to communicate with work, and 40% log-on to check their work email.
- A third of all Americans don't take their allotted vacation and 37 percent never take more than a week at a time.
(Statistics from: http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/, visited on 8.27.2012; http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/working-less-would-provide-much-to-americans/2012/01/26/gIQArhKPWQ_story.html, visited on 8.27.2012; http://www.alternet.org/story/61122/the_vanishing_american_vacation, visited on 8.27.2012)
Now I’m not a medical doctor or an expert on the matter, but the situation seems pretty clear: we have an aversion to experiencing and embracing sabbath. Maybe we draw too much of our sense of self and or sense of worth from our work. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe we’ve grown so accustomed to the rat race that we’re truly terrified of what life would be like if we stopped running it.
So – where to start? Let’s start where our first scripture leaves us: right at the foot of Mount Sinai, with Moses and his two tablets. Commandment number four, to be exact:
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Work six days and do everything you need to do.
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God.
Don’t do any work!
For in six days God made everything,
And then rested on the seventh day.
Therefore God blessed the Sabbath,
Setting it apart as a holy day.
Keep in mind that Israel was very much an agrarian society at the time, even as they were in transit to the Promised Land. Their livelihoods centered around that land; the same land we talked about last week that needed to rest every seven years. Preparing and tilling and seeding and growing and harvesting that land was a six-day-a-week job. But the seventh day – that day was a day of not-working. A natural rhythm, in the same way that God rested on the seventh day of creation. There was a very practical reason for this one day of rest. Work any less, and the land and yourself would be underused. Work any more, and over time both you and the land would experience diminishing returns.
The thing is, this day of rest is not a passive day of rest. It is an active day of rest. Which is what we call “worship.” Think about it: when we pause from our labors, when we turn our focus away from the crops in the field that are right in front of us, we cannot help but, in that pause, turn our attention to everything else around us, especially the God who created us and created the land and makes all things new. Worship, then, is the natural conclusion of rest.
So – here’s the commercial for weekly worship. Which very much has the feel of preaching to the choir, I know, since you’re obviously here today! But here’s the thing: of course there are ways to worship God and experience holy rest outside the sanctuary. God is not tied down to granite and wood paneling and carpet and pews.
But if there is one thing in our individualistic society that gets on my nerves the most, it is the notion that you and I can experience the fullness of the Christian faith by ourselves, like it is some sort of self-serve line at the fast food restaurant. I’ll take a Holy Day Happy Meal with a side of love and forgiveness, topped off by a Grace-filled Sundae, please.
As long as you let me stand behind this pulpit, I’m going to keep reminding you that our Christian faith is a communal faith. By it’s very design, it needs to be experienced and expressed with other people. Those Israelites who received the Sabbath commandment at Mount Sinai, were not on individual expeditions in the wilderness. They were on a journey together. And Sunday morning is our weekly seventh-day journey to the foot of the mountain; where we come together to give thanks to God, praise and worship God, sing and speak to God. We are designed, from the very first days of creation, to live and worship in community.
The rub, though, is that we can’t get so rigid with the notion of Sabbath that we miss the point of it entirely. That’s what the Pharisees were so good at doing, bless their little Pharisee hearts. Which is why Jesus gently reminded them in our scripture today that, as he put it, “the Sabbath was not made for humankind, but humankind for the Sabbath."
What does that mean, anyway – that we were made for the Sabbath? Sounds a little egocentric almost, doesn’t it? You know, sometimes I wonder if at that very moment of creation, as God was fashioning the first of us, that God already knew us so well – knew about our hundreds of hours more working a year, or the third of us who would never take a vacation, or the 88% who’d whip out our iPhone to check work email when we were on one – maybe God already knew us so well that God knew Sabbath would be essential. And not just a day of the week for restful worship together, but the little Sabbaths that come to us when we least expect them.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Like the long grocery store line and the “technical glitch” up front at the cash register that means you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Or the traffic jam on Hwy. 52 north coming home from work – it’s not like you can vault over cars, as much as you might want to. You’re trapped; you’re stuck. You can’t do a thing about it. How in the world is this a moment of Sabbath?
Let’s let A.J. Jacobs tell us how, shall we?
Day 97. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in December, but I feel like I’ve just experienced my first real Sabbath.
Let me explain: The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis. We don’t even need to be touching them—it’s more of a natural-life-cycle type of situation, like my hairline retreating. I’ll be in bed and hear a thud and know that another doorknob succumbed to gravity.
Usually, I screw the knob back on. No big deal. But this morning, it became a big deal. At 9:30 I stop typing my emails and shuffle over to the bathroom—and close the door behind me. I don’t realize what I’ve done until I reach for the nonexistent inside doorknob. It had molted sometime during the night.
For the first ten minutes, I try to escape. I bang on the door, shout for help. No answer. Julie is away at a meeting, and Jasper is out with his babysitter. I’m trapped.
The next half hour I spend going through a checklist of worst-case scenarios. What if I slip, cut my forehead on the bathtub, bleed to death, and end up on the front page of the New York Post? What if there’s a fire, and I’m forced to hang by my fingernails from the window ledge?
Even more stressful is that the outside world is speeding along without me. Emails are being answered. Venti lattes are being sipped. (Other writers are putting the finishing touches on their future Pulitzer prize-winners.)
At 10:30 the phone rings. I hear a muffled voice leaving a message. At 10:35 I make a pledge to put more reading material in the bathroom if I ever escape. By 11:00 I’ve become the world’s greatest expert on this bathroom. I know the fake marble tiles with their spider-vein pattern and the power outlet that is tilted at a rakishly diagonal angle. I spend a half hour tidying the medicine cabinet. I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A (acacia) to Z (zein).
By noon I’m sitting on the floor, my back against the shower door. I sit. And sit some more. And something odd happens. I know that, outside the bathroom, the world is speeding along without me.
But I’m OK with it. It doesn’t cause my shoulders to tighten. I’ve reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I’m savoring the present. I’m admiring what I have, even if it’s thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.
This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting.
At about 1:30 I hear Julie come home. I pound on the door.
“Where are you?”
“In here! In the bathroom!”
I hear her footsteps approaching.
“You can’t get out?”
“No, I can’t get out.”
“How long have you been in there?”
There was a pause. I knew she was weighing her options. After a few seconds, she just opened the door.
I am free. I can return my emails, make my calls.
It’s kind of a shame.
(From "The Year Of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs, pgs. 123-125).
It is kind of a shame, isn’t it? It’s a shame whenever we get out of the rhythm of work and rest that God created in us. But when you and I step out of the rat race for just a moment, and allow ourselves to feel God’s rejuvenating spirit fill us from the inside out, it’s something we want more of – because that’s exactly what God made us to want. As one of our Bob Chilton Bible study participants put it last week, “Sabbath is our little reward for having the privilege of walking around on this planet.”
So rest. Relax. Give yourself a break! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.