Even I, raised in a progressive Presbyterian church in the 1960s, remember the first time that I went to a movie on a Sunday. I was probably a teen so that puts it around 1970 or so. We just didn’t go to movies on the Sabbath. In fact I don’t even know if movie theaters were open in Virginia on Sundays until 1970 or so. Stores were closed, so there was no quick run up to the grocery store. We didn’t have Blockbusters, or cable or computers – so what in the world did we do?
There were no youth sports leagues on Sunday morning, no tournaments to drive to. Watching the Redskins or the Senators (until they left in 1970) was a proper way to spend an afternoon. We came home from church, read the Sunday Post, ate lunch together, did homework and usually headed back to church for youth group. I guess in the summer we went to the pool.
I remember when Sandy Koufax, only the best pitcher in the National League and a Jew, refused to pitch on a Saturday during the World Series – because he didn’t want to work on the Jewish Sabbath.
Orthodox Jews have it tough – they can only walk so far, no cars – but they do get to wear cool hats! When we were in Israel you couldn’t even take an elevator non-stop to your floor on a Saturday. The elevator stopped at every floor up and down so no one would have to press a button, which was considered work.
Schools, banks and post offices are still closed on Sundays and the first team newscasters don’t show. But for the most part we don’t really recognize the Sabbath the way we used to.
Now I have never been a rules-based believer and I certainly don’t want to impose anything on anyone. I am not one who presumes we are a “Christian” nation. I believe that the many expressions of faith in America make it fun to be alive. I don’t necessarily want to return to Sunday blue laws. In fact, sometimes, Sunday afternoon is the only time some have to get the shopping done – no judgment here! Times change, cultures adjust. In a diverse and multi-cultural society I don’t think we should impose a across-the-board strict Sabbath observance. That would be crazy. And it would only lead to people breaking it. (Of course, if I had a dollar for every time I heard, “John, is it true that you and Clover ONLY work on Sundays?” I wouldn’t have to work on Sundays ever again!)
But there is something about a pause – a real break from routine. There is something about creating sacred space and slowing down and doing nothing which is indeed very holy. It is the breaths and rests and pauses that shape music and drama – give them form, I believe. It seems to me that the silences between the words often speak volumes. I don’t know if real musicians like Anne would agree but it is what I feel.
Just think about it. If God felt that she needed a break after creating all week long – why do we want to be holier than God? Now of course I am not a literalist about creation – but the power of that story is real and true and freeing. We must take rest – holy rest to observe, to re-set the heart and mind. It is good for our health.
I remember my professor in Edinburgh bringing all the graduate students together at the start of the year and giving this advice. He said, “Your brain can only function at its peak for two hours at a time. So look at your day. Work hard from 9 to 11. Make sure you eat and get exercise; your brain is still working. Work hard from 2 to 4 and then go to the pub for a pint (he really said that!) relax until dinner. Then go at it from 7 to 9 or maybe 10. Get your sleep. ” He also advised us not to study on Sundays. Professor O’Neill was a bright man, he knew students – we would live our lives as we saw fit. Being in your mid-20s is not really the prime stage of life to follow rules. But there is truth in this – my best ideas came when I wasn’t “working” – rather in that other time, the space time, the shut-down time, the running time, the pregnant time of rest.
Marilyn Robinson, author of the book entitled “The Death of Adam,” wrote: “The Genesis narrative… tells of the days of the week and culminates in the Sabbath, which is, therefore, as fundamental a reality as creation itself. It is as if God’s rest was the crown of his work. This is a very powerful statement of the value of the Sabbath.”
Very powerful statement indeed. I wonder if the day before the first day of creation when the “earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” was a kind of Sabbath rest, the pause, so that creation could take off. The pause that refreshes before the energy bursts forth, the moment just before the moment when the light bulb comes on and you see things in a new way.
We need to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Not because God is going to get mad. Not so that we have something else to feel guilty about or obligated to; not at all. Rather we keep Sabbath to honor God, ourselves, honor creation, honor others.
In the Exodus passage the reason to remember the Sabbath was shaped by the creation story. In the Deuteronomy passage the reason to observe the Sabbath was to remember the Exodus. Creation and liberation are always intimately tied together.
Notice in the Deuteronomy passage that the resident aliens and the male and female slaves were to be given a day off too. Why? Because in verse 15 the children of Israel were to remember who they were: they too had been slaves and aliens, powerless, with no political status. They were to remember their status, their identity as God’s children, not as creations of their own doing and making. Because some Jews had slaves they were to remember that their servants were not pawns and resident aliens were not “those…others.”
Our work of social justice is grounded on the Sabbath of identity – each and every person is a beloved child of God and we simply cannot fall into the sin of labels like “them” or “those who demand entitlements” or “those who don’t deserve a hand out,” or “those who are trying to get what they didn’t earn.”
Remembering the Sabbath puts before us a hope for justice – when the poor can rest too and not work three jobs at minimum wage just to feed a family. Read the book “Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by undercover reporter Barbara Ehrenreich. Her book no doubt inspired the TV show “Undercover Boss.”
The Sabbath is for rest and restoration and recovery and release; creation and liberation!
You see, this is very important – because in our hurried and harried culture, as the political pundits fill the air with a cacophony of nastiness, and the pressure seems always on to perform and achieve and produce and to do – we are encouraged to STOP the madness and calm down and listen and rest and just BE. And in these quiet moments we realign ourselves, and re-member ourselves, and re-identify ourselves as God’s own children, made in the likeness and image. And as I said last Sunday – when we remember in whose image we are made (and in whose image every other individual is made too) we get more imaginative – we think outside the box, perhaps we hear our own voice, and get in touch with our own divine creative power, we hear the voice of another – perhaps for the first time all week you sit and talk to your spouse or your child or your friend, your partner, your fellow congregant. The Session tried a couple of years to put a halt to Sunday business – Elders were here to worship not transact. I think we have slipped a bit – we need to reclaim a Sabbath rest of church business.
I always remember that story on the killing fields of France in WW1 when on Christmas Eve the Germans and the English decided to stop killing and sing carols and play soccer and smoke – take a Sabbath moment; so absurd, so simple, so real. They found it very difficult to get back to the killing.
To be defined by Sabbath.
To be filled full of Sabbath.
To have that centered peace spill over into all we do.
Don’t you want that? I do. I know that I am not doing God any favors by working 24/7 or by pushing myself beyond endurance. I have known too many who get burned out and turned off. And there are some of you who need to take a break and not be on all the time RELAX – You know who you are.
God consecrated the Sabbath – God created pauses in between the work. God sanctified time before and after the work so that the work could be holy too.
So please TAKE A BREAK!
It will do you good.