This afternoon, the Roots Revival Band returned from 3 days at the beach. It wasn’t quite a vacation—we were leading worship at a conference for pastors at rural churches. The theme of the conference is our theme for tonight: Sabbath.
And what was cool about it was that they didn’t just talk about Sabbath—they encouraged attendees to practice it. The schedule for Tuesday afternoon was just one big block called “Sabbath.” And so, participants went to the beach, took a nap, read a book, or went for a walk.
And what did I do with my afternoon of rest and relaxation? Why, I was busy working on this sermon—about Sabbath.
We as a people are not very good at resting. If we aren’t at work or school, we are raising kids or participating in extracurricular activities or engaging in hobbies or fulfilling our busy social calendar or doing something. If you ask someone how things are, chances are pretty good the answer will be “Busy”—and that goes for my little brother in college, my colleagues here at Centenary, and even my retired grandparents. We are all so very busy.
But Sabbath—rest—isn’t just a suggestion. It is a commandment—one of the Big Ten, in fact. Sabbath is so much a part of God’s plan for the world that it goes back to creation itself. The command to keep the Sabbath has in it an origin story—“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8, 11).
Sabbath is about participating in God’s design for this world. But it is also about reminding us that we are not God. So much of our busyness today, if we look at it closely, is bound up in anxiety. We are afraid that if we do not keep busy, something crucial won’t get done, someone will be let down, something will go terribly wrong.
But Wendell Berry says this: “[Sabbath] invites us to rest. It asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues without our help.” (source)
A few times in my life, I have taken an electronic Sabbath. Usually for a few days at a time, often if I’m going away someplace, I’ll turn off my phone and leave my computer at home. To be off the grid creates a great deal of anxiety at first—what if someone needs me? What if an emergency comes up at work or at home? What if I miss a very important cat video on Facebook?!
But as hours pass, and then days, that anxiety fades. Slowly I become more present to the people and things around me. My dad has said of our constantly being plugged in, “If you’re always available, you’re never really available.” I am as guilty of this as anyone, probably even more so than many, and so I need those technology Sabbaths to help me reclaim time and space, to remind me that I am not so important that if someone can’t get hold of me, the world will fall to pieces.
And, inevitably, when I do turn my phone back on, I often have very few, if any, missed calls or texts. The world continues without my help.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a Jewish theology of the Sabbath in which he says this: “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Sabbath reminds us that we are called not made to acquire, to consume, and to possess. Sabbath makes us available to God and to others, trusting of the abundance of God’s love and of time itself.
This past spring, I took up a small but significant practice for Lent. Many Christians give up something for the 40 days leading up to Easter, but every now and then I like to take something on. This year, that something was untying my shoes.
I never used to untie my shoes. My mom would always fuss at me when I would come in the house and step one foot onto the heel of the other, yanking my foot out of the shoe. I started to wonder why I did this, and the only answer I could come up with was that I felt like I didn’t have time to untie my shoes.
Of course, this makes approximately zero sense. Untying my shoes takes less than 30 seconds. Unless there is a wild animal chasing me or someone shooting at me or I’m on my way to save someone’s life, I have time to untie my shoes. And, of course, in all of those examples, I really should just leave my shoes on in the first place.
Taking the time, however short, to untie my shoes was my small protest against the busyness of my life and of our society. When we are so busy so much of the time, we often panic and come to believe that we don’t have time to do everything we think we need to do. To say, “Yes, I do have time to untie my shoes” is also do say, “Yes, I do have time to complete all the tasks before me—or ask for help in doing so,” or, “Yes, I do have time to eat well, exercise, do laundry, clean my house, and get enough sleep,” or, “Yes, I do have time to give this person my full attention and respect,” or, “Yes, I do have time to pray.”
Sabbath calls us to have faith in God’s abundance and in the abundance of time. It calls us to take God’s creative design and God’s commands very seriously, while at the same time learning to take ourselves a little less seriously.
And Sabbath frees us from the obligations of the systems we’ve created. Walter Brueggemann said, “[Sabbath] is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.” To take time to rest is to make the radical claim that we are not owned by our technology or our jobs or societal pressures or anything other than the love of God.
I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it, he talks about how our society is increasingly specialized and divided between production and consumption. More and more, we are encouraged to be good at our jobs and then let other people be good at theirs for all our other needs.
Pollan says some will argue that a banker or a lawyer or a pastor should focus on doing their work well, and when it comes time to eat, let a chef at a restaurant or a corporation that provides pre-packaged foods do their work well. But this, he says, allows our lives to be defined by that production and consumption that Brueggemann says is part of the anxiety system of Pharaoh. And so Pollan encourages people to cook, not just out of necessity, but for pleasure.
Now, although cooking might be a legitimate Sabbath practice for someone like myself or Martha, for many of you it is anything but restful. The point is not that everyone has to cook or that everyone has to take a break from their iPhones or that everyone has to start untying their shoes. The point is that the Sabbath is a countercultural practice that frees us from the endless cycle of producing and consuming. To rest allows us “not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”
I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the fact that our Scripture reading for today is a story of Jesus breaking the Sabbath. Jesus—the rabbi, the teacher, the man that Matthew’s Gospel portrays as the new Moses, the interpreter of the law—he is breaking one of the Ten Commandments.
Jesus and his disciples are gathering food on the Sabbath. When the Pharisees question Jesus, he refers back to 1 Samuel 21, when King David and his companions broke the law because they were hungry. And that really is Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question. Why are they breaking Sabbath law? Because they are hungry. Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Pharisees have upheld tradition to the point that it has become traditionalism for its own sake, their legalism getting in the way of them hearing God’s call to offer mercy.
But Jesus is not simply ignoring the law—rather, he is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of its true purpose and meaning. This is not the first time that Jesus has gotten in trouble for breaking the Sabbath—in fact, 7 of his miracles actually occur on the Sabbath. On the day when you are not supposed to do any work, when some Orthodox Jews today won’t even turn on the oven, Jesus healed a man who could not walk, drove an evil spirit out of a man, took away the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law, restored a man’s withered hand, gave sight to a blind man, made a crippled woman stand up straight, and healed a man with dropsy (or edema).
When the Pharisees accuse him, Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
For the point of the Sabbath is not to rigidly avoid anything that could be interpreted as work. If we become too legalistic about keeping the Sabbath, that Sabbath rest becomes itself another form of work.
Jesus tells us that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, reminding us that the true purpose of Sabbath is to restore our relationship with God, with others, and with the order of creation.
Sabbath puts us back in touch with God’s intent for how we inhabit space and time while also reminding us that we are not God. It calls us to place our trust in God’s abundance and to remember that the world will go on spinning without any help at all from us.
Sabbath corrects our tendency to harm and exploit one another. The command to keep the Sabbath is not just about us. Exodus 20:10 says, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The Sabbath is about worker’s rights, about remembering that whether we work at Wells Fargo or McDonald’s, we are all God’s children, created in God’s image and made for God’s Sabbath rest.
Jesus breaks the Sabbath because, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” The Sabbath is best practiced not by strict adherence to specific standards but by resting in God’s mercy and extending that mercy to all that God has made. Sabbath draws us back into God’s created order, frees us from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, and offers new life—one powered-down iPhone, one untied shoelace, one homemade meal, one deep breath at a time. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell