A Day of Rest



August 14, 2016, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 2:23-28


I’m going way back this morning.  The first time I preached at my home church, before I was ordained, I preached a sermon called “A Day of Rest," and used the same readings.  I had just completed my second year of seminary and I loved pointing out that there are two different versions of the 10 Commandments, and the biggest difference is the reason given for observing the Sabbath.

Exodus says: “ Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But 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. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” [NRSV 20:8-11]

While Deuteronomy says: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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.  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.” [NRSV 5:12-15]

That felt like secret, seminary knowledge that I was able to take home and share.  In that sermon I got to tell a story about my grandmother—some of the older members of the church remembered her, even though she did not attend church where I was preaching.  My mother told me two things about her mother: first, she never, ever used the Lord’s name in vain, in keeping with the commandments—but mom said this only made my grandmother more creative in her word choices!  I also knew that my grandmother observed the Sabbath—fairly well.  Mom said that on the rare occasions when her mother did laundry on Sunday she would hang it in the basement.  “It’s one thing to work on the Lord’s day,” she would say, “but it’s altogether different to broadcast that to the neighborhood!” 

In my sermon on Sabbath observance the big finish was a story of the time I helped a Hasidic Jewish family in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, doing some minor household tasks after the sun had gone down one Friday afternoon.  It’s a good story, and I’ve told it here and do not feel that it’s worth telling again. 

One question I am often asked by people inside and outside the church is how ministers, whose busiest day is Sunday, keep this commandment.   And it’s not only ministers, lots of people work on Sunday—and we need a lot of people to work on Sunday, doctors and nurses, for example, police officers and fire fighters—we’d be in a big mess if nobody worked on Sunday. 

The practice of Sabbath observance has fallen out of fashion, it sounds quaint to us.  And perhaps it is, the current version of the Book of Order only mentions “Sabbath” as a day in the Old Testament “totally set aside and offered to God.” [W-1.3011]  It is contrasted with “the Lord’s Day.”  “In the New Testament, believers observed the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, as the time when the new people of the covenant gathered to worship God.in Jesus Christ.”  [W-1.3011]  Christ is risen!

Earlier editions of the Book of Order advised people whose job required them to work on Sunday to set aside another day for worship and renewal.  

The theme at Synod School last month was “Connecting with Jesus in an Over-connected World.”  And each morning’s keynote speaker, John Bell did a wonderful job of helping busy, 21st century American followers of Jesus, to step back, slow down and just be still and connect with the living Christ. 

I thought I knew a lot about Sabbath, and the need for rest but in just a few observations, still, John Bell brought something new to me in his remarks about Sabbath observance. He told me I didn't know so much. For example, when we were in Denver on the Mission Trip we worked really hard physically on Monday.  It was a really hot day.  We took regular shade and water breaks, because the time to take a break is before you need one.  We were eager workers, and the work we were doing was demanding, but satisfying.  And it was our first day at a mile high elevation, so I knew we needed to pace ourselves and rest frequently.  

Did you ever think, for example, of Sabbath observance as an act of liberation?  The reason there is a command to rest, in Deuteronomy is that we used to be slaves in Egypt.  One day a week we are commanded to stop it, and remember what it was to be slaves.  And this command extends to all people, and even animals.  All creation is supposed to be still and know that God is alive.

You know all those times Jesus healed people—on the Sabbath!  Sometimes he didn’t touch the person he healed, so he could not be accused of working on the Lord’s day.  We focus on the controversy between the Pharisees and Jesus and whether the letter of the law was violated.  John Bell got me to focus on the people who were healed.  The blind man.  The man with the withered hand.  The woman who suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years.  The people who had demons driven from them.  All of them were liberated from their afflictions.  They all got their lives back when they were healed. 

And isn’t it interesting that God doesn’t ever command us to work.  God describes the pattern: for six days you are to labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  What does it tell us that God needed to command us not  to work? Just as Jesus said, it is a gift God has given to humanity. 

John Bell said that Sabbath goes against the grain of society.  That one hit home, because it also goes against my grain!  I think of leisure after I’ve done all my work, a reward for being the responsible, hard-working one.  And if I have too many things to do, and I don’t get the chance to take a day off, well look at me, the diligent, though profoundly humble servant! 

A colleague told me at the start of my sabbatical nine years ago that she suffers from “Practical Atheism.” That is, the belief that since there is no God, I must do everything!  A sabbatical is also intended to be an extended Sabbath, where one can reconnect with the rhythms of life apart from the daily grind.  That was a hard concept for me to get.  There was a moment, though, when I really think I got it. 

I was out in the woods, with my sons.  We were picking wild black berries.  And it was Sunday morning, right about the time I’d start delivering my sermon I was outside.  And there were so many blackberries that we didn’t worry about dropping some.  The first time my younger son dropped one, I said, “David, some lucky squirrel is going to find that berry and be happy you dropped it.”  Ever since “lucky squirrel” has been a family expression that says “it’s ok.” 

We could drop berries because there were so many.  We could drop berries because we trusted that God would provide.  In fact, we knew that God had already provided.  For us.  For the squirrels.  

John Bell reminded me of a simple fact I’d been estranged from “The purpose of creation is to demonstrate the Glory of God.” [third slide]  Think about that.  God could have made the earth and cosmos any way God wanted.  God chose to do it this way. And its beauty is something we can never earn, not fully comprehend.  We’re wasteful, or ungrateful, or both, if we ignore it.  Or take it for granted.  Or destroy it for the generations of God’s children who will follow us.  

Yes, the Sabbath is about liberation, but along with liberation there needs to be a profound trust.  Trust that God will provide even if we stop working. 

I drove past Cedar Rapids on my way back from Synod School.  Cedar Rapids calls itself “The City of Five Seasons,” winter, spring, summer, autumn…and the time you take to enjoy each of them.  That’s a Sabbath concept to me! 

John Bell helped me see two other things about the Sabbath that I want to share.  First, in both versions of the 10 Commandments the commandment to keep Sabbath is a link between God and humanity.  The first three commandments are about God’s primacy, God’s name, and the prohibition against worship anything other than God.  The last six commandments are about how people are to live together in community.  Only the fourth commandment links the first three with the last six.

And finally, did you notice that there are two independent reasons for observing the Sabbath?  Of course, you did, those were the first two slides!  I’ve already covered that Sabbath is about liberation.  But the other reason to observe Sabbath is that God did.  If we are to be like God, we are to rest.  God started it.  And when we also take a break from our work, we express our trust in the living God.  I admit publically that I have not been good at resting in the trust that God will provide.  I want to.  I need to.  And you probably do too.  Amen.