A Day of Rest

Genesis 2:1-3, Mark 2:23-28, July 13, 2014

One of the most interesting questions I have been asked in my career as a Presbyterian minister is “If we’re supposed to have Sunday be a day of rest, how can you do that?” Now sometimes the person who asks will add—“Since you only work one day a week, how can it be Sunday!” It’s a really good question. And I have a good answer, but before I get to that I want to give a little background for why God commands us to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

Observing a Sabbath, a Day of Rest, or as I like to say, a “Stop It!” day is one of the 10 Commandments. And this is the only commandment which has a substantial difference between the version in Exodus and the version in Deuteronomy. Teaching moment: the 10 commandments appear twice in the Bible. Whenever someone is of the strong opinion that we should put the 10 Commandments in public places, like courthouses, I love to ask them which version they prefer—Exodus or Deuteronomy. Then I love to ask them which translation of the Bible they prefer. I love to make things a little more complicated that they might first appear. That’s one of my gifts.

Anyway, the version of the 10 Commandments in Exodus says we should maintain the Sabbath because God made Creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, and that makes the seventh day special. Not working that day reminds us of the goodness of God’s creation and our dependence on God for everything we need to live. This wording comes straight from the lesson from Genesis this morning. In a sense resting is how the work of Creation is completed.

In Deuteronomy we are instructed to take a day of rest because we were slaves in Egypt and God set us free from slavery dramatically, so one way we remember God’s decisive act in setting us free is to not work one day a week. We are not to be slaves to work, but to take one day out of seven to trust that God will provide for us.

The practice of observing the Sabbath has fallen out of favor in our culture. About the only ways it remains is that most Christians gather for worship on Sundays, and Hobby Lobby does not open on Sunday, “to allow employees time for family & worship” [from the sign on the door of Hobby Lobby in Oshkosh]. Many of us remember when Sunday was a special day.

In recent years various theologians have argued that the practice of observing Sabbath should be reclaimed. And I agree with them, mostly. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman wrote “Sabbath…is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It 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.”

We studied Exodus last year, and many of us were surprised that when Moses first went to Pharaoh and said those memorable words, “Let my people go,” he was really only asking for a three day vacation so the Hebrews could go into the wilderness and have a time of worship and celebration. It was only after Pharaoh’s heart was hardened—and Pharaoh hardened his heart—that the Exdous took place. And it was while the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt and slavery that God gave them the 10 Commandments.

OK, so I mentioned that I agreed—mostly—with those who say we should get back to observing a Sabbath day. The way this idea is “sold” to modern Americans is by saying, “You will be more productive if you get regular rest.” And that may be true, but it misplaces the original reason for taking a “stop it” day. God did not say, “In six days I made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, therefore to maximize your profit and efficiency, on the Sabbath day cease from all your labor. Then you can give your heart and soul to work for six more days.”

Keeping the Sabbath has always been about our relationship with God, and our need to remember that we are dependent on God. For work…and leisure. Both are blessings, but when out of balance they can both be curses.

Early in the 20th century there was discussion of whether playing professional baseball violated God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy. Some cities banned professional games and other public entertainment like stage plays and movies because they interfered with most people’s observance of Sunday as the Sabbath day. [Nevermind that Jews and some Christians observe Saturday as the Sabbath.] Some professional baseball teams tried to coopt Christian clergy and soften their opposition to professional baseball on the Sabbath by offering free passes to ministers, so they could see for themselves what a wholesome, family-oriented entertainment experience is at the old ball game. While I lived in Baltimore I received a clergy pass from the Orioles. I was able to attend any regular season game, except opening day. I showed my pass at the special gate, the doorman would say unto me, “Pray for duh boids, fathuh.” [No one ever explained why the doorman at Camden Yards had a Brooklyn accent.] And I would find an unoccupied seat. Consider me coopted! My opposition to baseball on the Sabbath completely disappeared because if there’s two things I love—it’s free baseball!

Seriously, I started my thoughts this morning with a question—how can ministers keep Sunday holy if they work on Sunday? And this applies to other workers too—fire fighters, police officers, people who work in hospitals…there are some people who have to work on the Sabbath. So we are encouraged to find a different day of the week to set aside, to cease from work and to express and experience our dependence on God. A day to accept the gift of time, the gift of leisure. That’s why I love the passage from Mark’s gospel. Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees who are upinarms because his disciples are working on the Sabbath—note that Jesus himself is not accused of violating the Sabbath, just his disciples. He points out that faith is a lot more than rigidly, narrowly obeying rules. The real point of the Sabbath is to accept God’s gifts. God did not make us so we could follow the rules, but rather God made us so that we could see, feel and appreciate God’s profound love for us—and for us to delight in, and trust that love. God will provide. God will provide so generously that you, busy American, can escape the rat race, you can relax and enjoy a day given to not producing anything. God is that good; and God loves you that much. Amen. Play ball.