June 10, 2018 – Rev. Debbie Allen
Controversy over the Sabbath is a central theme in today’s text, but it is also part of a much greater unfolding of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus is stirring things up by challenging the authorities and calling the people to a new way of life that is grounded in love, compassion, justice, and joy. The Pharisees feel threatened and become increasingly intent upon putting an end to Jesus’ life and message. This passage gives us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Sabbath as a gift and an invitation to the fullness of life.
The word Sabbath is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to cease or stop.” On the seventh day of creation, we read that God stopped creating and rested from all the work he had done. Remembering the Sabbath is the fourth commandment given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. All the other commandments begin with “you must” or “do not,” but this one begins with “remember” which means “to be mindful of,” “to recall” that we were created by God and we belong to God, not to our status in the world, our labor, the money we earn and spend from our labor, or anything else that binds and controls us.
The fourth commandment is more detailed than any of the others. We are told specifically who is not to do any work, and that includes ourselves, our families, those who work for us, our animals, and the immigrant who lives with us. In other words, all of creation must rest on the Sabbath – and since there were no televisions, computer games, or Smart Phones in ancient Israel, people turned to their neighbors with whom they shared the joys and challenges of communal life.
This rhythm of work and rest was given further meaning by the Israelites’ experience of slavery in Egypt. As slaves, they were forced to be productive seven days a week. When they fled into the wilderness, God provided them with manna for nourishment, but instructed them to collect twice as much food on the sixth day so they could rest on the Sabbath. The Sabbath became a test of the people’s obedience and a sign of liberation from servitude.
To this day, the celebration of the Sabbath is part of the unique identity of Jews around the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that it is a day that asks us to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. On the Sabbath, he says, …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.
Judith Shulevitz notes that, in the poetry of the prayer book, the Sabbath is described as a bride greeted by an impatient bridal party with an almost anguished relief. At least 18 minutes before sundown on Friday night, the candles are lit by the woman of the house and, covering her eyes, she recites the blessing:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe…
This simple ritual marks the beginning of a day of rest. It acknowledges the beauty and wonder of the world God created and our place in creation. For the next 24 hours, all work-related activity ceases, although there is on-going debate about what constitutes work.
I did not have the Sabbath on my mind when, years ago, I traveled to New York City on a mission to buy a video camera for the public school in upstate New York where I worked as a librarian. I knew where I wanted to buy a camera, but when I got there on Saturday, the store was closed for the Sabbath. I was struck by how quiet it was on streets in the heart of Manhattan where stores were owned by orthodox Jews. These were obviously people who took seriously their weekly practice of stepping away from commerce and consumption so they could worship, pray, eat, and enjoy life.
As Christians, we often forget that Jesus was a Jew who kept the law. When he confronted the Pharisees, his intent was not to abolish the Sabbath, but to restore it to its true purpose. He did this by demonstrating that human need is always greater than human rules. Whether his disciples were plucking grain for nourishment or a man’s withered hand was healed on the Sabbath, the emphasis was always on the celebration of life and acts of compassion. Jesus was only interested in religious practices that opened people’s hearts. Hardened hearts angered and grieved him.
My guess is that all of you have stories about Sabbath practices, or the absence of them in your lives. If you are a baby boomer or older, you remember blue laws that restricted what could be open and sold on Sunday. These laws still exist in various forms and locations. It turns out that the word “blue” in connection with these laws most likely comes from an 18th century usage of “blue” as a disparaging reference to something perceived as “rigidly moral.” For example, a “bluenose” is someone who has puritanical standards. However, according to Wikipedia, blue laws were also designed to protect workers and, in fact, gave rise to modern American minority-rights politics.
Growing up in a conservative Christian family, I recall Sunday as a day that was distinctly set apart from the rest of the week. It was called the Lord’s Day, not the Sabbath, because it was believed that Christians were no longer bound by the laws given to Moses. We spent two hours in church in the morning, two hours in the evening, and two hours of travel to and from church. What was left of the day was spent eating Sunday dinner and doing other quiet activities.
In high school, my French class planned a trip into New York City on a Sunday evening to eat at a French restaurant and see a play. I felt badly about missing this opportunity and wonder what would have happened if I had insisted upon going. At the time, it was simply a boundary I could not cross. I had so internalized the religious instruction of my upbringing that I did not dare question it. Looking back, I see myself, my family, and the church we went to as erring on the side of the Pharisees rather than adopting the compassionate approach that Jesus took. As Tom Long puts it, we got the notes but not the music.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ accusations by pronouncing that, the Sabbath was created for humans. It would be easy to interpret this statement as a license to do whatever, whenever we want. To a great extent, that describes the trend in postmodern western society. The rise of secularism and the availability of technology have convinced many people that Sabbath rest is irrelevant. We tend to think of our time as our own, to use in whatever ways we choose.
In the second half of Jesus’ pronouncement, however, he declares that the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath is not made just for humans, it is a gift to all of creation that invites us to be in healing relationships with each other and with the earth. John Wilkinson says that the real question is why God’s beloved creatures need rest. And the correct response is that we need rest because we are not God.
So, given the current state of our fast-paced, driven, anxious world, how are we, as Christians, called to practice Sabbath? How can Sabbath practice become a nourishing, joyful part of our days? We are so intent upon accomplishing, producing, consuming or being consumed by something in our culture that we resist even the briefest relaxing of our forward momentum.
The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in the synagogue gives us some clues. We don’t really know anything about the man with the withered hand. Some would say that there are worse afflictions than a withered hand, but he probably couldn’t find employment because of his disability and may have had to spend his days begging.
Imagine for a moment that you are this vulnerable man, standing before Jesus, the Pharisees, and a crowd of curious onlookers. You can feel the tension in the air. Your stomach lurches as Jesus calls you to step up where you can be seen. You stand there and wait anxiously as Jesus questions the Pharisees. Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?, Jesus asks. There is no response, just a heavy silence. You see the anger and grief in Jesus’ eyes and wonder what he will do next. In fact, he does nothing, he simply commands you to stretch out your withered hand, and when you do that, the atrophied muscles in your hand regain strength and your bent fingers unfold. You have received the gift of healing and are overcome with joy.
What if we made it our Sabbath practice to stretch out our withered spirits and our clenched fists that seek to control and possess and prove that we are worthy? What if we took the risk of letting go of our need to do and of embracing a state of being that is receptive, aware, and open to all that life has to offer?
This receptive state is called mindfulness and it is something we can cultivate, not just one day a week, but throughout our lives. To be mindful means that we slow down, and without judgment, observe our actions and what is happening inside of us. We focus on one thing or task at a time and notice what thoughts, feelings, and desires arise as we go about our lives. What soothes us, what causes irritation, disappointment, or fear? By observing and being present to everything that is happening within and without, we are able to receive healing and be generous and compassionate toward others.
Coming together as a community for Sunday worship is an important Sabbath opportunity for restoration and renewal. At this time, we share our concerns and our joys, deepen our connection with the Spirit, and learn how to be God’s people in the world.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that Sabbath is best celebrated as an act of resistance and alternative. It is resistance, he says, because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. He points out that resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement. The alternative that Sabbath offers, says Brueggemann, is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are … on the receiving end of the gifts of God.
Are we ready and willing to receive the gifts of God? If so, we will have to make room for Sabbath time on Sunday and throughout the week – time that is mindful, present, spacious, and healing. I invite you to share the ways that help each of you to celebrate Sabbath and to offer each other encouragement in times of resistance and celebration. Amen.