Honoring the Sabbath sermon
July 10th, 2016
Wendell Berry has long been a favorite poet of mine. But I did not know about his Sabbath poems until I began to prepare for this worship service. And then I discovered this treasure of poems spanning the years between the early 1970s and 2013. Wendell Berry is a writer, farmer, activist and a steward of the land. He believes passionately in healing the earth we industrial humans have damaged so profoundly. His Sabbath poems have come to him during decades of Sundays on the Kentucky farm where he has lived for more than 50 years. He is drawn to the woods, he says, or to walk along the streams. And on the best of these Sabbath days, as he describes it, he experiences a freedom from expectations. The poems come or they do not come. “If the Muse leaves me alone,” he says, “I leave her alone.”
In these quiet extra-ordinary spaces, he reflects. He rests. He recognizes that the work of Creation continues without him. “To rest,” he says, “ we must accept Nature’s limits and our own.” We have limits. Accepting those limits, for a striving people, is very hard.
And so it happens that these reflections are sometimes disturbing. The relentless busy-ness of daily life prevents us from connecting with our deepest selves. It distracts us.
The Hebrew word for Sabbath means “stop.” Although it is often translated as “rest,” to stop means something different. I saw a huge billboard for a luxury skin-care line while I was on vacation last week and it said: “you don’t stop – why should your skin-care stop.”
You don’t stop.
What a devastating assessment of contemporary life.
One of the most difficult things about being sick is that it forces us to stop. We have no choice, although god knows our society rewards us well for never stopping. If we can, we work through illness. We work through DIS-ease. We muscle through devastating emotional pain. We take pride in continuous accomplishment. It is as though we do not feel real unless we are doing something.
How are you doing we ask. Busy, we answer.
Here is a Jewish Sabbath prayer: “Days pass, Years vanish, And we walk sightless among miracles.”
Or we walk busy among miracles. We have so much to do!
Abraham Heschel says: “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
Wayne Muller, who has written about the Sabbath says that the Sabbath liberates us from the need to be finished. You know, that voice inside that says you can’t rest until you’re done. And then, well, you’re never done.
Without a Sabbath, we cannot learn that we are loved and lovable apart from what we do.
The history of Sabbath-keeping is fascinating. In the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, there are wonderful descriptions of the Sabbath. The book of Exodus, probably written roughly 3-thousand years ago, tells the story of the Jews’ 40-year journey out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They ate manna, which they gathered from the ground every night. If they tried to gather enough to nourish them the next day, the manna would rot overnight. (Look up manna in bible dictionary.) Except on the night before the Sabbath, when the extra manna they gathered would remain fresh and wholesome. It would nourish them throughout their day of rest. To keep the Sabbath was indeed a most holy obligation.
When God spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses, God said, “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” (Ex 20:9-10). Putting aside for a moment the distasteful language of an ancient patriarchal society, the Sabbath is rooted in a notion of freedom. Liberation from the drudgery of work is for everyone, even for domesticated animals.
The Sabbath becomes increasingly significant as Jewish writings continue. In the ensuing centuries, the Hebrew people repeatedly lose their political independence. They have been conquered by Babylon, Assyria, Greece and eventually Rome. Their six days of work often benefit their conquerors. And Sabbath-keeping becomes even more central to their religious practice. In every week there must be a day of freedom from work. A day that is dedicated to the divine. The rules for Sabbath-keeping become more specific. But the ancient emphasis remains the same. The Sabbath is a day to be in the sight of the divine, a day of freedom, of joy. It is a day to enjoy feasting and the love of family and friends. The rabbis increasingly teach that the grace of the Sabbath is to permeate the entire week.
Ironically enough it is the Jesus movement that begins to call the Sabbath into question. Jesus repeatedly violates the Sabbath. He performs healing miracles on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees chastise him for working on the Sabbath. His disciples harvest grain. They work on the Sabbath too. In his epistles, Paul teaches that Jesus has come to liberate humanity from the tyranny of the law. Followers of Jesus, especially non-Jewish followers throughout the Roman Empire are taught that Jewish law does not apply to them and therefore Sabbath-keeping is not necessary. No other religious tradition in the ancient Mediterranean teaches Sabbath-keeping the way Judaism does.
But the emperor Constantine keeps some remnant of the practice by declaring that Sunday is the day of the lord in an empire that has now made Christianity the official, state religion. Sunday becomes the day that is dedicated to worship. But work is no longer forbidden. The Christian Sabbath is a holy day but it is not a day of freedom and family.
Fast forward to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, where the significance of Sunday – the Lord’s Day – the day Christians reflect on the Resurrection shifts even further from a day to rejoice in divine gifts, to a day to abstain from immoral behavior. To honor the divine is to abstain from drinking, dancing, carousing and other pleasurable activities. In the Puritan colonies – our religious ancestors – there were laws prohibiting mothers from kissing their children on Sunday. Some congregations appointed members to visit families to make sure they were adhering to these somber rules.
It is a small wonder that we think working 24-7 is way better than observing the Lord’s Day!
If you ask me, we have lost a great deal in translation.
I just got back from visiting my daughter Alix in California. She is doing an internship at a highly prestigious Silicon Valley company. I had lunch with her and her group of intern friends. And they talked to me about the company’s expectations of their work. Many of them stay until 9pm every night. They don’t take sick days. Each of them knows exactly how many days they have been forced to call in sick. It is not unusual for them to stay overnight to “get projects done.”
My daughter Morgan works in a retail chain. Her schedule is manipulated very carefully so that she never gets enough hours to qualify for benefits, and yet she is perennially on-call. She has arrived at work many times only to be sent home and told that her schedule was changed at the last minute. She has been called to come in at the last minute too, and then asked to stay for an additional shift.
Today’s workplace is no respecter of human beings. No matter how much or how little they’re being paid.
The notion of rest and renewal is not part of an employer’s vocabulary.
Even in churches. Not only do we expect ourselves to be “on” 24-7, we often expect others to be available 24-7.
I was asked by a colleague who is planning a UU internship whether or not I was permitted to include attendance at coffee-hour after worship in my weekly internship hours at UUCR. Because, you see, some congregations do not consider it ministry and it should not be compensated.
Keeping Sabbath is flat-out revolutionary. It is an act of revolutionary justice. In the words of Lynne Raab, whose book on the Sabbath is rocking my world right now, it is the rhythm of stopping, thanking, rejoicing and feasting. Let me repeat that. Stopping. Thanking. Rejoicing. Feasting.
This is a revolutionary act of love in a culture that says never stop, it’s never enough, joy is not permitted.
So how do you do it?
Wait a minute… did I just say how do you “do” it?
I should say. How do you enter into it. How does on prepare to receive this gift?
Let me repeat that lovely and simple Sabbath prayer. “Days pass, Years vanish, And we walk sightless among miracles.”
You will need to decide what you want and need to refrain from on your Sabbath. Video games? Anything on the computer? Shopping? Driving? Worrying? Obsessing about everything you don’t like about yourself? Your plans for the coming week? Criticizing others? Criticizing yourself? Errands?
The Sabbath isn’t just going to happen. It needs preparation. Depending on what you have discerned will make Sabbath meaningful to you, you may need to shop and prepare your food in advance. You may want to pay those urgent bills, confirm appointments, answer the lingering emails – and otherwise clear the decks. You may want to pick or buy beautiful flowers, launder your clothes so you have something wonderful and clean to wear. Maybe clean your house. Lynne Raab in Israel….
Some folks gather every prayer request they receive during the week and put it into a box. On the sabbath they take them out and pray. On Monday, my Sabbath day, I will pray for the families of those killed in this past week. I will pray for the perpetrators and their families.
Other folk make sure they spend time in nature, like Wendell Berry does. Many include communal worship as part of their Sabbath practice. Also naps. Reading. Staring at walls, waiting for inspiration, letting the to-do list blow away in the wind.
For me, it is important to have a combination of time with my family and time alone. I need time to process my life and increasingly as I get older, I need silence. No radio, no blaring newscasts, not even music. I don’t get into email or social media.
Folks who have kept a Sabbath for many years find a rhythm. It becomes natural to slip into a space that is out of ordinary time. A place of freedom. Freedom from the demands of daily life and the demands we place on ourselves.
Sabbath is shalom. Sabbath is peace and divine abundance. Sabbath is a day to remember who we really are and whose we really are.
In this past week, when we have witnessed so much horror, it seems as though our national anxiety level has skyrocketed. And with good reason. This is collective, communal trauma in expanding circles of impact. It is almost inconceivable to believe what has happened. Under circumstances like these it feels unthinkable that any of us could take time out to rest. Especially if we are committed to the work of justice.
Each and every one of us could work around the clock and not be able to participate in every meeting, planning session, protest march or legislative lobbying effort. We could not sign every letter, canvass our neighbors or write every needed letter to the editor.
I could stand here and tell you that if we don’t stop and rest, our work will suffer. And that is true. I could tell you that a burned out activist is no good on the streets. And that is true too.
But there is a better reason to honor the Sabbath. If we do not take the time to reconnect with our sacred center, we will no longer be beacons of hope. We will lose faith. We will lose our gratitude for this gift that is our life. There will be nothing left for us to give. Our light will no longer shine. If we don’t stop to give thanks, to feast and rejoice, there will be no energy to continue for the next three thousand years. When I stop, others will continue the work. That is the beauty in Creation.