Remember the Sabbath


TEXT: Exodus 20:8-11

People think a lot of different things when they hear the word Sabbath. For me, I think of snow days. I think a snow day is the closest any of us in the Christian faith ever get to understanding what Sabbath is supposed to be about. A snow day, in my mind, is always a gift from God. As a child, there was no sound sweeter than the radio on a snowy morning announcing the closing of my school or later the announcement that the Governor of Rhode Island had said to stay off the streets.

When there was a snow day, everything stopped. I couldn't fill the time off of work or school with running errands or going to meetings. I was instantly freed from social obligations either to go and visit or having people visit me. Nobody else was at work either, so business calls didn't interrupt the day, and if the electricity went out...well, sure couldn't vacuum or do the laundry. There were inconveniences, but we prepared for them when we knew a storm was coming. We filled the bathtubs with water, made sure we had wood for the wood stove and things we could cook on it or eat cold. A snow day meant that I got a free and unexpected day off from basically all work--unless I decided to plow streets for a living.

Now I realize a bad storm can have tragic consequences for a number of people, which is why God designed something with all of the same benefits and none of the pitfalls...the Sabbath. The principle is work six days and every seventh you don't. You rest. Why? Because God did. God created the earth in six days and on the seventh rested. This seventh day was the very first thing in creation that God blessed and sanctified. Holy, sweet rest.

I wanted to give you the image of a snow day, because we human beings have been very good about taking something that God meant as joy and making it into a burden. Typically, when people think of "Sabbath" it conjures up images of all the things you're not supposed to do. The Jews had an endless array of these in Jesus day, and we Christians turned around and did the same thing with our "Blue Laws" about work on Sunday. Remember, as I said a number of weeks ago, we human beings are the legalists, not God. Sabbath is not about one more set of restrictions. It's not about giving up all that is fun and putting drudgery in its place. Sabbath is about the rest that every one of us needs and the joy that comes with such freedom.

Sabbath is an issue of freedom and justice. Notice that in the sabbath commandment...the longest of all of the ten...that everyone and everything gets to rest. Not just the well-to-do rest, not just the business owner, but every worker, every slave, even every animal. Sabbath is the great equalizer. Boy, do we need to hear this word today. It is hard enough for those of us who are workaholics and seem to think that the created order will collapse if we weren't out there doing our part 24/7.

But there are many millions for whom Sabbath is not a real option. We have created a world where many are forced to work several jobs just to make enough to feed their families. When we say, "You need to take a day off every week," we are asking them to choose between rest and food or rest and shelter. That sort of choice is never what God intended.

And that is why Sabbath is more than just a personal issue. Many people have asked me if it isn't OK just to pick whatever day of the week works best for a given individual and keep that as a Sabbath. Well, that's a small step, but let me explain why it falls short.

Individual sabbath-keeping falls short in three different ways. To begin with, it's not very practical. I can tell you this from experience. Pastors are always in this dilemma. Our hardest day of work is on the Christian sabbath. We have to find another day to rest. After a hard day on Sunday, the day I need most to rest is Monday. Well, I quickly discovered that there was no such luck. Every church I have served has had important meetings on Monday nights. In this church every Monday night is a meeting. And Monday is the day that everybody else goes back to work, and those businesses and organizations that work with the church are ready for me to do the same.

I think you will find that to be true to some extent with any individual Sabbath taking. When a community all keeps the same day, everybody stays put, and nobody is generating work for anybody else. But when everybody has different days, it is much trickier. You have to publicize your day of rest and stand guard over it with a shotgun. And that isn't pleasant. I remember the murmuring in the church in Florida where I was a member before I went into ministry. The pastor announced that Tuesday would be her day off. "Better not die on a Tuesday," people muttered... "That's her day off." Well, that's nonsense.

Even in Scripture, the detailed laws of the sabbath permitted emergency work, and that is always true of those of us who work in professions that deal with crisis. I try to take Fridays off. That doesn't mean that if you're in crisis that I will refuse to help...I will be there. But it does mean that if it's just a routine appointment or something else that could be taken care of another day, I will try to put it off. All of that is to say that the notion of everybody keeping their own Sabbath is not practical. It is hard to protect in this world that wants to begrudge us 8 hours sleep, let alone 24 hours off, and most of the time you end up not getting it. Or if you do get it, you make a lot of enemies in the process.

But there are other concerns besides practical ones in individual sabbath keeping. It also falls short on grounds of justice. The poor cannot simply elect to take one out of every seven days off without making some very unjust sacrifices. The only way the poor and the oppressed get a day off is when it is a cultural mandate, not just an individual suggestion. Think of all the Bob Cratchitts of the world who work for Ebeneezer Scrooge...and there are many. They need laws that ensure that they have a time of rest, and they need wages that will allow them to live on six days of work rather than seven.

I won't deny that greed plays a part in our overwork...and that is something for another sermon. There are a good many of us that have sold our time for more that we use for things we don't need, never use, and sometimes don't even really want...things that are never really enough...things that control us. For some of us, we need to simplify our lifestyle and trade back some of that money for time. But there are millions for whom the issue is not a newer car or a fancier gadget but instead is food and clothing and shelter...medicine and child care. The poor and the oppressed will never have a sabbath without the support of a larger community. Keeping an individual sabbath does nothing to address the concerns of justice.

But perhaps most importantly, keeping an individual Sabbath misses the whole point of the fourth commandment. Remember the context of the Ten Commandments...or better, the Ten Words. This is how people are to live who agree that they want to enter into covenant relationship with God. And that covenant is about being priests for the nations of the world. Living the ten commandments is the way that Israel was to stand out from the other nations...not in order to say "nah, nah, we're better than you," but in order that the other nations...seeing the peace and joy that comes from such a way of life...would stop and recognize that the God of Israel was the true God. The Ten Commandments are God's suggestions for evangelism. Live this way and you're society will work and will work so well that everybody else around will be asking how you do it...and then you can tell them about me...about God...the true one...the God who is.

A little later, in Exodus chapter 31, God calls the Sabbath a perpetual covenant--a sign forever between God and God's people. Keeping the sabbath...this fourth commandment becomes a sign above all the others of God's covenant with Israel. Why this one? Because scholars tell us that this commandment is the only one of the ten that does not have a parallel in other known legal systems of the time. For a whole nation to cease work every seventh day was a radical statement and witness.

The Sabbath is a sign of humility. No, the world is not going to blow up simply because we did not work for a day...because we aren't the ones really keeping it together. God is in control. It is God's creation and it is God who keeps it. When a whole nation takes a day off, that is a radical statement about whose world this is and who is ultimately in control of it. Anything that fails if we rest for one day every week was not God's work in the first place. Chew on that for awhile. The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant because that was the thing that nobody else did.

Seems to me like we are in the exact same place today. Our tendency is to say...oh yes, Sabbath...that means to knock yourself out at church all day. Even well-meaning Christians want to take Sabbath and make it be about work...just Christian work instead. Sabbath is about rest. It is about setting aside one day out of every seven to simply enjoy the wonderful gifts of God. One rabbi has said, "Do on the sabbath only that which brings you joy." So, if gardening is a delight and a it. If it is just hard work to make the yard look better, then skip it and save it for another day. Do only that which brings you joy.

And that is a glorious witness to the world. It is a witness to what our faith is about and to the nature of our God. Our God is not a tyrant who demands slave labor. Go back to Word #1... "I am the Lord your God who brought you OUT of Egypt, OUT of the land of slavery." I believe that witness is only truly effective when we all keep Sabbath together.

This is one of many things that the Jews have absolutely right. The practicing Jew sticks to the Sabbath like glue...and it's hard. Jewish boys who play football do not play in Friday night games...they miss out. They miss many things, but in doing so they provide a witness to the world of their covenant relationship with God. It's like when a husband and wife make a covenant together that a certain night is their night matter what. They miss out on some things as individuals, but what a statement they make about their love and commitment to one another...and about the joy they find in being together.

I've been reading a book by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas on the Ten Commandments and they made a great statement in the chapter on this commandment. They were relating a story about a conference on religious diversity and those seriously trying to understand and be in dialogue with other faith traditions. They mention that the Conference took place, without objection, at 11:00 am on a Sunday morning. In response, they write, "That Christians participated in the conference without complaint is another sign of how deeply accommodating we have become to our culture, how we have lost the sense of distinctiveness that would make Christians interesting to understand in the first place." How we have lost the sense of distinctiveness that would make Christians interesting to understand in the first place.

To lose our distinctiveness is another way of saying we have lost our be holy merely means to be set apart...not set above, just set apart...different and most eager to share the joy behind that difference. It is that distinctiveness that the whole event at Sinai is asking for. These commandments are the living out of the covenant relationship...they make no sense or rather they make a different kind of sense in a secular setting. They are about how to keep our distinctiveness as the people of that we will be interesting enough for someone to ask...why DO you do that? And Sabbath keeping is the most distinctive element of all.

I think we need to begin a return to Sabbath. Why do the demands of a sports coach outweigh the commandment of God? It is tremendously hard in this day and age. I remember how hard it was for me as a teenager working at Burger King to keep myself off of the Sunday schedule. I told them before I was hired and many times afterward that I could not...would not work on any hour. And yet at least once a month for the three years that I worked there, I looked at the next week's schedule and saw my name down for Sunday. I had to go to the manager, time and time again...stick to my guns in the midst of his grunts and frowns...and have him change it. And I was ready to quit my job if he would not. And many people face much harder choices than that.

But to lose our distinctiveness is to lose it all...that is to lose our means of telling others who our wonderful God is...the God of love and joy and rest. Oh, we may try to tell them without the backup of a distinctive fact we have tried, which is why when you mention the church in most circles today you are laughed at. Our witness must begin with a holy life...a life set apart...and be followed up with words of love and joy. John Wesley, who founded Methodism, described it as holiness of heart and life...both together. It is the only effective way to tell others about the God we proclaim.

And the place that such a holy life..a set apart life...a distinctive most evident is in keeping the Sabbath. I encourage you to look for ways that you can begin to bring Sabbath into your life. Do you have inflluence in a business that demands...or allows...for some to work seven days a week? I don't mean a hospital or place that provides emergency services of some sort...but a place that only operates seven days a week so that profits can be greater? Work to stop it. Is there any one day of the week that your school does not make demands on your time? Work to stop it.

The church can be as guilty of working people to death as anybody. In my first church, we had a sabbath week...a whole week when no church activities outside of Sunday morning worship would take place. No meetings, no rehearsals...the secretary had the week off...with did the custodian. We had to do some planning to make it happen. I had to prepare a sermon a week ahead so I could have the time. But we did it.

When I got to my second church at Trinity, there was so much going on I couldn't convince anybody to give Sabbath a try. I hope we can do better here at St. John's. If you can't even model Sabbath at the church, what hope do we have? As we grow, let us work to become a six-day a week church...not a seven day a week church. Let us have a day each week of Sabbath when except for special circumstances no meetings are held, no church work is done, no group rehearses...nothing. Let people drive by and see that one day a week the church, too, is at rest...recognizing that it is God and not us who maintain the church...recognizing that we all need rest.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It's something to think about.


© 1999, Anne Robertson

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