Exodus 20:1-4, 7-17
Whatever happened to the sabbath? In our first reading today from the Book of Exodus, we hear the Ten Commandments. There is a longer explanation given to the fourth commandment – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” – than to any of the other nine commandments. I’ll bet you are quite clear about not committing murder, not committing adultery, and not stealing, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy? (1) Is that a little fuzzy for you? And, if so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many of us, several things have colluded.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection – every Sunday being a little Easter – and from the first centuries, most Christians began keeping Sunday holy, which then overshadowed Saturday. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath, including the ritual Saturday night bath and then, Sunday morning, putting on my very best clothes for church. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday, and there were “blue laws” which kept the stores shut, so there was no shopping, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: church and home.
But I’m giving away my age. This is not the world in which we live now. That’s done and gone. Here in the States, fewer self-reported Christians are attending church services on Sundays, stores and the world-wide-web are wide open, and if you’re parents or grandparents of school-age children, you’ve probably got a soccer game or a school event to negotiate on your Sunday calendar. And as pleased as you may be with your new iPhone, you not only have 24/7 access to family and friends, and they to you, but so does your boss or your “bosses” – your employer and the people who lead volunteer organizations where you give your time. Here’s why a sabbath practice is so important to retain or to retrieve.
For one, we need a sabbath practice because this is how we are “hard wired.” In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, God rests on the sabbath after six days of work. We are called to imitate God, but actually we mimic God to remember that we are not God. In mirroring the divine behavior, we discover our human limitations. The sabbath forces us to recognize we are creatures, that we are “made from dust,” and that without proper care we break or burn out. God doesn’t need rest, but we do. Rest is indispensable. I remember in my school days occasionally “pulling an all-nighter,” as we used to say. It’s amazing what you can get done in 24 hours if you don’t sacrifice a third of that time being in bed. But you can only do that for a night or so, and then you begin back-paying your dues.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel makes a contrast between biblical thinking and Aristotle’s thinking, which is very contemporary. Aristotle presumed that relaxation is not an end; it is for the sake of activity: we rest, we relax for the sake of gaining strength to return to work. Isn’t that familiar? But this is not the biblical understanding. The Hebrew understanding is that the rest is the goal or the end; it’s the purpose, it’s the crown, it’s the culmination of the week. Rabbi Heschel writes that sabbath rest is not for the purpose of recovering lost strength to be able to return to work. It’s the opposite. Sabbath rest is for the sake of life: “[Humankind] is not a beast of burden and the sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of our work. The sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the sabbath. …[The sabbath] is not an interlude, but rather the climax of living: the last day in God’s creation; the first day in God’s in intention.” (2)
Jesus would have presumed this. Jesus was formed by the practice of sabbath rest. When we hear him say, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly,” he’s not talking about giving us abundant spiritual life, he’s talking about giving us abundant life – the whole shebang, 24/7 – and that, for Jesus, would have presumed the practice of keeping a sabbath. (3) The sabbath is meant for life. The sabbath is meant to free us from the numbing routine of a life driven by work, by the need to produce and to accumulate. I’ve been reading the research of a palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, in what she reports are “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. (5) From hundreds and hundreds of interviews, she reports:
- #1 regret of the dying: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me, my driven life, driven by others;
- which is directly connected to the #2 regret of the dying: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard, which got in the way of my most important relationships and in my enjoying life.
Sabbath keeping is a resistance movement, and it’s very counter-cultural. Sabbath keeping is a resistance to the clutter, the noise, the advertising and the busyness that sucks the life out of our lives. Sabbath keeping is a resistance to constant production, and work, and accumulation. It may be the most difficult of 10 Commandments to keep, and it may also be the most important, especially in our absolutely-driven, over-paced culture, which is breaking our hearts. We are the most medicated, depressed people the world has ever produced. We are overworked, over-stimulated, over-entertained and over-the-top exhausted. We need to discover – or re-discover – the purpose of the sabbath.
Here’s two words that will help you keep the fourth commandment: to remember the sabbath and keep it holy.
The most important word is “yes.” Say “yes” to your creaturely nature. Say “yes” to God that you will live within the life parameters in which you’ve been created. You need to sleep every night… but you need more than that. You need to ‘be’ as a human and not just ‘do.’ Claiming, revering space for rest and re-creation is absolutely essential for your being whole and holy. Don’t wait for the intervention of your cardiologist or your psychiatrist, or for your death bed to get clear what is most important in life. In the Brothers’ Rule of Life, we have an entire chapter on “Rest and Recreation.” We recognize that how we individually enjoy our weekly sabbath day will be many and varied, but that it will happen, and it does. Our sabbath day of rest (which for us is Mondays) gives us the opportunity to refresh and deepen our friendships. It enables us to play and exercise and enjoy the use of our senses. It opens a space for music, art, entertainment and particular pursuits and hobbies. We also say in our Rule that each and every day should include an element of sabbath.
For some of you, that may be the way in. If you’ve lost the practice of keeping sabbath time – or perhaps never had this practice – enjoying an entire day of sabbath may be unimaginable, perhaps impossible. If so, what time could you set aside in a day? or perhaps in several days? Start small. You may also find it helpful to start from memory. When can you remember real rest and re-creation in your past? I have some wonderful memories of sitting on my grandmother’s porch after supper. The extended family would simply sit on the porch. If you asked me what we did, I have absolutely no recollection. We simply sat on the porch and lapped up life. It was wonderful. And I have other memories watching the waves come in, of making bread, of sitting in trees. Do you have some memories of rest and recreation you can go back to? If so, you’ll open a pathway into the present; draw that memory into the present. What could that memory look like now? The most important word in sabbath keeping is “yes”: cooperate with how God has designed your capacities and your needs. You need rest and re-creation. Say “yes” to that.
The second most important word is “no.” If you cannot say “no” to yourself and “no” to others, you’re really not free to say “yes.” Your yes will become an “oh well,” or “oh dear” or you will find yourself sort-of living life or resentfully living life because you’ve handed the custody of your life over to some other power. It may be the power of the electronic gadgetry. Consider putting a boundary around your availability to email – when others can and cannot get at you. If the first thing you do habitually in the morning is check your email or open the web, or click on NPR – which may completely allow yourself to hijacked – take on some other holy practice to begin the gift of a new day. Put some constraints on how your are electronically accessed and how you access throughout the day. And where could and should you say “no” to your availability to do the things you are being endlessly requested to do by other people? Say “no” so you can say “yes.”
Sabbath-keeping is countercultural, it’s also essential. You are not only worthy of rest and re-creation, you are hard-wired to need it. What would be sabbath-keeping for you? I’ll give you some other words that may fit you:
- the sabbath is for worship
- the sabbath is for rest
- the sabbath is for reflection
- the sabbath is for renewal
- the sabbath is for beauty
- the sabbath is for relationships
- the sabbath is for stillness
- the sabbath is for play and laughter
- the sabbath is for the love of nothing.
There’s the story, it’s true, of a wagon train in the 19th century that was traveling from St. Louis to Oregon. This wagon train was composed of a number of devout Christians and it was their habit to pause on the sabbath and rest for the day. But as they got on with their journey they realized they weren’t making the progress that they needed to avoid the winter storms. There was contention, whether they should continue resting on the sabbath day or whether they should drive ahead. The community could not agree, so they decided to split into two groups. One group would travel seven days a week to get there as fast as possible, and the other would continue to observe a weekly sabbath rest. Who got there first? You might guess. The group that observed the sabbath… because the people and the animals that traveled every day actually became depleted and lost their way.
We don’t rest in order to be more efficient. We don’t rest in order to work better. We rest because God invites us into this rest and knows that we need it. (5) You need it. God knows, you need it. And you’re worth it.
- Inspired by Christopher C. Moore in Solitude, a Neglected Path to God, p. 125.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath, p. 14.
- Jesus speaks of his giving us “abundant life” in John 10:10.
- Bronnie Ware in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying; A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.
- The story comes from Marva J. Dawn in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting.
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