We’re getting close now to the end of summer and I’m wondering, have you had a chance yet genuinely to slow down for a few days, to breathe deeply, and just to be? Most of us Americans, and especially Washingtonians, go pretty hard all year long—finishing a project, closing a deal, helping a child with homework, showing up for the late shift—and we often seem perpetually aware of everything we haven’t gotten done. Hurry is our motto, our creed, our way of life. We have so many choices, so much that we aspire to do and accomplish that we sacrifice just every other value at the altar of hurry and work. It can often feel as if our lives are not our own and that we are servants and even slaves to masters who rule our days.
I’ve noticed among Washingtonians that even when people go on vacations they often have agendas. We say, for one thing, that we’ll be much more ready to work when we come back, more clear-headed, so it really is efficient to go on vacation. And we often actually think of play as work. We’ll take on a self-improvement job like getting that golf handicap down, or we’ll push ourselves to exhaustion as tourists, or we’ll finally clean out the basement.
And, of course, now we have the miracles of modern technology to keep us hooked up. iPhones and Blackberries go with us when we leave town so we don’t have to stay unplugged from work. I have a friend whose wife said to him as they were about to leave on vacation, “You have a choice. You can take me or you can take your Blackberry, but not both. Three is a crowd.”
Today is Sunday, the day that we Christians declare as our Sabbath. Sabbath is the day each week that Jews and Christians have been given to reclaim the sheer gift of being alive. “Remember that you shall keep holy the Sabbath day”—that is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Longest and most referenced, it is the lynchpin that holds all the other commandments together; some say it’s the most important of them all. As best I can tell, most Christians try to keep 9 commandments, not 10. It would be hard to find a group of Episcopalians, for example, who take keeping the Sabbath seriously.
But our Scriptures see the Sabbath as essential to our well-being. In the story of creation God labors for six days creating the earth, sky, sea, animals, and humans. But on the seventh day God rests, gazes back over the vast creation, and declares it as good. A week’s labor culminates in a Sabbath day of delight and rest. So in the Jewish tradition God is not only a worker but a loafer, who, in Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman’s words, says, “I’m not going into the office tomorrow. I’ve put in long hours every day all week and tomorrow I’m putting my feet up and enjoying what I’ve accomplished.” What a concept, that work is not finished until it is enjoyed in rest, delight, and thanksgiving.
The Bible makes the pointed claim that the most important thing about us is our relationship with God, our Creator. It is more important than anything else, more important than our profession, college degrees, money, race, sexual orientation, or our social connections. What matters most is our relationship with the One who made us and loves us. And to make sure that gets our full attention, God gave Israel the Sabbath so that this relationship above all could have its day.
Jews call the Sabbath “the crown of creation” because on that day the gift of all the rest of the week is to be celebrated in gratitude and peace. It calls us to break the habit of constant busyness so that we discover a rhythm of being to balance our doing, a rhythm of refreshment and rest to weigh against the demands of our Blackberries.
I want to suggest that maybe the most urgent call God may be making to us as summer comes to an end and we prepare for the fall is for us to reclaim this ancient Jewish and Christian practice.
Did you hear the urgency about the Sabbath in our Old Testament lesson? Isaiah is giving a devastated Israel essential guidance for rebuilding their lives. And at the center of that rebuilding is the Sabbath. Reclaim your holy day, he says, honor it and make it central in your lives, learn again to take delight in God, and you will be on your way back to real life. And in the gospel story the Sabbath has become no longer a gift but a rigid law that rules out even healing a crippled woman, so Jesus vigorously defends the Sabbath as God’s life-giving gift.
Sabbath was at the core of being a Jew. It said, ‘We are a people who stop one day a week for God. We who were once slaves in Egypt now declare our freedom from being slave to any job or boss or set of demands for one day a week. That one day is untouchable. Having this one different, holy, worshipful, restful day makes it possible to be Jews.’ And when Jews began to become absorbed into secular society letting go of the Sabbath was seen as the catastrophe that proved they had lost their way. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put it, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals,….Our palace in time….The Sabbath is not a date but an atmosphere.” It is a way of being free and alive by having this one day for rest and for God.
And Sabbath is meant to offer us one day when we don’t have to accomplish anything, when we can set the lists aside, when we can refuse to allow the avalanche of demands on us to take us over. For one day we can refuse to live on permanent fast-forward, we can take off the intense, weary masks we wear all week. We can take time to listen to each other, to breathe more deeply, to reconnect with the natural world, to play and in that to offer praise and thanks to the God who gives us everything.
But of course anyone who takes such a notion seriously is going to be regarded as strange. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once told of a friend from her teenage years named David Goettinger who was the star of the high school basketball team. He was short, extremely fast, and talented. When he played, the team won; when he didn’t, they lost. David was Jewish, and so he didn’t play on Friday night. Every Friday night, Barbara Taylor says, she and her friends would go over to his house after the game and they moaned and groaned about how badly things had gone without him, but no one ever challenged his decision.
It was clear that he had another allegiance, that every Sabbath was for his people the highpoint of their week, their July 4th, Independence Day, when they remembered how the Lord had let them out of slavery in Egypt. After being Pharoah’s slaves they had resolved they would never subject themselves to anyone else again. And that’s why David stayed home on Friday. On Saturday he could serve other masters—his coach, his own talent—but on Friday he remembered the God who had saved him and his people. And for all these thousands of years his ancestors have kept remembering, wherever they were scattered, whatever ghettos they were in.
We need this Sabbath time, this time when we stop being human doings and become human beings, if we are in any way going to be able to be disciples, to live lives that show forth something of God. We need a day a week, a longer time every year, some time every day.
Do you see the implication? Into the grinding structures of daily life, God intrudes saying that the gods of these days are not ultimate, that built into the relentless movement of things are times of release, recouping, and beginning again. A society that has Sabbath time will always be stopping to ask what is just, what is fair, and its people will be willing to liberate one another from destructive ties that bind them.
For Christians Sunday has become our Sabbath. Some of us work on Sunday, including your preacher, but all of us need to declare some day as the Lord’s. Might we not be deeper, better human beings if we left our computers turned off one day a week, if we refrained from shopping for just one day? To do that we might start by declaring one day as our Sabbath, ideally Sunday but if that isn’t possible then another. And for that day we come to worship and give thanks, we spend time with friends and family, we rest and enjoy the natural world, we enjoy good food. And there are some tried and true things that are unwise to do—like work, or shopping, or worrying. To act as if the world can’t get along without us for one day out of seven shows a prideful and fearful approach that seems to forget whose world this is. Some families I have known say Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening are sacrosanct—whether for family, friends, or simply to be and to reflect. They might go to Rock Creek Park and the Mall where the museums and galleries are brimming with Sabbath life—a sense of peace and re-creation.
But of course—keeping the Sabbath isn’t easy. A clergyman I know very well finds his Sabbath continually becoming just a “day off,” a time to run errands, to pay bills, to begin working on the next sermon. After all, if he doesn’t do it then, when will it get done? And so he works, often guiltily, on his day off, like an alcoholic sneaking a drink.
Maybe we should convene ourselves this morning not just as a worshiping congregation but as a kind of AA meeting, admitting that based on this fourth commandment we’re in trouble: we are addicted to seven days a week of rushing and we are powerless to help ourselves. We can acknowledge that in this culture we are caught in something bigger than we can manage, but that we want to be free. We have no illusions about how hard it will be—but then breaking free from bondage was never easy.
An old saying goes that it isn’t Jews that keep the Sabbath, it is the Sabbath that keeps the Jews. It is their badge, their shield, that reminds them that first of all there is God, and they are creatures. And if a Jew who has long drifted from the faith returns to a rabbi and asks how to grow close to God again, the first answer is likely to be, “Keep the Sabbath.”
Here we have a keystone for living a sane life: to keep a day a week, a few moments a day, to take in the mystery of being alive in God’s good world.
Keep the Sabbath. It really can change the way we live. And it will keep you.