There are little humans among us today who are totally and blissfully unaware of time. For them, waking, sleeping, dreaming, and daydreaming all run together. Some of them have brothers and sisters who are selectively aware of time and who must be continually reminded that it is time to go to school, time to eat dinner, and time to go to bed. Some of them have still older siblings who actually pray for time to speed up. They can’t wait until they can drive, work, and determine when they will come home at night.
Some of you today give time little thought—you are its master. You commit to plans that span decades, you sign thirty-year loans and swear oaths by saying “I do until death,” which seems an eternity away. Some of us wish that time would slow down. And some of us are chronological debtors, living on borrowed time and fully aware of each passing day’s value.
Together, we stretch the gambit of human experience—from newborn to invulnerable youth, to aged, frail, and wise. Time plus life equals the human experience. We do not store these experiences in a vault or flawless vessel, but in the imperfect filing system of our human brains. Just think of all the memories sitting here today under this one gigantic Gothic roof—or more accurately, under the netting under the Gothic roof.
I’m not sure whether I’m thankful or not that my memory is imperfect. Some months—and maybe even years—I am glad to forget, but the last seven days I would love to remember perfectly. I spent the week in a jungle. I slept under mosquito netting. I stumbled on a scorpion catcher at night and woke in the morning to the riot of tropical birds. To top the week off, on my way here two mornings ago, our little eighteen-foot boat was hugging the shoreline and we stopped. I saw a humpback whale for the first time and her calf just a dozen yards from us. I caught it on my camera, but the photos will only partly remind me of all that was happening—the smell, the sound of the waves, the orange light, and the feeling of joy. I wish I could remember the experience in perfect detail, but the events of the coming weeks will push most of the memories aside. We are like icebergs. The top fraction of us is what others see and what we readily recall, while a vast bulk of experiences travel with us unseen—yet surely holding great inertia and sway over our lives.
Although each life is unique, we share much in common. Who has not stared at the clock in a school wall and willed it to go faster? A newborn baby’s cry, the first day of school, a walk down the isle, the first time we are loved and love, the last day of work, the death of someone near—these are the individual notes that, when added together, are used to score the symphony of our lives. Musicians say that it is not the notes, however, that make music, but the quiet between them. Take away the pauses between the notes and you do not have music—you have noise.
The same rule applies to writing. My wife, Nancy, is an English teacher by training. She once got a diagnostic essay at the beginning of the year that was three pages long and contained not one period, paragraph, semicolon, or capitalized letter. God did not intend for our lives to be like that paper—one long run-on sentence. So He gave us the fourth commandment to punctuate our lives.
For the last two thousand years, the western world has shared the experience of stopping one day a week. Sunday was the real estate in time upon which the church built itself—this cathedral included.
When I was a child growing up twenty-five miles north of here, virtually all commerce came to a halt on Sundays. The grocery store and the pharmacy closed. Schools and banks closed. We milked cows on Sunday but would not put up hay. The three restaurants in town closed. This is not the case anymore.
You can still hear the echo of those quiet Sunday mornings drifting down over the last thousand years, but the stillness is growing lesser. It was quieter here in this city this morning than it will be tomorrow—but for how long? It is not inconceivable that in another decade or two the quiet on Sundays will disappear altogether. What’s to stop it?
Stopping one day a week is not a product of democracy. It did not come from kings. It was not distilled by science or discovered in the Renaissance.
The legislation to stop one day out of every seven was signed by the finger of God and handed to an emaciated nation of slaves on the Sinai Peninsula. Of the 613 commandments God gave Moses in the Old Testament, it’s the top Ten that were adopted by Christianity. They are ordered in groups by importance—the first three are to love God, respect him, and not let our eyes wander to other gods. Commandments five through ten are the rules that make civilization civilized: don’t lie, cheat, steal, run off with someone else’s spouse. Don’t kill your aging parents, covet, or put stuff on your charge card just so you can be like your neighbors.
The fourth commandment—to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy—acts as a fulcrum between the first three about how we treat God and the last six about how we treat each other. It is the only commandment we know God explicitly applies to himself. It applies to men, women, children, illegal aliens, minimum wage workers, and nonbelievers (or strangers in your gates, as Exodus 20 puts it). In case anyone misses the point, God says this goes for me—you—and anyone in your sphere of influence, cattle and beasts of burden included.
Since the book 24/6 was published three months ago, I’ve gotten to preach on it a dozen times. On several occasions, I’ve stopped the church service and asked people to buddy up and talk about their memories of Sundays when they were kids. Then I’ve asked people to raise their hand if I read off a particular memory that they, too, have.
My wife, Nancy, knew that I would be preaching here today and that I was going to give a new sermon on 24/6, and she said: “Matthew, don’t you dare ask people at the National Cathedral to raise their hands or buddy up and talk to each other for five or ten minutes. It’s just not the place to do it.” She’s usually right about these things, but I’m not sure. Sweetheart: would it be okay if I just asked everybody who agrees with you to raise their hands?
A month ago, I preached on 24/6 in my hometown of Lexington, KY, at Southland Church, and I did ask the 10,000 present to buddy up and share memories of Sundays when they were kids. A curious thing happened as people shared. The noise level rose and rose—and I’m telling you that it was a joyful noise unto the Lord. People grew animated and happy as they remembered meals together as a family or visiting grandparents and playing with cousins. They remember stores being closed, talking, walking, and naps. If it rained on Sundays, they remember reading books and playing board games and more naps. They remember stopping and resting and being renewed.
This is not the world that we live in today. We live in a run-on sentence. We text 24/7, shop for a car at four in the morning, and get a three-minute egg in thirty seconds.
We are the wealthiest nation ever to exist, with power that would make Nero drool. Machines wash our magic chariots, vacuum our floors, and answer our phones. I flew through the sky to get here—yet we are the generation that says we don’t have enough time.
Ten years ago, I not only read the Bible for the first time—I started keeping the fourth commandment. I went for the 24/7 life of an ER physician and chief of staff at a hospital to a man who would go 24/6 and no more. Giving Sabbath to myself, my wife, and my children turned out to be the single best thing I’ve ever done.
In Luke 4, Jesus showed up one Sabbath morning in his old synagogue. They hadn’t seen him for ages. He said that he was there to cancel all debt. To heal the lame. To set the captive free and to let the blind see. “I am the Jubilee year,” he proclaimed. I’m the mother of all Sabbaths. Come to me all you who are multitasking and just don’t have enough time—and I will give you rest. Man was not meant to save the Sabbath, he said. I—it—was meant to save you.
In the beginning, I mentioned all the wisdom and perspectives and memories gathered together here today. I mentioned babies and teens and the aching knees of the elderly. This cathedral is all of that and more. We have dead presidents and saints with us today. One whole corner of this sanctuary is dedicated to one of them and the struggle he fought and won. Named after the father of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, it is the statue of Abraham Lincoln who resides under the fiery stained glass window at your backs.
Until the age of ten, when she died, Abraham Lincoln’s mother drilled into him a love and respect of the Ten Commandments—his commitment to the ninth commandment is why we call him Honest Abe. As the Civil War began—and it become clear that it would be bloody and long—Lincoln issued a proclamation about the Sabbath (you can find a facsimile of it online thanks to the miracle of the web). He declared that, unless absolutely necessary, no union soldier would either fight or work on Sunday.
Lincoln believed that if we lost the fourth commandment, that—regardless of who won the war—everyone would lose and we all become a nation of slaves. And I quote him, “As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope by which man rises.” The Sabbath is our last, best hope.
May the prince of peace make his face to shine upon you. May you find rest for your soul. May the peace that passes all understanding be with you now and every Sunday, and may you dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Shabbat Shaloam; Sabbath peace. Amen.