Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
For a very brief period of time, I lived in a Hassidic Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland. Sunday until sunset on Friday it was a neighborhood like any other. But, then, come sunset on the Sabbath, things would change.
There was no mowing of the lawn. Cars were parked and no one drove from sunset to sunset. No shopping. No washing. No gardening. No work.
You couldn’t get the best bagels in town on Saturday morning—the bagel shop was closed. The closest grocery, it was closed too.
No pushing buttons, no flipping switches...it was an absolute pause dictated by the Torah and maintained by the Hassidic community who offered each other mutual support in the observance.
It was the Sabbath. It was a day of rest when an entire community would step back and step away from the workaday lives of the rest of us and insist upon rest.
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine in this world of ours? This world, in which people have to fight for sick days. This world in which women who’ve given birth are not given paid leave to recover. This world in which 24/7 access to whatever we want is taken for granted. The city that never sleeps has become the world that never rests…and while some are materially wealthier for it, I would argue that we are all the poorer.
Renowned theologian, Walter Bruggerman writes, “Sabbath…is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.”
Wow. He doesn’t hold back here. And, convicted, I find myself struck by how much of my own time is spent in production and consumption and the pursuit of private well-being…
24/7 Production, consumption and pursuit of private well-being…these cannot be understood to be anything but counter to the Sabbath mandate.
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
God has commanded that we rest. And, not only are we to rest, we are not to do anything that causes another creature to work on our behalf! This is a radical notion because lived out, it means radically adjusting how we live. It would mean giving up a number of activities and pursuits that we take for granted--shopping, getting take out, cleaning, doing yard work, getting the paper or mail delivered, or even turning on electronics! Can you imagine?
It would be so much work to not work! To rearrange our entire lives so that we could set aside a period of time for rest. True 24-hour Sabbath observance seems impossible outside of the strict confines of an entire community that observes the Sabbath. And, yet, that doesn’t get around the fact that we are mandated by our religious tradition to do so.
So, what do we do with this? How do we move from a place of shame, and should, when we talk about Sabbath rest to a place of actual devotion?
Because, while I don’t expect that we take on the strict observance of the Hassidic community, I do expect that we, as Christians, consider that our God has commanded us to set aside time for rest.
Which brings me to today’s Gospel…
“One sabbath Jesus and his disciples were going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath”
The Sabbath was made for us…for the hungry and the hurting, for healing and repairing.
I once had the privilege of serving alongside an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish physician. I met Danny when I worked as a hospital chaplain and, after sharing in some particularly awful death bed moments, we became comfortable asking each other questions about how we understood our work through the lens of our religious traditions. One late Friday afternoon I encountered him in the hallway—after wishing him “Shabbat shalom”, Sabbath peace, I asked him, “so you’re on call in house tonight, what about the Shabbat?”
He paused and said that it would be better if he did not have to work on the Shabbat but that it wasn’t fair to the other interns if he never had to work weekends. He added that even tho’ it was work, and it was Shabbat, saving lives and providing care were more important than the mandate not to work—Jewish law is clear on this, “we violate Shabbat to save any human life; that's the Halacha, that's the practice, that's what we do.”
This is what it means to have a Sabbath that was made for us. The true Sabbath is an affirmation of life—it is a time set aside so that the broken might be made whole, that the tired might rest, that the hungry might be satisfied. The true Sabbath offers us a re-set—the opportunity to make choices that give, rather than take, life. In this, Sabbath rest can entail any activity that allows for the healing and restoration of God’s creation.
And, when this is our Sabbath, we are making it clear that production and consumption don’t define our lives, God does. A true Sabbath allows for healing, a true Sabbath is one that feeds the hungry.
A true Sabbath, defies the powers of this world who see us only as commodities to be expended, and affirm our true value as beloved children of God. A value that is not confined to us alone, but to all of God’s children who are valued not for what they can produce but, for who they are as God’s creation.
In this, the Sabbath that is made for us, is one of restoration. It is one of rest, of healing, of repair, and of reconciliation.
So, what does that look like for each of us? That I cannot say—for the answer is an individual as each and every one of you. But, as we sit here on the edge of summer, I want to encourage each and every one of us to find moments of Sabbath—moments in which we remember who we are as beloved children of God and then to take that knowledge out into the world and living a life in which we prioritize those things which are life giving for the world.