Rejoicing in Rest
Text: Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5: 12-15
Preached by Rev. Julie Emery at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 21, 2011
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
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 donky, 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. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
It is a season of vacation-taking, as so many of us take advantage of lighter schedules and nicer weather to travel to familiar or fantastic places, to soak up the pleasure due to us and craved by us. To be sure, even those of us who love our work, who enjoy it with delight, still need time away: Time to “vacate,” to forget about work or our routines for a while. How we think about these vacations is revealed in our language about them: We take a “break,” we “get away,” we “take time off.”
What we do during those breaks varies, but usually it involves one indulgence or another: hours of book reading, lounging on a beach, long walks or bike rides, traveling to new destinations, consuming wonderful food and drink. Perhaps seeing relatives, perhaps avoiding them. We usually cram more than one of these activities into the limited time off we have, and no matter what we do with our time, we will most likely come back exhausted rather than rested. “I need a vacation from my vacation!” we say. And then plan to do better next time.
In the meantime we jump back on the grind again, busying ourselves with the routine of a workweek that can be overwhelmingly busy, not to mention checking emails or taking phone calls on the weekends or at night. In fact, studies show that 1 in every 3 Americans report feeling chronically overworked. In 2009, 39% of Americans reported working more than 44 hours per week. 56% of people reported doing at least some work from home, and 20% of those said they did job-related tasks from home every day. But that probably doesn’t surprise us.
Technology is in part to blame for this, certainly. The ease of access now that work can appear right in your pocket or purse is almost too difficult to resist. The expectations and demands because of this technology means that often workers feel pressured to respond at all hours of the night or day, any day of the week.
In the past few years, with the recession, things have only gotten worse. 86% of executives say that their company demands more time from their employees, and most of those workers report feeling the intense pressures of those demands.
We are overworked and there’s no sign that it’s going to get better soon. In fact, more than a third of US workers don’t plan to take the amount of vacation allotted to them, and when they do take time off, many take less than 7 days. So, while it might seem as though this is the season of vacations, for many Americans, vacation is a myth.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
In the culture of overworked and ever-working Americans, the concept of a Sabbath in the midst of all this busyness is a bit of a joke. When asked, most people will answer that a true Sabbath is just not possible. They may cite growing debt or college tuition, they may mention a demanding boss or the constant buzzing pulse of the stock market. They may note their work that crosses cultures and time-zones, and the need to compete globally. Parents will note the constant demands of children and home, kids will note the ever growing demands of school and sports. “Retired” folks are often still working in one way or another or busier than ever with the plans they have set for themselves in their “leisure.”
Even clergy will note the difficulty of taking a Sabbath, whether because our “work” is on the Sabbath or because our “work” is what is seen as Sabbath activities.
In fact, when asked if they take a Sabbath, most respond with something like, “Not really. It’s just too hard,” or “I go to church, but that’s about it.”
Author and theologian Dorothy Bass describes Sabbath keeping as a gift to be unwrapped. In the swirl of overworked and tired Americans, Bass notes that the historic practice of setting aside one day a week for rest and worship promises peace to those who are willing to unwrap the gift. “We need Sabbath, even though we doubt we have time for it.”
The gift that is unwrapped is infinitely more than the worth of a few hours of lost labor. Without it is a loss of perspective, of the God who grants us the gift of work and the grace by which we toil.
Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem, “Sabbaths”
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
In our scriptures, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is the fourth commandment, and seems to be the bridge that takes us from the first three, which focus on God, to the final five, which concentrate on our relationships with others. Imagine if we lived as though it was as wrong to violate the Sabbath as it is to steal, lie, and kill. Certainly, there are significantly different consequences for these violations. Stealing, lying and murder are crimes against others. Perhaps the only one we hurt by not taking a Sabbath is ourselves.
When I was a child, Sundays were somewhat set aside. We went to church, we spent time outdoors, we enjoyed a family meal together. These things weren’t rigid, exactly, they just happened, in great part due to the intention and care of my mother. I don’t remember ever having a sports game, except on rare occasions, like regional or state swim meets. We also weren’t forced to read the bible for hours or spend all day at church. If there is a line from legalism to laisse faire, we were somewhere in the middle.
I realize now that the culture of the Midwest helped a great deal. Growing up in Western Michigan meant that we lived in a place where the norm was a culture of church goers. Many counties were dry and did not sell alcohol on Sunday and most stores were closed. I knew families who would not mow the lawn on Sunday. No schools held sports practices or games on Sundays. Most people went to church on Sunday morning. Although I did know some Roman Catholics who went on Saturday night. It was just…the NORM.
Certainly there are things that are wrong with this – it reveals a culture of homogeneity and a disrespect of other traditions that take their Sabbath on a day other than Sunday. But, it did make it easier, too.
It takes a community to make a Sabbath. In part this is because true Sabbath taking is built around worship, and we worship in community. But also because Sabbath taking is so counter-cultural that we need to lean on each other to gain the strength to do it; we need to be pushed by one another to let go.
But what do we let go for? What exactly should a Sabbath look like?
There are two reasons given in our scriptures for keeping the Sabbath holy. The first is that God rested on the seventh day of creation. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” When God rests from creating the heavens and the earth and everything in it, it is more than a rest of exhaustion, instead it is a rest of awe and attention. It is a rest of delight and appreciation. “And God said it was very good.” It was as if the seventh day of blessing was the bow that was wrapped around the package of creation.
Author Dan Allender likens God’s seventh day of creation to a couple who just experienced the birth of their child. They are struck with awe at the child before them, they cannot resist counting ten fingers and ten toes over and over; they are tired, yes, but filled with joy and excitement, they sit and stare and giggle and weep in their rejoicing.
Our call to Sabbath is not merely a call to “break” from work, but a call to delight, to play, to seek and spread joy. “Sabbath is not a break from work; it is a redefinition of how we work, why we work, and how we create freedom through our work.”
The core of this delight is worship, but worship may be found in a slow walk in a park, or watching a beautiful sunset. It may be a concert or the joyful sharing of a meal with friends. Worship may not be contemplative, it may be abundant and social. Above all, it should be filled with sensual pleasures, awe at creation, feasting and delight.
In the book of Deuteronomy we are given another reason for God’s Sabbath commandment: that of justice. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” When we rest, others rest too.
The Sabbath is not a selfish endeavor, but a communal one. It is ever so complicated to consider taking a Sabbath when the unemployment rate hovers at 9%. It seems audacious if not downright offensive to consider taking a Sabbath when there are so many who work many different jobs just to pay the bills and put food on the table. Sabbath in the face of the single mother struggling to make ends meet seems like a luxury.
And yet the keeping of Sabbath is directly linked in our scriptures to the building of a just world. “Sabbath keeping is not about taking a day off but about being recalled to our knowledge of and gratitude for God’s activity in creating the world, giving liberty to captives, and overcoming the powers of death.” We are urged to set aside time to remember those in need, to be reminded of God’s hope that all are able to find good, valued, fulfilling work, and all are given blessed rest, and to intentionally pursue that hope in our own lives.
For Christians, the Sabbath day also represents an “eighth day” of creation: one where that hoped-for vision of the world might come to fruition. The day when the world might be as God intended it: when all might be welcomed, when all might be fed, when all might find a home, when all might be without pain or suffering. It is the day of the New Earth, the day of reconciliation. It is this day that we celebrate, this day we long for, this day we honor by setting aside time for Sabbath.
We do this by reminding ourselves, once a week, of the God who created all people and longs for us to be reconciled and welcoming. We do this by reminding ourselves, once a week, that creation is a gift to be treasured and amazed by. We do this by setting aside time, once a week to laugh and play, to eat and be filled, to share of our abundance, to delight in our lives and world.
As we return from “vacations” let us turn towards weekly Sabbaths. Setting aside time to delight and celebrate, to worship and sing, to work for justice. Let us ask ourselves:
Will this be merely a break or a joy? Will this lead my heart to wonder or routine? Will I be more grateful, more delightful, or just happy I got something done? Then we will begin to live into our own Sabbath keeping.
We do this, not because we are tired and need rest, though we do.
We do this, not because we are commanded to, though we are.
We do this, not because we will suffer if we don’t do it, though we will.
We do this, we take time for God, we keep Sabbath…
because it infuses our whole lives with deeper meaning,
because it reminds us of the justice we are pursuing,
because through it we experience the true beauty of God,
and in it we experience the true gift of delight.
We keep Sabbath, because we are called to be a radically grace-filled, Sabbath-keeping people, because, as Allender says, Sabbath is the cleanest air we can breathe, the deepest prayer we can hold, the best meal we can share, the most joyful laugh we can burst forth. This is the gift that is the Sabbath, may each of us unwrap it again and again and again. Amen.