The commandment about the Sabbath is probably the most disobeyed of the ten commandments. And I think we don’t even feel bad about disobeying it. Have you noticed? In our culture—even in the Church—it’s usually the opposite. We talk all the time about how much we work; about how busy we are.
And whether by choice or necessity many of us are constantly connected to work through our phones and our computers. If we’re unplugged for a few days we get anxious. Many people (even priests) take work with us wherever we go—even on vacation or retreat— because we feel like we need to be. We’ve even invented words to describe our busyness— words like multi-tasking, which Old Testament Theologian Walter Brueggemann says “is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing” 1
I’ve certainly spent way too much time over the years talking to my spiritual directors about taking my days off.
Whether we like it or not, even if we feel trapped by it, judging by how much time and energy we give to it, it seems that we believe that working is what life is all about.
The Church has some ambiguity about Sabbath.
Some Christian traditions take it seriously enough to want stores closed on Sunday. Other traditions see keeping Sabbath as an example of works righteousness, and so downplay it.
Our own Book of Common Prayer still talks about Saturday as Sabbath in the collect for Saturday in Morning Prayer and in the Collect for Holy Saturday. And yet Sunday is the LORD’s day, the Eighth Day, the Day of Resurrection, of New Creation, and so the day of worship.
Some of our ambiguity may come from what we hear in the gospel this morning. Jesus and his disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath. There is some discussion about that, and about healing and doing good in general on the Sabbath, and Jesus says that famous phrase, “the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath.” From that we might almost think that Jesus is saying, “relax about this Sabbath stuff.” Like he’s making it more about “spirituality” than a particular practice.
But what if he’s not relaxing Sabbath practice? What if he’s rescuing it from being an abstract, religious obligation, and making it touch the ground again? What if he’s saying, “This is about real life? It matters.” 11 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 67.
Some of you have heard me say that the commandment about Sabbath is in the top ten. Keeping Sabbath is as important in God’s eyes as not committing murder or adultery. Why does God care so much?
Deuteronomy says, “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.” 2
We’re all—from the poorest to the richest, both oppressor and oppressed-- captured by an economy and a supporting narrative that tells us that there’s not enough to go around, and that we have to work all the time or feel guilty or anxious about not working, because if you snooze you lose and someone else will get what you want or need.
It’s the economy and it’s the story that runs the world and so our lives, and we all need liberation from it.
But if that’s the world in which we live, then Sabbath discipline is not an arbitrary religious rule. It’s about liberation. Because it’s about the picture of different way of life: a way of life not based on production and consumption and the exploitation that goes with it—a way of life not built on fear of scarcity, but on trust in God’s abundance. We can stop working today and we’ll still be able to eat tomorrow.
Sabbath discipline recognizes that Mammon is a god and that greed is idolatry, 3 but that our God is the God who redeems us from slavery to, which is worship of, other gods. Walter Brueggemann again:
“The reason Miriam and the other women can sing and dance at the end of the exodus narrative is the emergence of new social reality in which the life of the Israelite economy is no longer determined and compelled by the insatiable production quotas of Egypt and its gods.” 4
I used to call my day off—whenever it was—“the Rector’s Sabbath.” And this is often the shallow mainline Christian take on Sabbath. That it’s about personal care and not about liberation from slavery; about encouraging people to get some rest, to take a day off, but not about helping us imagine the transformation of the rest of the week.
Because for Sabbath practice to be what God meant it to be it has to be more than a way to recharge and get ready for another round of work. It has to be more than making us well rested workers in Pharaoh’s economy on Monday!
. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says in his great little book on the Sabbath, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”5
God didn’t create us to be useful. God didn’t create us to produce and consume for the sake of a relentless economy. And God didn’t command us to keep Sabbath so we’d be wellrested workers on Monday.
God created us to love and be loved by God and each other. That’s it. And the economy and its gods should all be in service to that. That’s what Sabbath practice says.
I’m guessing that in an age like ours, with an economy as relentless as ours, it doesn’t make sense for individuals to engage in countercultural Sabbath practice. We need community. We need each other. And in this maybe the Church can learn from our Jewish friends who are used to keeping strange practices as community in an unsympathetic dominant culture.
So I wonder… I wonder about a communal Sabbath practice
• that reveals that we don’t need to fear that if we snooze we lose, or that there isn’t enough to go around, or that to stop working even for a day will cost us more than we can afford, because God’s in charge;
•that reveals the truth that God provides abundantly and so an economy of abundance is possible;
• that looked more like the Eucharist in which we don’t receive God’s gift because we’ve worked for it, but just because God loves us and knows we need it and God wants to give it to us.
I wonder what such a robust, communal Sabbath practice would look like?
1Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 67. 2
2 Deuteronomy 5:15
3 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3.5
4 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 5-6
5 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 14 (italics are mine).