Sabbath: Give it a Rest!

Proper 4 Year B, June 3, 2018

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you….”                         - Deuteronomy 5:12 (NRSV)

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so, the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”   -Mark 2:27-28 (NRSV)


Wildflowers seen on hike above Lake Whatcom - author photo

Wildflowers seen on hike above Lake Whatcom - author photo

I take a sabbath day every week if possible.  My sabbath is Friday since Sunday is a work day.  Friday is a day to cease and desist. That’s what sabbath means: it means to cease activity, to desist from daily concerns, to rest.

I need my sabbath days for rest.  So do you. We’re not made for endless striving.  We’re made for relationship with God and one another.  And that relationship with God requires rest.

On my sabbath I don’t look at work email.  I will respond to emergencies, but I will try to leave other work until the sabbath is over.  I’m struggling on my sabbath days not to overindulge on the media, but to rest from it.

We all require rest.  When I walk on a pleasant spring day down to Boulevard Park and see others there; their phones stowed away, walking, watching children play on the playground or tossing stones into the waves; I see rest.  When I see people riding a bicycle, teetering along a slackline, throwing a frisbee, scanning the sky for the volleyball that swiftly comes their way, reading a book on a blanket, or simply sitting and staring out across the bay, I see rest.  And when I see all of that, and see that we all need rest, I feel my kinship with all these people. I recognize that in other contexts in which we meet some of the people I meet might get on my nerves, and I might get on theirs. When I’m resting, I’m more inclined to see the unity that’s right there in front of my face, a unity that is given by God the Creator.

It's a funny thing what you notice when you’re thinking about sabbath.

While looking for something on YouTube to relax a tired mind, I found video from a camera mounted in a railroad train cab showing the sights and sounds of a rail trip through a snowy, forested landscape.  I watched that video for 20 minutes. It was relaxing. And I could see that the video went on for hours. The experience reminded me how much my dad loved trains, and how I loved to ride them with him, staring out the window for hours at the plains of Nebraska on a trip east.

Then, undoubtedly because of some algorithm that Google has, I later found something else in my feed; a story from an American network Sunday show about “Slow TV,” a phenomenon in Norway.  As it turns out, it was Norwegian TV I was watching on that train ride. It’s enormously popular there. At any given time, half of Norway’s population may be watching a cow wander in a field, or 51/2 hours of salmon fishing, or the knitting of a sweater, beginning with the shearing of a sheep.  It’s called “Slow TV.” Its creators took a risk of boring people, and as it turns out, people are willing to be bored on the chance that they might find something interesting during slowing down and noticing.

I then saw the ad for the “Slow Watch,” a Swiss product with only one hand which shows no minutes or seconds, just hours. “With its 24-hour one hand concept it will remind you to stop chasing minutes and live for the moment,” the watchmakers claim.

Then yesterday morning I noticed in my news feed the story about the world’s quietest room and research into the need humans have for silence.

Clearly, human beings have the need for the sabbath that Holy Scripture commands, don’t they?  

Sabbath affords the opportunity for rest, and rest affords the opportunity for perception, for insight, for reflection, for play, for creativity, for fresh approaches to problems, like how to get along with each other.

And I think of what the first creation story in Genesis tells us, which is that when God had completed creation God pronounced a blessing upon the newly-created human couple and said “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed….”  Our NRSV weakly and inadequately translates the Hebrew hinneh as “See,” and I’m convinced by reading Maggie Ross that “Behold” is a superior translation. It communicates so much more strongly the call to contemplation inherent in “Behold”, to call to what the late Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls “the long, loving look at the real.”

I also find moving her insight that the command to behold was the first covenant that God made with humanity, and all the other covenants that follow are given us because we couldn’t keep the first covenant, which was to behold the gift of our being in creation and live gratefully and securely with one another in the beholding.

I think there’s a big clue to the importance of sabbath in our collect for today, in which we pray “O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth.”  Rest and reflection allow us to behold that God is in charge, not us. Rest allows us to behold that God is everywhere, within us, without us, transcending us, giving birth to us constantly.  In the words of St. Paul, in God “we live and move and have our being.” And in this realization, we come inevitably to a deeper respect for every human being.

To behold, through sabbath rest, that God’s never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and on earth” leads us to entreat God to “put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things that are profitable for us.”

Sabbath helps us put away from us those hurtful things: the feverish pursuit of the Almighty Dollar as if that were the only way to gain what is profitable, the many voices of cranky and vituperative people paid enormous sums to broadcast back to us our prejudices and our fears about gender or race or politics, the temptations of the enemy to see in others only evil and to ignore the evil that resides within us, the temptation to divide the world simplistically into the good guys and the bad guys, placing ourselves in the latter camp, the culture of lying and dissembling that we’re seeing today.  All these things, and more, are hurtful.

God wants to give us what is good for us.  In our Gospel story Jesus sets the sabbath in proper context. Jesus is angry in this passage; angry at hard-heartedness.  He declares himself Lord of the sabbath, and defying convention, he heals a man, showing the true meaning of sabbath. The purpose of the sabbath is to prepare us to give and receive love and mercy.

We’re commanded to keep sabbath, because God knows we need it.  We need it to sustain us in that for which we are created, which is love.

And love is hard, but also joyful.  Let’s hear from Dorothy Day about that:

Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, "What else is the world interested in?" What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved. And not just in the family but to look upon all as our mothers, sisters, brothers, children. It is when we love the most intensely and most humanly that we can recognize how tepid is our love for others. The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.                                    
-Dorothy Day, 1897-1980, The Reckless Way of Love.

Where are you in accepting the commandment to sabbath?  Where are you in accepting this gift?

Let us pray:

O God, in keeping sabbath we behold your never-failing providence setting in order all things both in heaven and earth: Incline us to keep sabbath, so that in it we may find you removing from us hurtful things and giving us those things that are truly profitable for us, through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord of the Sabbath.  Amen.