by Louise Westfall
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
I’ve preached on this, Fourth of the Ten Commandments, at least annually throughout my ministry. The sermons generally follow this arc: God designed creation (including humans) for both work and rest, a natural balance that is good for body and soul. But most of us are out of whack, working addictively and exhaustively to the detriment of our spirits. Sabbath-keeping is a healing spiritual antidote that can help us find the way back to our center. In other words, we should work harder … to rest, relax, re-charge.
I still believe that (even though I have a hard time practicing what I preach). But today I want to go in another direction. For one thing, most of know we’re too busy. And we do try to correct the work/life balance when it gets skewed. We schedule space for recreation; for quality time with our families, taking care of the relationships that mean the most to us.
Exercise, sports and cultural activities, travel and vacations are all good parts of our full calendars.
But I’m not sure that’s precisely what it means to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Some conversations I had this week challenged me to think differently about it. Rather than concluding that the main thing is to rebalance our lives so there’s more leisure (though that’s probably something that would benefit us all!), perhaps it means recognizing a dimension we often ignore. So I want to try and stitch these conversations together almost the way you do with fabric pieces to make a quilt, which may help us see a new pattern emerge. First off is the weekly conversation I have with Scripture. Our morning text addresses Sabbath practice by way of the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders, those whose commitment and careers were founded in obedience to the Law of Moses, sacred commandments handed down from Almighty God. A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the second chapter at the twenty-third verse. Listen for God’s Word to you. [Mark 2:23-3:6]
This text sounds as if there’s something more important about Sabbath-keeping than refraining from all work. Can you imagine a sermon here today scolding you for grocery shopping on Sunday? For helping out a neighbor in need instead of coming to worship? The Pharisees were so hell-bent on following the letter of the law and making sure everyone else did too, they missed the reason for it: a gift from God for human flourishing. They burned with anger towards Jesus because he broke the rule. Jesus became angry with them because the rules had become their god. A friend who is a law professor in another city was complaining to me about how the Rule of Law—the very bedrock of a free society — so often gets reduced to the rules of law. The rules become ends in themselves, rather than instruments in service to justice. An example: the United States has rules regarding immigration, and legal actions –including deportation — to redress infractions. Still, to cite those rules as justification for separating children from their parents who have transgressed those rules seems inhumane. Jesus’ anger with the Pharisees was an expression of his disappointment that these righteous leaders failed to understand that the heart of Sabbath-keeping had to do with compassion and mercy; care that no one is left hungry or hurting. His words to them speak to me about something more important than simple adherence to the law. [Cue the soundtrack to Les Miz! Jean Val Jean stole bread to feed his family. Inspector Javert could never move beyond pursuing him for his trespass, and broke himself upon the Law] Love surpasses obedience when human good is at stake. The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Faithfulness to God’s commands will always, always, bring goodness to people in the world God loves so well.
And perhaps that is the most urgent message we have to share. One of the conversations this week was with a young woman who is a social worker in an affluent Michigan suburban public school system. After a rash of high school suicides (it’s heartbreaking to put those words in the same sentence), some parents, teachers, and mental health professionals noticed a common thread among the students who had taken their lives: each had been bullied, ridiculed and lied about on social media. The power of the “smart” phones we are never without is a two-edged sword, capable of producing great wonder, but also tragic destruction. So they started recommending students stop using all social media as a 3-month experiment. Those who did reported that they were sleeping better, having more positive interactions with parents and peers, and generally felt better about themselves. It’s hardly conclusive, but it does make me wonder if the idea of “Sabbath” — of consciously withdrawing from the context in which one’s worth is measured by Instagram “likes” and you can be tried, judged, and punished by a viral Facebook post — could be a game-changer, providing space and time for healthy self-reflection and cultivation of face-to-face relationships. Sometimes to say “yes” to something, you have to say “no” to some other things.
Perhaps the prohibition against work on the Sabbath was meant to help us remember the “yes” behind the “no:” the truth that you are worth more than anything you produce; you are a person who is infinitely cherished and nothing you do can change that.
Take a break to remember that you too are holy, and wholly loved.
Last Sunday a group of Central members gathered early to discuss our community engagement focus and what that might look like in the year ahead. The conversation was wide-ranging, but touched several times on the loneliness so widespread these days. Could it be that this is really a thing? Well, yes. We live in the most tech-connected age in human civilization, yet the number of adults describing themselves as lonely has doubled since the 1980s. And that is true across every age category from teenagers and millennials to Boomers and seniors. I read that Great Britain just this year created a cabinet post addressing loneliness, and its far-reaching health consequences: sleep deprivation, substance use disorders, depression, despair, and suicide, increased production of stress hormones, rising blood pressure, and decreased resilience to life situations.
Sabbath is the very antithesis of loneliness, because it is kept in relationship, with God and other people. I think maybe the Pharisees were very lonely people, caught up in their law books and endlessly striving to balance the scales of religion. Their fury must have been born of confusion and fear, because if Jesus, the Son of Man, rules the Sabbath, then they didn’t. If grace overrides law, then who’s keeping track of goodness? Who’s minding the store? They forgot the One who first loved them, and not only them, but the whole world. The One who rules that world with truth and grace and won’t let go for anything.
Friends, the antidote to loneliness is not more “me-time,” but more God-time; more Sabbath time immersed in the community of imperfect people learning to obey the greatest commandments, to love God, and love one another.
One word we use to describe it is communion. Here we find a joyous feast at a table where people from north and south and east and west gather as one; a nourishing meal to which we are invited by the Lord of Love. This is the table where we remember …
… remember who we are, and Whose we are, and with a deep sigh of relief realize we belong. We are home.
Thanks be to God!