Radical Ways to Refuel: Keeping Sabbath
March 26, 2000
Gen. 1:26-2:3, Deut. 5:12-15, Mark 2:24ff The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scriptures:
The idea of Sabbath - a day of rest each week - is deeply imbedded in
the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed "Shabbat" is arguably the single most
unifying and identifying practice of Judaism, and it has been said
that "more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has
kept the Jews." [Practicing Our Faith, page 80]. It begins in
the ancient story of creation. Let us listen to the Genesis reading.
There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The
first and more familiar is in the book of Exodus. There the
commandment to "remember the Sabbath day" is tied the Genesis story:
because God rested on the seventh day, so too should we. But
Deuteronomy's version links the commandment to rest to the people's
rescue from slavery in Egypt. Listen now to the second reading.
By Jesus' time, Judaism for many had hardened into a long and
precise listing of do's and don'ts - especially do's and don'ts
having to do with the Sabbath. Jesus saw that his people had become
enslaved again - not to the Egyptians, but to their own legalisms.
Listen one more time, to the Gospel reading.
I still remember the feeling I had that day. I was twelve years old. It was Sunday afternoon - the Sabbath day - and my less religious buddies had invited my brother Dave and I to play some baseball. Dave - always the more zealous and committed one of the three sons - was challenging me to come with him, Bible in hand opened to the Ten Commandments, to show our friends just why it was the Snyder boys played no sports on Sundays. Embarrassed, and ashamed of myself and my religion, I let him go by himself.
Sabbath keeping. In those days it was easier than it is today. For the so-called "Blue Laws" - Sunday closing laws - were still in effect in most places. With stores closed, you weren't tempted to get the grocery shopping done on Sunday morning, or go the mall in the afternoon. Schools for the most part didn't schedule activities on Sundays - certainly no sports practices or games. Little Leagues likewise gave their teams Sundays off. So parents and kids in those good old days didn't have to choose between sports and church, between the coach's demands and God's. Sunday was for rest - or at least they weren't for work and shopping and everything else you did the other six days.
Emperor Constantine in the year 321 had declared Sunday to be a day of rest through the Roman Empire, and ever since then Sabbath laws in various forms, practiced sometimes stringently and sometimes not, have been in effect until, that is, about 30-40 years ago when blue laws across this land began to fade. In the name of economic necessity, and freedom from religious law, Sunday became a day as hectic and tumultuous and as a way-too-busy day as every other day. The only business sane enough not to join the stampede to the seven day work week was car dealers, and to this day it is illegal to sell cars on Sunday.
As so we Americans entered into the promised land of no rest. One could argue that the repeal of the Sunday closing laws did more to destroy the American family, and our mental health, than any other single legislative act in our country's history. Blue laws did not go out without a protest, of course. Listen to a resolution affirmed by the Massachusetts Council of Churches in 1977, reaffirmed numerous times by those mainline churches:
Society needs a regular period of rest, relaxation, and renewal, a shift in pace from our pervasive consumerism . . . . A common day of rest makes it more likely that families and friends can experience this relaxation and renewal together. Sunday closing laws are a device to protect the quality of human life in a complex, intense, and almost constantly [moving] society. The rest from labor . . . is such a fundamental human need as to be a sacred duty. To brand [blue] laws as archaic is to pretend that these needs are outmoded.
And, with that Council of Churches, I raise a lonely voice today in favor of a return to blue laws. Short of that, I propose that we enact them in our own homes. For we are a weary people; we need a break!
Look back at the three readings for today. In Genesis we saw the biblical foundation for the institution of Sabbath rest. If God needed rest, the reasoning goes, then surely we do too. If God could afford to rest, and the world go on without him so to speak, then it will probably go on without us if we rest for a day. The Hebrew people saw in the stories of creation itself the principle that one day in seven was to be a day of rest.
In the reading from Deuteronomy the command to rest is connected to the Israelites' liberation from bondage in Egypt. It's as though the writer is saying, "Do you remember when you were slaves, and you had no rest, and every day was just like every other day, and you were so weary from ceaseless labor? Keep Sabbath because you are free to keep Sabbath! Sabbath is a privilege - a mark of freedom!"
And in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus say that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath." Again, the point of Sabbath is freedom, not bondage. And the reason for Sabbath is health - ours and society's. Sabbath keeping is at the heart of the biblical tradition. What shall we do about it?
Dorothy Bass in the book, Practicing Our Faith, shares some excellent ideas about how we today can keep Sabbath. She first asks what is not good to do on our one day of rest each week? What should we avoid if at all possible to make a Sabbath day one worth keeping? She invokes three millennia of Jewish reflection on Sabbath to tell us that on Sabbath we are to avoid work, commerce, and worry.
Work, in Jewish tradition, is whatever requires changing the natural, material world. Keeping Sabbath then means, to "let it be." One day in seven, "let it be." Let the earth rest. Refraining from work means that we know that in the end it is not our work that grows the grain. It is the grace of God, and the good earth that feeds us. "To refrain from working opens the temporal space within which glad and grateful relationship with God and peaceful and appreciative relationship with nature and other people can grow."
Likewise, avoiding commerce on Sabbath creates the space in our lives in which relationships can grow. "Buying and spending are closely related to work, and often are work," and contribute to other people having to work. Besides, what could be a more distasteful way to spend a Sunday afternoon than fighting one's way down the aisle of a Pic 'N Save? What could be more destructive to one's spiritual well being than an afternoon going from store to store finding more things to desperately want and not need at all?
And worry - let us for one day a week refrain from worry. Dorothy Bass makes the very practical suggestion that on Sabbath we never make long lists of all the things we will have to do that week, or pay the bills, or this time of year do our taxes. Such things will only make us worry, and on Sabbath, we say, "let it be."
But what shall we do on Sabbath? If we can't work, or shop, or worry - what is there left?! On Sabbath let us first of all worship. Jewish Shabbat on Friday evenings always includes going to temple - renewing one's relationship with God and with the people of God. Christian Sabbath on Sunday begins the same way, with "joyful worship that restores us to communion with the risen Christ and our fellow members of his body, the church."
Keeping Sabbath should also mean time with loved ones - especially in these days when families are torn in every direction, such that we seldom sit down even to eat together. Sabbath rest is rest from those demands so that a family can be a family together - what a concept!
Sabbath means worship, it means time with loved ones; and Sabbath can also be time for solitude - for sleep, for reading, reflection, for walking, prayer, for doing nothing. The Italians have a wonderful expression La dolce far niente - "The sweetness of doing nothing!" Worship, family, doing nothing at all - about as counter-cultural as you can get, and very nearly un-American!
Our Puritan forebears used to say that "good Sabbaths make good Christians," and they were right. Sabbaths that would allow us to for one whole day set aside work and worry, and instead do worship and nurture our inward being as well as our closest relationships, and allow our physical bodies time to heal and rest as well - such Sabbaths would surely make us better Christians. Anything that would make us "step off the treadmill of work-and-spend" would have to be good for us! Again let me quote Dorothy Bass: "Overworked Americans need rest, and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things. Moreover, the planet needs a rest from human plucking and burning and buying and selling."
So what are we do, practically speaking, about introducing Shabbat into our lives? Since blue laws are not coming back, let us institute our own rules, for our own homes. Rules, yes I said "rules." We don't care much for rules, do we? The very word sounds inhibiting, inflexible, dogmatic and narrow. But desperate times call for desperate measures! Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes about Sabbath laws that "It is for the law [the rules] to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit." If the path is never cleared, the space in time never created for rest, the spirit will never find that rest. Wade Clark Roof in his book Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion says that "people today seek to be simultaneously fluid and grounded. We want the benefits of anchors without their limits." In this case, we need some anchoring rules about Sabbath in order to enjoy the stability and health that comes from keeping Sabbath.
Our subtitle for this Lenten series is "Radical Ways to Refuel." If you want to be radically different from the rest of society, make some rules for yourself about the need for rest one day a week, be it Saturday or Sunday or whenever. Decide that you won't work or shop or compete in sports activities on your Sabbath. Decide that your family no matter what will eat a Sabbath meal together, at a table, and not in front of a television. Decide that you will do nothing besides nurture friends and your own soul on Sabbath - those would be radical decisions indeed. And not very popular either.
If, like me, you don't feel up to quite so radical decisions as that, then begin smaller. Carol and I have recently begun a Sabbath tradition in our home. Our Sabbath is Monday- our day off - and we have decided to begin that Sabbath with the Sunday evening meal. The first step was to put in on the calendar. The harder step is to try to keep our calendars clear on Sunday evenings. But we have begun a very simple ritual, modeled after what our Jewish brothers and sisters do on their Shabbat: we start the meal by lighting two candles at the table, and saying traditional Shabbat prayers. That's all. It isn't much. But it is a start. And in the short time we've been doing it, we have come to look forward to that little space of quiet each week - the beginning of a day in which we, as best we can, set aside the work and worry of the week, in order to rest.
Each of us has to work out the idea of Sabbath to fit our own circumstances. The exact way we work it out is far less important than that we do find Sabbath rest for ourselves and our families. God help us in this Lenten season to find renewal through the practice of keeping the Sabbath. Amen.