A congregation of the United Church of Canada
(Off Lectionary) ~ Mark 2:23-28
Today is part 2 of a sermon series about the fourth commandment – to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – and we’re beginning with a strange passage of scripture. Jesus and the disciples are in the middle of nowhere walking through a grain field. The Pharisees, who have no logical reason to be there, supposedly scold Jesus for breaking the rules by plucking and eating from the grain field. Except that’s not against the Sabbath rules! It’s something of a mystery why the rule keepers get the rule wrong! It’s a very strange exchange.
In the end Jesus says this:
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so humans are masters/have control over the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)
And this, I suggest, is the real point of this whole encounter. The Pharisees are there to show us that legalism and Sabbath don’t belong together. Instead, Jesus says that humankind has control over the Sabbath – that it is made for us (to help us, to serve our spiritual deepening) rather than us being obliged to serve the supposed rules of the Sabbath.
But be careful here.
Jesus is not saying that humankind can make Sabbath into whatever we want.
He’s saying that the Sabbath is for us, and that we as individuals need to figure out what that means for us and not just blindly follow a checklist of rules.
He’s saying we need to do the hard work of discerning what Sabbath-keeping looks like for ourselves instead of relying on some priest, or Pharisee, or minister, or cultural tradition telling us how to do it.
Legalism has apparently always been a challenge for Sabbath-keeping. The temptation to create a checklist full of rules and regulations that become the focus of whether you’re ‘doing it right’ is very powerful.
The reality is that every one of us has different rhythms and circumstances.
The world is far more complicated than Moses and the writers of the ancient rules could have ever possibly imagined. They were a self-contained people who shared a very similar life experience. They were small enough and alike enough that uniformity was fathomable. And their reliance on technology was minimal, so their ability to put down the plough for a day and step away from the tools of work was more clearly defined.
Needless to say, life today is decidedly different!
Huge arguments are still ongoing about what the proper day for Sabbath is. For Jews it’s Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Many Christians argue it’s Sunday, what we call the Lord’s Day. Some Christian biblical literalists argue for Saturday like the Jews did it. If you’re Muslim your holy day is Friday.
What a ridiculous thing to be obsessed with and fight about – as if God is somewhere keeping score as to who gets it right or wrong. I get where their passion is coming from, but I think it’s misplaced.
So I won’t be saying anything about what the ‘right’ days or ways to keep Sabbath are. If you’re waiting for me to lay out the definitive United Church method of Sabbath-keeping you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Sunday would seem the most logical day for us to begin to think about keeping Sabbath, but for me it’s the busiest, workiest day of the week!
I have to do my whole one hour of work today!
And it becomes two hours when our Sunday Night Worship services pick up again. Sundays for me are anything but rest from work.
But maybe for you it’s the perfect day.
Maybe for you this very act of coming to church and worshipping is the centre-point of your potential Sabbath-keeping!
And maybe for the person sitting beside you it’s another day!
So if we can’t even agree on what single day we should keep Sabbath on it’s very unlikely we can agree on many other rules.
Instead, what I’m going to offer are some principles – some insights into ways to approach Sabbath-keeping that you need to figure out how to apply to your own life.
But before I do I’d like to remind you about last week’s sermon, which was part one of today’s.
We talked about how when God freed the Israelites from Egypt God was inviting them into an entirely different paradigm for how the world was supposed to work – God’s way instead of Pharaoh’s way.
Remember, Pharaoh’s kingdom was all about the bricks!
The Jews were slaves to produce more and more bricks to build store houses for Pharaoh’s riches and goods, and to build monuments to Pharaoh’s self-importance.
Pharaoh was driven by the need for more and more bricks – which drove the slaves, the Jews, to have to produce more and more bricks.
There was massive anxiety about producing bricks.
There were never enough bricks.
And the slaves had to keep working harder and harder to try to satisfy an endless desire for more.
By stark contrast, God’s rhythm – a rhythm of work and rest – a rhythm set in place in Genesis chapter 1, in the beginning – God’s rhythm is different.
It’s the shift from commodity to community – from mindlessness to mindfulness – from attainment to attunement – from restlessness to restfulness.
The escape from Egypt is a fundamental rejection of the commodity-driven world in favour of embracing a community-drawn world. It’s an act of absolute and utter resistance! And like I said last week (in what may have been the greatest sermon title ever), in this case, resistance is fertile!
Sabbath is so much more than just a day of leisure. It represents an entirely revolutionary alternative system of social interconnection.
Walter Brueggemann said, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It’s a reimagining of all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” (p.45)
Sabbath isn’t just stopping work for one day – it represents a whole new way to live all seven days!
So, whatever we say today about approaches to Sabbath-keeping none of it matters if our sense of Sabbath does not break the cycle of acquisition, anxiety, and counting bricks!
Let’s say this. Let’s say that Sabbath is like fasting from work, acquisition, and anxiety.
We know what fasting means. But remember this. Fasting alone is never all that helpful.
In spiritual matters, fasting MUST be accompanied by feasting!
If all you do is stop doing something all you’ll accomplish is creating a hole where that thing was. We also need to fill that hole with something.
What shall we feast on???
Sabbath creates a pause.
Sabbath affords a deep breath.
Sabbath clears the mind.
Sabbath opens the door.
Sabbath generates spaciousness.
If you don’t fill that spaciousness with something your brain, habits, desires, jealousies, anxieties, and self-importance will race in to fill up the vacuum.
And that leads us directly to two great cautions that if not dealt with will utterly undermine your Sabbath-keeping: ego and multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking means doing more than one thing at once, or having your mind occupied by more than one goal or task at once, which is a sure-fire way to sabotage your Sabbath.
It’s not a genuine work stoppage if your brain is still working on work!
You haven’t broken the cycle of acquisition and anxiety if, while you’re supposedly keeping Sabbath, you’re also clock-watching, counting off the hours/minutes until you’re “allowed” to work again.
There’s a phrase for that. It’s called going through the motions.
If you ever find yourself sitting in church thinking about your to-do list you know exactly how insidious this multi-tasking thing is!
And the other caution is about our ego.
The problem is that we are so certain that we are so important that we can’t imagine how the world could possibly do without us for a time! That’s pure ego!
Granted, there are many situations where certain aspects of the world truly can’t do without you. Perhaps you’re the main caregiver for a child or someone with great challenges, or perhaps there are time sensitive things beyond just counting bricks that really do need your attention.
Remember, Sabbath is not about legalism. We aren’t going to set up rules and keep score. Life is complicated and messy. What we’re interested in here is Sabbath spaciousness for spiritual communion with God.
That will look different for every one of us.
That being said, for most of us, most of the time, our sense that the world will fall apart without us if we stepped off for a couple of hours is pure ego.
Ok. I think I’m finally ready to offer you some insight into how to keep Sabbath! Are you ready? Deep breath! (that’s it – we’re done!)
No, just kidding (well, only kinda): here it comes – here’s the key to Sabbath-keeping in the 21st century in the Canadian context ~~~~~~ Rest up!
It’s a mnemonic. Each letter represents a key concept for Sabbath-keeping!
R is for Resolve – as in decide and follow through on your intention to embrace Sabbath. This is undoubtedly the most important part because without this you don’t start, you don’t get a chance to do any of the other parts.
This is the act of resistance that we talked about last week.
This is the part where you agree to even attempt to embody the rhythm of Sabbath.
This is the part where you say no to the commodity, anxiety, acquisition, production, consumption system, you commit to stop counting bricks, and you resolve to immerse yourself in God’s alternative kingdom – for a Sabbath rest.
E is for Ebb – as in to recede, or withdraw. It’s the act of slowing down, pulling back, and stepping off. Recede, withdraw, slow down, pull back, step off. That’s the Sabbath posture. Ebb.
S is for Sequester – as in setting yourself apart, finding silence and solitude, and carving out space. I could’ve just said silence and solitude, but sequester is a more provocative word for me. It may well be impossible for you to be alone during your Sabbath time, and that may be a good thing. It’s about inner solitude more than actual aloneness.
Right now, right here, we are, in a manner of speaking, sequestered from the world.
T is for Table – as in to table your work and production requirements knowing they’ll be there to pick up afterwards. With very few exceptions your work can stand to be tabled for a time. It doesn’t mean you throw it away or devalue it necessarily – it just means you lay it down and don’t fuss with it while it’s on the table.
Work later – rest now.
U is for Unplug – literally, as in technology, and figuratively as in to pause and rest. For many of us this may be the toughest part of all.
Technology, especially media, can draw us away so easily. And yet technology can be so life-giving too. Some of my most important spiritual formation practices are apps on my phone.
So if I unplug from all technology I may actually be hindering my spiritual communion with God.
And yet with one touch of a finger I can go from spirituality to stupidity. It’s so hard to know how to handle this.
And so rather than being legalistic I encourage us to be faithful – to try our best – to unplug from the types of technology that draw us away from God and only use the kinds that draw us deeper into God.
But I’ll also say that from time to time literally and completely unplugging in a radical way may just be exactly what we need to do!
Let this be your guide: for Sabbath time, unplug whatever you can, and be wary of what you’ve left plugged in!
And finally, now that we’ve resolved to participate, ebbed from our usual rhythms, sequestered ourselves as best we can, tabled our work, and unplugged from whatever we can – now that we’ve gone through the steps of fasting we have created the spaciousness we need to feast!
And so, P is for Pray. Just stopping work is all well and good but if you only fast from stuff and don’t then use that time for feasting on God/Jesus/Holy Spirit then Sabbath is just another commodity and accomplishment!
So pray, ponder, worship, sing, contemplate, revel, reflect, savour, breathe, be grateful, be awed, bask in the wonder and mystery and be mindful of God and God’s Presence and God’s love as you unclutter your attention and stand in the flow of the river!
Take that guideline, that rhythm, and figure out how to make it fit for you and your life.
And don’t worry about someone else’s legalistic rules!
The Sabbath was made for you, and not you to fit into someone else’s idea of Sabbath!
I simply encourage you to wrestle with it – for it’s the time spent wrestling that is truly deep Sabbath time! Resisting the commodity/anxiety/brick-counting system is not a one shot deal. The process of our wrestling and trying to figure out what Rest Up means or looks like for each of us is as much Sabbath time as our idealized picture of what supposed Sabbath perfection looks like.
What’s the point of Sabbath? – To turn from the world’s brick-counting malaise for a time, and immerse ourselves in the wonder and awe of God’s Loving Presence.
So every minute of uncomfortable, frustrating, exasperating wrestling you do is actually prayer time!
It may not be pretty, but it’s honest, and real, and spiritual, and transformational, and holy – and it’s most certainly NOT counting bricks!
Start small and establish a new rhythm. Pick a day that works for you.
Maybe the most you can manage at first is a Sabbath morning, or a Sabbath afternoon?
A couple of hours where you really and truly resolve, ebb, sequester, table, unplug, and pray is surely better than a full 24 hours of distracted clock-watching!
At first it will probably feel weird!
You’re not used to spending so much time in God’s alternative paradigm.
You’ve been immersed in the acquisition-anxiety-commodity system your whole life.
It’ll take time to inhabit such a different world and stop multi-tasking. A couple of hours will feel like forever. It shouldn’t be torture, but it might not feel natural at first. Give it time!
And in time perhaps your Sabbath time will increase.
But there’s no magic number of hours. There’s no set time.
Even our most halting effort is a positive, powerful act of resistance!
The point is not to ‘do it right’ – whatever that means.
The point is to participate in God’s kingdom, in God’s paradigm, in God’s rhythm of life, in God’s sacred rest.
If this all sounds difficult to you then you’ve understood it perfectly!
Resistance is hard work!
Going against the prevailing cultural winds is tough stuff.
Saying no to constantly counting bricks in a world of constant brick counting requires serious faith and effort.
I suggest you…Rest Up! And don’t give up!
Sabbath-keeping is not a walk in the park – although a walk in the park would be a great start!
And in whatever Sabbath time you can manage God promises to renew and refresh you so that the rest of your week looks entirely new.
Sabbath was made for you!
Go fourth! Rest Up, and be refreshed!