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Sabbath Freedom

Judy Skaggs

July 10, 2011
Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

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Like many of you fellow senior citizens, when I was a little girl, Sunday looked very different than it does today. We went to church both morning and evening with youth group in the afternoon. Church was about all there was to do. No stores were open, the picture show was closed, you might even have trouble finding a gas station open.

After morning worship, we went to my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner and would sit around there just visiting almost all afternoon. Sometimes my grandmother would take me down to the Memorial Building for the “singing.” People from all the churches came and we sang all those good old hymns that seem to be drifting out of modern hymnals. In my family, there was no rule, but it was sort of unspoken that you just did not do anything particularly secular on Sundays. And I never thought anything about Sunday being different from the other days of the week.

Now, however, Sunday is pretty much like any other day. I was trying to think of something that could not be done on Sundays. The banks are closed, but we can still bank at an ATM machine or online. There are so many things seducing our attention every day- buy me, watch me, try me, drink me, text me! The list goes on and on.

And then, here comes the fourth commandment. In Exodus it begins – Remember! Remember the Sabbath! As if God knew that we would forget. Remember to disconnect, to cease, to seek balance and the natural rhythms of life. Come away from the frenzy of consumption and accomplishment, and take a deep breath!

In Exodus, the reason for remembering and keeping the Sabbath is because of creation. Remember in the first chapter of Genesis, as each day is created, something new is added to the cosmos. On the fifth day, birds and sea creatures are created and God blessed them. Then on the sixth day, all other animals and humankind are created, and blessed. And God saw that it was very good!

But on the seventh day, Genesis says that God finished creating, and God rested and God blessed the seventh day. The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God continued to create because God made tranquility, peace, rest, the deepest sense of a healing stillness. And only after that stillness was created was God finished.

And God blessed that day, that time. It is interesting that God blesses a time, not a thing, but something that is so illusive that it cannot be grasped. Perhaps when we are truly practicing the Sabbath, it is as if time stands still and we are no longer concerned about it. On the seventh day in Genesis, the writer does not include the refrain that is on all the other days – and there was evening and there was morning the seventh day. Perhaps Sabbath time has nothing to do with the clock, but is not measured.

Perhaps because Sabbath is part of the created order, the need for it is actually built into our being. And yet we all know that we fight against this kind of quietness, this stopping of normal activities. Being busy has become a status symbol. I have been amazed as people talk to me about retiring that they usually ask – so what are you going to do? And when we meet someone, that is often one of the first questions we ask to try to learn about them – so what do you do? It is just automatic, isn’t it?

But we are also recognizing that we can get too busy. We can go at a frenzied pace, we commit to too many projects, we want to solve all the problems of the world! I read something this week that the Chinese pictograph for “busy” is composed of two characters for heart and killing.

We have forgotten the Sabbath, this great gift of God.

The second version of the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy has a different reason for observing the Sabbath. The reason here has to do with Israel being brought out of the slavery of Egypt.

If we think about it, in Egypt, there was no rest, any time. The Hebrews worked 24/7. The slaves never got a day off – Pharaoh probably never took a day off. He pushed to get his great cities built so that his name would be immortalized! Everyone was caught up in an endless cycle of production and accomplishment.

But the Lord brought them out of that slavery, out of that bondage. And in their wilderness wanderings, God had prepared them for the idea of Sabbath. Remember the story of the manna? They had cried out to God for food and so God has sent manna every evening that they could gather in the morning and make cakes to eat. But God told them that on the sixth day, they were to gather enough food for two days so that on the seventh day, they could rest.

Now this was a new concept. What a surprise when they found extra manna as a provision for practicing Sabbath. Israel began to see a new possibility of how to enter into the rhythm of life. They are relieved of the anxieties of slavery and are given freedom to live in service to God.

The commandment in Deuteronomy goes even further in emphasizing that no slaves will work on the Sabbath. Sabbath becomes a sort of equalizer, for everyone is the same during Sabbath rest. No slaves, no animals, no alien within your gates, no person works. Every creature enters into the freedom of Sabbath. In a sense, this commandment has an element of justice built into its very fabric. Rest is for all.

When we get to the New Testament, Sabbath keeping is presumed. We find some controversy, however, on exactly how it was to be kept. The scribes and Pharisees had written some 1500 ways to describe what “work” was. And this is where Jesus got into trouble with the Jewish authorities. Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, in fact in both Mark and Luke, he begins his ministries by healing on the Sabbath. And he got into trouble every time. Listen to Mark 2:23-28.

Jesus’ conclusion is that the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. Sabbath is a pure gift from God – a gift that gives life, a gift that teaches about what we need, a gift that reminds us of how we were created.

So here we are in the midst of a world that has forgotten Sabbath for the most part, and maybe does not even understand what the practice of Sabbath is really all about. We have passed the point where the laws of the state are going to force us to not do certain things on Sundays. Perhaps it would be easier if we had some laws again that forced us to slow down, but the fact is that we are completely free to use our Sundays as we want.

We can, however, ask ourselves how we can better celebrate this gift of holy time. How can we remember the redemptive work of God that we find in the scriptures and also that we find in our own lives? How can we pause to breathe deeply in the rhythms of creation, of action and rest? How can we use Sabbath time to draw closer to God?

When we gather here on the Sabbath, we begin by lighting candles. When our Jewish friends begin Sabbath at sundown on Friday evening, they also light candles. Perhaps that simple act is one way that we begin to remember. Light is such a strong symbol for us – God bringing forth light at creation, Jesus saying – I am the light of the world, you are the light of the world, the lamp stand in the temple, and some of the last verses in the scriptures – there will be no need for lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.

And we honor Sabbath by singing and praying, by blessing children, reading scriptures, feasting at this table all together as one community.

Perhaps Sabbath is really our grandmothers from another era calling us to come and sit and have a glass of tea, reminding us to be thoughtful and mindful, to be still and stop our striving after those things that are really not important, to be gentle with the earth and all people, including ourselves, to be contented. For in finding Sabbath, we find our life in God. Amen.