Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NRSV
5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.
5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.
We know that observing the Sabbath day is important. Our very first example of Sabbath observance comes in the book of Genesis, when “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” We really do think that Sabbath is important. And yet, we don’t really observe it. So, let’s talk about keeping Sabbath.
Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) is Saturday, the seventh day of the week. The Jewish people were really serious about doing no work on the Sabbath - many still are. Even today rabbis continue to study and determine which things are and are no the kind of work one may not do on Shabbat. Turning on electric lights, for example, is like lighting a flame, so that may not be done. Putting in false teeth is still being debated. (Leaving them in overnight is the preferred option.) There have been times when I was talking with my orthodox Jewish friend in Jerusalem early on a Friday morning and he will suddenly say, “I have to get off the phone. Shabbat begins in 5 minutes.” Which means it’s about to be sunset in Jerusalem and he has to make sure whatever lights need to be turned on are on before the sun goes down, and that computers, phones and tv are all turned off. His wife will have all the cooking for Friday night and Saturday done before sunset. Saturday morning, he and his family will walk to shul (synagogue), which is no further than 2,000 steps or 2/3 mile from their home. When they get back home, they might read Torah or play games with the children, but none that require work, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or writing down scores. They are serious about observing Sabbath.
We don’t actually observe the Sabbath. Rather, we worship on Sunday, which is called the Lord’s Day, because it is the day the women came and found the tomb empty - the day of the resurrection. The earliest disciples went to Temple on the Sabbath, and gathered together on the 1st day, the Lord’s Day, to learn about Jesus and share a meal. As the decades passed and more Gentiles joined the church, it simply became the norm for Christians to worship on the Lord’s Day. So worship day and Sabbath aren’t really the same thing for most Christians - although our Seventh Day Adventist brothers and sisters do worship on the actual Sabbath. What has happened, though, is we have kind of shifted what we mean by Sabbath. There are a lot of people who believe that Sunday is the Sabbath. It’s not. But it is the day we, Christians, worship God.
There was a time in this country, not all that long ago, when churches had morning and evening services and everyone went to both. When Sunday was dedicated to worship and rest and family time, and the acceptable recreations for Sundays including reading edifying books, family dinners, and playing games. Most stores and businesses weren’t open on Sundays, although many restaurants were. I remember when 7-11 stores were the only places open on Sundays. Today, of course, malls and stores are open on Sunday, kids soccer leagues play on Sundays, and of course, major league sports of all kinds fill the airways. And that is partly because fewer people actually go to church today than did, say, in the 1950s. And it’s partly why fewer people go to church than they did, say, in the 1950s. I both love and hate that malls and stores are open on Sundays, because it’s convenient for me (after worship), but it also means that in many cases, people who might want to be in worship today can’t be, because they have to work. (That whole soccer thing . . . I have a friend, a pastor, married to another pastor, whose daughter played soccer on Sundays instead of going to church. I know, right? But there wasn’t any other day to play, and she was really good.)
I get my hair done at Urban Cuts, the new barber shop over on High Street, and the owner is very proud of the fact that he works 7 days a week. He goes to the gym most days, and works the shop from open to close. He’s about to get busier because he’s opening a new shop in the Hanford Mall, and he’ll be running back and forth between the two. I keep telling him he needs to take some time to himself. He says “I’m too busy to take time off.” He’s young and fit. He can do it, but still. Even God needed a day off!
For you students, the ones who are heading off to college or graduate school, or who have jobs lined up and are ready to begin your career . . . take some time for yourself. And before you say, “I’m too busy to take time off!” . . . I get it, I do. Because I’ve been in college and grad school and holding down jobs while studying and writing papers and serving a church and coming home to a husband to cook and clean for and all of that. I graduated from seminary on a Saturday, was ordained the next day, and was on my way to my first church two days after that. I did not rest in between (because I don’t think driving across country is restful), so I know it’s not easy. But even God needed a day off.
So many of you, here in this room, as so busy that maybe the only restful time you get is the hour or so you spend here on Sundays. You have jobs and family obligations and volunteer responsibilities. You spend all of your time and energy taking care of others, and when I ask you about taking some time for yourself, you tell me, “Pastor, I’m too busy. I just don’t have time to rest.” But dang, people. Even God needed a day off!
And then there are my clergy brothers and sisters, who work in the Lord’s vineyard every day, from before sunrise until they are ready to drop at night. There is so much to do, so many to minister to, hungry to feed, naked to clothe, prisoners to comfort, so much suffering to help with, so many who need to hear the word of God at the lowest times of their lives. They work and they work, and they never rest. I admire them greatly, but I also confront them about their own health and well being. “Take some time off,” I say. “When do you rest?” I ask. They say, “I can’t take a vacation. I’m too busy to take off even a day!” And they tell me they have to work all the time, because Satan never rests. And they ask me, when I tell them I am taking a day off, or going on vacation, how I can take time away from the Lord’s work. My answer to them is twofold. One, if they’re taking the devil as their model they are looking in the wrong direction. And two, even God needed a day off! God told us to rest, to take time from our work, even church work.
God said, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”
It feels a bit awkward to read those words while acknowledging that I don’t follow this commandment, and that we would all probably find it way too difficult to spend an entire day every week doing no work, nor causing anyone else to work. (Like people working in stores and restaurants, for example - including internet shopping.) I mean, I am the one who is supposed to tell you all to obey the Commandments. But our world is so different today. I know you don’t have a whole entire day to read the Bible and pray and meditate, listening for God’s words in response to your prayers. I don’t have that, and those things are kind of in my job description. But on my day off, like yours, there’s still laundry and shopping and doctor’s appointments and all of those other things to do. (Of course, my friend in Jerusalem and many other Jews around the world, including the US, do manage it. . . )
However, I can usually find an hour in my day. Just one hour. And maybe you can too. And maybe during that hour you can take the One Hour Sabbath suggestion attached to your worship bulletin and do those things. Christopher McCauley, who wrote that, is a spiritual director and was one of my teachers when I was studying Spiritual Direction. I admire him greatly. Keep in mind, though, that he is a contemplative. His suggestions may not suit you. And if they don’t, that’s ok. Don’t try to do a form of Sabbath rest that isn’t restful for you. If the suggestions there don’t work for you, maybe you can just turn everything off for an hour. Read a book. Go for a walk. Play with your kids, or pets. Do whatever brings you peace. Whatever allows you to really rest. Whatever allows you to find a closeness with God. Take Sabbath time, keep it holy. Don’t say, “I’m too busy.” Because even God needed a day off.