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Keeping the Sabbath

To discuss keeping Sabbath in our busy world where so much needs to be attended to, both superficial and very serious, may seem rather self indulgent. But it is one of the commandments and one of the few commandments Jesus taught on so let us consider what Sabbath may look like in our context. (Second Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 4 (9). Mark 2:23-3:6.) Sabbath invites us to Rest, to Reflect, and to engage in our Relationship with God as well as self and neighbour.

It is a theme that runs through the gospels, including Mark, that Jesus heals on the Sabbath and on this occasion he and his disciples had also “harvested” (or plucked) grain to eat. Sometimes we are quick to criticise the Pharisees for being too legalistic but it is worth remembering that it was normal for people to interpret Scripture differently and to argue for one’s understanding. Jesus does not criticise the law itself but declares that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  Which was not unlike the teaching of some of the rabbis that “Sabbath has been given to you; you have not been given to the Sabbath.” So rather than Jesus setting the disciples free to disregard the commandment to keep the Sabbath it seems more likely that Jesus was teaching his disciples that Sabbath was divine gift instead of divine burden.

 

Clearly Jesus thought the needs of the poor and sick and hungry were more important than the technical requirements of Sabbath but Jesus did not teach Sabbath was not important for our benefit and enjoyment.

 

Few people keep Sabbath in the way our forebears in faith may have with the only activity being attending church, and possibly sitting on the porch appreciating creation or quiet serious bible study. Sabbath is likely to look very different depending on our work hours, whether we live in the country or city, and what other recreational activities, such as sport, that we are trying to partake in. So maybe it is worth considering the purpose of Sabbath. It seems to me that at least three simple principles run through notions of Sabbath: rest, reflection, and relationship.

 

Sabbath has always been about resting from our usual labours and allowing everyone else to also rest from their labours. Rest encourages recovery and enjoyment. And all resting from our labours on the same day reminds us that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Whether our work be physical or primarily intellectual our bodies and brains need down time to recover and play.

 

Sabbath also gives us opportunity to reflect: on the goodness of God and our life; on our own value beyond productivity; and the preciousness also of our neighbour’s life. It is not that we do not reflect at other times so much as there is a quality to our reflecting that takes place when we are rested and unhurried, when insights are given time to surface rather than be parused and pursued.

 

And Sabbath gives us a spaciousness in which to relate to God and neighbour and therefore our selves. Plenty of time and space to pray, to enjoy the gifts of Creator God, to think of others, and to attend to those who are in relationship with us with no agenda other than presence.

 

At first this may all sound luxurious and self indulgent but I suspect that if we truly kept a whole day of Sabbath in which we did not work or strive that we would find it not only difficult to keep but that we would quickly desire distraction  from what emerged from the spaciousness of Sabbath.

 

One of the difficulties of our time is that Sunday, or any other day, is no longer a shared time of Sabbath. For good reasons such as health care and emergency services there is always people at work. But slowly our society has seemed to decide that all days are equal when it comes to our right to be consumers or to be entertained. While I do not suggest that those of other religions or none should be required to rest when it suits me it concerns me that when we each keep our separate days of Sabbath (and as clergy I have for a long time now) it is too easy to not notice that some people never have Sabbath – that some never have meaningful work from which to rest and others work without rest; that some are not able to recreate and have access to creation and play; that some do not have the quality of relationships and connections to enjoy.

 

But even if we cannot all keep Sabbath on Sunday we can aspire to keep Sabbath. We can empty our diaries and fill our cupboards so that we can stay home and sleep in, eat, drink, stretch, read, make art or find a sunny patch and feel in our bones how loved we are and how much we have to be grateful for. And when we begin to twitch and get bored or restless we can ask ourselves what is calling us forward in life, what are we not attending to, where do we ache and long for connection and meaning? Or we can get up early and pack the car for a hike or picnic and play our most sublimely favourite music while driving up into mountains and then walking in silence until the thundering of the waterfall answers all our too small questions. Or we can pick up our neighbour and take them out to breakfast and listen to their life with no purpose but to be present and enjoy and give thanks. Whatever feels like rest and recovery to us. Whatever reflection looks and sounds like to us. Whatever feels spacious enough for us to engage in our relationship with God, self and neighbour.

 

Sabbath should mostly be about joy and healing but may also mean rubbing up against the rough edges of our addiction to being useful and necessary to others. Sabbath should mostly be about deep rest but may also mean engaging so fully in creativity and recreation (behind our easel or in our garden, in the dance studio or on mountain trails) that we are exhausted in good ways at days end and sleep like those who labour honestly. Sabbath should mostly bring us to psalms of praise and thanksgiving but sometimes we need time to lament and cry out.

 

And just as we learn again to keep Sabbath then we may remember that our neighbours, near and far, those who share our postcode and those who make our clothes and vehicles, are also unique and precious and deserve work and wages that allow a day of rest and recreation; that all God’s children have lives of value and needs for purpose that should be met; and that all relationships need tending and space for flourishing.

 

What if we admired our clergy, our community leaders, who said: No I won’t be able to attend such and such – that is my day of rest! Or my day of imagining! Or my day of play! What if Sabbath were not a quaint religious duty but a standard of living by which we measured our maturity and success and was a yardstick for considering the health of our individual and corporate way of life?

Sabbath was made for us and for our wellbeing and flourishing. While we are set free from micromanaging rules of etiquette we have not been released from the commandment to rest, to reflect and to attend to relationship. Come Lord Jesus the Christ, come lead us into places of refreshment and restoration.


I am grateful to the inspiration I gained from several sources this week including from:

www.christiancentury.org Barbara Brown Taylor "Letting God run things without my help"

www.joanchittister.org Joan Chittester "What is Sunday About?"

www.johntsquires.com John T Squires An Informed Faith "Tracing the tension rising against Jesus (Mark 2-3)

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