This meditation was given at the East Barnard Church in Vermont on June 29, 2014. Texts were Deuteronomy 5.12-15 and Matthew 11.28-30.
If you were a Newsweek subscriber in 1995, you may remember a cover story on overwork with the one-word headline: “Exhausted.” It featured a photograph of Neil Rudenstine, who was president of Harvard during a very stressful capital campaign. He had the type of personality that wanted to send personal memos to everyone who’d contacted him, even if it meant staying awake into the small hours to do so. He was a perfectionist with a big job and then one day, he realized he couldn’t go on; he was going to collapse if things didn’t change. So he took a three-month sabbatical, spent time with his wife, and actually engaged in leisure tasks. Only after thoroughly detoxing, as it were, from work was he able to go back to his job.
I’m guessing many of us here today can tell similar, if less dramatic, stories about ourselves or our family members. I can think of a story to go with almost everyone in my family, including myself. The monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote that “overwork is a type of violence.” It is most easy to grasp this when looking at a case such as that of President Rudenstine’s: The violence he did his body and soul was enough to require a three-month healing period. Most of our own stories are probably much smaller, although I know one person—in our community, which is far from the world of Ivy League fundraising—who fell at work, walked around on a broken leg for a month, and did such damage to her joints that she required double knee-replacement surgery—that was quite a long, enforced Sabbath! But even if it’s as simple as running ourselves down so that we inevitably catch a cold or flu every time we take a day off, we’re doing violence to ourselves.
It’s not only physical, either. We do violence to our prayer life and our social lives as a result of overwork and an allergy to rest. The standard reply to the question, “How are you doing?” is “I’m so busy!” We may avoid scheduling get-togethers, find ourselves skipping church and prayer and meditation, cancelling social events. Maybe we do it because of the guilt we feel when we’re not getting enough done; maybe because we’ve come to define ourselves by our work, by what we produce, and not who we are. Maybe it’s the Protestant work ethic gone crazy.
So it’s pretty striking that one of the Ten Commandments—perhaps the most often forgotten of the Ten Commandments—is to keep the Sabbath day. The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb shavat, meaning “stop” or “cease.” The verb is found early on in the Hebrew scriptures, in the second chapter of Genesis: “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that he had done.” The author of this passage heavily emphasizes the ceasing, and tells us that nothing is actually finished until God stops working. It is in the act of ceasing, or resting, that creation is complete. Like us, God knows that work proliferates, that it takes an effort of will to ignore our perfectionism and say, “This project is done.” God knows we need boundaries between us and our work. And it is in God’s resting that we find the theological context for our own rest. Remember: God made us in God’s own image. And right after that, God rested. Unless we think we are stronger or better than God, this must tell us that we, too, need rest.
So Sabbath is stopping, ceasing, finishing. But it’s not only for the sake of simply being done. The stopping, ceasing, and finishing are directed at a goal: the goal of enjoying Creation. Just before stopping work, God looks at everything God has created and sees that it is good. It is very good. God stops—to enjoy and appreciate. And this final day, the day God grants Godself the time and space to enjoy and appreciate, is the day that is hallowed or sanctified in the Sabbath.
In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, this is the reason given for the commandment to keep the Sabbath: It commemorates the day God finished, the day God rested to enjoy Creation. In the Deuteronomy passage we heard this morning, though, a different reason is given: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” In the wake of the Exodus, after being delivered from slavery, the people of Israel are commanded to remember their basic freedom every Sabbath day. Sabbath time is a time of liberation, of remembering that we are created in the image of God, saved by the power of God, partakers of the rest of God.
This is apparent in the historical development of Sabbath observance. When the people of Judah were invaded by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, the Babylonians took the elite Judeans back with them to Babylon. The thinking is that, without the powerful class, the scribes and teachers and princes and other educated Judeans, Judah would sort of fall apart. And that is what happened. But what also happened is that the educated Judeans, transported far from their native land—they remembered the stories and the history of their people. And they remembered the commandments. Even in exile, they remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy. Their great temple was destroyed, the one place they could offer sacrifices was razed to the ground, and the land God had given them was hundreds of miles away. All they had left were their bodies and their community. And that became their new temple. Keeping the Sabbath, along with the practice of circumcision, were the only organized religious activities possible without the Temple and the priesthood. Any family can keep the Sabbath in its own home, and its ministers need no special training—they’re husbands and wives, children, grandparents, extended family, and friends. The holy tools necessary for celebration are the worshippers’ own bodies, food and wine, some candles, and a table around which everyone can sit.
Sabbath was also central to the exiles as a form of resistance against their captors. Just as Deuteronomy remembers Sabbath-keeping as a memorial of God’s liberation of Israel, so it reminded the exiles that, though they might be slaves again, or the next thing to it, they ultimately belonged to no one but God. No matter how dependent the exiles were on the whims of their Babylonian captors, the Sabbath showed that, ultimately, the people of Judah answered to God alone. And not only the Judeans, but also their servants and even their animals had a day of sacred rest.
Exile, destruction, slavery, and liberation are grand topics. What would Sabbath freedom look like in your own life? At its most basic, Sabbath disrupts our habits of addiction to material goods, our habits of scheduling our lives around what we do for a living, and our habits of conveniently ignoring God’s presence in our lives. God knows, we’re all prone to these things, and that’s exactly why God commands the Sabbath. To remind us that, as much as our possessions make us feel secure, true security comes from God. To remind us that, as much as we think we might control our lives by working hard and earning money and saving for the future, ultimately, our control is illusory, and only God deserves our trust. And at its most basic, Sabbath breaks into our weeks of routine and reminds us that it is in God that we live, and move, and have our being.
What does one do on a Sabbath? The early Protestant version of Sabbath-keeping was pretty perverse: laughter was suspect, comfort was suspect, the mood was one of somberness and solemnity. My grandparents had a cabin in a small, closed community on the edge of Lake Erie; it was part of the very conservative Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, and there was no swimming allowed on Sundays. So my more open-minded cousins and I would drive to another beach after church to swim. On both sides of my extended family, “Sabbath-keeping” tended to involve uncomfortable clothes, really long church services with really long sermons, not being allowed to have fun, and being really judgmental of people who kept Sabbath differently.
But in seminary I took a class on Jewish-Christian dialogue, where I met lots of students from the Jewish Theological Seminary across the street. My first Shabbat dinner, at the apartment of a rabbinical student friend, could not have been more different from my extended family’s Sabbath meals: it was a loud, boisterous, laughter-filled affair, and the table groaned under the weight of all the food. Even the Shabbat prayers were sung loudly and boisterously. I learned that, besides worship and sharing meals, playing games and taking leisurely walks are traditional parts of Sabbath-keeping. For married couples, it is a mitzvah, or commandment, to make love on the Sabbath.
Basically, in the Jewish tradition, keeping the Sabbath is about opening oneself to the pleasures God created: the pleasures of singing, eating, being out in God’s creation, being with friends and family, having fun, renewing intimacy with one’s spouse. The Talmud says, of pleasures in general, that we will be required to answer for all the pleasures which we could have enjoyed, but which we denied ourselves. I’ve always thought that sounded like a good rule of thumb for incarnational spirituality. After all, whether we believe God simply created the world, or both created and then became incarnated in the world, surely taking pleasure in it is the appropriate response. Anything less would be ungrateful. And anything less would, of course, be to deny our relationship with the One who created, and then called everything good.
So I wish you all a glorious Sabbath. I wish you all a day of rest from obligations of work and from deriving your own personal value from what you do. I wish you a day of enjoying nature, each other, and communion with God. I wish you a regular remembrance that you are valued, and loved, at root, for who you are, and not the work you do. Most of all, I wish for a world transformed by Sabbath spirituality: a world in which all have the freedom to rest from their work and be valued for who they are, all are fed and celebrated, all hear the good news that they are God’s beloved, and all recognize that every part of the natural world is loved by God, not for what we can use it for, but in and of itself. Let us pray for such a transformation. Amen.