Preached by Rev. Ted Hicks on June 3, 2018.
Deuteronomy 5: 12-15
Mark 2: 23 – 3:6
Honouring The Sabbath
Jesus had a pretty easy-going attitude, it seems, towards Sabbath observance – maybe to tradition in general. It was very much a “people first, rules second” approach, as indicated by the text I am emphasizing from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus said, in rebuttal to his critics: “The Sabbath was made for human beings not human beings for the Sabbath.”
Certainly, on the occasion we read about in Mark’s Gospel this morning, his unusually free and person-centred approach to the Sabbath is on display twice. First, in plucking and eating grain as they passed by a cornfield, hunger and human need trump rules. Then, in healing a man with a withered hand, compassion and human need trump rules.
In fact, his disciples had learned such a freedom from their time with Jesus that they didn’t hesitate to make a very radical break with tradition themselves shortly after his death and resurrection. The early church abandoned the Sabbath altogether and began observing the next day – the first day of the week not the seventh – as the special day for Christians to mark in memory of Jesus. The amazement of resurrection signaled a new beginning in the affairs of humanity. So much so that they began to celebrate the Lord’s Day as a sign of the new creation. It is a day to be remembered in a spirit of unbridled freedom and celebration, in keeping with the energy of resurrection itself.
Unfortunately, later generations in the church forgot the difference between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day and began to turn the Lord’s Day back into another Sabbath. And not the best of the Sabbath, either, but the kind of rule-bound, restrictive, and repressive Sabbath that the day had deteriorated into by the time of Jesus.
Take my grandmother, for example. I recall visiting her with my parents when I was a child and, if it was a Sunday as it often was, we would have a traditional family dinner together. But the meal and the table would have been prepared on the Saturday and the clean-up would be left until Monday. And, as I remember, the fare would be a bit Spartan and the atmosphere around the table pretty somber. Certainly not in the spirit of the wild and free and celebratory Day of Resurrection, but very much in the spirit of the worst of Jewish Sabbath observance.
These days, things have changed, so that the old days of somber Sundays are a bit of a distant memory, especially for those of us of a certain age whose memories go back a bit further than some. But that change doesn’t seem to me to be the result of our more clearly grasping the difference between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day or the kind of spirit we want to inform the day. It feels like a change we have drifted into more than chosen.
Maybe we can take some time this morning to think about these things more intentionally. And because the scripture today puts the emphasis on the Sabbath, I want to focus more on it than on the Lord’s Day. And the question I bring this morning is this: Is there still a place in Christian practice for the Sabbath? And, if so, what do we want to remember from the essence of the Jewish Sabbath to inform our Christian observances?
My simple answer is, yes, I do think there is something we can learn and continue to honor in the Jewish concept of Sabbath, especially as Jesus understood and practiced it. But I don’t think it is about keeping one particular day that we structure and observe in a certain way. Rather, it is about grasping the original brilliance of the idea of Sabbath and allowing it to influence the way we experience and express ourselves in every moment of every day – a lifestyle, not a ritual. If we turn it back into rituals and rules and regulations, we have gained nothing and lost much. But if we can grasp its original spirit and intent, then we will be so much richer for it.
Let me suggest a few words that catch up the original brilliance and the authentic spirit of Sabbath, without trying to define it rigidly or to structure it tightly. I will start with the word rest; move on to the words joy, justice, and sacred; and close with the word beloved.
An obvious place to start is with the idea of rest, because the root of the Hebrew word Sabbathmeansto rest. But it is not the kind of rest that implies sleeping. It is more the kind of rest that comes from stepping aside from the burden and necessity of work simply to enjoy oneself – a bit of R&R, so to speak.
So joy –maybe even fun– is another word I want to bring to mind in seeking the essence of Sabbath. As the story goes, God had worked hard for six days creating the world. And on the seventh day, God rested. Not in the sense that God was exhausted and needed time to recover but in the sense that, having done the work of creation, now was the time simply to enjoy the finished product. I officiated at a wedding awhile back. Before the wedding itself, there was a lot of work to be done by the couple, their families, and myself. But, then, the big day came, all the work had been done, the Service went smoothly and joyfully, and we simply kicked back and celebrated. We delighted in the beauty of the surroundings, outdoors beside a lake. We rejoiced as the couple made their covenant of loving commitment. We feasted in the banquet hall, enjoying each other’s company. We had a roarin’ good time! And, I think, that is in keeping with the intention and spirit of Sabbath. To remember the Sabbath is to live joyfully in the wondrous playground God worked so hard to create.
Another word is justice, and here the notion of rest as recovery from hard work does have some bearing. The nation of Israel was formed from a group of escaped slaves. These were a people who, in Egypt, had been subjected to harsh conditions and forced to do back-breaking and monotonous work with the lash not far away for anyone who faltered. It was Moses, as you will recall, who led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. And it was Moses who first introduced this people to the Ten Commandments, one of which was to remember the Sabbath. There was a determination among the founders of this new nation that they would never forget their experience of oppression and slavery and always strive to be a nation that sought justice as one of its paramount goals. Yes, everyone would work hard – each one doing a fair share of what it takes to be a community. Yet no one would be taken advantage of. Everyone would get a day’s rest every week. Even the animals would get a break. Anyone who acquired debt would have the slate swept clean every seventh year. The land itself would lie fallow in the seventh year. So, when Jesus came across a man with a disability whose life had undoubtedly been restricted until then, it was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Sabbath to free him from that burden that day. A sense of justice – here in the form of compassion – overrode any traditions that had encrusted over and hidden the original intention and spirit of Sabbath down through the generations. To remember the Sabbath means to live with a commitment to free humanity and all creation from the burden of injustice.
And the word sacredcomes to mind as well, in seeking out the essential and enduring meaning of Sabbath. At the end of each day of Creation, God declared the result of that day’s work to be good. Before the seventh day, the entire creation was pronounced to be verygood. Celtic Christians speak of thin places. These are places where the world as we see it and the world beyond our senses are very close. Places where there is but a thin membrane separating the seen from the unseen. Where those of particular spiritual sensitivity can feel the spirit breaking into the world of the senses. For those who remember the Sabbath, any place at any moment is a thin place, because God has created that place and pronounced it good. To remember the Sabbath means to walk about in this world with a sense that every place, every moment, is sacred because right then, right there, God is near. To remember the Sabbath is to honour the natural world as a sacred gift from God.
Finally, let me see if I can bring together the notions of rest, joy, justice, and the sacred with the word beloved. It starts by remembering that we are human beings, not human doings. We are people whose worth is determined not by what we do but simply because we are. Each person is God’s beloved, without exception, for no other reason than that she or he exists. The basis of justice in the world is the recognition that each and every one of us is God’s beloved simply because we be, without any distinction based on how much we have accomplished or how much we have acquired or what social class or ethnic group or the like we might happen to belong to. To live as God’s beloved is to recognize each other as sacred beings within a sacred universe, and to treat each other accordingly. To be human is to revel in the freedom to be joyful together on God’s good earth.
And if we can live those understandings, then we are keeping Sabbath here, there, and everywhere; now, then, and always; on Saturday, on Sunday, on any day; at 10am, at 11am, at any hour; in church, in synagogue, in any place.
For freedom Christ has set us free, maybe especially to be free from restrictive rules and hidebound tradition. One way we can live into the freedom Jesus has won for us is by our weaving the profound themes of Sabbath into our everyday living. And, in simple terms, in mirroring Jesus, that often means putting human need ahead of rules and traditions.