A funny thought occurred to me when I was writing my sermon this week. Today is Labor Day Sunday, a day on which we often celebrate those who labor. But we celebrate it by giving people a day off so they don’t have to labor. O.K. Maybe it’s not really all that funny. I’ve got a weird sense of humor sometimes. But following through on that idea, this year, rather than talking about labor on Labor Day Sunday, I decided to talk about not laboring. I decided to talk about resting from our labors; Sabbath. Let me begin with a story.
Once there was a congregation in Holland which felt strictly bound to obey God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. On a certain Sunday the area was threatened by wind and waves. The whole local system of dikes was under assault from the storm. If they were not strengthened, the people would not survive. The police notified the pastor of the danger, which left him with a difficult decision to make; whether to call off the service and urge his people to work on the dikes. Unable to make the decision on his own, he called the church council together. After a brief discussion, they concluded that God, being all powerful, can always perform a miracle with the wind and waves. Their duty was to keep the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. The pastor tried one more argument. He asked, “Did not Jesus himself break the commandment and declare that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath?” After a quiet moment, one old man stood up and said, “Pastor, I have for some time been troubled by something I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus Christ was just a bit of a liberal.”
I’m sure the Pharisees would have sympathized with that feeling. To them, Jesus was more than just a bit of a liberal. The Pharisees, as they are portrayed in the gospels, believed he was a dangerous heretic who, by flaunting their sacred law, would bring destruction on all of Israel. They took the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy with ultimate seriousness.
When I look at this story, what I see is a classic conflict between the letter and the spirit of the law. The Pharisees were interested in the literal interpretation of the commandment. They had an entire system of sub-commandments worked out which explained in great detail what not violating the Sabbath was all about. Jesus, on the other hand, was obviously more interested in the intention behind the commandment. He saw it as an encouragement to honor God and enjoy a day of rest and re-creation. It seems obvious that he would never have violated the Sabbath thoughtlessly or maliciously, but he understood that some things must take precedence over the letter of the law.
Now, there have always been people who are more interested in the letter than the spirit of the law. You may have heard the story that comes from the late 1840s, in England, when anesthesia was first being used to diminish the pains of childbirth. Some of the local churchmen (men being the operative word) raised an objection. After all, they said, the Bible tells us that God said to Eve, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” This was one of God’s punishments for eating the forbidden fruit. These churchmen seemed to feel that women should not be allowed to get around the pain of childbirth, since Eve’s sin was ultimately their own as well. I tend to doubt they would have made that argument if any of them had ever actually been in labor. However, in 1853, Queen Victoria allowed herself to be chloroformed while giving birth to her seventh child. After that all the criticism stopped. I guess none of the churchmen had the nerve to criticize the Queen.
Jesus of course, didn’t have the immunity that comes with being part of the royal family. Eventually his “liberalism” got him into so much trouble that he was crucified. But his followers, all these many years later, have taken his dangerous liberality to a level that I doubt even Jesus himself would have been comfortable with. By now, we’ve been very successful in all but eliminating the laws of the Sabbath. So much so that you’d hardly know any such laws ever did exist.
They did though. Historically, there have been times when the punishment for breaking the Sabbath could be as severe as excommunication or even death by stoning. There are stories about times when the Jews were so strict in their observance of the Sabbath that they refused even to defend themselves if their enemies attacked them on a Sabbath day. After Jesus, as Christianity began to emerge out of Judaism, the Sabbath, which for Jews was and still is observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, gradually became the Christian Sabbath on Sunday. The early Christians were trying to distinguish themselves from their Jewish forebears and having a different day of worship was one good way to do that. But they also believed that since Jesus rose from the tomb on the first day of the week, and since God created light on the first day of the week, and because Jesus was “the light of the world,” all the signs seem to point to Sunday being the Christian Sabbath. And thus it has been ever since.
Today though, for many of us there’s not a whole lot of Sabbath left. Sunday is often as crowded as any other day of the week. Even when what it’s crowded with are so-called “leisure” activities,” we still can end up running from place to place without much of a break. We are very good at being active, at getting things accomplished. We’re mostly not very good at resting, and especially not at the kind of resting that Sabbath was meant to encourage: resting in the Lord.
As a minister, part of my job is to encourage all of us to take God’s commandments seriously. That would include keeping the Sabbath, of course. But whenever the subject of Sabbath comes up, the truth is, I always feel like a hypocrite. For me, taking Sunday off as a day of rest doesn’t work very well, you can imagine. Some people like to joke that a minister’s job is the easiest one in the world because we only work one hour a week. (Ha, ha) In reality, there’s rarely a “Sabbath” that goes by when I’m not working, so my own practice doesn’t make for a very good illustration. Over the years, I’ve tried to be intentional about taking some other day off during the week. It used to be Monday or Thursday. Since I’ve been here in Manchester, Friday seems to work better. But whatever day I take off from church work, usually ends up being a day of working at something else. When it comes to God’s commandment to “Honor the Sabbath,” I don’t have a right to point a finger at anybody.
Julie Schor, who was a Harvard economist, once wrote a book called “The Overworked American.” In the book, she observed, “the pilgrims began our loss of leisure by ridding the calendar of more than 50 holidays which had been enjoyed by the English ever since medieval times. Sunday was designated the only toil-free day, and in order to enforce it, a system of “blue laws” were created, which made it impossible to shop or see a movie or, really, do much of anything on Sunday. Today, “blue laws” banning Sunday commerce are mostly a thing of the past. In most places. Sunday is more likely to be a day of sacred shopping, or maybe watching a sacred football game.
Growing up in California I had never heard of blue laws. So it came as a surprise to me when I was in the Coast Guard stationed in Virginia, that none of the stores were open on Sundays. Blue laws? I asked. What the heck are blue laws? That was about 40 years ago. I haven’t checked, but my understanding is that most of the blue laws have been struck down as unconstitutional, although when I was in Connecticut, if you went looking for a beer at Stop & Shop on Sunday you’d have been be out of luck. They had actually rigged a big window blind attached to the top of the liquor shelves that they dutifully pulled down every Saturday at midnight, and lifted again on Monday morning. I suppose they wanted to shade our eyes from “demon rum.”
Of course, even when blue laws were widespread, it didn’t mean people were necessarily resting. I once saw an article from Newsweek called, The Breaking Point. It suggested that the work ethic many Americans were trying to live up to was literally driving us to the point of collapse. It quoted a report from “the annals of internal medicine” which said that fatigue had become one of the top five reasons people call the doctor. “People are frayed,” it said, “by the inescapable pressure of technology, frazzled by the lack of time for themselves, their families, their PTAs, and church groups. They feel caged by their jobs, even as they put in more and more overtime.”
The article told several stories about the effects of overworking. One story quoted Roy Neel, President Clinton’s one-time deputy chief of staff. Under Clinton he had been working constantly, tethered to his beeper 24 hours a day. “I got downright tired of being on call,” he said. He finally quit after an episode with Walter, his nine-year-old son, that convinced him his work, even for the president, was not worth the price. Walter and his dad were heading out the door for a long-promised baseball game when the phone rang. It was the president, but little Walter was not impressed. When Neil looked up an hour later, Walter was gone. He’d bummed a ride to the game with a neighbor, leaving dad holding the phone. “Our society has become schizophrenic,” Neel said. “We praise people who want balance in their lives, but reward those who work themselves to death.” Clearly, that story has some years on it by now, but I’m not sure things have changed all that much. These days a lot of people are holding down three or more jobs in our “gig economy” just trying to put food on the table. As for me, I’m not quite as crazy working in ministry as I used to be, but no matter what church I’ve been serving, the to-do list never seems to get any shorter. I’m sure many of you can relate.
There’s a wonderful book called “Receiving the Day” by Dorothy Bass, in which the author talks about how frenetic our lives can be by recalling a story from Gulliver’s Travels. She wrote, “the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift suggested that clocks themselves were becoming the gods of mercantile society. When Gulliver traveled to Lilliput, Swift recounted in his famous novel, the small inhabitants were puzzled by the ticking object that hung at his waist. ‘We conjecture,’ they reported, ‘it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships … but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us that he seldom did anything without consulting it … and said it pointed out the time for every action of his life.’” How’s that for an image. The clock as god? Today it might be the Apple Watch, but though the timepieces may have changed, the worship of it has not.
Now, there are a fair number of retired people here this morning. Maybe you don’t feel the pressures of time or work anymore. That’s something I might have it in me to look forward to, at some point. But most of the people I know who are retired are about as busy as when they were earning a paycheck. And, or, they often face increased pressures of illness, loneliness and disorientation from the constant changes in life and society, concerns about children, the weather, the future, politics and so on. You don’t have to be employed to experience stress. If your life is filled with anxiety and pressure, regardless of where it comes from, you are an ideal candidate for the rest of Sabbath.
We need rest. We need Sabbath. But we can’t force it on people. Trying to keep Sabbath according to the letter of the law simply doesn’t work for most of us. I would argue that it never did. Even in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees clearly felt they had to be vigilant about keeping people faithful to the law. But their efforts were mostly in vain. I can hardly imagine anything as counter-productive as trying to force people to take time off to praise God, even though we do need that time.
Perhaps, rather than seeing it as a burden, we might recognize that Sabbath is an opportunity, an invitation. It is meant to be a regularly observed and disciplined way of connecting with the source and inspiration of our lives. It is a chance to rest in the Lord, to lay down the burdens we carry at the feet of our creator, to feel ourselves embraced by God’s everlasting arms. It is a time to sort out our priorities and be reminded that, no matter how important the things we’re doing may seem, they pale next to the importance of our being in God. It is a way of cultivating the relationship out of which we were born and into which we will ultimately die. Sabbath, approached in the right way, can be a humbling experience, a chance to get ourselves out of the way of ourselves, and that can be a very good thing.
When I’m feeling stressed out, I often hear the words of Jesus ringing in my ears. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest…” Something in me melts when I hear those words. The tension I usually carry in my shoulders and lower back begins to let go. I want to drop everything and follow the man who said those words. I understand why the disciples so willing to leave their nets to follow him. Even back then, people were overburdened with the demands of life. Even back then, while resisting the enforced rest of Sabbath law, they longed for the true rest of Sabbath peace.
It’s probably impossible to get people to return to a practice of not doing any work on Sunday, and I’m not sure it would be a good thing even if we could. But we do desperately need a discipline of relaxing, and we do need at least some part of our relaxing to be intentional time with God. Recreation is not just play. Recreation is re-creation. It is a creating anew of our energies and vision. Without Sabbath in our lives––in some way, shape or from––our energy and vision gradually turns to dust and ashes.
I’d like to close with a further thought from Dorothy Bass. “When we keep Sabbath holy,” she said, “we are practicing, for a day, the freedom that God intends for all people. We are practicing life outside the frantic pace set by financial markets and round-the-clock shopping and entertainment venues. We are practicing independence from the forces of injustice. We are trying on a new way of life as we begin to allow our weeks to be changed in response to God’s promises.”
Sabbath is one of the commandments, but we do better to think of it as an invitation; “Remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy.”