Pentecost 13C, 2010
Imagine: for eighteen years, not being able to see the stars, not being able to see clouds in the sky, not being able to look people in the eye. For eighteen years – for some of you, a lifetime – being bent over, looking at feet, at the dirt, at the mud. Even sitting with your family and your neighbors in worship, you cannot see the leader, presiding over the worship, or who is in worship with you. Your whole life is crooked and bent.
A visiting rabbi, teaching that day, notices your disability. He calls you over to him, and, laying his hands on you, tells you to stand up straight and be healed. At first, you do not believe him. You are so used to looking down, you have forgotten what it feels like to stand straight and tall. But slowly, you pull yourself up. A little at first, then more, and more, until, for the first time in eighteen years, you are standing erect, looking into the rabbi’s face. Praise God! you begin to shout. Alleluia! Blessed be the name of the Lord! And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.
Stop this! cries the church Lay Leader. This is sinful – this is work done on the Sabbath! God said that we had six days to do what needed to be done, and on the Shabbat we cease. You have six days to heal people, but not today. Shabbat, after all, literally means to cease – to stop.
Last week I briefly mentioned how our culture has effectively erased the Sabbath, and how we Christians have so embraced the culture’s work that, aside from this one or two hour thing we do on Sunday mornings, there’s not much difference between the way we keep Sabbath and the way our unbelieving neighbors do. How did we get to this place?
When the Hebrews emerged from the Wilderness with the Ten Commandments, the majority of the commandments were similar to law codes in other cultures. Commandments to not murder, not lie, not steal, and to honor the elders are common throughout the world. But two commandments were absolutely unique: the commandment to worship one God, and the commandment to keep a Sabbath one day in seven. The Sabbath commandment is rooted at the very beginning, in the act of Creation. God creates men and women in God’s image on the sixth and last day. Then God rests. God ceases. The Sabbath is an intrinsic part of the creation, and if human beings are in God’s image, then ceasing is, literally, essential to who we are.
In his important book Sabbath Time, Tilden Edwards talks about the difference between how the ancient world – the world of the Bible – and the modern world understand who people are. In the ancient world people were defined by givens – their family, their community, their gifts, and their faith. After six days of producing and consuming, the Sabbath reminded people who they were. Who they were was not measured by what they had made, what they possessed, or what they had consumed. They were members of a family; they were members of a community; they were God’s beloved children. Sabbath reminded the Hebrews that small children, the elderly, and the infirm, all of whom may have produced nothing of worth during the week, were still essential members of the community, of the family, and of God.
The Sabbath extended beyond human beings, to the rest of Creation. One seventh of one’s farmland was to lie fallow each year. Work animals were to rest one day a week, just like their owners. I once asked a farmer what would happen if he let one seventh of his land lie fallow every year, in rotation. He thought for a minute, and said, in amazement, “90% of the problems we have in modern agriculture would be solved.”
The modern world defines the self by what we make, what we possess, and what we do. The good piece of that is that we are not restricted by what family, what socio-economic level, or what community we were born into. But the dark side of that understanding of the self is that if we are what we make, what we have, and what we do, then who are we when we aren’t producing, aren’t possessing, and aren’t buying and consuming? I recently visited an elderly couple who, because of their poor health, have moved in with one of their children. They have left the home and community and church and friends they’ve known for fifty years. They don’t produce anything, they don’t have anything of their own, and they have no need to consume anything but food. They are lost. It happens, in this culture, with increasing and terrifying frequency. When we are sick, when we retire, when we can no longer provide for ourselves, when we are elderly, when we lose our jobs, we lose our identity. Why? Because everything in our culture tells us that we are what we do, what we own, and what we consume.
So, if that’s who we are, then to devote one seventh of our life – keeping a holy Sabbath one day every week – becomes impossible. To not produce, not possess, not consume isn’t just boring – it’s literally life-threatening. But I believe the ancients – the Bible – had it right, and we’ve got it wrong. The day is coming – and already is for some of us here – when we will no longer make, own, or devour. For most of us it will come before the grave; for all of us, it will come at the grave. Sabbath reminds us, weekly, we are not what we do – we are what we have been given.
What does this have to do with Jesus, the bent-over woman, and how to keep the Sabbath? The leader of the synagogue, in accusing Jesus of violating the Sabbath by doing work, has forgotten the relationship between the Sabbath and the Creation. Sabbath is all about giving and restoring life. That’s why, as Jesus reminds the synagogue leader, it was always permissible to untie animals so they could feed and drink on the Sabbath. That’s why it was always permissible to rescue an animal or a person in distress on the Sabbath – giving and saving life was at the heart of the Sabbath. It wasn’t work, because life is a gift from God, and the Sabbath is meant to restore us to the wholeness of life. If, Jesus asks, you can release a donkey from its tether on the Sabbath, why can’t this bent-over woman be released from this illness that shackles her and be restored to God’s shalom?
I have been overwhelmed lately with the growing sense that we are bent-over by a crippling disease of lies about what makes for personal and social wholeness. Chief among these lies is this notion that human life is measured by our busyness and our inventories. In June I traded in the Blackberry “smart phone” I’d been using for two years. I had come to realize that not only was the blasted thing expensive, but that in my spare time I had gotten into a pattern of constantly checking my email, of texting friends and colleagues, of checking the weather and sports scores and the news and whatever else I could find on that little black and silver box. I realized that I was exhausted from being constantly available, exhausted by my need to keep up with whatever was going on, exhausted from doing work always and everywhere. I realized I was playing God – trying to be all knowing, all present, and all powerful. So I went to the cell phone store and got the stupidest phone they had, and friends, my blood pressure has dropped by over ten points.
In abandoning the Sabbath, I have come to believe we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We have properly rejected the synagogue leader’s narrow and hypocritical definition of the Sabbath – a definition that added to the burden the bent-over woman was bearing. But we, crippled by self-importance, need to recover who we are in God’s eyes: not loved because of what we do or have, but loved and gifted because we belong to God and to each other. So, how might we begin to recover and keep a holy Sabbath?
Several recent books point the way: Tilden Edwards’ Sabbath Time, and Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, among others. Here are some suggestions, mostly from Marva Dawn:
1. Cease. Cease work. Don’t make the Sabbath a day to catch up on chores. Cease being available. Turn the blessed cell phone off. Stay away from you computer. Spend time doing nothing: be quiet. Lie in the grass in the backyard and look at clouds. Listen to the birds. Sleep.
2. Rest. A preacher friend of mine says “you can get more work done working like God for six days than by working like the devil for seven.” I keep relearning that when I don’t keep a Sabbath day, my productivity goes down. Rest your body, rest your heart, rest your mind. Break your pattern of activity, no matter what it is. Give it a rest.
3. Embrace. Embrace people: Gather with family and friends. You don’t have to do anything – just be together. Embrace God: gather with us to praise God. Let yourself be embraced by God and by the people who love you. Embrace time – stop hurrying. Slow down. Pay attention to the life around you. Embrace yourself: give thanks for who you are. As Bishop Woodie White says, “If God loves you, then to not love what God loves is blasphemy.”
4. Feast. Feast on the eternal. Don’t occupy the Sabbath with the dying things and values of this world: embrace what is forever. Feast on good music. Feast on beauty, especially in the natural world. The Sabbath is inseparable from Creation: nature is a reminder that you didn’t make any of this – it is all a gift from God, as are you. My son Drew has a mantra: “Anything worth doing is better done outside.” Feast on food: the Sabbath should be a day of wonderful, delicious food. That’s why Jesus gave us a meal to remember him by, and why the church is most the church at a covered dish dinner. Feast on affection. There is a saying in the Jewish Mishnah that married rabbis should honor the Sabbath with their wives (do you understand what I’m saying?).
The whole world comes to the Sabbath bent-over by the belief that we are what we do, what we have, and what we consume. Jesus wants to heal us, and have us stand up straight and whole so we can embrace and be embraced, see and be seen, and lift our arms to heaven in praise, all because of God’s gift. People of God, let’s stop living like the world. Give it a rest.
 Edwards, Tilden, Sabbath Time, Nashville, Upper Room, 1992, p. 16