“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” —Exodus 20:8
The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that God had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that God had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
had never really thought about Sabbath until my Junior year of High School when I met fellow lifeguard Amy: Adventist Amy we could call her. She was a Seventh Day Adventist, a religious group about whom I knew nothing. Just another Christian denomination like Methodist or Presbyterian, right?
After lifeguard training, we all submitted our schedules, and Amy requested off every Saturday for the whole summer. Every Saturday? I was stunned. Why did they hire her if she couldn’t share the lifeguarding load? Saturday was the busiest day at the beach, when every lifeguard chair was full, not to mention someone at the first aid station and front desk.
But, before I could get visibly agitated, Amy explained: Seventh Day Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, which means being at church and also refraining from work on Saturday. Her right to practice her religion this way was protected by labor laws, she said. Eagle Creek Beach legally had to accommodate her religious Sabbath.
Before I met Amy, I knew that Sunday was the (quote, unquote) “Christian” Sabbath.
I probably had yet to learn about Muslim holidays, and the Muslim practice of Jumu’ah prayer on Fridays, but at that time, I knew that Friday night into Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath. I knew the creation story from Genesis: God rested on the seventh day. I knew the fourth Commandment: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. By that time, I might have even known that the Christian Sabbath was actually symbolically the 8th day—a day later than Jewish practice and a way to remember and celebrate Easter morning and Christ’s resurrection week after week.
When I met Amy Junior year, I was going to church regularly, but this lifeguarding gig was my second job: I started working at Dairy Queen when I was fourteen. It had never crossed my mind to take Sundays off. To be honest, lifeguarding or serving up cookie dough blizzards at DQ might have offered a bit of a break from the homework routine during the school year, and I could often find a way to go to church before or after my shift.
But to Amy, taking Sabbath—a full day of rest—was natural. Didn’t she have FOMA, fear of missing out? Wasn’t she worried the world would go on without her? Friends making new friends? Co-workers serving up new inside jokes that she wouldn’t get?
Maybe I was a little jealous. I was certainly intrigued. It was part of her family life, a routine that she never had to establish or form. For her, Sabbath was always there.
The American relationship to Sabbath is complicated. Maybe some of you grew up in towns with strict Blue Laws: no alcohol purchases on Sunday, no hunting on Sunday, no car sales on Sunday, no department stores on Sunday.
At one point, Sabbath was written into the very DNA of American legal and religious life. Maybe some of you grew up anchored to church and home, unable to watch movies or play cards or enjoy the day. As Charles Dickens described it, Sabbath was no longer a day to rest from labor and enjoy healthy recreation: it was a day of “grievous tyranny and grinding oppression.” Without the joy and celebration, Sabbath becomes, as the prophet Isaiah says, a “repulsive” “weary festival” and a burden.
Yet still, maybe some of us long for those glory days of a culturally induced Sabbath:
- Sunday soccer and hockey matches 3 hours from home at 9 a.m. would be illegal
- Sunday ACT prep and Drivers Ed scheduled before noon would be verboten
- Any kind of undue busy-ness on Sunday certainly would be prohibited
But even from this nostalgic perspective, Sabbath can look like a dreary list of “thou shall not.”
To see the bigger picture—the story behind the commandment—and to help it all seem a little less legalistic, it’s important to go back to Egypt, to go back to the beginning. When Moses went up Mt. Sinai to speak with God in the mystery of a thick cloud, it was only three months since they had left Egypt. When God spoke those Ten Commandments into existence, only 12 weeks had passed since the Hebrew people had been slaves, escaping for their lives, running from Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea from slavery to safety, from bondage to freedom. Children were still adjusting to the new schedule of wandering day and night. Creatures of habit of all ages were wishing they were back at the protein dense fleshpots of Egypt instead of the carb heavy mystery diet of manna in the wilderness: back in Egypt, at least they’d have some of the comforts of home and community, even if it did mean going back to the brick-production line.
When God declared, “I am not a workaholic, and neither should you be,” God was offering a different way. Pharaoh’s god demanded constant production and consumption. Moses’ God demanded the opposite: rest. Pharaoh’s god was a god of excess: Moses’ God was a God of enough. Pharaoh’s god was an anxious multitasking always-on-the-go god; Moses’ God was a non-anxious presence who knew that the goodness of creation did not depend on endless work.
Pharaoh needed all those bricks to make storage facilities—no, storage villages, or better yet, storage cities—where he could keep all his wealth in the form of grain.
Like the dragon Smaug from the Hobbit or Disney’s Scrooge McDuck sitting on their piles of gold, Pharaoh’s only vision for his life and the life of those under his care was to produce and acquire more and more and more and more and more.
Today’s commandment offers a different perspective: more is not always necessary. God rested, therefore you can too—and make sure your neighbor rests, too. God rested, so all of us can rest. God rested, and even creation can rest from its labors. Even the fields can rest from producing pumpkins, the coalmines can rest from producing energy, and the trees can rest from producing chlorophyll. God rested, so all of us can rest. God models and legitimates rest: God does it first, to show us it is possible.
And thus, Sabbath, the fourth commandment, provides a bridge between the God-commandments and the neighbor-commandments, welcoming us to love God and neighbor in the very way we experience time. “Sabbath is worship that leads to neighborly compassion and justice,” says Walter Brueggemann. Sabbath attends to the vertical and the horizontal relationships, the sacred and the social.
In the Ten Commandments, God reminds us that Sabbath was already woven into the very fabric of time. In the Ten Commandments, we are invited to stand again at the very precipice of creation, in the beginning when time was still new, and remember that our God is a God of rest. In the beginning, God took Sabbath. In the beginning, God rested. Sabbath was always there.
Sabbath is a story commandment. It remembers God who brought us out of slavery, and hopes for a world in which none might return to such unrest. It remembers God who rested after creating, and hopes for a world where all might participate in such rest from creating. And, in the Christian story, Sabbath remembers God-with-us, God-in-Jesus-Christ who gathered us to pray, who gathered us to eat, who gathered us to break the Sabbath when Sabbath became too restrictive, but who gathered us to rest and go off away from the crowds when life became too busy. And, even as he faced death, God-made-known-in-Jesus-Christ gathered us to sit at the table with him, at a great feast, living into the great banquet in which all tears might be wiped away and all fears might be dashed aside and all joy might be made complete.
Today, Sabbath remains a countercultural story. Maybe we really do have FOMA, fear of missing out. If we don’t participate in the constant call to produce and consume, we might miss out on the latest technological advancement, the latest job promotion, the latest raise, the latest 24-hour sound bite, the latest twitter update, the latest fashion trend, the latest thing. If we rest, we might miss out.
I’ll leave you with 3 short Sabbath stories:
One: A storyteller recalls a man from his childhood, Mr. G. Mr. G., the town grocer, and his wife sat up front at church each Sunday. During the last five minutes of the sermon, Mr. G. and his wife would rather ceremoniously walk out the back of the church, maybe never wondering if anyone minded the distraction. The Lutheran church across town finished 30 minutes earlier than theirs, and, said the storyteller, “as a kid, I wondered how often Mr. G. looked at his watch to make sure he left on time to receive trade and Lutheran money.”
Two: When a colleague of mine realized that her default phrase, when talking to her kids, was “hurry up, let’s go,” she said to her husband, “something’s gotta change.” Go where? For whose sake? To what end? It was not just exhausting, it seemed out of sync with something ancient deep inside her. After that conversation, much to her surprise, and to the delight and struggle of her family, they decided to begin a “Sabbath experiment” —practicing Sabbath every week, with foibles and upsets, but joy and true longed for rest along the way. You can read the story of their Sabbath experiment in “Sabbath in the Suburbs” by MaryAnn McKibben-Dana.
Three: A Buddhist monk visiting New York was told by his Western host that they could save ten minutes by making a complex transfer in the subway at Grand Central Station. When they emerged from the underground in Central Park, the monk sat down on a bench. His host wanted to know what he was doing. “I thought we should enjoy the ten minutes,” the monk replied.
May we, with boldness, welcome God in the Sabbath, and may we learn from God, who models and legitimates the countercultural of rest. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. Judith Shulevitz. Xviii.
 Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Walter Brueggemann. 61.
 Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Walter Brueggemann. 64.
 Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Walter Brueggemann.
 Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. MaryAnn McKibben-Dana. 11.