“Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”
It’s number four on our list of the ten big commandments, but true confession: for most of my life so far, it’s the other nine that have given me the most pause—not this one.
Honestly, if I gave it any thought at all I likely just assumed this commandment has something to do with making sure you get to church on at least a semi-regular basis. But as we heard from Rev. Keat last week, there’s something important—essential even—about learning and living Sabbath. There’s a reason instruction about the Sabbath made the list of 10, and as much as I hate to say it, it probably has very little to do with regular church attendance. In fact, we busy, busy, overachieving people dismiss commandment number four at our own peril, God might tell us; maybe that’s why it made the top ten list, come to think of it. And although it doesn’t appear to be the most critical commandment of the ten, it may in fact be one of the hardest to follow.
“Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” is a directive to stop…breathe…watch and listen…and imagine the world, your life, as it was intended to be at the beginning—when God spun the universe into being. All of the hopes and dreams God has for us were there—tangible—back when this all began. What would the crazy, broken, striving world in which we live begin to look like if we remembered what a whole, healed, complete life could be like?
In America today we define success in such a way that makes Sabbath practice—stopping, resting, reflecting—a disappointment, if not a straight out crime. We work too hard, we run too fast, we consume too much, we pack our lives so full that we don’t even live them, displaying an arrogance that supposes our efforts are critically necessary for the world to keep turning. This is not so.
One of the terrible things about getting up in the pulpit every week is the challenge of speaking to issues facing the church and the world…and yourself.
As some of you know, I was recently gone for a family gathering celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. A group of 20 family members gathered on a cruise ship to Alaska, along with 3000 other people. This experience certainly is fodder for another several sermons, but suffice it to say that my parents’ grandchildren at this gathering ranged in age from 9 months to 24 years old—beautiful. However, the 9 month old—cute as he could be—came on board with a terrible cold which he graciously shared with many of the adults, including me. So when I got home from this trip, I was sicker than I have been in some time. Greeting me when I got here was a friend who had come to stay in my guest room while she had some business in the city, and Tuesday morning she encountered me sitting, miserably, on the couch, contemplating my day while I hacked and sneezed and unwrapped cough drops in steady succession. As she prepared to head out my friend said, “You are staying home from work today, right?”
I looked at her, not understanding.
“I have been gone for 8 days. There is so much work to be done. I have to go to the office and start tackling the pile awaiting me,” I choked out in between coughs.
My friend looked at me with disdain. “Who do you think you are? That important? Really? Go to bed.”
So I finally did. Later as I was describing this experience to our church moderator, Brad Jones, he paused and said: “Amy, you really should take a day away to do nothing more often.”
But how could the world ever survive without me?
Turns out that it did, and that a day of rest was exactly what I needed.
And so in full disclosure, I am possibly the least qualified person to be preaching on the concept of Sabbath, except to say: church, I struggle so much with this. I want, like many of you, to achieve things, to make a difference in the world, to do a good job. And resting—Sabbath—seems to contradict this American work ethic of perpetual striving. In fact, what we’ve been taught to do—work 7 days a week, be there for every meeting, answer every email, is a kind of arrogance that presumes we are something other than wholly human.
When we live our lives like this we are, in effect, saying that we believe the world depends on us, that our worth comes from what we produce. But this was not the intention of our creator. Our worth, in God’s eyes, doesn’t come from what we produce, but who we are created to be: precious children of God.
Wayne Muller says, “A ‘successful’ life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them when they are hurt or afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we cannot take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.”
“Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”
As it turns out, this might be the hardest commandment of all.
Each week during this series on Sabbath we are considering this commandment and all of its ramifications for our lives—the many ways in which the directive to pause, to rest, to reflect, takes on different expressions in the rhythm of living. Today we consider the way in which our practice of Sabbath impacts and is impacted by our relationships. And guiding our consideration this morning is a story—a familiar story—from the second and third chapters of Genesis.
You’ll recall that the first few chapters of Genesis are layer upon layer of divine mystery, a Pandora’s Box full of issues like: the nature of God, the nature of human beings, questions and questions and questions about who we are, who God is, and what, specifically, we’re here for.
In this narrative, a man, Adam, is created out of the dust of the ground, and, very specifically, the story says that God breathes life itself into the nostrils of this human creation. And in the version we heard this morning—the second version of the creation story in the book of Genesis—God sees pretty quickly that this human being God has created in God’s image doesn’t seem to be flourishing on his own. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that there is a fundamental need for relationship—community, in this human creation, so God responds with the possibility for just that: Adam and Eve, each created and then placed in an intricate web of interdependence on God, on the garden, on each other. And things are going great in the garden of Eden, God’s beautiful creation living and thriving and flourishing.
But then, as you heard, things start to go downhill. Striving, achievement, possibility present themselves as temptations and Adam and Eve turn their attention away from nurturing each other and the community God has created, and toward the possibility of what they can master themselves—on their own—independent of God and in competition and at odds with one other. And we see quickly what happens: relationships with God, with the world around them, with each other—become strained and broken. Adam and Eve forget who they were created to be, and they forget that they are fully human in the best sense of the word only when their attention is turned toward loving and caring for the relationships that sustain them and the world around them.
We don’t tell this grand story as a history lesson, of course. It’s told to remind us that what it means to be human in this world is grounded in the fundamental necessity of relationship. We require relationship to flourish because that is how we were created—in the image of God, reflections of the divine, meant not to live in isolation but as part of a gracious web of interdependence.
Centuries of philosophers and theologians have expressed this idea, from Augustine, who said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you” to mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who hypothesized that humans are created with a space inside of us designed to be filled by God, with echoes of that holy relationship lived out in the human relationships with which we build our lives. The deep truth of the creation story is: I can recognize God in you. You can recognize God in me. And this is how we were created to be.
And it’s not a luxury; it’s a critical necessity. This week has been a hard one in the news, with two prominent figures dying by suicide. The pain that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain must have suffered is not as uncommon as our shiny representations to the world might suggest. Statistics show that suicide rates in America have increased more than 25% since 1999, and that that private pain that results in death by suicide is compounded by…isolation. In other words, our networks of relationships are more than “luxuries” or “lifestyle choices.” Relationships can quite literally mean the difference between life and death.
But the world in which we live does not reward the tools that build and nurture relationships. Why? Because relationships are not accomplishments or achievements like most of what we value. We can’t really choose and manufacture and orchestrate healthy relationships. Instead, we live them, through the investment of time and intention, with the offering of ourselves to the risky enterprise of sharing our lives.
And Sabbath—Sabbath is a critical practice in building and nurturing life-giving relationships: intentional time away from the frantic work of acquisition and achievement, time devoted instead to listening and sharing and affirming and being…time building relationships that tie us to each other and offer us connection that can become the lifeline that can save us.
As many of you know, I traveled to Israel earlier this year as part of a delegation of female clergy traveling for the purpose of meeting with women in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities—women working for peace. I worked with fellow clergy, my rabbi colleagues in this city, to plan the trip, and one Friday evening in Israel we attended services at a local schul—a group of devout Jews who gathered to mark Shabbat each week.
After Shabbat services finished the rabbi invited all of us—our group of 10—to her home for dinner. We gathered in their apartment great room, about 15 of us around a big table, and the rabbi and her husband began the weekly ritual of the Shabbat meal. Of course our rabbi colleagues were familiar with the experience, but for those of us who came from the Christian tradition, this was all new. The rabbi and her husband lit the candles and began the blessings for Shabbat.
And I was a curious and somewhat removed observer until the rabbi lit the candles and she and her husband got up from the table and started a ritual of blessing.
Together they went down the table first to their oldest daughter, laid their hands on her head, and recited a blessing in unison:
“May God bless you and guide you.
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.”
Then they each bent down and whispered a few sentences of affirmation, some extra encouragement and love for her especially. The rabbi and her husband did this for each of their three children, and then they returned to their places at the table, where they turned and blessed each other. “Holiness walks with you, my beloved. Your face glows, your eyes shine, and beauty surrounds you. You sparkle with joy and hope…let the glory of heaven light your path…may you know God’s blessing and God’s shelter…”.
These were private moments, but shared with those of us who gathered at the table that evening. And none of us was unaffected by witnessing those moments of blessing. It was jarring to realize that though this family engaged in this ritual every single week, some of us witnessing it were so deeply struck by its meaning because the experience of blessing and being blessed, especially in the relationships that mean the most to us, is so tragically rare.
Sabbath helps us tend relationships, those critical pieces of being human that determine whether we flourish and blossom into our best expressions of humanity, or whether we surrender to the tyranny of accomplishment, achievement, and success that keeps us so busy we forget who we were created to be.
“Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy…” filled with a conscious remembering of all that we are created to be—not alone, but together, holding each other in the precious embrace of life-giving relationship. May it be so. Amen.