If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.
At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”
What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.
My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.
My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.
So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.
The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.
But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.
He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”
The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.
Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.
For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.
We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.
But that time is long gone.
Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.
How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.
And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.
We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.
For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?
John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.
Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?
Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.
The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.
The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.
Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.
If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.