Sabbath: A Foretaste of Heaven

Preached on 3 June 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Proper 4 (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Psalm 81:1-10, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6)

Observing or keeping Sabbath is about more than going to church on Sunday.  It’s about more than a day off of work and it’s certainly about more than any legalistic rules about what counts as work.  Observing Sabbath is more than individual practice and benefits.

Sabbath is also about affirming life.  Sabbath gives life.  It is about human flourishing.  Sabbath is about community.

Sabbath is also about Justice.

I’d like to share a couple of stories.
One Lent, I decided to be intentional and serious about keeping Sabbath as my Lenten practice that year.  Week by week, I observed a day of Sabbath doing mostly what was refreshing and renewing.  I usually started my morning with a walk with some friends.  Then I might read or take a nap or just whatever.  It was a time to rest and be refreshed, and in the space that rest created, to reconnect more deeply with God.

What started as a discipline became a gift and then a habit.  Gradually, this habit revealed to me, not just on an intellectual level, but deep within me, that I am a beloved child of God just because I am, not because of what I do or accomplish or achieve.

Think about it, first we love our children – before they can do anything, we love them.  We may feel happy or pleased or proud about what they achieve but that’s not why we love them.  Or we may feel disappointed or even angry about what they do or don’t do at times, but we still love them.

Why wouldn’t God be at least as good at loving us as the most loving person you know?

As that realization settle into my soul, I could see that it is true for everyone else, too.  Not just my family and friends and people I like or agree with, but everyone: even the jerks, even the criminals.  Doing prison ministry really drove that home for me.

Sabbath is a gift. A gift of love; a gift of life.  It affirms and refreshes our lives.  It is a gift of re-creation; not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.

My grandfather came from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  Those are the islands off the west coast of northern Scotland.  Go west from there and the next stop is Newfoundland, in Canada.

The people are poor, for the most part.  They somehow scrape a living out of the land every day: fishing for salmon in their streams, raising sheep, farming, doing a bit of this and that here and there.  There aren’t a lot of people on the island so everybody has to wear multiple hats.

We visited during peat-cutting season, in May.  It’s so far north that it’s still light at 11 pm, so they work at it late into the evening after working at their jobs all day.  It’s hard, dirty work.  The peat is wet and heavy.  They cut it and haul each piece out, then spread them out to dry in the sun.  They’ll use it to heat their homes all winter and in some cases as fuel in their cooking stoves all year.

The people work hard.  Every day.  And they keep Sabbath.  I mean they really keep Sabbath.  Everything shuts down except the hospital and the hotel.  There’s no bus or taxi service.  No ferries, no flights.  Nobody even goes for a walk.  They truly rest.  And after working so hard the rest of the week, they need it.  By the time we left, I had a very different understanding of what it means to keep Sabbath and why.

So, what do our readings say about the Sabbath?

In the gospel, we see Jesus discussing the Sabbath with the Pharisees on two different occasions.  That’s what people did.  Torah – what our translations often call Law but is better translated teaching or instruction – Torah isn’t monolithic or “settled law.”  The rabbis would (and still do) dispute with each other over what it means; and particularly about how to live it.

We see them interpreting Torah in Real Time.  It’s not abstract, it’s about what they do in their real lives.   First we have Jesus and the disciples apparently travelling on the Sabbath.  They’re making their way through a grain field and picking it as they go along.  They’re gleaning.  They’re hungry.

When the Pharisees question him about it, Jesus turns to a story in scripture involving King David as his argument that meeting human need, such as hunger in this case, is more important than strict Sabbath observance because the Sabbath was created for the good of human life; for human flourishing, not for its own sake.  God doesn’t need the Sabbath.  We do.

In the second instance, they’re in the synagogue and Jesus sets up this scenario for a man’s healing.  He asks those present if it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath; to save a life or to kill.  No one answers.  Now they all know that they still care for their children and livestock on the Sabbath.  If someone were drowning, they would save them.  But where do we draw the line?

Now you may notice, Jesus doesn’t really do anything.  He merely tells the man to stretch out his hand.  God heals him, restoring his withered hand.  God restores his life in the sense that now the man is able to work, to support his family in a way he wasn’t able to before.  This healing represents liberation and life.  Jesus hasn’t broken or overturned any law.

However, liberation can represent a threat to authority, and so the authorities begin to plot against Jesus, which is a recurring theme in the gospel of Mark.

Now, let’s look at Deuteronomy, the primary source, so to speak.  Here we have an excerpt from the Ten Commandments, where God establishes the observance of the Sabbath.  Deuteronomy is actually the second place it occurs in Torah.

The Decalogue first appears in the Book of Exodus.  The people have just left a life of slavery and arrived at Mt. Sinai where God gives Moses this teaching, establishing a covenant with the people.  So, after generations of slavery in which their time, their bodies, their labor are owned and controlled by the Egyptians, they are finally free.
In Sabbath, they are given the gift of time and rest.  What a gift!  Imagine how that would feel – especially while they are fleeing their former captors.  Even then, they are given rest.

In Deuteronomy, which we hear today, it’s presented as Moses speaking to the Israelites toward the end of their journey in the wilderness, not long before they enter the promised land.  Deuteronomy contains a series of discourses.

This is in the Second Discourse of Moses and he is reiterating the covenant at Sinai.  “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy,” we hear.  This is the longest of the commandments.  It focuses on the time as slaves in Egypt and that this is the God who brought them up out of Egypt.  Therefore, you will work for six days and on the seventh you will not work.  God is saying, you are free, liberated.

And not just you.  Sabbath is about Community.  The Sabbath is for everyone in your family, everyone in your household; even the slave is free on the Sabbath.  It’s for everyone in your community, including the immigrant and the traveler just passing through.  Even your livestock rest.  It is not restricted to the People of the Covenant, to believers, but they are to extend it to all.

The Sabbath is about Justice.

Now, what if we interpret scripture in Real Time?  How do we observe Sabbath in our own lives; in our community?  And I’m not talking about passing blue laws that impose our practice on others in a legalistic way.

How can our practice of Sabbath promote human flourishing – our own and everyone else’s?  How can it help us reconnect with God?

God makes it clear that God hates slavery.

What choices do we make and what systems in our culture deny or limit the flourishing of life for others?  How do they continue the effects of slavery, even without the institution of slavery?  I think you know what I mean.

What choices do we or can we make to give life and promote human flourishing; to dismantle that which diminishes or denies life for certain people?

How can we extend the Justice of Sabbath to our neighbor, to the immigrant, to those who labor for our good?

Imagine if everyone could experience the gift of Sabbath, to know deep within their soul that they are deeply loved by God; that they are free.

You see, Sabbath is nothing less than a foretaste of heaven.