Honoring Sabbath-It’s More Than Going to Church

ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 58:9b-14

Psalm 103:1-8

Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“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.” Isaiah 58:13-14.

For most of us protestant Christians, honoring the Sabbath is nearly synonymous with going to church on Sunday. Some protestant churches continue to prohibit work on Sunday in honor of the Sabbath. Strictly speaking, however, the Sabbath is not about worship. It is about rest. Rest from labor for everyone, from princes at the pinnacle of society to the lowliest servant. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, animals were also to be given rest from work on the Sabbath. The land itself was to receive a year of sabbath from cultivation every seven years. In essence, the Sabbath is a labor law designed to protect humans, animals and the earth itself from ruthless exploitation.  

The command to rest was the first one God gave us when, at the completion of creation after six days, God rested. I saw recently a clever poster featuring a photograph of the earth from outerspace and this verse from Genesis: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” Genesis 2:1-2. Underneath were the words, “So, tell me again about how busy you are and how you just can’t afford to take a break from all your important work.” A rabbi under whom I studied Hebrew while in college told us that “God commanded us to rest because he knew that, left to ourselves, we never would.”

Work is a good gift of God and a blessing-or at least it is supposed to be. But work has a way of getting out of hand and taking over the rest of life. When I first began practicing law, the hours were long and difficult. When the work day ended, however, I got into my car and enjoyed a relatively easy commute back home, listening to music and decompressing. When I walked through the door into the house, the office was behind me and I was confronted with a fresh set of domestic challenges. If I didn’t have a complete day of rest, at least I got to enjoy little islands of rest protected from the reach of my job.

With the advent of the cell phone, I lost the comfort of knowing that, while driving from place to place, I could enjoy a period of peace where no one could reach me. E-mail extended into the sanctuary of my home the reach of anxious clients eager to know the status of their cases, senior partners needing a legal memo asap and associates with pressing questions about their assignments. More recently, the covid-19 pandemic accelerated this trend by blurring altogether the distinction between home and work through normalizing the practice of “working from home.”[1] It has become increasingly difficult to enjoy any sort of Sabbath, that is, time altogether free from the demands and obligations of work.

In Jesus day, the Sabbath itself had become a laborious burden. Instead of providing an oasis of peace for rest and rejuvenation, Sabbath had become an onerous network of rules to be observed. The ruler of the synagogue in our gospel lesson goes ballistic when Jesus heals a woman bent over from a chronic back condition. “There are six days on which work ought to be done;” he tells the people. “Come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Luke 13:14. It sounds reasonable enough at first blush. After all, this woman’s ailment is hardly a medical emergency. She has lived with the condition for eighteen years. All she has to do is wait another few hours until sundown.

Jesus, however, takes a different view. He reminds his audience why God gave us the Sabbath. It isn’t as though God created an elaborate set of rules and then, as an afterthought, decided to create people so that there would be someone to follow all of these wonderful rules. As Jesus has told us elsewhere, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27. The Sabbath was designed to ensure that human beings are given rest from their labors. As all of us who suffer from back pain know, it is hard to get any rest when your back is killing you. Jesus is simply opening the door of Sabbath rest to this woman whose pain had been excluding her from it for eighteen years. What better way to honor the Sabbath than to expand its reach to those who need it most?

The Sabbath and its limitations on the scope of labor for the protection of the earth and all its human and nonhuman inhabitants stands in stark contrast to the values of late stage capitalism which exploits all for the sake of profit for a few. This false religion of profit permeates our educational institutions, which are designed to produce workers and professionals meeting the needs of corporate America. When speculating about a person’s wealth, we are typically heard making remarks like, “So what do you think she’s worth?” We compensate and value individuals based on how much value can be extracted from their labor. In the view of capitalism, the world is not God’s creation, but merely a ball of exploitable resources to be used in generating profit. Small wonder, then, that the earth is scarred with deforested wastelands, contaminated waters and dying cities filled with the ruins of factories and poverty stricken people capitalism has left behind after extracting everything it could use.

Sabbath points us to a different kind of economy. It is an economy driven by human need rather than human greed. It is an economy designed to create and nourish community rather than exploiting and then abandoning communities in the interest of cheaper labor and greater efficiency. A biblical economy treats the earth, its habitats and inhabitants with reverence and respect rather than as a treasure trove of resources to be mined ruthlessly for generating profit. A biblical economy seeks to build a society in which all people can live meaningful and productive lives rather than seeking to mold people into productive units to be used by corporate industry until obsolete and then summarily discarded. Honoring the Sabbath is a whole lot more than simply going to church. To honor the Sabbath is to pursue justice and ecological renewal passionately and relentlessly.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov that speaks eloquently to what I believe can be characterized as Sabbath, both as presently experienced and as anticipated with passionate hope.        

To Live in the Mercy of God

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
before ribs of shelter
open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
as salt water
would hold you,
once you dared.

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured

waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
many-stranded.
To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
Arcs
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.

Source: Sands from the Well (c. 1996 by Denise Levertov; pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.


[1] I know that many people find working from home to be liberating. I can understand that. It spares them the time, cost and aggravation of commuting to a distant office. Working from home allows one greater freedom in setting one’s own schedule, thereby enabling them to participate more fully in the life of their spouses and children. But my own experience has been that trying to get work done at home does not make me a better spouse, father or person all around.  

3 thoughts on “Honoring Sabbath-It’s More Than Going to Church

  1. Well done. I will ponder your thoughts as I continue to dive into this passage. I love the idea that “break from work” does not equal “go to church.”

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    1. Thanks, Tom. I have often thought that much of what our catechism says about worship belongs under the commandment to honor God’s name rather than under the commandment to honor the Sabbath.

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