Keeping Sabbath for the World

Scripture  |  Isaiah 58:9-14  |  Luke 13:10-17

Last Sunday morning I celebrated the Sabbath at the Chapel of Our Lady of the New York Times. That’s what my sister calls it when she stays home to read the paper instead of going to church. I was in Chicago for my dad’s 94th birthday, which was wonderful to celebrate. Chris had the day off – she’s a pastor, too – and we took the morning off. After reading the paper for a while we wandered over to Lake Michigan and sunbathed and splashed around in the water. It was delicious. 

Every Christian knows they’re supposed to honor the Sabbath. That’s one of the top ten. But how are you supposed to honor it? Even the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had very different ideas about that. The reality is, every generation, every branch of faith, and every Christian has to figure it out for themselves. What does it mean to honor the Sabbath, to keep it holy?

One of the first stories I heard about this church had to do with a pastor getting into trouble for Sabbath-breaking. It was the early 1800’s, and Ahab Jinks was the minister. He was a popular preacher, effective and charismatic by all accounts. He was ready to put roots down here, and proceeded to build a fine brick house on Main Street for his family. His son was even part of the building crew. But Autumn came early that year, and the masons warned Rev. Jinks that if they didn’t set the mortar the work would be ruined. They had to work on the Sabbath to beat the hard frost that was coming. 

Ahab agreed – though he wouldn’t let his son join them. Though he ‘honored the Sabbath’ by prohibiting his son from working that day.

Well, working on a house in the center of town isn’t exactly something you can keep under wraps. When parishioners saw work being done on the Sabbath they hit the roof. Well, some did – and others thought it was no big deal. The church split – four ways, as I understand it, though I’m not exactly clear how you could get four different factions from one Sabbath infraction. Leave it to Presbyterians to manage that! The Presbytery was brought in to mediate the fights. Eventually the factions reconciled, and Jacob Little was brought in to be the pastor, a role he served for almost forty years. And, as it turns out, Ahab stayed in town – he was recruited by the Episcopalians.

It was quite the bru-ha-ha. Back in those days, Sabbath rules were strict. And now here I am, your very own pastor telling you point blank I went to the beach and played. 

Honoring the Sabbath is a central core of what it means to be faithful for the people of God. It’s non-negotiable. It’s one of the things that sets apart Jews and Christians and Muslims from non-believers. There is a day we keep holy.

But what does it mean to honor the Sabbath? Maybe it helps to know why we’re supposed to keep it holy.

In the Jewish Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament – the rationale for Sabbath-keeping is explained in various ways. 

  • We keep the Sabbath because God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day God rested. [Ex. 20:8-11] We who are made in the image and likeness of God should do the same.  
  • We keep the Sabbath because people who labor and animals who do work for us need rest. The Sabbath a practical way of stewarding our energy and resources. [Dt. 5:12-15]  
  • We keep the Sabbath because it sets us apart from other people and cultures, and helps us remember who we are. [Dt. 5:12-15]
  • And we are meant to praise God, to come into God’s presence with singing. [e.g. Ps. 100] Over time, Sabbath became the day to do just that. 

But deciding what counts as ‘honoring the Sabbath’ has always been a matter of interpretation. 

In Jesus’ day it was customary to go to the synagogue, but the emphasis lay elsewhere - primarily on what a person could or could not do. What counted as ‘work’ and what counted as ‘rest’? 

As one commentary notes, 

Naturally, questions would arise in the community: “But what if this or that happens on a Sabbath?” The law gave specific instruction to cover many contingencies, but as others arose, tradition provided precedent and interpretation. The Pharisees and scribes were knowledgeable and skilled in such details.
— Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, p. 81

It wasn’t that they were legalistic, nit-picking control freaks. They were trying to keep the faith. In fact, they were trying to keep the faith alive in a time much like this one, when there were a hundred religions to choose from and choosing none was a very real option. They were trying to help the people of God stay faithful.

But Jesus’ emphasis is different. If the Sabbath is for anything, it’s for restoring the world to wholeness. It’s for bringing us closer to God’s intention for the world God created. It’s for freeing people from what binds them, bringing life where there is suffering, healing wounds and bringing grace. That’s what Sabbath is for. Not just for our own renewal, but for the renewal of the world.

You know, odd as it sounds, I’ve never noticed that before. In all these years of reading and scripture, I’ve never understood Sabbath in quite that way. But when I read the Luke passage and the Isaiah passage side-by-side, there it was, clear as day. 

I’ve read the Isaiah passage form the Old Testament so many times, and I’ve always loved it… the prophet’s message about feeding the hungry and caring for the afflicted… the promise that we will be a light to others… how God’s mercy will never fail. But Isaiah talks about the Sabbath, too. That’s the part I always glossed over. He defines “trampling the Sabbath” as “pursuing your own interests, going your own ways, doing what you please, and speaking idle words.” 

And suddenly it dawned on me that “Sabbath-breaking” is about being self-absorbed. It’s looking only at what I want or at my own agenda – and not seeing anything or anybody else. It’s being so wrapped up in my own life that I don’t even see the needs of others, let alone try to meet them. 

Keeping the Sabbath holy – that leads to joy, Isaiah says. The Sabbath is meant to be a delight. It has less to do with Sabbath rules and regulations, and everything to do with getting our heads out of our own lives for a while – maybe long enough to notice the lives of others. 

That’s what happened when Jesus was in the synagogue that day.  And he noticed the woman who came in, the one who had been afflicted for eighteen long years with a “spirit of weakness,” bent over under the burdens she carried. He honored the Sabbath by freeing her. He satisfied the need she carried, to use Isaiah’s words, and loosed her from the bond that oppressed her. 

Didn’t he make the Sabbath a delight, and bring joy? Didn’t his light shine?

Sabbath isn’t just a day of rest – though we shouldn’t lose sight of that part, in our crazy, can’t-wait world. Sabbath is a day of restoration, not only for ourselves, but for God’s world.

A couple of weeks ago a group of us celebrated the Sabbath by heading over to the Coalition of Care to do some work on the property. If you don’t know about the Coalition, you should – it’s a collection of churches in Licking County who have pooled their resources for people who need emergency assistance. 

The Coalition actually started here in our church over ten years ago. We didn’t know what to do with the people who would show up in our office asking for money for gas or rent, how best to help them or even whether we should, or if we were just feeding the problem. I asked Carol Bradley to help – she was the chair of the Mission committee back then – and she began researching what others did, and what was available. She came to the wise conclusion that our help would be so much more effective if churches pooled their money together, and if we hired someone who could actually help direct people to the resources already out there. That’s how the Coalition was born. We still support it to this day, giving a large proportion of the Mission money we give from your pledges. 

So Mike Schmidt, one of our current Mission elders, organized a bunch of us to go down to the Coalition building on Jefferson Street in Newark. The fences had gotten overgrown with weeds and trees and vines that needed to come down – including poison ivy, as it turns out. It became kind of a badge of honor, if you came home with poison ivy. Twenty people got one side of the fence cleared out. It was a great way to spend a Sabbath afternoon. 

I don’t want to suggest that honoring the Sabbath is optional; it’s not. It’s core to our faith. I’m just suggesting that we widen the view of what Sabbath is for. It’s for our own rest and restoration, of course. It’s for worshiping God, coming into God’s presence with singing. 

But part of what happens when we do that – when we come here – when we worship - is that we get out of the weeds of our own lives and look up. We see what God is up to in this world. We notice the ones standing next to us, the ones who are carrying burdens we might help lighten. We remember what the world is supposed to be like, what God wants for creation. We remember who God is, and who we are.

And then – I hope - we go out a little differently. A little lighter, maybe, ourselves, with our burdens lifted by prayer. And a little clearer about what the rest of the week is for. 

It’s not about serving our own interests. It’s about being light in the world – God’s light, in the world God loves.

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, OH