Scripture | Deuteronomy 5:12-15 | Mark 2:23-3:6
Years and years ago – decades ago, now – I remember hearing professor and preacher Will Willimon talk about what Sundays used to be like when he was a kid. He was recalling the Sundays of his youth, when nothing was open on the Sabbath. The first time a movie theatre opened on a Sunday afternoon in his hometown it was scandalous. What was the world coming to?! He realized even as a child that it was the beginning of a seismic change. Until then there was nothing to do but go to church and – if you were lucky – read the Sunday comics. And have long, big dinners with all the family, who you saw all the time anyway because they mostly lived right next door.
That seems like ancient history now. Kind of quaint, really. I mean, I’m going to a movie this afternoon and I didn’t think twice about it until I started writing this sermon. It feels like Sabbath because I’m doing something fun and not doing chores at home or working.
What is Sabbath, and how do you keep it? Especially when the culture around us doesn’t keep it for us anymore? I mean, why do we bother with it at all?
In the Ancient Near East, ‘keeping the Sabbath’ was one of the distinguishing marks of the Jewish people. The seventh day was marked as a day of rest. Some think the origin of a seven-day-week actually goes back to the ancient Babylonians, who based it on astrological observance of seven heavenly bodies. There is no inherently logical reason for a seven-day week, and different cultures marked time very differently – a five day week, or a ten-day week, for instance. Speculation is that the Jews adopted the Babylonian calendar in the 6th c. BCE when they were in exile in Babylon, and that the Biblical creation story was written then as a way to co-opt the seven days and impart it with theological meaning. [ https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-cant-we-get-rid-of-the-7day-week
We’ll never know for sure, but the seventh-day-as-Sabbath became a distinguishing mark of the Jews, one that helped to keep their distinctive identity intact. The Sabbath was a day to remember who they were, and whose they were. They were the people of God.
Every religion creates rules as markers of religious and cultural identity. Think of the Amish forbidding the use of various modern gadgets. Or the Mormons abstaining from coffee or alcohol. Different branches of Islam have varying rules about clothing and what’s considered modest. The Hindus have particular dietary laws. Even modern Judaism has a whole range of expectations about keeping kosher and honoring the Sabbath, from anything goes, to the strictures of Orthodox Judaism.
Rules and laws are common ways of marking community, religious or not. For instance, in our church we know that we don’t schedule the Rummage Sale or Holiday Fair to conflict with an Ohio State home game. We know the law.
Actually, I’d hazard a guess that the rules are stricter about Ohio State football than they are about Sabbath.
And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Now the culture doesn’t decide Sabbath for us – we have to decide for ourselves. In any case, Sabbath rules have changed. A lot.
A couple of centuries ago the pastor of this church had to decide whether to let workers finish the masonry on his house on the Sabbath. The workers warned Ahab Jinks that a hard frost was coming, and if they didn’t finish, it would ruin the whole project. He let them do it, and he lost his job as pastor of this church. (He went across the street and helped found St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, by the way.)
But things change. Now I hire a kid to mow my grass, and he usually comes on Sunday.
Things have changed – a lot. Even in this century, they’ve changed.
I came to Granville in 2000. In those days the schools never scheduled practices or rehearsals or performances or games on Sundays. Actually, they even kept Wednesdays open for church activities and for kids to have a night at home. Now families have kids not only in school activities, but in traveling sports teams and clubs, and they’re busy most weekends. Parents - and grandparents - have to choose between other activities and church. In reality, the other activities almost always win.
The simple reality is that Sundays are not sacred, and churches everywhere are trying to figure out what to do with this new reality. The responses vary from “lay down the law” to “embrace it.” My own response is to acknowledge that church has very little authority in people’s lives, and laying down the law only makes people feel guilty and pushes them away. At least in our context that’s true. I’m not ready to embrace it – I think something important is lost – but I’m not going to scold.
Even in Jesus’ day there were debates about what it meant to keep the Sabbath. There were different schools of thought, and some of the religious leaders were adamant that it be done strictly as possible. Their motives weren’t terrible: they wanted to make sure the Jewish people kept themselves distinct from the dominant Roman culture, which was threatening to assimilate everyone. But their judgment of him obviously annoyed Jesus to no end. The Sabbath wasn’t supposed to be about do’s and don’ts, rules and regs. It was created for a different purpose. It was created to honor God.
What Jesus knew was that “the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”
So what is that need? Why do we need the Sabbath, especially if it seems so outdated, so quaint? Does the commandment still hold, to honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy, somehow?
At our staff meeting last Wednesday, Janice led devotions with an excerpt from the book the PRISM discussion group is using for this summer. The title is Humble Roots, and in the introduction, the author Hannah Anderson, tells about how she decided to write a book about humility. She was describing the book idea to a friend, and he asked what the book would be about.
“Well, it’s kind of – well you know… It’s about how we’re all so anxious and busy and we, um, well, we think we can do everything and we try to save the world. And, um, I think there’s a connection. I think something’s wrong. Like… um… we’re stressed out because we’re trying to do too much… and um, well maybe we just need to learn to be human again. I think maybe we need to learn humility.”
To which her friend replied confidently,
“Oh, I can write that book for you…. In fact, I can write it in three words: You’re. Not. God.”
And I thought to myself, maybe that’s what Sabbath is for. At the heart of it, remembering that may be the core of what Sabbath is for. [Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 10.]
God created Sabbath for us, not as a measure of our goodness or way to prove our righteousness, but as a way to keep us centered on what matters. Keeping the Sabbath holy helps to keep our lives grounded in what is holy. Worshiping God reminds us that we are not God. We are God’s people, and we come here to remember that: we are beloved, empowered, sent out into the world as God’s servants.
And just a footnote: I celebrated my birthday last week, and coincidentally, I got a birthday card that reminded me a LOT of this quote from this book. Well, maybe it wasn’t a coincidence the card was from the Weigands – and it was John who picked out the book, Humble Roots.
The front of the card says,
“Once upon a time, a very special person was born, who was destined to change the world.”
On the inside it says,
“Calm down. It’s not you. It’s Jesus.”
Maybe remembering that is exactly what Sabbath is for.