I have to confess that I don’t especially like preaching about the Sabbath. It’s hard for a preacher to talk about it without coming off as cranky. Every Christian already knows they’re supposed to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, which most people take to mean ‘Go to church.’ So when we try to make the case for honoring the Sabbath, it ends up sounding scolding and judgmental, like somehow we’re yelling, “Why aren’t you in church every Sunday? What’s wrong with you people?!” We end up sounding like the Pharisees, scolding Jesus for plucking grain. You just can’t win.
The honest truth is that pastors spend a fair amount of time bemoaning all the activities scheduled on Sundays these days. Never mind people sleeping in or ‘worshiping God on the golf course’ as my Dad used to say; now it’s baseball games and hockey practice and Robotics competitions. We’re kind of wistful for the good old days when even so-so preachers had packed houses. And we fear what gets lost when we lose Sabbath-keeping. We’re a little wistful, and fearful, and, yes, sometimes even frustrated and resentful. We have competition now.
But we know better than to scold. Pastors are not stupid. The last thing we want to do is alienate people with criticism. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus’ critics did, right? Complain that his disciples weren’t doing it right. As Jesus wisely pointed out, “Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” This is meant to be life-giving, not legalistic. This is supposed to help us to be faithful, not be an extra burden to carry. Of course, Jesus didn’t say, “Forget the Sabbath, that’s just an old rule that doesn’t apply to you anymore.” But I don’t want to sound cranky. Really.
So when we start talking about Sabbath-keeping, pastors tend to appeal to personal benefit, as if arguing for a health benefit like getting more sleep or exercising. ‘It’s good for you to rest.’ Which, of course, it is. So we talk about how harried and rushed we all are, and how draining it all is. How Sabbath is a gift from God meant to slow us down so we can stop and smell the roses.
The only problem is, if honoring the Sabbath is just about decompressing or unplugging then ‘meeting God on the golf course’ or sharing a leisurely breakfast with your family would be excellent ways to honor the Sabbath. You could do yoga for quiet centering and contemplation. You could read an inspiring book. You don’t need worship to be rested or restored or even to be inspired. The fact is that not everyone who comes to church leaves feeling inspired. That’s true even for preachers. Maybe especially for preachers.
If it’s all about rest and restoration, then why should church be part of Sabbath observation? As one commentator on Mark’s Gospel enthuses, “Does your way of keeping Sabbath give life, nourish, and renew? If the answer is yes, enjoy!”
Sabbath as a day of religious observance seems almost quaint, an anachronism from another time. I remember seeing the movie Chariots of Fire, about a Scottish athlete, Eric Liddell. He refused to compete in an Olympic race because it was held on a Sunday. Even though he felt his running glorified God, “his Christian convictions prevent[ed] him from running on the Sabbath.” That was in 1924. It seems inconceivable now, even absurd.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that Sabbath observance was the norm. How many of you remember when stores weren’t open on Sundays? When you couldn’t buy alcohol on the Sabbath? When there were no organized sports on Sundays? When I first came to Granville in 2000, schools still left Wednesdays unscheduled so kids could participate in church activities – to schedule things on Sundays was unthinkable.
Now the truth is, there never was a time when ‘everybody went to church’. And I’m certainly not arguing that it should be that way today. But what happened to make things so different? What changed?
This is what I’m thinking: One piece is the rise in secularism, where being non-religious is just as good an option as anything else. As one writer puts it, “Americans… no longer cherish obedience as a virtue. We have become individualists, even libertarians. We will no longer put up with being told how to dispose of our free time.”
The second big difference, I suspect, is technology. Now everything can happen at your own personal convenience. One time is much like any other. The idea that a particular time is ‘sacred’ is almost foreign to our culture now.
I read a sermon recently lamenting that technology was making us a 24/7 society. There was no ‘down’ time any more. That sermon was written twenty-five years ago! For those of you weren’t even alive back then, that was before smart phones, streaming Netflix, or even shopping Amazon. If it was true back then we’re on steroids now. Take away our devices and some of us get itchy, even anxious. We live in fear of missing something, being ‘disconnected’. It’s almost like being in exile, or in solitary confinement.
It’s like the guy who went on an Outward Bound adventure and was dropped off on an island without anything to do, and his first reaction was anxiety. He wasn’t scared of physical danger. Left on his own, he was terrified of boredom.
The reality is, we don’t have to be in church any more; it’s purely a matter of personal preference. In our secular age it’s not an expectation. Technology can let us work 24/7, and when we’re not working it entertains us. If people long for Sabbath, it’s mostly because they need relaxation and down time.
So why bother with church? Why worship?
It really makes no sense. It’s ‘nonsense,’ you might say. And you would be right.
But Sabbath has always seemed like nonsense to the world.
- It started as a peculiar ritual among the Jewish people; no one else in the Ancient Near East did anything remotely like it; it made them different, set apart.
- Centuries later, when the Jewish people were in Exile in Babylon, they kept the Sabbath to remind them of their identity. Uprooted from their homeland, their kingdom and Temple destroyed, they were tempted to assimilate into the culture where they landed. Instead they kept the Sabbath day to set themselves apart.
- Still later, in Jesus’ time, the secular Roman culture threatened to absorb them yet again, and Sabbath was one way to remember who they were. They kept Sabbath precisely because it seemed like nonsense to the world.
Sabbath helped them remember they were God’s people.
Two millennia later, Sabbath still helps us remember who we are.
Why keep the Sabbath holy? Scripture tells us that God rested on the Sabbath, and that we are made in the image of God… It’s so easy to get caught up in work, in productivity, defining ourselves by what we do. But God invites us to remember that we’re more than that. We need a day marked off for rest, to stop. One writer puts it this way: “We rest in order to honor the divine in us, to remind ourselves that there is more to us than just what we do during the week.” As Rabbi Abraham Heschel says, “On the Sabbath, we especially care for the need of eternity planted in the soul.”
Why keep the Sabbath? Scripture tells us that the Sabbath is meant for us to remember God’s care: that the God who brought us out of slavery in Egypt is bringing us out of slavery still. From slavery to consumerism, and ego. From slavery to fear, and burdens we can’t bear, and forces beyond our own making. In Sabbath we remember our salvation is from God. John Calvin said that “Sabbath keeping is a way of living out our belief that we are not our own; that we belong to God.”
Why keep Sabbath? It’s not about proving our righteousness or fulfilling some arbitrary law set down by judgmental religious leaders. It’s about being faithful, practicing faith. That’s why we old-fashioned pastors keep insisting on it.
There is a Jewish Sabbath prayer that says, “Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” These Sabbath rituals, a friend writes, “draw our so-easily-distracted attention back to the… patterns of grace.” A time and place to remember…. To see differently… To become who we really are.
In an article for The New York Times Magazine, a Jewish woman named Judith Shulevitz wrote about her slow conversion to Sabbath-keeping. She was in her twenties, living in New York, and her “normal routine… brunch with friends… swapping tales of misadventure in the relentless quest for romance and professional success, made [her] feel impossibly restless.” She started spending Saturdays by herself instead. Then – much to her own dismay – she began attending synagogue.
At first it was just to listen to the hymns, which gave her the “uncanny comfort of songs heard in childhood.” Over time, the rituals grew on her, or maybe more accurately grew in her.
Eventually she joined the synagogue. “I didn’t know how else to attain the self-possession that eluded me,” she writes,
“the sense of owing nothing to anybody except perhaps God… Silent, solitary contemplation was not sustainable. The ceremonies performed by my ancestors for the past two millenniums had at least the virtue of having been previously tested and found to be effective.”
Being with other people, having community, was part of what she found. But Shulevitz also discovered that sharing Sabbath rituals together created something that even group leisure could not do.
“Religious rituals do not exist simply to promote togetherness,” she observes.
“They’re theater. They are designed to convey to us a certain story about who we are without our even quite noticing that they are doing so. (One defining feature of religious rituals, in fact, is that we often perform them for years before we come to understand what they mean; this is why ministers and rabbis are famously unsympathetic when congregants complain that worship services or holiday rites feel meaningless.)
That’s not to say that worship is always a great performance – all of us here are the actors in this theatre, and sometimes our lines feel hollow in our mouths, or the plot seems too contrived, or the story is boring or so antiquated we can’t quite relate. But as Shulevitz observes, it’s a paradox: “Only a Sabbath that you have to work for will appear worth keeping… Anything gotten for nothing will be treated as such.”
Maybe none of this is convincing, maybe none of it makes sense. As Trip has so kindly pointed out to me, we pastors are church geeks, we’re not quite normal.
Still. When I was home this summer with my cancer treatments I was surprised at how much I missed my worshiping community. It wasn’t just the people I missed, I missed worshiping with you.
Without Sabbath, I realized, all my days had run together. I was unmoored. There was nothing but my own experience, when what I needed most was a Center that would hold.
What I missed most was this: being with a body of people who make this counter-cultural decision to focus body, mind and spirit on God, intentionally, collectively, purposefully, humbly. I missed the quiet, deep listening. I missed those sacred moments when we are moved into a plane of being not of our own making. I missed the feeling of being renewed and refreshed, with my identity reaffirmed and reawakened. I missed the healing of my soul when I am here with you.
And when I came back, I felt like I’d come home.
I really have no interest in scolding. That’s the opposite of what I want to say to you. What I really want to say, what I need to say, is this: “Thank you.” Thank you for keeping Sabbath here with me. Thank you for keeping the faith.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church