Worship | May 15



The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.


Sermon: Sabbath-ing
Texts: Deuteronomy 5:1-7;12-15; Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28
Speaker: Joel Miller

With Mark’s Sabbatical almost here, it’s a good time to revisit the role of Sabbath in all our lives.  If you’re not sure whether you have Sabbath in your life, or are pretty sure you don’t, let’s start with a broad view.

Before Sabbath was a holy day, a noun, it was a verb, with nothing especially holy about it.  To sabbath means to cease, to rest.  Verbs are action words, and sabbath is an action word meaning, basically, to refrain from action.  Sabbath is the un-verb.

The first four times the Hebrew word shabot, sabbath, appears in the Bible it is in verb form.  It’s mentioned twice in Genesis 2, where the Creator Elohim famously and somewhat mysteriously ceases, rests, sabbaths from all creative activity.  This happens on the seventh day, which is not yet called The Sabbath.  The seventh day is declared holy because on it Elohim sabbathed.         

The word appears nowhere else in the book of Genesis, and so we’re on to Exodus, chapter five, where Pharaoh is scolding Moses and Aaron for daring to ask for a three day holiday for the Hebrew slaves.  Holidays and paid or unpaid vacation leave were not part of the slave benefits package.  Rather than give them a break, Pharaoh makes their work more difficult, demanding the same quotas for brick production, while making them provide not just labor, but some of the materials.  From now on, the Hebrews will have to gather their own straw to mix with clay.  Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “Why are you taking the people away from their work.  Get to your labor!  Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!”  It’s that very last phrase that translates Sabbath.  To sabbath = to stop working. 

You want them to Sabbath?  Are you kidding me?  How could this possibly help Pharaoh’s bottom line?  In Pharaoh’s economy, sabbath is an absurd request.

Sabbath is also a verb in Exodus 12, when the Hebrew people are to put away, to sabbath, all the yeast in their homes as a part of the weeklong observance of Unleaven Bread leading up to Passover – a remembrance that the people exited Egypt so quickly their bread didn’t even have time to rise. 

Sabbath is first mentioned as its own day, the seventh and final day of the week, in Exodus 16, regarding manna collection in the wilderness.  That’s the day there won’t be any manna to collect, a divinely imposed day of ceasing from labor.  Gather double the day before, and there will be plenty.     

Sabbath is next mentioned in Exodus 20 as one of ten Divine commandments etched in stone tablets, likely where we associate the idea.  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  A whole day of sabbathing.  Deuteronomy 5 repeats these ten commandments, including the Sabbath, with a notable difference that we’ll get to in a bit.     

If sabbath is first of all a verb, and if this verb means to cease, to rest, it raises the question: From what shall we cease?  From what shall we rest? 

It also draws a wide circle to include pretty much all of us.  Even if you don’t have a day set aside in which you follow all the rules you think you’re supposed to follow in order for it to qualify as a Sabbath, we all cease from action at some point.  We all rest.  We all sabbath.

This is important enough to us that we name it in our Commitment Statement we recited together last week with our new members:

To live more fully into this story, as individuals and as a congregation, we commit to: (skip down a few lines) Share our time and resources, discerning our call to both work and rest.

Now you’d think, of all the things, that rest would come easily to us.  We know we need it.  It has the added benefit of being enjoyable.  But we don’t live in a Sabbath culture.  Which is to say, making Sabbath normal and even honored and celebrated is not a value widely held.  Blame it on the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber wrote about.  Blame it on capitalism’s emphasis on competition over cooperation. Blame it on our financial system’s general refusal to pay essential workers enough manna in five or six days so they can stop gathering on the seventh and still make rent.  Blame it on our personal insecurities about proving our own worth.  Whatever it might be, establishing Sabbath practices involves going against the flow of the river in which we swim.  You’ve got to work at it to cease from working, even briefly.

This is one of the things I appreciate about being employed by this congregation.  You honor the Sabbath days Mark and I set aside to be free from church duties, and you offer a generous Sabbatical every four years that enables us to step away for a span of time for rest and renewal.  It is a counter-cultural practice that is much appreciated.  And just like how the earth keeps spinning and the trees keep photosynthesizing when we cease from our weekly labors, church life carries on when a pastor takes a Sabbatical.

One of the most memorable lines from Jesus about Sabbath is one that is usually interpreted as loosening the traditional requirements Sabbath held.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” Jesus says, “and not humankind for the sabbath.”  The branch of Judaism that became Christianity has indeed placed less emphasis on the boundaries set around Sabbath.  But in a time when those boundaries are almost nonexistent, it’s worth going back to the source of these commandments, those ancient stone tablets, to remind ourselves how and why Sabbath is indeed a divine gift, made for the benefit of humankind. 

And what’s remarkable about the two mentions of the Sabbath commandment – in Exodus and Deuteronomy – is that they’re pretty different.  Each one giving a different reason to observe a time of ceasing,rooted in a different part of the Hebrew story.  Don’t think too hard about how that can be the case if they were stone tablets which I hear are hard to edit.   

Here’s the version in Deuteronomy:

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 

In Deuteronomy the reason for Sabbath observance is that you’ve been delivered out of slavery in Egypt.  In Egypt there were no Sabbaths, and sabbath-ing was condemned as laziness by the elite who sat atop the pyramid scheme and counted the brick per slave ratio and quarterly earnings reports.  In Pharaoh’s economy, Sabbath keeping is nonsensical because people are viewed as brick making machines rather than divine-image bearing beings. 

The ten commandments, including Sabbath, are the creation, the introduction, the gift, of an alternative way of being in community.  One which places life and the blessedness of being, rather than endless production, at the center.  It extends to resident aliens and household slaves among the Israelites.  Pharaoh had one commandment: “Make more bricks.”  The Torah offers ten commandments for how a free people can stay free and resist the tyranny they’ve just escaped.

And not only people.  Ox and donkeys and all the livestock that have been domesticated and bred for the very purpose of increasing human productivity, these are also sabbath-worthy creatures.

Deuteronomy presents Sabbath within the memory of a time when Sabbathing was forbidden.  It is a divine gift, countering the tyranny of work we put on others, and ourselves.  The Sabbath was made for humankind and the creatures and the land we all share.

And here’s the Exodus version:

8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Did you hear a difference there?  In the Exodus version the Sabbath imperative goes all the way back to creation.  Genesis is not so much concerned with how many literal days it took to get from the formless void to upright humans walking around the earth.  It is much more concerned with establishing a pattern of how our world keeps being created.  Creation is declared good throughout the first six days, but it’s not until the seventh day, the day of ceasing from creative activity, that it is first called blessed and holy.  It is this open space within creation, a span of time pregnant with divine presence, all about being and less about doing, that forms the original basis of Sabbath time. 

And because we have been created in the image of God, as Genesis also says, we too are given that pattern.  The Sabbath was made for humankind.  Sabbath practice is a way of living out the blessedness of creation within history.  To practice Sabbath is to enter into the rest of God’s goodness, to relish in that goodness all around us, to approach the world and people not as a set of problems to be solved, but as a gift to be enjoyed for its own sake.  And it is through Sabbath that the creative pattern resets and continues.  The Sabbath pause enables us to actually bring something creatively new into the world rather than just repeating the endless cycle of making and doing.

Engaging the creative self will actually be a focus of Mark’s Sabbatical, and even though this Sunday isn’t his last one with us, we offer our blessing to you Mark as you prepare to enter holy time.

It’s a good prompt for all of us to ask the kinds of questions Sabbath invites:   From what shall we cease?  How can we be free people rather than mere instruments of Pharaoh’s plans?  Rather than approaching time as one more resource to be exploited, how can we more fully experience time as a blessing to be enjoyed?