Saturday, September 19, 2015
September 20, Proper 20, You Can Do This #4: Practicing Sabbath
Heidelberg Catechism 103, Lord's Day 38, Psalm 1, James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work. But the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work. . . .”
Envy and ambition (from James 3).The disciples contested who was the greatest: who would be the prime minister when Jesus would be king. Who would be next, perhaps a chamberlain, controlling which people get received before the throne. They want to establish rank, like any group of guys together for a while. Envy and ambition. Normal.
So they couldn’t understand Jesus, because if you’re the Messiah, if you’re going to have that power and prestige, why would you plan on throwing it all away?
In The Lord of The Rings, the good guys are in possession of the “One Ring to rule them all,” but they decide to throw it away, knowing that the Dark Lord Sauron would never imagine them doing that. And they entrust the ring to the hobbits, the halflings, the little people. The Lord Jesus takes a little person, a child, and tells the disciples to make room in their lives for such a one, make space in your life for a child who cannot assist your ambition. Make that room inside your heart.
Look, some ambition is good. The Lord Jesus himself had to have some measure of ambition. I’m ambitious. But my problem is, I’m also envious. Envy is one of my besetting sins. You folks have no idea. And envy is what corrupts ambition, and unfortunately, the corruption of ambition by envy seems to be universal in our species. You won’t find ambition without some envy in it.
Think of this current Presidential campaign season. It is monstrous and grotesque. It’s a 24/7 national celebration of envy and ambition. This is how we select our most important leader! This is the expression of the best and brightest of our common culture! You can’t be a contender without appealing to the envy and ambition of the public, and without exhibiting it in your person.
It is unrelenting and oppressive. And the politics represents the whole of our culture. Envy and ambition drive our financial institutions and our energy companies, and we accept that it has to be this way. Consider how far down it reaches into your personal lives, explicitly and implicitly, economically and socially, with the schools you send your kids to and even the clothes you wear. And your smartphone is the proof that if it’s not oppressive then it’s addictive and unrelenting and 24/7. I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard already.
So how do you as a Christian address this world? I mean, you’re not going to give it up and go live on a commune in the wilderness. So God commands you to practice Sabbath in your life. You can’t change the whole, so you make a space within the whole. You clear a space of time and attention, for quiet and rest and letting go.
The world of nature knows this and does this, creation builds in rest and quietness for health and restoration. The law-giving God is the creator God, so while the Law of the Sabbath is not binding on Christians in the way that it is on Jews, it is the deeply-rooted gift that challenges the 24/7 chasing after this-and-that as unnatural, unhealthy, and oppressive. The Law of the Sabbath was given as a restoration and a liberation.
It was the first ever Labor Day. This was the first law in history to give workers a regular day off. Women included. Slaves included. Oxen included. Strangers and refugees included. The result is that your Labor is both relativized and sanctified. And so is Time, by making space in it, by making room in it, for now it’s clear that Time belongs to God, and Time is also God’s gift to you.
You have enough Time. You really do, because it is God’s gift. God says, “I give you Time, but it does not belong to you, it is my gift to you, and one day out of seven you must let go of it. And one day out of seven you can be like me, you can be like God. I do not have to work, because I’m God, I don’t have to do anything, and neither do you, one day out of seven.”
So if somebody asks you what you did on your vacation, how would it feel if you said, Nothing. What do you do on your day off? Nothing. Well you can’t. You’ve got to clean house, get groceries, do the laundry, pay the bills, balance the checkbook—all of that on your day off, so doing nothing is a luxury.
And so this is the hardest commandment to keep, I think. It’s not hard to keep some of the others. You successfully do not kill, you do not steal nor commit adultery, but keeping the Sabbath day holy, that’s very tough, and the culture you live in does everything against you doing it.
And yet this is the central commandment of the ten. You can see this in our sanctuary on the reredos, where the commandments are set out not as a list but as a single speech, just as in the Bible, and this commandment is right in the middle. It displays the unity of loving God and loving your neighbor, including your servants and your cattle and any strangers among you. You honor God not only by your not working but also by your not being the cause of anyone else having to work.
So this is a holiday, a holy day, a vision of shalom, an early moment of eternity, a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth. Liberation from the grind, liberation from routine, and liberation from the constant nagging temptation that you haven’t done enough. God says, Stop, rest, relax, count on me, count on my creative goodness to carry you through. As St. James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
So how can you practice Sabbath in your life? It’s remarkable that this great gift of the Old Testament gets so little addressed by the New Testament. I imagine this was because it was just plain impossible for most early Christians. Many of them were slaves, and others soldiers, and others low class laborers; only a few had the means to take days off. It’s only after the conversion of the Roman Emperor and the development of Christendom that we got the Christian Sunday that everybody recognized.
When I was a kid it was still a reality. We complained about it, because my parents were fairly strict. We couldn’t play ball or ride our bikes or go to the store or do our homework or even change out of our Sunday clothes. And now I miss those days, I miss what we took for granted. But Christendom is over, and now so many things are scheduled for Sunday that were not then, especially for kids. Soccer, little league. And shall you deprive your children because of your belief?
So while it is true that carving one day out of seven remains the most natural and organic way to practice Sabbath, the sheer complexity of life today, which makes it more necessary, also makes it less possible. So you have to attend to other ways to make space and room in your life for the goals of both liberation and holiness. And I wish I had more practical steps to give you.
For myself, I am training myself, that when I walk down the street, and I come to a corner, and the light’s red, I don’t stand out in the street while I wait. I just stay back and wait—and not so that I can quick check my messages! I just welcome the red light as a momentary gift. We have all the time we need.
Nowadays you have to carry your Sabbath inside yourself. You have take your time and give your time. Time for such a one as that little child that Jesus took. Time for someone who is at the bottom. The word that Jesus uses for servant is the word they would have used for a busboy, not the waiter. Not the one who tells you her name and gets your tip, but the nameless one who washes the dishes. For that such a one do you make room in your life and a space in your time.
Not constantly, as if you’re always on call. That’s even bad parenting. To love your neighbor is not to hate yourself. Figure about one-seventh of your working day. One hour out of your day, you make time, you give time. You take the call. You listen to the story. You receive, you wait while he or she talks, you wait on the person. Or you pray. Or sit in silence.
Some combination of all three is best. Not all day, no more than an hour in total every day, and when you’ve hit your sixty minutes, work as hard as you want the rest of the day. No guilt. It’s not meant to be a burden. But what might you gain from that one-hour break each day from the rule of envy and ambition.
God means this law to be humane. The Sabbath is a gift. The Jews call it a bride. They welcome the Sabbath as newlyweds. That must be because they sense the loving in the gift. For when you take the gift of this room within time, waiting for you within the room is your lover, who is God.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.