Living Biblically – Give Me A Break!

Steve Lindsley
(Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2: 23-28)

I’m going to share something with you about me that you may not find all that surprising: and that is, I’m not the best at relaxing. I know, shocker, right?? I watch my dog Rocky; he’s a 12-year old boxer; he is a relaxing genius.  On the couch, on the floor, on the bed, in the yard, wherever he is, unless he’s eating, he is relaxing. I could stand to learn a thing or two from him.

The Bible commands us to relax.  It even gives it a name – it calls it “sabbath.”  Not surprisingly, since I struggle with relaxing, I struggle with sabbath as well.  In my defense, it doesn’t help that the official day of sabbath in the Christian week happens to be a work day for me.  But that’s still no excuse – I need to be better at sabbath. We all do.  Just consider some of the statistics:

  • Americans work hundreds of hours a year more than their counterparts in other developed countries: 137 more than Japanese workers, 260 more than the British, and 499 more than the French.
  • Americans also take fewer days off than Europeans, who typically take four to six weeks of paid vacation a year. When was the last time you vacationed for six weeks?  I can’t remember, either.
  • At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S., of course, does not.
  • In the United States, 85% of men and 66% of women work more than 40 hours a week.
  • Some 88% of Americans carry electronic devices while on vacation to communicate with work, and 40% log-on to check their work email.
  • A third of all Americans don’t take their allotted vacation and 37 percent never take more than a week at a time.[1]

The picture seems pretty clear: we have an aversion to experiencing and embracing sabbath.  Maybe we draw too much of our sense of self and worth from our busy-ness.  Or maybe we’ve grown so accustomed to the rat race that we’re truly terrified of what life would be like if we just stopped running it.

So – where do we start?

Might I suggest, siblings in Christ, that we start where our first scripture places us: right at the foot of Mount Sinai, with Moses and his two tablets:

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Work six days and do everything you need to do.
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God.
Don’t do any work!
For in six days God made everything,
And then rested on the seventh day.
Therefore God blessed the Sabbath,
Setting it apart as a holy day.

Keep in mind that this is the fourth of ten commandments, following only the commandments about honoring God.  Keep in mind as well that Israel was very much an agrarian society at the time.  Their livelihoods and their lives centered around the land  – preparing and tilling and seeding and growing and harvesting.  It was a six-day-a-week job because it had to be.

But the seventh day – that day was a day not to work.  A natural rhythm, in the same way that God rested on the seventh day of creation.  There was a practical reason for this: work any less than six days, and both the land and yourself would be underutilized.  Refrain from taking the seventh day off, and over time both you and the land would diminish.  There’s actually such a thing as overworked land, just as there most certainly are overworked people.       

So – we are commanded by God to take a day of rest – although it is not a passive kind of rest.  On the contrary, sabbath is active – what we call “worship.” Think about it: when we pause from our labors, when we turn our focus away from the crops in the field or the emails in our inbox, we cannot help but in that pause to notice everything around us, especially the God who created us and and makes all things new.  Worship, then, is the ultimate fulfillment of rest.

So here’s the commercial for weekly worship – which admittedly has the feel of preaching to the choir, since you’re here!  But here’s the thing: absolutely one can worship God and experience holy rest outside the sanctuary.  God is not tied to brick and mortar and wood and glass and carpet and pews, and we undermine God if we assume such.

But if there’s one thing in our individualistic society that gets on my nerves, it is the notion that one can experience the fullness of the Christian faith all by him or herself, like some sort of self-serve line at the buffet   I’ll take a Holy Day entree with a side of love and forgiveness, topped off by a Grace-filled Sundae, please.   It doesn’t work that way.

As long as you let me stand in this pulpit, I’m going to keep reminding us that our Christian faith is a communal faith.  By its very design, it is experienced and expressed with and alongside other people.  Those Israelites who received the Sabbath commandment at Mount Sinai were not on some solo excursion in the wilderness.  They were on a journey together.  And Sunday morning is our weekly seventh-day journey to the foot of the mountain; where we come together to give thanks to God, praise and worship God, sing and speak to God.  We are designed, from the very first days of creation, to live and worship in community.

But even then, we have to be careful – careful to not get so rigid with the notion of Sabbath that we miss the point entirely.  That we wind up worshipping worship instead of worshipping God.  That’s what Jesus was warning us about when he said “the Sabbath was not made for humankind, but humankind for the Sabbath.

You know, sometimes I wonder if, at that very moment of creation, as God was fashioning the first of us, that God already knew – knew our hundreds of hours more working a year, knew the third of us who’d never take a vacation, knew the 88% who’d whip out our cell phones to check work email.  Maybe God already knew us so well that God knew Sabbath would be essential for us.  And not just a day of the week for worship together, but the little Sabbaths that come to us when we least expect them.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  Like the “technical glitch” at the grocery store cash register and the long line from it that means you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.   Or the endless traffic that is cropping up more and more in our beloved city.  Tell me – do you view those sorts of things as obstacles in your way, or opportunities for holy rest?

What would it be like if you and I were more in-tune to the little sabbaths that God drops in our laps every now and then?  Like what happened to A.J. in our reading today:

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Day 97. It’s a Tuesday afternoon in December, but I feel like I’ve just experienced my first real Sabbath.

Let me explain: The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis. We don’t even need to be touching them—it’s more of a natural-life-cycle type of situation, like my hairline retreating. I’ll be in bed and hear a thud and know that another doorknob succumbed to gravity.

Usually, I screw the knob back on. No big deal. But this morning, it became a big deal. At 9:30 I stop typing my emails and shuffle over to the bathroom—and close the door behind me. I don’t realize what I’ve done until I reach for the nonexistent inside doorknob. It had molted sometime during the night.  I am locked in.

For the first ten minutes, I try to escape. I bang on the door, shout for help. No answer. Julie is away at a meeting, and Jasper is out with his babysitter. I am trapped.  In a bathroom.

The next half hour I spend going through a checklist of worst-case scenarios. What if I slip, cut my forehead on the bathtub, bleed to death, and end up on the front page of the New York Post? What if there’s a fire, and I’m forced to hang by my fingernails from the window ledge?

Even more stressful is that the outside world is speeding along without me. Emails are being answered. Venti lattes are being sipped. Other writers are putting the finishing touches on their future Pulitzer prize-winners.  I am stuck doing nothing in a bathroom.

At 10:30 the phone rings. Of course I can’t get to it.  I hear a muffled voice leaving a message. At 10:35 I make a pledge to put more reading material in the bathroom if I ever do escape. By 11:00, 90 minutes in, I’ve become the world’s greatest expert on this bathroom. I know the fake marble tiles with their spider-vein pattern and the power outlet that is tilted at a rakishly diagonal angle. I spend a half hour tidying the medicine cabinet. I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A (acacia) to Z (zein).

By noon I’m sitting on the floor, my back against the shower door. I sit. And sit some more. And something odd happens. I know that, outside the bathroom, the world is speeding along without me.

And I am OK with that. It does not cause my shoulders to tighten. It does not make me anxious.  I have reached a most unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I’m savoring the present. I’m admiring what I have, even if it’s thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.

This is what Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting.

At about 1:30 – four hours in, if you’re counting – I hear Julie come home. I pound on the door.

“Where are you?” she yells.

“In here! In the bathroom!”

I hear her footsteps approaching.

“You can’t get out?” she asks.

“No, I can’t get out.”

“How long have you been in there?”

“Four hours.”

There was a pause. I could feel her weighing her options on the other side of the door. After a few seconds, she just opened the door. I am free. I can return my emails, make my calls.

It’s kind of a shame.[2]

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It is kind of a shame, isn’t it?  It’s a shame whenever we get out of the rhythm of work and rest that God created us for.  But when you and I step out of the rat race for a moment, and allow ourselves to experience God’s rejuvenating rest, it is something we want more of – because that’s exactly how God made us.  As a wise friend of mine once said, “Sabbath is our little reward for having the privilege of walking around on this planet.”

So rest, people of God.  Relax.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Put your feet up.  Cool your jets.  Take a breather.  Let your hair down.  Take it easy.  Give yourself a much-needed and well-deserved break.  Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/working-less-would-provide-much-to-americans/2012/01/26/gIQArhKPWQ_story.htmlhttp://www.alternet.org/story/61122/the_vanishing_american_vacation.

[2] From The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Question To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible by A.J. Jacobs.