Steve Lindsley

Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2: 23-28 (Selected Verses)

This past week marks the first year that Tam has been with the Lindsleys.  Tam is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier that came home with Lorie from Animal Control one day because, to put it somewhat tactfully, he was on a list no dog ever wants to be on.  The original plan was to foster him for a week or so until things calmed down at the shelter and he could go back.  Tam never went back.  And I’m not disappointed in the least that it turned out that way.

Tam is a very loving dog.  He is a very strong dog.  His head is the size of a small basketball. He’s a bit of a picky eater, and he gets pretty restless if he doesn’t go on his morning walk within minutes of waking up.  But for all of the things that define who Tam is, there is one thing this dog excels at: Tam knows how to relax.

I mean, Tam is a relaxing genius.  There’s a green recliner in the front corner of our living room that is Tam’s favorite spot during the day. It is made for humans, of course, and not the best for a dog, but that doesn’t stop Tam.  He’ll twist his body into all kinds of wild contortions to chill out there.  And in the evenings, you always know where to find Tam – on the couch, lying on his back, head hunched back, gums pulled down by gravity to reveal large dog teeth he has no interest in using at the moment. It is his moment of Zen.  So expressive is Tam in his relaxed state that he has his own Instagram account: Tam Sleeps.  I’m not kidding; you should check it out.

I could take a lesson or two from Tam.  You may have noticed this, but I’m not the best at relaxing.  I’m still for too long and start to wonder if there’s something I ought to be doing.  An email to check.  A phone call to make.  A dog that needs to be walked.  I wonder if you’re like me in that way.

The Bible commands us to relax.  It even gives it a name – it calls it “sabbath.” There is a reason God thought so much of sabbath that it made God’s “Top Ten,” if you will.  God knew that we’d inevitably have a problem with relaxing.  Just consider some of the statistics:

  • Americans work hundreds of hours a year more than their counterparts in other developed countries: 137 more hours 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-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 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, preceded only by the commandments about honoring God:  No other gods, no idols, no use of the Lord’s name in vain – and number four, relax.  It seems to say something, does it not, that sabbath comes that high in the pecking order?

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.  They were plenty busy.

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 rhythm when it came to their livelihood: work any less than six days, and both the land and yourself would be underutilized.  But – refrain from taking the seventh day off, and over time both you and the land would diminish and produce less crops.  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.” What we’re doing right now.  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 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 of Sunday worship.  God is not tied to brick and mortar, nor is God tied to a particular time and day of the week; and we undermine God if we suggest as much.

But if there’s one thing in our divided and siloed society that we need to address head-on, 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.

 The truth is 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; a journey that took them forty years from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

And so Sunday morning is our weekly seventh-day journey back 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 mindful – mindful that we don’t get so rigid with the notion of Sabbath that we miss the point entirely.  That we wind up, as a colleague of mine once put it, worshiping worship instead of worshiping God.  They had been at their new church for a little over a month, and I was checking in.  How’s the new church going, I asked. She told me it was going well, the people were very kind, lots of possibilities for the future.  I just don’t know what to do with worship, she told me.  I asked her what she meant by that.  She said, Our worship service is your typical Presbyterian service, all the things.  But it doesn’t feel joyful. It feels like we’re following an agenda, checking the boxes.  They seem more concerned about getting everything “right” in worship than just being in worship.  It almost feels like we’re worshiping worship instead of worshiping God.

That’s exactly what Jesus was warning us about in our second scripture today.  One Sabbath day, he and his disciples were walking through the fields and picking heads of grain along the way.  There were strict Jewish laws that prohibited this sort of thing on the Sabbath, a mandated day of holy rest, and some of the Pharisees – those who were super plugged into the law – kind of complained about that.

Jesus counters this with an ancient story the Pharisees undoubtedly knew, of the great King David and his men who were in need one day, a day that just happened to be the sabbath, and ended up eating bread from the holy temple – consecrated bread, bread that was never to be used for this sort of thing, but in this instance bread that was used exactly as it ought to have been because human lives were at stake.

To which Jesus makes his point: the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.  Worshiping God, not worshiping worship.  Sabbath the way it was meant to be.  True rest.

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 one day of the week to 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.  A nuisance, yes.  But could it be a moment of sabbath?  Or the endless traffic that consumes our beloved city.  Do we view it as an obstacle in our way, something to get through as quickly as possible, or do we see it, weird as it sounds, as an opportunity for holy rest?

Do we recognize moments of sabbath when they are right in front of us?

There’s an episode of the television show The Office simply titled, “Night Out.”  Boss Michael Scott and his self-designated number 2 Dwight are away for the week and have left Jim in charge.  There’s lots of work for the office to do that requires a Saturday workday, but Jim suggests to the rest of the staff they stay late so they won’t have to come in on the weekend.  Everyone thinks it’s a great idea, so they get to it; and well past closing time on Friday evening the office packs up to leave.  Except they don’t leave, because building security, unaware of the late workers still in the building, have already locked the parking lot gate and left.  The office staff is locked in.

They make a call to security, but Jim forgets his name mid-call, so security is in no hurry to get back.  So the whole office staff sits around and stews for a bit.  Until – until something shifts.  A few jokes are shared.  Someone finds a football in the parking lot, and they start tossing it back and forth.  By voice vote, a majority declare that Andy and Angela are a far better couple than Jim and Pam.

Security eventually gets there and lets them out, and everyone is happy to be heading home, but it wasn’t like they were totally upset the whole time they were there.  They rather enjoyed themselves, given the circumstances.  It’s almost as if they stumbled into sabbath.

The likelihood is far greater than not that you and I will get out of the rhythm of work and rest that God created us for.  And that’s a shame, isn’t it?  Because 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 God made us that way.  As a wise friend of mine once said, “Sabbath is our little reward for having the privilege of walking around on this planet.”

What is relaxing for you, I wonder?  Where do you find peace? How is worship sabbath for you – and where else do you find sabbath?  Questions worth asking, my friends.  Because we all could take a lesson from Jim, Jesus, the fourth commandment, and even Tam the dog: Relax.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Put your feet up.  Cool your jets.  Take a breather.  Let your hair down.  Take it easy.  You could really use a break, beloved.  Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.  After all, it was made just for you.

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.