Sunday, March 09, 2014

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Holy (Exodus 20:8)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

A good number of people today can remember when businesses didn't open on Sunday, and even more might remember when youth sports leagues and other organizations didn't schedule games on Sundays or at least not on Sunday mornings. Even though fewer and fewer people actually attended church or confessed their Christian faith to someone other than a telephone opinion surveyor, the cultural idea of a "day off" lingered for quite some time.

Today, we will recognize what the ancient Hebrews called Shabbat or the Sabbath in some ways, but not in many others. A lot of us will go to church. A lot of us will have time off from work. But few of us will rest in any meaningful way -- we'll use this time to get things done we couldn't do during the week. Or we'll be busier than we ever could at work in order to prepare for having fun of some kind.

It's a little ironic when we consider that the practice of the Sabbath began in a culture where a day off work might mean a day off eating as well. Nomads like the ancient Hebrews often lived pretty close to the edge compared to us. Observing the Sabbath may have been harder on them, but it seems to be harder for us.

Of course, the resurrection of Christ puts a slightly different spin on things for those of us who follow him. For one, we've moved the day from the last day of the week to the first. And for another, our Lord pointed out that the Sabbath and its observance was something made for us, rather than us being made to fit into some involved list of rules. But when we read some of the stories Lauren Winner includes in her chapter on the Sabbath, we can see that making an effort to observe a real Sabbath can provide a lot of food for reflection, as well as the time to do it in.

The rules about not doing work mean we minimize our impact on God's creation -- as the Lord rested from creating on the Sabbath day we too will rest from creating or altering creation, as much as we can. By doing that, we're reminded that we have been charged with stewardship of God's creation. Nobody gave us the deed to the place; just the keys, and we're expected to keep things up in case the owner drops by. And we're reminded that we bear the image of God. We too can create, in a way no other living creature can. A spider spins a web not for beauty's sake or to contemplate its lines and connections, but to live in and snare flies. We, on the other hand, can use sound and sight and touch and taste to do more than fuel our bodies and shelter our heads. We're pale imitators of our Lord, to be sure, but we create in his image.

And when we rest and stop giving thought to everything we think we have to do in order to live our lives, we can also be reminded we do nothing except what God has given us the gifts to do. At its root, my life depends not on my own efforts but on God's gracious decision to give it to me. To be a Christian means saying you can go back as far as you like, back to the moment of creation itself, whether you believe it happened six thousand years ago with a single sentence or seventeen billion years ago from the cosmic singularity, and you will not find one tick of the clock from that day to this that does not rest in the hands of the Creator.

Taking the time to focus on realities like these and to reflect on them is as valuable for Christians as for Jews. We claim salvation through Christ, and if we spend time increasing our awareness of our utter dependence on God we are either awakened to or reminded that this very salvation is as wholly apart from us as was creation itself. We did and do absolutely nothing to bring it about and can only acknowledge it or refuse it.

And then we realize, that just as we echo God with our own small powers of creation, we can echo the gospel message of salvation by proclaiming it. We save no one, not even ourselves, but we can state to the world that salvation is reality and damnation the illusion cast by the enemy and our own shadowed senses. We are not the Light, but we can, with God's grace, be light that shows the path to it.

When we keep a Sabbath -- a strict Shabbat or our own more relaxed understanding -- we say something to the world beyond, "Take a load off." We remind the world that the day set apart to God is not just separated from the rest of the days but in fact represents a day and a life that is closer to the reality of God than whatever might go on the other six. Just as we pray that the gospel message spreads throughout the world so that all may see and know that the Lord is God, we can pray that our Sabbaths, whenever and however we take them, spread through our whole week and we wind up with not just one day dedicated to the Lord, but seven.

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