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Reclaiming Sabbath

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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. 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.

There is an ancient rabbinical teaching that says that when God created the world, it was incomplete, until on the 7th day, God created something called “menuha.” Menuha translates from Hebrew as serenity, peace, or repose. So on the first day, God separated light from the dark. On the second day, God created the sky. On the third and fourth days God created the dry land, the sun and the moon. On the fifth day God created all the animals, and on the sixth day, God created humanity. So God was pretty busy those first six days. Yet after all of that, the ancient rabbis say, creation remained unfinished. Only when God created rest was creation finally complete.

I think this is pretty amazing, because even though this teaching came long before any of our modern, scientific understandings of the world, it’s an incredibly astute observation of how things actually work in the natural world. Consider plants that grow, flower, and seed during the spring and summer months and then lie dormant under the earth during the fall and winter. Or consider animals that hibernate during the winter and then are active again come spring. Consider the cycles of the moon, which wax and wane, or the tides that go in and out. With this concept of menuha, the ancient rabbis had identified something intrinsically true about the natural world— that there is a pattern of activity and rest that is built into the very fabric of creation. Activity, then rest. Growth, then dormancy. Work, then menuha.

This morning’s scripture reading from Deuteronomy is in many ways tied to this ancient rabbinical teaching. Some of you may recognize this text as part of the ten commandments given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. Our text for this morning is commandment number four— the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Now, in this day and age, some people might be inclined to think of the fourth commandment as nothing more than a burdensome obligation— especially those of us who grew up in churches where it was regarded as a sin to miss church on Sunday— as if God was up in heaven with some kind of divine attendance chart. But to think of the fourth commandment as a mere obligation, or a box we need to check off each week in order to stay on God’s good side, is to miss out on its profound significance— not only for the ancient Israelites, but also for our own lives.

So let’s just back up a bit. Earlier on in the book of Exodus, we read about the Israelites’ plight as slaves in Egypt. We read how the they were treated like cattle— how they were little more than commodities to be dispatched for Pharaoh’s impossible production quotas. Their daily task was always the same— 24 hours a day— seven days a week— endless brick production for a society of insatiable demand. If they did not meet those demands, they could be physically punished, they could be denied food and sustenance, they might even be killed. And if Pharaoh thought that the Israelites were being lazy, he would double their daily quotas without giving them any more time to fill those quotas, forcing them into an even more manic and unnatural pace— literally working them to death. And so for the Israelites in Egypt, theirs was an existence filled with anxiety and devoid of anything resembling serenity or rest. It was because of this experience as slaves in Egypt that the command to honor the Sabbath was so much more than just some arbitrary regulation on how they were supposed to spend their time. The commandment to honor the Sabbath had nothing to do with God’s desire to be worshipped, and it certainly had nothing to do with mandatory church attendance. The commandment to honor the Sabbath was all about liberation for God’s people— liberation from a back-breaking schedule of labor without rest, liberation from the constant anxiety of having to fulfill endless production quotas, and the freedom to live as God intended all of creation to live— with cycles of activity, and then rest. Work, then menuha.

Now it might seem to us, living as we do in a free society, that we no longer have to worry about this kind of enslavement in our lives. We are, after all, technically free to take our Sabbath day whenever we want, free to observe it however we want, and free to practice our faith in the manner in which we see fit. But… if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, how free are we, really? Are we really living as a liberated people? Or have we simply allowed ourselves, in this modern age, to become enslaved to different things?

Are we not, for example, still addicted to work and productivity? Are we not slaves to the same kind of deep fear that the Israelites themselves felt— a fear that we do not do enough, that we do not produce enough, that we do not accomplish enough, and that we are, in fact, somehow notenough? I don’t know about any of you, but I know that in my household, a successful day is often defined by how productive it’s been. An unproductive day is usually lamented in my house— “we didn’t get enough done today,” Barrett and I might complain to each other. Even during our supposed leisure time, there is this anxious presence in the back of our minds— this little voice that whispers— “maybe you should be doing something more productive right now…” Sound familiar?

Some might say that these days, we are slaves to a culture in which productivity and efficiency are virtues of the highest order— too often over and above other virtues such as kindness or compassion. Some might say that we are slaves to our anxiety— anxiety that there isn’t enough to go around, and that God, in fact, might not provide our daily bread. Scholar Walter Brueggeman writes about this underlying anxiety in our culture, and he suggests that too often we attempt to relieve this anxiety either by working harder to produce more and more, or by frantically trying to acquire more and more— as if somehow, we could produce and acquire enough that one day our anxious spirits would be stilled. The problem of course is that it’s never enough. The relief we seek is always just out of reach, and we end up becoming slaves to this endless cycle of production and consumption that allows no time for true rest.

I think it goes without saying that this way of living is not healthy. I suspect we all know people who are workaholics— people who never take vacations, have perpetual high blood pressure, and who only stop to rest when their bodies physically shut down. I think it also goes without saying that this way of living is not very conducive to our spiritual health. We start to place more trust in our own efforts than in the God who created us. Maybe we even start to make little gods of ourselves, thinking somehow that if we stopped to rest, everything would fall apart— as if we were responsible for the rising and setting of the sun, as if we actually had control over this wild world. I love how Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel puts it— he writes that “divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made it clear that God is not a workaholic, God is not anxious about the functioning of creation, and the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.” Brueggeman also puts it well. He writes that “God absented God’s self from the office. God did not sneak back into the office to check on creation to make sure it was all working. God has complete confidence in the fruit-bearing, blessing-generating processes of creation.” So if God was able to take a break, and allow all of creation to function on its own, is it not rather arrogant for us to think that somehow we are so indispensable that we can’t take a vacation every now and then?

But of course, it’s not just our individual health that’s at stake. I would even go so far as to say that when it comes to our collective enslavement to the anxious systems of production and consumption, what is at stake is actually nothing less than the very salvation of humanity. Maybe that sounds a little hyperbolic but hear me out for a minute.

Recently, I’ve become pretty convinced that so many of the problems in our world today go back to this profound sense of anxiety— the fear that there isn’t enough, and the fear that we aren’t enough. As a result of this fear, people, then organizations and institutions, then systems and governments, all start fighting to accumulate as much wealth and power as possible. We accumulate wealth because we fear there won’t be enough. We accumulate power because deep down we fear that we aren’tenough without it. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to the breakdown of the natural rhythm that God intended for creation. It throws everything out of balance, and it causes collective amnesia about who we are and whose we are. And in that sense, I believe the fourth commandment is way more important and way more powerful than most of us tend to give it credit for.

Abraham Heschel wrote that “six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; but on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” With the observation of the Sabbath, we free ourselves from our society’s insatiable need for productivity and consumption, in order to recognize that there is in fact a deeper need— a need to be connected to what is eternal and sacred in this world. The promise of Sabbath is a promise that allows us to disconnect and unplug from what enslaves us in order to reconnect to that which actually nurtures and feeds our souls. The promise of Sabbath is a promise that brings us back into balance with the very fabric of creation—with how God created the world to be— activity, then rest. Work, then menuha. We are actually incomplete without it.

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