Reflection: June 3

Published on Jun 10th, 2018 by Leslie Windsor | 0


When I was preparing for today and reflecting on the Mark passage, at first I considered working with the concept of “little Sabbath” moments we all might fit into our regular routines.  However, as I researched Sabbath with the writings of some of my favourite contemporary theologians, I was presented with a completely different picture.  I was drawn to Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful little book, An Altar in the World, which was read here some years ago in a book study. Harvey Cox, professor of Divinity at Harvard, is intimately connected with the religious practices of Judaism through his wife’s family and reflects on Sabbath practices in his writings.  Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, wrote a powerful little book in 2014, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now.  All three believe Sabbath is an essential practice and discipline in our culture today.  They draw from contemporary Jewish Sabbath observances, describing these as Judaism’s greatest gift and Sabbath-keeping as a distinctly Jewish art form.

The questions they raise are not only concerned with observing the Sabbath as a complete 24-hour time period but also how our daily lives might change if we faithfully and deeply lived Sabbath observance.  

The questions of Sabbath have 

long been considered by Jewish theologians and writings, beginning in Ancient Hebrew society and continuing today.  The importance of Sabbath is seen in its inclusion in the Ten Commandments, and in the recurring discussions in the Hebrew Scriptures when the original laws were expanded or clarified as the fledging small nation made its way in the ancient world. 

The Jewish ritual practises of Sabbath include a Friday evening family meal at which two special prayers are offered; both are key to the Sabbath understanding.

The first candle and prayer are of praise and thankfulness for the blessing of the Sabbath day of rest.  In the creation story in Genesis, God works for six days, creating order and life out of chaos. Each day ends with the statement that God saw that what had been created was good or even very good.  However, on the seventh day, God rested, and this day was not called good or even very good, but instead, God blessed it and called it sacred. Barbara Brown Taylor gives this description:  “God performed the consummate act of divine freedom by doing nothing at all. This rest was so delicious…that this seventh day was blessed and called holy, making Sabbath the first sacred thing in all Creation.”  The first prayer announces that by resting every seventh day, God’s people remember their divine creation; made in God’s image, you too shall rest.  Earlier in the service, we read where this theme of our being wonderfully made, cared for and so beloved is voiced in the poetic language of Psalm 139.  The worth of each of us has already been established.  We can spend a whole day doing nothing and still be precious in God’s sight; we just need to be wooed into believing it.

The second candle and prayer are reminders of God’s liberation of the Hebrew people, by delivering them out of slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt.  This is the dramatic and familiar story of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and how they had become captives to Pharaoh’s insatiable greed for grandiose memorials and over-accumulation of goods.  A sense of drivenness and restlessness had pervaded all levels of Egyptian society, requiring increased levels of vigilance, cruelty, violence and repression to maintain the system. Moses is called to be God’s emissary and the slaves are eventually freed; the system of Pharaoh is completely disrupted. 

Brueggemann writes of the intertwining of this liberation with the Commandments, and the interconnectedness of these with the command to keep the Sabbath a sacred day of rest.  The relationships of God to God’s people and to Creation, and the peoples’ relationship to one another, are to be ones of covenant and caring rather than one of commodity.  The Sabbath rest is the acknowledgement that God and God’s people are not commodities to be used for endless production or accumulation; instead, their place is in what he calls “an economy of neighbourliness.”

The first three commandments speak of the expected relationship to God – no other gods before YHWH; no graven images of YHWH God; not taking the name of YHWH God in vain.  The fourth is the commandment on Sabbath.  Following are six commandments on how to live in life-giving ways with one’s neighbours.

The Commandments always and forever pertain to the human condition.  It is very difficult to have “no other gods before YHWH” when we are surrounded by things and practises that demand our attention, our time and resources over and against our God and our neighbours.  Work and accumulation have been made into gods within our societal systems and create a continuous sense of restlessness. Brueggemann suggests some of this stems from what he calls a theological mis-commitment derived from the Calvinist attitudes that travelled with the early settlers from Northern Europe to North America.  Simplified, this belief system said one kept on working and working because there was no way to know if one was amongst those predestined for justification.  It glorified work and “works” so others could know who had “proper faith” and was “in,” and whose faith was likely faulty, so were “out.”   It became necessary for one to be self-made, to act alone, and to be seen to be acting alone, in order to secure one’s own place in society and one’s own future; to sink or swim by one’s own efforts. It is never enough simply to tread water.  This has helped create contemporary circumstances in our society that generate an endless pursuit of greater accumulation, greater security, greater happiness, and permanent dissatisfaction because we haven’t done enough or acquired enough…yet!  Greater effort is always required.  Because we move in this milieu, these gods of commodification mostly go unnoticed and unchallenged.  The abuse they create becomes normal, the restlessness and anxiety have become ordinary givens, and much violence is unexamined as “the cost of doing business.”

Hand in hand with this commandment is the last one in the Decalogue list, the one prohibiting covetousness and greed. This commandment is about both the posture and practice of acquisitiveness, defined as the capacity and readiness to acquire what properly belongs to another and so to place the well-being of the other in jeopardy.  The commandment contains a lot of talk about neighbour and is all about respecting our neighbours, and preserving, honouring and enhancing the neighbourhood.  In today’s world, the “neighbourhood” is the whole of Creation and “our neighbour” can live anywhere on earth.   

Today is Environment Sunday, a time for renewed reflection on Creation and our part in it.  The purpose of Sabbath observance is also to care for and protect Creation by allowing it to rest. Repeatedly in the instructions regarding Sabbath, humans are admonished to allow God’s gift of Sabbath for the tired fields, the tired crops, the tired land. The interests of commodification and greed necessitate over-production, abuse of the land and the squandering of limited resources. The environment is savaged by such restlessness and anxiety.  Ordered creation is now so skewed, perhaps beyond viability.  We humans must participate in the production systems of Creation, but we must trust that God’s Creation has enough for all, and give Creation time to rest.

What happened to the Christian observance of Sabbath? By the lunar reckoning of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening and ends on Saturday evening.  The very early Jewish Christians attempted to maintain the Sabbath practice of rest and then gathered on Sunday, Lord’s Day, to remember Jesus’ resurrection.  This was too difficult to continue, and so the Jewish Sabbath practices were dropped. The Sunday practices gradually became proscribed with “thou shalt nots.”  A day supposed to be of praise, rest and family often became a day of boredom and frustration, and many in society felt like “Sunday captives.”  Over time, society reneged on the “no compete” clauses that at first saw no outside activities on Sunday, then, only on Sunday afternoon, then finally abandoned this prohibition altogether.  We Christians would now have to join our neighbours of differing pathways of worship and belief in making our own choices, finding the strength to say no for our own reasons drawn from our own spiritual resources. Far, we appear to have just stepped onto the path.

 Brueggemann states the observance of Sabbath is an act of resistance as it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods and the intrusion of the market into every aspect of our lives from the family outwards.  Sabbath is also an alternative to the demanding, chattering, noisy, pervasiveness of all our means to the now and immediate connectivity and media.  The alternative offered is the awareness and practice that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests Sabbath practice is the practice of saying “NO” for one day a week and limiting ourselves to God and to ourselves.  It is a day to stop and to listen for and to God, to spend a whole day each week living in God.  She describes living in God in Sabbath as:  when you live in God, your day begins when you open your eyes, though you have done nothing yourself to open them.  And you take our first breath, though there is no reason why this life-giving breeze should be given to you and not to some other.  Your day begins when you let God hold you because you do not have the slightest idea how to hold yourself.  Your day begins when you let God raise you up, when you consent to rest to show you get the point, since this is the last thing you would do if you were running the show. 

Several writers called Sabbath a “palace or cathedral of time” into which human beings are invited for a whole turn of a day, every single week of our lives. Imagine if we took this seriously!

May it be so.  Amen.

Comments are closed.