If most of us were asked to list words and phrases that describe the attributes of a healthy spiritual life, some of the words would be quite predictable. Kindness; forgiveness; generosity; compassion; patience; helping people in need, spending time in prayer, living with gratitude. All of which are good ideas.
But what might not make it to the list is, perhaps, one of the most important spiritual disciplines of all.
And it is this — take a day off.
Set aside a day to cultivate your relationship with God, to reconnect with the natural world, to disentangle from the pull of commerce and productivity, to break free of the rhythms of toil and stress, to focus on relationships rather than things, to rest.
And yet, what a powerful practice that can be.
Both our readings from Deuteronomy and from the Gospel of Mark invite us to contemplate this idea of setting aside a specific day, each week, to enjoy some divinely mandated rest.
The Sabbath commandment is one of the Ten Great Commandments. Most of us can probably remember at least some of the other commandments – do not worship idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t kill each other, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie about others or jealously covet what everyone else has.
But what we sometimes forget is that one of those Ten Commandments was a commandment to take a day off, and to do so in a way that re-oriented oneself both to God’s presence and to one’s place in the world.
There are two passages in the Bible in which the Ten Commandments are listed – we find them in today’s suggested passage from Deuteronomy chapter 5, and in a passage from Exodus chapter 20. Both passages include the same Ten Commandments, but it is interesting to note, when laying these two lists of the commandments beside each other, that the only difference between them is found in their stated motivations for Sabbath observance.
In the Exodus version, after the Sabbath command is given, we read, “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth; the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Sabbath, in that passage, was meant to remind us of the rhythm of the natural world, the rhythm of labour and rest, the rhythm of life as God intended it to be.
Six days of work, then take a day of rest.
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, by contrast, the motivation for the Sabbath command is stated in different terms — “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.” In this passage, therefore, the motivation for Sabbath was the call to remember their liberation from captivity in Egypt, and their responsibility to liberate others from the toil of work.
There is great wisdom in keeping both of these two visions in mind as we ponder the idea of Sabbath rest. After all, there is wisdom in both – on the one hand, in taking a day to remember the beauty and wonder of the natural world, to mark the seasons and rhythms of life, and to give thanks to the One who fashions it all; and, on the other hand, in taking a day to remember that we are all more than our work, and that there is a great sense of liberation that can be experienced when we set ourselves free from the stresses of our daily labours. To live with an awareness of both creation and liberation; of both the power of recreation and of freedom; of both the rhythm of the natural world and the blessing of right relationships in community – this is indeed a blessed way to live our lives.
And that is what a Sabbath day was meant to be all about –a day to restore life, to renew joy, to ease stress, to remind us of our place in the whole scheme of things, to help us to enjoy the best of what life has to offer, to enable us to remember that our essential and fundamental identity is not found in what we produce and consume. Sabbath was meant to be a gift to restore our humanity.
So whatever happened to the concept of a Sabbath day?
Some of you might still remember a time when stores and shops were closed on Sundays. Some of you might remember a time when there were certain activities that were either discouraged, or even prohibited on Sundays – playing cards, working, playing sports…pretty much doing anything fun.
Many of us might have heard our parents or our grandparents referring to how the day of rest was still honoured when they were young, but there are few of us, anymore, who give much thought to how a day of rest, a Sabbath day, could or should be celebrated.
Which is actually too bad – because it seems that we might have missed something important by dispensing with what we thought was archaic.
Nowadays, most businesses continue to operate, most sports and entertainment facilities depend on Sunday traffic, most highways into the downtown core are just as busy on Sunday afternoon as they are during the weekday rush hours. If we do have a day off from our usual work, many of us simply fill it with all of the things that we have not accomplished in the other days. There was an old joke that we have shifted the idea from a “day of rest from work” to “a day when we get the rest of our work done”. Stress, busyness, congestion, commerce, consumption – all there, all the time.
There are reasons for this shift away from a common day of rest, and many of them are good ones. In a multicultural context, the traditional day of rest in the Christian tradition is marked on a different day than the common days of rest in other traditions, including the Muslim day of rest, which typically occurs on Friday or the Jewish Shabbat, which begins on Friday at sunset and continues through Saturday evening.
But what if we took, to heart, the way that Jesus seemed to view the Sabbath (which, in his own way, was far more in line with the historic Jewish understanding than the puritanical prohibitions that our Presbyterian forebears might have proposed).
As today’s reading from Mark attests, he was fine with hungry people being fed on the Sabbath; and he was completely willing to use his power to heal a man with a withered hand. Clearly, taking a Sabbath rest did not mean turning a blind eye to those who were hungry or who were in need of help.
But in the midst of those actions, he also spoke some important words – “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Which brings us back to our lives. What would it mean to explore a concept of Sabbath – to find practices that renew life and joy and rhythm and balance to our lives? What would it mean to see, in these ancient words, great wisdom for how to live well, how to set ourselves free from constantly needing to define ourselves in relation to what we acquire and possess, how to restore a right vision of our place in the world and in its rhythms?
I do not know all of the answers. But I do know this – that on those weeks when I try to take this ancient practice seriously, there is a sense of peace and joy that is quite remarkable by the time that the day of rest arrives. On those weeks when I make sure, by the night before, that there is food in the fridge, that the laundry is done, that the house is relatively neat, that there is gas in the car, that there is time to spend with loved ones in the church and at home, that there is a sense of relaxation, and worship, and gratitude, and sufficiency for the day – well, those are some of the best days of life. Those are the days when I realize that Jesus knew what he was talking about – that the Sabbath was made for us, and not we who were made to serve some harsh set of rules and prohibitions.
And what is also important, in the observance of Sabbath, is that it is a gift not only to be received, but also to be given to others. That is, much of the spiritual life can sometimes tend to focus our attention on ourselves, our needs, our aspirations, even our need for rest. But at the heart of the biblical vision of rest was not only rest for ourselves – it was also rest for others.
As Jesus demonstrated in this passage, observing Sabbath did not mean that if someone was hungry, you were prohibited from helping them find something to eat; or if someone needed help, you looked the other way – to the contrary, what he said to the man in the synagogue that day was inviting, and warm, and helpful — come forward, stretch out your hand, let me help you. Because he knew that Sabbath was a gift to be received; but also a gift that was to be offered to others.
And, like every gift, it is a gift that needs to be accepted, to be unpacked. So, perhaps, there is a challenge for each of us in the unpacking of this gift. What would it mean to accept the gift of rest in your life? Would it mean taking the time, earlier in the week, to make plans so that you and your loved ones can just relax for a day? Would it mean doing intentional things – getting up to go for a walk in some beautiful natural setting, without any great agenda other than to enjoy the beauty? Would it mean embracing the discipline to turn off the device, or put down the tablet, or hit mute on the phone, or resist checking the latest text or email? Would it mean finding a way to give someone else who is working hard a break so that they, too, can enjoy the gift of rest? Would it mean finding a way – in worship, or in quiet contemplation, or in the presence of loved ones – to be reminded about what goodness, and joy and love are all about?
And perhaps therein lies the good news. After all, the gift of rest – and even the command to rest – is offered to us by the One who loves us, and who wants us to know life in abundance, who wants to make our joy complete, who wants us to find a peace that passes all human understanding, who wants us to know that we are loved, who knows the burdens that we are bearing, and wants to help us to bear the load.
And maybe the One who loves us, and who knows what we need to flourish, is the same One who calls to each one of us, with those words that ring across the centuries –words that can save our lives and save our souls – words inviting us to accept the gift of rest.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
And that is good news.
Thanks be to God.