Practicing the Sabbath

[Readings: Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:23-28]

In 1874 there was a huge debate in Dunedin. Ten per cent of Otago’s adult population signed a petition about it. There were fourteen leading articles in the Otago Daily Times. The major tension centered on whether the trains and public transport should run on Sunday. The province’s first railway, from Dunedin to Port Chalmers, had been opened with a seven day a week service, and some saw this as evil, along with the opening of recreational facilities, such as the library at the Dunedin Athenaeum on the Sabbath. The issue was ‘what activities could be allowed on Sunday’. On one side were fervent sabbatarians or Sabbath keepers, mostly evangelical Presbyterians while others who were also Christians were more liberal and free thinking argued that running trains and opening public reading rooms for the purpose of education and enlightenment were not evil and were to be permitted on the Sabbath. The debate continued for many years with the more conservative voice of Christianity finding itself to be in a minority unable to dictate to society at large what it should do. But there were some startling exceptions. The sabbatarians in 1885 held enough sway on the Dunedin City Council to prevent the Navy Band playing in the botanic gardens on Sunday afternoons with one councilor declaring that nothing could be more effective in destroying the morals of the children of Dunedin than a band playing at the public gardens on Sundays. I’m glad the Sabbatarian’s didn’t hold sway forever because as a youngster I rather enjoyed band concerts in the gardens in Dunedin, and I don’t think it destroyed my morals.

Many of you will recall similar debates about movie theatres opening on Sundays, or sport being played on Sundays. You may also recall family traditions that revolved around the Sabbath and may reflect on how these have watered down or been lost completely. I can’t help thinking however that the Sabbatarian’s actually had a point. I think of the importance of going to church every Sunday and how we prepared by dressing in our Sunday best, cleaning shoes on Saturday, and then gathering for a family meal after church with possibly a lengthy family walk on the Sabbath afternoon. These were activities that caused me to notice God, to reflect on life, and to bond as family. Of course such activities as family walks would have been frowned upon by the Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century when the expectation would be that one should spend the time studying scripture and going to the Sunday afternoon or evening service as well as the morning. But I do wonder whether keeping the Sabbath isn’t good for us. Stepping back from the busy-ness, reflecting, reconnecting with soul, nurturing family and faith relationships – I can’t help thinking we need more of that in our world. I can’t help thinking we might be healthier with more of that sort of practice in our lives….
Central to the Sabbath and something on which all Christians were agreed was that the Sabbath was a day to focus activity on God and attend worship. Worship at its heart is about connecting with God, getting in touch with our soul. In the nineteenth century you might go to church twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon or evening. Regular weekly attendance was simply how it was but recently a Baptist minister was telling me recently that he now considers regular attendance as seeing his parishioners once a month. Things have changed.

Sabbath or Shabbat as it is known in Hebrew means to cease. It is a day to cease work, to rest, and to refocus. As Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading there is always a danger that any spiritual discipline can become not a life giving discipline but a legalistic rule. I recall visiting a strict Jewish family in Jerusalem on the Sabbath and being shocked to learn they had turned to oven on before the Sabbath and left it running so they could cook a meal. To turn the oven on constituted starting a fire and that was not allowed on the Sabbath. For very strict Jews even flicking a light switch is considered work….We may smile, but I think it could be said of us often that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We reject the legalism but fail to see the importance of the practice.
In Jesus’ time the Sabbath was kept strictly. There was to be no work on the Sabbath, and work was defined by the authorities under 39 key headings. These included reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal. So the disciples in picking the wheat, rubbing it between their hands to free the individual grains, eating the wheat and spitting out the husks had broken at least four key rules about working. The Pharisees expected Jesus to rebuke them, but instead he launches into a scriptural precedent from King David’s time in which human need took precedence over the divine law as they interpreted it. David it seems took his men when they were hungry into the temple and ate the holy bread kept there. It’s a little like someone who was starving coming and eating the bread we will shortly share together in communion. Jesus I believe is saying to us, ‘it’s easy to forget the laws of God actually are for our benefit, and keeping the laws is for our own good, not to earn points and merit with God.’

The meaning of the Sabbath is found in the fourth commandment which says “remember that the seventh day belongs to God. No-one is to work on that day, not even your children, your slaves, your animals, or foreigners who live in your towns.” There was to be a communal focusing on God on the Sabbath, it was a day to cease work and reconnect lives with God. Just how that plays out is something we have to work out, but I suspect our Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century have a few valid points to make to us. It’s not the rules I’m thinking of but the valuing of practices and rituals that help us reconnect with God. In our secularized society it is so easy to forget God…to forget there is something bigger than us at work in our world, in our community, in our very lives.

For me the Sabbath has three important functions.
Taking time to refocus in God
Working to nurture my church family connections
Enjoying the grace and goodness of God

Ceasing work, drawing aside, and taking time to reflect will always be an important part of the Sabbath, and in our busy world this is so important. The Sabbath is a time to listen to your soul and follow the example of regularly taking time out to listen for the voice of God in your life. It’s a time to know again that we are held in something bigger than us. We often carry big loads – the Sabbath is a day to remember we do not carry alone. But it’s more than this. In the original Hebrew there is also a sense of refocusing. Early Christians in a radical move changed the day of the Sabbath to a Sunday and said this was the first day of the week. This was the day of the resurrection, the day when they celebrated that God was alive in the world through the living presence of the Spirit. The Sabbath then isn’t just about remembering God but has a stronger ‘looking forward’ element. It was a day in which we are recreated in God to go out and be the presence of Jesus in the world. It is a time when we should re-focus our lives in God, and prayer and singing, reflection and learning will be part of this. But we should also be asking how is my relationship with God going to shape the forthcoming week. Sunday is a time to remember that our lives are lived in partnership with God, but we should also plan how we might take the light of God into the week ahead.

I’m interested that an enduring feature of the Sabbath is corporate worship. It’s a day to gather with other faith journeyers. Jesus didn’t leave a set of doctrines, or even a written guidebook. What he did leave was a human bunch of misfits who formed a community of faith committed to changing the world.. But it only works when we get it together as a team, which is why I think one of the important tasks of the Sabbath in our time is team building – developing a strong sense of church family. We commit to coming together, to catching up, to sorting out our differences, maybe sharing a simple meal together. Coffee and tea are a vital part of our worship. Team building remains a very important Sabbath activity.

Sadly the heritage of Sabbath keepers is one of long unhappy judgmental faces as they witness someone else breaking their beloved Sabbath. I think Sabbath keepers should be joyful, and part of our keeping of the Sabbath should be enjoying the gifts and the grace of God. If you enjoy a good glass of wine this is the day to enjoy it and give thanks to God. If you enjoy the gift of God’s creation this is the day to get out and revel in it. What is it that brings joy into your life? This is the day to nurture that. I believe God has been wonderfully gracious to us in so many ways and this is the day to honour the gift of life and the life affirming gracious God who called all life into being.
For me the Sabbath is not about rules but it is about developing practices and rituals in our lives that refocus us in God, that build the team of faith, that put a smile on our faces as we celebrate the gift of life with a deep thankfulness.
It’s not a day of long faces, and judgmental pronouncements.
Sabbath keeping is according to our Christian tradition important. Moses when he was interpreting the fourth commandment went on to say as it is recorded in Exodus 30:15 “if you work on the Sabbath you will no longer be part of my people, and you will be put to death.” These could be interpreted as harsh words indeed, but I would interpret them as words telling us how important this commandment is. If we do not keep the Sabbath something in us dies, but if we do keep it, if we relax and enjoy the company of God, we should indeed find life.