A Sabbath Sermon

A guest sermon by Lucy Waechter Webb

July 11, 2010

Southminster Presbyterian Church

Gen 2:1-4
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all heir multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested form all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into that hands of robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Who is my neighbor? That is often the question we hinge on from this familiar gospel story. We’ve each probably heard a half a dozen sermons about the Good Samaritan, many no doubt asking us important questions about how we treat those around us, and who we consider to be neighbors, or maybe even why we should show people kindness. But I’d like to take us in a different direction this morning.

Some of you may have heard about a study conducted in 1973 by a couple of psychologists who used the story of The Good Samaritan as their template. Their intention was to look at personality factors that affected whether or not people would stop to help another person in distress. Interestingly, they recruited seminary students (of the Presbyterian variety, from Princeton) as their participants, and instructed each of them to travel from one building to another where they would give a talk. They had a few variables, half the students were asked to talk about job prospects in that talk, the other half were asking to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan. Then each of those two groups were broken into thirds, one third was told to hurry over to the next building, they were going to be late! The second was told they were on time, but not to dilly dally, the final group was told the program was running late and but they could go ahead and make their way over. Every student passed an actor playing a homeless man who was in health distress on their way to the second building to talk.

The researchers were hoping to find that these benevolent seminary students would differ in their responses mostly based on personality, but what they found was that the biggest factor in whether someone stopped to help was whether or not they were in a hurry. Those who stopped the most, were those who had been told the program was running late and had extra time to spare.

When was the last time you were in a hurry? Maybe Friday afternoon, rushing to get out of the office and beat weekend rush hour traffic? Perhaps it was yesterday as you made your way to a meeting or the kids practice. Or was it this morning as you left the house in a flurry to make it to church on time?

Being busy is a status symbol in our culture today. It is a compliment of sorts to hear, “Wow, you must really be busy” and reply with a non-chalant, “nah, not really.” Being too busy is the number one reason why people say they can’t vote; half of people who don’t attend church say it’s because they’re too busy. We have twitter because we’re too busy to read an entire letter or e-mail about how our friends are doing, we’ve got blackberries because we’re too busy to remember what comes in the next hour, we’ve got 8-minute ab workouts because we’re too busy to find time to be active outdoors doing something we actually enjoy that is good for our bodies.

Thomas Merton talks about this business as a kind of violence; he says:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by the multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace, [because] it destroys our own inner capacity for peace.”
And indeed, when we look at the story of The Good Samaritan and the priest and Levite who both passed by, or the study in which even budding do-gooder pastors walk by the homeless man, we begin to see how this busy life might in fact deliver violence in our world.

So how do we respond to this life? How to we resist the status of a full calendar, and find time to rest, to nurture ourselves, those around us, and our relationship with God?

I had the opportunity to think more deeply about this in seminary. I found myself at the end of two full years of studying and interning, and realized I didn’t have it in me to do another summer of work; Clinical Pastoral Education was next on the docket. So I went to one of my professors to talk it over with him, and said I just needed to take a break, I was overwhelmed and so emotionally dry that I couldn’t begin to imagine serving as a chaplain for the summer. He supported my decision to postpone CPE, but corrected my description of it, telling me that I was not merely “taking a break”, but instead practicing Sabbath.

I think this ancient faith practice, one that we only vaguely recognize as Christians today, is one way we can respond to our hurried culture. When you hear the word Sabbath, many of you might first think about Judaism, or even Seventh Day Adventists, and indeed they are two traditions that prioritize the Sabbath.

Jews have several texts that inform their practice of Sabbath, but there are two that seem particularly foundational, and Christians also hold these passages in high esteem. One of these texts was our first scripture reading from this morning in Genesis, in which God creates the seventh day, rested, and hallowed it. But this alone, might seem like not enough of a reason that we should deserve a weekly rest, creating the world must have been harder work than anything we could have ever possibly participated in. So look then to the Decalogue, the ten commandments. We generally attempt to follow these basic laws right? We’re all familiar with thou shall not steal, murder, or covet your neighbor. You shall honor your father and mother, and not make false idols.

But we often forget the fourth commandment; can you name what it is?

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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 may be wondering what is the Sabbath, or how do we practice it? Certainly we go to church on Sundays, and you may have heard about other traditions like Judaism in which they refrain from labor and work, but also cooking, or use of light or transportation, and eat traditional meals with family. It may even conjure up memories of the old blue laws which prohibit the sale of liquor, gambling, bingo, labor, or recreational sports on Sundays depending on which state you are in.

But Sabbath is not about restrictions or rules, nor is it about idle rest. It is an active cessation of work, a rest in motion. Sabbath is not a time intended for us to make it as far as we get until we collapse into a desperate repose in which we can do nothing for our exhaustion.  Instead it is an intentional time to regularly tend to God, to community and self, to celebrate life. In fact it is less a particular practice and more an observance of a particular time.

Let’s turn to the Genesis passage again. Throughout the entire story, God has created each portion of creation, declaring each good at the end of the day. But what happens on the seventh day is unique. God creates another day, another portion of time, and then God rests and blesses that time. The Hebrew is qadosh, which means holy, or to make holy. It is the first appearance of that word in the Bible, and notice it is not used for creation, not on the Earth, the waters, the animals, nor even us. God makes time, a particular time, holy. And then God dwells in that time, and later invites us to do so too.

Abraham Heschel was a rabbi born in Germany, but came to the US just before WWII. He was adjusting to his new life here with fellow Jews who were trying to figure out what it meant to be American. His book, The Sabbath, was written largely in response to what he saw happening to the Jewish Sabbath. I quote his daughter’s introduction of the book, “The Sabbath appeared at a time when American Jews were assimilating radically and when many were embarrassed by public expressions of Jewishness…For them, the Sabbath interfered with jobs, socializing, shopping, and simply being American.”

Heschel talks about how we have lost the distinction of time. Time has become a commodity, a thing that can be traded and measured. He contrasts time to space, arguing that space is the real commodity we’re after, and we use time to gain more space (more property, more things, more power, more cubic feet). Hence the phrase, time is money.

But try as we might, we really cannot conquer or dominate time, it does seem to march on incessantly no matter how hard we try to contain it. And whether we like it or not, time is not as uniform as we may think. We do not consider being five minutes late to a dinner party the same as being five minutes late to work. Nor do we consider a 10 minute traffic delay the same as a ten minute delay spent catching up with friends. Or consider the nine long months of pregnancy compared to the first nine months of your child’s life. There is work time, vacation time, chore time. In our faith we have Ordinary Time, Lenten Time, Advent Time, and Christmas and Easter time. Sabbath is another particular time, one that happens weekly. And it is time that has been made holy by God first.

When I began to think about Sabbath more intentionally, I realized that part of the purpose of Sabbath was to participate in sanctification (or the making holy) of myself and of the world. And I thought that if I could just get the right practices down, and spend time dedicated to those practices, I would be on the right track. But then I realized it is the time itself that is holy, not the practice. And it isn’t until I submit to that time, not until I dwell in it, revel in it, celebrate that time, that I too experience the holy.

The Sabbath is a sanctuary from the world as we know it, from the time we battle during the week, from the labor and work we are required to do, from the reality of this world. It is a day for praise, a day for the celebration of life. It is a day where we stop thinking about space, and think about time in a new way. It is a day to stop thinking about what we need to do, or what needs to get done, and rest in a time meant for God, for community, and for self.

What is on your to do list for this afternoon? Mow the lawn? Do the budget? Read those documents from work you didn’t get to on Friday afternoon? What would happen if you didn’t get to that list?

I mentioned that Sabbath is more an observance of time than it is a practice, but that doesn’t mean that certain practices can’t help you transition into that time. Certainly coming to worship with your faith community is a good place to start. Simply being with others who are attempting to enter into that time collectively can help any one individual resist the temptations to succumb to another six or seven day work week. Worship can set the tone for the joyous celebration of the day of resurrection that we observe as Christians on the Lord’s Day. It can be a time where the community swells with life. But what happens after church? What will help you find that different mode of time, and let go of the anxieties and to do lists? What will help you create a sanctuary in time?

Maybe you turn your cell phone off for the day, or refrain from using the internet. Perhaps you do house chores on Saturday and spend the day enjoying your garden or lawn by playing games or sitting and reading in it. Maybe you extend your time with community by sharing a meal. Perhaps you journal, run, sit in silence, sing loud, or dance. Maybe each week you do something new, or you might develop a regular practice. Whatever it is, it should take you away from those spatial comforts Heschel talks about, and draw you nearer to the people you love, nearer to God, and nearer to self. It should not just be a distraction from you work, but a delight in life and rest. It should feel like a different time, so that when step out of it, you feel somehow lighter, you feel fed, more alive.

The poem on your bulletin this morning I think summarizes how Sabbath should feel quite well. Wendell Berry is a writer, and lives on his farm in Kentucky. Part of his Sunday Sabbath is to walk through his property, often in silence, and sometimes he writes (he writes poetry though, which is intentionally different from his day job). This poem is one of his Sabbath poems, and I’m just going to read you the end of it:

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it. (from A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry)
May we walk away from this sanctuary, but remain in a sanctuary of time where our mind and our hearts are tended, where community is nurtured, and out of that rest is born life. Our own lives, the life of our community, and life that extends beyond us; life that reminds us to be the Samaritan who will stop, and maybe even take a step out of our daily time, even on a Tuesday.


(Editor’s note: Lucy Waechter Webb is a Candidate for Ordained Ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is seeking a call. She blogs at Sowing Sabbath).

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