Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Honor Sabbath: “Living Nourished and Restored”
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Jan 12, 2023
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 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.”
Though Jesus directly challenged our human desire to legislate morality, we have often struggled to determine the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Over history, a lot more time has been spent talking about what we should not do on the Sabbath rather than addressing the purpose of the Sabbath in the first place. Whether it is trying to determine if you can get a donkey out of a ditch or shop on a Sunday, religious people have tried to define what is permissible on the Sabbath. After all, the bible says clearly: “…the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.: Israel has sabbath elevators that automatically stop on every floor to protect the users from ‘working’ by activating a machine. In the United States, we have had the ‘blue laws’ to mandate which businesses could be open on Sunday. But as is often the case when we stand against something more than we stand for something, sabbath observance has largely slid into irrelevance in the secular world. It is now difficult to find what isn’t open on Sunday. Sunday is just another day.
But before we determine how we will honor the sabbath, we need to understand why such a rule was created in the first place. Sabbath provides a practical way for humans to maximize their lives. It works in ordinary life because all things must rest to be sustainably productive. And it works because setting aside time to pay attention to what is most important is required for us to ‘stay on course’ in our lives.
At its most ordinary and practical, all things must rest in order to be productive. The sabbath commandment changes the question: ‘should we rest?’ to the question of ‘how much should we rest?’ There is a very fine line between the obligation to be all that we can be and the belief that we can do anything if we work hard enough. Grit and determination have an end point. Unfortunately, we often do not find that line until we cross it. Athletes cannot train continuously. Without rest being built in, muscles will deteriorate rather than get stronger. In fact, when the focus is working harder and longer than the competition, injury is more likely than victory. In real life, rest extends our limits and productivity. The land itself must rest, lay fallow, or the soil will be depleted. Repeated planting in the same fields will finally lead to starvation. I love the image of God needing rest. Even the most powerful, even omnipotent one, needed to rest. To ever assume that unrelenting hard work is the expectation is an attempt to do God one better. It is a denial of our own limitations.
The problem, of course, is one of discernment. All of us have faced situations in which we have to decide to ‘soldier through’ or to take a day off. It is not heroic to come to work sick, it puts self and others at risk. But in real life it is difficult to know how to make such decisions. At its heart these questions are literally faith in real life. They cannot be solved with rules; either/or; black and white answers. When does rest become lazy and lazy become malingering? When does hard work maximize productivity and when does it become counterproductive—or worse arrogant and dismissive?
We humans have an infinite capacity to defend and rationalize whatever we choose. Covid has exposed the wide range of judgmental attitudes we hold towards each other. Discourse easily deteriorates into self-righteous indignation and name calling. The sabbath commandment says to work and rest—both are essential. Sabbath requires us to struggle with the line between the two. And if you notice, biblically that line applies to all living things—”you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The entire community benefits when rest is a required part of life. It is not ok to depend on others to work continuously nor is it ok to try to serve continuously. Time is a resource. Rest is a resource. Whether in a marriage or in the workplace, it is important that these resources be shared.
I had a client once who was working two jobs to support the family. He said, with a fair amount of indignation, to his wife, “All I want to do is to be able to come home and put my feet up. I deserve at least that much.” I said, “I wish you could too—but you can’t.” Surprised, he asked why not. I said: “Because you’re married.” Both of you need rest. You must figure out how to get it by starting with that fact. Each of them was painfully aware of their own fatigue but were far less able to see the same fatigue in their partner.
This brings me to the second aspect of Sabbath I want to discuss. We need to set aside time to focus upon what is most important. In religious language, it reads: “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God”. It is much bigger than going to church—though I would argue that is a very valuable tool. Flipping back to behavioral language, if God is love and loving is the most important thing any of us can do, we need time to learn about and become better at loving. That does not happen by accident. It requires constant dialogue (prayer and meditation), curiosity (study and reflection), focus and devotion (worship) to stay on track. In real life, figuring out what is loving in any particular situation is both never ending and always unfinished.
It is important to realize we must get out of our routines to gain perspective. It is too easy to assume we already know or that our way is ‘the way’. I am a disciplined person. I depend upon routines that have worked for me for years, but those same habits can become my master instead of my friend. I think that is one of the reasons travel is so important to me. I measure my travel experiences by the amount of awe I experience. In my regular routines and disciplines, I am more focused upon doing the next ‘important’ thing and am less open to wonder. My mindset is entirely different when I break my routine. I expect the unexpected. I would like to say that regular worship functioned in that same way for me. It happens but not all that often—and in my case, music is usually the vehicle. Perhaps because church and theological thinking are part of nearly every day of my life, sabbath for me, often occurs outside of traditional worship. That said, it is critically important to me to set aside time to reflect, to reexamine and to tease out what it means to be dedicated to loving—whether or not I do a good job of it.
Sabbath gives direction, restores and nourishes. It is a primary way that Jesus’ promise: “I have come that you might have life, have it abundantly” becomes incarnate in real life. It is an irony that secular science is just now really catching up to the importance of Sabbath. I Watch now regularly reminds its users to take time out to be mindful, to move around at least a minute or two each hour and to build in regular exercise. Each of these elements are strongly correlated to well-being. The emphasis upon mindfulness is relatively new but it is the secular version of mini sabbaths. There are measurable biological benefits. This is not news to the biblical writers.
God wants us to ‘be all that we can be’. God wants us to have purpose and meaning. God wants us to live within our limits and to pace our lives accordingly. God loves us and gives us Sabbath.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.