Exploring Sabbath as a Cathedral in Time – 8/24/08 – Ex. 20:8-11, Deut. 5:12-15

During Eat we passed around plates of food and shared in communion together.  During Work different people brought up objects from their places of work for display on the communion table.  For Play there was a children’s story that involved different toys and games.  Last Sunday with Pray we walked through the process of centering prayer and spent time in silence.  So what happens during Rest?  Are you supposed to bring a pillow to church?  Should it be my goal to make the sermon as boring as possible so you can get in a little nap before lunch?  Now that the Olympics are over should we make it a goal to get back to a more reasonable sleeping pattern? 

Rest, of course, is about much more than sleeping, although certainly involves this.  For us rest is connected to the richness and depth of what the Scriptures speak of as Sabbath.  It’s a word that means to cease or rest, and is an experience deemed so important in the Hebrew tradition that it gets its own day.  An entire 24 hour period, beginning with sundown Friday evening and continuing through sundown Saturday evening, the seventh and final day of the week, is dedicated to nothing other than Sabbath – a time of ceasing from work, enjoying relationships, healing wounds, and celebrating life.  In the Christian tradition, what we think of as the Sabbath day has shifted to being Sunday, ever since those early Christians gathered on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath day, to celebrate the resurrection and share in communion.  Sunday gradually came to take on more significance than Saturday and become our day of worship and rest. 

It would be an exercise in stating the obvious if I were to begin naming the many challenges we face in having an entire day set aside for Sabbath.  Dairy farmers have always known that you can’t have a day when you completely cease from work, but our generation has seen an incredible shift in overall norms in our society around this day.  There is much activity that goes on, and many demands on our time.  

Rather than focus on what’s new in the challenges of Sabbath keeping, I’m offering now that we shift our gaze toward something very ancient.  And rather than assuming that I or we even know what we’re talking about when we refer to Sabbath, I have found it helpful to think of Sabbath as something quite unfamiliar.  Something strange and unknown, like a large building that we see from a distance but have yet to explore inside.  Maybe it’s a building that we’ve been in once or twice, but the memory is foggy enough in our minds that we forget the layout, don’t recognize the architecture, and don’t know our way around.   So let’s approach this strange, ancient structure with a sense of curiosity and exploration and see what there is we may discover.

The entrance to this building happens in the opening scene of Genesis.  Sabbath has the unique characteristic of being the first thing in Scripture that is referred to as holy.  We may like the think of the creation of humanity as being the climax of creation — everything points to us and is made to support us — but in the imagination of the Hebrew creation myth, this is not the case.  Humanity is created on the sixth day and declared to be very good, but there are seven days of creation.  And Genesis 2:3 says “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.”  The Sabbath is the pinnacle of creation, God’s greatest wonder.  The cycle of seven days lays out how we have come to experience time.   As we move through each week, we create for six days, and then enter into the blessing and holiness of Sabbath rest.        

Maybe the part of this odd building that we know we’ve seen before is the reality of Sabbath as commandment.  We know that the Sabbath commandment is there as one of the big ten for shaping life.  The ten commandments show up in Exodus, in the middle of the narrative of the Israelites gathered at Sinai with Moses receiving the gift of the law.  And show up again in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving a recap of what the Israelites need to remember as they approach the promised land.  I’m going to refer briefly to both the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts, so you’re welcome to open your bibles to Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 if you’d like to do some flipping back and forth.  The page numbers are printed in the bulletin. 

The first several of the ten commandments are those having to do with our relationship to God – no other gods, don’t create an image for god, don’t misuse god’s name.  The second grouping has to do with our relationship with each other – honor your parents, don’t murder, commit adultery,  steal, give false testimony, covet.  The hinge between these two groupings, the one that links them together and has to do with both, the vertical and the horizontal, is the command to keep the Sabbath.  In this way it is a holistic commandment.  There are some interesting differences between the Exodus account and the Deuteronomy account.  A minor difference is the first word.  Exodus says to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and Deuteronomy says, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  I love some of the creativity that comes with Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures.  There is a teaching in Judaism that says that what takes God one word to say can take humanity two words.  So the Sabbath is to be remembered and observed, with the fullness that both of those words bring.  They both go on to say that you shall labor for six days and the seventh is a Sabbath of the Lord.  Not only is this a rest for people – free or slaves, but also for animals.  Later parts of the law give a Sabbath rest also for the land.  Sabbath is for all of creation.  The most notable difference in the accounts comes in the reason given for Sabbath.  Exodus refers back to the creation account and the holiness of the day, the climax of creation.  We observe Sabbath as creators because God observes Sabbath as a creator.  In Deuteronomy the reason for Sabbath is different.  The reason that you observe Sabbath, and cease from your labor, and allow your servants and animals to rest is because you remember that you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you out of slavery.  There’s no reference to creation here.  The definition of slavery is that you are forced to work against your own will for an extended amount of time.  There’s no Sabbath for slaves, just a continuous undifferentiated stream of labor.  So why, now that one is free, would one keep living as if one is a slave?  Sabbath is an expression of freedom and a celebration of salvation.  It’s a gift.          

One of the people I’ve found to be a trustworthy and insightful tour guide for the Sabbath is Abraham Joshua Heschel. (All quotes are taken from his book, The Sabbath.)  Like any guide, he does well at pointing out things that one may not know were there otherwise.  Rabbi Heschel talks about how throughout the ancient world different cultures treated various objects as holy.  Certain mountains or forests or trees or stones were seen as being the place where the deity resides.  Sometimes special poles and altars were made and treated as sacred objects.  The gods were seen as inhabiting a certain land, a certain temple of worship. 

The first thing God declares holy in the Hebrew tradition is not space, but time.  “God blessed the seventh day, and declared it holy.”  The entire thrust of the Jewish tradition is the calling of experiencing God in time and making time holy.  Certain impulses have led people to give reverence toward some thing or some things, but the story of the Jews, and hopefully Christians also, is one of refusing to give worship to any object or image or place.  God is encountered in history, in time, in story, in the calling of Abraham and Sara, in the giving of the Torah, in the Exodus when slaves were delivered from Egypt.  Jews remember the event of the Exodus, and each generation is taught to claim it as their own experience.  We were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.    The keeping of Sabbath and the experience of Exodus are directly linked in the commandments as a way of remembering the sacredness of moments in time. 

Heschel doesn’t see anything wrong with objects and things, but sees modern technical society as continuing to elevate the important of objects over the holiness of time.  Heschel has some strong words here:  “In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch.  Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space.  Even God is conceived by most of us as a thing…Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do about time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. ..Shrinking therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space.” (p. 5)

I give this metaphor of exploring Sabbath as if it’s a building that we’re unfamiliar with because Heschel calls the Sabbath a sanctuary in time.  “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.” (p.8)  So what we’re walking around in here is this sheltering cathedral that draws us up into holiness, kind of like the way the inside of St. Cecelia just across Madison Rd. does the same thing in a physical way.

So the challenge of the spiritual life is the challenge of learning how to occupy time as a sacred cathedral.  I’m not sure what this means but I find it to ring true, or at least to spark my curiousity.  I think of these different areas of focus we’ve had this summer and how this is a way that everyone occupies time.  We all eat and work and play and pray in some way.  They’re all basic to what it means to be a human being.  But just because we do them doesn’t mean we experience them as holy.  Any one of these can become an addiction that gets out of control, or, maybe just as bad, can become just plain boring and meaningless.  Food loses its flavor, work loses its joy, play loses the ability to be an act of re-creation and prayer loses any sense of connection to something beyond ourselves.  So if I would be offered a gift that has the ability to make all these things holy and meaningful, my ears are perked up. 

What I think I hear scripture and Rabbi Heschel saying is that Sabbath is this very gift.  Through Sabbath God makes not only Sabbath holy, but all things, or, all moments.  Recovering Sabbath is recovering our place in creation.

When Jesus says that “the Sabbath is created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath,” he is being a good rabbi and interpreting the purpose of the law.    The commandment is a gift to serve our well-being, not a rigid set of regulations meant to restrict our experience of life.  This is a place where certain Christian interpretation of the Old Testament has not served us all that well – or interpretation of the New Testament, for that matter.  We sometimes have a sense that the law has nothing to say to us since Jesus showed us a different way.  We see Jesus breaking Sabbath code by performing healings and gathering food to feed his hungry disciples and we may think that Sabbath becomes minimized since Jesus sets us free from the burden of strict observance.  It’s true that we have tremendous freedom in Christ, but the message of Jesus was one of recovering the true meaning of Sabbath, not discarding it altogether.  This is something that Heschel was also working at and he quotes a rabbi who said nearly the exact same words as Jesus – that “the Sabbath is given unto you, not you unto the Sabbath.” (p. 17)  This is an area where we can learn much from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have developed the keeping of Sabbath over the centuries.        

Learning Sabbath is learning to celebrate time rather than things in space.  It involves the non-action of ceasing from our work, and also the positive action of rejoicing in life.  There will be no physical objects placed on the table during these two weeks of focus on Sabbath because what we are exploring is not a thing, but time.  Next week will be the last week of this summer series and we’ll end with a couple of you sharing about your experiences with, your struggles with, your thoughts on Sabbath.  How do we work at making room for Sabbath?  What are the challenges?  How have you experienced Sabbath differently at different points in your life?  What have been some of the blessings of your Sabbath keeping?

I don’t feel the need to outline any sharp rules about Sabbath keeping here because I’m confident that the keeping of Sabbath carries with it its own rewards.  I’m asking that we be willing to crack open a small space, at any point in any day, to begin to enter into this great cathedral in time.  I’m guessing that the experience of beauty and spaciousness and holiness that we find could be so appealing, that it will keep us coming back often.